Come as You Are, Become as God Made You

Mark 2:13-17

Hi. My name is Tom.  You can call me Tom or Pastor Tom, or PT (as youth in previous churches have).  I respond to them all.  I am thrilled to be joining you here at Sylvania First as your new pastor.  I am very grateful for Pastor Larry and all that he did to lead you to this time and place. I am humbled to be asked to follow him and to accompany you in this Christ life for the next season.

Sylvania

Before we begin, there are some things you should know. The first is that I love this church. I have loved it from the moment I first stepped across the threshold. I love the murals and the way children and adults are introduced to the God story just by walking around this place. I love the sanctuary and the way the light dances through the stained glass. I love the worship here, both contemporary and traditional services vibrate with a sense of aliveness. I love the outreach that you do at Henderson, in Haiti and Mexico, and right here in Sylvania. A lot can be told about a church by how wide their hearts are and how they offer themselves to serve their local and global neighbors. I have seen the extraordinary hospitality you offer around district events and know that welcoming people with love and compassion is part of your DNA. Most of all, however, I have been impressed by the people I have met here. There is a joy and a vibrancy in this church that speaks of a resurrection faith. I am not a reluctant pastor coming into your midst. I chose to come because I am eager to join you in this gospel life. You may wonder whether stepping out of a district office is difficult. It is not. I have learned and grown a lot through my service there, but the local church is where the action is and I am longing to join you in it.

The second thing you should know is that I am not a perfect pastor. You can read all the outward accomplishments in my introductory letter, but they only tell part of the story. You may not know, for instance, that I have been a slave of achievement, or that I have struggled over time with crippling self-doubt. You may not know how deeply I have been afraid of failure and how my seeming self-confidence simply masks it. You may not know that I did not believe myself to be lovable until Elizabeth proved me wrong, and that I still wasn’t confident in how unconditional God’s love was for me until just the last few years.

I am neither a perfect human being, nor a perfect pastor. At some point in our life and ministry together, I will disappoint you. I want to ask you today for the grace to receive me for who I am, just as I am getting to know you with a grace that wants to know you for who you are, that together we may become, by grace, the kind of people and the kind of church God made us to be. When you experience disappointment in me as your pastor, I’d like to ask you simply to talk with me so I can learn from you how to be a better pastor. That doesn’t mean I will always do what you want, but I promise you today that I will always listen.

Why do I tell you these things? Because the extraordinary good news of Jesus Christ is that he accepts us for who we are, warts, faults, foibles, fears, doubts, sins and all.

In our scripture today, Jesus has just healed a paralyzed man when he leaves that house for some fresh air by the sea. The crowd that had been crushing in at the house followed right along after him. Now Capernaum was right on a border line, so Jesus came to a customs officer named Levi sitting at a toll booth. Tax collectors were hated in those days, even more than in our own. They were considered traitors because they collected money for the Roman Imperial government. I wonder what Jesus saw when he looked at Levi. Did he see a traitor? Did he see all the tricks he had played to tax the merchants who passed his way? Did he notice his pain and isolation sitting there at the toll booth, a pool of spit at his feet from the passers-by? Whatever it was about Levi, Jesus spoke into his life.

“Follow me,” Jesus said. Follow me because I see you. I notice you. I know you. Follow me because I accept you for who you are. Acceptance is a very powerful thing, isn’t it. To be noticed and not rejected. To be known and not shunned. To be seen for who you are and to be called forth nonetheless. Jesus did not judge Levi for who he was, he accepted him, welcomed him, and invited him to become one of his apprentices.

When we were in South Africa few years ago, we learned a few traditional phrases in some of their 11 languages. The Zulu greet one another by saying, “Sawubona,” which means, “I see you.” To be seen is to be accepted, to be known, to be loved. The traditional response to “Sawubona” is “Ngikhona,” meaning, “I am here.” The call and response translated into English is literally, “I see you–I am here.” Sawubona–I see you!  Ngikhona– I am here!

To be seen is to be called into being, to be invited out of the shadows, to step into the fullness of life. Now think, just for a moment, about how important that greeting was during the Apartheid era, when the Zulu along with the other 8 nations of black South Africans were unseen, overlooked, passed by, treated with suspicion, malice and hate. To say to one another, “Sawubona” was an act of defiance. It was to say “I see you.” To which the other replied, “I am here.” I AM here. My life matters, no matter what anyone else says. To be seen was to be accepted, and made acceptable all in the same moment.

In the attached picture, you’ll see three of our friends in South Africa who have shown us how to live in a fully inclusive community. Scotch, Adri-Marie, and Anathi are part of the Oasis community. Anathi came out of a life of desperate poverty in one of the informal settlements. We used to call them shanty towns. Scotch is a lawyer who gave up position and power to serve the poor. Adri-Marie is a single Afrikaaner woman who left everything she knew to break down the walls that divide people. Notice their eyes.  They sparkle with joy and delight.  They see as they are seen.  They are who they are.  And one of them, Scotch, is looking away from the camera, always looking to include another.  Their life is their ministry, seeing people for who they are and calling them to life with Christ.Oasis

In the wake of Charleston, we could learn from them how to do a whole lot less political posturing and a whole lot more relationship building, learning to see one another for who we are, to accept one another as God’s beloved, calling one another into the fullness of life in Christ. That is what Jesus did for Levi, the passed by, the spat upon, the reviled. Jesus noticed him hiding in his toll both; he stopped and looked at him; he said, “Sawubona, I see you,” I see you not only for who you are hiding in the toll both, but for who you can become when you come out. Hearing Jesus’ voice of full acceptance, Levi came out and replied, “Ngikhona, I am here.”

It is the same for us, for you, and for me. When Jesus stops by your work, your home, your school, your rec time however you spend it, what do you imagine he would say? Some might imagine him judging them. Others might imagine him being angry. Still others might imagine him turning away, or shaking his head, looking with revulsion, disgust or pity. Some others of you will be looking for the scorecard of sins that you are just sure he carries with him behind his back. Mm-hmm. I saw that. Check. How do you see Jesus looking at you?

Instead of all those other scenarios, can you imagine him looking at you with an expression of pure love, of joy and delight? Can you imagine him saying to you, “I see you?” And being seen, through and through, can you imagine that he loves you for who you are, intensely, thoroughly, completely?

How will you respond? Will you turn away? Will you curse him and try to send him away? Will you spit in his face or at his feet as others have done to you? Or will you simply respond, “I am here,” and trust that because you are seen by Jesus, your life matters in ways you never imagined?

When Jesus noticed Levi and called him, he said, “Follow me.” Come, be my apprentice, learn from me my ways of living. Come with me and find a life better than you’ve ever imagined before. And the scriptures say that Levi got up. He got up from his toll booth and began to follow Jesus. The language is deceptive in English. It sounds like simply standing up, but the word in the Greek is the same that was used of Jesus on the third day. He was raised. He got up. When called upon by Jesus, Levi was resurrected, never to be the same. Jesus said, “I see you.” And Levi replied, “I am here.”

Friends, I have struggled most of my life to believe that I was acceptable to Jesus just as I am, that I could be loved by Jesus for who I am, with all my abundant faults and failings. I have spent most of my life trying to prove myself to Jesus so that I could somehow become acceptable. Yet at the end of all my tireless striving, in the midst of a season of failure when I was most vulnerable and fearful, Jesus met me and reminded me, “You did not choose me, I chose you.” Jesus looked at me squarely, his eyes piercing the deepest recesses of my heart. He did not look with contempt or derision, shame or revulsion. He looked at me with love and said, “Sawubona, I see you.” And I replied, “Ngikhona, I am here.”

This is the starting point of faith, to be accepted, to be loved through and through for who we are. It is only when we begin to trust that simple fact that we can begin to become as God made us, our truest selves, our whole lives consecrated and made new.

The kingdom of God is a grand “come as you are” party in which nothing is ever the same for those who dare to show up. What I’ve discovered is that Jesus does not reject any part of me, but takes it, blesses it, breaks it and gives it back again, changed, transformed, consecrated for God’s purposes. I’ve also discovered that no one can become who God made them to be unless we know that who we are is not only acceptable, but also beloved. And because we are beloved, God wants so much more for us than what is.

This is one of my core convictions about what it means to follow Jesus. He invites us to come as we are in order to become as he made us. Nothing and no one is irredeemable. So today, on this first Sunday walking with you in this journey of faith and life, I want you to see me for who I am, not for who you think I am or wish I were. I want you to see me and accept me for all that I bring to you because when you see me, then I am truly and fully here. I can become my best self with God among you.

Likewise, as I am coming to know you, I want you to know that I will accept and love you for who you are and pray with you that you may become your best selves, living life to the full as Jesus promised. On this first Sunday, I simply say to you, “Sawubona,” I see you. And pray that you will claim with courage the response of the beloved, “Ngikhona,” I am here.

Sawubona, I see you!
Ngikhona, I am here!

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Come and See

John 1:29-42

My friend Gary Moon tells a story of going to a country baseball game in Georgia one Saturday afternoon and watching a high school J-V matchup between cross-county rivals. Now, you may have a favorite pro team, but there is never anything quite so colorful as a local baseball game.

Gary tells about the batter fouling off into the hog pen behind the left field foul line (not the bull pen, literally the hog pen) and the squeals of protest that come not only from the pigs, but also from the left fielder dispatched to retrieve the ball. He tells about the misfiring pitcher who let go of the ball too early only to see it fly straight into the visiting team’s dugout. He tells about the 40 mph “fast” ball that barely made it across the plate at the batter’s ankles, and about the umpire who called it “strike three!”

When the cacophony of jeers died down in the stands, the little girl sitting next to Gary asked her grandpa two seats over, “Grandpa, why do they let vampires on the field?” Everyone in the stands got quiet and looked at her with puzzled faces.

“Honey, what do you mean, there aren’t any vampires on the field.”

“Yes, there are. You said so. You said the vampire was as blind as a bat and that they should throw him off the field. I don’t like vampires. They are mean.”

Everyone sitting nearby chuckled as they listened to her grandpa reply, “Not a vampire, honey, the umpire. That man standing behind the catcher is called an umpire.”
“Oh,” she said, still looking worried. “Is he a mean one? Will he bite Johnny when he’s not looking?”  (Gary W. Moon, Apprenticeship with Jesus, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009, 38).

Umpires don’t bite, at least not usually. They just call balls and strikes. They are the impartial arbiters who call runners safe or out. We often treat God as a cosmic umpire, calling our sins as strikes against us and ultimately judging whether we will be “safe” or “out.” But God is interested in more than who gets called “safe” at “home.” God cares about how we are on the field and how we play the game. He sent Jesus to be our coach, to train us and show us how to play the game in a way that helps everyone contribute and have a position to play.

Vampires, on the other hand, are a wholly different subject. Or are they? Dallas Willard characterizes many churchgoers these days as “vampire Christians,” people who want just a little blood from Jesus, enough to cover their sins, but not enough for a whole transfusion. It’s rare, he says, for anyone to want so badly to be transformed into the likeness of Christ that he or she is willing to pay the price for it to happen (Moon, 38). We want to be forgiven our sin, but we don’t really want to be free from it. We want just enough blood to be forgiven, but not enough for a transfusion of life.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking down the street, he nudged his disciples and said to them, “Looky there: there goes the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Now, we all think we know just enough Jewish theology to know exactly what that means. At the first Passover, the Jews sacrificed a lamb and smeared its blood on the doorposts of their homes so that the angel of death would “pass over” them. So it is that Jesus’ blood, applied to the outside of our lives, becomes a sign to the powers of death and hell that, in the words of M.C. Hammer: “Can’t touch this.”

Perhaps that is what John the Baptist meant. Take your life, add a little blood and boom, you are forgiven. But look again. That’s not what John said. He said that this “lamb of God” actually takes away the sins of the world. What does that mean? Surely it just means we’re forgiven right? After all, “Christians aren’t perfect,” the bumper sticker says, “just forgiven.” But in saying that, are we underestimating the power of Jesus to make all things new? Does he want more for us than just an endless list of sins he can then forgive? Do we want Jesus to be our umpire calling every strike, or our coach, who shows us how to get home safely?

When John’s disciples heard about this “lamb of God,” they wondered what it all meant. So they started stalking Jesus, watching him, trying to figure out how this lamb was going to take away the sins of the world. When Jesus saw them, he asked them straight out, “What are you looking for?” What a great question, eh? What are you looking for? When someone caught W.C. Fields reading the Bible one day, he asked, “why are you reading the Bible?” to which W. C. Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

What are you looking for? Do you just want to be forgiven for the things you did yesterday? Are you looking for a way to escape the wrath of God? Are you looking for a way to cheat death? Are you looking for loopholes? Are you looking for a better way to keep the law and do good things? Or are you looking for a new way of life, a new way of living?

A little flummoxed by Jesus’ question, the disciples stammered out, “Lord, where are you staying?” Perhaps they meant, Where do you live? Where do you lay your head? Where do you abide? What’s your address? Jesus took their question beyond the obvious and invited them to “Come and see.”

“Come and see and I will show you not only where I live but how I live. I will help you learn to hear God’s voice and to have confidence in his authority. I will teach you where to meet God, how to speak and how to listen. I will encourage you not only to do the right things on the outside, but to allow your insides to be reworked until they match God’s abundant vision for you. I will show you how to abide in me, to find the source and sustenance of your being in me.

“And because you are connected to me, your life will have a greater significance than you could ever imagine. You will be a sign of what God can do to transform a life from the inside out, a sign of healing and forgiveness, a promise of hope and new life. Come and see and I will show you a kingdom that is not of this world but that is stirring all around, a kingdom that is waiting to become real, waiting for a willing soul to say yes, waiting for you to rethink your thinking and live your life right way ’round. Come and see, I will not only forgive you of yesterday’s sin, but if you will trust me with your temptations, I will take away even your desire to sin.”

If all we ever ask Jesus to do is forgive us of our sins, our Jesus is too small. He came into the world not only to forgive us of our sins, but to save us from our sins. He did not give us a little blood to be our passport into heaven, he offers us a full life transfusion until we come to share in an eternal way of living now.

Sin is like any other addiction. We are addicted to sin. We like it. We know what it does to us, how it mess us up, but it still feels so good. We know we sometimes step across a line because of our addiction so we always come back and apologize. “I’m so sorry,” we say. “I’ll do better next time,” we vow. But we cannot control our addiction to sin. We cannot master it, try as we might. We can clean up the outside so no one will know, but we are still mired in our sinful disposition.

Now most of us live our Christian lives this way thinking that Jesus is always there to say, “It’s ok,” and “I forgive you,” every time we mess up. But Jesus doesn’t want us to continue a life in sin, he wants us to be transformed from the inside out until we learn a new way of being with him. He doesn’t want to be our umpire, he wants to be our coach.

So how do we get this kind of life? It begins with trusting our lives to Jesus. It begins by confessing, “I can’t do this by myself.” It begins by hearing Jesus say to us that we are accepted for who we are, sins, griefs, brokenness, addictions and all, but that he doesn’t accept that this is all God has for us. He sees through our bravado to our vulnerable core, calls us beloved, and invites us to live our life a new way, not trusting in our selves and our ability to manipulate and bend reality to our will, but trusting in him, who is able to bend our souls toward God.

The kingdom of God is real, and it is all around us. I believe that because I have seen it. It is more real than tangible things like a pew pad or an offering envelope one may find in church.  It is available not just because someone attends church, but because he or she decides to attend to Jesus’ voice inviting them to, “come and see.” It is available to all who offer their lives trusting that their well being is not secured by what they hold back, but by the One to whom they give it over.

The disciples asked Jesus where he was staying; what is his address. Jesus gives us several places where he promises to meet us if we will seek him there. Jesus invites us to come and see him in solitude and silence, setting aside the noise and bustle of our daily lives to simply “be” with him. Jesus invites us to come and see him in scripture, finding our story wrapped up in his and his in ours. Jesus invites us to come and see him in worship, at the table of the Eucharist and the font of baptism, in our songs of praise and our hymns of love. Jesus invites us to come and see him in prayer, not just rolling out our long laundry list of things that are wrong that we really wish he’d fix, but listening to him through prayer, until our words become his words, and our heart his heart. Jesus invites us to come and see him in fasting until we learn that our lives can be truly sustained by him and him alone. Jesus invites us to come and see him in community, in and with others who are seeking ways of living this life more freely and more fully. Jesus invites us to come and see him in the stranger, in the overlooked, the lost, the forgotten ones, because only when our hearts are stirred by compassion can they be overtaken by his love.

What are you looking for? Are you looking for loopholes? Are you looking for forgiveness so you can go back to your old ways? Are you looking for a way to cheat death? Are you looking for the great by and by, but are not willing to give up control of your lives in the here and now? Or are you dissatisfied with this life and the way you are living it now? Do you think to yourself, “there must be something more.” There is. Jesus is inviting you today to “come and see.”

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Gifts for the Christ Child

Matthew 2:1-12

A few years ago, my wife, Elizabeth, received a Christmas card from a family friend that hung on our refrigerator for all the years that our children were young. It said, “After the wise men left, the Holy family was visited by three wise women.” In the picture box you can see Mary exclaiming with joy, “Diapers! Wipes! and a Onsie! Finally some gifts we can use!”

The visit of the three wise men in scripture has become synonymous with the Christmas story. We’ve all seen and been a part of pageants in which boys sporting beards and bathrobes capped with burger king crowns marched solemnly down the aisle of the church bringing treasure chests full of gold, frankincense and myrrh. My son Alistair was a wise man when he was 3. There were four wise men that year because we needed an extra part. Unfortunately, his crown had been made for a slightly older king and kept falling down around his neck every time he swiveled his body nervously. It was one of our favorite Christmas pageants ever.

What we sometimes forget in our Christmas pageants is that the wise men, or magi, observed the star at its rising, and followed it to Bethlehem. We think of them almost like the shepherds abiding in the fields who saw and heard the angelic chorus and went to check it out that same night. But the Magi were from afar, and didn’t have jets or cars or motorcycles to sweep across the desert waste. They had to make their way on camelback, a much longer process. They followed the star across the desert until they got to the crossroads. The star seemed to lead them south, to Bethlehem, but a road sign said “Jerusalem, capital city,” and they took the detour to the north to Jerusalem, thinking they would find the newborn king, where else, but in the palace of the reigning king. It was not so. When they left King Herod’s court, it was almost as if the star had come back to greet them, insistently to lead them out of the King’s court, out of the temple precinct, down the narrow, winding streets, out the city gate, where finally, it hung a left and headed to Bethlehem.

When the star finally stopped, they rejoiced. Maybe it was because they were saddle sore. Camels aren’t the easiest of beasts to ride. But maybe, just maybe, they saw in this newborn child the hope of the world. You see, they were not from around here. Herod was not their king. They were even beyond the scope of the vast Roman Empire. They came from the East, from lands that had once ruled Judea and now did not. They were not kings, nor would they have been respected as wise by Judeans. They were astrologers, looking at constellations for signs of their destiny. They were outsiders. They were foreign. They were the kind of folk to consult the psychic hotline. They were superstitious soothsayers who hung their fate on the stars. And yet, this star had reached into their lives and led them somewhere different, to the feeding trough that was the first cradle of the only Son of God.

And there, in the face of this child, they saw reflected the light of the star that had guided them, and they knew that they could not go back to their old ways. Their lives, like the star, had to take a different turn, away from their homeland, away from Jerusalem, away from the halls of power, away from the wealth that captivated them, away from the quasi-religious hocus-pocus that made them feel self-justified. They unloaded their gifts, their treasure chests, the things they had carried with them across the desert, the wares that had defined them, the gold, the frankincense, the myrrh, these were regular elements in their religious practices. When they left them at the manger, it meant more than “here’s a gift out of my excess,” it represented the laying down of their old ways to take up the ways of Jesus.

And so here we are, on the twelfth day of Christmas, the day before we celebrate the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been seeking signs for much of my life. “Where are you God? Show yourself, prove yourself to me, then I’ll believe.” When I was in fifth grade, I made a castle out of clay for a social studies project about Medieval England. I used to imagine that castle was my house, that I was the king, that I had armies to do my bidding, that I could exercise control over my dominion. I’ve carried that illusion over into adulthood trying to control my own destiny, make my own way, demonstrate my value as a human being by my success and achievement. I keep trying on the crown of my life and looking at myself in a mirror. For a time, it looks good on me, but it never quite fits and always ends up falling down around my neck, transformed from crown to collar.

Since childhood I have professed Jesus as my Savior. I have long known and accepted that he died to save me from my sins. I am grateful. But Jesus did not just come into the world to save me, he came into the world to show me a way to live. The thing is, he not only wants me to acknowledge him as my savior, he wants me to crown him as my Lord as well. You see, the crown of my life doesn’t fit me, it only fits him. As long as I try to determine my life, as long as I try to make the crown look good, as long as I try to maintain control over my circumstance and my destiny, it will only be what I can make of it, which is not much more than a mess. As long as I retain the crown, I persist in sin. Yet I am finding that the more I yield the crown to my savior, the more I actually make him my Lord, the more I actually train my feet to follow him and my heart to beat with his, the more my life is transformed not just in the great by and by, but in the here and now.

The gifts of the Magi were not presents that they could give without second thought then get on with their lives. The gifts the Magi gave were their whole lives, all that had defined them and made them who they were, all that had set them apart and made them special. They left the manger no longer Magi, no longer wealthy, no longer obsessively following horoscopes and stars. They left their lives at the manger and went home by another way, the scripture says. The earliest Christians were called, “people of the Way.” Could the scriptures be indicating that the Magi not only took a different road home, but that they became “people of the Way?” The historical answer is never given, but the story invites us to consider what we need to lay down, to leave behind in order to live as people of the Way.

The question comes to us: what will we give the Christ child? Will we give to him out of our abundance, or will we give him our all? Will we trust him with our wealth, our position, our power, even our religion? Will we trust our church to him, or is that just for us? Will we risk giving him our loves or are they ours to define, to hold on to, to protect? Will we give him all that defines us, that makes us who we are trusting that he knows us more deeply, more intimately than we know ourselves? Will we give him the crown of our lives knowing that it doesn’t quite fit us so that he may lead us into a life that is broader, deeper, more abundant and joy filled than we could have ever imagined? I can’t answer for you, but I know that for me, my crown has become a collar and it is choking me. This Epiphany, I’m giving it back to the One who made it, who made me, and am asking him to lead me home by another Way.

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A Letter to Baby Jesus

When Alistair announced that he no longer believed in “the Santa hoax,” we were left breathless.  After all these years of hastily written Santa letters left on the coffee table expectantly, we didn’t know what to do on Christmas Eve after worship.  So this year, we are starting a new tradition.  We are writing a letter to Baby Jesus.  And instead of asking for gifts, we are offering gifts to him with a prayer that they will be a way of working with him to make our world look a bit more like the kingdom he announced.  This is our first annual letter to baby Jesus.  It is a collaborative effort, and unpolished, just us offering our hearts and efforts to work with Jesus to heal our world.Image

24 December 2013

Dear Baby Jesus,

We are happy to have you being born on this very important day.  We live in a broken world that needs to be healed.  We ask that you come into our lives to provide healing.  As people, we have a hard time loving each other, which leads to conflicts in families and in communities, and even among nations.  We need you to help us love one another.  We are concerned about your creation, and all the animals.  We need you to help us accept one another for who we really are.  Help us see your kingdom and find life with you in it.

On that night so long ago when you were born into the world, some Magi saw your star and followed it to find you with your adopted family of Mary and Joseph.  They brought you gifts to celebrate your birth.  This year, we want to offer you some gifts too.

Alistair will donate 20% of his Christmas money to give to the World Wildlife Fund because he really loves animals and is concerned about all the endangered species.  We pray his gift will help heal your creation.

Will will donate 20% of his Christmas money (and some other money that’s been sitting around) to the Southern Poverty Law Center where it can be used to reach out to students and teachers across the country.  It will help fight against all kinds of bullying, to reach across all kinds of boundaries, and to promote equality.  It will help students learn what they need to know to be successful in life.  We pray his gift will help heal your children.

Tom and Elizabeth will give $500 to support the college education of Mao Theary, a student in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  In a land that has been broken by poverty and genocide and human trafficking, this is one way we can bear your light and invest in the life of one young woman to help her become the person you created her to be.  We pray this gift will help bring peace and possibility.

We are so glad you are here with us.  We welcome you into our family, and into our lives.  You are not a stranger among us.  You are our friend.  We are so glad you are here with us.

Love,

Tom, Elizabeth, Will and Alistair

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Turning from Violence toward Peace

Luke 23:32-38, Jn 20:16

Our hearts ache yet again in the wake of a violent tragedy. This time in Boston. In a cruel and wicked plot to evoke terror and fear, two brothers laid multiple pressure cooker style bombs around the finish line of the Boston Marathon and timed their detonation to the precise moment when the greatest number of runners (and well-wishers) would be assembled, ready to exult in the simple victory of finishing the 26.2 mile race. The carnage was massive. Three dead, over 176 injured, 17 of them critically. In cruelest twist, many of the injuries were leg injuries inflicted by ball bearings packed in with the explosive. Many will never run, or perhaps even walk again.

On Monday, I cried. I wept for the loss and the senselessness of it all. I learned parts of the stories of those who died and my heart sank into deep sadness. On Tuesday, as I talked with Alistair about the events, helping him process his thoughts and feelings, my heart grew fearful of the wanton violence that seems to pervade our society. I felt my vulnerability, and the vulnerability of my children and family even as we go through our everyday routines. How can I protect my children when the rules don’t seem to apply anymore? On Wednesday, my fear turned to anger as I watched for news of the investigation and hoped for leads that would lead to an arrest. By Friday, when I saw the news about the death of “suspect #1,” my anger was sated with blood.

As the day unfolded and the second suspect eluded capture, fear overwhelmed me again, fear for the citizens of Watertown and for my friends in nearby areas. As the day wore on, I was anxious for resolution one way or another. I yearned for justice to be done. In the face of evil, I wanted right to prevail. Over time, all these emotions mixed together. Grief, fear and anger stirred in the pot of vulnerability with no answers in sight made for a toxic brew in my heart that yearned for more than justice. I thirsted for vengeance, that the responsible ones would face a fate worse than the one they inflicted on the unsuspecting crowd. And at that moment, I recognized that the violence of the bombers was not just out there somewhere in hearts corrupted by evil, it lay latent in my heart as well.

Acts of terror are designed to make us afraid, to make us feel vulnerable and exposed even in ordinary everyday kinds of places. How do we overcome our vulnerability? Here lies the crux of the human condition set over and against the way of Christ. Our human response to vulnerability is to overcome it with shows of strength, to make us feel stronger by exerting our power, to demonstrate our resolve by trying to control our situation and the world around us. Sorrow turns to fear, fear into anger, anger into a yearning for justice, a yearning for justice into a thirst for vengeance. And all of it, in the end, is about trying to maintain some sense of control over our lives, our families, our circumstances, our world.

I wonder whether we seek to control our environment and the world around us because we are afraid, in the end, that no one else is in control. We see tragedy and loss and we wonder, where is God? If God is a just God, and one who is in control, why do such unjust things happen? This question is not a new one; and there is great truth in the earliest stories of our faith that help us catch a glimpse of God’s nature at work.

When Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, their two sons, Cain and Abel went to work, at God’s direction, tending animals and the land. Well, you know the story, Abel’s offering was accepted by God and Cain’s was not, making one brother jealous of the other’s perceived favor. Have you ever felt that jealousy raising its head in you? Jealousy of what someone else has, or resentment over what you do not have? Jealousy because you feel slighted, overlooked, passed over, ignored or put down as another is lifted up? Anger and resentment grew between the brothers. Cain slew Abel and tried to cover up the evidence. But God knew. God heard Abel’s blood crying out for justice from the ground. Yet yet how did God act? Did God strike Cain to take his life in vengeance? No. God cast Cain out to live a life apart from the land, apart from the thing he loved most. There were consequences for Cain, but they were not violent consequences. God did not use power to enforce the divine will, but to teach a holy lesson: mercy and forgiveness are more powerful than violence.

Generations later, one of Cain’s great-grandchildren took God’s mercy and turned it on its head, proudly proclaiming that he “killed a man for striking me, a young man for wounding me.” He took justice into his own hands, claiming the right not only to take a life for a life, but to take disproportionate vengeance. The law that one could take “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” was meant not to justify retribution, but to limit its effects. In our own constitution the eighth amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” This is one of the central tenets of law from the earliest civilizations onward. For humans, violence is one of the ways we try to right some wrong, to set the world in order, to impose our will on the circumstances around us. But violence is not God’s way.

God does not impose the divine will by force, but invites us into it by love. God woos us, calls us, invites us, longs for us, pursues us, but does not ever force us. God does not cause people to do violence; violence is not God’s will. We choose violence often because we feel vulnerable and want to be like our image of God, all powerful, all knowing, and able to impose order upon chaos or sometimes, to create chaos that disrupts an order we don’t like. When people choose violence, they make themselves into false gods, with the ability to execute judgment and consequence on the world that has hurt them. But violence is not God’s way.

When Jesus hung dying on the cross, slowly asphyxiating, the life draining out of him by the moment and the people who rejected him standing by jeering at him, mocking him, spitting contempt upon him, he did not have the strength for many words, but of those he spoke, one sentence says it all: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

Even from the cross, he had the power to impose his will on his circumstance. He could have floated down from there, calling an army of angels to vanquish the Romans and retake the city by force, claiming it once and for all as God’s home among mortals. Yet violence is not God’s way. Knowing God better than we do, he pled on our behalf, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Now here’s the thing. Those who mocked Jesus from the foot of the cross knew what power he was supposed to possess. If he had floated down from the cross, they would surely have believed because he would have demonstrated himself more powerful than Rome’s best tool for public humiliation by execution. “If you are the son of God,” they shouted, “throw yourself down from there.” They expected God to respond with force against the violence of the cross. But that is not what God did. If it was the fear, anger, and violence of the human heart that put Jesus to death, what was God’s response?

Resurrection. Forgiveness. Love.

We threw our worst at Jesus and God said, “I don’t like the rules you are playing by. If you want to be ruled by fear and anger and violence, death is the worst you can do. I can do better.” So God took away death as the consequence of sin in the garden, inviting us to live by a set of new rules that are as old as the ages: mercy trumps judgment, forgiveness trumps condemnation, life trumps death. Violence may kill the body, but it cannot take life anymore.

On the morning of resurrection, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Through her tears she looked in and saw two messengers dressed in all white sitting where Jesus had lain, one had the head, the other at the foot. They said to her, “woman, why are you weeping?” She said, they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have put him.” She turned and ran straight into Jesus, but she did not recognize him. He said to her, “woman, why are you weeping.” Supposing him to be the gardner, she said, “Sir, if you have taken him away, show me where you have put him so I may take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” Then, the scripture says, she turned.

Violence is still very much a part of the human condition, as we saw on Monday. Violence kills and maims bodies, and strikes fear into the hearts of those who see it. If you think about it, the cross was Rome’s best terrorist threat, their best tool to inspire fear and impose their own form of order. There on public display, they could proclaim their power to bring death, even upon supposed kings.

Yet in the garden, Jesus came to Mary amidst her tears. He entered her pain. He understood what loss meant. He knew the fear that she and the others labored under. She did not recognize him because, well, who would? He had been crucified. He was dead. She was looking for a lifeless body. And yet there he stood next to her pool of tears, calling her by name, inviting her to see another reality, one that is not dominated by violence and fear, but one that springs from forgiveness and love.

She stood facing the tomb, a place that stank of death, a place that testified to the triumph of power and violence. He called her by name and the scripture says, “she turned.” Hearing her name called to her surrounded by death and despair, in the midst of tears and fears, she suddenly knew that the tomb was not the end, violence did not get the last word, love triumphed over death, so she turned.

She turned away from her fear. She turned away from all thoughts of retribution and resentment. She turned away from the ways of violence and death to face her teacher who brings life.

Repentance, as we often talk about it, is about turning away from sin. It is that. But fundamental to our sin is that we believe that we can be like God by imposing our will on the world around us. Violence is the ultimate tool to help us get our way. But it is not God’s way. Today, Jesus is inviting us to turn away from the ways of sin and death, our ways of taking control, of asserting ourselves, of trying to remake the world to our own advantage. Jesus is inviting us to turn away from our fear and to know the blessed assurance that death is not the end, that violence never wins.

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One of those killed at the finish line on Monday was Martin Richard, a vivacious eight-year old cheering not only for those who won the race, but also for those who were simply able to finish the race. You may have seen pictures of him taken at his first communion in his church, holding a banner that speaks of God’s love made known in bread and cup, made known in sacrifice and self-giving, made known on the cross. There is another picture of Martin that has also made the rounds this week; it is of Martin and his wish for the world. Martin, who at age eight seems to know the heart of Jesus better than we do, is holding a sign that says, “No more hurting people: Peace.” From beyond the grave, Martin speaks words of grace imploring us to turn with him to Jesus, to turn away from the ways of violence and vengeance to seek peace through mercy and love. Father, forgive us. We do not know what we are doing.

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So I invite you to pray with Martin and me. Pray for those who plot and perpetrate violence everywhere, while confessing the violence we ourselves harbor in the depths of our hearts. Pray that those who are afraid may find refuge in Christ. And pray for a peace that is greater than any cessation of violence, a peace that begins with the turning of the human heart to God.

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Turn it off, please.

Turn it off, please. Friends, on this day when the media coverage of the manhunt in Boston is at its most frenetic, turn it off, please. I don’t mean check out, be uninterested or disengaged, just turn it off. You can’t help by watching, but you can help by praying.

I’ve noticed that on days like this in the news, it is ever so hard to avert our eyes. But what are our eyes beholding? What are our ears tuning into? What does the media really have to report? I greatly appreciate what Steve Inskeep from NPR said today. “We are collecting a lot of dots today, but are not able to connect them yet.” So why keep talking? Because radio cannot have dead air time and tv must have flashing lights and scrolling non-messages just to keep us hanging.

I understand that their job is to bring us news, and that they cannot very well move on to another story when a major city like Boston is in lockdown and the news of capture or arrest of the bombing suspect may happen at any moment, but my life will not change if I do not know the instant that happens. I will find out. My interest will be satisfied, and I won’t be subjected to the steady stream of speculation and non-information designed just to keep me hanging. Moreover, by the time I do get the news, perhaps, just perhaps, some of those dots may be connected and there may be a real story emerging.

More than anything, on days like these, I am disturbed by what the media frenzy does to me. It is like a caffeine high that keeps me buzzing for a while but eventually makes me crash with a terrible headache. What happens to my soul is even more distressing. My sorrow at the loss on Monday turns into fear, which ferments into an anger that yearns for justice until it verges into a thirst for vengeance. The media frenzy feeds my corrupted human heart making me want to see that bastard dead.

So I’ve turned it off, for now. I will check back in later this afternoon for a quick update. If there is no real news, I’ll leave it until later still, or perhaps tomorrow morning. I want to know. I am interested in seeing the right thing happen. I am not disengaged from the greater quest to make our world a better, more livable, more peaceful place. I just don’t think that obsessive news watching accomplishes that. There is something much more important I can be doing, like praying.

I can be on my knees asking God to comfort the families of those who died Monday and heal those who lost limbs or were injured. I can pray for the police officers, FBI agents, and other first responders who are working so hard not only to capture the perpetrator of this violence, but also to keep the people of Boston, including many of my friends, safe. I can pray with those huddling with their children in their basements. I am afraid not only for them, but also with them. I can even pray for the suspect, not that he escapes (heavens no!), but that he finds the courage to turn himself in and be held accountable for his role in the events of Monday. Apparently he’s only 19. My heart breaks for anyone whose life is so corrupted that inflicting such violence even becomes imaginable.

I invite you to join me in turning it off, and turning instead to God. The media cannot change what is going to happen today, but God can.

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Praying in the Midst of Distractions

Luke 4:1-13

A couple of weeks ago I was working on the fresh translation of 1 Corinthians 13. I was deeply into the Greek, comparing other translations and trying to find my own way to capture the meaning I saw in the language of the heart. Right in the middle of one of the stickier translation verses, I see a Facebook message from my college friend Anne who lives in Dallas inviting me to read a post about “Praying with various Myers-Briggs Personality Types.” I quickly touched the interrupting bar and it took me to the Facebook page with the post. I looked through the list for my personality type and found this:

INFP: God, help me to finish everything I sta…

Busted.

I laughed so hard at my own truth I had to message her back thanking her for the post and telling her that in a few weeks I was planning to offer this sermon: “Praying in the midst of distractions.” I promised that her message would be my opening illustration.

How do we get anything done, much less accomplish a life of prayer in the midst of so many distractions? I am constantly tempted to check Facebook (what are my friends up to? has anyone “liked” or commented on my last post?) or Twitter, (not only checking those I follow, but also watching for what is trending in case I miss out on something good). I was struck by how many Facebook and Twitter posts I saw Wednesday from friends giving up these platforms for Lent. What does that say about us? What does it say about the nature of our connections?

A few weeks ago our family was eating out and we observed that at a table nearby everyone was on a smartphone, parents and children, everyone was on their own phone texting, tweeting, updating status or location, checking email, surfing the web, who knows? What we observed was that through the entire meal, there was no conversation, no interaction with one another, only with the waiter to give their orders. The day is coming soon when we will not even need waiters, all we’ll have to do is just beam our order to kitchen, which will text when food can be picked up.

It is easy to cast stones, but the truth is I will often be playing backgammon on the iPad waiting for boys and Elizabeth to be ready for prayers in the evenings. Once they all arrive, I inevitably have just one more roll, just one more move, I’ve almost got it! We do our prayers by mutual invitation and can always tell the most distracted among us by who knows who has shared highs and lows and who has forgotten who has already gone. All too often I am the one who did not listen or even know what my children’s or my spouse’s prayer was.

Even if it is not some electronic device, the distractions of our lives can overwhelm. It was about a month ago that Elizabeth got in my face and asked me where I was because I wasn’t here, I wasn’t with her or the boys. Then she said words that really stung. She said, “you haven’t been here for the past month. You drift through the house, you show up for dinner but you are not here.” I had let the church get in the way of my family. My struggles, my pain had become my obsession. My soul was held captive to church issues, to trying to fix things myself. “When things get hard,” I had always learned, “just work harder.”

My hard work ended up digging a pit, and Elizabeth and the boys were standing at the edge looking down at me wondering why I didn’t see them anymore. The pit had become my home. I kept trying to clear the mud at the bottom of the pit, never stopping to realize that the deeper I dug, the more mud I created. Elizabeth’s words stung and woke me up, called me back to reality, allowed me to see the pit and to ask, “do I really want to live here?” Have you ever found yourself in a pit like that?

Distractions can easily become a pit for us, isolating us from the ones we love, from the people with whom we work, from the God we serve. Before we know it we become accustomed to the distractions, we feel safe in the walls of the pit, isolated from the pain outside. But we are still in a pit. The good news is God sent Christ to redeem our lives from the pit. He even climbs down in the muck with us to help us find our way out.

We are wired to be distracted. Focus does not come easily to us human beings. When we smell smoke, we drop what we are doing to escape the fire. It is a biological imperative. When we are hungry, we seek food to fill the hungry place because without food, we will die. Biology 101.

So when Jesus was driven into the wilderness for a time of fasting and prayer, it is no wonder he was tempted to fill his emptiness. “If you are the son of God, command these stones to be turned into loaves of bread,” came the voice of temptation. But Jesus knew something different. He knew that while he needed to eat to survive, his survival without God was not better than life with God. “One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus said, “but by every word that comes from God.”

Fasting, depriving himself of food, was Jesus’ way to become more aware of his hunger for God. But notice, Jesus did not allow his hunger to become his obsession, he did not allow himself to dig a pit of despair. Instead, he remained open and vulnerable to the distraction, allowing it to drive his awareness of God’s presence. When his distraction became a temptation, he was able to resist not because he’s better at beating the devil than we are, but because he trusted in God’s mercy and grace more than we perhaps do. Rather than trying to solve his problem himself, he asked God, “what would you teach me in this circumstance.” The answer, of course, was to rely on God’s word; God’s word alone can sustain us in the midst of distraction and temptation. He resisted temptation successfully because he knew his own story, and he knew his place in God’s story. How can we resist temptation if we don’t know our own story or our place in God’s story?

God can take the distractions of our lives and use them if we allow Christ to direct our longings instead of allowing our distractions to become obsessions. To be alive is to be distracted. We cannot stop it. We can only redirect our distractions back to God. Instead of focusing on our distractions, getting lost in them or trying to fix or deal with them, what would happen if we yielded them instead, giving them back to God in prayer? What would happen if we asked God to take our cares and our concerns, our longings and our obsessions and teach us something or lead us somewhere through them? The incomparable C.S. Lewis says it this way:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life– the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.

How can we embrace the interruptions that are our lives without letting them become distractions? Only by attending to God moment by moment, by listening to and through God’s word, asking, “God, what are you teaching me now? Use this to draw me into greater communion with you,” only then do our interruptions become gift and not distraction from the holy things God is placing before us.

The problem is, I think most of us actually like our distractions. They are familiar and comfortable. They become like the walls of the pit, keeping out the really painful stuff and making us feel safe.

We like the Facebook because it gives us a sense of connection without actually having to have a conversation with anyone.

We like Twitter because it is one way, no one can talk back, we can only be “retweeted.”

We like the TV because we can watch our favorite shows and get lost in their worlds, which seem somehow more thrilling or exotic or interesting or romantic than the one we live in.

We like our pornography or our sports or our drinking for the same reason, they can take us away from…this.

We like our favorite news sources because they reinforce what we think, and if we only watch one channel, read one website, listen to one voice we will never need to be challenged by reality.

We like our online games or our books or our hobbies because there is a constancy there, a repetition, a predictability that we do not find in real life.

And then there’s busyness. We like our busyness because it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning and keeps us from having to reflect on the question, “why do we do what we do the way we do it.” We just keep busy, busy like Dory in Finding Nemo, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” endlessly swimming, mindlessly busy.

We like our distractions. They keep us safe. They insulate us from one another. They keep God at a distance.

We all have distractions, large and small. The question is what we will do with them. I invite you to give them to God. I invite you to take a piece of paper and write down what is distracting you, what is keeping you from living freely and fully in Jesus? What is consuming you or walling you off from your loved ones or friends? What do you use to keep God at a distance? What excuses do you give for not listening to Jesus’ voice? What busyness do you have that keeps you from simply being, learning again that you are a beloved child of God? I invite you to write your responses on the paper and bring it up to the cross during our prayer time. There are nails in the cross. Puncture the paper on the nails and leave it there, leave your distractions and temptations and obsessions in Jesus’ hands. No one will read them. We’re not asking for your signature. Just give them to Jesus. Let him take them from you, free you from them, help you find life again. Then let’s learn to make a habit of it, giving all our distractions to Jesus so he can redirect us and make something new and beautiful and God honoring out of them.

I invite you to pray with me:

God you know all things. You know the interruptions of our lives; you know our distractions; you know our obsessions. You know all the things we let stand between us and a better relationship with you. Accept these prayers, and as we nail our distractions to the cross, help us to leave them there, so that in your hands, they, and we, may be redeemed through the power of the crucified one and the Holy Spirit who raises us to new life in you. Amen.

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