Getting Our Hands Dirty

John 9:1-41 NRSVdirty-hands-medium-new

Let’s think for a minute what it did for this poor blind man when the disciples began a theological debate over his blindness.

“So, they say you were born blind? Well, let get out our Bibles and see if we can find some theological reason for your blindness. It has to be because of sin. But since you were born blind, perhaps it’s not your sin that is to blame but the sins of your parents.”

Yes, I’m sure all of that theologizing and rationalizing did a whole lot for that poor man.

But how often have we’ve been guilty of doing the same. For some reason, because we are religious, or at least, spiritual people, we believe it is our ordained duty to try to explain human suffering and misery in light of our faith in God.

When the earthquake and Tsunami struck Japan a few years ago, like the Tsunami that struck Southeast Asia years before, I heard some preachers say that it is because Japan was not a Christian nation.

When terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center Towers on 9-11, they said that corporate greed was to blame.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Gulfport, I heard some blame it on all the new casinos that had been built in the region.

And whenever there is an outbreak of strong storms, tornadoes, wildfires or landslides, I have heard plenty of Christians say, “God must be trying to get our attention!”

For whatever reason, when suffering occurs, we believe God must have had some pretty good reasons to allow it.

In the face of human pain and suffering, there are two predominate explanations that are usually given by the church.

The first one is the one I usually hear from the TV evangelists and conservative pulpits. God is sitting at the command center in complete control of every earthly thing that happens. God has got a plan for the world, and it’s a good plan, but we as limited human beings may not always be able to figure that plan out. Who knows? Maybe people who suffer deserve to suffer. But we do know this: God’s judgments are always just. You just have to have faith and believe. You have to trust that God has his reasons, has his driving purposes for everything that happens.

The other response comes from more liberal scholars. And that is one of silence, just silence. God is large and God is indescribable. Life, and the suffering that comes with it, is utterly mysterious. We simply have no answers to our “why” questions—silence.

Frankly, I believe both of these responses are terrible, to say the least. First of all, those who believe God has some kind of divine, driving purpose for every evil thing that happens in this world, in my estimation, paint a very evil and anti-christ portrait of God.

And those who respond with silence, those who refuse to say anything at all in response to human suffering, make God out to seem detached and aloof. God is watching us, but from a distance. Thus, God is reduced to this a mysterious abstraction devoid of any real meaning.

However, the gospels paint a very different image of God through the words and works of Christ. I believe the life, suffering and death of Christ teach us that when the landslide shook the earth in Washington, so quivered the very heart of God. As the earth rolled down and toppled homes and lives, so rolled down the very tears of God. As the lives of many were suddenly were poured out, so emptied the very self of God. God was not causing the evil. Neither was God silent.

This is where I believe our Gospel lesson this morning is especially helpful. When Jesus is questioned about this man’s lifetime of pain and suffering by his disciples, Jesus really doesn’t answer the question, but neither is he silent. Jesus responds by pointing out that this was a good opportunity, not for theological debate, not to assign blame or responsibility, but rather, to bend to the ground, spit in the dirt, and get his hands dirty, so that the glory of God might be revealed. Jesus responds to human suffering and misery by bending to the ground, getting his hands dirty to bring about healing and wholeness.

And with that, a huge argument ensues. But notice that Jesus refuses to engage in the argument. Jesus is not interested theological debate or speculation. Jesus is interested in simply being there with the man, touching the man, thus revealing the peculiar glory of our God and power of out God.

When I was in college, one of my favorite professors was Dr. Bobby Bell. During my junior year, Dr. Bell was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. I had the wonderful opportunity to take what would be his last class. He was a sociology professor; however, he would often share his faith in class.

ll never forget the time when one of my classmates asked Dr. Bell if he ever felt that God had some reason for allowing his cancer. “

God did not give me this cancer. I am a human being. And human beings sometimes get cancer. I have cancer because I am human, and not for any other reason. I don’t believe for a minute that God wants me or anyone to have cancer. That’s why I believe during this time of suffering and pain, I have sensed, in a way that I have never sensed before, the very intimate, near presence and love of Christ in my life. And I may not be healed physically, but I have certainly felt the hand of Christ on me and know that I have been healed spiritually. I believe the living Lord is here suffering with me, and that means everything in the world to me.

Dr. Bell died two days before final exams. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he died a healed and a very whole man.

I think it is interesting that the great Southeast Asia Tsunami hit the day after Christmas. One of the world’s worst natural catastrophes took place the very first day after the church’s celebration of the Incarnation, the celebration of the good news that our God did not remain silent, aloof and detached from us. The celebration that our God became flesh and came among us; our God is a God who descends; our God is a God who bends, who stoops to the earth.

The story of this healed blind man comes in the same Gospel of John that begins, “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh and moved in with us…and we beheld his glory.” The great, grand glory of this God who became flesh with us, is not that God is in complete control of everything earthly thing that happens, and it is not that God has an explanation or a reason or a driving purpose for everything that happens to us, but rather that God is here with us.

In the face of suffering, our God reaches in and reaches out to us, bends himself to the ground, gets God’s hands dirty and touches us.

Every year when Holy Week approaches, I think about the worshippers of the Goshen United Baptist Church in Piedmont, Alabama. It was Palm Sunday in 1994. About midway through the worship service at 11:35 am, as the choir began to sing, a tornado ripped through the church building destroying it completely. Eighty-three out of the 140 worshippers who attended the service that day were injured. Twenty-one worshippers were killed. Eight of the dead were little children—children who had just walked down the aisle carrying their palm branches.

There was absolutely no driving purpose, no theological explanation for that tragedy, except for the fact that we live in fallen, broken, unfair and sometimes senseless world where tornados, landslides, tsunamis, hurricanes, and cancer can develop and arbitrarily destroy.

Thankfully Christians from all over the world responded to that great tragedy by emulating our God revealed to us in Christ, by bending themselves to the ground, getting their hands dirty, raising that church out of the rubble. Christians everywhere imitated their Savior by suffering with and being with the grieving.

On the church’s website today, you will find these words:

 After the tornado, we received many gifts from all over the world. They lifted us up and helped us to know that we are not alone. Among those gifts were a banner and a painting of Jesus walking on turbulent waters. These and other gifts are reminders that God is with us through our storms, and with His help we will rise above them and be stronger because of them. We can now affirm the truth of the message that is contained on a plaque and in the words of a song: ‘Sometimes God calms the storm. Sometimes, he lets the storms rage, and calms the child.’

The good news is, as the Psalmist so beautifully describes it in the 23rd Psalm, God is always there to calm God’s children.

And in the end, isn’t that much better than any theological explanation?

When Death Surprises Us


Memorial Service for Florence Styers, March 17, 2000

Death is always painful.  Losing someone you love is always tragic.  However, the pain and tragedy of loss seem to intensify when it takes us by surprise.  It leaves one in a state of shock, a state of disbelief.  Numb.  There are some times when our hearts break slowly over time, and then there are those harsh times when they break very abruptly.  This is what happened to my heart on Grimmersburg Street on Tuesday evening.

There is nothing good about death. It marks the end of life on this earth. It is our last great enemy. And it separates us from the ones we love. Death is always a tragedy.

We can try to comfort ourselves by saying things like “Our loved one is better off than we.” “She is in a far better place.”  “At least she did not suffer.”

 But at the same time, we cannot help to selfishly ask:

“If she was so healthy, why couldn’t we have her here ten, even twenty more years.”  “What was so bad about the place she was—here with us, in the presence of the ones she loved and with so many who loved her?”

No, the truth is: there is nothing good about any death.

And it seems even harsher when it surprises us. Because the truth is we do not like the surprises of our fallen world.

We do not like the world’s surprises because they do not fit into our plans.  They disrupt our lives. They cause confusion and chaos. And our fallen world is full of them. Tragedy and catastrophe, sickness and disease, wars, storms, floods, and earthquakes stalk our earth continuously ready to jump out and overtake us when we least expect it. And so it often is with death.

However, the good news is, as our fallen world is full of surprises, so is our God. Our God is a God of surprises.  However, God’s surprises are not tainted by sin and evil, but are shaped by love and by grace. In the garden, God surprised Adam and Eve as God took garments of skin, and with God’s own hands crafted together clothes to cover their shame. Although they deserved to die, God clothed them, enveloping them with grace and forgiveness and love.

If one has heard it only once, one cannot forget the story when God told Abraham and Sarah they were going to have a baby in their old age whose descendants would give birth to Israel. Do you remember Sarah’s response? She laughed out loud. Sarah blessed laugh of the surprised.

And in this Lenten season, as Christians, we know how through Jesus, God once again surprised humanity as he became one of us. God surprised us by offering us the very best he had to offer: God’s only Son Jesus Christ. And when this fallen world rejected him, by humiliating him, by stripping him, beating him and crucifying him to a cross, God surprised us yet again by bringing him back to life and offering him to the very ones who denied, betrayed and killed him.  And promising eternal life through resurrection to all who follow the risen Christ.

And the good news is God still surprises us today by transforming our darkness into light, our despair into hope, our sorrow into joy and our deaths into life.

As we were all surprised this past Tuesday, just think of the surprise that Florence Styers’ received!  There is an old hymn which reads:

Just think of what it must be like to step on shore and finding it heaven,

of taking hold of a hand and finding it God’s hand.

Of breathing a new air and finding it celestial air,

of feeling invigorated and finding it immortality,

of passing from storm and tempest into an unbroken calm,

of looking up and finding it home. 

What a great surprise!

And until that day comes when we will meet Florence again, as God will surprise all of us in a twinkling of an eye with the gift of resurrection, we can count on God surprising us in many ways. 

Memories of our loved ones are a gift of grace. I believe God will surprise all of us the rest of our lives with the wonderful memories of Florence Styers . When our days are difficult, and when our days are long, when we have those despairing moments of grief (and because we loved  Florence we will have those moments), I believe it is then when God will surprise us with those precious memories of Florence’s delicate smile, her warm touch, her soft humility, her tender compassion and her faithful service. I believe God will use those memories to surprisingly touch those places within us that most need touching and renew our spirits—giving us the strength to continue our lives until we meet Florence and God one day face to face.

We will never forget the way in which she lived her life.  Someone told her children recently that Florence lived until she died. We will never forget the contributions she made to this community, through her job, through serving Meals on Wheels, and through her church. 

On Monday when she came to the office to write some checks as our church treasurer, as she did faithfully each week, she told me how she would soon be eighty.  I was shocked.  Surprised.  I told her I would not have been surprised if she told me she going to be 67.  She said the secret to staying young was staying busy. And that she did. I cannot tell you how many times people have come into the office this past week asking me questions which my response has been, “I don’t know the answer to that question, that is something Florence always took care of.” 

And you know when I think about her age, I should not have been surprised on Monday when she told me she was going to be eighty. Even God would have needed at least that long to create someone as lovely and as faithful as the Florence Styers I knew and loved. 

Yes, when we are surprised by the harsh surprises of this fallen world, when our hearts break abruptly, we can count on God surprising us with these great memories of Florence, renewing our spirits. 

And I believe God will continue to surprise us through our loved ones, our friends and our family, and our church.  Those days when we most need it, I believe God will send us an unexpected word of encouragement, an unanticipated visit, and an unforeseen embrace. God will startle us as the people of God around us will make us laugh like Sarah and Abraham, the laugh of the surprised.

Yes, when we have those moments when we feel we just can’t go on without Mama, without Nana, without Florence, God will surprise us with her memories, God will surprise us with our loved ones, God will surprise us with God’s Holy Spirit and God’s eternal hope.  God’s hope that as God surprised Florence with eternal life, one day God will surprise all of us who call him Lord with eternal life.

Death is hard.  Losing a loved one is painful. There is nothing good about it. And the pain of loss seems intensified when it catches us by surprise. But thank God, God will catch us all by surprise, with his love and with his grace, now and forevermore.

The Problem of the Know-It-All

know it allJohn 3:1-17 NRSV

In today’s gospel lesson, a very knowledgeable and prominent leader of Israel comes to Jesus seeking to discover who Jesus is and what Jesus is all about. The learned and sophisticated Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus appearing poised and confident, “Now, we know that you are…”  He begins his conversation from the same place that most of us mature, experienced, educated, long-time religious people often begin our conversations about God—from the stuff we know, from the stuff we understand… or think we understand. “Now we know that you are…”

And it’s from there that the conversation gets all convoluted and confused. Jesus begins talking to Nicodemus about birth, and poor Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about ordinary, physical birth. Jesus starts talking about the Spirit—and Nicodemus thinks Jesus is talking about the wind.

It is interesting that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, for in just a few brief moments with Jesus, Jesus proves that, when it comes to God, Nicodemus is in the dark in more ways than one.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus confident and assured, but by the time Jesus gets finished with him, Nicodemus is confused and mumbling, “Uh, How can this be?”

Nicodemus has a problem.  And perhaps Nicodemus’ problem is in the very way he came to Jesus in the first place—“Now we know that…”

And maybe that is precisely our problem—“Now we know that…”  We can’t help it.  We are modern, intellectual types who know a lot!  We can explain the inner workings of the atom, the intricacies of the human genome, the formations of tropical depressions, and how to build a space shuttle. We know. We live in what they call the information age. If there’s something we don’t know, we can just Google it, and in a few simple clicks of a mouse, we know. With WebMD and Wikipedia, there is hardly anything that we cannot easily understand and explain.

Perhaps this is why we try to approach God the way we do. God is to be understood and easily explained. 

It is no wonder those on the outside of the church accuse those of us who are on the inside of being “know-it-alls” when it comes to religion.  They believe that we think we have all the answers. There are some that think that we are here this morning because we are experts on religion, knowing lots of things about God. And truth be told, that is exactly why they are not here with us this morning.

One day, I was introduced to someone who knew that I was a pastor. He shook my hand, and said, rather proudly, “I am an agnostic.” Which means that he did not know he believed about God.

I surprised him when I responded, “I have my moments when I am an agnostic too.” I believe that some are agnostic all of the time, and all, if they are honest, are agnostic some of the time.

The reality is that here on Sunday, we acknowledge together how little we really know. We gather ourselves together to acknowledge the great truth, that when it comes to the mystery that is God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we are all, well, quite ignorant!

The truth is that the God we worship is much larger than our imaginations. God is bigger and more alive than we ever can possibly comprehend.

This is why I believe I left the movie, Son of God, feeling disappointed. There is just no way anyone can capture the essence of who Jesus is and present it in a one-hundred and forty-minute cinematic presentation. I told someone that I have been preaching the gospel of Jesus for over twenty-five years, and I have not even begun to scratch the surface of who Jesus is and what the gospel is all about.

William Willimon, commenting on how some reduce God to something we can easily understand said, “You can’t define this God, put this God in your pocket, or on a leash and drag God around with you.  Life with this God is an adventure, a journey, a leap into the unknown, an expectation that, among even the most regular attendees among us, there will be surprises, jolts, shocks.”[1]

In a few moments we are going to have a child dedication service. Robert and Ashley Bishop are going to present their son, Owen. And Brooks and Jenny White are going to present their son, Chase. We are pretty confident that we know what we are doing when we dedicate them to the Lord. We believe that we are merely promising to nurture them, guide them and teach them all we know about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit. We say that we do this because they are the church of tomorrow.

But what if Owen Bishop and Chase White have more to teach us about the triune God than we can possibly imagine? What if Owen and Chase and every other small child here today are not the church of tomorrow, but are actually the church of today? What if they truly are, as Jesus implies, more a part of this thing called the Kingdom of God than we can ever know? What if we are not so much the ones who are going to instruct them about this journey called faith, as we are the ones who are merely going to invite them to go on this journey with us? And along the way, what if they are the ones who have a thing or two to teach us?

How often have we gathered around this table confident that we know exactly what is going on here around this table. Catholics and some Episcopalians are all so mysterious, always insisting on calling it “Holy Communion.” We like to call it simply “supper.”  Some believe that something mysterious takes place as they eat this meal. They call it transubstantiation. We only believe it is a dry little cracker and tiny sip of Welch’s grape juice and an act of remembrance that is confined to our limited and finite minds. 

But what if there is more going on here this morning than we can see, touch or taste or even remember? When we gather around the Lord’s Table, what if there is more going on here than meets the senses? What if there is some mysterious communion or a very holy fellowship happening here? Sharing what we merely call a “supper,” what if we are surprised to discover that we are somehow invited to join the same fellowship that is mysteriously and inexplicably enjoyed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? 

In and around this table, what if there is something afoot, something happening— moving, inviting, healing, strengthening, loving, forgiving, saving, calling, challenging, commissioning?

We have come to instruct and bless children, but we will leave having been instructed and blessed by them. We thought that we have come to remember a life, a death and a resurrection, but we will leave having been caught up in that life and death and transformed by that resurrection.

As Willimon has said, “For, that is our God at our God’s best. That night as Nicodemus talked with Jesus, he began with what he knew. And he ended with questions about what he did not know. He arrived fairly confident that he had a good grasp of, [a good hold on] who Jesus was; [he left surprised,] having been encountered and held by the mysterious, majestic Holy Spirit of God in the flesh.”[2]

This morning, when we awoke, we thought we knew what we were doing. We thought we were going to get up, get dressed and simply go to church, sing a few hymns, have the Lord’s Supper, listen to a sermon, dedicate some children. Then we would leave, get some lunch and come back home unmoved and unchanged, to watch a little more basketball.

However, when got here, we realized that we did not know it all. A song spoke to us, a small wafer and tiny cup filled us, a word challenged us, a child looked at us and blessed us, and God, the creator of all that is called us by name and loved us. Christ came and wrapped his arms around us as his Holy Spirit breathed new life into us. And now, we will leave this place changed, transformed and divinely commissioned to share the love of God with all people.

[1]Quote and interpretation of Nicodemus’ first words to Jesus “We know” came from William H. Willimon, We Know (PR 34/2; Inver Grove Heights Minnesota: Logos Productions, Inc., 2006), 49.

[2] Ibid.

Strength for the Journey

lent and communion

1 Kings 19 NRSV

Last week I spoke of being affirmed by God in the presence of God on one day; but then, it always happens, Monday morning comes, and we are hurled into a wilderness with trials and all sorts of temptation. For forty days, even Jesus found himself in such a place.

You might remember that I made the comparison to Elijah.  After being affirmed by God on Mt. Carmel, Elijah found himself in a wilderness that was so bad, he did not know if he wanted to live or die.

Listen to 1 Kings 19:3: “Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life.”  In verse three, it appears that he wants to live. He’s running from Jezebel to save his life. Now let’s look at the very next verse.  Verse four reads: “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree.  He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life…”

His Monday morning was so bad, that one minute he wants to live, and the next minute, he wants to die.  Can you relate?

Elijah then fell asleep under that tree, but suddenly, an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”  He looked and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water.  He ate and drank, and lay down again.  But the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey will be too much for you.”  “He got up and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

Today, some of you do not need to wait for Monday morning.  You are already there. One minute you want to live; the next minute, you are thinking that death might not be that bad of an option.  Others of you may be doing better than that today.  But as I said a few weeks ago, sooner or later, Monday morning is coming for all of us.

So I say to all: “Let’s get up and eat and drink from the table of the Lord.  For if you do not, this journey in the wilderness of life will be too much for you.”

Now, you might ask, how can one little, tiny, tasteless cracker, and one sip of juice give us sustenance for forty days and forty nights?

Do you remember my sermon on the transfiguration?  On the mount of transfiguration, before the disciples come back down into the wilderness of their lives, a voice came from heaven, saying:  “This is my Son, the Chosen, listen to him.”

This is my Son, the Beloved, the Chosen, the one who has been tested and tempted and tried in the wilderness of life, listen to Him.  Listen to the One who knows what it is like to be on the mountain top with God one minute only to be in Hell with the devil the next.  Listen to the one who knows something about the ecstasy of being affirmed by God in the presence of God one minute and to be famished in the middle desert the next minute.  Listen to the One who knows what it is like to be a human being living in a fallen world.  Listen to the one who spent most of his earthly life trying to survive in a vast and dark wilderness.

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. ”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“Your sins are forgiven.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“Daughter, your faith has healed you.  Go in peace.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“Whoever drinks the water that I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.  I am the good shepherd.  I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“Your brother will rise again.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and I will take you to myself, so that where I am, you will be also.”

Listen to the Christ as he says…

“You are my friend”

Listen to the Christ as he says:

“I am with you always, even until the end of the age.”

Listen to Christ as he says, “This is my body broken for you.  This is my blood shed for you.”

Some might still say: “It is just a tiny, little cracker and a sip of juice.”  But I think you know that we can go in the strength of the food on this table, for forty days and forty nights, or however long our journey in the wilderness might last.

She’d Had Enough

emma burnette

Luke 2:22-40 NRSV

I just read a story of a beautiful and faithful widow named Anna who lived almost ninety years. Mary and Joseph were presenting the baby Jesus in the temple for circumcision and purification when we are introduced to Anna. She, along with an elderly man named Simeon took part in the blessing of the little baby.

Anna is called a prophet by Luke. She continues the tradition of the great female prophets of the Old Testament—prophets like Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and the wife of Isaiah. Luke tells us that she never left the temple, but worshipped both day and night. She praised God and spoke about the child to all. Luke paints a beautiful portrait of a devout and faithful woman.

With Simeon, Anna was looking forward to the fulfillment of all prophesy. Anna was looking forward to the salvation of the entire world. In spite of her advanced age, in spite of her physical limitations, Anna never despaired, but always hoped.

I believe it was this hope which caused this devout widow of great age to remain so faithful. It was the hope in the salvation and redemption of the world that kept Anna in the temple worshipping night and day—giving God all she had to give.

We meet Anna and Simeon, near the end of their lives, lives that were lived completely devoted to God and the Temple. We meet them as their joy and their hope is finally being fulfilled in meeting the baby Jesus. I imagine the two of them lovingly and adoringly holding the baby in their arms. 

Holding any baby always floods one’s spirit with hope, but holding this baby, in whom they understood as the fulfillment of the hope of the world, I imagine Anna and Simeon becoming so overwhelmed with hope that they became unable to restrain themselves. Together, nearing the end of their lives, that was enough to cause them to burst into song…

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant(s) depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

Holding the hope and the salvation of the world in their arms, they sang a wonderful hymn consisting of phrases and lines from the Hebrew Scriptures, mostly from Isaiah 49 and 52—a song of God’s great final embrace of all peoples, Jew and Gentile—even while living in the last days of their lives, they sang a song of possibility, a song of a brand new future, a great song of hope.

On this particular day, I believe this story has a rather familiar ring to it.

Like Anna, Emma Burnette, was a devout and faithful woman who was devoted to her church where she spent her entire life worshiping and praying, day and night. She served as an elder and taught Sunday School for 67 years. You could call her a Presbyterian prophet.

Last weekend, nearing the end of her faithful and beautiful life, Emma told her family that she was ready to go home. She told them that she had had enough.  However, Emma was not giving up. Emma was not throwing in the towel. She was not losing the faith. I believe she was faithfully singing the song of Anna:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”

When Emma said that she’d had enough, I believe she was faithfully saying that, in her life, her eyes had seen salvation. She had seen her savior and savior of the world.  It was like she had held Him in her very arms. And that was enough for her. That was enough. That was enough for her to be able to faithfully say to her family, to her minister and to her God, “Lord, now lettest thou servant depart in peace.”

Last weekend, when Emma said that she was finished with doctors and medicines last weekend, she was not in despair. She was not giving up hope. No, Emma was embracing hope, because, like Anna, Emma had held a baby in her arms—and not just any baby—Emma literally held hope. Emma held possibility. Emma held life abundant and eternal. Emma held a new and glorious future. For Emma held Jesus.

When each of us nears the end of our lives, this is what faith in Christ is all about. It is about a widow, advanced in years, holding a baby and faithfully singing a song—a song of strength and a song of grace, a song of possibility and of life—abundant and eternal.  A song about a God who loves us so much that God sought to identify with us by becoming one of us.  A song about a God who has experienced the despair, brokenness and misery of this our fallen and broken world and promises to transform it, recreate it and resurrect it.

This is the good news for us today.  Instead of departing this service today in despair, we can leave singing a song—Emma’s song—a song of eternal hope and amazing grace.  A song that sings our God is Emmanuel, God with us and God for us, and God always working all things together for the good.  A song that sings that even in death, there is hope, there is possibility and there is life forevermore.

And the good news is, that is enough for us all.

Carrying the Cross


Philippians 3:17-4:1 NRSV

If there was anything good about seeing the movie, the Son of God , it was how it reminded us of the extreme heinousness of the cross. For two thousand years later, I believe many of us have forgotten the excruciating pain, the shame, and the horror of crucifixion on a cross. Our society has turned the cross into a hallowed symbol, a pretty piece of jewelry. We are no longer appalled at the nature of Christ’s death, and we no longer grasp the significance of what it means to share his sufferings and to imitate him in death as the Apostle Paul admonishes us to do.

So we live as what Paul calls “enemies” of this cross. We see our religion only in terms of benefit and advantage and are not prepared to share the humiliations and suffering that commitment to Christ  involves.

In thinking about the cross in relation to other world religions, the symbol for our faith is indeed a curious one. The cross is a symbol of suffering, shame and death. It is like having the electric chair as the symbol for our God. Think for a moment about other religions. Most have us have visited Chinese restaurants and have seen a statue of Buddah in the foyer. There he is, fat and happy: arms crossed; eyes closed; serene; peaceful; introspective; contemplative.  Compare that with the cross: cruel; painful; degrading, humiliating; lonely.  This is who our God is, and it is who we are called to imitate.  This is who we are called to be, and this is where we are called to go.

The good news is that you do not need to live long in this broken world to become grateful that our God is the God of the cross. For the world in which we live is not a serene, peaceful world where we have the luxury to cross our arms and close our eyes introspectively, contemplating it all. We live in a world where 15 year-olds take guns to school kill their classmates. We live in a world where the hearts of 44 year-old men stop beating as they sleep at night. We live in a world where malignant tumors grow inside of us and we are often unaware until it is too late. We live in a world where our automobiles crash crushing the life from us.  We live in a world where tornadoes and earthquakes and floods strike without warning.

Yes, thank God that our God is the God of the cross— A God who knows what it is like to suffer as we suffer;  A God who knows humiliation, who has experienced loneliness, who knows pain; A God who has entered our broken world to participate with us in our suffering.

In this season of Lent, may this be the God we imitate.

May we regard our religion as an opportunity to lose ourselves instead of an opportunity for advantage. May we through our church, with the help of our God, give of ourselves to others.  May we go to those places of suffering and shame of heartache and heartbreak and even death and participate in it. May we suffer with others, as God suffers with us.  May we imitate Christ and pick up and carry our cross.

Humane Society’s Holy Work


I wholeheartedly believe that the employees, volunteers and supporters of the Humane Society of Eastern North Carolina are doing the sacred work of God in our community.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Holy Scriptures admonish us to take care of all living creatures.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve, who represent all humankind, were instructed to be stewards over “every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:26-30).

Jesus said that God is like a shepherd who would risk much to save just one sheep that is lost (Luke 15).

The Apostle Paul wrote that God was redeeming the entire creation through Christ Jesus (Romans 8:22).

And in Revelation 4 we are given a beautiful picture of a lion, representing all wild animals; an ox, representing all domesticated animals; and an eagle, representing all birds gathered around the throne of God together worshiping God with humankind in eternity.

Last year, the Humane Society of Eastern North Carolina rescued and found homes for 382 animals. Still, over 2,000 animals were euthanized at the Pitt County Animal Shelter. The Humane Society, the area’s only no-kill facility, helped to increase the live outcome by 7%, as 70% of the animals that were adopted came from the county shelter.

The Humane Society of Eastern North Carolina receives no funding from local, state or federal government and receives no funding from the national office of the Humane Society. They operate solely on local donations.

Money is desperately needed to provide more resources to pull more animals from the shelter for adoption. The Humane Society of Eastern North Carolina has been operating at a 60% reduced capacity since 2012 because of limited funds.

As the Body of Christ in this world, I believe it is our responsibility to the Creator of every living creature to do all that we can, whenever we can, to be good stewards of God’s precious creatures. Supporting the Humane Society provides us with a great opportunity to fulfill our sacred obligation.

Click on the links below to help:

Humane Society of Eastern NC

Canine Crawl 5k

Without God, All Things Are Possible


Perhaps we have all heard the hopeful words of Jesus recorded by Matthew, “With God, all things are possible.”

However, isn’t the opposite also true? It was the great 19th century Russian philosopher Dostoevsky who penned the phrase: “Without God, all things are possible.”

Without God, things are apt to go awry.

Without God, we have the propensity to spin out of control.

As the Psalmist insists—without God all behavior that is foolish and destructive is not only possible, it has no limits (Psalm 73:7).

Without God, selfishness, greed, deceit, resentment, malice, racism, sexism, homophobia, hate and despair are not only possible, they are probable.

Walter Brueggaman has correctly observed that: “It is the knowledge of the reality of God present and at work in our world and in our lives which sets limits to destructive possibilities.”

Lent is a time to acknowledge that we need God in our lives, for without God, all sorts of sin and evil are possible. The good news of Lent is that God has come to be in our lives through Christ Jesus our Lord. And with God, there is much that is impossible.

With God, unforgiveness is impossible.

With God, loneliness is impossible.

With God, being lost is impossible.

With God, spiraling out of control is impossible.

With God, despair is impossible.

With God, death is impossible.

Changing Denominations

denominationsAs I am in the process of leaving my Baptist roots to be commissioned by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), here are my honest thoughts on denominations.

Tony Campolo tells the story of a proud Baptist preacher who was pounding away at the pulpit preaching that the only really true Christians in the world were Baptists.  In the middle of his sermon, he yelled out to the congregation: “Is everybody here a Baptist?”

A man several rows back answered, “No!   I’m a Methodist!”

“Why are you a Methodist?” asked the preacher.

“Well, my mother was a Methodist,” said the man. “And my father was a Methodist. So they raised me as a Methodist.”

“Well, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” said the preacher.  “If your mother was an ignoramus and your father was an ignoramus, would you be an ignoramus?”

“No,” said the man. “If my father was an ignoramus and my mother was an ignoramus, I suppose I’d be a Baptist!”

That shut the old Baptist preacher right up!

Now, I don’t want you to misunderstand me.  I loved being a Baptist. I am glad that I was Baptist.  However, I do not believe any of us should take belonging to any denomination too seriously. I believe the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth was right when called denominationalism a great “scandal” of the church. That the Church is so divided up confuses the world and is a direct contradiction to the will of Jesus Christ who prayed that we might be one. 

Through our baptisms, we were not born into a denomination. Through our baptisms, we were born into the one and only and true Church of Jesus Christ.  Through the baptismal waters we joined not only Baptists in the faith, but also Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Disciples of Christs, Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalians and “whosoever believeth in Christ” and has committed to follow Christ.


All Means All

all means all

Someone recently asked, “When a church says that it welcomes ‘all’ people to worship and to serve, who exactly are ‘all?’”

“All.”  Perhaps the only time this simple word is ever ambiguous is when it is used in a sentence with the word “church.”  For some very bad reasons, the most inclusive and encompassing word in the dictionary becomes exclusive when religion enters the syntax.

“All.” Ever since the Apostle Paul used the word when he said “And Christ died for ‘all,’ that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Corinthians 5:15), the word has been thoroughly questioned by those who are offended by such grace.

However, when a church says that it welcomes “all,” I believe that church is saying…

If you are the wealthiest business owner in town, we welcome you. If you have sold your food stamps to purchase alcohol and pot, we welcome you. You are welcome here if you consider yourself  “a church person,” “religious” or “spiritual,” or if you are one of those who believe organized religion is a crock. The color of your skin, your gender identity and your sexual orientation does not matter as you are welcome here with open arms. If you grew up in the church, you are welcome. You are welcome if you have never attended church and have serious doubts that God even exists. If you believe in a literal Hell, and you can name people who are going there, you are welcome. If you hope to God there is no Hell, you are welcome. If you believe in God only because you want to go to heaven, you are welcome. If living forever really does not interest you, you are welcome. We especially welcome you if you are Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, Jewish, atheist or agnostic. If you are married you are welcome. If you have never been married, been married many times or don’t even believe in marriage, you are welcome. Pro-life, pro-choice, pacifist, soldier, documented, undocumented, illegal, legal, you are welcome here with us because we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

When a church says that it welcomes “all” people to worship and to serve, I believe “all” means “all.”

–Inspired by Rev. Dr. Kyle Bennett, St. Mark’s Episcopal, Marco Island, FL