Gotta Serve Somebody: Sermon for September 28th, 2014

When I was a kid there were these books that I would often read called “Choose Your Own Adventure Books”. The idea was simple. You started reading and after a few pages there would be a question. And you were given two options, leading you to two different pages in the book.

For instance, you are hiking in the woods and you are lost and it’s getting dark. Do you keep trying to hike your way through? If so turn to page 30. Or do you stop at the creepy abandoned cabin and stay there for the night? Turn to page 56.

As you can imagine, neither is a good choice. But they lead you to other pages where you have to then make similar choices. And choice after choice you work your way through the book. And, to be honest, a good portion of the time you end up dying some tragic death.

Somehow someone thought these were great books for children. But, honestly, I was a big fan, and so were my friends. And I think that’s because the books always gave us choices, and they always took those choices seriously.

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I'll be glad to change it).

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I’ll be glad to change it).

I am reminded of those books when I read today’s Scripture, not because everyone meets a horrible end, but because Jesus is presenting his disciples with a sort of “choose your own adventure” story. Jesus is teaching his disciples, and the religious authorities are getting worried. He’s gaining too much influence and so they ask him “who gave you the authority to do the things you are doing?”

Jesus answers the question with a question. He tells them, “I’ll answer you, but first answer me this: Who gave John the Baptist his authority?”

And he had them there. Because if they had said “God” Jesus could have asked “then why did you kill him?” And if they said otherwise, the crowd, who loved John, would have turned against them. And so, they just say “we don’t know”.

And so Jesus tells them this story: A man had two sons and a vineyard. And one day he asked both of them to go to work in the vineyards. The first son says “no…I’m not going.” And the second son says “sure, I’ll go”. But here’s the twist. That second son never goes. And the first son, who said he wouldn’t, changes his mind and goes.

So Jesus asks the Pharisees, which of those two sons did what his father asked? The one who said he would and didn’t, or the one who said he wouldn’t and did.

The Pharisees answer, “the one who went to the vineyard”.

And then Jesus delivers this stinger: Truly, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the ones looked down on by everyone, are going to be ahead of you in the Kingdom of God.

And that’s when the Pharisees get it…he’s talking about them.

It’s a dangerous thing to call out someone’s hypocrisy. I don’t suggest it, because usually it makes the hypocrite pretty mad. But being Jesus has its privileges. Jesus publicly exposes these religious officials, these people who like the second son are a little more talk than action, for what they are. And it infuriates them.

There’s something satisfying about that. There’s a reason that when a person who professes religious faith falls from grace it becomes a media field day. I remember being very young and watching televangelists be led off in handcuffs on the evening news. A few years later I would look around at my more outwardly devout neighbors who maybe weren’t living in such devout ways when they thought no one was looking. And I began to get a little disillusioned with religious people. And it struck me then that maybe not everyone’s words and actions lined up.

But years later, I’ve developed a little more sympathy for the Pharisees and the other hypocrites of the world. And that’s because I know now that I am at times a hypocrite too. And, more than likely, so are most of us. Perhaps my everyday hypocrisies aren’t as newsworthy or spectacular as the ones on the front pages of the paper, but they are there. More than I like to admit.

The truth is that I call myself a Christian, a follower of Christ. I say everyday that I will go to work in the vineyard. And most days I at least make it there. But some, I don’t. Because this is what I think working in the vineyard looks like. I think it looks like choosing to follow Christ, even when we are afraid, even when there are other things we would rather be doing, even when it’s hard.

I say I want to do that, but some days I know my own fears and limitations hold me back. I get distracted. I put my trust and faith in other things. I get it wrong. And I know that some days I am so busy serving other things, that I never make it out to serve in the vineyard. I’m too busy checking things off my to-do list instead.

This is not just a clergy problem. This is a problem most of us who want to follow Christ have. We have the best of intentions when we are asked to go out into the vineyard, but good intentions don’t always get us out there. And, slowly, we begin to realize that maybe, just maybe, we are hypocrites too.

And this is where I am reminded of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I talked about. Not because I think we are all headed for certain destruction. If so this would be the most depressing sermon ever. But instead because I think each day we get to make a new choice.

In the books one bad choice ends hope for you. But in the life of faith, we make bad choices all the time. And the good news is that God’s grace somehow reaches us even when we wander away from the vineyards. And, yes, even when we are hypocrites.

Every Sunday in church we say the prayer of confession together. And at first glance that might seem like a bit of a downer. Some churches, to be honest, have jettisoned it altogether because they don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, especially not visitors who might never come back. .

But to me the prayer of confession is about this: it’s about telling the truth. It’s about saying that sometimes we get it wrong, and it’s about believing that God can still use us anyway. When you think about it, church is probably one of the only places in our lives where we can so easily admit to being wrong sometimes.

I think there is some real grace in that.

I wonder about the son who tells his father that he will not go to work in the vineyard. I wonder if other days he, like the other son, told him that he would. And I wonder if he never made it there either. I wonder if on the day he was asked, he finally decided to tell the truth. And maybe that act of truth telling set him free to do more than just have good intentions.

Another minister I know shared a photo this week of a church’s sign. It read in big letters, “This Church is Not Full of Hypocrites!” A little defensive sounding at first, really. But then at the bottom it said this: “There’s always room for more!”

I think that’s what the church is about sometimes. It’s about admitting that we mess up. And it’s about sharing the good news of God’s grace with one another, assuring one another that God can still use us, and deciding to go together out into those vineyards. The church has never been about being perfect. Our purpose is not to exist as a club for saints. Instead, the church is a place for real people, living real lives, and facing real choices, who all the while are trying to follow Jesus Christ in this world.

It’s about understanding that God has given us grace. And it’s about responding to that grace. And, to me, the best way to respond to grace is always in gratitude. It’s about choosing to live a life of gratitude in a world that often gives us a lot of other choices about how to respond. That’s what the church is all about.

So getting back to choosing your own adventures. This morning I borrowed my sermon title from a song by Bob Dylan. In it he gives this long list of things that you might be: an ambassador, a rock and roller, a banker, or even a “preacher with your spiritual pride”, but he says no matter who you are “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

It may just be a song, but he’s right. We all end up getting to choose what, and who, we are going to serve each day. We all get asked that question every morning when we wake up, the same one asked of the two sons: Will you go to work for me today?

And it doesn’t matter where our day takes us. It doesn’t matter our profession, or our age, or what we have or don’t have in our bank accounts. It doesn’t even really matter what you say when you are asked. All that matters is this: When you decide which vineyard to go to that day, and there are a lot to choose from, will you choose one that will never be able to love you back? Or will you choose the vineyard that belongs to the one who loved you first, and always?

It’s like what I told our kids today in the children’s sermon: never give the best of you to something that can never love you back.

And so, in this book that is life, make good choices. But even if you don’t, don’t worry. There’s always tomorrow. And the pages can always be turned back. And no matter what you will still be welcome in this place where day after day we keep trying together to choose the one we want to serve. Amen.

Who Am I?: Sermon for August 31, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15

3:1 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.

3:2 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.

3:3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

3:4 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.”

3:5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

3:6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

3:7 Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,

3:8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

3:9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.

3:10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

3:11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

3:12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

3:13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

3:14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”

3:15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, o God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

When I was a kid, in elementary school, there were a lot of words I couldn’t pronounce the right way. (And not just because I was from the South.) I had a speech impediment, and so once a week or so I had to go meet with the speech pathologist. And she would try to get me to concentrate on saying “s” correctly, or making sure my “f’s” and “th’s” sounded different.

And, she was good at what she did, and my speech did eventually become clearer, but I also became incredibly self-conscious about speaking in public. I was always worried that when I talked my mistakes were all that people heard.

10351450_801313973254536_63441642393740313_nThe whole prospect of public speaking scared me to death. And I remember very clearly making a decision as a child that whatever I did when I grew up, I would never take any kind of job that required me to stand up in front of people and talk.

There’s an old saying that we make plans and God laughs. I think God laughed pretty hard when I made this promise to myself that day. Because the truth is that our best laid plans often don’t quite match up with God’s.

Moses knew what that was like. When you think about Moses you might think of him telling Pharaoh “let my people go”, or parting the Red Sea or coming down from Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets and the 10 Commandments. You might think of Moses as a strong leader. A man of faith. A liberator.

And he was all those things. But first he was this. A baby who escaped death because his mother put him in a basket in a river. A boy who grew up in the royal household not knowing his heritage. A teenager with a conflicted identity who saw injustice and in a moment of rage killed a man. And a young man who had fled, and who in exile resigned himself to tending his father-in-law’s sheep.

It was while he was out with the sheep one day that things changed for Moses. He’s grazing the sheep and he sees this bush that is on fire. And that’s concerning, but even more concerning is the fact that while the fire is raging it doesn’t actually seem to be burning up the bush. Moses goes to take a closer look and once God has Moses attention, because sometimes for some of us we need big signs like randomly burning shrubbery, God calls to him.

“Moses! Moses!”

And Moses says, “Here I am.” And God tells Moses to take off his sandals because he’s on holy ground. And then God says “I’m the God of all your ancestors…Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…that’s me. And I know what’s been going on. I know what you and all of my people have been going through in Egypt. I know about the suffering and the slavery and the beatings and the injustice. And, more than that, I’m going to stop it. I’m going to take all of you and bring you out of Egypt and to a place flowing with milk and honey.”

Sounds pretty good, right? God knows how bad things have been. God is going to put a stop to it. God is going to save God’s people. This must have all sounded like good news to Moses. Until God says this: “And I’m going to send you to Pharaoh to take care of this, okay?”

And that’s when Moses asks the big question: “Who am I that I should be the one to go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt?”

“Who am I?” It’s the big question. We all ask ourselves that. And Moses had reason to ask. He was a refugee who had fled after killing a man. But even without that, he did not think of himself as a leader. He was just a guy who watched his wife’s father’s sheep. He didn’t really belong with the Hebrews, didn’t really belong with the Egyptians, and didn’t really belong with the people in Midian. And, Scripture tells us, he was “slow of speech” which meant that he probably had some sort of speech impediment to boot.

This is the guy God chose to go talk to the Pharaoh and then lead his people for forty years in the wilderness? Moses was probably the last guy you would expect, and Moses himself knew it.

And so when Moses says “who am I”? it’s not a ridiculous question. It makes sense.

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Have you ever felt called to do something big, something meaningful, but you haven’t felt qualified? I think we all have. I think we’ve all had a time when we have counted ourselves out of the game before we even tried because we just didn’t feel like we were good enough, or smart enough, or talented enough. Moses got what that felt like. And that’s why he asked his big question: “Who am I?”

Now, here’s the kicker: did you notice that God doesn’t answer him? Hardly confidence-inspiring, is it? Instead, when Moses says “who am I”, God says this: “I will be with you.”

God doesn’t say “Moses you are good enough,” or “Moses, you have what it takes”. Because God promises something better. God promises God’s presence.

So Moses starts to think about logistics, and he says to God, “If I go to your people, and tell them you’ve told me to lead them out of Egypt, what do I say? What if they ask me who you are? What should I tell them?”

And God says this: “Say, ‘I am who I am’ and tell the Israelites that ‘I am’ has sent me to you. This is my name.”

“I am who I am”. What’s that supposed to mean? Is it a riddle? Is it God dodging the question? It sure doesn’t sound like a name.

But in Hebrew “I am who I am” translates into a name for God that you may have heard before. It’s is pronounced “Yahweh”. And among the most Orthodox of our Jewish sisters and brothers that name is so holy that it is never spoken out loud. And if it is written on paper that paper must be treated with respect. In fact in college I had a professor who was an Orthodox rabbi who asked us that we give him our textbooks if they were damaged because they contained God’s name and it was so holy that he would bury them out of respect.

It was striking how deeply he cared and it took me a while to realize that it’s wasn’t just the actual name itself that made it holy. It’s what it means: I am who I am, which at its essence just means this: God is.

Of all the things we can say about God: God is great, merciful, gracious, loving, eternal, Triune, and we could go on and on…none of them are completely accurate. Because on their own they can’t be. No matter what words we can put on God, they will never accurately convey the vastness of who God is. We will never completely get it. And so the most faithful thing we can say is what God said: God is. “I am who I am.”

That’s what God tells Moses before God sends him to do something incredible. Moses asks “Who am I?” and God says “I am with you”. Moses asks “what’s your name” and God says “I am”.

And that’s the sum of it. God is. And God is with Moses. And God is with all of us. And because of that, sometimes ideas as crazy-sounding as going and asking the Pharaoh to leave and take everyone with you work out. Because God is with you.

The name of the book this story is told in is Exodus. It was originally written in Hebrew but later it was given this Greek name. And Exodus literally means “a way out”. And that’s what God created through Moses; a way out for God’s people. God took this most unlikely of heroes and made him capable of amazing things. God did that. Because God is. And God was with Moses.

So who was Moses? He was someone that the great “I am” had chosen to be with. And who are you? You are someone God is with too. At your core, that is what defines you more than anything else in life. That is how God answered Moses’ question, and that is how God answers us all: I am, and I am with you.

And so maybe, despite our shortcomings, despite our faults, we are enough. And maybe God can use us in some ways we have never imagined. It’s easy to give all the reasons why we can’t succeed. It’s easy to give all the reasons why we won’t even try. It’s easy to accept defeat before the first step is taken. But when we do that, we forget who is with us, and who God is.

And so here’s my challenge this week. What if every time you tried to step out in faith and then asked yourself “who am I?” or “what makes me think I’m up to this challenge” or “why did I ever think I could do this”, what if every time a question like that comes up, what if you didn’t answer? And what if instead you just said this: God is. And God is with me.

What if we all did that. Can you imagine what it would be like if we all put our faith into action and trusted that God would be there with us? What would it be like if we believed that God could take the most unlikely among us, and the most unlikely parts of us, and use them for amazing things? I’m not saying it would always be smooth sailing; even Moses wandered around for forty years in the wilderness. But I am saying that if God is really calling us out into the next part of our journey, God is not calling us out alone.

God is. And God is with us. And that is all we need to know. Amen.

Enough: Sermon for August 3, 2014

Matthew 14:13-21
14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

14:15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

14:16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

14:17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

14:18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

14:19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

14:20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

14:21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

When I was a college and seminary student in Atlanta there were two churches, both from the same mainline denomination, located on opposite ends of town. One church was very small. It only had about 35 active members, and it was located in a neighborhood that for years had been down and out. And for the life of them, no one could tell how that church managed to stay open year after year.

Loaves and Fish Roundel Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Loaves and Fish Roundel
Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

The other was a very large church. In fact, it was the largest church in the denomination, not just in that city, but nationwide. And on Sundays, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Atlanta, thousands of people streamed through its doors to worship.

You might think from this set up that I’m about to preach on David and Goliath here. The small engine-that-could little guy versus the huge monster no one could stop. But this isn’t a story about good guys and bad guys. And it isn’t about one defeating the other. This is a different story. This is a story about what it means to have “enough”.

I’ll come back to those two churches, but first I want to talk about the story Lynne read for us. Jesus and the disciples are being followed by a large crowd that wants him to heal them. And as it gets later in the day, the disciples look out at the crowds and they start getting nervous. They see all these people and know they are about to get hungry.

They say to Jesus, “send them away…have them go and feed themselves”. And I’ll bet that deep down the disciples were worried they weren’t going to be able to hold on to the little they had for themselves. Especially when Jesus tells them “give them something to eat”. And all they have with them is five loaves and two fish. Which when you think about it, was probably just enough for the disciples and Jesus to have at least a little something. And Jesus is trying to give it away.

So about now, if you put this in corporate terms, people could be saying that Jesus didn’t have a very good business plan. He clearly did not have adequate supplies, and hadn’t budgeted well. Here he was at the height of demand, and he didn’t even have the supplies he needed to meet the basic needs of the people who worked for him, let alone the consumers.

In short, Jesus simply did not have “enough”.

But the thing is, in Christ we find that our own definitions of “enough” rarely hold up. He tells them to bring the bread and fish anyway. He tells the thousands of people to sit down, and he blesses the food, and gives it to the disciples. And they give it to the people. And, somehow, everyone on that hillside eats. In fact they eat until they can’t eat anymore, and they end up collecting baskets of bread that hasn’t even been touched.

Enough.

It turns out that Jesus didn’t just have enough. He had more than enough.

But how often does that happen? Here’s a question to answer for yourself: Do you have enough? Could you use “just a little more”? Have you ever said to yourself “if only I made a little more” or “if only I had this” or “if only I didn’t need to deal with that” then you would finally have “enough”?

If so, you’re not alone. Few people I have ever met, including people with extraordinary wealth, have ever thought they had “enough”. In fact, sometimes those of us who have never questioned having access to what others might feel is extraordinary, things like clean water and enough to eat and a home free of violence, are the ones who seem to least appreciate how close we really are to having “enough”.

And when times are the tightest, we want to hang on to what we have even more. We become a little less generous with what little extra we have around. We squirrel away what we don’t really need in storage units. We hunker down, and make sure that at the very least, we will be okay. And slowly we stop focusing on our neighbors, and start to look only at ourselves.

I think that Jesus knows what that was like. And so did his followers. As they watched Jesus literally take their dinner out of their hands and give it away, I’ll bet they were pretty anxious. Times hadn’t been good for them either. In fact, they had found themselves heading out to this deserted town all by themselves because Jesus needed a break. In the passage immediately before this one in Matthew we find out that his friend, and family member, John the Baptist has been killed, and the writing on the wall for Jesus, and for all of them, is becoming clear. And so, they wanted this time alone. To mourn. To pray.

But Scripture says that when Jesus saw the crowds following him, crying out for healing, he had compassion for them. And he doesn’t say “I don’t have enough to give right now” and he doesn’t send them away. He instead finds what he does have to give. And he serves them with it.

Those two churches I told you about at the beginning of my sermon both did amazing things in their ministries. They touched many lives. But that little church, the one with 35 members, did something nearly unbelievable every night. They invited homeless men in from the streets, and let them sleep in cots in their sanctuary. They fed them hot meals. They helped them secure housing and healthcare. They walked with them on their journey.

The pastor of the larger church occasionally used to invite the pastor of the smaller church to speak in worship. And the big church pastor was a good Christian man who inspired great things, but he always struggled with the fact that his church never seemed to think they had “enough” to do more. Despite thousands of members and millions of dollars, there was always this sense of scarcity, and not abundance.

And so when the small church pastor would come, and tell the congregation about his ministry, the big church pastor would then slip in this fact, hoping his congregation might hear it. “You know,” he said, “this little church manages to do all this ministry every year on a church budget that is less than our own church’s electric bill.”

It was a sobering statement. And it brought into sharp contrast the difference between living a life ruled by the fear of scarcity, and one driven by belief in God’s abundance.

Just about every doubt we have as individuals comes from the fear of not having, or being, “enough”. Not rich enough. Not smart enough. Not good enough. Not creative enough. Not old enough. Not young enough. You get the picture.

But just about every extraordinary thing that is accomplished comes from trusting that we can make what we have “enough”. And it’s not recklessness or foolishness that gets us to that place. It’s faith. That little church had stepped out in faith and started their ministry even though everyone had called them foolish or crazy. And yet, somehow that little they had was blessed. And the world was blessed for it. And, somehow, there always seemed to be “enough”.

There’s an alternative version of the story of the loaves and fishes that I’ve heard told by well-meaning commentators who want to give a more plausible explanation for what happened that day. They say that maybe Jesus didn’t somehow made those loaves and fish multiply. Maybe instead what happened is that people saw the first act of generosity, Jesus giving away those loaves and fishes, and their fear that there wouldn’t be enough ended. And they reached in their own bags, and pulled out their own loaves and fishes, and started to share. Maybe, the fish and bread were there all along on that hill.

I don’t think that’s actually what happened. I like to let Jesus’ miracles be miracles. But it’s an intriguing thought, isn’t it? The idea that maybe when we finally understand that abundance we have been given we can’t keep it to ourselves. The idea that we had “enough” this whole time and now we can share it.

You and I may not be sitting with that crowd on that hill, waiting for some bread and fish, but my guess is that we are all wrestling with what it means to have “enough”, and what we would do if we ever had it.

The good news is that like that crowd we find that when Christ is around we sometimes always seem to have enough…in fact, if we look closely, we might just find that we have abundance. Just like the overflowing baskets that were filled even after everyone was full, we find that Christ somehow has blessed what we refused to hold back. And we find don’t have to hold on out of fear anymore.

So here’s my question for you today? What would you do, if you finally believed that you had “enough”? Whatever that “enough” means to you, whatever it is “enough” of, what would you do if you felt like you had it? And how might that “enough” bless the world?

As we prepare to come to a table where a simple meal, begun in a time of great uncertainty, has for centuries proven to be “enough”, may we be strengthened by the bread and the cup to ask ourselves that question, and then to step out in faith to answer it. Amen.

Where You Least Expect It: Sermon for July 20, 2014

Genesis 28:10-19

When I was in college I had a chaplain who was a Methodist minister who had grown up in south Georgia. He’d gone north for seminary and thought he’d stick around but around the time he graduated the Civil Rights movement was starting to heat up in the South. And so, he decided to go home and to try to be a part of the change.

mural-ladderOne of his first Sundays at his new church he preached a sermon on why segregation was not God’s will.

It was not well-received.

And as people were filing out of the church after worship, going through the receiving line with the pastor, they let him know that. One man stopped and pointed at another man headed his way.

“You see that man?” he asked Sammy. “He’s the head of the local Ku Klux Klan, and he is not happy with you.”

You may wonder why I’m telling you this story when the Biblical story for today is about Jacob, a man who knew nothing of the Civil Rights era South. I’ll come back to Sammy’s story, but for now let’s consider Jacob.

Jacob was the favored son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. He had tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright and now that brother was angry enough that he wanted to kill Jacob. And so his mother sent Jacob away, telling him to go and find a wife. And it’s out there in the wilderness, far from home, with a brother that wants him gone, that Jacob finds himself trying to sleep, with a rock for a pillow.

I once had a professor who is an Episcopal priest and he would talk about spirituality. He introduced us to an idea many spiritual writers have had about what they called “thin places”. “Thin places” are those places where what separates us from God feels so thin that we easily feel God’s presence surrounding us. We all have different places where that happens. For me it can be walking on a beach and watching the waves, for others it can be on a mountaintop, for others it’s something else entirely. All that matters is that in those places you feel close to God.

But in the particular class where the professor was teaching this, a friend of mine raised her hand. She had lost her best friend a year or so before, suddenly and violently. And now she struggled to know where God was in all of this. Most days God felt so very far away. And so she asked the professor, “Is there such a thing as “thick places”? Is there such as thing as being in a place where, no matter who you do, God feels so far away?”

I think there is. And you may have been there too. Maybe you’ve been in a place where no matter what you do, God just doesn’t feel present. Maybe you’ve been out in the wilderness of life, or on rough waters, and you’ve wondered why you just couldn’t feel God. And maybe you’ve looked around and thought “God’s not here…how could God be in a place like this.”

I think that night, laying his head down on a rock, Jacob knew what it was like to be in that kind of thick place. But it’s there, with that rock for a pillow, that he dreams a dream that changes everything.

Jacob dreams that there is a ladder set on the earth and rising all the way up to heaven. And angels are going up and down that ladder, getting closer to God and farther away. And the voice of God calls out to Jacob and “not only are you going to be okay, but your children are going to be okay, and their children are going to be okay, and generation on down too.” And God tells Jacob, “I’m with you. I’m with you and I’ll take care of you wherever you go and bring you back here…and I will not leave you.”

And in that moment, that thick place became a very thin one. And Jacob says, “surely God is in this place…and I didn’t know it.”

At the beginning I was telling you the story of the pastor and the Klan leader who didn’t like him very much. One night, very late, the young preacher got a call at home. And it was the Klansman. And he asked the pastor to come out and meet him. And the place he told him to come was this rough roadside bar in the south Georgia countryside. And as the preacher drove out there in the middle of the night to meet a man he knew did not like him much, he thought to himself, “well, this is where it ends”.

But when he got there he found the man sitting at a table, looking not angry or vengeful, but instead broken. And he sat down and listened as the man told him he knew that he had to change, and he knew that his life had gone the wrong way. And then he said, “Pastor, would you pray for me?”

The young preacher said “of course” thinking he was saying, “just keep me in your prayers”. But then it became clear the man meant now. And he looked around at that bar, at the people drinking and fighting and passed out, and said, “Wait…you mean here?”

And the man replied, “Pastor, don’t you believe in God?”

For all the ways the man had been wrong in his life, he was right about one thing. And that is that God shows up in the most unexpected places. God was present in that roadside dive, ready to hear prayers for a broken man. And God was out there in the desert with Jacob. And God is in all the thick places of our lives.

God is here today in this church, but that’s probably easy to believe. The steeple, the surroundings, the music. We might be temped to believe God lives here. But God is also with you when you go back home. God is with even in the most unlikely places of your life, and God is giving you a promise of new life even in your lowest moments. And that has always been true. And sometimes it’s just a matter of having the eyes to see it.

So here’s my question for you: Where has God shown up where you have least expected it? When have you been in a thick place in your life, and yet God has somehow worked to turn it into something new. Something good and full of grace? I have those places, and I know that in the midst of them I wondered where God was. And yet, looking back I now see how God could use even the hardest of situations to create something new. Something better.

When Jacob woke from his dream knowing that God was there, he did something that may seem odd. He poured oil over the stone he had slept on and he consecrated it. He took the hard and painful thing and he blessed it. And he called it “the gate of heaven” and “Beth El” which means literally, “the House of God”.

Jacob was right about something and wrong about something.

That place, it was holy ground. Maybe it was even a gate of heaven. But it was not the only one. Because the gates of heaven are all around us every day. And the house of God is not just one spot in the wilderness. It’s every space where God can break through to us. And that means, the house of God is everywhere.

When Jacob left that place, you might think things went well from there on out. That he had this amazing encounter with God and God reassured him everything was going to be okay and from that point on his whole life was a thin place.

But that’s not the way it worked. Because after he left Jacob would, literally, wrestle with God. He would watch his sons feud. He would live in exile. It almost sounds like God was pulling Jacob’s leg when God said he would be blessed.

But if you think about that dream, I think God was telling Jacob that his life would be blessed, but that it wouldn’t always be easy. Because the angels in the dream weren’t just going up that ladder to God. They were also going down. They kept going back and forth. Some rabbis have even said that the ladder symbolizes the ups and downs of the life God knew Jacob would lead, and that God knew Jacob’s descendants would lead.

And yet, even knowing that truth, the promise remains. Or maybe because of that truth, the promise remains. Even when that thin place starts to feel thick. Even when uncertainty clouds what once seemed obvious. Even when you are led further into the wilderness, instead of out of it, it just may be that you are still standing at the gates of heaven.

Jacob never knew God was in that place. Until he did.

And that young preacher in south Georgia never knew God was in that roadhouse. Until he did.

And that man who had led such a broken life never knew God was in the people that he had hated for so long. Until one day, he did. And the truth drove him to his knees. And then it drove him to the light that only comes from the gates of heaven.

Surely God was in those places. And God is in this place too. And God is in all of us. And as we start this journey together, climbing higher to the thin places sometimes, slipping lower to the thick, God is opening those gates of heaven, and welcoming us home. Amen.

Emmaus Hearts: Sermon for May 5, 2014

I’ve been behind on posting sermons for the last couple of months as I’ve been preparing to move. But, here’s one from Sunday, May 5th, when we explored the Emmaus text. It also happened to be the sermon I preached before the vote to call me as the new pastor of The Congregational Church in Exeter and it contains some of the journey to this new call:

Luke 24:13-35
24:13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,

24:14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

24:15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,

24:16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

24:17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.

24:18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

24:19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,

24:20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.

24:21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.

24:22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,

24:23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.

24:24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

24:25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!

24:26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.

24:29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

24:30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

24:31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

24:32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

24:33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

24:34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

24:35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

When I was in college I had a really close friend who I spent a lot of time with. We played rugby together, we were in some of the same clubs together, and we would hung out in the same group of friends. She was someone I thought I would have recognized anywhere.

After college we went off in different directions. She went off to law school in Washington, DC, and I stayed in Atlanta and went to seminary. And, we were both so busy that somehow we lost touch. And a few years later I was visiting Washington, and I was on the Metro, and I was wondering how she was doing and trying to figure out how I could reach her to let her know I was in town.

And as I was thinking about it all we pulled into the Metro station I stepped off the train, and headed up the platform in one direction. And I walked past this woman in the crowd going the other direction, and I looked right at her, even made eye contact. But I just kept going. And I got about ten steps past her when it clicked. We turned back around at the same time. And, of course, there was my good friend standing right there in front of me.

I was thinking about that story in relation to this week’s lectionary reading. Because here we have another story of missing what’s right in front of you. The disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus talking about Jesus, and you have to remember that we are still in the season of Easter and this story takes place on that first Easter Sunday. They haven’t seen the resurrected Christ yet, and really everything at this point is just rumors. They have heard the women went to Jesus tomb and found it empty, but they don’t have any idea what that means yet.

And so when a third person joins them and starts walking down the road with them, he asks “what are you talking about”? And they say, “are you the only person who hasn’t heard about this?” They tell him about Jesus, and how they had pinned all their hopes on him only to see him arrested, and dead and buried. And they tell him how some of the women had found the empty tomb and how the angel had told them that he was alive, but how there was no confirmation yet.

And when they are done telling the man this, he begins to teach them. As they keep walking he talks about Moses and the prophets and Messiah. And when they get to Emmaus the man starts to walk off, and the disciples beg him to stay for dinner and eat with them. And it is only when they get to the table, and only when the stranger takes the bread and breaks it, that Scripture tells us their eyes were opened and they realized that they had been in Christ’s presence the entire time.

I like this story because it makes me feel better to know that there are others who miss the obvious sometimes. Because, I like to think I’m perceptive, but I nearly missed that reunion with my friend in Washington, even though I looked right at her. And my guess is that the two disciples who were walking down the road in this story were no slouches either. They knew Jesus. They probably thought they would have recognized him anywhere. And yet, their eyes may as well have been closed. They were looking right at him, but it took them a while to really see Jesus.

I think this happens more that we like to admit. We think we see what’s right in front of us, but our vision is a little off. We think we know exactly who God is, and what God expects from us, but it takes a little extra nudge for us to really get it. And, we think we would know if God was walking with us on our journey, but sometimes we just don’t see it.

That last part is sometimes the hardest. Because the reality is that we are all on a journey. None of us, no matter how much we want to, gets to stay in one place forever. New things happen, unexpected things happen, hard things happen. The disciples walking that road knew about that. Their lives had been turned upside down, and they didn’t know what was going to happen next. They were afraid, and anxious, and they weren’t sure whether they could let themselves be hopeful. And so when Jesus joined them on the road, they couldn’t, or maybe they wouldn’t, see what was right in front of them.

This story reminds us that a large part of the Christian life is learning to see where Jesus is, and what he is calling us to do. And part of that is learning to see the world in new ways, and sometimes in ways that we would

There’s a story of a man who was blind and who decided to sail across the ocean. And he was interviewed by a news program by a pundit who believed he was foolish and that he was so limited by his abilities that he didn’t even understand what he was doing. And the sailor replied to him, “you are a lot more blind than I, because you cannot see” what is possible.

I think about the times in my life when I have been blind to the possibilities. And I think about the times on my journey when Christ has chosen to open my eyes, and when I have finally seen. We Christians call ourselves “Easter people”. Because unlike these disciples walking down the road, we know how the story ends. We know Christ is risen.

But that day, on that first Easter, those disciples became Easter people too. And I believe that that day, they finally had Easter eyes. They finally were given the gift of being able to see the resurrected Christ, and it changed everything.

After Jesus reveals himself they say to one another “weren’t our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us”? They finally recognize what they’ve been guided to all along, and they finally have the vision that only Easter eyes can give to them.

Now, you may be saying “when did I ever physically walk with Jesus, and see him face to face”? The disciples at least got the chance to see him. Why don’t I ever get that? And you’re right, I’ve never found myself sitting down to dinner with Jesus there in the flesh right across the table from me. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been there. They key is trusting the burning in your heart, and having the eyes to see it.

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

That’s a little like what the search process was like that brought me here today. Your search committee and I were walking on a journey together for months. We were getting to know one another, and we were opening our hearts up to new possibilities. We were discerning, and learning to see each other. And in the end, we all had this sense of call, this sense of burning in our hearts, that God was calling us to this place today. Now, I’m not saying that the search committee is Jesus, and Lord knows, literally, that I’m not. But I am saying that I truly believe Jesus was there with us on that road, opening our hearts up to one another, and opening our eyes up to the possibilities.

And I believe God does that every day, in a hundred different ways, for all of us. I believe we see through Easter eyes, because we as followers of Christ, we as believers in the Resurrection, are people who believe that the impossible happens.

And we are people who keep looking, and who keep meeting others on the journey, and who keep helping others to open their eyes to those possibilities too.

I’ll close with this. There was a story about a few years ago. you may have heard it. The Washington Post reported on a violinist who played in a Metro station in DC. He played for 45 straight minutes. Only six people stopped. He made about $32 and packed up and went home

The violinist’s name is Joshua Bell. He’s one of the most renowned classical musicians alive. Seats for most of his shows average $100. And he was playing one of the most complicated pieces ever.
And yet no one realized. Because no one was looking for it, and no one was ready to believe that an extraordinary musician would just come and play in the Metro station. And so he became just another guy trying to make a little money playing in the subway.
What if the kingdom of God is already surrounding us, and we just have to have eyes to see it? I believe it is. I believe the kingdom of God exists in many places in this world, and I believe Exeter is one of them. And I believe Jesus is giving us the vision to know how to serve this place, and love our neighbors and our world. And I believe Jesus is already with us on this journey, and has been for many years. And I believe that we will never walk alone. Amen.