Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Christ Will Build the Church

Today we commemorate the Confession of Peter, and begin a week set apart to call us into prayer for Unity of the Church. And we sit on the eve of the day when we remember the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr. who called us to embrace the beloved community. At the center of it all- building and unifying and living as Christ’s church question that we must encounter is how we confess, or make known God’s relationship with it all.

We all know the questions- How does the church survive? How can we work together with people differing from us? And lots of other questions that all tend to start with “How can we?”  

This is our question.

Jesus has brought the disciples to Caesarea Philippi, at the heart of places where people do not worship God. They worship the imperial cult, and mythological gods and animals. They do not worship the God of Israel. Yet there in that place, he asks, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  And the disciples give the answers of their people, “Some say John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets.”  But no one in Caesarea Philippi was thinking any of that. Those are insider answers.

Then Jesus asks “who do YOU say that I am?” And no one answered at first. But that is the real question. And it’s not really a test, it’s an invitation. “Who do you say I am” drives deeper to what is needed. Finally Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” Words that just tumbled out. Maybe you’ve had that moment where words just happened and you’re not sure how.

Then Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Jesus identity is made known. He is the Messiah and son of God and Peter didn’t figure it out on his own. “I am the Son of God and you are Peter. And on this rock, on the truth of who I am, I will build my church.” A church so strong even the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.

The foundation of life together as church is Christ.

Who Jesus is and what God’s purpose is will be revealed in him- God saves people. And Christ is the rock. We hear about the rock in Corinthians too as Paul tells us that the rock was with the people of Israel.

And the rock was Christ. The rock’s presence didn’t mean that they lived a golden age where life became perfect. There was no immunity from challenge or greater testing not common to all. But… God is faithful and you won’t be tested beyond your strength. Your strength will come from God who provides the way.

The sustainer of the people together is Christ.

Always. So flee from whatever else you think it’s about.

Including thinking you are the rock. Or that you have to be the rock. Or that some really amazing person is the rock. Or the right program is the rock upon which to build the church. Or that we should worry about what others are doing and criticize their living of faith and then feeling good is the rock. No.

Periodically I run into people who tell me about a connection to this church- the one we’re sitting in today. They’ll tell me how great it was coming to teen dances here, or the Scout troop, or going on bus trips, or being in the ladies circle, or eating great meals. The theory as many people ponder how to build or rebuild this church or even maintain the building was and is…If we just get them in the door they’ll see. Jesus will just “happen.” If we just have the right combination of things it will build that church. That will be our salvation.

Here’s the problem. While no one intended it, all those people I’ve met- when they got beyond the age of the teen dance, or the bus trip, or whatever else was the draw, there was no rock. Frankly sometimes this is a great sadness to me because when rough times happen, or death occurs, there is such great fear. A fear is that none of it was saving. The institution of the church rolled on but what it revealed was often more about us than anything else. And no one really meant that to happen but often it did.

Now as ever it is important to hear that the rock upon which the church is built, and in which we all move and are embraced is in Jesus. And our purpose as this generation of disciples is to tell this story and reveal this God and remember that though we’re not sure, let God be the power and strength nothing can overcome.

Peter’s confession is important for what it reveals to us not of him, but what it reveals of God’s love and grace and desire for salvation seen in Jesus Christ. Salvation is in no other.

But just speaking the words and listing the names or memorizing them won’t build the faith God gives. It takes community living it. Peter began with what God revealed but then God moved him from blurting out words to being drawn into what the name does. Jesus saves. It’s not about his words, or actions, and whether he lives up to them, which he doesn’t a lot of the time.  Nor do we. What deepens faith is those moments when we look and say it clearly came from God. God made it so. Meant to be shared.  In a proper confession of faith the subject is God. Salvation is in no other- for us and our world and God’s church.

God wants to liberate us from the notion that we are our own saviors, or that we are the saviors or defenders of the church. There is no gospel if the center is only us. But still we are invited to encounter and follow Christ and that is not only good news, it invites us all into that question- who do you say God is? Where do we as people with real problems encounter God at work our real lives?

So what is your confession? Your statement of faith?

For a year now I’ve been asking that-where you have seen God? I want to share where Donna and I met God this past week. In a woman we met on the street in front of the office. She approached in tears asking where 423 Windsor was. I pointed and she became sadder. Because she was looking for the NA meeting, believing it was here. The empty building told her it was not. For some reason the information was not updated. She was despondent because she was not just looking for a meeting, she had called the hotline. That’s what you do when you are desperate. She had the look of someone standing at the gates of hell. And we did not have what she needed. She needed the meeting to be here-and it was not. She needed to get to that meeting right now and she could not. So she brushed me aside,  crying and broken. But then she stopped walking and disintegrated.

We urged her to come inside in the warm and let’s find out where you need to be and when. Slowly she moved with us to the office and we began to talk and look for the right information. And we couldn’t find it.

While Donna looked, I stayed with her and the story came falling out of her mouth of her struggle. And we still couldn’t get an answer. No one answered the phone where we were calling. the information she had was wrong and it would seem we had nothing to give. And then a paper fell out of the phone book with what we needed. And there was more than one meeting to help her hold on. But the real Jesus moment came when I asked her if she wanted to pray and she latched onto me in the fiercest, tightest life seeking hug so tight I ended up literally praying in her ear. And then she began to relax.

Before she left she spoke of being overwhelmed and frustrated and then she said, “but you wouldn’t let me go, you were in my face calling me to not give up.” I didn’t remember it like that. But she wasn’t seeing me really-God was speaking salvation to her. Inviting her.

She came back 5 days later- just to give share a joyful hug and to thank us for helping her get to that wholeness and restoration and unity. Because in truth her family had told her to do 60 in 60 or they were done. She looked like a totally different person as she shared with me her confession of faith of being reconnected to that rock of Christ. You brought me to Jesus.

Salvation is in no other. And we shared something about Jesus deeper than just words, something shared, drawn together as the body of Christ. Not so she would be a member of Holy Spirit. Our mission is not about getting the right people or programs but simply proclaiming that Jesus Christ is salvation. And helping ourselves and others find that rock through God’s power.

It’s not about how will we, but how does God bring grace and power that saves.

Now your name is not Peter- it’s Bill or Terry or Jane, but you’ve seen it, these moments somehow.

Where have you seen God’s grace and salvation come to you? What confession would you write?

Let’s start sharing that story together- the story of Jesus as our rock and salvation- and Christ will build the church.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Let It Be So

Yesterday I invited the kids- meaning everyone not yet 18 to gather at the front of the church. Not at the side of the sanctuary where the beautiful but slightly inaccessible marble baptismal font is found, but right in the center. Where I taken the silver bowl that normally sits in the beautiful marble creation, and instead placed it upon a simple and maybe even slightly banged up wooden table. It was kind of out of character- that silver bowl on that common piece of furniture that normally gets covered with a linen cloth so it looks right.

But there was that bowl and table, and around it, sprigs of evergreen from the tree out front. And the kids and I talked as I kept playing in the water with my hand. Talking about how none of us remember the day we were baptized. We don’t remember hearing the words of God’s love or the water poured upon us. But because of that water and those words and God’s actions, our lives are different.

We are the beloved of God. Claimed and then given a job- to share that story and pour out God’s love where we go. When we come to God’s house we can remember and celebrate that we are loved and we belong to God. And when we come here and know we didn’t get it right we still come and hear God’s forgiveness and love that sends us out again. To reflect and pour out God’s love and to try to live as those who belong to God

Then I invited them to take those greens and help others remember they are the beloved of God and remember that water and those words. And we loaded up those greens like Supersoakers and I sent them out to all the parts of the sanctuary.

And as they went I asked people what the one thing was that we do when we get splashed with water- the first thing. Almost immediately someone yelled out- wipe it off! Which is true- we almost immediately wipe it off and get ourselves put back the way we expect.  Let it be so for just a moment.I gently encouraged people to resist the urge for just a moment- let those drops of water stay for just a moment and remember that God comes to us and clings to us in our baptism. And for just a moment let that speak to us.

And for just a moment there was joy and reflection and disruption and blessing. And I imagine that was one part of what it was like that day in the Jordan.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

baptism of our Lord sermon

Today we commemorate the baptism of Jesus by John and the revelation comes forth- this is my beloved son. God’s identity made known and a declaration- he belongs to me. And because of Jesus we too hear those words at our baptism- you are my beloved child.  And the water fills and is emptied. And we are filled with God. We too belong to God. But this belonging at its richest calls us to be emptied, of our egos, and our longings. To be filled with the Spirit and sent forth to be emptied so that God might be revealed. Trusting that the one thing we will never lose is our identity as God’s beloved child. Could we let everything else up to God’s vision? This week I asked people what one thing they would do differently in response to remembering that we belong to God. And the answer that stuck with me was this- I’d listen to my heart where Jesus resides and follow where it leads, no matter how "crazy" it seems. Normally we walk away from “crazy” or at least talk ourselves out of it.  

I know it must have seemed crazy to John. Jennifer Peterson Singh writes, “Frankly I share John’s confusion when I feel God calling me. John’s words “Why have you come to me?” are often mine. I don’t know why God would want me and I don’t know if I even understand what I’m being called to do. Don’t you wish God still gave us a star to follow? Truthfully, she says, I probably need a giant neon sign in the sky.” Because we come to the place where we encounter Jesus and like John we come mostly prepared to think of our own wants, and for God to fill us up to be more the selves we want to be. To fill out the picture think we should see. But Jesus comes in a very different way.  There will be a picture but it’s not the one you think. He will empty himself and then will stand totally in our world with us, to reveal God and to take root in us. And give us the example of what it means to express our identity as beloved and claimed and empowered. As children of God. Loved not for what we have but whose we are.


One of 2013’s new movies is “Philomena” based upon the real life story of Philomena Lee. Pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1952, Lee was sent to a convent to be looked after as a “fallen woman.” She gave birth to a son. She and other young mothers were forced to work in the convent laundry, seeing their children once a day. But at around age 3, her son was put up for adoption by the nuns and taken away to America. Despite being shamed she held on and she spent the next fifty years searching for son in vain. Then she met a political journalist who happened to be intrigued by her story. Together they set off on a crazy journey to America that would not only reveal the extraordinary story of Philomena’s son, but also create an unexpectedly close bond between them. Two very different people, at different stages of their lives, help each other to tell her son that he was her child and he was loved. The book written was a catalyst for thousands of adopted Irish children and their ‘shamed’ mothers to come forward to tell their stories and encourage the many still searching for their lost families. For 50 years she kept his existence a secret. Because the world’s version of the story was that it should be erased from her heart. But inside she knew she was loved not for what she’d done but whose she was. And that he must know his identity.  

Lee says telling the story is a challenge because she normally led a very quiet family life, but now she's fully aware of the power of her story on film.  And at the heart of it is a message that you are beloved. As timeless as that day Jesus showed up at the Jordan River.

What one thing might you do differently as you remember that you belong to God?  “Listen to my heart where Jesus resides and follow where it leads no matter how “crazy” it seems.” Baptism creates that space where Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts, empowering the new life that is coming to be. To make known that God desires not only to forgive but to transform over and over again. Water is emptied and we are filled with the Holy Spirit and the declaration that we are God's children.

Baptism is a beginning, but being baptized finds its purpose in what follows – emptying ourselves in a calling to God's way of doing things in a world that often resists, but is always changed by those who seek to walk God's path. God sees our hesitance and feelings of confusion or unworthiness, but continues to remind us who we are and empower us for what God wants us to be and to do. That sense of being beloved carries us through confusing times and joyous times, giving hope and fulfilling God’s vision. Not just for doing good and feeling good, but the justice and righteousness God calls us into. Continually transforming us and the world so everyone gets a fair shot. Reorienting us to become involved, to change the processes that keep people trapped on the margins of society. Even when it seems crazy. Because you’re loved not for where you are on the journey but whose you are.

Come to be filled with the Holy Spirit and reminded of Christ within us. Filled for emptying that transformation out upon God’s world. This is celebrating what Jesus first revealed and brought forth and brings forth still. Water and word, filling and emptying. Calling us to let go and be filled. Over and over again. And we never do it alone, Jesus says. Let US do this now to God’s purposes. Things we could never even imagine doing on our own. Emptying, filling, giving ourselves away. Loved not for what we have but whose we are.  Beloved, every day brings something new. And every day is a holy day when we recall Christ’s baptism and our own again. May we be filled again with the desire to be filled by God and God alone, and to walk the disciple's road. AMEN






Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory,

 my understanding,

 and my entire will --

 all that I have and call my own.

 You have given it

 all to me.

 To you, Lord,

 I return it.

 Everything is yours;

 do with it

 what you will.

 Give me only your love

 and your grace.

 That is enough

 for me.  Ignatius of Loyola








Sunday, January 5, 2014

But...(reflections for Epiphany)

As often happens with a story we have heard often, we think we know all its features and all its nuances. What’s interesting is that over time we add a lot of lore to this story about the exact whereabouts of these visitors, and their background, their lifestyle, the economic status and we have turned them almost into something that would not at all have fit the narrative of the Gospel of Matthew. These visitors we call kings were not royals. They were not considered wise and learned. We don’t actually really know their names or their reputations. We want them to be high flyers who one up the puny king Herod with real royal swagger. But…

They were different-strangers, foreigners, outsiders. With odd ways and weird customs and after travel may have in fact appeared anything but majestic. Why on earth would God give them a special message or purpose?


No one reading or hearing Matthew’s gospel or living in the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry would expect these things. And maybe that’s a word for us this day too.


Here’s the thing-when we look at what we actually find in the gospel this year I was struck by something that is almost anti-climactic. There in a book I have looked at more times than I can recall by a man who is a scholar on the Gospel of Matthew, there in this story I have heard even more times than that, there is this …


“The magi observed what anyone could have observed.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins )

They noticed.

This is not some angel throng in the sky, or some vision. It’s a star in the sky, brighter than before.  That anyone could observe. Anyone could.

But seemingly, no one else does.                 

They observe it and respond to the light.

They don’t form committees to study it, or teach high minded theories about it. They don't even know it's totality. They do one thing. They look into this star that is a mystery. Anyone could have.

BUT… they are motivated enough to come, to give themselves over to the journey. A people no one would connect to God’s Son, connects.


In their culture such a star means something. They are not using insider information, for they are as “outside” as it gets. This star shines not in the center of power, where they first went. It shines in the almost unnoticeable.


Somehow by God's uncommon power in the common world they begin to recognize that this star announces someone new.


And so they come. And then God's revealing leads them to discern that they should worship this One. They not only have given their time and energy to this journey. They give things they have brought for this One upon whom the light shines. The gifts they offer though exotic to us were more common than we think. The spices were common to them. And frankly so was the gold. They didn’t bring jewels and treasures uncommon. They gave what they had.


When they left, I imagine eyes gleaming and they surely knew more, but still not everything. So much was yet to be revealed. We don’t know much after that except a couple things.

They were told by the powers that be to come back and give a full account. And when you get that kind of directive from a real king and military ruler, you’d think you ought to follow the expectations.


BUT… though they could have done what most would do, before returning to business as usual, they were different. Different now.

After they encountered this One, and this light. They gave themselves over to something new- they could have bowed to wishes of one they would have been worldly wise enough to know was not rejoicing at a new king. Anyone could have. 

BUT…they rejoiced and they traveled differently instead.

Encountering the light and the One of whom the star foretold they carried something of that encounter and walked differently.

It almost sounds easy, this walking.

But…it’s not.

Sisters and brothers, still today the light comes. Shining in our world. Still today God enters in ways we can observe. In people and places and events anyone could see, calling us to notice.

But…perhaps by looking for the grand, we overlook the simple yet powerful witness -That the Christ has come-The light shines. To lead us to give ourselves over to the new and joyful possible before us. Leading us to walk differently and shine as ones who have been touched by this light. Because in Christ we can.

 of Form

I close with words of Walter Brueggeman written for this day:

We are still the people walking.

We are still people in the dark,

and the darkness looms large around us,

beset as we are by fear,




 loss —

a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.


We are — we could be — people of your light.

 So we pray for the light of your glorious presence

 as we wait for your appearing;

 we pray for the light of your wondrous grace

 as we exhaust our coping capacity;

 we pray for your gift of newness that

 will override our weariness;

 we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust

 in your good rule.


That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact

 your rule through the demands of this day.


 We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.   AMEN

Yesterday's funeral message

As you can see by looking around today, the church is still in full Christmas regalia which is exactly what Dodson would have wanted. He adored the season of Christmas! And I suspect that he as a lifelong educator would delight in the tree at the back of the church decorated with ornaments made by kids in our afterschool program who went through a whole lot of glitter and glue. I only met Dodson within the last couple of years as the new pastor here, but one of the first things I noticed when I first met him was the notebook. A small and well-worn spiral notebook that contained the titles of all the books he had read throughout his professional life, recorded by year.

He proudly showed me the notebook and we had a conversation about what he had read recently. And he allowed me the liberty of paging through the sheaves of paper that had gone before. Always learning, always sharing.

I got a sense as I often do, that here was a man I wish I had known better and sooner. I know that sounds almost like a cliché throwaway line, but in sincerity and especially with Dodson, it is most certainly true. Susan’s sweeping words soar in his obituary, a snapshot of his life and witness, both personally and professionally. And knowing he was a man who traveled the world to learn and share, we placed several of our global nativity scenes up front, including this one on the pulpit with me, from Peru, belonging to one of the members of the Bible Class he loved so well.

At first when Susan and I got together after her Dad’s death so much of what was on my mind was about Dodson and Louise together, for to speak of one almost necessitates speaking of the other. But then as we spoke more specifically about Dodson, one of the things I learned was his love and regard for Abraham Lincoln.

With that, and based upon Dodson’s love of books, it is today with a wry smile that I know how I could have become a good friend. Lincoln had the answer, once noting that “My best friend is the man who will get me a book that I haven’t read.”  

As a history aficionado, I can see many parallels between these two men. Challenging beginnings, success by endeavor, the capacity to bond with and influence people while maintaining a moral compass.

And also a wry sense of humor and a life story that includes living in seasons of great sadness as well as joy. As we gather this day there are many words about Dodson or Lincoln I could lift up, and there will be a few. But we are also here to give thanks to God for the man we were all in our seasons privileged to know, and for God’s words that transcend this moment and offer promise for the story from here.

As I endeavor to capture the man God gave us to know and to love, and his legacy in this earthly life, perhaps the meta-narrative, the overarching theme would be found in these Lincoln words: “In the end it’s not the years in your life that counts, it’s the life in your years.” As I consider Dodson’s life witness, it is why I selected the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be.” Because the very next words are- Consecrated, Lord, to thee. This was Dodson.

You all know far greater than I his great influence but also great devotion, in his professional life, and his relationships. Despite his influence he was not a clanging gong or crashing cymbal, but one who gracefully engaged life with a firm sense of commitment, and fairness, and taking genuine interest in humanity and enabling people to learn, the world over. Not in a haughty way, but with faithful persistence.  And I would be remiss if I failed to mention his time here as a leader at Holy Spirit. Always preparing for others to receive, he was a man who took his commitment to education and married it with his commitment to faith.

But it might never have been.

All of this would not have been possible much less achievable without a sense of optimism and openness for opportunity and growth. There is much in his life that would have suggested a different way….frail, not athletic, health woes, poor, not dominant.

But when a door opened to give him a scholarship to college, he grabbed it, even though it destined him to become an educator, not the lawyer he intended to be. Which leads me to a second Lincoln quote.

“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or we can rejoice that thorn bushes have roses.” Dodson lived this, and seemed to grasp more often than most the patterns and seasons of life. Even these later years that were not at all what he desired for himself or Louise. Nowhere was his faith more evident than when I visited and had come to offer communion. He was lying down sleeping, but I nudged his shoulder. He woke and with a look of delight of anticipation realized, and cried out, “You came!” He insisted that Louise, who’d gone down the hall in her wheelchair, be present. All must be prepared! We dispatched a nurse to find her, and he got everything ready for her when she arrived. When she came, he cheerfully told her I was there to visit and to offer communion. If you know Louise in later years you know that to the casual observer it would seem his words were not quite understood. But ever optimistic, and gracious and leaning into that faith, he helped her eat the communion wafer. As she smiled, he turned to me and exclaimed- “She really is SO happy you’re here!”  

Ever gracious, ever devoted, ever faithful. That is the measure of life in his years. Shown in both large ways and in that simple moment in the room at Berks Heim where reason alone would not have been enough to believe what was taking place.

Abraham Lincoln was once reading a Bible and a skeptic upon seeing it, asked why a man of such education and reason would read it. To which he replied, “Take all that you can of this book upon reason, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man.” Which I think places us squarely not only in the life we recall, but in our gospel for this day. While we can know seasons, and we can read books and expand our minds, just beyond us is the truth for which only faith can provide the key.

Faith is what helps us hear that in Christ there are more chapters in the book and more of the story to know- for Dodson and for us.

For a man for whom most of his life was spent preparing others, all has been prepared. For a man for whom these last years have seemed a test of faith, there is now certainty. For a man so dedicated to justice, the words of Jesus are trustworthy- “this is true. I wouldn’t tell you so unless it was.  And there you shall be also.” And he is.

And I imagine the joy of seeing the fullness of all that teaching now experienced!

Dodson, you have taught us well. May all you have shared not be forgotten. And may almighty God strengthen us to live by faith that the next chapters of our story are yet to unfold but the ending is assured.