This at Last

godsnotfinished

Genesis 2:18-24 NRSV

Americans have always had a high regard for independence. We believe in a staunch individual ethic that leads people to step up, step out, and stand on their own two feet. We look up to those who are able to look after themselves, to take care of number one, to be responsible, to be independent. And we tend to look down on those who are dependent on others for their survival.

This is arguably the greatest virtue of our society, the aspiration of every boy and girl. Study hard, grow up, move out on your own, and get a good job, so you can become self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-supporting. And bookstore shelves and YouTube videos labeled, “Do-it-yourself” and “Self-help” are filled with books and videos to help us keep our independence. Anything else and you are considered to be a failure, worthless, no count, lazy, good-for-nothing. Yes, in our society, independence is what it is all about.

Many grocery stores now have “self-checkout” lines that are almost always available no waiting. If you are smart enough to check your own groceries, if you have good ol’ American wherewithal and work ethic, if you are responsible and have learned to really be independent, if you have elevated yourself to a place where the assistance of a Wal-Mart cashier is truly beneath you, then you’ve earned the right not to wait in line.

Independence. It is what makes turning 16 and getting your driver’s license so wonderful, and it is what makes the day the doctor or your children take the car keys away from you so dreadful. It is what makes owning a home the American dream, and what makes the thought of moving into nursing home a nightmare.

Perhaps more than any other day, we fear the day we lose our independence. It is the reason we save for retirement, eat right, take our vitamins and exercise; so we can remain independent to the bitter end.

This is why coming to church can sometimes be confusing, and oftentimes, challenging. We come to church and open our Bibles only to discover that God’s ideals and virtues are oftentimes very different from our own. We come to church to reaffirm our beliefs, only to have God call those beliefs into question.

On the very first pages of our Bible, we learn that the first thing that God said was “not good” was, guess what? Our independence.

“This is not good,” says the Lord, “I will have to keep working, continue creating, to make you a partner, a co-equal, someone on whom you can depend to help you be the person that I have created you to be.”

So out of the ground, the Lord formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air.

And then the man searched high and low. He became acquainted with each creature so closely, that he was able to name each one. But out of all of the animals that he encountered, and out of all of the birds that he watched, he could not find a single suitable companion, a partner on whom he could depend, a co-equal with whom he could share a mutual relationship and an intimate communion.

But God did not give up. God was not finished. God was intent on helping the first human be the person he was created to be. So God kept working. God continued creating. However, this time, not from the ground; but from the man himself.

As the man slept, God removed one of his ribs and used that rib to make a woman. Instead of forming another human being from the ground, God split the first human being into two beings and then presented her to the man. It was then that the man said:

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;”

This at last is the relationship for which have been searching.

This at last is the beloved communion for which I have been longing.

This at last is my partner, my companion, my confidant, my sister.

This at last is my equal with whom I can be mutually connected.

This at last is someone on whom I can depend.

This at last is what I have needed to be the person that God has created me to be.

This at last is one that I must love as myself, for…

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

 

This is why we are to love others as we love ourselves. And this describes every man and every woman. We are co-equals, mutually connected and bound together.

This should describe the moment patriarchy died, the moment misogyny and sexism, racism and bigotry, became implausible. However, we know all too well that this is not what happened.

The good news is that this is not the end of God’s creative story.

The good news is God was not finished with God’s new beloved community. God knew that an even greater communion was needed if we were ever going to be the persons that God has created us to be. So God kept working. God continued creating. And, this time, God took it one step further.

God looked at God’s beloved community. God saw the good in it, but also the wicked in it. God saw the sexual assault. God saw the domestic violence. God saw the hate, the mocking and the crowds cheering it on. And God knew that it could be so much better.

So, God, God’s holy self, decided to join the community! God came to be with us, and God came to be one of us. God came to show us the way. God became flesh. God became bone. And God’s beloved community called him “Jesus.”

And one night, as Jesus sat with his beloved community at a table, he took bread and broke it, and blessed it, saying, “This is my body.” Then he took the cup, saying, “This is my blood.”

And here we are this morning. We have gathered here this morning at a table with Christians from all over the world, mutually connected, depending on one another and communing with one another, but also depending on and communing with a Savior, singing together in one voice:

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;”

This at last is the relationship for which we have been searching.

This at last is the beloved communion for which we have been longing.

This at last is our partner, our companion, our confidant, our brother.

This at last is someone with whom we can be mutually and eternally connected.

This at last is someone on whom we can truly depend.

This at last is what we have always needed, all we will ever need, to be the persons that God has created us to be.

This at last is the One who reminds us that we are all interconnected by the love of our God who never gives up on us, who keeps working and keeps creating until the whole creation understands that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

One day, I was talking with someone who was dying with cancer. He told me that his illness had demonstrated to him the things that were truly important in life. He said, “And the funny thing is, that they are the opposite of what I always thought was important.”

He said: “I never knew how many friends I had until I got sick. And I never realized just how important they are. Jarrett, the truth is, ‘We really do need a little help from our friends.’”

Before his illness he admitted that what he had valued more than anything in the world was his independence, “but no more,” he said, “no more.”

Then he said: “Maybe that is why God created us to depend on one another. It is like some kind of training.”

“Training?”

“Yes, training,” he said, “because the most important thing in this life is to reach a point where we learn to be dependent on God, to reach to a point sometime before we die, where we have truly put our lives into the hands of God.”

It was as if he was saying: “No more! Because, now I see it. Now, I get it. In my most vulnerable, most dependent state, now, I know it. This at last is what life is all about!”

This at last is why we are here: to learn be in relationships; to learn to depend on one another; to learn care for one another; to understand that at last we are all related; we are all equal; we are all united; we are all one;

And as we depend on each other, we learn to depend on the One on whom we can depend on forevermore;

the One who came to us at last;

the One who came to be with us and for us;

the One who came to show us how to be the people God created us to be;

the One who is still not finished;

the One who is still creating and recreating, working to transform this world God loves by calling disciples, ministers and prophets, male and female, in every country on every continent; We learn to depend on this One:

This at last, Christ, our brother, our teacher, our Lord and our Savior, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.[i]

[i]Inspired from: This at Last!, An Intergenerational Liturgy for World Communion Sunday, Nineteenth Sunday of Pentecost year B, was written by the Rev. Dr. Laurel Koepf Taylor, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Eden Theological Seminary, Saint Louis, Missouri.

 

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Sharing the Suffering and the Glory – A Commissioning Service for Elders and Congregation

commissioning

1 Peter 5:1-4 NRSV

This morning, I want to us to take a careful look at these words from 1 Peter.

Now as an Elder myself,

Did you know that as the pastor of this church, I am considered to be an Elder? I am. Thus, the responsibilities of Elders in the church are very similar to my responsibilities as the Senior Minister. I have often said that the Elders of the church are best described as “co-pastors.” The pastor and the Elders form a wonderful ministry team of the church.

And did you know, that as a church that has always believed in Martin Luther’s doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers, we believe that every member of our church is a co-minister? When a minister laid his hands on you in baptism, we believe you were ordained or set a part for ministry. We call ourselves Disciples of Christ. We believe we have been called to be disciples just like Peter was a disciple. Thus, this passage in 1 Peter regarding Elders is applicable to every member of this church.

and a witness of the sufferings of Christ.

Now, Peter actually witnessed the sufferings of Christ; however, as Elders and ministers of the church today,

we also bearwitness to the sufferings of Christ, by becoming suffering servants with the congregation.

With the Apostle Paul, we believe when one member of the body suffers, the entire body suffers. We grieve with those who are mournful. We worry with those who are anxious. We are afraid with those who are fearful. We cry with those who are despairing.

as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed,

but at the same time, we share the glory that is coming.

As Paul also says, we grieve, but we do not grieve like those who have no hope.

We suffer, but we know all things will work together for the good.

We are worry but we know that nothing in all of creation will separate us from the love of God.

We are afraid, but we know we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

We cry, but we know that love will win.

Therefore, we are in all times and in all places encouragers.

We possess a spirit of positivity, reassuring others that although we cannot go back to the good old days, good new days are always ahead.

We always work out bring out the best that is in others.

We work to embolden the image of God, the spiritual gifts, and the holy purpose that is within all people.

I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge,

 Elders, ministers, and all disciples are best described as shepherds.

After asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Jesus says, “Feed my lambs, look after my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Now, we might hear this in a very individualistic way as it seems like Peter is being sent out on a lone, heroic mission.

However, when Jesus speaks of shepherding, he does not want us to think about a brave, lone shepherd who his sent out to bless the world.

No, with Jesus, ministry is always a communal experience.

Mark’s Gospel informs us that when Jesus commissioned the disciples, when he sent them out into the world, he sent them out in pairs.

Jesus does not intend for us to bear the good news on our own. We are called to proclaim the gospel, to tend to the flock, to meet the needs of others, together, in community.

exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it

Elders and other church members in some churches (not this church of course) only read part of this verse.

They exercise oversight. Which they interpret as being in control.

They believe the congregation should be submissive to their leadership. They act as if they are the bosses of the church.

However, the verse continues: “exercising the oversight…willingly, as God would have you do it.”

In speaking about his own his own shepherding ministry, Jesus says:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus is describing a ministry that is not only a communal experience. It is also a mutual experience.

In the book that has perhaps influenced my ministry the most, Henri Nouwen writes that Jesus wants us to minister as he ministers (In the Name of Jesus).

“He wants us to feed his sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are forgiven, who love and are being loved.”

Somehow we have come to believe that ministry requires a safe distance from those we are called to serve. Medicine, psychiatry, and social work all offer us models in which ‘service’ takes place in a one-way direction. Someone serves. Someone else is being served. [And we best not confuse the two!]

But how can anyone lay down their life for those with whom they are not even allowed to enter into a deep, personal relationship?

Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, your own hope and despair, your own joy and sadness, courage and fear available to  [all] as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life.”

Nouwen continues:

“We are not the healers. We are not the reconcilers. We are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.

The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”

Therefore, ministry they way God would do it, shepherding the way Jesus would do it, must be mutual.

—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge,

We do this not for power or control, but because we are eager to follow the way of Jesus, the good Shepherd.

Nouwen points out:

When another cannot know someone who is caring for them, “shepherding quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits.”

The ministry and leadership of Jesus is radically different.

To use Robert Greenleaf’s term, it is a “servant-leadership,” in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as the people need her or him.

but be examples to the flock

We are to live as mentors to one another. When we see something that needs to be done, we do not wait for others to act. We do not sit back saying, “I wished the pastor would do this or address this.” But as servant leaders, as shepherds, as a priestly people, we take the initiative.

We model for others what the prophet Micah calls the requirements of our God. We love kindness. We do justice. And we walk humbly.

This is especially important as we live in a culture where the exact opposite is often modeled, and oftentimes modeled in the name of God.

I cannot think of any other time in my ministry where the words of another prophet have been more applicable:

Ah, you who call evil good

and good evil,

who put darkness for light

and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet

and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

 

We must model for the world what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

We give sacrificially. We serve selflessly. We love our neighbors. We confess our sins. We trust in God’s grace. We offer grace to others. We liberate people who are oppressed. We welcome children. We proclaim the gospel, and if necessary, we use words.

And when the chief shepherd appears,

When we proclaim the gospel with our words and deeds, we have the hope that we will see Jesus, our chief shepherd, our chief Elder.

In Matthew 25, we read a parable where people are asking Jesus when they saw him: “Lord, when was it that we saw you?”

He answered:

“I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

 you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.  

When we shepherd, when we tend to the sheep, when we minister to God’s children, when we love our neighbors as ourselves, not only do we see Jesus, but we participate in something divine that is eternal, something holy that has no end, something sacred that is forever.

On the Side of Children

Florence Track

Mark 9:30-37 NRSV

Hurricane Florence was first predicted to come ashore in southeast North Carolina and then take a take a northwestern path. This was a dire prediction for my friends and family who live in northeastern North Carolina as they were prepared to experience the most dangerous quadrant of the storm. It looked like Florence was going to take the same path of Hurricane Floyd, the storm that flooded our home in 1999.

However, just a couple days before the storm made landfall, the prediction changed. It was still going to come into southeastern North Carolina, but then it would take a turn towards the south before moving westward before heading North. It was this change that spared my friends and family living in the northeastern part of the state.

Last Sunday, I read the following post on facebook:

It is not that the weatherman missed the prediction. It is that God spared us from the worst.

The statement immediately received nearly 50 likes and drew comments like:

Amen.

God answers prayers.

God answers prayers. And not just prayers, but prayers in numbers.

God protected us.

We are blessed.

I understand in part why they posted it. Things could have been so much worse, and they were grateful, and they were grateful to God..

However, I could not help but to think: “I hope no one in Wilmington, Fayetteville, New Bern, Lumberton or Kinston reads this.”

Then came obvious, disturbing questions:

Were the prayers from the people living in those devastated cities not answered? Or were there was just not enough people in those cities praying? Did they have a higher number of people praying in northeastern NC?

If God could spare northeastern NC by turning the storm, why didn’t God just turn the hurricane out to sea before it made landfall and spare everyone? Did God favor one side of North Carolina over another?

I suppose many would tell me that I am not supposed to question God. “God has God’s reasons,” they say. “It is just God’s will and we have to accept it,” they say.

But I am not the first one to ask such questions. In Luke 13, we read people asking Jesus if the Galileans who were massacred by Pilate were killed because of some sort of sin in their life. Or if the Jews were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, perhaps during a storm, because of something they did or did not do.  Jesus emphatically answered them: “No, I tell you.”

Throughout time, it has been very popular to believe that it is always God’s will if someone comes to power, no matter how horrible that person is. It is God who causes earthquakes, sends tornadoes, and steers Hurricanes, sparing some while destroying others.

This very popular but what I would call very “twisted” theology becomes even more disturbing when one considers the children.

On Monday of this week, in Union County, North Carolina, where Lori and I both attended college, the body of 1-year old Kaiden Lee-Welch was found. According the sheriff’s department, she was swept away in rushing waters from a creek that had overflowed.

Last Sunday, in Dallas, North Carolina, just a few miles from where Lori was born and raised, 3-month-old Kade Gill died after a tree fell into a family’s mobile home and struck the boy and his mother as they sat on a couch.

The very first death I remember being reported occurred soon after the Hurricane made landfall on that Friday in Wilmington.  A 7-month-old baby was killed, also by a tree that fell into a home.

What kind of God steers a hurricane on a path that kills little children? It is certainly not the God that is revealed in words and works of Jesus, the one who welcomed the children, the one who said that it was better for one to tie a millstone around one’s neck and be cast into the sea than to cause any child to stumble.

So, why do so many still insist that God is the reason that some are spared from Hurricanes and others, even little children, are not?

I believe this morning’s scripture lesson possibly holds the answer.

Mark 9:30: “They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;”

He didn’t want anyone to know the truth. Perhaps he was afraid that like so many Christians today, they could not handle the truth. The truth that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him….”

Verse 32: But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

One reason some of us insist God is sending and steering Hurricanes is that we still have a difficult time accepting the truth that God suffers. We do not understand the suffering of God, and we are afraid to ask him. We are afraid, because if God is a God who suffers, then those of us who are created in the image of God, are also created to suffer.

I believe that God’s hand can be seen in the desolation of Hurricane Florence; not causing or controlling the storm, but in those who suffer while responding to the storm—the firefighters, police, paramedics, soldiers, doctors, nurses, pastors, counselors and utility workers; those who have left the comfort and safety of their homes to give of themselves to serve their neighbors in need. The hand of God can be seen the suffering servants of God who are doing all that they can do to bring healing, peace and restoration.

Verse 33 & 34: Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’

But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”

And there it is.

Perhaps this is the true reason that people are quick to say God controls the path of Hurricanes. People still like to make the argument that they are the greatest—

“I am great, for God hears my prayers. I am great, for God spared my house. I am great, for my home did not flood. I am great, for no one in my family was killed. I am great, for am not suffering.”

Verse 35: He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

Jesus says, “No, I tell you, avoiding suffering is not an indication that you are great. No I tell you, being in a state of comfort and safety does not mean you have God’s stamp of approval on your life. No, I tell you, being spared from a storm is not a sign that you are blessed.”

No, I tell you, if you want to be great, if you want God’s stamp of approval, if you want to be blessed by God, you must be willing to sacrifice, put yourself last, place the needs of others ahead of your own needs, be a servant, suffer with those who are grieving, agonize with those who feel forsaken, betrayed and powerless.

Verse 36 & 37: Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

In other words, Jesus said: Do you want to be great? Do you want to be on the side of God? Then, don’t take the side of the powerful, the privileged and the protected. Instead, always take the side of the most vulnerable among you. Take the side of children who are so precious and fragile, whose lives are threatened or lost. Take the side of women who have been unheard, whose lives are disregarded and degraded. Take the side of victims who have been blamed, whose lives have been disrespeceted and diminished.

As the Proverbs declare:

Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).

So, where was God in Hurricane Florence? Contrary to popular theology, God was on the side of those who experienced the worst of the storm. God was on the side of the children who were swept away. God was on the side of the babies who were crushed. God was on the side of the elderly who drowned. God was on the side of forty-two of God’s beloved who died in the storm.

Where was God in the storm? God was on the side of Windy Newton and Nicolete Green who drowned in the back of a sheriff’s van as they were being transported to a mental health facility. God was on their side feeling their fear, knowing their terror, experiencing their confusion, tasting their deaths.

What was God doing during Hurricane Florence? God was suffering. God’s self was being broken. God’s self was pouring out. God was grieving with those who lost their loved ones, hurting with those who lost property, agonizing with those whose homes were destroyed, distressing with those whose livelihoods were lost.

And the good news is: because God was present, so was life—life—hopeful, abundant and eternal.

God was there to begin the holy work of transforming the anguish into peace, the despair into hope and the deaths into life.

And God is with all of us who choose to follow the Lord in this holy work. God is with us when we become suffering servants, putting the needs of others ahead of our own, giving sacrificially to Hurricane relief through our church, planning or supporting mission trips to the devastated areas.

And God is with us at this very moment. Because as we gather around this table in communion with Christ, we are joined with the trials and sufferings of all people.

This morning we pray that through Christ we too would be with those who endured the wind, rain, and flooding.

As we come to this Table, may Christ’s presence be known to all those who are suffering from the storm, just as He makes His presence known in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup – at this Table and around the world, in every nation, among every people.

These are the gifts of God for God’s people! After we sing our hymn of communion, let us receive them with joy, gratitude and hope.

Words Create Worlds

words have power

James 3:1-12

I try to talk to people every week who never attended church, or who no longer attend church. And when I ask them why they are not a part of church, they often tell me that they have been deeply hurt by the church. “How?” I ask. “By words,” they say.

The truth is: words have tremendous power. The Epistle of James says it well. Allow me to read it again:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (James 3).

Nathan Parrish, a friend of mine and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said that one Sunday after worship, he asked a father how football practice went that week for his son who was playing Middle Football for the first time. He said that his son came home after the game Thursday night really upset. He said that the coach said that “he hit like a girl.” My friend Nathan responded: “The message starts early doesn’t it?”

He asked: “What do you mean?”

Nathan said: “Our children learn it while they are young, don’t they? That females are the weaker sex and need to be kept in their place.”

Laura Johnson, the former pastor of Broad Street Christian Church in New Bern, North Carolina, an area that has been devastated this weekend by hurricane Florence, has said that as a female pastor people give her qualified compliments all the time: “Laura, that was a great sermon…for a woman.” “Laura, you are a good pastor, for a girl.”

The message starts early, and it is pervasive. The words are heard in school and in many churches. Through patriarchal language, through the exclusive use of male pronouns to refer to God, the insinuation is made that men are somehow closer to God than women. Thus, in many churches, only men can be the leaders, as women are pushed to a more subservient place in the church.

Words indeed have great power.

This is why alarm bells should go off in our moral consciences when we hear people with power use words like “infestations,” “animals,” “aliens,” “dogs,” and “illegal,” to describe groups of people. Words have power to degrade, demean and dehumanize those made in the likeness of God. Adolf Hitler knew this when he referred to Jews as “rats” in Nazi Germany.

As we read this scripture in James, we can realize that James is making a fascinating connection between speech and creation. In verse nine, we reminded that we were created according to the likeness of God as revealed in the first chapter of Genesis. James is making the comparison that as God created the world with speech, we, like God, also have the power to create with our speech.

In verse seven we read that the “beast and bird, reptile and sea creature” are tamed by humans. This echoes Genesis creation account where human beings are given the power of speech to name all of the living creatures. James reminds us that the first and most important gift distinctive to humans is this power to name, this power to create language.  James is saying that with language and speech we are given to power continue God’s own creative activity in our world.

The truth is, with speech and language, we possess a world-creating power. New Testament scholar Luke Johnson put it this way: “the world as it emerges moment by moment from God’s creative energy…is reshaped and given its meaning by human language, whose symbols enable us both to comprehend the world as meaningful and to interpret it.”

Thus, I believe a very important question for us is this: How are we as the church creating, how are we reshaping and how are we giving meaning to our world with our language?

What about when we say:  We’ve never done it that way before, or worse, You are in my seat?

When these words are spoken at church, they almost always mean “new ideas, new ways of thinking, new approaches to ministry, and new people are not welcome here.” There was a great book written nearly forty years ago that many churches that are closing their doors for good today failed to read. It was called The Seven Last Words of the Church: We’ve Never Done It that Way Before.”

The Bible clearly says…

Whenever I hear this expression, I get a little nervous, especially when I hear it from politicians who would like to transform the United States into a Theocracy. They want to take the laws of God found in the Bible and make them the laws of the land.

While a theocracy may sound good to many Christians at first, it really all depends on who Theo is, doesn’t it? Who gets to pick and interpret the laws that they want others to obey? Whenever people talk about enforcing or legislating biblical morality, they are almost always thinking: “There is only one interpretation of the Bible, and it is mine!”

Love the sinner and hate the sin.

 These words infer that we can somehow separate the sin from the sinner; however, sin is so much a part of our DNA, so much a part of who we are in this fragmented world, that it simply cannot be avoided. And when we think that we have reached some sort of spiritual pinnacle that we can somehow avoid sin, we contradict who Jesus calls us to be by becoming arrogant, proud, snooty and judgmental. And we drive people away from the church in droves.

If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?

When we infer that following Jesus should only be done for purely selfish reasons, to receive some reward instead of some punishment, then we miss the whole point of who Jesus is and who he calls us to be. Jesus calls us not to save our lives, but to lose our lives. Jesus calls us to live a self-giving, self-expending life rooted in radical selflessness. Jesus never said, “Follow me and go to heaven.” He said, “follow me and carry a cross.”

And then there are the classics:

God has God’s reasons.

God does not make mistakes.

God will not put any more on us than we can bear.

It’s God’s will and we will just have to accept it.

This language has probably caused more people to leave the church, and leave God, than any other spoken words. There is no telling how many people have reached the conclusion: “If God is the one who caused my baby to die, if God is the reason behind my divorce, if God created my loved one to suffer, if God put all of these financial hardships on me, if God send this hurricane, if God is sending these flood waters in my house then I would be better off living in Hell for all of eternity than with a God like that.”

I believe many Protestant churches, in an attempt to distance themselves from Catholicism, have tried to follow Jesus while avoiding the pain and suffering of Jesus. We look at the crucifix and say, “My Lord is not on the cross! He is living today in heaven! However, when we we do that, we miss what may be the most important tenet of the Christian faith: that our God is a God who suffers.God is not seated on some throne far removed from the creation sending hurricanes to North Carolina or blowing up houses in Massachusetts. God is not pressing buttons, pulling levers, causing human misery, but our God is here in the midst of human pain, suffering with us, alongside us. So, in a way, our God is still on the cross today. As long as there is human life, our God is still emptying God’s self, pouring God’s self out. Our God is a God who grieves, agonizes, and bleeds. Our God is never working against us, but always for us, creating and recreating, resurrecting, doing all that God can do to wring whatever good can be wrung out of life’s most difficult moments.

Our language has the power to paint a Christ-like portrait of God, and our language as the power to paint an anti-Christ portrait of God.

Our language has the power to create a world where people are oppressed and cursed, and our language has the power to create a world where people are treated with equity and are blessed.

Our language has the power to create a world that dishonest, deceitful, and despairing, a world that is mean, cold and dark. And our language has the power to create a world that is honest and sincere, a world that is kind, empathetic and hopeful.

Let me illustrate this. Joyce Williams was a member of one of my churches who used to always greet me with the following words: “I love you Jarrett Banks.” She would always say it just like that. When she passed away, almost everyone who knew her said the same thing, that she would extend the same greeting to them: “I love you…” and then said their first and last name. So, that is how we concluded her memorial service. I had everyone who was present to turn to the person next to them, introduce themselves if they did not know them, and then say, “I love you,” followed by saying their name.

Let’s do that this morning.

Let us pray.

O God, help us all to realize that like You, we have the power to create worlds with our words.  We thank You for this gift, but ask that you help us to always remember that with this gift comes a great responsibility.  As Your sons and daughters, may we use our language to create a world of peace, justice, love and respect. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

There is a word that I always use at this time to invite you to share the meal from this table. That word is “all.” Sometimes I even define that word by saying, “all means all.” It is my hope that this simple word, all, is helping too create a brand new world: a world of acceptance, a world of grace, a world of inclusion, and a world of love. May we prepare to live in such a world, to eat and drink in this world, as we remain seated and sing our hymn of communion.

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

Go now into the world remembering that every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

So go and speak only wonderful words of life that point others to the love and the grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And may the love of God, the grace of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.

Mercy Triumphs Judgment

Nouwen

James 2:1-17

Inclusion. Acceptance. Mercy. Kindness. Compassion. Love. We know that God wants it. We know that this is God’s will for the world.

Exclusion. Discrimination. Prejudice. Meanness. Indifference. Hate.  We know that God disdains it. We know this is not what God wills for this world.

And we know that if we do not live like we believe that mercy always triumphs judgment, then we do not live like we really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. We do not live like we believe in the one who lived and died extending mercy to the poor and the marginalized.

We know we are not perfect. We know we are going to make mistakes in this life. Therefore, to please our God, to live as believers in our glorious Lord and Savior, if we are going to err, we have decided to to err on the side of mercy. To please our Creator, we have decided to err on the side of grace. We have chosen to err on the the side of love.

But do we know whythis pleases our God so much? Do we know whyJesus lived and died showing us that mercy always triumphs judgment? Do we know why he directed his ministry toward those who were in the most need of mercy?

I believe one word in our scripture lesson reveals the answer. It is in verse 5.

”Listen, my belovedbrothers and sisters…”

Did you hear it?  Beloved. We are God’s “beloved.” God loves us. God loves us; and therefore, God wants what is best for us. God loves us and wants us to live lives that are full, whole and blessed. As the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed: “For thus says the Lord, …surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

And what is that plan? What is God’s plan to bless us?

The plan is what Jesus called the greatest commandment: that we love our neighbors as ourselves; and as the prophets, as Jesus and as the apostles like James teach us, that we love especially our poor neighbors.

Because as much as we might be tempted to believe it, as much sense as it might make to our flawed minds, James says, our hopeful future is not found by showing prejudicial treatment, extending a prejudicial welcome to our rich neighbors.

If we want to experience the promise of the Kingdom that God, if we want to experience life as God intended it, if we want to be blessed, then we need to love those that God has chosen to be heirs of that blessed Kingdom.

If we want to be blessed, we need to welcome and accept, include, those our culture disses. You know the dissed: the disenfranchised, the disrespected, the disqualified, the disheartened, the disdained, the disowned, and the disabled. For God uses those the world disses to bless us, to give us a future with hope.

This is the reason I no longer believe in using the word “disability” to describe persons who are living with blindness, deafness, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, or other syndromes.

Consider the definition of “dis” in our English dictionary: to “have a primitive, negative or reversing force.” Discredit. Disengage. Disavow. Disappoint. Distrust.

Therefore, when we call a person disabled, it is like we are saying that they have an inherently negative ability to bless us, to make our lives better, to contribute to society, to have a positive impact on our word, to build up the body of Christ, to give us a future with hope.

This is why we have historically and literally pushed them to the margins. We have institutionalized them, separated them, ostracized them. Nazi Germany euthanized them.

And by excluding them from our lives, we’ve missed our loving God’s plan to bless us.

Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite Christian writers, was a priest, an esteemed writer and brilliant teacher in prestigious universities like Harvard and Yale.

However, he says that it was a desire to follow his Lord which prompted him to leave the Ivy League to spend the rest of his life serving as a chaplain to a wonderful community of people with different emotional, mental and physical abilities in Toronto.

In one of his many books, Nouwen tells a story about Trevor, a man in that community who was dealing with such severe mental and emotional challenges that he had to be sent to a psychiatric facility for another evaluation. As the chaplain, Henri wanted to visit him, so he had his secretary call the hospital and make an appointment.

When the higher-ups in that hospital discovered that it was the infamous Henri Nouwen, the renowned author and teacher from Yale and Harvard University who was coming, they asked if they could set up a special lunch with him in the “Golden Room”—this special meeting room at the hospital. They said that if Nouwen could come and say a few words, they would like to invite some of their most respected doctors and some esteemed clergy from the community to the special luncheon.

Nouwen thought to himself, “Oh Trevor has never missed a meal! He would love that!” So he agreed.

When he arrived, they took him to the Golden Room, but Trevor was nowhere to be seen. Troubled, he asked where Trevor was.

“Oh,” said an administrator, “Trevor cannot have lunch here. Patients and staff are not allowed to have lunch together. It’s too risky. Besides, no patient has ever had lunch in the “Golden Room.”

By nature, Henri was not a confrontational person. He was meek and very gentle. However, guided by the Spirit of the God who has chosen those the world has dissed to inherit and share the Kingdom of God, the thought came to his mind: “Include Trevor. Whatever you do, you mustinclude Trevor. Trevor needs to be here.”

So, Henri swallowed hard, he turned to the administrator and said, “But the whole purpose of my coming here today was to have lunch with Trevor. So, if Trevor is not allowed to attend the lunch, I will not attend either.”

Well, the thought of missing an opportunity for a lunch with the great Henri Nouwen was too much for them to bare, so they quickly found a way for Trevor to attend.

When they all finally gathered together, what the administrators had feared came to fruition. At one point during the lunch, while Henri was talking to the person at his right, he didn’t notice that Trevor, who was seated to his left, had stood up, lifting his glass of Coca-Cola in the air.

“A toast! I will now offer a toast,” Trevor said to the group.

The administrators were embarrassed, but had this look like “we knew this was a bad idea.” Everybody in the room got quiet and very nervous. What in the world was Trevor going to say?

Then Trevor, this deeply challenged man in a room full of PhDs and clergy, started to sing, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass. If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass…”

No one knew what to do. It was all so awkward. Here was a man with a level of challenge and brokenness, they could not begin to understand, yet he was beaming! He was absolutely thrilled to be there. He was so happy!”

So they started to sing. Softly at first, and then louder and louder until all of the doctors and all of the clergymen and Henri Nouwen were practically shouting, “If you’re happy and you know it, raise your glass.”

Henri went on to give a talk at the luncheon, I am certain his words were brilliant, as they always were, but the moment everyone remembered, the moment that blessed them the most, the moment God spoke most clearly, was through the person they all would have said was the least likely to speak for God.[i]

In his first sermon Jesus preached it. “Blessed are the merciful.” Blessed are those who believe and live as if they know mercy triumphs judgment.

This is the reason I no longer use the word “disabled” to describe persons with different abilities.

However, I still believe in using the word “disabled.”

But, it’s not the palsy, the syndrome, or the genetic anomaly that is disabling.

It is the exclusion that disables. It is the fear and the judgment and the prejudice that disables. It’s the constant stares, the negative remarks, the looking away, the shunning and the indifference that are disabling.

We are disabled when we disable others.

Our ability is “dissed” when we are unable to see the holy worth, the divine light, and the image of God in another. Our ability is “dissed” when we are unable to recognize the many gifts and different abilities that another has been given by our loving God to bless our lives and make this world amazing.

The good news is that our God loves us and wants to bless us, not diss us. God loves us and wants us to live full lives with meaning and joy. God loves us and wants us to have a future with a hope. And God has a plan to accomplish this divine will.

This is why the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus implore us over and over again to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, especially those who we characterized as poor, poor in cash, poor in health, poor in status, and poor in ability. This is why God commands us to live lives of inclusion, acceptance, kindness, and compassion, knowing that mercy always triumphs judgment.  Let us pray together.

O God, help us to do your will. Help us to live lives of inclusion. acceptance. Fill us with your mercy, kindness, compassion and love. Help us to live lives blessed by your love.  Amen.

After we sing our hymn of communion, all are invited to share a meal from this table, especially those our culture dissess. We will eat and drink and be blessed and transformed together.

Commissioning and Benediction

Go now and find those the culture disenfranchises, disrespects, disqualifies, disheartens, disdains, disowns, discredits, disengages, disavows, disappoints, distrusts and disables.

Go find them and love them.

See the the holy worth, the divine light, and the image of God in them. Recognize the many gifts and different abilities that they have been given by our loving God to bless our lives and make this world amazing.

[i]John Ortberg, in the sermon, “Guide.” Preachingtoday.com.

Bread from Heaven

 

Bobby Hodge
Bobby Hodge, Jr and Bert Warren. Bert is an Angel Runner an pushes Bobby in races today.

John 6:25-35 NRSV

With the newspaper article that came out on Monday, and with our One-Year Anniversary Dinner and 5k coming up next weekend, many people have recently asked me, “How did you get started with Ainsley’s Angels?”

I know this may seem strange to many, but there’s perhaps nothing I like more than waking up at 4:30 am to lace up my running shoes and run 5 or 10 miles.

I love the way running makes me feel. I love the endorphins that it gives me. I love the way it keeps me relatively thin. I love the way running allows me to enjoy nature. I love the way it gives me opportunities to see some glorious sunrises. I love the way running gives me opportunities to make new friends. I love sense of accomplishment completing a race gives me.

Do you notice a common theme here?

“Me, me, me.” “I, I, I.”

I must confess. I run for many selfish reasons.

Running for all of these physical benefits might be what Jesus called: “working for bread that perishes.” This bread might help me endure temporarily, but not eternally.

However, thanks to a wonderful organization called “Ainsley’s Angels,” three years ago, I was given the opportunity to taste a slice of bread from another loaf. Another runner, and a member of our church, Bethann Wilkie, was contacted by Ainsley’s Angels inquiring if she knew anyone who was differently-abled who might enjoy riding in a race. She called me and asked me if I thought Bobby, a member of our church with Cerebral Palsy, might be interested.

I will never forget my response: “Bobby? He’s 48 years old! Why in the world would he want us to push him in stroller! Naw, I don’t think he would be interested.”

She said, “Would you at least go over to his house, show him some pictures and videos, and ask him.”

I said, “I will, but I cannot imagine him being interested.”

I went over to his house, showed him some pictures and a video. This was late November of 2015. I told him there was a race coming up on December 6 that we could be in.

Then Bobby, who has never taken one step in his life, looked at me with this indescribable expression of excitement and said, “Jarrett Banks (Bobby always calls me by my first and last name), Jarrett Banks, you mean to tell me that I can be in a race!?!”

Shocked by his response, I remember grinning from ear to ear, shaking my head saying: “Yes, you can!

“Okay!” he shouted, “I never thought I could be in a race!”

After talking it over with his parents, I told Bobby that we would get a chair and take him on a training run before we register him for a race that was coming up in about three weeks. Ainsley’s Angels delivered Bobby’s chair at church the following Sunday. It was a cold and rainy day, so we ended up pushing him up and down a hallway in the education building though. Bobby loved it.  After checking the weather forecast, Bethann and I we made an appointment to meet Bobby in his home the following Thursday at 3pm to take a 3-mile test ride.

Bethann met me at the church, and we ran with the chair to Bobby’s house which was just a few blocks away. We rolled right up into the carport and found him sitting on the floor inside the door.

He hollered out, “Mama, Jarrett Banks and Bethann are here!”

His mother came to the door and said, “It is about time you got here!”

I said, “We’re not late, are we?”

She said, “No, but he has been sitting here on the floor waiting for an hour! You would think it is Christmas morning! This is all he has talked about!”

We loaded Bobby in the chair and started out. I don’t even think we got a block down the road when Bobby spoke up, “Jarrett Banks, my neighbor who lives right here doesn’t know about this. We need to tell her.”

I said, “Okay, when we get back from our run, we’ll tell her.”

He said, “Jarrett Banks, I think we need to tell her right now!”

For you see, whenever one is included, whenever one is accepted, whenever one is empowered, whenever one is loved, they cannot wait to tell someone about it!

So we pulled up on the sidewalk that led to her front porch and rang the door bell. As soon as she came to the door, Bobby started telling her all about it: “Hey, you will not believe this, but I am going to be in a race! This is my preacher Jarrett Banks and Bethann. I never thought I could be in a race before, but now I am!”

She graciously responded, “That is amazing Bobby! I am so happy for you!”

“Maybe you can come and watch me in the race!” Bobby said.

“Jarrett Banks, when is the race?”

Thrilled that I Bobby was so excited I smiled and said, “It is December 6.”

She smiled and said, “Well, I will have to see if I can be there!”

Bobby said, “Okay!”

I said, “Bobby, we have to go if we want to finish this run before it gets dark!”

He said, “Okay!” So off we went.

I think we made it two more blocks, when he said, “Jarrett Banks. My neighbor who lives right here does not know about this either.”

So, up on the side walk we went. I rang the door bell. She came onto the porch. Then Bobby started, “You will not believe this, but my preacher and I are going to be in a race!”

“That is wonderful Bobby! I love your new chair.”

“You need to come and watch us in this race? And so on and so on.

It was then I said, “Bobby, we really need to finish this training run before the sun goes down and it starts getting cold. Let’s wait until later to tell others about it.”

Bobby said, “Okay!”

For about two miles, Bobby laughed at every bump we went over. He waved at every passing car. And he pointed out all of the places the sidewalks needed ramps in the curbs at the end of a block. Every time we passed someone’s house he knew, he would tell me that we were going to have to come back and tell them, “’cause they don’t know about this.” I think he told us umpteen times “Jarrett Banks, Bethann run faster.”

After about two miles, Bobby got quiet. For about a quarter of a mile he didn’t make a sound. Bethann and I were quiet too. Running a little faster pace, we were just trying to breathe!

Then Bobby broke the silence, “Jarrett Banks, I know you are going to be mad at me.”

I said, “Bobby, I will never be mad at you.”

“Okay!” Then he said. “My Nanny does not know about this. We need to show her.”

Assuming he was talking about one of his caregivers, I asked, “Well, where does your Nanny live?”

He said, “Okay! I will show you!” We went about a block when he said, “Turn right here.” A few moments later he said, “Turn right here.” We did. Then he said, “Turn left.”

We pulled right up into a cemetery. We didn’t go very far, when he said, “Jarrett Banks, stop right here.” Bobby then pointed to the headstone of his grandmother who passed away in 1989.

As soon as we pulled up to the headstone, Bobby said, “Nanny, you will not believe this! But I am going to be in a race! Nanny, I never thought I could be in a race before! But this is my preacher, Jarrett Banks, and this is my friend Bethann, and they got me this chair, and Jarrett Banks, when is that race?”

Overwhelmed with emotion, I could barely speak, “It’s December 6th.”

It was then he said: “Nanny, please tell God to tell the Angels watch over me and my preacher Jarrett Banks and Bethann in this race and keep us safe, and take care of my dog that died.”

And I believe that was the moment I tasted it: holy manna, true bread from heaven that endures for eternal life.

And once you have tasted this bread, once you have allowed this Holy manna to feed your soul and fill your heart, there is just no going back to any ordinary bread that perishes.

This was the day Bethann and I both became Ainsley’s Angels. For how could we ever lace up our shoes and run for any selfish gain again? Bethann currently serves as the Ambassador for Ainsley’s Angels in Greenville, North Carolina.

And the good news is that you don’t have to run and push a full grown man in a stroller to receive this bread from heaven.

This bread is offered each time we love our neighbors as we love ourselves, every time we meet someone’s need, every time we forgive someone who has wronged us, every time offer grace, extend mercy and show kindness.

We can taste this bread when we feed the hungry.

We consume this bread when we give drink to the thirsty.

It fills us when we welcome the stranger. It feeds us when we defend the rights of the oppressed.

It satisfies us when we accept and empower the differently-abled.

It nourishes us when we love others the way Jesus loves us, selflessly, sacrificially, graciously.

And once you have tasted this bread from heaven, there is no going back. Our tastes change, our thirst is transformed, and we experience a different type of hunger all together. Our temporal hungers fade away.

Money and possessions no longer matter. Spiritual wholeness becomes more important to us than physical healing. The needs of others become more important than our own needs.

The way we measure success also changes, even in the church. The number of people that are serving the community every day becomes more important than the number of people attending the service on Sunday morning. The number of people who are out in the community doing what Jesus taught becomes more important that the number of people who are sitting in Sunday School studying his teachings. Following Jesus becomes more important than worshiping Jesus.

And we become convinced that this bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world, to a world that doesn’t even know that this bread exists. The world hungers, yet knows not what it hungers for.

And we are given this holy sense of urgency.

As Bobby would say, “They don’t know about this! And we need to tell them, and we need to tell them now.”

We need to tell them that Jesus is the bread of life. We need to show them that the way of Jesus is the way to life, abundant and eternal, and whoever comes to Jesus, will never be hungry, and whoever believes in Jesus will never be thirsty. Amen

More Than Enough

Anthony Baptism

John 6:1-21 NRSV

It is believed that St. Francis of Assisi once said: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words.”

I believe the baptism of Anthony Truong preached this morning’s gospel lesson from John this morning without using a word.

People had gathered together “because of the signs that Jesus was doing for the sick”: for people who could not see, for people who could not hear, for people who could not talk, and for people who could not walk.

Then came a logistical conundrum.

Jesus said to Philip, “Where on earth are we going to buy enough bread to feed all of these people?”

“There’s just no way,” answered Philip. “Six months wages would not be enough to feed this crowd!”

Andrew spoke up and said, “But there’s this boy here!”

I like that. “But there’s this boy here. He has 5 loaves and two fish, but not enough to feed five thousand people.”

However, the good news is that although what the boy possessed did not seem like enough, with Jesus, it was actually more than enough!

After everyone ate (notice verse 11 and 12) “as much as they wanted” until they were “satisfied,” the left overs filled twelve baskets!

When Anthony expressed his desire to be baptized, we were also faced with a logistical conundrum.

Someone said: “How are you going to have enough strength to carry Anthony up and down those baptistery steps, baptize him, and then carry him back up and down so he can dry off, get dressed and be back in the service before communion. There’s just no way.”

I started thinking: “Maybe we could baptize him by pouring water on his his head; that way, he would not have to get into the baptismal pool.” So I asked Anthony. To which he responded and I quote, “No, I want to go all the way.”

So to the question of “how are you going to make this happen,” my answer is: “But there’s this boy here!”

“But there’s this boy here, and although the faith that he possesses may not seem like enough, I have a feeling that it is more than enough!”

As soon as the newsletter was emailed on Tuesday announcing the baptism, John Mundy, Steve Parke, Randy Alexander, and Dan Marshall immediately agreed to help with the baptism to make sure it was more than enough.

The good news is that this is exactly how our God loves to work in our world. When there seems to be no way, God loves to make a way. When it seems like it is not enough, God makes not just enough, but more than enough!

Our Hebrew lesson this morning from 2 Kings 4 illustrates this good news: During a famine a man brings the prophet Elisha a prophet’s tithe: Twenty loaves of bread and some fresh ears of grain in a sack.

Elisha accepts the tithe, but says, I want you to take this food and give it to the poor.

It is then the man points out the logistical conundrum: “But there’s just no way. There is not enough food here to set before a hundred people.”

But Elisha assures the man, “Because of your great faith in bringing this tithe during a famine, I have this feeling that it is more than enough.”

The man set the food before the people, and sure enough, there was not only enough, but it was more than enough, as they had leftovers.

This good news was also experienced by Elisha’s predecessor Elijah.

In 1 Kings 17, the prophet Elijah is sent by the Lord to visit a woman widow in Zarephath who will feed him when he arrives.

When he comes to the gate of the town, just as the Lord had said, he meets a widow who is gathering a couple of sticks to build a fire for dinner. He called to her and said, “Pour me a glass of water. And while you are at it, bring me a morsel of bread.”

Confronted with a logistical conundrum that has life and death consequences, she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.” In other words, “There’s just no way. I simply do not have enough for you in this famine.”

Elijah says: “Do not be afraid.”

Old Testament Professor Katherine Schifferdecker imagines her saying:

“Easy for you to say! You’re not the one preparing to cook one last meal for yourself and your son before you die. You’re not the one who has watched your carefully-hoarded supply of flour and oil relentlessly dwindle day-by-day, week-by-week, as the sun bakes the seed in the hard, parched earth and the wadis run dry. You’re not the one who has watched your beloved son slowly grow thinner and more listless.”

“Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son” (1 Kings 17:13).

“How dare this man of God ask me for bread, knowing that I have so little? Who does he think he is, asking me for bread before I feed my own child? There’s no way. I told him that I have only “a handful of meal, a little oil, and a couple of sticks. There’s not enough. And Death waits at the door.”

Then the good news:

For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah (1 Kings 17:14-16).

There was not only enough. There was more than enough.

Diagnosed with scoliosis, the doctors wanted to perform surgery when you were 12 years old. During the surgery you suffered a spinal stroke that left you paralyzed from the waist down. Some thought there was no way. They said, “there’s just not enough left.” But, you didn’t give up. You kept going. You kept fighting, and you kept living. You joined a wheelchair basketball league. You stayed in school. You went to church. And six years later you joined Ainsley’s Angels and completed a 5k and a 15k. Soon after that 15k, you ended back into the hospital for the second time with a severe infection. On a respirator for nearly three weeks, some feared there might not be enough antibiotics, love or faith to see you through. They feared you might be running out of sticks, your jar was almost empty, your jug was beginning to fail.

But the good news is that you came back, and you came back strong. You completed not one but three more 5ks. You enrolled in college. You joined a church. And this morning you were baptized symbolizing that not only did you have enough sticks, enough meal in you jar, enough oil in your jug, you had more than enough.

And the amazing news is that there are countless more stories just like Anthony’s in this room. Your marriage failed. Your son was killed. A child died. You lost your job. You lost a business. You lost your home. You became addicted to alcohol or drugs. You received a grim diagnosis. People said there was no way. They said you were all about out of sticks. However, you never lost your sense of gratitude. You kept the faith.  In the face of your suffering you continued to worship and thank God for the gift of life. Somehow, some miraculous way, your jar never emptied and your jug never failed, and you have always found that you always seem to possess a great big pile of sticks! And not just enough sticks, but more than enough.”

Not only does the baptism of Anthony this morning proclaim the text about Jesus having more than enough to feed 5,000 people, it also proclaims last part of our text about Jesus walking on water.

It was the Sunday after Hurricane Floyd flooded the first house Lori and ever purchased in eastern North Carolina. To say that we had a logistical conundrum would be making an understatement.

I had been wading in waist deep water that Thursday and all day Friday trying to salvage our possessions. And then on that Sunday morning, can you believe that one of the first things that I did was to climb down the steps of our baptistery into waist deep water to baptize a new member of the church?

I’ll never forget the first words I spoke. I looked out into the congregation from that baptistery, and I said, “You know, you would think that standing in waist deep water is the last place I would want to be this morning. However, it is actually the first place I need to be this morning!”

I then said: “Before today, baptismal water had always represented purity and refreshment to me. It was a water which cleansed one’s spirit and refreshed one’s soul. It was a renewing, invigorating water, life-giving water. However, on this particular Sunday, this water represents to me something more, something dreadful, something heinous, something sinister. This water symbolizes destruction, despair and death.”

I believe Paul understood the destructive forces of sin and evil in our world and that water was symbolic of of those chaotic forces. This is why he wrote to the church in Rome: ‘Remember that you have been buried with Christ by baptism into death.’

And this is why the picture of Jesus walking on water in the darkness amidst howling winds and crashing waves is so inspiring. Jesus was doing much more than walking on water. That would be enough in itself. Jesus was walking all over the forces of evil like they did not even exist. Which makes it more than enough.

This morning, Anthony, was buried with Jesus into death, and he rose from death into the newness of life, symbolizing that he will always have more than enough to conquer any storm, flood or chaotic force that might come his way.

And the good news is that God is still walking on water. God is still raising people up. God is still serving bread. God is still filling jars and replenishing jugs, and in God’s kingdom, the sticks that fuel the fire of the Holy Spirit never run out. So do not be afraid. Despite every logistical, physical or spiritual conundrum we face, there will always be enough. No, in God’s abundant mercy, there will always be more than enough. Thanks be to God.