Tag Archives: sermon

first things

It’s amazing, it feels like summer lately even though the calendar tells us we are in mid-November, swiftly approaching the holidays, as many retail stores have been making all too clear with their displays of trees, lights, ornaments and tinsel. Soon, the Christian season of Advent will be upon us.

Advent, as you are probably aware, is a season of waiting, of anticipation, that spans the four Sundays before Christmas. Many people light advent candles and children often open advent calendars, both of which are ways that we mark our waiting. This Advent waiting reminds us both of the Hebrews who waited for the coming of the Messiah, but also serves to remind us that we still wait for that time when God will make all things new.

But if the stores can get such a long headstart on Christmas, why can’t we in the church as well? What if we get a head start on Jesus before we start singing about him being in a manger? What if we take a look, before we get swept up in the pageantry of the Christmas season, to pause and look more closely at the man that this nativity baby was to become? At Easter it is often common to remember and contemplate the final days of Jesus’ life and to commemorate the ‘last words of Jesus’ so why not, before the Christmas season, take a look at some of the ‘first words of Jesus.’

Of course, we do not mean the actual first words, mama or dada or the like, as we do not have a record of what those might have been for the baby Jesus as he grew up.

But what about the first words of Jesus as we have them recorded in the gospel accounts, his first public words and the context in which they were uttered? Before we get wrapped up in all of the commercial packaging of the celebration of his birth, the “Jesus is the reason for the season” what if we take a look at what Jesus said was the reason for, well, for Jesus?

So listen with me to the word of God, as we find these first public words of Jesus as told by the Gospel according to Mark in the first chapter, beginning with the first verse. Listen for the Word of God.

Mark 1:1-15

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the book of Mark we do not have a Christmas story, the traditional nativity scene of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels and wise men.

If we were to make a nativity of the opening scene of the book of Mark we would likely have a river, a somewhat odd looking guy wearing fur and eating bugs, a lot of people (the text says that ‘everyone from Jerusalem and people from the whole Judean countryside went out to John at the Jordan). As the scene unfolds we begin to catch a glimpse of one guy, coming all the way from Nazareth, probably about 100 miles away, on foot. It must have taken him awhile to get there—an average walking pace is about 3 miles an hour, so that would potentially be a three day’s walk. Instead of baby Jesus in a manger, we’d have grown up Jesus with a lot of dust on his sandals.

The last time I was with all of you I was living in Orange County, and waiting to be ordained. Since then I have finally been ordained, as a ‘designated tentmaking evangelist’ and I have moved to live in a small community in Mexico. It is my grandmother’s house that I’ve moved into and it is surrounded by a yard which, before I started working in it, had been long neglected and overgrown. Over the past couple of years I’ve been slowly working my way through the overgrowth, trimming, digging up, and planting. It is common amongst my friends down there to realize that if they call me on the phone and I don’t answer, I am probably out working in the yard. One of my favorite things to do is to make a path for the rainwater, so that it creates almost a stream through the yard when it rains, and allows more of the water to soak into the ground. This not only keeps the rain runoff from getting too much and out of control, but it also helps to bathe the dry ground in fresh water.

A few weeks back, in October when we were having all that rain, I found myself outside digging around in the garden in the mud…in my pajamas. I had meant to just go outside to check on the water’s flow, but one thing lead to another and I wound up in the mud, digging, my pajamas getting wetter and wetter, and trying to keep them from getting muddier and muddier. I knew it was a bit odd, but I was occupied with my task. All of a sudden I heard a car pull up on the road outside. Sure enough, as I looked up at the car, I saw my  Doug, Kathy and Leslie–who had come for a visit. They took one look at me, soaking wet, muddy, and in my pjs, and burst out laughing.

…..

John the Baptist must have been quite a sight. Clothed in camel’s hair secured by a leather cord, and eating a rather interesting diet of bugs and honey. Why are we told all of this? We are not given wardrobe information for anyone else in our story, not Jesus, not the crowds, just John. If we stop to think, one wonders why the author of the book of Mark includes these details. Is it just to make him sound a bit weird? His strange appearance doesn’t seem to be off-putting though—the text tells us that all of Judea and Jerusalem were coming out to John at the Jordan. Maybe they were just going out to see a crackpot in the wilderness, outside the city? But they weren’t just going out to see John or to gawk at this strange sight; they were getting baptized by him.

Sometimes, when we read the Bible, we have become so accustomed to it that we don’t see what is actually in front of us. I am a photographer because I like to help people see that which they somehow overlook when not guided in the direction of a particular image. Mark is giving us a photograph of John, inviting us to pause and take a closer look at this unusual man. For those who knew their Hebrew Scriptures would know that John was not the first person to be described in this way.

Elijah, one of the Hebrew prophets, was described as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist” who lived out beyond the normal borders of society. Elijah, coincidentally, did not die, as it is told in the book of Second Kings, but was simply surrounded by a chariot of fire and taken into heaven. Where did this miraculous event happen? None other than the banks of the Jordan River. The same Jordan River where we now find John.

But so what? So what if there is this guy who seems to look like Elijah and happens to be found in the same place where Elijah had last been seen? What’s the big deal about that?

That is where the writer of Mark gives us another clue. “It is written in the prophets…I will send my messenger ahead of you, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make his paths straight.” There are actually two quotes here, one from Isaiah and one from Malachi. Both passages talk about the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the one who will turn the people back to God and make the world a place of peace, justice and harmony—the one who will make things right.

But Malachi goes further…”Lo I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes…” The reason Elijah matters is that it was believed by the Jews of the time that before the Messiah would come and usher in the day of the Lord, that time when all would be made right, that day for which the people of Israel had been waiting…before that day would come, first Elijah would return, a precursor, a messenger announcing the coming Messiah.

John even seems to echo this belief himself, proclaiming that “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…I have washed you in water, but he will wash you in the very Spirit of God.”

…..

One of the results of this summer we seem to be having in November is that it has brought with it some beautiful sunsets. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to catch any of them, but from where I live in Mexico, they are hard to miss as they paint the sky with pinks and oranges and yellows. You can’t spend too much time watching sunsets in Mexico without someone bringing up ‘the green flash.’

The green flash is a phenomenon that occurs right as the last bit of sun has sunk below the horizon. If the view is clear and there are no clouds or smog to get in the way, the story goes that this flash of green can happen just as the sun disappears. It is a story that I’ve heard all of my life, and to be honest, I sort of thought it was the product of people having too many cocktails, rather than there being any sort of real occurrence. I assumed that the green flash would be just that, a flash of green lighting up the sky, impossible to ignore, obvious to all who were paying the least bit of attention, like a bolt of lightning casting a green hue across the horizon.

It turns out, the green flash is much more subtle than that. You’ve got to be watching for it. You’ve got to be paying attention. And even when you are, you might miss it. It’s less of a shout, more of a whisper. I always assumed that because I hadn’t seen what I expected it to be, that there was no green flash. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps I might be staring it in the face and not even see it right in front of me.

…..

And so onto the scene walked Jesus. Jesus who had traveled a few days journey to get to the Jordan where John was baptizing, immersing the whole of the region in water as a sign of repentance, of turning, of a fundamental shift. John had already warned them, this is only the beginning. What I’m doing, what you’re doing by coming out here to me, this is just the start, this is the first step. There will be another and that other will bathe you not just in water, but in the very Spirit of God. I’m doing this to prepare you for that.

And then, just like that, Jesus enters our nativity scene, getting baptized by John just like the rest. But when Jesus comes up out of the water something new happens. The text says ‘he saw the heavens opened’ but literally it means the heavens were ripped open, were torn or rent apart. And the spirit like a dove came down upon him saying, “you are my beloved in whom I delight.” And immediately the Spirit drove him further out into the wilderness, alone, tempted by the adversary.

If this were a movie I think we’d stop right here and say, what? After all that build up, all of that careful stage setting in showing that this John the Baptist was actually fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was the one to appear before the Messiah, the anointed of God, came upon the scene and made all things right, brought the world into justice, peace and harmony…

And everyone has come out to the wilderness to prepare, to make themselves ready for this big event that the Jewish people have been anticipating, toward which God has been guiding all of history…and then Jesus shows up and the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon him.

And just when we are waiting for a green flash to proclaim itself across the entirety of the evening sky, it is much more subtle than that. Instead of stepping onto the stage and proclaiming, here I am, the one you’ve been waiting for, the chosen of God, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Spirit drives Jesus from that place out into the wilderness to wait for 40 days.

After that 40 days Jesus shows up back in Galilee, back where he started, and utters his first public words as recorded in the book of Mark: “Now is the time to turn around, for the reign of God is here, right now, so put your trust in the good thing that God is doing.”

It sounds a little bit like a passage you will likely be hearing in the coming weeks, a passage that comes from Luke’s gospel: “And the angel, the messenger, said, fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.”

Or, to put it as Mark does, “This is the beginning of the good tidings of Jesus the anointed Son of God…”

Did you catch that? When we first read the passage? The first line of the book of Mark isn’t a sentence at all—an English teacher would call it a fragment. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the anointed.” Some might call it a title or a heading. The only problem is, if you keep reading the book of Mark, there are no more headings, other than this one.

If you spend much time with the Gospel of Mark you will see that it is not always neat and tidy, cut a dried. Often Mark leaves us hanging, without answers, without conclusions. In fact, what is referred to as the ‘shorter ending of the book of Mark’ ends with the women coming to the tomb after Jesus has risen, seeing an angel, and fleeing in fear. Even in our text this morning, we have suggestions more than assertions. The prophets have written about a messenger, an Elijah-like figure. And here we have John. John talks about preparing the way for someone greater. And then Jesus shows up. Mark gives us enough of the story to draw us in, to invite our participation, to cause us to wonder. But he doesn’t give answers. That he leaves up to us.

Jesus comes onto the scene and his first public words are, “Change, turn around, turn from the way you were going and toward something new, for there is good news, there are good tidings, the kingdom of God has come near, have confidence.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ…

Perhaps, the author of Mark is suggesting, I’m going to give you the beginning, but it’s up to you to keep the story going.

detour?

Let’s just say from the outset, that one should be careful what one chooses for a sermon title…

A few months ago I was asked to be a guest preacher. I love to preach, so I said yes.

Usually when asked to preach, I take a look at the lectionary text for the day, the ‘assigned passages’ from the Bible. Sometimes I choose to preach from the lectionary passage, other times I don’t.

For this particular Sunday, May 9, one of the texts was Acts 16:6-15. I read it and knew it was the passage I wanted to use. It is a story of the apostle Paul and it is a story of Lydia, considered to be the first European convert to Christianity. It is not a long passage, and, on first glance, one may be tempted to think that there is not much going on in it. But if you dwell in the text for a bit there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. Oh wait, I just started into preacher mode, and this was supposed to be, not the sermon, but the story of how the sermon itself became a detour. Right.

So, as I had been working on the sermon one of the things that struck me was that, in the text, God prevented Paul from going where he wanted, prevented Paul from going back where he had already been. It was God who sent Paul somewhere new (through a dream) and that lead to a meeting with Lydia and a group of women outside the city gates, alongside a river. They were in Macedonia, the city of Philippi, which is modern day Turkey, in the European part. But Lydia was from Thyatira, which is actually in Asia.

I was so excited to have stumbled upon this little gem…the first European convert was actually an immigrant, and a woman at that! The few times I’ve heard the story of Lydia (which is not all that common of a story, actually) I’ve never heard anything about her being an immigrant. In this time of anti-immigrant laws and feelings, it seemed like an interesting piece, that the first European convert actually talked about Jesus with an accent.

I happened to post something about the Lydia passage on facebook. Fellow pastor Steve Yamaguchi commented on the passage, how it was one of his favorites. We exchanged comments back and forth about how cool the passage was, and how we both had noticed and appreciated this ‘immigrant’ piece within it.

Cut to… Sunday morning, a few minutes before I was to preach this sermon about Paul and Lydia, entitled Detour, at the First Presbyterian Church of Downey. I arrived at the church a bit late due to an encounter with Jesus in a parking lot (see previous post) and was discussing the service with the Associate Pastor, Alfredo.

Offhand, I made mention of the text, of Lydia, and of my ‘punchline,’ that Lydia was actually an immigrant.

“That’s great,” said Alfredo, “but Steve Yamaguchi just preached on Lydia a few weeks ago.”

What?! Oh no. What was I going to do? Having just been emailing back and forth with Steve, I knew what he must have preached about Lydia. There went my punchline.

“Um, should I preach on something else then?” I asked Alfredo.

“Do you have something else?” he responded.

“Nope.”

“Well, then I guess God wants us to hear this passage again,” said Alfredo.

I guess so.

meeting Jesus in the parking lot

“We preach from experience for one reason, and one reason only: experience is where God meets us.” Anna Carter Florence

It wasn’t God who met me. But it was Jesus. Jesús, to be precise.

He was on a bicycle, riding through the Starbucks parking lot in Downey. I had stopped at the Starbucks to do some final sermon prep, and was taking Tigger out for a quick stroll before heading over to First Presbyterian Church of Downey to preach a sermon I had entitled “Detour.”

We got to chatting, Jesús and I, eager as I am to practice my Spanish. Finally I told him I had to go, I was going to be late for church.

“What church,” he asked. “I’m looking for a church.”

“The Presbyterian Church,” I responded. “It’s on Downey Ave, just a few blocks from here.”

“What is the address?”

“I don’t know. But it is on Downey Ave, just a few blocks from here. You should come. They speak Spanish. The services are at 10AM.” I replied, trying to be friendly, but knowing that I was now a few minutes late for my ‘guest preacher’ meeting before the service started.

“Could you tell me the address?” he asked.  Okay Jesus, I was thinking, can’t you just find it on your own? I’m late for church! It was the irony, more than my own sense of generosity or hospitality that forced me to respond, “I will look it up for you.”

So, I went to my iPhone, looked up the address, and proceeded to tell him.

“Could you write it down for me?” Seriously, Jesus, I don’t have time for this! I thought to myself, but again, noting the irony of being too much in a hurry to invite Jesus to church.

I found a piece of paper and wrote down the address.

“Here it is,” I said. “I’m so sorry, but I really have to go–I’m running very late.” I did not mention that I was the preacher for the morning. We said our goodbyes and I was on my way.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said to Alfredo, the Associate Pastor who met me as I arrived at the church. “I met Jesus at Starbucks.”

practice what you preach

“Most good things have been said far too often—they just need to be lived.”  –Shane Claiborne

It’s been bugging me for a long time, actually. But it has taken that long for me to give voice to what the ‘it’ is that has actually been nagging at me.

I remember having the conversation out loud for the first time, about ten years ago. I say out loud because it had been rolling around in my head before then.

shoes“What happens next?” I remember asking a friend of mine, in the midst of a conversation. Upon seeing his blank stare at the question I realized a bit more explanation might be helpful.

“I mean, so much of what you hear in sermons is all about what you ought to believe or ought to be doing—but when you get there, then what? It feels as though so much of preaching is about convincing—once I’m convinced, then what?” Still the blank look. Clearly the question had some more percolating to do.

About three years ago I ran into the quote from Shane Claiborne. Most good things have been said far too often—they just need to be lived.  Exactly.

I used to have this problem—I’m getting better at it, though not entirely cured—that I’d go to the library and check out a stack of books. I would be excited at the prospect of reading them. Sometimes I needed a bag to put them in, there were so many. But inevitably, the two weeks or, if I renewed them, the four weeks would come and I would have not even made a dent in the stack.

The same basic premise gets played out in other areas—if I have new running shoes, then I’ll actually start running again. As a teenager very involved in my church’s youth group, I reasoned that if I had a new Bible with cool maps in the back and various study notes, then I’d actually read it regularly.

Around the same time as the ‘what next’ conversation I remember telling my therapist that I thought it would be good for me to run a marathon because I felt as though I lacked self-discipline. She looked at my (then) workaholic, driven, over-achiever-self sitting there on her couch and gave me a blank stare not unlike my friend’s.

What I tried to explain to her was that the thought of setting out upon a goal that could not be accomplished easily or overnight, but had a clear destination and proscribed route to get there, was very compelling to that part of me that continued to ask, “What next?” and “Is there something more?” It was tangible, definable, and required me to act—and not just think—bit by bit, if I were to be actually run all 26.2 miles.

Recently I was on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with a friend and a friend of hers. Over the course of the seven days we spent many hours in silence as we hiked over passes and walked through valleys.  One day on the way back from a 14 mile day hike I asked Katy, whom I had just met at the beginning of the trip, about the yoga practice she had made reference to earlier in the week.

“I’ve been practicing now for seven years,” she said. Over the course of the next five miles she shared what her practice meant to her, the basic tenants of practicing yoga, and the fact that she had even moved to a new apartment to be closer to the yoga studio. Though as a schoolteacher she does not have a lot of extra income, she’s been on multiple yoga retreats to continue to refine her practice.

“That’s what’s missing,” I thought to myself. That’s the link between the ‘what next’ and the Shane Claiborne quote, the library books checked out but never read, and the disciplined plan of the marathon—the actual practice of a faith that for me had for most of my life been relegated to the realm of belief. That was what I had been longing for, what I couldn’t find a language to express, but that I sensed I was missing.

But what might that look like? What would an embodied, practiced faith, do differently?

It was not that I thought the Christian church lacked in the area of practices—I remember enough from my Church History courses in seminary to be familiar with the desert fathers or monastics who separated from life in order to devote themselves to the practice of their faith.

But what about now? What about those of us who choose, intentionally, to remain a part of the world around us? What about regular, normal, day-to-day life? What about the time that happens outside of the four walls of the church, that happens in between ‘spiritual retreats’ in the normal messiness of life?

In the midst of this wondering I happened upon a new book, Finding Our Way Again, by pastor and author Brian McLaren. Though I’m an avid reader of McLaren’s work, I had no idea about this book.  The subtitle “the return of the ancient practices” made me realize that perhaps I’m not the only one that’s been asking these type of questions.

In a move reminiscent of the stack of library books and the study Bibles choc-full of colorful maps, I ordered the book on the spot.  I’m hoping that when Amazon.com delivers ‘Finding Our Way Again’ in 5-7 working days that perhaps I’ll find some of the answers I’ve been looking for over the past ten years.  Though, I’m wondering if the answer I’m seeking might just need to be lived.

turn aside

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”                                                      – Exodus 3:1-5

…..

 What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside…

It’s a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, An Altar in the World. I had to stop and re-read that line.

What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside…

Even if you are not familiar with all of the details of Moses’ life, my guess is that most of us have at least some sense of his rather important place in the story of the Bible.  

Moses is the one to whom God’s name is revealed. Moses is the one who goes to Pharaoh and says let my people go  enough times that finally Pharoah does. Moses is the one who leads the people out of Eypt, from their lives of slavery, and on the journey toward the promised land. Moses is the one who meets God on the mountain top and to whom are given the 10 commandments.

Moses has a pretty big role, when it comes to the stories of the Bible.

I wonder…. What if Moses had been talking on his cell phone? Or texting? Would he have walked right by the burning bush without even noticing it?

What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside…

One of my favorite modern day theologians is travel writer Rick Steves.

I first encountered him while living in Scotland, doing a lot of traveling around Western Europe. He says this:

We travel to enjoy differences—to become temporary locals. You’ll experience frustrations. Certain truths that we find self evident—ice in your drinks or venti-sized coffees are suddenly not so. One of the eye opening realizations is that there are logical, civil, and even better alternatives.

Globe trotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. The prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures that become knit into your own character.

After graduating from seminary I spent a year living in Scotland. It was a wonderful year, but it also took some ajdustment, living in a new culture—even if they did presumably speak the same language.

One day I was walking out of a photography store, happily looking at my freshly printed photos, when I was stopped in my tracks—literally—by the shop door, which I had just run into. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the door, I did. With the photos in one hand, I put the other on the door handle and pushed.

Part of what I like about travel and experiencing different cultures is that it helps me to see things that I had never known or noticed before—both in the new culture, but it also helps me to see my own culture more clearly.

What became clear that day as I literally ran into the door as I tried to push it open was that, actually I needed to pull the door. I had been awkwardly leaving shops for weeks before this. I had never bothered to notice that in the United States you most often push the door to exit. 

There’s nothing like immersing yourself in a new or different place for helping heighten your ability to, but also your need to pay attention.

Moses had traveled a long way from home.  The text says he was out beyond the wilderness—even farther than the boonies—at Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God. This mountain, by the way, is also called Mt. Sinai, and is the place to which he will return later to receive the stone tablets of the 10 commandments.

But for now he is just Moses. Fairly ordinary.  A guy not leading people, but sheep.  

Who knows how long he had been out there. Was he lonely? Tired? Hungry? Bored?

The thing is, Moses was a long way from home, if home were to be considered Midian.  But Midian was not even his true home.

Moses, as those who have grown up with the Sunday school tale know, was an Israelite. Because the pharaoh had ordered it, all baby boys born to the Israelites were to be killed. So Moses’ mother put him in a basket of reeds and into the river where he happened to be found by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh. She took pity on the baby and rescued him, raising him as her own son in the house of Pharaoh.

Everything was going well until one day, Moses possibly wrestling with the issues of his identity—an Israelite, a member of an oppressed group of people, growing up in the house of Pharaoh, the source of his people’s oppression.  One day he saw an Egyptian beating one of the Hebrews and so Moses decided to intervene. He did so, and killed the Egyptian. This, as you might expect, did not sit well with Pharaoh, so Moses was forced to flee. He fled to Midian.

So when we find Moses by the burning bush he had traveled a long way from home—if he even knew where home might be.

…..

A few weeks ago I was in Mexico and was invited by my friends, Jose and Vita, to come over to their house for fish tacos. I’ve known them a long time, and have shared many meals with them, and many conversations, though always either at my house or the house of other Americans in the community. My Spanish is pretty good, and they both have fairly good English, so communication is rarely a problem.

But this Friday night was the first time I had ever been to their house. Jose came to pick me up, as their house is on a rather steep hillside, with pot holed dirt roads and he thought it would be easier than me finding it and finding my way. That also meant that I would go home whenever he took me home.

Everything was going well. We arrived. I greeted Vita. Their son Alejandro came through the door. I know him, greeted him. Then their nephew Beto came in. I know him as well, and greeted him.

And then all of a sudden the door burst open and in came their daughter, son in law and their little baby—who all live in the States—followed by family members who were all excited to greet them and welcome them ‘home.’ At once the house was full of people, all speaking Spanish, at the same time, rapidly. Suddenly, I had no idea what anyone was saying, or what was going on. I didn’t understand a word.

Though I was an invited guest, and most definitely welcomed, I was also a stranger. It made me realize how they must feel like so much of the time when they are invited to my house, or the house of other Americans, full of people talking all at once, in English.

I also realized that it also heightened my senses of observation, since I felt very, very lost. I had to pay more attention, because I could take nothing for granted.

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbit of Great Britain says: “The Hebrew Bible in one verse commands ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to love the stranger.”

When we allow ourselves to be strangers we are in the position of receiving hospitality from another. We are not in control. 

The Hebrew Bible says to welcome the stranger because you remember what it was like to be a stranger…if we are never in that position, how can we possibly remember what it is like?

Moses was a stranger. 

From the moment he was picked up out of the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was an Israelite living in the house of Pharaoh. When he was forced to flee he became even a stranger from his adopted identity. In the land of Midian he was in a new place, with different customs, different ways, amongst people who followed a different God.  Moses was a stranger.

I wonder. Did this make him more able to notice the burning bush?

Did this help him to pay attention?

Was this part of what allowed him on that day, to see the burning bush, and not to walk on by, but to stop, to take notice, and to turn aside?

In the book of Luke, on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, there is a story of two people walking along the road to Emmaus. A stranger joins them. They don’t know it, but it is Jesus. He walks with them until they arrive at their destination. He acts as though he will keep going, but they insist that he stop with them and accept their hospitality. It is when they sit down to eat, as he breaks the bread, that they realize who he is.

In the story of Abraham and Sarah, it is the strangers they welcome who end up being the messengers of God who announce the good news that Sarah will bear a child.

Why do we welcome the stranger? Why do we turn aside?

Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Yes, Moses  was far from home and yes Moses was a stranger and yes, these are both qualities we might do well to welcome into our lives and cultivate.

But the thing is, you don’t have to go far from home…

Moses was also doing what he probably did most every day—he was tending the sheep. It wasn’t a religious holiday. He didn’t go to church or even some special sacred place. It’s not that God can’t be found in these places. But Moses encountered God there, out beyond the wilderness, in the midst of his normal and perhaps even mundane daily task.

We can learn to be mindful, to pay attention, here and now.

Barbara Brown Taylor also says this:  “The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else.”

What if we were to take a moment to turn aside?

I invite you, right where you are, right where you are sitting, to take off your shoes. If you have your holy socks on, all the better—we’re in church. You don’t have to do this, no one is going to force you. But if you are willing, reach down, take off your shoes. Rest your feet on the ground.  Let them feel the touch of the floor.

As Kelly comes forward to sing, I invite you to sit in stillness. Close your eyes if you’d like. But give yourself these moments to simply be present. Be mindful. If thoughts come to you, allow them to simply pass right on by. Invite God into the space, but don’t fill it up with words or with prayers or other noise. Feel the holy ground beneath your feet as you sit and listen.

What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside… Who knows who you and I might become, if we but turn aside?

meant to be sent

This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. When Steve told me that you have spent a good portion of this summer on a ‘globe trekking’ theme I was excited that this story might fit somewhere within that context.  This passage is often referred to as “The Call of Abram.” One point of clarification, before we read the passage, is that the Abram and Sarai that we will read about are the same Abraham and Sarah that we may be more familiar with. They don’t get the name change until chapter 17, twenty-four years after our current story, when God follows up on the promise made in our text this morning. If you’re interested in that you’ll have to read it on your own, preferably after the service.

Let us now listen to the Word of God found in Genesis chapter 12, verses 1-9.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb. 

I often wonder if I like this passage so much because I love to travel and I think this give me a biblical justification for it.  It says it right here in the bible, go, leave, venture out into the world.  What other justification do you need?  If anyone questions you all you have to say is, I take the Bible very seriously and it told me to go. Granted, you might want to be careful lest the other person know scripture well and quote back to you the passage which follows this one where Abram pretends that his wife is his sister and gives her to Pharaoh…

Have you ever been at the airport, looking up at the screen filled with departures, and just had that urge to play a sort of pin the tail on the donkey? Eyes closed, spinning around, you reach out and point to one of the destinations and then just go there. I realize, it’s a bit more complicated now than it may have been in the past, but I still have that vision, every time I see the departure board.  I also have this vision of buying a pair of those pants that zip off into shorts and wearing those on a backpacking trip around the world….

Now the Lord said to Abram, go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

I can just hear them getting ready for the trip, packing up their possessions and the persons they had acquired—yes, that is troubling—and their nephew Lot, and Sarai saying to Abram, where exactly are we going? “Actually I’m not sure honey, but God will show us on the way.”  Right.

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran and they set forth…

Somehow this doesn’t sound so much like my vision of the lone backpacker, traveling the world in her pants that zip into shorts.  Abram and Sarah hardly traveled light. And Abram did not go out on the journey alone. In so much of our American mythology we have the idea of the cowboy riding off into the sunset (think Marlboro man) or the lone hero, with a bit of help from supporting characters, but still basically alone like Jason Bourne in the Bourne Identity trilogy. Abram and Sarai were not going out on a mission trip with some old clothes that they didn’t mind getting paint on.

When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh.  At that time the Canaanites were in the land.

One August I was in the Sacramento area for friends wedding. After the wedding I headed toward Lake Tahoe and needed a place to stay. Without a reservation I went from hotel to hotel, all of which continued to tell me that they were booked up because of the Hot August Nights.  It had been fairly hot that weekend, and it was August. But I couldn’t figure out why that meant everyone would go stay in hotels. It was not until the following day when someone mentioned the car festival in town that I realized that Hot August Nights was the name of an event, not just a description of the temperature.

After traveling close to 500 miles from Haran to Shechem, can you just hear the question that must have been on Abram and Sarai’s minds?  We left everything, we’ve traveled all this way, and now the land that you have showed us has a big No Vacancy sign hanging outside.  The text does not record what they were thinking, but I wonder if at this point they began to question the entire journey.  You sent us out, you made us leave, but the place where you sent us doesn’t want or need us—it’s already full.  What now?

Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

Yeah, and the check’s in the mail, right? You see, Abram and Sarai had no offspring. 

So Abram built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

Often it is assumed that Abram’s building of an altar was an act of worship, or devotion to God.  But I wonder also if it was not a sort of documenting of this promise? Okay, God, here is the spot where you made this promise, here is where it was said that my offspring, which I don’t have, will be given this land. 

And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

Toward the south. Toward the desert.  Beyond the destination. Further from being settled. Thrust back into the journey just when the destination had been in sight.

I heard a story a couple of months ago about a caravan of travelers.  The inevitable question came from somewhere in the group, Are We There Yet? The answer came back, Of course not, we’re nomads!

We are living in the midst of an interesting time. It is a time of great change in the culture as a whole, but also within the church.  The church in the West (and by this I don’t just mean California, but the Western world of the US, Canada, the UK and Europe) is declining in numbers, while the church in what has come to be referred to as the global south is growing rapidly.  As one example, there are now more Presbyterians in Ghana than there are in the United States and Scotland combined.   The church in America no longer has the center stage it once did, though Rick Warren’s forum last night at Saddleback church with Barrack Obama and John McCain is an interesting exception. 

It is from within this context that we read and hear this story of Abram. Professor and Bible scholar Walter Brueggeman suggests that this idea of journey that we hear in Abram’s story is a radical one. “It is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of our time which yearn for settlement, security and placement.” But such departure from securities, says Brueggeman, is the only way out of barrenness. The call to Abram is a call to abandonment, renunciation, and relinquishment. It is a call for a dangerous departure from the world of security. But to remain in that safety and security is to remain barren. To leave in risk is to have hope.

I’m guessing that you’ve heard the phrase ‘the missional church’ especially since I see that Steve has spent time studying it.  For the past three days I attended the Presbyterian Global Fellowship conference in Long Beach. There was a lot of talk there about being missional. It seems as though it is the new catch all phrase. Tired of boring session meetings? Make them missional session meetings!  Not getting good attendance at your verse by verse daily study of the book of Leviticus? Call it a missional study!

But joking aside, the importance of this focus on being missional, being the missional church, is an understanding that fundamentally, in our core, not as an accident but the very nature of our DNA as followers of Jesus, we are ones who are sent. We are on a journey.  And we are not there yet.  As with Abram, we may never get there.

We aren’t sent out into the world on our own, with just a backpack and pants zipped into shorts.  We are sent as a community.  We are taking this journey together. And we are never ‘there yet.’ The journey is the destination. We are meant to be sent.

It is at the same time, much easier, and much more difficult than we may imagine. Does this call mean that we have to take a mission trip to Africa? Does being sent mean that we literally have to leave our country and our kindred and our family and go…somewhere? For some of us, it might. Some of us may be called to a literally nomadic life.  But for some of us being sent out might be to our next door neighbors, down the block, or at Starbucks…even before we’ve gotten our coffee.  Being sent means that as followers of the God who sent out Abram, and of Jesus who was sent into the world, we are always bearers of the blessing.

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

The Hebrew word for earth is adam…it is the same word used in the creation story for the creation of humans, formed out of the earth. It is the basis for our word Adam, who was formed out of the earth to become man. And it is also the same word that was used, after the temptation in the garden and the fall, to refer to the curse that Adam and Eve had brought upon themselves by eating the forbidden fruit.  Cursed will be the ground.  So this blessing that is to enter into being through Abram and Sarai is not just for them, but for the redeeming and reforming of all of creation. It is a blessing for all of the families of the earth. They are chosen not to be special, but to be of service. Blessing does not reach a dead end with them. They are called to be the conduits and vehicles for that blessing to reach all of humanity.

Walter Brueggeman also notes that “God does not depend on any potentiality in the one addressed.” It’s a good thing, since the first thing Abram does after this story is pretend his wife is his sister to save his own skin while offering her to the Pharaoh to take for himself. Think about that for a moment. It is hardly an example of good moral family values. Later on, since God doesn’t seem to be following through with the promise of offspring, Sarah tells Abraham to sleep with her servant Hagar. He does—and we don’t know if he put up a fight—and when Hagar becomes pregnant she looks down on the barren Sarah who, understandably, becomes jealous, gets mad at Abraham, and drives the pregnant Hagar away into the wilderness.  It sounds a lot more like Desperate Housewives than upstanding pillars of the church.

Being a blessing clearly does not mean that Abram is perfect, and does not require us to be perfect.  Notice, it also does not, in this story, have anything to do with doing something for or to the families of the earth, or even converting them. It is about being sent out among them and as Brueggeman says “Abram’s task is not to impress or even bear witness to God, but simply to permit the reality of blessing to be at work.  It is neither to destroy or to convert, but to mobilize the power of life on behalf of the others.”

I think that the word Evangelism has become weighed down with a lot of extra baggage. We are often, truth be told, offended by it. I don’t want to seem like one of THOSE PEOPLE who stand on the corner holding a sign saying something about burning in hell while yelling at passerby through a megaphone that God loves them. It’s just a bit too awkward for me, thanks, I’ll pass. 

Or else we are afraid of it. I don’t know how to defend what I believe? What if someone asks me a question I don’t know? What if I can’t explain how the earth was created in 7 days, or give firm evidence for Jesus having been raised from the dead?

One of the speaker’s at this Presbyterian Global Fellowship Conference was Dr. John Azumah, a phd and Presbyterian Minister in Ghana. He spoke of a family within his church that had been invited to Muslim friends house for dinner. “What scripture texts should we be prepared to share?” They asked Pastor Azumah. “Just go eat dinner!” was his response.

Just go eat dinner! Go, be in the world, and by your presence living your daily life, knowing that you are sent by God to be a blessing, bless those around you.  Peter Nielsen is a man in charge of what is called New Charge Development in Scotland. We would call it new church development. He is known to say that as the church we are called to go out into the world and be prepared to stay there. It is not about bringing people back here, it is about being with them out there.  That is one of the exciting things about what you all are doing here at Village Pres, seeing yourselves as called to this community and sent out into it.

One of the things that I like about preaching is that it gives me the excuse, and it forces me really, to spend time in a particular text. It forces me to pay attention, to ponder, and to, if you will, marinade in the text for a while. It’s not that I couldn’t do this otherwise, but preaching has the very real consequence if I allow myself to get distracted and move on to other texts. One of the questions that continues to rise to the surface for me is this. Why did God send Abram? Not why did God send ABRAM? But, why did God SEND Abram? Why couldn’t he have been a blessing right there where he was? Didn’t his country and his kindred and his father’s house need blessing too?  Why did he have to be sent?

Recently I read the book the Alchemist. It is the story of a shepherd boy in Spain who sets out on a journey to find a treasure. His journey leads him back to the very place from which he initially departed. But though he returns to the same place, he is no longer the same person after having set out on the journey.

We are all sent out on a journey. For some of us it will be an outward literal, physical and geographical one. For others it will be a more inward journey of seeking and understanding.  But we are all sent. We are sent out, to be salt and light, to be yeast—they are not meant to stand alone, you know. Salt is meant to go with food. Light is meant to illuminate darkness. Yeast is meant to leaven bread.  We are sent into the world, to the other, in order that we might be transformed.  Through that transformation we will be a blessing to the world.

We do so as we follow the very one who was himself sent into the world, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

“Taking” the offering

Though I’ve been in sort of a dry spell with my ‘musings’ as of late,  I had to share this story from my most recent preaching endeavor at the small, struggling church in Long Beach…

I’ve now preached there 3 times. This time the choir and the congregation were tied, 8-8.  Yes, that’s 8 people in the choir and 8 people in the congregation. The congregation was unfairly stacked with family friends Susan and Robin who came to hear me preach. So, I guess technically, the choir’s ahead by 2.

The sermon was over (you can read a version of it, “The End of Late Fees” in the Sermons section).  The two ushers had taken the offering (from the other 14 people) and had just walked down the center aisle and up to the front chancel area of the church.  All of a sudden a fairly disheveled looking man in a wheelchair came in from outside, wheeling himself up the center aisle, right to the front of the chancel, next to the ushers.  People sort of looked around, wondering what to do about this man—a dilemma between the good Christian ideal of welcoming the stranger and the social awkwardness of the stranger clearly deviating from the social customs.

So we all just kept singing. The man in the wheelchair waited patiently for the song to be over. When it was he leaned over to one of the ushers (still holding the offering plate) and said, “Can I have two bucks for the bus?”

Timing, apparently, is everything.