Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wishin' and Hopin'

Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Though we haven’t hung the greens in the church yet and we’re all still digesting our Thanksgiving feast, our church calendar has kept rolling along, a new year has begun and the season of Advent has arrived! We will have 25 days to prepare for the coming of Christ—25 days to remember past celebrations and 25 days to make new memories to share for years to come. 25 days to enjoy our favorite aspects of the Advent and Christmas seasons—things we will enjoy sharing with our family and our friends.

We all have favorite parts of Advent and Christmas—and but we also all have least favorite aspects. Maybe it’s the commercial nature Christmas seems to have taken in our culture or maybe it’s the fruitcake that gets passed around your friend circle and never gets eaten.

If you’re a kid – I can probably guess what your least favorite part of Advent and Christmas is: waiting. Waiting for school to get out, waiting for your family to arrive or for your plane to take off, and worst of all—waiting to open your presents. I can still remember lying in bed early Christmas morning wondering: Is it time yet? Has Santa come? Can I get up now and open presents or is it only 2am? When will Mom and Dad be awake?

There’s almost nothing worse... Except for one thing: waiting with all that anticipation and then being disappointed when what you’ve been waiting for doesn’t meet your expectations. Perhaps you were hoping for the new Wii game and got a tube of socks instead; or maybe you got what you wanted and then found out it wasn’t as great as you had been led to believe.

However, wherever, whyever – wishing, hoping, and then waiting and waiting and waiting for something... and then that something doesn’t happen like you expected or even at all—this is tough situation to swallow and is often followed by emotions like regret, anger, frustration.

This particular period of disappointment and frustration is where we find the Israelites the prophet speaks to in our Isaiah passage this morning. This passage is taken from what’s known as Third Isaiah. First Isaiah—where we get those lovely passages like a tree shall shoot up from the stump of Jessie—proclaims the future fall of the people and was written around the 8th century B.C.E. Second Isaiah—which begins with the beautiful passage of hope—comfort, comfort ye my people—was written during the fall—during the Babylonian exile. Within this time and in this section of the book of Isaiah, we have bright hopes for a new day, a new creation, a new exodus! Yes—the people messed up as and as the prophet of First Isaiah warned, their nation fell. But—have hope! For God will deliver those in bondage and all will be glorious!

A bright new dawn and new creation was what the people wished for, hoped for, waited for. And then it happened—Babylon fell and the people were brought back from exile. And this new day was all they had hoped for—right?

Well, no, it wasn’t. During the time of the passages of Third Isaiah, several decades after the fall of Babylon and the return from exile, things are actually dark in Jerusalem. The people aren’t as righteous or religious as the prophet would hope for such a recently delivered people. Worship and morale aren’t all that high. Everything should be great—they’re back in their land, the temple is being rebuilt, and they have the freedom to worship as they wish. Everything should be great, but it’s not and the prophet is experiencing some serious disappointment and frustration.

So the prophet raises his voice and shouts aloud:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

Come on – God – show your awesome presence so the people will get it and all will be as it should be!

While we haven’t been a people in exile nor have we experienced the destruction of our temple and way of worship—we know something about waiting with anticipation too. Every Advent we spend weeks doing just that—waiting. Waiting for our favorite Christmas carols to finally be played at church, waiting for the candle-light Christmas Eve service to make us feel as though Christ’s light truly does shine, waiting for the day we celebrate that Christ who is Lord is born!

We observe waiting most profoundly and profusely during the season of Advent, but it’s not the only time we wait. Every single day we wait. We wait for our prayers to be answered, we wait for the kingdom to come, we wait for Christ to return. We wait and we wait and we wait. And nothing seems to happen. Christ hasn’t returned and when we look around the world, the kingdom doesn’t seem to be reigning.

Do you ever look around and wonder—is this what I’ve been wishing, hoping, and waiting for? It can’t be, can it? It isn’t what I thought my life, the church’s life, the community’s life would be. This isn’t the reflection of the kingdom.

It isn’t the kingdom—it’s disappointment. Things aren’t how we hoped they would be. We know that as a community just as we know it as individuals. And just as the prophet of Third Isaiah did, we turn to God. Christ come in glory! May you tear open the heavens and come down! May the corporations tremble at your presence; make your name known among the nations that think they are God and not you. Come on, God—show us all why you are God and we are not!

So we pray, we turn to God, and we wait.... and we keep waiting. But we don’t wait passively. Not the church, the body of Christ. Oh, it may be tempting to just sit and wait. It may seem easier to turn to God with the prayers of our hearts and voices and then just sit and wait for God to do something. Even the prophet of Third Isaiah does something like this. He notes that the people—this sinful people who don’t act as they should, who haven’t realized the beauty of God’s new creation—are really just reacting to God’s actions. God hid the divine face—and so the people sinned. God got angry—and so the people transgressed. All people are just the work of God’s hands—what power do they have over their own actions? The beautiful passage about us being the clay and God the potter is—in its original context—a bit manipulative. God, you’re the one who formed us, and everything we are comes from you, so if we sinned, then you do something about it. You reform us.

There certainly is some truth to that understanding. We are God’s creation and we do react to God’s action in our lives. God does form and reform us. But we aren’t passive in this at all. We do have responsibility for our actions. The prophet calls out for God’s help and lays everything on God’s shoulders. Another prophet and apostle years later wrote a letter to a community that was not living as this follower of God thought they should. In the letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul looks and says – we need God’s help and God HAS helped us out. God is faithful and has reformed you—in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, through the power of the Spirit of God, we have all we need to turn away from sin, all we need as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The prophet may have cried out to God for a show of power and then waited and waited, but not us, not the body of Christ. We wish, we hope, we wait, and we prepare. There’s a great magnet you can purchase at Celebrate (one that someone gave me for my fridge) that says: Jesus is coming – look busy. Jesus is coming—and we need to be busy, not just look busy. We need to be busy preparing for the kingdom, working with God to usher it in. We need to labor for the kingdom, seek it in our daily living.

When we look around and think, this isn’t how I hoped things would be, this isn’t what I thought my life, the church’s life, the community’s life would be, we raise our prayer to God and then we seek to be the vessels God uses to answer prayer. We collect canned goods for the food pantry, we take on a concern of social justice by writing letters or participating in peaceful demonstrations, we forgive that person who doesn’t seem to even want to be forgiven for the way he or she has treated us. We seek justice and right relationship with neighbor, self, and God.

We seek God’s kingdom in our lives – find ways to interact with one another, ways to learn to accept ourselves. We seek to change systems and situations that are not of God or for God. We know that with God’s help we may indeed proclaim the gospel, we may shelter and nurture the children of God, we may promote justice and righteousness. We can exhibit the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

We are all the work of God’s hands—and with the power of the Holy Spirit, the hope found in Jesus Christ—we can also be God’s hands, feet, and heart to the world. There’s much work to do and we have been gifted to do it. No time to wait. Amen.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I have said it before and I'll say it again - this church is my family. I love all my wonderful brothers and sisters, love being with you in the good times and the hard, working with you for God's kingdom. I have been so excited about the upcoming 50th anniversary - I'm a sucker for big anniversaries like that, the history and the future they represent. I've been looking forward to meeting all these people I've heard about over my time here, those that will be coming back for the celebration.

And then a wrench got thrown in all those plans. My sister - the opera singer - is graduating from San Fransisco Conservatory this year which means her big recital is in the spring. This recital as best as I understand it is something akin to my ordination - the big moment that is the culmination of all your effort over the years. And this recital is the evening before the church's anniversary Sunday.

Two places I want to be, two events I want to celebrate, and not even a red-eye flight option to help me be at both. It pains me that I can't be at both and I've been trying to think of some solution that will allow me to do the impossible - be two places at once. After speaking with several members, all my co-workers, and the family, I know what I'm going to do. I'll be in California, celebrating with my baby sister, and missing all of you. It's easy to say family comes first, but so hard when both events I want to be at involve my family. But, as one of the members of the 50th Anniversary Team said - the church will still be here, going strong and serving God; Beth's event is truly once in a lifetime.

Come April I'm sure I'll be even more sadden by the unfortunate timing of everything but I'm pretty bummed right now. Still, I know that we'll be celebrating more than just one day and while I'll miss the big Sunday, I won't miss the 50th year nor the years to come. That's a comfort and a blessing. And maybe, just maybe, someone will save me some cake! :)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The End Is Near

As I’m typing these words I am profoundly aware that when you read these words something big will have happened in our world: the next president of this nation will have been elected. After months and months (and months) of ads, hype, polls, debates, rallies, signs, and more, all the pre-election events and talk will be over and we’ll be on our way to a new era for our nation. What will that look like? I don’t think anyone really knows but I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot about the inauguration, the first 100 days, and then mid-term elections... and then reelection. While I know many of us are looking forward to Nov 4th and the end of this long election season it represents, I’m also reminded that all the news and hype are never really over.

Along with an election, this week is bringing another big event: Youth Sunday. This Sunday at both services, our Senior High Youth will lead us in worship. The scripture they have been working with is one many of us are familiar with – Amos 5:18-24. They have spent the last two months talking about this passage, about how we often live in worldly ways instead of Godly ones, and what we can do to live more as God would have us live.

Worldly ways verses Godly ways seems to be an appropriate theme right now. No matter who has won the election there will be those who are ecstatic and those who are crushed. It would be very easy to find yourself gloating or griping, continuing the “us versus them” mentality of an election season. But that would be the worldly way. Instead of continuing to focus on division, we—Democrats, Republicans, Independents—should join together for the good of our community and country. We can continue to serve those in need, offer compassion to those who suffer, and listen for where and how God is calling us to help and heal our world. What’s more, and perhaps for some of us what may be harder, we can pray for our next president. No matter our politics, we can all ask God’s guidance, wisdom, courage, and strength for the person we have elected as president.

Monday, October 27, 2008

new ways

As some of you know, I've been working on a book for the past several months. A good friend of mine and I are combining our brilliance to produce a book on spiritual practices for young adults. It has been so much fun developing this book - she lets me do all the academic research! Yeah, I realize the fact that my excitement over that makes me a dork. I'm cool with that.

What I've really loved, though, is practicing the practices. We can't very well write intelligently on these things we're suggesting to others unless we do them ourselves, so each week we take on a new chapter's worth of material. I thought I was a pretty well-rounded practicing person, but there are some new things I'm adding to my spiritual repatoire.

I love drawing a text. Reading scripture and picking a verse that stands out and then writing the words while doodling (way better than taking notes in school, I promise). Really helps me stop, reflect, consider and live in each word and explore - with doodle - what that word, verse, moment means to me.

I also love considering sleep and even dreams a spiritual practice. We all know I enjoy my sleep, but I never really thought about considering sleep as a way to connect with God.

They say that when you teach something, you really learn the material. Well, I'd say the same for writing a book about something! Very enriching.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

One Bread, One Body

Texts: Exodus 20:1-20, Ephesians 4:4-5

If you have ever been to a Passover meal, you may have heard this prayer: “Baruch atah, Adonai, eloheynu melech ha’olam, kidshanu b’mitzvotav.”

“Blessed are you, Adoni our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy with your commandments.”

This joyful festival of remembrance begins with prayers thanking God who has given the people commandments and that may not be familiar prayer to us. Perhaps some of you do, but I know I rarely – if ever – give thanks to God for these rules to live by. Giving thanks for boundaries and structure by which we live probably isn’t all that common in any of our relationships – let alone our relationship with God. Parents, do your children often thank you for telling them they can’t stay out past 11 or that they have to do their homework before they can play? Doctors, do your patients thank you when you tell them they can no longer eat their favorite foods, even if it will help save their lives? Yes, these rules are good for us, but it’s not just toddlers who don’t like to be told “no.”

If we think of the 10 commandments as just rules, blessing God who makes us holy with them may never roll off our tongues with authenticity. But the 10 commandments are not just about the rules – what to do and what not to do. They are more than the laws we must follow lest we be tried in God’s court.

To have a fuller appreciation of these commandments, it’s important to remind ourselves when these commandments were given. The people of Israel have just escaped slavery in Egypt. They have fled the land of oppression and are now in unfamiliar territory, wondering where they are fleeing to. Things are chaotic—they’ve already had a clash with some of the locals—and in the midst of uncertainty, the people who God as called out from the land of death are already looking back at this land with nostalgia. Sure, they were slaves and things were rough, but at least they knew their role and knew where they belonged.

In response to this uncertainty, God offers these commandments. The commandments begin with where all things begin – God. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” The first commandment and all the following do more than just provide a good way of living, they orient these directionless people – ordering the people away from things of death to the things of life and the Lord of life. Instead of saying “I am the Lord your God, the Creator of the Universe, the Beginning and the End,” God is much more personal, reminding the people what God has done for them.

The ten commandments make the people holy—as the Passover prayer says—in that they connect the people to the Holy One. Kathleen Norris suggests that these commandments help us find our way home. In the wilderness, in the uncertainty and the unknown, the people have a home, a way of relating with one another, a purpose – all bound up in their relationship with God which these commandments solidify.

Wherever the people would go, their commandments would go with them – literally and figuratively. The stone tablets Moses held were placed in the ark of the covenant – the place the people understood God to be. This ark, the God it represented and the tablets it contained, went everywhere – into battle, into their new land, into the new kingdom. This community was called to a new life by God and bound together in God.

We no longer have the ark, no longer have the stone tablets Moses held, but we still have the ten commandments – and we still have the relationship with God and with one another that these commandments helped to form. Certain Christian traditions would recite the Decalogue in worship every Sunday. We may not celebrate these commandments with our worship each week, but we do honor the relationship with God and one another they represent. And we have our own markers and makers of community we celebrate in our worship.

Together we gather in prayer, in word, song, and silence. Together we confess our sins, together we listen to God’s word and for God’s word, together we go out filled with the Spirit longing to serve the Lord. Together too we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

The first Lord’s Supper was Jesus’ Last Supper – the Passover meal. As Jesus gathered with his community, thanking God for the laws, remembering what God has done, and celebrating God’s work in the life of the people, he was creating a new feast of remembrance and celebration, a new way to form and observe community.

As the people of Israel were reminded when they were wandering in the wilderness, in God we all have a home. In God we have a family. God is the source of our unity. And we are called to this table to be one people. As one, we celebrate the life of our one Lord. At this table we are filled with the one Spirit and sent to live into our calling together.

No matter where you are, if you go to another church or another country, you can find home here at the table. All are welcome to share in the bread and drink from the cup. All are encouraged to find sustenance in this gathering and in our God. How wonderful to know that even when you’re in an unfamiliar town, even if you don’t know the people sitting next to you in the pew, you are at home in God.

Diana Butler Bass shares this story in her book Christanity for the Rest of Us: On the first Sunday his congregation was worshipping in their new sanctuary Jesus Reyes, minister at Iglesia Santa Maria in Falls Church, preached a sermon welcoming people—many of whom are Spanish-speaking immigrants—home. “Think of the joy of going home to the house you grew up in,” he said, “with the smell of mother’s cooking in the kitchen, the tastes of food, the sounds of family. Here, like your mother’s table, the Lord’s table welcomes you home. Here we are an extended family in the Spirit through communion. You are members of God’s house.”

Butler Bass noted that several people in the congregation wiped tears away at those words. Many members of this congregation would never return home to their mother’s table or their mother country. “They must make a new home in God.”

All of us are members of God’s house – wherever we worship and in whatever language we worship in. At this table we have a home, because in God we have a home. Right now, with heartbreaking stories of families losing their homes, we all can appreciate how dear having a home – a spiritual place of comfort and shelter – truly is. With the uncertainty the chaos our economy is in creates, we can appreciate how important it is to find rest and renewal in the grace of God.

Through the commandments, through the Word, through this meal we call the Eucharist, we are nourished and nurtured. Through these gifts of God’s grace, we rest the temptations to turn against the laws and the community God gave us. We can say no to the idols of greed or pride, no to overworking ourselves, no to longing for things that are not authentic to who God has created us to be. We can say yes to one another, yes to the image of God within us, and yes to the God who calls us together.

In our gathering together for worship—particularly at the table—we honor God’s vision of one body partaking from this one bread. As we share our bread and the cup, we remember and celebrate that no matter the type of bread, the shape of the cup, the place of worship—when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are one in Christ. We are home in God.

Blessed is Adoni our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy with the commandments and brings us home to the table. Amen.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Never Is Enough

Texts: Exodus 16:2-15; Matthew 20:1-16

A lovely Methodist woman after a great and long life died and went up to heaven. Outside the pearly gates, St. Peter met with her, greeted her warmly, and gave her welcoming instructions. “You’ll be staying at the 4th house on the right. We hope you have a pleasant stay,” he said, “and, oh, please be very quiet as you pass the second house on the left.” The woman smiled and headed toward her new home, being careful to be follow St. Peter’s instructions.

Not long after the Methodist woman left, a Catholic man arrived at the gates. St. Peter greeted him with a smile and told him where he’d be staying – the 177th house on the left. He also gave this man the same instructions as he had given the Methodist woman – be very quiet as you pass the second house on the left.”

Not long after the Catholic man had made his way to his new house, a Pentecostal man arrived for instructions. After being told where to go and to be quiet when walking past that particular house, the Pentecostal paused and gave St. Peter a curious look.

“Now, I know you’re the Rock and everything, and you’ve been doing this forever, but I don’t quite get it. What’s with that house? Shouldn’t we be laughing and singing and praising God everywhere in heaven? Who’s there?”

St. Peter sighed—those Pentecostals always had to ask. “That house happens to be where we keep the Presbyterians and you have to be quiet because they think they’re the only ones up here.”

Now perhaps you’ve heard that one before; it’s an old joke that still has something to say about our understanding of how this salvation thing works. We Presbyterians are known by others for our doctrine of predestination – even if we Presbyterians don’t talk about it much anymore. While we may jokingly refer to ourselves as the “Frozen Chosen,” we usually focus on the frozen—not the chosen—part. Being chosen, being one of the elect, being saved by the grace of God and that grace only, is not something we go on and on about.

Perhaps because we don’t talk about it, this doctrine often gets confused with the concept of predetermination or fate; the idea that things that happen in your daily life were meant to happen by some higher power. Ever hear someone jokingly—or not so jokingly—say “You were predestined to get that job, to miss that bus, to make friends with that person.”? People hear “predestination” and think you mean that the trivial and momentous events in our life are planned out by God from the beginning of time and we but follow this plan.

But that’s not what predestination is about. This doctrine—in it’s true form—does not deny free will like this common misunderstanding would suggest; when we talk about predestination, we aren’t talking about jobs or friends or what you chose to eat for breakfast this morning: the only thing we’re talking about is salvation.

Predestination is the understanding that the God who is sovereign has chosen out of love to redeem human beings, to “save” them. God chooses and we respond. God is the first and foremost actor, not us. If we are able to love God and choose to live for God, it is because God first loved and chose us.

While predestination is suppose to be good news, suppose to help those of us who have come to love God be assured about our everlasting destiny, it doesn’t always reach a favorable audience. Even though this way of thinking about is more palatable to our free will loving selves than the predetermination, it still often rubs us the wrong way—which is perhaps why we don’t talk about it all that much. What if God doesn’t choose to love someone, to save someone? Does that mean nothing they can do or believe will help them?

Different people have responded to this question in different ways over the years. Some folks have been comfortable saying that yes, God in God’s wisdom for God’s glory has chosen some to be saved and some not. Others have said that no, in fact God has chosen all to be saved and none to be left behind. Still, others have said that God has set it so that all who come to know Jesus as Lord will be saved—and that is how God chooses to save.

Each of these understandings of predestination has strengths and weaknesses and while we could discuss and debate the merits of each, let us instead focus on what they have in common. Each interpretation of predestination begins and ends with the one who is the Alpha and Omega. God—as revealed in the person of Christ Jesus—is the beginning of our salvation. God is the first actor, the originator, the chooser

As my seminary classmate Patrick Marshall says, when we talk about predestination we shouldn’t be focused on “who is saved and who is not.” That’s not what predestination is about. It’s about “who does the saving.”

While our focus should be on God, we often instead focus on who’s in and who’s out. We’re a bit like the field workers in Matthew’s parable. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who calls workers at different times of the day to come and work in the fields. At the end of the day, all those who worked receive the same wage—the going rate for a day’s worth of work. Those who worked a full day complain about this treatment—whine that even though they received the wage they had agreed to, it’s unfair. But in this parable—in the kingdom of heaven—you aren’t doled out your wage or grace based on how many hours you put in. The parable of the generous landowner reminds us that it is not what we do that earns God’s grace—what we do never is enough for to “earn” the love of the creator of the cosmos.

The parable also reminds us not to try and limit God as the first workers try to limit the landowner. When the landowner gives all workers the same wage, they are most upset. Perhaps they, like the Israelites in the wilderness, are not sure they will be provided for. That if the landowner gives so much today, tomorrow he won’t be able to call anyone to work for him. Perhaps they think there really never is enough to go around and so they need to make sure they get as much as possible before the money, the manna, the grace is all gone.

Whatever the reason, the field workers are chastised for trying to limit the generosity of the landowner. We too would be chastised for trying to limit the grace of God. Cannot the landowner give what the landowner chooses to give to those to whom he chooses to give? Cannot God choose who to grace? Isn’t that God’s business? Why should we worry if God is generous? If God chooses to grace those who come to God on their deathbeds after a lifetime of depravity, who are we to complain? If God should choose to save those who live well but never call Christ Lord, who are we to question God’s grace? If God should choose to work beyond our understanding, to shake up the world we think we know so that the first shall be last and the last first, who are we to doubt God’s wisdom?

Calvin, the theologian to whom we Presbyterians owe much of our heritage, said that this doctrine of predestination meant we shouldn’t worry. We shouldn’t worry if we’d done enough, or loved God enough, or confessed Christ enough, to be saved. Our salvation is God’s business, under God’s care, and we should not worry for the God who is our judge is the same God who came so that the world might be saved, the same God who died on the cross for our sins.

We should not worry, brothers and sisters, that there may not be enough grace to go around. We should not worry about our eternal fate. We should live, honor, glorify God not to earn some sort of spot in the heavenly kingdom, but to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth out of thanksgiving to God.

Just as we should not worry about our salvation, we must not worry about whether or not other people are saved, sit around judging them. That is God’s business. It certainly doesn’t mean we keep quiet about the Good News – we’re chosen not for our own sake’s but to live as witnesses to God’s saving power. We proclaim with great fervor that Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord at the same time that we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of God. “Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.”

Grace belongs to God, not to us: this is what we mean when we talk about predestination—this is wonderful, not worrisome news. This is news that brings us hope, hope for you, hope for me, hope for all. For the God who hands out our wages at the end of the day is the same God who asks “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Let us not be envious, brothers and sisters, but let us rejoice that we serve and love a generous God. Amen.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Kings and Queens of the Bible: Jesus

Texts: I Samuel 8:10-22a; John 18:33-37

Signs are up in yards, ads are airing, and it’s not just the Girl Scouts going door to door trying to sell you something. Election season is upon us.

While it may have seemed like we’ve been about to have an election the last year and a half or so, now is truly the time for you to go out and register to vote – if you haven’t already – and to spend some quality time educating yourself on the issues and where each candidate stands.

You can pretty much guarantee not another day will pass without someone talking to you about November 4th. Our two candidates will be spending the next sixty or so days explaining to us why he is the answer to our problems, why he is the strong and wise leader we want to follow, why he deserves our backing, our allegiance, and our vote.

We have spent the summer learning about and learning from kings and queens of the bible. While these kings and queens and their stories can’t tell us who to vote for, they certainly can and do whisper to us wisdom and guidance we can take not just to the polls – but to every moment and every decision we encounter.

The royalty we have came from various backgrounds and had different paths to follow and fates to meet, but it is a truth universally acknowledged (in our biblical text, at least) that the kings and queens are most successful when they place God first and foremost. When God’s word, God’s glory, God’s kingdom are the epicenter of will and work, leaders are more likely to see peace, justice, and righteousness.

How fitting it is, then, that the last king in our series is the king of kings, the lord of lords, the alpha and the omega.

Jesus is unlike any of the kings and queens we have heard about thus far; he is unlike any king or queen we will ever hear about. When we say Jesus is king, we know – unlike poor Pilate – that we aren’t talking about someone who sits on a literal throne, or someone who delicately waves to devoted subjects from a balcony, or even someone who is concerned about the welfare and power of one particular nation. We know that when we use this human construct to explain the divine, some things will be clearer than others.

What is clear about Christ as king is that Christ is what we all would want for our earthly leader – and the opposite of what Samuel tells the Israelites that they are in for if they get themselves a king. While Samuel’s king will think only of his own power, his own needs, Christ as king looks to his glory and our good. While Samuel’s king takes your sons and daughters that he wants, Christ as king calls us to him, calls us to be his people rather than forcibly enlist us. While Samuel’s king tried to build up the kingdom in order that all may remember his name across the ages, Christ as king points not to himself, but to his kingdom.

When Pilate questions Jesus about being a king, Jesus does not speak about his power or his might – instead he speaks of his kingdom. “For this I was born,” Christ says “and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Christ’s kingdom is one where all listen to his truth and live that truth. Christ’s kingship is about making God known to the world in word and in deed.

Jesus makes it clear – his kingdom is not of this world – for God is not of this world. But as God is in this world, so too is Christ’s kingdom.

Jesus’ power and kingdom are not symbolized by thrones or scepters; he has no huge convention of jubilant followers shouting out his name as he is crowned our new heir apparent; he does not have the world power or influence one might expect of a man called king.

Jesus the king is the innocent man sentenced to the death penalty, left hanging on a cross on the outskirts of town. That is our king, our ruler, our Lord. The one who slowly suffocating to death, mourned by only a few of those who once shouted his name in praise.

To proclaim Jesus as king is to pledge allegiance above all else – all other gods, all other human leaders – to this man on a cross. To proclaim Jesus as king is to proclaim God in word and deed even if it leads you to your own cross of sorts.

Some of our kings and queens of the Bible understood this. Though they had worldly kingdoms to lead, and though many of them came before Christ, some of this kings and queens knew that they first and foremost had to proclaim God’s word and live as God’s truth directed. Though she may have never mentioned God, Esther understood this. Though he may have strayed a time or two, David understood this. Though he was younger than even our youngest leadership candidates, Josiah understood this.

You and I aren’t destined to be royalty, but we are called to be a part of Christ’s kingdom. We are called by Jesus the king to live for his glory and our good – to live as though his kingdom had come here and now.

Jesus’ kingdom is one in which we look out at the broken world and do not shrug and say, “well, that’s how it is.” We dare to risk to challenge the status quo, to shout aloud the promise of justice for all, to offer ourselves vulnerable for righteousness sake. We may not be powerful kings and queens, but in Christ’s truth, we can move mountains as the members of the kingdom have done the long years past.

We have examples of kings and queens of the Bible to inspire us, but we also have the lives of those saints across the ages have fought for Christ’s kingdom, have dared to believe.

Those saints of ages past have looked at the world and saw not what was, but what could be. They lived with an institutional prejudice against people of African decent, bore the wounds of small humiliations and the larger injustices inflicted upon God’s children because of the color of their skin. They witnessed and experienced the burdens of this false kingdom, and yet dreamed of another way of living. They rose up and spoke out and marched together in peace so that years later an African-American man might stand and accept a major party’s nomination for President.

Those saints saw women limited not by their abilities or their interests, but by their forced position in life. Those saints gathered petitions, rallied together, and even “acted up” so that women could have the right to vote, to own property, and the right to pursue whatever career they felt called to – from doctor to chemist to homemaker to entrepreneur to a vice-presidential nominee.

Those saints watched children dying from curable diseases, from the lack of safe water, and the absence of food and swore that such things need not be. They donated money, offered their talents as medical personal and agricultural experts, wrote their congress men and women, started groups like the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Bread for the World, and more. They dared to believe and they keep daring to hope that we can indeed feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, and clothe the naked.

Jesus tells Pilate that if he were a king like the ones the Roman had known before, his followers would fight to keep him here. But he is not. He is a king whose kingdom is like nothing Pilate has known, like nothing we might know apart from the grace of God. And as his followers, we do not fight to keep him physically in this world, but we do fight to bring his kingdom to this world. We are the saints today – with many wrongs to set right and many places where God’s light needs to shine. Through the Spirit of the Living God, we fight injustice, work hard, pray fervently, so that Christ’s kingdom of glory and good will be here, where we live and worship.

We have a momentous event coming up in our own nation. This election has gathered more interest and excitement and hope than any many of us have ever seen. Who our next president will be is a question we’ll be asking and debating until November 4th. While we may become passionate about one candidate or another, in one way, perhaps it does not matter who will win. For no matter who wins, we have a leader beyond polls and elections, beyond terms and human failings. We know where our true guidance lies, we know where our true hope and help comes from, and we know who is first and foremost in our hearts and minds. It is Jesus Christ, our rock, our shepherd, our king. Amen.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Scotland - in review

Wow! What a wonderful two weeks I had! So many of you have asked to see pictures and hear stories, so I thought it only appropriate to do a little of both here on my blog.

I truly had an amazing time, spending one week in Iona and another exploring Edinburgh and Glasgow. My traveling companions were dear friends Teri and Elsa, fabulous young clergy women who provided a lot of laughs and good conversation. While I can't afford to go back anytime soon (oy vey, the dollar is hurting!), I would go back in a heartbeat if I could!

Week One - Iona

The first week we spent on Iona at the Abbey. To get to the island you take a train from Glasgow, catch a ferry in Oban to Mull, drive across Mull in a chartered bus, and then catch a ferry from the other side of Mull to Iona. Quite a long way out! It's hard to believe that Christianity on the British Isles originated from this tiny, remote place.

In this picture you can see the Abbey on the right.

We arrived at the Abbey just in time for dinner! The food was stellar all week long (and they always had yummy veggie options for me, Teri, and the other vegetarians!). Staying at the Abbey that week were about 50 people - including 14 folks from the Twin Cities (I got to practise my Minnesotan accent) and a handful of people who had come for a blessing ceremony later that week. We made several lovely friends that week - including a future Presbyterian minister who's a senior at William and Mary!

During the week we ate together, bunked together, worshipped together, and did chores together. Yes, chores. Part of the Iona Abbey experience is creating intentional Christian community and scrubbing toilets or chopping vegetables is an intrinsic part of that process - or so they tried to tell us. :)

It was almost surreal living at the Abbey - how easily it felt like home, and how odd it was for these tourists to be coming and poking around our home during the day!

Here's a picture of me (the gal in the blue) outside the Abbey with some tourists!

One of my favorite experiences of the week was the pilgrimage we took on Tuesday. In the rain and fog (it was a typical Scottish day for our journey) we walked all around the island - about 7 miles - stopping at certain significant spots like the hill where legend says St. Columba communed with the angels and of course, the bay where St. Columba landed after fleeing from Ireland those many years ago. We prayed, sang songs, carried lobster traps (that one was not a planned part of the trip!), meditated on scripture, and more. It was cold and wet and wonderful.

Not everything on the island was holy, holy, holy. Teri, Elsa, and our new friend Ginna, and I indulged in cream tea and cards, danced traditional dances, and participated in a "guest concert" - at least I did. I was recruited by a darling man to be the princess in a comedic Greek tragedy.

Here's the cast in action!

It was ridiculous and fun and a great way to break down any sort of walls I might put up (I know, I'm not really a wall woman, but still) and make new friends.

While I loved the people and the Abbey, I think perhaps my favorite thing about Iona is the isle itself. The sights, the sounds, everything. It really does just get under your skin.

Week Two - Edinburgh and Glasgow

After a moving and marvelous week at Iona, Teri, Elsa and I headed off for the big city - quite a change. We stayed right off the Royal Mile and enjoyed all the touristy things to do. Of course, all the touristy things that clergy women might do!

When we went to the Castle one of our favorite things was a wedding taking place at St. Margaret's Chapel. We took a picture with the bagpiper and then - gasp - saw the Scottish minister complete with Geneva tabs! And lo and behold, we took a picture with him!

We ate fantastic food - and it's a good thing we walked several miles a day because all those pastries were dangerously good. One of the places we had breakfast we were amused to find advertised itself as the "birthplace" of Harry Potter. So of course, we had to take our picture. Now, I have to confess, I was the one who asked our photographer to take our picture, and I did it by asking this woman walking by if she had a few seconds... she looked very nervous and when I asked if she could take our picture, she relaxed, smiled, and said "I thought you were about to proselytize." Hee. I couldn't resist telling her, "no, but we three do happen to be clergy!" She had a good laugh too.

One day we went to St. Andrews, yes, golf mecca, but didn't hit the fairway. We say ruins of the castle and the cathedral.

This is me, guarding the castle!

The cathedral may be my favorite place outside of Iona. It's in ruins and truly beautiful, eerie, and inspiring.

In Glasgow we did much of the same in Edinburgh - food and walking around looking at the sites. Of course, looking at the sites often consisted of "oooh, that looks like a church. Let's go check it out." You can take the preacher out of church but not the church out of the preacher!

An amazing two weeks - filled to the brim with memories. I'm so blessed to have been able to go and thankful to have just as wonderful a place to come home to!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Off to Scotland!

This Friday will see me leaving on a jet plane for the homeland. For two weeks I will be traveling, studying, and playing (yes, maybe some golf) across Scotland with two good friends (who also happen to be Associate Pastors!). The first week of my trip is the one I am perhaps the most excited about. I will be staying at the Iona Abbey – a place George MacLeod (the founder of the Iona Community) described as “thin" – where only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual.

As I prepare to head off to this exciting place and experience, I want to share some of what I know about this place and this pilgrimage. Iona is a tiny and island off the west coast of Scotland and is considered the cradle of Christianity in Scotland. In 563AD the Irish monk Columba established a monastic settlement that evangelized large parts of Scotland and the north of England. Over the centuries, this “thin place” has attracted many spiritual pilgrims.

The Abbey is now under the care of Historic Scotland and the Iona Community – an international network who live by common Rule and share common interests – is the worshipful presence there. Year round workshops, pilgrimages, and retreat weeks are offered.

Some of you may be familiar with the Iona Abbey and Community because of the worship materials that come from there. We have sung songs and prayed prayers published by Wild Goose Publications, the Community’s publishing company. Part of why I am so excited about this experience is due to the opportunity to be where such beautiful worship materials have been inspired.

As I travel to this beautiful place, our church family will be much on my mind and I hope I will be on yours. I do not know what this week at the Abbey will hold for me, but I do know whatever I glean from this “thin place,” I will look forward greatly to sharing with my family in Christ.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

What Happened in The Place You May or May Not Know the Way To

This past week was quite an eventful one in the life of the church. Here at Covenant we had a successful VBS program with over 60 kids and tons of adult and teenaged volunteers. In San Jose, California, the 218th General Assembly met to discern God’s will for the church. The secular press has picked up on one of the issues discussed – the proposed removal of G-6.0106b (the “fidelity and chastity” amendment) and replace it with a new Amendment B, one which ties ordination decisions more closely to assent to the ordination vows currently in the church’s Book of Order without singling out a sexual conduct standard.

While that proposal will certainly be discussed, debated, and hopefully God’s will discerned in the coming weeks and months, the one hot topic issue the press picked up is certainly not the only thing that happened at G.A. Here are a few highlights. The Assembly:
• Along with the new moderator, Bruce Reyes-Chow, elected a new Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons (the previous associate stated clerk)
• Initiated a process to revise the Heidelberg Catechism (one of the confessions which is a part of our constitution) based on concerns about translation mistakes
• Received a report that the ‘Mission Initiative: Joining Hearts and Hands’ (an initiative to renew the church for mission) had raised over $33 million of the $40 million goal
• Rejected an overture (which originated from Shenandoah Presbytery) to create a fifth special offering to fund mission personnel
If you’re interested in learning more, check out the denomination’s website,

Just as we have been grateful for the hard work of those who made our own week at church a success, let us be thankful for the efforts, time, and faith offered by the commissioners and advisory delegates.


Monday, June 23, 2008


As I mentioned in worship yesterday, our General Assembly has elected a new moderator - Bruce Reyes-Chow. I for one am thrilled that he has been elected and I can't wait to see what the next two years bring.

If you're interested in learning more about him, in following his journey, you can! Check out his blog.

As the kids say, woot!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

an awesome amusement park adventure

This past Thursday 13 youth, 3 parents, and 1 me gathered at 7am in the church parking lot and headed over the mountain and kept going East until we arrived at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. We spent the whole day there, getting back to Staunton a little before 10pm. Quite a busy, crazy day.

And quite a wonderful day. I'm not one for riding the rides (my motion sickness really puts a damper on that) but I loved being around this great group of young people who were great with each other and with the old folks (that includes me) who were hangers on.

I've said before that the youth of our church inspire me and warm my heart and it's true. It's not just the big moments but little ones like those I experienced on Thursday. The kids laughing with each other, making sure no one gets left behind, even offering to carry bags for those adult-types.

Yes, the trip was long, yes, I got a little sunburn on my nose, and yes, I spent most of the day sitting, waiting for everyone else while they rode the rides. But you know, I wouldn't trade that day for much of anything.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kings and Queens of the Bible: Saul

Text: I Samuel 10:17-24, Romans 13:1-7

There have been some good ones; there have been some bad ones; there have been some downright ugly ones. The kings and queens who sprinkle our holy scriptures with stories of pomp and circumstance and brilliant moments which become the source for national pride are the same people who color the Bible with tales of betrayal, murder, adultery, and more. For almost five hundred years, Israel and then Israel and Judah when the one kingdom became two, was ruled by kings and queens who had some high points but also had quite a few low moments.

This summer John and I will explore with you some of the rich history and powerful personalities of royalty in the Bible. Today we begin a sermon series entitled “King and Queens of the Bible: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” This morning we start at the very beginning – which as I’ve heard tell is a very good place to start.

The first king who ruled over the kingdom of Israel was a man named Saul. Before Saul became king, Israel wasn’t so much a kingdom as it was a tribal confederacy (getting together for the occasional potluck or to fight off a new enemy). When the people needed a leader to fight battles or solve some problem, God would raise up a person called a judge. These judges came and went and no leadership roles were passed down by birth; all were chosen particularly by God.

This system seemed to work pretty well but something happened during the time of Samuel – the prophet, judge, and priest who had been dedicated to God at an early age by his mother Hannah. The people of Israel came up to Samuel and demanded a king. They looked around the nations around them, saw what they deemed security in the dynasty of a king, and wanted that. They wanted what these other nations had – a king to govern them, to fight for them. They coveted their neighbors’ government.

They coveted, and even though Samuel warned them – that a king would take their harvest, their property, and even their children, that they would cry out to God for relief from the bitterness the king would bring, that they really ought to be careful what they wish for – the people cried out for a king.

And God gave them one. Ready or not, here he comes.

The first king of Israel is a king appointed by God – yes – but a king who is the embodied symbol of the people’s rejection of God. Saul is king because God appointed him king and yet God sees Godself as rejected by the people through this appointment of a king. The people would rather have someone they can see sitting on a throne than this eternal, mysterious, all-knowing deity as their one unifying and constant leader. How do we understand this beginning? Are kings and queens true servants of God or are they the people God finds Godself stuck working with? The scriptures never give us a straight answer on these questions; they have us live in the tension.

The tension can be felt in Saul’s own call story. Before the story we read this morning, Saul has met Samuel. Saul had gone and lost his father’s donkeys. He searched high and he searched low, but could not find them. So, he had the bright idea to seek out a seer who could help him locate the precious livestock lest he feel the wrath of daddy. This seer was Samuel. Samuel had been told by the Lord that a man would come to him from the land of Benjamin and this man was the one Samuel would anoint as king. When Saul approached Samuel’s gate, the Lord made it clear that this man was the one. With just the two men—Saul who would be king and Samuel who never wanted to see a king over Israel—the prophet anointed the Benjaminite as ruler over the people Israel.

A noble enough beginning for the monarchy in Israel. Much more noble than the story we read. Much more noble than the future king of Israel hiding from his fate behind a bunch of luggage. When Samuel solidifies God’s choosing of Saul via the old-fashioned and very public method of lots, this future king, who stands head and shoulders above everyone else, is nowhere to be seen.

It’s almost as if God is saying, “You wanted a king, Israel? Well here he is – he looks very kingly, if you can get a look at him, if he’s not too busy hiding.”

The story of Saul’s rule continues to reflect the tension between understanding the monarchy as a good thing or a bad thing or even, perhaps, an ugly thing. Saul indeed does what the people wanted him to do. He fights their enemies and he is triumphant. This man who we met hiding behind baggage is brave enough to face down armies of his people’s enemies, risk life and limb for a newly founded kingdom.

But this man who shows his worth on the battlefield is perhaps a little too interested in his own worth. Twice Saul rejects the commandment of the Lord not out of lust or fear or doubt – but out of desire to solidify his own political glory.

At one point, right before a big battle, Saul uses the ritual of offering prayers and sacrifices to God not out of love for God, but out of concern that the people who were getting antsy for the proper priest—Samuel—to show up would slip away. Very politically savvy, this Saul, using important ritual and meaning to keep his constitutions interest. Very savvy but not very faithful.

The second offense of Saul’s was the one that sealed his unfortunate fate. Saul was told by God to completely defeat the Amalekites, which meant no one or thing would be left. No women or children, no elderly, no young men, no kings. A harsh command to our ears, but Saul’s instructions nonetheless. Saul defeats this people, destroys them completely – except for their king and the best of their livestock and property. He didn’t save women or children – those were considered to be useless to him. But anything that Saul might be able to use for his own glory was kept.

Saul disobeyed God not out of concern for the Amalekites but out of concern for his political status. Holding the king of a defeated peoples meant he held a pretty good card up his sleeve. Some leverage or political weight he could throw around with other enemies or perhaps the allies of the Amalekites. By keeping the king of the Amalekites, Saul did a smart political thing. But again, he did not do the faithful thing. Saul focused on his glory and not on the Glory of Israel – not on God.

This is the last straw for God who pulls support from Saul – God’s own anointed king – and promises to back another for king.

Saul’s rule never runs smoothly again. He begins to grow restless, mad one might say, and once David, the young harp-playing, slingshot wielding shepherd boy enters the scene, it’s all over. Everyone, from Saul’s own children to God, likes David better.

Saul’s reign as king and his life end twenty years after he was found hiding among the baggage. Saul is defeated in battle and rather than face capture—rather than be in a position like the Amalekite king he had captured years ago—he commits suicide.

Saul’s reign is the inauspicious beginning of the Israelite monarchy. A monarchy that can never seem to decide if it’s a system that will work with God and for God or against God and for itself.

The Romans text we read this morning can be read as suggesting that all government—including Saul’s—is put in place by God and works for the good of the people. What a wonderful thought – that the authorities who are in place truly are God’s servants for our good. Yet you and I know that governments and leaders are not always looking out for the people and not always serving the goodness of God. So when a government brings about ill instead of good, should we really just sit back and say “one must be subject?” Is that what God would really want?

No matter how good a person may be when they enter office, he or she is still a human being and still subject to the flaws of humanity. Saul was chosen by God to be king and still proved himself to be a sinful man.

Perhaps one of God’s concerns about kings and queens versus judges was that they were permanent, and traditionally passing the power down the bloodlines. And power, as we have heard and as we have seen in Saul, corrupts. No matter how well-meaning, no matter how seemingly ideal, every authority on earth is still of this earth, still fallible.

The story of the first king over Israel is a reminder to all of us that no leader is as true and good as God. God is the constant, not us. God is eternally good and faithful, not us. While yes, we can bring good, and yes authorities, kings and queens, leaders, can indeed be servants of the people, they are not God. They are not the ones we pledge eternal devotion to, the ones we swear our ultimate allegiance to. For even those called by God – like Saul – can turn away from God’s desires, from God’s glory and to their own.

In this time as much as any other, we need to be aware that no matter what leader may catch our fancy, no matter how fervently we support a candidate for office, it is not a human being who should hold our ultimate support – but God. The stories of the kings and queens of the Bible are exceptionally varied. Some are what we would call good, some bad, and some perfectly unpleasant. God can work through all—that’s what God does—but none are above God or beyond God, no matter what some of them, and some of us, may think.

It is perfectly appropriate to look to an earthly leader to guide us, to defend us, to serve the greater good. We should find leaders that inspire us, who we want to share our dreams and hopes with. We should become excited by those who seem to stand head and shoulders above us all. We should not, however, look for that earthly leader to be anything more than that – of this earth. We have a ruler in heaven, a king of kings, one is our alpha and omega, one who will always seek good things for us, always watch over us, always be true to us. Praise be to our God, our ruler, our guide, our guard. Long live this king. Amen.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

the ties that bind

I was listening to NPR today (while working on a new pasttime, Sudoku) and heard a piece about a mother and son who had been torn apart be the war in Iraq. The son serves in the special forces in the Army and the mother has been and still is an activist for peace. Their relationship became strained over politics and worldview, both struggling to understand the other.

And then poetry brought them back together. The mom had written poetry reflective of her concerns for her son, her love for her son, her concern for the world. In reading her poetry and in sharing that poetry with her son, the two came to understand one another, became close once again.

Reconcilation can happen if we take the time to really understand one another, why we think the way we think, feel the way we feel. This family found reconcilation through poetry and vulnerablity.

One of Francis Richey's poems.
"Kill School."

That was the summer he rappelled
down mountains on rope
that from a distance looked thin
as the dragline of a spider,
barely visible, the tension
he descended
into the made-up
state of Pineland
with soldiers from his class.
They started with a rabbit,
and since my son was the only one
who'd never hunted,
he went first. He described it:
moonlight, the softness
of fur, another pulse
against his chest.
The trainer showed him
how to rock the rabbit
like a baby in his arms,
faster and faster,
until every sinew surrendered
and he smashed its head into a tree.
They make a little squeaking sound,
he said. They cry.
He drove as he told me:
You said you wanted to know.
I didn't ask how he felt.
Maybe I should have,
but I was biting
off the skin from my lips,
looking out
beyond the glittering line
of traffic flying
past us in the dark.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Truth Is

Texts: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; John 14:15-21

When I was a child, my mother and I would have “big girl outings” where we would leave my pesky younger siblings behind and do things—just the two of us. Usually these outings were chores in disguise, but I didn’t mind. One of our best (and most frequent) outings was to the grocery store. We’d get a big cart and I’d help pile in food. The best part of our trip was when we were checking out. I’d bug my mom about letting me have a candy bar or some other treat the grocery store managers has brilliantly put on display for all the little kids to bother their parents about.

During the really long lines, when I’d gotten tired of whining to my mother, I would read the headlines on the magazines and newspapers that sat next to the longed-for candy. With the exception of the occasional “Nevada Woman Gives Birth to Alien Baby” I believed what these headlines had to say. I took them as truth. Because that’s where you could find truth – in the headlines of newspapers and magazines at your local grocery store check out line. Nothing you read – alien baby aside – was false. It certainly wasn’t just gossip or an interpretation of facts – it was true.

As we get older, we start to question whether or not these sources of information really are true. We question, we doubt, we wonder what is truth?

Do a basic Google search on truth and you’ll come up with several websites devoted to the truth about different things: the truth about Splenda, the truth about hybrid cars, the truth about Mohammad, the truth about the Da Vinci Code, the truth about the church... Usually theses truths are sensational, damaging, and in your face.

Truth is something we throw around rather easily. In this post-modern age when we look at the world in vibrant colors, not just a simple black and white, the concept of truth has been challenged. With so many claims on truth, so many interpretations on what it may be, if there even is such a thing as truth, we are often left wondering like Pilate - what is truth?

Many have wondered about truth, from Aristotle and Augustine to Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan. Romantic poet Lord Bryon is well-known for saying “Truth is always strange — stranger than fiction.”

The truth about truth is that there is no single term or definition on which your average group of philosophers would agree upon.

While philosophers may not be able to agree and our pop culture may confuse us about what it is, you and I can gather together and proclaim what truth is.

I am the truth, says Jesus. The one who gathered his disciples in the upper room and spoke those words we heard this morning, this Christ is the truth. We people of faith can look to the Pilates of our world and say “Word Incarnate is Truth Incarnate.” God is truth.

God as truth does not mean that God has been reduced to “facts.” There is no empirical evidence for God. No indisputable facts we can point to and say “see, there is a God and this God is the one we proclaim.” The etymology of the word truth is based in older words that mean “faithfulness, belief.” Though there are no empirical facts, we believe God is. God is and God is truth.

God is truth is not just a claim we Christians make. Other traditions and faiths have made this claim as well. What is unique about what we claim is that this God who is truth is not only Creator, but also known as the Son and the Spirit. The God we have known in the person of Jesus Christ is the God who moves in and through us in the person of the Spirit.

God—Creator, Christ, Spirit—is truth. This is what the Gospels proclaim and this is what we—the body of Christ—proclaim.

In proclaiming the divine and believing in God as truth, the question of what is truth transforms into what does it mean to be in the truth?

Theologian Paul Tillich addresses this question. “How do we reach this truth?” he asks. “’By doing it,’ is the answer of the Fourth Gospel... Doing the truth means living out of the reality which is He who is the truth, making His being the being of ourselves and of our world.”

In other words, how do we live in the truth? We live in God and welcome God to abide in us.

God, like truth, is revealed in the living and doing. In love, in our love for Christ and Christ’s love for us, we know God more. This love is not just a feeling – though such feeling is important. It is a feeling which is lived out in the following of Christ’s commandments, in loving God and one another.

Christ addresses this way of living in his words to his disciples in the upper room, when his public ministry has come to a close and now, as the end is upon him, he imparts words of challenge and hope.

Out of love for Christ, we are to obey his commandments. We are to love God and one another and we will not be alone as we do so. The Spirit – the Spirit of truth – will be with us, within us. This Spirit is our Paroclete, our Advocate, our Helper. This Spirit is the one who has been called by Christ to come alongside and help.

The Spirit enables us to be in and of the truth. Though Christ is not with us in the physical person, the Spirit of truth is the one that lights the fires of holiness in our hearts.

Followers of Christ, those who live in the Spirit, know that the path we are called to walk is not an easy one. God’s truth is not the world’s truth for though God made the world, God is not of the world. The world does not want to hear God’s truth, the world does not want to hear God.

Truth is a powerful tool against the darkness. In living in God, living in truth, we live so the light of God’s righteousness and justice shines in and through us.

Truth goes beyond not telling falsehoods or half-truths. Truth is speaking the silenced reality. Truth is pointing out injustice everyone else turns a blind eye to.

Truth is speaking in love to the friend you worry may have an addiction, or is in an unhealthy relationship, or is making other harmful choices.

Truth is signing up to give a pint of blood, even if it makes you nervous, because the benefit to others means more than your fear. Truth is that goodness means more than fear.

Truth is staying silent when the words you want to speak are unnecessarily harmful or hurtful.

Truth is that breath of fresh air when you have been suffocating for something that speaks to you.

Truth is the voice which tells you a different story than the world. When you are told “no, you can’t dream,” “no, you can’t reach for the stars,” “no, you can’t be who you were made to be,” the voice of the truth says, “yes. Yes, yes, yes!!!”

Truth is powerful. It is not meek or mild. When you hear truth spoken after eons of falsehoods, it screams out at you.

Truth is not for everyone – yes, everyone should live truth, speak truth, seek truth, but they do not. There are truths that some in our world are not ready for, close their ears, eyes, and hearts to.

Truth is what those who follow the risen Christ are called to proclaim in word and deed – regardless of the cost.

Truth is what we carry with us when we go with God, when we know and receive the Holy One.

We know what truth is. We know how to live in the truth. Now the question becomes, will we? Amen.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


One of my earliest memories of church is watching my father process down the aisle of our church, the Bible held over his head. He would walk up to the chancel and place the Bible in its place. Later he would read in a big, serious voice the scripture for that Sunday. During Mass (I grew up half-Catholic, remember!) he would assist the priest with serving. The memory of my father participating in worship carries with it feelings of pride in my father and also yearning to be like him. As a child I watched him participate in worship and wanted to do the same.

Now it’s true, I was a special child (one telling her parents she wanted to be a priest at the age of six – I didn’t quite get the rules of Catholicism yet) but it is not only children who will one day grow up to be ministers who long to participate in worship. I have had requests from those as young as seven to help lead worship on Sunday mornings. What joy this yearning brings to my heart! And what joy does this upcoming Sunday bring to so many!

This Sunday is our second Children’s Sunday where our kids as young as pre-K lead us in worship. With the Middle Schoolers assisting in reading scripture and some of the prayers, there will be quite an age range represented. I love that this congregation is such a welcoming place that we not only encourage children to be in worship, we encourage and rejoice with them as they lead worship.

Participating in the life of the church is essential for all Christians and worship is a huge part of our life together. Our children do not have to look at their parents or adult friends leading worship and yearn for the day they can too. Here and now we welcome them as full brothers and sisters in Christ.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Distracting Fun!

Your Biblical Name Is...

Yavonna Abira

You will live to see the end of times.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sound of Your Voice

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17-27

If God were to take you by the hand and lead you somewhere – I doubt Ezekiel’s destination would be where you’d want or even expect to go. Perhaps you’d expect to gaze upon a stunning mountain range or take in a beautiful meadow filled with wildflowers and babbling brooks. Any valley we might see would be a green and growing valley, a valley of life. We would be led by the hand of God into a paradise.

Ezekiel’s experience of being touched by the hand of God is not what we might imagine. Ezekiel—one of the Judeans exiled by Babylon and a priest turned prophet—is led in a vision to a place the psalmist could have been thinking of when writing “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Ezekiel is brought to the remnants of a great battle – a battle where the dead where not giving the honor of burial but remained in an open field. He has been brought to a place where a rebellious and covenant breaking Judah had experienced ultimate defeat, humiliation, and anguish and been left to rot.

Just as with the story of Jesus and Lazarus, there is no chance the dead of this valley are not dead yet, that perhaps they’ll soon be feeling better. Not just four days have passed as with Lazarus – enough time has passed there are no intact bodies, only scattered parts. In this valley there is no life – there is nothing but bare bones. Bare-dry-bones.

In the midst of such a desolate place, God asks Ezekiel can these bones live? Can these bones live? Bones that are nothing but pieces of what presumably once were people?

Ezekiel doesn’t know if these dry bones can ever be anything other than dry bones. He doesn’t know whether or not there can ever be life in the midst of all these overwhelming – and seemingly final – death. But what he does know is much like Martha—who answers Jesus’ question of resurrection after her brother’s death—knows. Ezekiel knows that the divine is where the answer to this question – and where life – lies.

The prophet responds in this faith and is in turn instructed to proclaim a promise of life.

Even though these bones presumably have no ears to hear, something happens. There is a sound, a rattling, and suddenly the impossible is happening – bone to bone. God – who knit each one of us in our mother’s wombs – knits these bones, these bodies, these people back together.

Then, after instructing Ezekiel to call out to the ruach – which is the word for both breath and spirit in Hebrew – God’s ruach, God’s spirit comes into the once dry bones and they live.

After this vision God does not make Ezekiel or us sit and wonder what these dry bones knitting back together, becoming whole and being filled with life might mean. God declares that those who once cried out that their bones are dried and hope lost will be brought up from their graves, out from their despair, into life and the land.

For Ezekiel’s original hearers, this vision promised hope after their country had been destroyed and after they had been exiled from their land.

For those of us who hear Ezekiel’s words today, we have no trouble reimaging Ezekiel’s dry bones. We have each known what it is to feel torn apart, to be left behind in a valley of despair. We have experienced disappointment after disappointment; we have been at a loss for who we are and whose we are; we have fallen so low that we wonder if we can every climb out of our hole.

We have felt brittle and dry and longed to be refreshed and whole.

We have each experience our own valleys. Many of us have also experienced a rebuilding and a renewing brought on by the Spirit. We have fallen into valleys of death and been raised by God into life. In small groups, bible studies, around tables at dinner, we have shared stories of how God has breathed the spirit of life into us.

This is good news – news which will carry us through our hard times. In the valleys of our lives, God speaks and moves and brings life. This is good news for us but it is not the only word for us to hear.

In this vision of Ezekiel’s, we can see ourselves as the dry bones. And there are times when we are those dry bones. But there are also times when we are – at least we should be – Ezekiel.

God speaks words of life in the face of death. God speaks these words not through an angel or a burning bush or a talking donkey, but through a mortal, a person, just like you, just like me, a human.

God chooses to use those created in the divine image to proclaim the divine truth – that in God life is possible even after death, even after all hope seems lost.

This Friday I attended a production of Numbers the Stars, a play based on the Lois Lowry book about the Danish resistance during World War II, how the Danish people hid and protected their Jewish friends and neighbors from the horrible fate of so many other European Jews.

After the play, a man by the name of Mark Strauss spoke to the audience. Mark is a Holocaust survivor. After being forced into a ghetto – Jews in a cage as he called it – friends of his grandparents, an elderly Catholic couple, took Mark in and hid him in a first floor apartment.

For 22 months he lived in a 10 by 7 room, a room with a cot, a window, and a door. Lest the neighbors grow suspicious by the appearance of a curtain in the window or a glimpse of what looked like a little boy’s face at the elderly couple’s house, he spent the time living on the cot or the floor.

Mark survived – unlike 85% of the Jewish people from his town – but his time of survival wasn’t pleasant. It was filled with fear, filth, hunger, and moments of which he would not speak. During this time, he experienced not only German hatred toward Jews, but Ukrainian hatred toward the Polish. Surrounded by threat upon threat, Mark survived.

In the midst of death, Mark was an example of life. What’s more, after he was liberated and after he came to the United States, he did not bring the forces of death with him. The hatred of a people – hatred he witnessed and experienced embodied in atrocious ways – this hatred he left behind. Of the five things Mark wants those who hear his story to understand, to take away with them, the fifth was most profound for this listener. He doesn’t hate. Rather than be filled with hate toward the Germans or the Ukrainians, he chooses to value each person based on their own merits – not their ethnicity. Mark has chosen the path of life over death, and what’s more, he speaks about it.

As the body of Christ, are we called to do any less?

Words of life, words that bring together the scattered pieces of a people, words that are inspired by and speak to the breath of life which comes from God – these are words that you and I are charged with. As the body of Christ – the one who is the resurrection and the life – we are the ones who must speak to this resurrection and this life. We are the ones who are called to look out at a valley and say “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

“O dry bones…” These are words we are to proclaim but do we? How many times have we looked out at these valleys and stayed silent instead of speaking out God’s good news? How often have we looked at despair and doubted that anything can be done to change the situation?

The problem is too complicated – nothing that you or I can say or do will ensure all people have access to adequate health care. The hatred is too deep, too entrenched in people – no efforts we make will stem the tide of violence. This is the way things have always been – the poor will be with us always.

We get lost and are made mute by doubting what good we can do. What good letter writing or phone calls will do. What good speaking out when we hear or experience hatred or injustice will do.

What good will it do? When we speak to life as the spirit of God moves within us, we testify to the breath of life which comes from God. This breath which brought the dry bones together, bone to bone, then sinew to sinew, flesh to flesh. This breath which filled Lazarus with life, this breath which flows from the resurrection and the life.

Mark Strauss witnessed a valley of dry bones and now spends his time witnessing to both the death that has been and the promise of life that will be. You and I who are bound together in the one baptism, the one faith, the one Lord, are called to witness to the Lord, to the one who died and rose again. We are called to witness to the impossible. We are called to speak life for the one who is the life.

We have to be the ones to speak for a world full of dry bones, a world that needs the sound of our voice. This world is crying out for someone to speak daring words, scary words, unwelcome words; to proclaim life in the midst of death; to witness to hope in the abyss of despair.

This world is crying out so let us find the words given to us even as we have been filled with the Spirit – the ruach – the breath of life. Let us speak, proclaim, we witness not because we know whether or not the bones will live, not because we know that the words we speak will definitely bring an end to poverty or bring about justice. Let us speak because God knows, speak because God has chosen to work through us. Praise be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 03, 2008

the way they held each other

I'm sitting at the coffee shop working on worship and came across this lovely poem I just had to share. It's by Indian poet Mira (1498-1550) and taken from the book Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.

the way they held each other

A woman and her young daughter were destitute
and traveling to another country
where they hoped to find
a new life.

Three men stole them while they were camping.

They were brought to a city
and sold as slaves; each to a different

They were given one minute more together,
before their fates became unknown.

My soul clings to God like that,
the way they held
each other.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Don't Forget to Turn Ahead Your Clocks!

“Don’t forget to change your clocks!”

The moment I saw that sentence pop up on my computer this past Saturday night, I panicked. Daylight Savings time – already?!? I had just spent the last 14 hours traveling back to Staunton from Chicago and the last thing I expected to see when I turned on my computer to check e-mail was this announcement.

Luckily for me – and all of you who would have had to witness me deprived of a precious hour of sleep following a long and tiring day of travel – this reminder was a week early. We won’t spring forward until this Saturday evening. Once I realized the actual date, my heart rate dropped back down but this time thing was still on my mind. I had just spent a week of vacation doing nothing but relax – I read, watched movies, spent time with good friends, went to the spa (thanks to the aforementioned good friends’ generosity), and cooked. It was a perfect vacation – one where I could spend a lot of quality time resting in God. And then, the moment I get back, time – and how we’re losing it – slams right into my face. Thwack!

This Lent I have chosen to take up the practice up spending at least ten minutes a day intentionally listening for God. Most days I do pretty well with this practice, though not all. This recent bout with TIME! has reinforced how important such practices are for me – and not just during Lent. During my week away, I just was and most of the time, I was with God in a very aware way. During my weeks running around church and town, always go-go-going, I’m not as aware of my being with God. I’m not as aware of God’s being with me.

Lent is already half-way over which means my Lenten observance will not be around much longer. I’m thinking about doing something a little different this year. I’d like to pick up an Easter observance, and a Pentecost observance, and even an Ordinary Time observance! I’d like to keep being intentional about listening for God every single day. And I’d like to invite you to join me. Maybe you won’t spend 10 minutes each day listening – maybe just a few, maybe a whole hour – but I hope you take time out of each day to really stop and listen. God may have something exciting to say – it’s true – but even if God doesn’t, each minute you spend just listening for God, just being with God, is a minute of time well spent.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Reading and Relaxing

A brief update from vacation land:

I've spent the last several days doing nothing but reading, relaxing, cooking, and spending quality time with dear friends. What a perfect vacation! I had a special treat on Sunday when I went to worship with several friends of mine. I have been hearing about this new minister at the church they all attend, "Carla this and Carla that," "Carla's the most amazing person ever," "I just adore Carla" and so on. Of course I was excited to meet and be led in worship by this woman held in such dear esteem by my friends. The worship service at this particular church begins and ends with the passing of the peace (a lovely way to bookend the service I must say). At the first passing of the peace I looked up to where the minister was and lo and behold, it was \my Carla! The Carla my friends have been raving about is the same Carla I worked with as an intern in Atlanta, the same Carla who inspired me and from whom I've borrowed a few worship ideas. I ran up to pass the peace and we were both delighted at the unexpected reunion.

It's a small world and sometimes I just love that!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

leaving on a jet plane

I'll soon be heading out for a fabulous week of vacation in warm, sunny, tropical Chicago. Yes, yes, I know, Chicago in the winter is a brilliant vacation choice! While Chi-town has more snow and brisk wind I'd want in a vacation spot, it also holds one of my dearest friends. While sunny beaches might be more glamorous, nothing beats the company of a good friend.

I'll see you all when I get back! Have a wonderful week all and think of poor, freezing, me!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

You Gotta Have Faith

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Perhaps like a lawyer remembers the first time she brought a case to court, or a teacher the first time he assigned (and then had to grade) 10 page essays, this preacher remembers the first time she was told to proclaim the word of God.

I don’t remember how it felt to stand up in front of my peers and preach, or how I picked the text or if I felt good about the sermon after I had preached it. What stands out the most in that memory is how I – and quite a few of my classmates – had longed for a form to follow and how our preaching professors wouldn’t give it to us.

Nice people, these professors of ours, but they refused to do the simplest thing to help us prepare. We wanted a list, a “all good sermons must include these things” kind of list, to know that if we followed this list, or this model, this outline, we would be guaranteed to have a decent sermon. And they said, no. Pick a text and preach the Word. That was our list.

Our professors wanted us to have faith in ourselves and more importantly, in the way God would work in and through our voices. We wanted a checklist, a form to follow, a way to guarantee we would get it “right.”

Whether we be seminary students learning to preach or not, we all often want a list – these are the things we need to do in order to get things “right.” Get our work right, our relationships right, our life right. Sometimes it seems like it would be so much easier, so much nicer, if we just had a list of things to do or not do, and as long as we followed that list, all would be well. We’d be the perfect preacher or lawyer, we’d be the perfect parent, we’d live a good, healthy, and fulfilling life – guaranteed.

Many of us struggle with accepting that we don’t have to be perfect. That we can indeed mess up at our jobs, at it can still be okay. That we can forget a birthday (here and there) or say the wrong thing and the people we are in relationship with will still love us. That we can make wrong decisions in our lives, go down the wrong path for awhile, and still, we can recover and live beautiful, fruitful lives.

When it comes to our faith, that desire to have a list, the need to be perfect, the longing to have a guarantee that we’re doing it “right,” often doesn’t go away. We want some sort of faith check-list in order to know we’re right with God.

I’m okay with God because I’ve done a pilgrimage or because I’ve fasted every holy season just like I’m supposed to or because I’ve gone to church every Sunday. I’m okay with God because I’ve been given this list and followed it to the T. I’m okay with God because of what I’ve done.

Those of us who long for some sort of list, some sort of guarantee, some way of being able to measure our rightness with God, aren’t alone. In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses the issue of being right with God. For many people, being right with God was proven by the works you did. The law – the list of rules and regulations passed down from generation to generation – was viewed as a way to measure your righteousness. The more perfectly you followed the law, the more right you were with God. If you have the law and can obey the law, then you KNOW that you are righteous. You can look back at your successes and prove it.

Paul challenges this assumption with lovely rhetoric and usage of the ultimate model of faith for the Hebrew people. Abraham was seen in first century Judaism as the model of obedience to God. And Abraham, it was commonly understood, was a follower of the law (even though it had yet to be given) and it was by the law that Abraham was in right relationship with God.

While the Bible does not give us much background on Abram before he becomes Abraham, Jewish midrash and extracanonical literature filled in the blanks by imagining a man faithful to the one true God long before he was called by this God. Abram of the extra-biblical traditions some how obtains knowledge of the true God (some texts say as early as the age of three), tries to convert his whole family to the true faith, destroys idols of the false Gods, and is taught Hebrew by an angel of the Lord. He is a true, good, faithful follower of the law – long God initiates any covenant with him.

These extra-biblical traditions were developed to answer a question burning on the law-abiding minds of faithful Hebrew people. Why did God choose Abram? What things had he done, what laws had he obeyed, what were his works that made him worthy, that made him righteous?

The truth is, as Paul tells us, Abraham did nothing. Abraham wasn’t made righteous, wasn’t made right with God, by what he did or didn’t do. He wasn’t chosen because of some great deeds or holiness we don’t read about in the Bible. God choose Abram because God wanted to. And Abram, in response to this call, didn’t go around smashing idols or building temples or converting his whole village – he just believed. Abram is righteous – is in right relationship with God – simply because God said go and Abram went. Abram had faith and that faith, that gift from God, is where the right relationship with God lies.

While people in Paul’s world wanted to point at the law, prove their righteousness by their deeds, Paul contends that no one is righteous by what they do. If we were made righteous by the law, we’d all fall short and none of us would be in right relationship with God. We are right with God because of God’s grace and because of this gift of faith.

The truth is: there is no checklist. No matter how hard we try to follow the law, we will never be perfect. No matter how hard we work in any of our relationships – even our relationship with God – we will never be perfect. And yet God loves us still. God loves us despite our imperfections. And in response to that love, we are to believe. Believe in God, believe in God’s love for us.

Just believe; sounds simple but it’s not that easy. Maybe it’s because we’ve been hurt too many times by the world around us, but for many of us, it’s hard to believe that someone – anyone, let alone the Creator of the Universe – will love us no matter what. It’s hard to accept that our righteousness is not determined by how many good works we do, how many good deeds we can store up, how much we can prove we want to be right with God, but simply by our faith, our own yearning to be in relationship with God. We are in right relationship with God as long as we yearn to be in relationship with God.

That’s not to say we can’t grow in our relationship with God; as Paul tells us later in Romans, Abraham grew in his own faith even as he offered glory to God. We can grow in our relationship with God, grow in our faith. But the things we do, the words of praise we offer – none of these make us worthy of God’s love or gain us some sort of perfect faith. They come as a response to that love and out of the faith we already have.

None of us will ever have a perfect faith. None of us will ever follow the law perfectly. None of us will ever be able to prove our love for God by what we do. But all of us can accept the love God has given us. All of us can yearn to be in relationship with this loving God. All of us can strive to respond in love. All of us can seek to follow the model of Abraham. He accepted God’s blessing, God’s favor, God’s love and let his faith grow from there. May we do the same. Amen.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


As some of you may know, Lent is my favorite season of the year. The 40 days we spend preparing for Holy Week can be an intense and invaluable time set apart. Each year I take up a Lenten discipline to help me keep Lent on the forefront of my mind.

Here's my problem. It's Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and I don't know what I'm going to do. Last year I gave something up so this year I really wanted to take something on. But what? I can't decide! Any thoughts, suggestions, would be appreciated!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Collecting Hugs

Sitting in my second office (Coffee on the Corner for those who may not know) I had a delightful encounter. A young soft-spoken Mary Baldwin student - who I have seen around town before - came up to me and said "I'm collecting hugs and I was wondering if I could have one of yours." How odd a thing to hear. I - of course - said yes and gave her one of my hugs. And it was wonderful! Hugging a virtual stranger may sound like it would be uncomfortable but it wasn't. It felt right.

After our hug, she collected hugs from other patrons and went to eating her sandwich. I like to think I offer God's love to all I meet yet I doubt I could ever gather the nerve to do what she did. That hug - unexpected to say the least - was a lovely reminder that we shouldn't be afraid to express care and genuine affection - even to strangers.