Sunday, June 29, 2014

Festal Shout

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite
1I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever;
With my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
2I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
3You said, "I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
4'I will establish your descendants forever,
And build your throne for all generations.''" Selah
15Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
Who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance;
16They exult in your name all day long,
And extol your righteousness.
17For you are the glory of their strength;
By your favor our horn is exalted.
18For our shield belongs to the LORD,
Our king to the Holy One of Israel.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

It's been a long week at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell. Last Sunday, volunteers waited for a throng of children to come join us for the Workshop of Wonders Bible School, we threw open our doors at five ready to begin the events that had been in motion for weeks and months before, as we prepared a place for the children who will lead worship for us during the offertory later today.

The parents and grandparents dropped their kids off with us, trusting us to provide a safe environment to entertain their children, and perhaps teach them something important about life in the process. Vacation Bible School isn't just children's ministry, it's also ministry to the adults who care for them. Some of the parents took the opportunity to go out on a date together, tending to their relationships while we tended to their children. Others had a quiet night at home, enjoying the opportunity to be still, an opportunity that young children make rare. I'm sure a few also had details, either at work or at home, that they had shelved in order to spend time with their families, and were able to take them back up knowing that we were taking up their children.

But the volunteers who worked at our Vacation Bible School weren't just free childcare, giving the adults the chance to do grown-up work in the grown-up world. We learned from those children, from their wonder at the amazing Bible stories, and the way they got into the narrative the youth enacted before them. We learned from their excitement as the science experiments showed the wonders of God's created order. We learned from their laughter and playfulness at the recreation station, showcasing the joy that is a sacred part of childhood. We learned from their creativity as they made crafts together, artistically expressing their thoughts and emotions, both simple and profound. We learned from their silliness and rapt attention at the opening and closing assemblies each evening, as they joined with James and Rivet, Marie and Mimi, in exploring the themes of the night through skits and music.

Even as our Volunteers sought to share God with the children, so too the children shared God with us, each generation proclaiming God's love to every other.

"I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever. With my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations."

The church is one of the few places in our culture where we can interact with people across generations. That's a huge strength. It gives us the perspective to see beyond the anxieties of our own lives. We can look with a child's wonder and discern with an elder's wisdom on the same action.

Crossing generations gives us the vision to reach beyond our own experience and testify to how God has acted throughout our history and into our future. We can say together that Our God is the one who works wonders. We can tell the stories of faith together, reading from a script passed down to us through the generations, yet bringing our own interpretation as we enact the stories for one another, telling and retelling the same ancient truths in new ways. God's truths are eternal, and we share them through our stories about God's steadfast love. This shifting world cannot move us out of the reach of God's loving kindness.

"I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens."

Our Psalm reading this morning comes from a specific context, and is littered with references to the world in which its writer lived. It emerged as a response to crisis within the people of God, when they were losing sight of who they were and whose they were.

Ethan the Ezrahite, to whom this Psalm is attributed, had probably seen the Babylonian exile, when the Jewish people who had been deported after Babylon conquered Judah were finally able to come home again. It gave the people a chance to rebuild their lives and their culture, which had been utterly shattered when the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies. We simply don't have an analogue for what that would be like in our own history. The heartbreak in the stories written during that time is simply inaccessible to most of us. Ethan the Ezrahite wrote this psalm as the people were finally allowed to return home.

This Psalm also references the line of King David. Just about everyone with any contact with Judeo-Christian culture recognizes that reference. He's the one who killed Goliath,  became king after Saul, and had the affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

This Psalm, by invoking that dynastic imagery, by remembering God's covenant with king David, is reestablishing the commitment to living by God's promise. The promise is not a political reality, but a liturgical, visionary, ideological hope which continued to shape the life and imagination of Israel.

God promised David that his kingdom would not end. That's part of what made the babylonian captivity so difficult for those who endured it. It wasn't just a national tragedy, it was a religious one as well. David's dynasty had failed, and with it God's promise seemed to evaporate. Without the promise of God, nothing about the Israelite national identity made sense anymore.

"You said, 'I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David:'"

And yet in spite of the missing king from David's line, the tone of this psalm is still joyful. Perhaps the vanity of a powerful empire is lost, but our ability to praise our God is not. Because we live in a quickly changing world and there's certainly a lot for us to fear. But we have the truth of the gospel to support us, and the testimony of innumerable generation of our spiritual ancestors to hold us up.

The truth is that God is active in the world, God intervenes in our lives, even when we cannot see it. Sometimes we will see God's action only in hindsight, when we reflect on our lives and look for God's hands amid our history. Other times we will never know what it is God has done for us, because how can we know everything. Our lives are full of overlooked blessings and turns that could have gone wrong, we could not possibly keep track of all of them. But the covenant, though it may change forms as it did for the Israelites and God's covenant with David, is still strong. When God made a promise the people of God knew that they could count on God to keep it, even if they didn't understand how it would take place. God is faithful even when we don't see it. God's people are ensured a future even while exiled in Babylon.

"'I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.' Selah"

As American Christians, we've got plenty of reasons to worry about the future. American culture has shifted away from the church, and we can no longer enjoy the privilege of social dominance like we once did. As a result, membership is declining across our denomination, youth are aging out of the programs we designed for them and they aren't coming back the way their parents did. People generally don't take the time to memorize scripture or the catechism anymore. Religiously affiliated schools and charities are shifting their identity to one that is more easily marketable so that they can continue the work that is important to them. Our confidence in the economy has been shaken and still has not recovered. Many of our political leaders seem more interested in gathering their own power than serving the people. One can understand how the American Church might be having a bit of an identity crisis as we try to grab any program or idea that we can rely on.

Israel, likewise, was having an identity crisis. The threefold destruction of their monarchy, their temple, and their city left a nationwide case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in its wake. They had to learn how to function when their homes had been destroyed with no chance to rebuild, much less the decline of their holy city. They had to learn how to be a people of God when temple worship was no longer even possible, much less the center of their culture. They had to learn how to affirm that God was their sovereign when their ruler was an occupying foreign power, much less of the house and lineage of David. Their whole identity as a covenant people was at stake, and the people of Judah were struggling to hold on to who they were and whose they were.

But none of those problems were enough to stifle Ethan the Ezrahite's Festal Shout. This long psalm walks through much of the pain of the Babylonian Exile in its later verses, giving language to the experience of an Israel that still didn't understand what God was doing in the world. But it begins with a celebrate of God's greatness, reminding them and us of what God had promised, and that those promises were trustworthy, even if we couldn't understand how they could possibly still be true. Those who read this Psalm have seen God's face in the promises he made to their ancestors. God's promises brought a little light to the darkness of their exile.

"Happy are the people who know the festal shout. Who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance."

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, plenty of reasons to be proud of our church family. We just finished a successful week of Bible school. Our average weekly worship attendance is up. We are struggling through complex issues together instead of cutting one another off when we disagree. Our choir is faithful, talented, and hard-working, so is our staff. Our church feeds the hungry through our Chicken Pot Pie sales, and we provide funds so that others outside our community can be fed by participating in and financially supporting the mission work of the Presbytery.

Even though we have much to celebrate here at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, even though we have reasons to be pleased with ourselves, none of those are why we show up for worship each week. None of those raise a Festal Shout. All the little markers of our growth and health bring on a grateful smile, but songs of praise are more deeply rooted.

For shout's of praise, we have God's promises, just as Ethan the Ezrahite and the Judeans returning from exile had. Those promises are real even when we cannot see them. We join the people who sing to God from a ruined temple in a city with half-built walls. We praise God with the Israelites who remember being forced from the homes and resettling in a foreign land. They can praise God because they know that God is active, and that God's promises are sure. So even while we struggle, we are filled with the richness of God's grace.

"They exult in your name all day long, and extol your righteousness."

Israel's monarchy had been crushed by the Babylonian empire, yet they still hoped for a king like David, who would restore Israel to its former glory. But God, in my experience, is not as concerned with the preservation of national interests. God is interested in creating relationships out of steadfast love and faithfulness with God's people. So the king who is a descendant of David is not a political leader who re-establishes the monarchy. He's the son of a carpenter who restores all of humanity to its former relationship with God. Because our exile was not at the hands of a conquering nation, it's of our own making as we bear the consequences of our limited humanity.

But even in our brokenness, we know the Festal Shout, Jesus is Lord. We know that God is our protector, and even though that does not guarantee wealth or power, or the other ways we measure success in this world, we know that we are cared for. God is faithful even when we don't see it. Our testimony is not based on our own abilities or talents, our talents and abilities testify to the strength of our God.

"For you are the glory of their strength; By your favor our horn is exalted."

It's been a long history for the Presbyterian Church of Lowell, for we have inherited the stories of the Israelites and Judeans. We have just finished a week of Bible School, where we shared the stories of our faith with one another, that our God is the one who works wonders. We know that God is faithful, even when we don't see it.  For we know the Festal Shout that Jesus Christ is the King of Heaven. We know that in life and in death we belong to God. Even when we think we are losing ourselves, God is still our defender and the one whom we serve.

"For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel."

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Non-Violent Swords

Non-Violent Swords from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Romans 6:1-11
1What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 10:24-39
24"A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the  teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

26"So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs on your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

32"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

34"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

There are passages in scripture that hold great meaning for me. Some of them happened to intersect with my life at particularly poignant moments, and shaped how I think about God, and about God's people. Some of them emerged out of intense study as I wrestled with what they might mean in a world that is so far removed from the culture and time in which it was written.

Other passages make me profoundly uncomfortable because they push against the views I hold as central to my understanding of God.

Matthew is my favorite gospel, and the excerpt from his narrative which we read today makes me profoundly uncomfortable.

I'd much rather talk about Christ's ability to bring people together, seen in the feeding of the five thousand. I'd much rather talk about how Christ calls us to turn the other cheek, seen in the sermon on the mount. I'd much rather talk about the Christ who is Lord of all creation, seen in the calming of the storm, saying "Peace, be still."

But this passage says "Do not think that I have come to bring peace; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household."

Oh it would be so much more comfortable, in this anxious and divided world, to turn back to Matthew's fifth chapter and remind ourselves of the beatitudes, "Blessed be the Peacemakers..."

Oh it would be so much easier, in this violent and reactive time, to look to Matthew's twenty-sixth chapter and remind ourselves of Jesus's arrest and betrayal, "Then Jesus said to [Peter], 'Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword...'"

But studying scripture is not always easy, and discipleship does not always make us comfortable.

Even though this passage makes me profoundly uncomfortable, it's still a part of our shared story. It's scripture, a gift from the Holy Spirit to be cherished, and by which we are to be instructed. We are disciples, each of us, and are not above our teacher, Jesus Christ, the master whom we serve. This passage has something to teach us, even if it's difficult to harmonize with the other stories depicting Christ as a peacemaker.

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household"

The community to whom Matthew was writing was being persecuted by their families and neighbors as Christianity was just being born. We may not be suffering the same kind of persecution, but our community is also hurting. Our family feels divided.

There are folks in our church who celebrate the actions that our General Assembly took this week. Others are deeply offended and feel abandoned by the denomination they have loved for so long. One group finally feels accepted in their own homes, that justice and grace have been extended to them at last. Another wonders if they can still call this church home, when they struggle to reconcile their understanding of scripture, of sin, and of repentance with the stand our church has taken.

Our family feels divided, and many of us are ready to draw our swords, and to answer our hurt with cut-off. There is as strong temptation to wield this text to end our relationships with those with whom we disagree, assuming that because we understand God differently, we cannot be a church together.

I don't think that temptation is exclusive to either perspective. I've heard many times around this debate "if they're not willing to move, let them leave, who needs them." I've also heard "If the church makes this move, they have left God, and I will no longer associate with them." Both reactions will use this scripture to justify their cut off. "After all, Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword."

But we read more than just that line this morning. There is more to this passage than the opportunity to gloat over "winning" or snarl over "losing." Perhaps our foes are members of our own households, as verse 36 states, but we must remember whose household this is.

We are disciples and servants, our master and teacher is Jesus Christ, Lord of heaven and earth. "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the  teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!"

Our congregation, our presbytery, our denomination, our family feels divided, and many of us are ready to draw our swords to defend "us" from "them." But their foes are members of their own household, we remain members of Christ's household even while we are fighting with one another. This is not a matter of "us" vs "them." This is a family fight, and it's "us" vs "us." We can cross theological swords over this issue and still remain a family. We are members of Christ's household, united, as our Romans passage reminds us, in baptism.

Christian discipleship does not stand still, in my experience. There are always new ministry opportunities before us, and new sins of which we can repent. Each particular person brings their individual perspective to the ways that God is working in the world, and how the church should respond. Those different perspectives can make for strong disagreement within the body of Christ, but they can also show us new ways that the Holy Spirit is at work, and we may recognize Christ in a fellow believe.

My first Sunday here, I talked about how God has a word to say to me through the people in this congregation. I firmly believe that to be true, and so I am listening for what God is teaching me here. That's part of my discipleship. I believe it is essential for us to remain connected, especially when we disagree. I am not always right, and I struggle with some parts of the Bible, and someone with a different perspective can teach me a way that God is moving in the world that I would not have considered otherwise. I hope that this congregation, my church family, can remember that we are reconciled by Christ, and that is more powerful than anything that may try to divide us.

We may think ourselves enemies, but we must remain connected to our LORD and to the other members of our household. While we were yet sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us, and we have been baptized into that death as well. That's what Christian Love is like, and it is by no means easy.

In fact, Christian love can make us profoundly uncomfortable. But it's who we are, or at least who we strive to be.

I think we avoid talking about difficult issues, and cut off is an avoidance, because we are worried about being impolite by disagreeing openly. So we end up covering up our wounds, which lets them fester and grow deeper. "Kingdom work, it turns out, is more controversial and subversive than conventional kindness."

Just before this congregation voted to extend a call to me, Leah and I went up to Table Rock State Park in the mountains of South Carolina. We went to celebrate our three year anniversary and to take intentional time together before starting my ministry, which we knew would affect our ability to spend time together.

While we were there, we hiked up the mountain. It was Leah's idea, our hikes usually are her idea, so she was in front, and I followed behind. At the top of the mountain, we crossed paths with another couple, and the guy was a pretty typical obnoxious college student who was trying to prove how cool he was. He made a comment about how annoying it was that the women were leading the hikes, and invited me to agree with him.

It was an opportunity to share how much I love my wife, to brag about how avid a hiker she is, and that I don't need to prove myself by being better than her, I could just enjoy being with her. I could have started a relationship with this guy that encouraged him to expand his worldview that maybe it was ok that the person who was more familiar with the trail go first.

Instead I gave him a response that I thought would make him go away. I dismissed him with a nice comment, instead of engaging him with a loving one. After hiking three miles, I didn't have the energy to have the disagreement and discussion with him. I wish I had, because he was a child of God who didn't deserve to be ignored by me.

It's not enough to just be nice to one another, to keep the peace because we're afraid of conflict. We are commanded to love one another, and sometimes that means conflict as we work out what it means to be disciples, in a changing world.

Lots of folks see eternal life as the goal of Christianity. This passage points to taking up our cross as the goal. If I'm a really nice person, I'll get to hang out with the other nice folks in a sort-of heavenly country club and play golf with Moses on the weekends.

The call of the gospel is, for Presbyterians, an assurance that we have eternal life, and therefore are able to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. God keeps us, and not even those who would kill us can break that hold. So even when it makes us profoundly uncomfortable to disagree, God still keeps us and makes us one.

In our gospel passage this morning, Jesus is assuring the disciples of God's love and protection over them, telling them "Do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows." We can also find unity in that assurance. We are of more value than many sparrows, and so are they, the ones with whom we disagree, the family members with whom we are fighting. God also values them, and it wouldn't hurt so much if we didn't still value them too. With Christ's assurance and God's guidance, we struggle through these issues together. But to quote our Moderator, Dr. Heath Rada, "let's disagree boldly, but never stop loving each other."

This congregation was formed a little over 67 years ago when the two Presbyterian Churches in town reunited after a family dispute, between two brothers as I've heard it, split the church. Our denomination was formed a little over 31 years ago when two churches reunited after over a century of division. We have seen divisions in our families mended with time, but more importantly with love for one another.

Our congregation has seen dysfunction and disunity, where people talk about one another rather than to one another. We know how much pain that can generate. It's much healthier to talk with one another about where we stand, even if it means we disagree with one another. "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known."

Our disagreements will only divide us if we let them, if we forget who it is that brings us together as one household. Because we don't gather in this place each week because we agree on what our General Assembly says. We gather in this place because "we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." The issues which divide us are significant, but our God is so much greater, and has redeemed us already.

This passage of scripture makes me profoundly uncomfortable, but it's the word of the Lord just as much as my favorite verses are. There are people in this world with whom I am uncomfortable, with whom I disagree fiercely, but they are God's children just as much as I am. The same God who did not give up on us when we were steeped in sin also calls us to love one another.

God keeps us together. Our church does not win or lose by the vote of the General Assembly. Our Victory is won though the hands of the High King of heaven. That victory is so much more than the hurt we feel in disagreement, and give us the faith to connect with one another, even though we may disagree on even important issues. We are united by our baptism into Christ's death. "All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."

Sunday, June 15, 2014


I grew up with a Preschool Music Teacher as a mother. Every time we got into the car it was an opportunity for her to do research with my brother and me as test subjects. We have heard more children's music tapes than you would believe even exist.

The song that has stayed with me most is Tom Chapin's "Great Big Words," which extols the virtues of excessively ponderous verbiage, or as the song's chorus puts it: Great big words, I like big words.

On a Sunday celebrating the trinity, one runs into a bunch of Great Big Words. I think this is largely because the trinity is one of descriptions of God that we can only understand by faith, because mortal minds can't wrap around the bigness of our God in three persons, who is still one God, and yet each person is also the full expression of God. Western Theologians have sought for generations to find an image that adequately portrays the Trinity, and nobody has succeeded. Every image either leans too far towards "God is one" or "God is three" So we professional theologians hide behind our big words so that we can look smart even while we admit that God is greater than our ability to describe God.

Today's sermon title is one of those big words: Perichoresis.

Having grown up singing songs about liking big words, and then majoring in English at Presbyterian College, I've become one of those people who talks about grammar and stuff for fun. So I'm going to take down the big-word mask and break it up so I can't hide behind it.

Perichoresis is the word you get when you mash "perimeter" and "choreography" together. One is the measurement around something, the other is dancing. Perichoresis, therefore, is dancing around together. We get it from the Eastern branches of the Christian Church, who use the image of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dancing together to grab hold of the mystery of the trinity.

The dancing trinity shows how closely and joyfully the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together, and that's the image I want us to hold in our Genesis passage. "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth, being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and the Spirit of God sweeping over the water." Already the dance has begun, sweeping back and forth over the world before it even existed.

The word-lover in me is excitedly caught up in how artfully our Genesis passage is woven together. The shape of this creation story as first God builds and then fills creation, placing the capstone of God's blessing as God rests on the sabbath day. The way all the components relate with one another fills the Creator with joy. It doesn't just tell a story, story itself dances within the text, taking familiar steps each day: beginning each day with "God said..." and ending each one with "And there was evening, and there was morning..." The first three days God separates and creates space, light is separated from dark, the waters are separated by an expanse, and dry land is separated from water. Then in the next three days the sky is filled with greater and lesser lights, the sky and sea are filled with birds and fish, and the dry land is filled with all manner of animal life, including us!

Then on day seven, the dance moves we learned from days one through six are capped off with a blessing, with sabbath, with rest, "The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that he had done."

My Dad is a woodworker, always tinkering with some project or another in his shop. As soon as I was old enough to listen when I was told "Don't touch, you'll hurt yourself" he started inviting me to come help him on whatever project he was working on at the time. I might be reading or watching television and he would walk past and say "How about giving me a hand?" There was always an understanding that he would still love me if I said "No," but I usually jumped up from what I was doing anyway.

We would work for a while, sometimes until we were at a convenient stopping point, sometimes the stopping point came when Dad was frustrated and needed to walk away before he smashed the project into a thousand pieces.

Once we were done for the night, he'd pour himself a glass of wine and we'd sit out on the back porch, resting because our work for the day was done. We still work in the shop together when we visit one another. These days I'll have a glass as well, and that's the image I have of sabbath: a couple of people, lightly dusted with wood shavings, sitting with their feet up talking about the world after a long day of work.

Even holding up the images of Sabbath rest and the dancing trinity, this bible story is still very familiar. I've read this bible story more times than I can count, I've even preached on it before at an evening prayer service. Every time I read it through the words of Paul's letter to the church in Rome, "God speaks into being things which do not exist." God says "Lights!" and suddenly from everywhere and from nowhere, light floods the scene. But this time I noticed something different: "Let there be..."

In this passage, God's creative word is an invitation. "Let there be..." And at God's creative invitation, light, and an expanse, and dry land, and vegetation, and lights, and swarms of living creatures, and every kind of living creature, and people, all joyfully leap into existence.

In a world where folks very seriously and sternly debate precisely how the cosmos came into being, and the timetable in which it happened, the idea of joyfully answering God's invitation sweeps the perspective so far that we almost don't know it when we see it. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are having so much fun dancing together that God wants more dance partners! They say "Dance with me!" and light suddenly dances across the darkness, land dances between the waters, birds dance in the air, fish in the sea, animals dance on land and God sees that it is good!

Then God gets an idea: "And God said, 'Let us make [people] in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.' And God created a human in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

Just by being people we are answering God's invitation to dance alongside the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But because we are created in God's image, we are able to join participate in what God is doing in so many other ways, and we can celebrate each other the way the three persons of the Trinity joyfully dance around together!

This church is one body, but "none is the full image of God alone. Only in community of humankind is God reflected." We each are invited to dance alongside God, and none of us can see the full image of God in our own dance, no matter how sweet our dance moves may be.

Each summer for the last several years, I've been invited to serve on staff at Tri-Cities Workcamp, which is sort of a mix of church camp and mission trip. During the day, youth are sent out into inner-city Petersburg to do home repair in some of the most run-down neighborhoods in the city. After their daily work is done, we come together to share a meal and do an evening program. As the night draws to a close and we get ready to send the campers off to dessert and then to sleep, we invite a few folks to come forward and tell the whole camp where they saw God that day.

There's always a moment or two of silence, and then someone who has come to Workcamp for years will pop up, stride over to the stage and share their experience of God, and how they were able to participate in God's continuing acts of creation. Then another camper, perhaps a little younger, a little less sure of themselves, will take their place and share as well. And the kingdom of God gathered in that place will celebrate both of their stories, clapping and joyfully shouting even before they make it to the microphone because the invitation has been answered.

Workcamp is one of those communities where I have seen a slightly clearer image of God. This church is, and will be, another community where our congregation, and others around us, can see the image of God, sweeping over the waters, dancing through creation, joyfully doing the work God invites us to do!

But like all people, and all communities, we're broken. We're a little afraid of looking silly when no one else seems to be joining the dance. It's so much easier to stand at the edges and watch what God is doing than to answer the invitation ourselves. We don't even fully understand what God is doing. We only have access to a piece of the greatness of God, a small part of the dance that God has chosen to share with us. It's more comfortable to hide behind our big words, even if it means trading joyful faces for stern looks.

When we got so wrapped up that we could not recognize the image of God, God the Son, the Word spoken at creation, came to us to get us out on the floor! We know him as Jesus of Nazareth, God-with-us, the Word made flesh. Just as God created people in God's image so that we could share relationship with God, so we are created anew through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Jesus brings us back into communion with God. After the resurrection, Matthew's gospel tells us a story of a new invitation to participate in what God is doing in the world.

"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, 'I've received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I've commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.'"

Still learning to dance, still learning to joyfully leap into the world where God is at work, some of the disciples doubted. They were so used to their brokenness they didn't know how to live in a world made new by the God who was dancing around it. Maybe they still saw themselves as broken, or couldn't accept that God loved them anyway. Maybe they didn't understand how God was still able to work after Jesus had been killed on a cross. Maybe they would rather hide behind big words than admit they didn't really know what was going on.

But even when we don't get it, even when we can't find the beat and our dance moves are terrible, God still extends the invitation, because it's not about who's the best dancer, it's about answering God's invitation to join in the work of the kingdom. It's about joyfully living as people created in the image of God. God's sovereignty is an invitation to communion with God. In a broken world that is still distorted by sin, "the good news is that life in God's well-ordered world can be joyous and grateful response."

So even though we know only in part, "We take a fragmentary community, fragmentary faith, a fragmentary understanding of the Trinitarian God, and we go into the world with everything Jesus has taught us." One day we will know fully, even as we are fully known.

God is dancing around the whole of creation, and is inviting us to dance alongside the Perichoresis. How will you answer God's invitation to join the work of the Kingdom of God?

Here's one suggestion from a guy named Jesus: "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I've commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age."

Kind of makes you want to dance, doesn't it?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How to talk to dying people - Rev. Dan McCurdy

My friend Rev. Dan McCurdy, a pastor in Wisconsin, posted this on a Facebook group of which we are both members. I think it's one of the most important things I've seen on the internet. It's reposted here with his permission. Often times, in my experience, clergy and chaplains are looked to for this kind of ministry so that family/friends don't have to. However we often have other responsibilities, one of which is to equip families/friends to deal with these kinds of life changes.

So many people, when confronted with a dying person, avoid them because "they don't know what to say."
This is largely a byproduct of feeling like you need to cheer the other person up, or "make them okay with it." Given how rarely we are OKAY with it (especially if we love the one who is dying) this is a tall order. Luckily, it's not ACTUALLY our job.
So here's how you talk to a dying person.
1. Show up. This is 90% of the battle. So long as you aren't especially, near intentionally horrible, the mere fact that you arrived will make your visit a highlight of their day. The Western fear of death means that many people wind up dying alone, avoided by those who care for them. So show up, and you're off to a good start/
2. Touch them. This goes under the sub-heading of showing up... in the end stages of death, as people become less and less aware of what is happening around them, physical contact makes your presence a little more real. Most of the time, what is killing the person isn't contagious through simple physical contact, so unless there are signs around warning you off, feel free to put a hand on their arm or shoulder. (Washing your hands before you walk into the room, of course.) A lot of dying people go days at a time without being touched in a friendly way. It helps them feel more human in a time where a lot of their humanity is being taken from them.
3. "How is Today?" At least once, by accident, you will give your dying friend or loved one the opportunity for the best joke dying has given them... "How are you?" "I'm dying. You?" After the fun of that, a better greeting is "How is Today?" Terminal diseases have good days and bad days. This is a way to find out how they are feeling on this specific day, and lets you know what is going on.
4. Don't be afraid to talk about yourself. A dying person often feels like the world around them is gone... people around them only talking about the disease, funeral arrangements, travel plans, etc. If they ask you questions about what you are up to, don't feel the need to turn the conversation back around onto them, saying; "Well, that's not important right now..." let them dictate what is important, If that includes asking if you've beaten your high score on Candy Crush Saga yet, answer them.
5. Watch for leading questions. If they ask you a question like; "What do YOU think happens when we die," give your answer with a nutshell, and then ask them what they think. These questions are often looking for an opportunity to explore some murky concepts. Tell the truth, and listen for the truth they tell when you return the question.
6. Let them steer the conversation. If the deep talk gets to deep, they'll yank the wheel and take it somewhere else entirely. Let them. In a world where more and more decisions are being taken from them, allow them to dictate this.
7. Do not compulsively fill every silence. If they go quiet, and you don't have anything to say, don't feel the need to babble for the sake of babbling. Silence can be golden.
8. When the time comes to leave, make definite plans to come back. Whenever possible, pick an exact date and time. "I'll see you around" is too nebulous and opens up a strong possibility of "Is this the last time I'll see you." It can ruin a happy day. So be definite. It doesn't assure anything, but it sure leaves the visit on a strong note.
And finally, remember that no matter how far gone they are, until the very end, unless they were clinically deaf before, assume that they can hear you. Talk TO them when you are in the room, instead of always talking over them. Tell them that you love them, that you'll miss them, anything you need to say.
And when the time comes, say goodbye.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Language of Faith

We disciples have been waiting for a long time.

At first we were waiting for a messiah, the long hoped-for savior who would restore the covenant with Israel. A savior who would reunite the twelve tribes and free us from the Roman Empire's occupying influence.

He came, a man named Jesus of Nazareth, and he was the Christ, the son of God. He walked through our lives in a way that gave us hope, healing and teaching us wherever we went.

But he ascended into heaven about a week ago, taken up like Elijah from our sight. He told us to wait, that the Holy Spirit would be given to us, and that we would be sent out from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

So we wait.

This Holy Spirit, this advocate whom Jesus is sending is going to be different than the way we knew Jesus when he walked alongside us on the earth, or when he walked up the hill to the cross, or when he walked towards us over the water. We didn't always understand Jesus's actions, but at least we could see what he was doing, hoping that we would understand it later.

The Spirit of God though? How will that lead us? What even will it look like?

Our Lord told us to wait, so we have stayed in the city for these fifty days since Passover, to the festival of booths, called Pentecost by those of us who speak the language of commerce and trade.

Our church has been waiting too, just like the disciples. We've celebrated seven Sundays in the Easter season, watching Jesus appear to the disciples in different ways each week, showing them the truth of the Resurrection. We're still waiting.

Many of us have been waiting for the end of the school year, for the end of exams and standardized tests  for the chance to go on summer vacation with our families and friends. Beaches and mountain cabins called to us as our schedules relaxed enough to allow us to get out into this great world that our God has created and lay our burdens down, at least for a time.

Many of us were waiting for a new Pastor, trusting that our church could finally move forward once there was stability in this pulpit, that we could resume the work that has meant so much to us when we pass stories of our own golden age around the lunch tables and meeting rooms in our lives.

We disciples have been waiting for a long time.

Throughout all our waiting, and that of the disciples who have gone before us, the Holy Spirit has already been working around us, through us, and on us, hovering over the surface of the waters even in the beginning. Speaking through leaders of the ancient Israelites, descending like a dove at Christ's Baptism, present and active inspiring artists and writers to declare the mighty works of God and calling God's people to gather with one another.

Like the disciples, we are gathered together in one place, waiting for we don't know, something amazing we guess.

But the something amazing for which we are waiting is already at work in us, and has guided us through the myriad experiences in our lives so that we can use our whole selves in the worship of God. Our mouths will tell the story, our hearts will beat with God's righteousness and grace, our minds will grapple with the great questions of faith, our hands will build up the kingdom of God, but these classic, images of faithful living are not the only ways to declare the mighty works of God. The Holy Spirit speaks through every language of faith, calling every aspect of our lives to the service of the Lord of heaven and earth.

A friend of mine, before she came to seminary, worked as a clown at Six Flags. It's a bit of an unconventional background, but she put her talents to work through puppet shows for community children, facepainting at church festivals, and when the pastor found out she could juggle, he made special plans for the following Pentecost.

Because other than speaking in tongues, the image most closely associated with this church holiday is the presence of the tongues of fire. So when the worship service came to a close at Pentecost that year, the church processed out and found her juggling torches, fire flying through the air, drifting in the gusts of wind, a powerful image that God gives us gifts so that we can give them back, no matter how clownish the gift may seem at first.

The Pentecost we celebrate today saw a crowd congregate at the outpouring of the Spirit's gifts just as that congregation crowded around their theological fire-juggler. "There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. 7They were surprised and amazed,"

The Pentecost of the Old Testament celebrate the gifts of God in the harvest, the promised land, and the Torah. The Gift of the Holy Spirit in our scripture this morning adds to that list with different gifts. The Holy Spirit in this story of acts is giving people the ability to speak in tongues so that they can communicate, not as the ecstatic acts we see depicted on television or even in other places in scripture. Those moments are meaningful to those who experience them, but something altogether different is going on here.

Though some who overhear the disciples hear mass hysteria, it is instead an act of mass prophesy. The disciples who are filled with the Holy Spirit are speaking on behalf of God, declaring God's mighty works to all who might listen. The crowd which has gathered is made of up Jews from every nation under heaven, they are the covenant people who have been raised on these same stories of the mighty works of God. They know the stories of creation, of the great flood, of the liberation from slavery in Egypt, of David and Goliath, of the return from captivity in Babylon, where time and time again the LORD has shown that there is truly a God in Israel.

We are heirs to that tradition, and telling God's story is a privilege, not a burden. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, it comes bubbling out of us in every way we could possibly express it.

Seminary begins with this thing called "Greek School." It's a two-month course wherein the students learn to read the New Testament in the language in which it was written. For eight weeks we become a semi-monastic community that eats, sleeps, and drinks Greek vocabulary and grammar. During the course of that term we are broken up into small groups and each group is responsibly for leading daily worship for one of the eight weeks. At the beginning of the term we pass around a sheet of paper on which each classmate writes down gifts they would love to offer as worship leadership.

Turns out we had some musicians in our class: a saxophonist, a drummer, a guitarist, a bass player, and me on the trombone. So one day in chapel we had a jazz band lead worship.

I've played Jazz since I was in the 10th grade, and it payed for part of my college education, but church music in our tradition calls for more Bach than in does the Blues. The centuries of tradition have given Back an aura of reverence, making its place in our prelude this morning all the more appropriate. The improvisation in a Jazz solo, however, tends to lend itself towards celebrating the individual musician, rather than pointing to God as worship should.

So I had always maintained an intentional distance between the language of jazz and the words we offer in worship. But for one chapel service during Greek School, those two were merged.

It very well may have set the tone for the rest of my seminary career.

Because in that service, someone offered a different perspective on the improvised jazz solo, not as an opportunity to celebrate my skill, or even to have a conversation with my fellow musicians, but to offer a prayer through the language of jazz improv, expressing joy and gratitude to God for all of his mighty works, and for the gifts that allowed me to sing his praises. That perspective, offered in passing, moved my musical vocabulary from performance to proclamation.

So for the rest of my time in seminary, I explored how we can translate our ancient truths into new languages. Not just from New Testament Greek into Standard American English, but into our own native languages.

Language is more than just the print that appears on your newspaper every morning, or the setting you select the first time you turn on your smartphone. It's the way we communicate with one another through sounds and symbols to convey our meaning to one another. Sometimes that is through alphabets and grammar, other times it is through the emotion we put into an improvised solo, or the concentration of a fire-juggler. Sometimes it is through the dynamic sweeping lines of art, or any of the other ways we can express God's gifts in our lives.

Part of my calling is to help find it and for us to find ways to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God, and to celebrate how God works in each of us by using those gifts in worship, if possible.

We have plenty of practice in telling the stories our spiritual ancestors have passed down to us. Many of us can recite Scripture after Catechism after Hymn. Some of us can offer testimony to when we have experienced God in our own lives, but we cannot be limited to expressing the mighty works of God in these forms. We are people of the Word: the Word made flesh in Christ Jesus, the Word read in scripture, the Word proclaimed in worship, and the Word enacted in the sacraments. But often we have other native languages, languages of touch, of logic, of music, of movement, of relationships, and of art.

My experience of playing an improvised solo wasn't powerful because I got to show off, it was meaningful because someone gave me permission to declare the mighty acts of God through the language of Jazz. In the same way, my friend found power within her ability to tell our shared story of creation and redemption through juggling fire.

God's gifts are the language in which we testify to who God is, and how we express gratitude for who God has created us to be.

So we tell our ancient truths in new ways, not because the words are stale and need updating, but because they are so powerful we have to express them in every way we can.

The Spirit came as fire and a howling fierce wind. In my experience when one adds wind to fire, either the fire spreads or it burns hotter. Frequently both are true. We come to worship on Sunday's because we need to gather and be filled with the Spirit of God to that we can burn hotter and we go back into the world to spread the flame further, through accounting and teaching, music and contracting, and everything in between, the gifts God has given us are the language in which we express what God has done for us. Let us therefore offer those gifts back to the God who is the source of all our gifts, using them to God's glory.

We have been waiting, but we have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been given immeasurable gifts and are empowered by the Holy Spirit to express ourselves and in turn to declare the mighty acts of God.

We disciples have been waiting for a long time. But now is the time to speak God's love with every language the Holy Spirit has give us.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Words God Gave Us

John 17:1-11

1When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your son, so that the Son can glorify you. 2You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. 3This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. 4I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. 5Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created.

6I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. 8This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.

9I'm praying for them. I'm not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. 10Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them 11I'm no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I'm coming to you, Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

This is not a sermon. This is a very intimate moment between God the Father and God the Son into which the gospel writer drops us. Within the narrative progression of John's gospel, this prayer precedes Jesus's arrest in the garden, and follows a long series of teachings that began with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

Within the progression of our church calendar this is the final Sunday of the Easter Season, on which we celebrate Christ's ascension into heaven, to sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty. Knowing that he is returning to the Father, Jesus prays for the disciples at the end of his earthly ministry.

I am at the opposite end of my ministry timeline. I'm a first call pastor on his first Sunday. Sure I've completed all the appropriate coursework and crossed the stage, diploma in hand, I've even been approved by all the requisite committees and subcommittees. I have been affirmed in my calling and in being qualified. This is not my first time in this pulpit, I've been here as a supply preacher a couple of times over the last year. But this is my first service in this new relationship that we have together.

God could have put me in this pulpit at a time when we celebrate one of the great call narratives from scripture: Young Samuel saying "Yes Lord?" Isaiah answering "Here I am, send me." David being sought out in the field and anointed as the next leader in Israel. I'd have been thrilled to introduce myself alongside the call of the first disciples, leaving behind our nets and following Jesus, or Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. But that's not what God had in mind.

God, in his wisdom, decided that I should begin here on a Sunday when we celebrate the story of Jesus's departure from being a physical presence among us. God, this morning, is present in the intimate prayer between Jesus and his Father, where we disciples fade into the background so that we can catch a glimpse of who Jesus is when he's not healing or teaching those whom the Father has put in his path.

So this is not a sermon, This is God the Son is speaking to God the Father, not to us. If this were a film, the camera would be centered on Jesus as he looks up to heaven. We'd be the slightly out-of-focus bystanders, wondering at all we've heard and seen over this easter season. We are imagining what may happen in the next chapter, after Jesus has returned to the father.

Our imaginations are fed by his prayer, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him." Soon Jesus will be lifted up in a way that shows us not only himself, but reveals the face of God as well. Jesus gives our imaginations a picture of eternal life as well, "This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent." It's not a far-off possibility, it's a present reality where we are able to encounter and know God.

Once we have come to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent to be among us, how can we not live a life that is free from all the baggage that burdens us in our lives. God sent Jesus to free us from that weight, to break the power of sin and death for all time! "This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent." Eternal life is present today. The sacrifice has been made, the victory has been won, we can act knowing that our baggage does not define us, our relationship with God does!

Today is not a day to celebrate that we have a new minister or that I have a church. It's a day to celebrate God. It's that eternal life thing: eternal life is not to know that our church is growing and has all the best programs. It's not to know that we have a context in which is do ministry. It's not that we have worked so long to come to this point. Eternal life is to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God sent. Our celebrations are all conducted in knowledge that God intervenes in the world and has called us to be a community united in Christ. We celebrate because our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

So I'm grateful, and indeed I celebrate the opportunity to begin my ministry because I know that God is at work in this community, and I am honored to be a part of both the work and the community. I am joyful because I enjoy God, and by extension I shall also enjoy the ministry to which God has called us. For me, that ministry begins with getting to know what God is already doing in our midst, and in getting to know my fellow disciples here: the people who are the Presbyterian Church of Lowell.

Jesus is praying on behalf of the disciples, whom he has gotten to know very well over the course of his earthly ministry. He prays in verse seven "I gave them the words that you gave me, and the received them." We are just beginning to get to know one another. You've seen a brochure about me, and maybe talked with me once or twice around the church this week, but we're just embarking on this journey. God has put us on this journey together for a purpose, even though the destination has already been chosen on our behalf. Just as the disciples were God's and God gave them to Jesus, so God gives us each other because none of us will get very far by ourselves.

God has given us each other because we need each other. We have been called together for a purpose. I firmly believe that the reason we're on this journey together is that God has given us a word to give each other. Jesus gave the disciples the words that God gave him, and we, as disciples, have received them. Now it's our task to share them with each other, and with the rest of the world. For as our Acts passage read this morning, we "will be [Christ's] witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the Earth."

Jesus, on the other hand, states outright that "I'm praying for [the disciples]. I'm not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours." Jesus's prayer is not some over-arching universal blessing, he knows God is taking care of all creation in the crucifixion and resurrection. For the ascension, he knows that the transition will be difficult for his followers, so he prays for them specifically. Even after they negotiate that shift, they won't be able to sit back and rest, the Holy Spirit is coming at Pentecost to compel them outward. They're moving from difficult transition to being equipped to work on behalf of the kingdom of God.

 I think it's a fair leap to say that Jesus wasn't just talking about his followers who were in the room, but all of God's people in every time and place. You know, like us. I've done a lot of research over the last several months into the history and character of our community. Even in the starkness of presbytery and church records one can see that this church has not had an easy road over the last few years.

My own path is also not without it's potholes. My final year at seminary my wife and I maintained a long-distance marriage. We were convinced that each of us were called to the work we were doing, she at Kings Mountain and I at Columbia Theological Seminary and Saint Andrews. We were also certain that we were called to be with one another within the covenant of marriage, which only made balancing our relationship and careers that much more difficult. We moved forward in faith that our distance was a temporary status, and that the God who called us to be together would provide the opportunity for us to labor close enough that we could live together.

A little over a year ago, I finished my coursework at Columbia, and moved back in with my spouse. It was, and still is, wonderful to live with the person whom I love, even though it meant leaving behind the work that I found important and fulfilling. I made a little money with supply preaching, and eventually found an unpaid internship at a hospital which gave me opportunity to develop my pastoral care abilities, but it didn't give me the opportunity for worship leadership that is part of my identity.

Now I'm here, not in some generic church to deliver a substitute sermon, but with the people whom God has given me. And this church now has a Preacher whom God has given you. God has built a community here, uniting two churches almost 67 years ago to become the Presbyterian Church of Lowell. I'm not going to try and remake this church in my image, or try and shape the community into what I think it should be. God is already present and active here. God has given you a word to say to me, and I want to pay attention to what God is saying to me through this community.

This is a sermon, an act of proclamation and testimony in public worship. This sermon, and the others that will follow over the course of our journey together, is one way in which I will share the words God gives me. So too will be my Pastoral Counseling and my involvement in Christian Education. I will find ways to share the words God gives me through mission and outreach, through service to the larger church, and even through administrative work.

This congregation also has words God gave y'all, and I want to hear them. It's not just feedback like "Enjoyed your message, preacher," although I am eager for that feedback. It's also the ways that your lives reflect how God is active in your lives. The Word of God is present in more languages than are spoken or written, and the name of God, which Jesus has given us, is written on our hearts. Let us, therefore, find every expression we can manage to share the words God gave us with one another, and with the world.

Irrespective of the difficult roads that have shaped our recent history, separately and together, God is always working on us and through us. I'm not here to try and reform the church or "save" it, we've already got a savior, and this is the last Sunday of his earthly ministry.

But it's the first Sunday where we share a ministry together. We will take the prayer Jesus lifted on our behalf and use it to propel ourselves forward. We will share the words God gave us with each other so that we can better know the God who is in our midst. From there we shall go from Jerusalem, to all of Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Witnessing to the ends of the earth is a big task, too big for even the giants of faith lifted up in other Bible stories. The only human action that reached that far is when a man named Jesus of Nazareth was lifted up on the cross to die, and then rose from the dead. Of course, that one was also God's action.

So for these big tasks, when we cannot make the breadth of the journey alone, God gives us each other. God has given us the words to encourage and instruct one another, and our hope is that we will be one, just as God the Father and God the Son are one.

My prayer, therefore, at the beginning of our ministry together that we are able to share with each other the words God gave us, and that we will remain united in Christ even as we share our diverse perspective of how God is at work in our midst.