Sunset or Sunrise

Sunset

This picture appeared recently in the Enid News and Eagle. The caption simply read: “Sunset.” However, at first glance, it is difficult to tell if it is a sunset or a sunrise.

As attendance, giving, and baptisms continue to decrease in North American churches, many are asking: “Is the sun setting or rising on the church?”

After posting the picture on facebook and posing the question, “Is it a sunset or a sunrise?” Rev. Dean Phelps, a facebook friend and long-time minister, wisely commented: “It all depends on when we wake up.”

Rev. Phelps was prophetically suggesting that if the church wakes up early, it could be a sunrise. However, if the church wakes up too late, it could be a sunset.

I believe it is a sunset if the church continues to slumber under the covers of the culture. I have called this embracing an “alternative gospel” or a “fake news Jesus.” It is a protective, safe, defensive religion that fears the other, and thus judges, excludes, and condemns the other. It is miserly with mercy, stingy with love, and tight-fisted with grace.

However, I believe it is a sunrise if the church awakes to pull back the covers of the culture to embrace the authentic gospel and good news of Jesus. We must awaken to discover our purpose to be a community of radical inclusion and extravagant grace. We must awaken to answer our call to love others as Christ loves us, unconditionally, unreservedly and fearlessly.

I believe it is a sunset if the church continues to dream of the glory days. Sadly, the dreams of many churches are either stuck some in distant past recalling fuller pews and bigger programs, or they are stuck in some heavenly future, fixed on pearly gates and streets of gold.

However, I believe it is a sunrise if the church awakens with eyes wide-open to see its mission in the here and now. We must awaken with our eyes focused on the present suffering of the entire creation, and then we must selflessly and sacrificially use our gifts, time and energy to be a movement for wholeness, healing and peace.

I believe it is a sunset if the church continues to hit the snooze button to rest in their comfort zones. Many churches have no desire to get up and go out, leaving their cozy environments behind. There is no interest to get outside of the security blanket of the sanctuary to do the hard work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, defending the marginalized, and breaking the bonds of injustice.

However, I believe it is a sunrise if the church will rise up from its comfort zone to go out into what can be a cold and dark world. We must awaken to be the embodiment of Christ in this world even if it means there is a cross involved, even if it means suffering for the sake of God’s creation.

Is it a sunset or a sunrise?

It all depends on when we wake up.

A Movement for Wholeness in a Fragmented World

DOC Identity

John 9:1-41 NRSV

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 tell us that you were born blind?  Well, let’s get out our Bibles and Sabbath Day School Quarterlies, and see if we can find some theological reasons for your blindness. Of course, everyone knows it is because of sin. But since you were born blind, perhaps it is not so much your sin as much as it is the sin of your parents.”

Yes, I’m sure all of that theologizing and rationalizing and Bible Study did absolute wonders for that poor man. I am sure he really appreciated it!

But how often have we’ve been guilty of doing the same. For some reason, because we are Christian, we believe it is our holy responsibility to try to explain human suffering in light of our faith in God.

When the earthquake and Tsunami struck Japan several years ago, I heard some preachers say that God was judging that area of the world because Christianity was not the prominent religion.

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

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Gulfport, Mississippi, many blamed it on all the new casinos that had been built in along the Gulf Coast.

And whenever there is an outbreak of strong storms, especially strong storms with tornadoes, I have heard many Christians say, as I am certain we will hear them say in the next couple of months: “God must be trying to get our attention!”

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

In the face of human suffering, two predominate responses are echoed by the church.

The first response is the one I usually hear from the TV evangelists. It is the response of those in our text this morning. 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, and we human beings need to trust that plan. Even if people suffer, we shouldn’t question the plan or God’s judgments. Because God’s judgments are always just. You just have to have faith and believe God has God’s reasons. God has a driving purpose for everything that happens in this world.

The other response comes from some liberal scholars. And that is one of silence. They say that God is completely unknowable. Life, and the suffering that comes with it, is utterly mysterious. It is ok to question God, to ask “why?” But we simply have no answers to any of our “why” questions. Silence.

Frankly, I find both of these responses to human suffering to be troubling.

First of all, those who believe God has some kind of divine, driving purpose behind every evil thing that happens in this world, in my estimation, paint a very evil, mean portrait of God.

And those who respond only with only silence, those who refuse to say anything or do anything in response to human suffering paint a very detached, indifferent portrait of God. God is watching us, but as Bette Midler sings, “God is watching us from a distance.” God is reduced to this mysterious abstraction devoid of any real meaning.

The gospels, however, paint a very different image of God through the words and works of Jesus, who we believe to be the incarnation of God—which means that if we want to know how God responds to human suffering, all we have to do is look to Jesus.

I believe the life, suffering and death of Christ teach us that when a landslide shook the earth in Washington State a few year ago, so quivered the very heart of God. Last year, as the flood waters swelled in Southern Louisiana and North Carolina, tears welled up in the eyes of God

As the livelihood of many were suddenly poured out, so emptied the very self of God. God was not causing the evil, neither was God unmoved by it.

This is where I believe our gospel lesson this morning is especially helpful. When Jesus is questioned about this man’s lifetime of suffering by his disciples, Jesus really doesn’t answer the question, but he certainly isn’t silent or detached.

Jesus responds by saying that this is a good opportunity, not for theological debate, not for some long discussion theodicy (the problem of evil), not to assign blame or responsibility; but rather, it is an opportunity 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 a fragmented world by becoming involved, even if it means some work, even if it means rolling up his sleeves, lowering himself to the ground, and getting his hands dirty to touch the places on others that most need touching. Jesus responds to a fragmented world by becoming a movement for wholeness—bending, stooping, humbling himself to the ground—working, touching, healing, restoring.

And with that, a huge argument ensues.

But notice that Jesus refuses to engage in the argument. Jesus doesn’t have time for that. Jesus is not interested in doctrinal debate or theological speculation. Jesus is interested in simply being there with the man, for the man; thus, revealing the peculiar glory and power of our God.

I think it is interesting that the great Southeast-Asian Tsunami of the last decade struck 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. Our God came to the earth, became flesh, became a part of the earth, to be with us. Our God is a God who descends to us. Our God is a God who bends, who stoops to the earth to be for us. Our God is a God who has selflessly and sacifcially chosen to suffer with the creation.

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 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 Emmanuel, God here with us.

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

And then God calls us to do the very same.

Every year as Holy Week approaches, I think about the worshippers of the Goshen United Methodist 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 seriously injured. Twenty-one worshippers were killed. Eight of the dead were little children—children who had just walked down the aisle waving 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, tsunamis, hurricanes, landsides, heart disease, dementia, and cancer can develop and arbitrarily destroy.

Thankfully, Christians from all over the world didn’t just talk about that tragedy in their Sunday School classes, trying to figure out if there was some reason God allowed it. They responded to that great tragedy by emulating the God revealed to us in Christ, by bending themselves to the ground, getting their hands dirty, to raise that church out of the rubble. Christians everywhere imitated their Savior by suffering with and being with the grieving. Doing whatever they could do to bring hope, wholeness, and restoration.

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, …the storms rage, and God calms the child.’

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

Let us pray together…

When Jesus was asked about the reason for human suffering, he did not answer the question. He did not get into a theological debate. He did not assign blame or responsibility. Instead, he chose to be a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world by bending to the ground and getting his hands dirty to bring about healing and  restoration. In the wake of the storms of our lives, may we do the same. Amen.

Enid Welcome Table

Enid Welcome

In our combined forty years of ministry, my colleague Rev. Shannon Speidel and I have had many church experiences that we would deem “holy.”

However, they all pale in comparison to what we have experienced during the last twelve months in the visioning and planning of the Enid Welcome Table.

During our preliminary conversations regarding moving one of our worship services to a different time, it was brought to our attention that the food insecure population of Enid was served a meal (with no strings attached) every day of the week with the exception of Sunday. We were also told that many who rely on the gracious ministry of a weekday community soup kitchen called Our Daily Bread are famished on Monday mornings. They report not having had anything to eat since Saturday, when they were served a meal by the wonderful feeding ministry of First Presbyterian Church of Enid.

A task force was created by the worship committee to discuss moving one of our services. Task force members have said that they “felt the spirit of God moving in the room” as they discussed the possibility of a worship service occurring around tables after a meal was shared with some of the most impoverished people in our community.

The Enid Welcome Table planning committee was soon developed. It includes members of our church, members of other Enid churches, and people who are not members of any church. They are people who are committed to providing a “restaurant quality” meal each Sunday to anyone in need.  They believe the best way to accomplish this is to recruit 52 organizations and businesses in Enid, asking them to prepare and serve one high quality meal a year.

The idea of inviting the entire community to be a part of the Enid Welcome Table is one the most exciting aspects of this ministry. My congregation has heard me talk at great lengths regarding the difficulty of doing “evangelism in the 21st century.” I say: “If you don’t believe it’s difficult, try inviting someone to who doesn’t attend church to come to church with you to listen to a sermon!”

Then I add, “On the other hand, I think you will get a quite different response if you try inviting someone who doesn’t attend church to join you in doing something that Jesus would obviously do, like feeding the hungry.”

As I often say, the reason people are not in church today is NOT because they have given up on Jesus. The reason people are not in church today IS because they do not see Jesus in the church.

We are excited about the Enid Welcome Table; because instead of inviting people “to come to church,” we will be inviting people “to be the church.” Instead of inviting people to listen to stories about Jesus that took place 2000 years ago, we will be inviting people to be the selfless hands and feet of Jesus in this world today. Instead of inviting people to come to a service of worship, we will be inviting people to go and worship with their service.

And all will be invited to serve. Your religion (or lack of religion), your sexuality, your race, your mental or physical ability, your political stance – it doesn’t matter! All means all.

I, along with many other church scholars, are convinced that this is the way to revive, revitalize, and restore the church in the 21st century. I have witnessed first-hand the miraculous transformation that can happen by embracing a missional model in my previous congregation.

We also believe it is very important to feed the hungry with “no strings attached.” We believe there are too many Christian organizations that offer to help people if.

“Love your neighbor, if they look like you.” “Welcome the stranger, if they want to be Christian.” “Feed the hungry, if they pray with you.”

No, Jesus never said “if.”

Jesus said: “Love your neighbors,” period. “Welcome the stranger,” period. And “feed the hungry,” period.

We do not believe Jesus ever put stipulations on grace. That is why it is called grace.

Therefore, the mission of the Enid Welcome Table is to graciously feed people with absolutely no strings attached. The worship service that will be offered after the meal will always be optional. People of other faiths and people with no faith are welcome. No one will ever be judged, disrespected or preached to. All will be loved, accepted, and fed.

We believe the Enid Welcome Table has the potential to dramatically transform our community to be an example to the world of miracles that can happen when people truly become the gracious hands and feet of Christ in our world.

_____________________________

If you, your business, or your organization would like to serve a meal to the food insecure of Enid, Oklahoma, please contact me at jarrettb@centralenid.org or Rev. Shannon Speidel at shannons@centralenid.org. Donations are also appreciated.

 

It Can’t Be the Messiah. Can It?

FullSizeRender

John 4:5-29 NRSV

With United Methodist Bishop William Willimon, I believe that the Bible is not so much an account of our search for God, as it is the amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us. Whether we know it or not, or can even begin to understand it or not, we are here this morning because we have been sought, we have been called, and we have been summoned. We are here because God has reached in, grabbed us, and led us here. We are here because God has pursued us. God is even now persuading, prodding and pulling us.

And I believe that the purpose of our worship is to condition us to pay attention to this, to admonish us to look over our shoulder, to help us to notice those little coincidences in our lives and those strange happenings.

For they may be a part of God’s continuing attempts to wrap God’s loving arms around us.

And these things, these coincidences, these strange happenings can occur anytime and in any place. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “The Spirit of God, like the wind, blows where it will”—whether or not we’re ready for it, looking for it, or even want it.

So, it would behoove us to stay alert, look, listen, always pay attention.

I believe the woman in our scripture lesson this morning teaches us how to pay such attention.

That fact alone teaches us something about the way God works. In the male-dominated society in which Jesus lived, especially in the area of faith and religion, Jesus uses a woman to teach us theology. Talk about the spirit of God blowing where it will!

In Jesus’ day, mainline Jewish rabbis simply did not speak to women about faith. However, Jesus was anything buy mainline. But one who always, very radically and counter-culturally, valued women and men equally.

Which brings us to another surprise. She was not only a woman; she was a Samaritan woman. And we know what Jews thought of Samaritans. They were known as pagans and foreigners. They were victims of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry.

Here, the radical words of the Apostle Paul are being fleshed out: “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

During her conversation with Jesus (which, by the way, is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus ever had with anyone), we also discover that she carries the stigma of divorce, as she has been remarried several times.

And, of course, she is astounded that this man, a Jew, talks to her, a Samaritan. In her eyes, she’s the wrong gender, wrong race, wrong religion. Yet, Jesus meets her where she is. Jesus initiates a conversation with her. Jesus reaches out to her. Jesus engages her.

And of all places, at a well!

It is important to understand that she isn’t there for Sunday School. She isn’t there for the 8am or the 10:15 worship service. She’s not even there for CWF. She is there doing the most ordinary of everyday tasks. She’s simply drawing water.

So, the first thing this woman teaches us is that God speaks to us, God reaches out to us, and God engages us when we least expect it, where we least expect it, and how we least expect it. God comes to us, unexpectedly, undeservedly in the most ordinary of ways.

Jesus then begins to teach her about something called living water and then tells her that he knows all about her; all of her failures, all of her disappointments, all of her grief which has been so much a part of her life.

She then runs all the way back home to tell everyone, “Come! See a man who has told me everything. He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?”[i]

Willimon has said: “She—Samaritan, woman, husbandless—thus becomes the precursor, the very first of all of us later preachers. She was the first to run to tell everyone about Jesus.”

And all she meant to do that day was to go out and get a bucket of water!

And here is the amazing part. She didn’t all of a sudden understand everything about who Jesus. She didn’t run back home singing the Gloria Patri and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. She merely left her encounter with Jesus with a simple, but very profound question: “He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?”

“He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?”  Do you hear it?  Listen again, “He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?

No, it’s not the words of some religious fundamentalist who has it all figured out. It’s more like the words of a innocent child. “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?”

Fifteen or so years ago, during the weeks leading up to Christmas, when my children would misbehave or fuss, when they were not looking, I remember making a fist and knocking on a wall or under the table.

Carson and Sara would immediately stop their fussing and ask, “Who is that? Someone’s knocking on the door.”

I’d get up, go to the door, open it, look around, and of course, not seeing anyone, I would shut the door and say: “It must have been Santa Claus! Don’t you know that this time of year he’s always watching?”

Sara Beth would say, “Nah uh! That wasn’t Santa Claus!” But a of second of silence later, she’d ask, “Was it?”

Can’t you hear it?  Like an innocent child, full of surprise and wonder and an unbridled hope, the woman at the well said: “He can’t be the Messiah. Can he?”

Do you hear it?

With Willimon, I hear a playful openness, a light flickering in the dark, a wonderful willingness to consider that God was larger than her presuppositions of God. I hear a courageous willingness to be shocked, surprised, and intruded upon. I hear a thirst for something to quench a longing soul.

I believe this is the problem with us grown-ups, especially we modern, mainline, mainstream church-goers. We simply say: “That can’t be the Messiah…period!

There is no openness to the possible potential that it might be, may be, could be, probably is.

We are so smart. We have things so figured out, we never question, “Can it? Was it? Is it?”

Even when we are at church, in a Bible Study or in worship, there is no real expectation that Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Savior of the world might actually show up.

To be honest with you, last Sunday, I was almost dreading coming to church. I was thinking: “Daylight Savings Time, Spring Break. Very few people are going to be at church today. And nothing good is really going to happen this Sunday.” I was also feeling a little disheartened that I had to make an announcement regarding our supplemental giving drive. Asking for more money makes me feel like I have perhaps failed at something.

The point is, last Sunday, when it came to church, I wasn’t feeling it.

But then, to my surprise, four people came forward during our final hymn asking to formally join the mission of our church to bless this community and world. One even offered to bless my family by taking us out to lunch after the service. And then, later in the week, I received a phone call with the news that someone believed in our church’s mission enough to make a sizable donation to be used anyway we believe God may be leading us.

And here it is, just one week later, and there’s this renewed, restored, replenished fullness in my soul. There’s this recommitment to share the love and grace of Christ with all people.

Now, I am aware many would say that those events were merely coincidences. Perhaps. However, as I have studied our scripture this week, like a light flickering in the dark, my heart has become open to the providential possibility that God was somehow involved. And the fullness that I feel in my soul is from this wonderful willingness to be shocked, surprised, and intruded upon by none other than the Messiah and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ himself.

Thinking on the words of the woman in our scripture this morning, I cannot help but to think: “It can’t be the Messiah. Can it?”

Can it possibly be that, here in this place last week, Jesus Christ was actually present? Could it be that he was coming to me through ordinary people, unexpectedly, undeservedly, bringing living water that quenches the deepest thirst of my soul.

Jesus, through this Samaritan woman, at the well, answers that question: “Yes, I am the Messiah. I am more alive and more present and more at work in this world than you ever thought possible. I am everywhere offering the wonder of living water, and those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

One of the greatest things about being a pastor is sharing not only times of immense joy with a congregation, like childbirth with the Weibling family this week, but also sharing times of immense sorrow, like with Charlie Heller last week.

I look around this room and see people here who have experienced much sorrow, so much in this past year. I am certain that even getting up this morning and getting to this place was an arduous task for you. Some of you have recently lost a parent, a sibling, a spouse. Some of you have lost a child. You all have lost dear friends. Some of you have been diagnosed with cancer. Some have had to make the difficult decision to place a loved one in a nursing home. Some are grieving broken relationships, broken dreams, broken lives.

And people, including me, look at you and are amazed. We say, “We don’t know how you are making it.”

And yet, somehow, some mysterious way, you are making it. At the very least, something or someone has given you the sustenance to make it to this place this morning to possibly hear a hopeful word.

I look at you with the wonder of a wide-eyed child. And I think of the wonder of that woman from Samaria, and I ask, “It can’t be the Messiah…can it? Can it?

 

Commissioning and Benediction

Now, let’s go and get out on the road

to encounter ordinary people doing the most ordinary of things.

They may be dining at a restaurant, shopping for groceries, exercising at the gym, learning in a classroom, waiting to see the doctor.

They may be the server in a restaurant, the clerk at the store,

the trainer at the gym, the teacher in the classroom, the nurse, the doctor.

Their gender, their race, their religion—it doesn’t matter.

They may be a victim of prejudice or a beneficiary of privilege.

Meet them where they are. Engage them. Listen to them. Bless them.

And may the eternal well of God’s love be found in our encounters.

May the grace of Christ shine brightly through us.

And may the Spirit be with us on every hill, every plain, and in every valley.

[i] If my memory is correct, the words of this sermon were originally inspired and gleaned from a sermon written by William Willimon, possibly entitled, Look over Your Shoulder, in 2005.

Too Smart for Our Own Good

The Shack

John 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. Poised and confident, the educated and sophisticated Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus: “Now, we know that you are…”

He begins his conversation from the same place that most of us mature, experienced, long-time students of Sunday School often begin our conversations about God: from the things we know, the things we have figured out… or think we think we have figured out:

“Now we know that you are…”

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

I think it is very interesting that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Because in just a few moments with Jesus, we learn that when it comes to God, when it comes to this mystery that we call faith, 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 astounded and dumbfounded, 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…”

Our problem is that we know. And I suppose we can’t help it. After all, we are modern, some say we are even post modern folks who know a lot!

We live in what they call the information age. If there’s something we don’t know, we can just Google it or YouTube it, and in a few simple clicks of a mouse, we know. With WebMD and Wikipedia, there is hardly anything that we cannot understand or easily explain.

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

It is no wonder those on the outside of the church often accuse those of us who are on the inside of the church of being “know-it-alls” when it comes to religion.  They believe that we think we have God all figured out. There are some that think that the reason we are here this morning is because we are God-experts.

And maybe that is why some  they are not here with us this morning.

One day, I was introduced to someone who knew that I was a pastor. I think he wanted to shock me when shook my hand and said, rather proudly, “Well, I’m an agnostic.” Which means that he did not know what he believed about God.

I think I shocked him when I responded, “Well, I have my moments when I am an agnostic too.”

I then said: “If people were honest they would admit: Some people are agnostic all of the time, and all are agnostic some of the time.”

The reality is that what we should be doing here, in this place every Sunday morning, is acknowledging together how little we really know and how much we have to learn, instead of coming here to have everything we think we know about God reaffirmed.

We gather ourselves together to acknowledge the great truth, that when it comes to the mystery that is God, we are all, as God told Mack in the movie The Shack, “idiots.”

“If the shoe fits,” She said.

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

I believe this is one of the reasons some preachers are telling their congregations to avoid the movie The Shack (a movie by the way I highly recommend) And there are many reasons: like maybe Jesus as a Middle Eastern man, if you can imagine that; also, God’s love for humanity compelling Her desire to redeem all people.

But perhaps they are most upset by the way the movie may cause some to question everything they thought they knew about God. Many preachers can not handle God saying to Mack: “I am not who you think I am” and “You misunderstand the mystery.”

But to me, that sounds a little like Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-17).

Like Nicodemus, we think we know who God is, how God acts and what God desires. But after we truly encounter the Divine, we might learn that we are, well, idiots.

I heard one preacher you say, “If you want to know something about Jesus, don’t watch The Shack, instead watch the more biblical movie, The Son of God.

But, a few years ago, I remember walking out of the showing of The Son of God when it ended feeling disappointed. For I do not believe there is anyway 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 about God is for over thirty years, and I have not even begun to scratch the surface of who God is!

United Methodist Bishop 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]

How often have we gathered around this table confident that we know exactly what is going on?

Catholics, and some Episcopalians are all so mysterious, always insisting on calling it Holy Communion or the Holy Eucharist.

Some of us, though, prefer to simply call it “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 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— something moving, inviting, healing; something strengthening, loving, forgiving; something saving, calling, challenging, commissioning?

We thought that we have come to remember a life, a death and a resurrection, but I believe we could 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 choir sing and a sermon preached. 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.

We were shocked when a song spoke to us.

We were surprised when a small wafer and tiny cup filled us.

We were jolted when a word challenged us.

We were startled when someone that we did not even know looked at us and blessed us.

And we were amazed when God, the Creator-of-All-that-Is, somehow, someway that we do not understand, called us by name and told us that She is especially fond of us.

And we were absolutely astounded as Christ himself came and wrapped his arms around us as the Holy Spirit breathed new life into us.

[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.

A Nurse’s Prayer: Remembering Marianna Powell

Marianna Powell

I’m certain that many people have contacted the Powell family since Sunday to let them know that they were in their prayers.

Prayer: it is a wonderful gift of God’s grace. To know that others, some from great distances, from all over the country, are speaking to God on our behalf, asking God to bring us healing and comfort, can bring us a peace that is truly beyond our understanding.

For the good news is that we believe that God not only hears our prayers, listens to our prayers, but we believe God does all that God can do, gives all that God can give, to always answer our prayers.

This is why I loved Kerry’s response when I asked him and his brother Randy: “What was the most important thing that your mother taught you?”

Without hesitation, he said, “She taught us how to pray.”

Immediately, Randy nodded in affirmation.

I said, “What do you mean?”

“Oh. she would work and work with us to help us remember the and recite the words of the Lord’s Prayer,” he said. “Prayer was important to her. She believed in prayer. Before meals, before bed, she taught us to always pray.”

We talked a little more about prayer, but it wasn’t long, nor hard to understand, how prayer was the perfect segue to begin talking about her life, especially how she loved her vocation as a registered nurse.

As Randy and his wife Kandi, and Kerry and his wife Maria, who is also a nurse, talked about how important nursing was to Marianna, I began thinking about my grandmother who, like Marianna, was also born on April 19, but one year later in 1927; and, like Marianna, was also a registered nurse.

I will never forget my Nana talking about how she enjoyed nursing. She would often speak of what she believed to be “the healing power of personal touch,” the importance of “up close and personal” contact with patients.

And whenever I was sick or not feeling well, I always felt better when Mama would have Nana come over to check on me. I always felt better when Nana would come close to me, gently place the back of her hand on my forehead to check for a fever, placing her hands around my cheeks and neck to check for swelling.

Yes, as I said, there are many people praying for the Powell family today, some from great distances. They have sent cards, made phone calls, or reached out electronically with emails or social media, all pledging the Powell family their sincere prayers. Prayer is a wonderful gift of God’s grace. The Powell family appreciates prayer. Marianna taught them to believe in prayer.

But, then there are others (and I am speaking of you) who have gathered here in this place this morning. I am speaking of your who, as they they say, have put some feet on your prayers. You have come to be close this family in their grief. You have come to lay your hands on them, to touch them with an empathetic handshake or a loving embrace.

And they will forever be grateful for your presence here today. They will be grateful that you are not only here and near to them on this day, but grateful for the way that you will always remind them of their mother, grandmother and sister, for the way that you will always remind them of this this one with the heart of a nurse who loved them and loved others and prayed for so many, not from a distance, but up close and very personally.

I shared with the family the story of one of my first visits with Marianna. She was in the dining hall of the nursing home eating dinner. I pulled up a chair and sat beside her. At first, perhaps due to the strokes that she had suffered, she seemed to be a little distant, aloof.  I was on her left, unsure that she recognized my presence. She was sitting up, but slumping a little bit to the right, away from me.

However, when I leaned over and touched her arm, telling her that I was her pastor from Central Christian Church, she immediately turned to make eye contact with me and smiled. And I will never forget what happened next.

With strength that I did not know she possessed, she sat up and started leaning her head towards me.

The caregiver who was feeding her said: “She wants to kiss you!”

Surprised, but pleasantly so, I leaned in, turned my cheek towards her as she gave me what has to be one of the sweetest kisses I have ever received!

She loved her church and this one who represented her church so much, she prayed for her church in such a way that she could not remain distant, aloof. With the heart of a nurse still beating inside of her, she wanted to demonstrate her love, up close and personally. With every bit of strength that she could muster, with all that she had, a pure and powerful love compelled her to sit up and lean forward, until she could come close enough to me to offer me a prayer through her touch, through a beautiful kiss on the cheek.

Marianna taught her children how to pray with words. But, perhaps, more importantly, she also taught them how to pray with her life, with all that she had.

I believe the Apostle Paul aptly describes Marianna’s life when he wrote that we should “pray without ceasing.” That is, we should live a life of prayer. We should live our lives as if we are always with the Holy One.

It was this prayerful life that Randy and Kerry said taught them the Christian values of love, kindness and respect. However, they were both quick to point out: “Now we are not saying that we have always conveyed to others these values or lived out these values like our mother! We are just saying that because of our mother, and because of what she taught us with her life, we have at least been blessed with the wonderful opportunity live those values.”

We then talked about her love for God’s entire creation, especially for her beloved horses. They will never forget the time they took her to say goodbye to one of her horses. As you can imagine, Marianna did not say not say goodbye with a simple wave through the car window. She got as close as she could possibly get to her horse, so the horse could feel her touch and know her love.

This is why I thought it was rather interesting that one of the memories that Randy and Kerry said they will always cherish was their mother reading them the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel every Christmas. They then talked about how important it was to them to sit at their mother’s bedside this past Christmas and read it to her:

         In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  (Luke 2:8-14)

I find this interesting because the story of Christmas is essentially a story of a God who loved this world so much that God could not remain distant, aloof. God did not merely say to the heavenly host: “Let us pray for the creation. Let us pray for humanity.”

And of course, that in itself would have been enough. Because we believe in prayer. Marianna taught us to believe in prayer.

The writer to the Hebrews assures us that

[Christ] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” The writer is saying that Jesus lives to make intercession for us. In other words, Jesus lives today to pray for us (Hebrews 7:25).

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans writes:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that the very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

If we ever worry that no one is praying for us, the Apostle Paul says that we can stop worrying. If no one earth is praying for us, Jesus certainly is. Jesus is our High Priest. He is our intercessor. He is our advocate. Christ lives today to pray for us. Even when we don’t know how to pray for others or for ourselves, even when we cannot find the words to pray, Paul says that the Spirit of God intercedes for us with “sighs too deep for words.”

Yes, if all God did for us was pray for us, even from a distance, that would be enough.

However, the love of God, the love of God that was revealed to us through Marianna Powell, and through Christ Jesus himself, is so great, so pure, and so powerful, that there was no way in heaven that God could remain distant, aloof.

God’s love for us compelled God to summon all the strength God could muster, to summon all that God had to give. Love compelled God to sit up in the heavens, and lean towards the earth, until God could come close enough to us to offer us a prayer through the “up close and personal” touch of the Divine, through a baby—Christ the Good Lord, the Good Shepherd, the Good Teacher, the Good Nurse—lying in a manger.

This is how we who are grieving today can truly be filled with a peace beyond understanding. People are not only praying for us from a distance. People are indeed here, in this room, with us. And God is not praying for us from some aloof heavenly place. God is indeed Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”

God is here with us as God is with Marianna, loving her, touching her, embracing her, now and forevermore.

I want to close my remarks thanking God for Marianna’s love for us and for the special way that she revealed God’s love for us with these beautiful words by Allison Chambers Coxsey, entitled: A Nurse’s Prayer.

Give me strength and wisdom,

When others need my touch;

A soothing word to speak to them,

Their hearts yearn for so much.

Give me joy and laughter,

To lift a weary soul;

Pour in me compassion,

To make the broken whole.

Give me gentle, healing hands,

For those left in my care;

A blessing to those who need me,

This is a Nurse’s prayer.

When Monday Morning Comes

grinchmonday

Matthew 4:1-11 NRSV

Do you remember the Israelites?  After they were affirmed by God in the presence of God through Moses and the Exodus, they found themselves in the wilderness for forty years struggling with evil and searching for a God who seemed to be non-existent.

Do you remember Moses?  After he was affirmed by God in the presence of God as the leader of God’s chosen people as he led the Israelites out of Egypt, he found himself in the wilderness on Mount Sinai for forty days struggling with evil and searching for a God who seemed to be non-existent.

Do you remember Elijah?  After he was affirmed by God in the presence of God on the top of Mount Carmel, he found himself in the wilderness for forty days struggling, searching for a God who seemed to be non-existent.

Today, and every Sunday, we come to this place, hopefully we are also affirmed by God in the presence of God. We are affirmed as we sing the songs of faith and say the prayers of faith. We are affirmed as we gather around a communion table, as we listen to the Word of God through music and word, and as we commune with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

Together, we sense with our hearts, hear with our ears, and see with our eyes the very presence of God. As we come together in this place and make commitments and recommitments to God, we are empowered by the Spirit of God, and we are affirmed.

However, like the Israelites, like Moses, and like Elijah, Monday morning comes. Your alarm goes off way to early. You drag yourself to the kitchen only to discover that you are out of coffee. You go and wake the children so they can get ready for school. Whining and complaining ensue.

Arguments over what to wear and what’s for breakfast follow. You drop the kids off at school. It’s not even 9 am and you are exhausted. You need coffee. But at this point you are so strained and stressed, you think: “a glass or maybe a bottle of wine would be better!”

You make it to work, and it’s just that, it’s work. Same old mess day after day, week after week. At work, there are all kinds of trials, temptations. This is where you are most aware that you are not the person you need to be, the person you could be, the person you should be.

On the way home from work, the check engine light comes on in the car that you paid a fortune in repairs the previous month.

At home there is still arguing, but now it’s over homework and video games. Then the phone rings in the middle of the chaos and news is received that a close relative has bust been diagnosed with cancer.

One day— affirmed by God in the presence of God. The next day— hurled into the wilderness, struggling with all kinds of evil, into a place where God seems to be non-existent.

The good news is that God, the Creator of all that is, understands. The good news is that the Source of it all empathizes. The good news of the gospel is that God has experienced this world as we often experience it through the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

One day, Jesus was affirmed by God in the presence of God like none other. Matthew writes that at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens which were thought by many to have been closed, were “suddenly opened,” and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus “like a dove.” Then there was this voice from heaven: “This is my Son the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

One day affirmed by God in the presence of God, but then, without warning, Monday morning came. Jesus is led immediately into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. After being affirmed by God in the presence of God, Jesus is immediately led into a place where God seemed to be non-existent, where he experiences all kinds of temptation: physical, material, spiritual.

At one time, when I was much younger, much more naïve, much less experienced in this world, this passage of scripture used to trouble me. For what kind of God would affirm their child one day and then lead him into the wilderness the next day, where there are trials, temptations, dangers, and sufferings?  What kind of God would lead us into temptation?

Well, since becoming more experienced in life, earning some of these gray hairs, I no longer struggle with these questions. Because, the reality is that God does not have to lead us into a wilderness or into temptation. We are already there. We are there because we are human, and life itself is a wilderness. We encounter suffering, evil, and temptation everyday of our lives, not because God gives it to us, but because we are earthly creatures living in a fragmented world.

Like you and me, Jesus found himself as a human being in the wilderness, into a place where God seemed to be non-existent, into a place of great temptation. One day, Jesus is affirmed by God in the presence of God. The next day he finds himself in a seemingly God-forsaken wilderness.

But Matthew says, and here’s the really good news, good news that we can miss if we are not careful: Jesus was not alone in that wilderness.  It’s just one short sentence, but it is a beautiful sentence: “And the angels waited on him.”

I love the way Mark tells the entire story of Jesus’ temptation in just two simple verses:

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13).

The gospel writers tell us that angels, representing God’s divine providence and presence waited on Jesus. Struggle and trial and temptation are present in the wilderness, but the Gospels declare: “So is God!” Throughout Jesus’ forty days and nights, God was not absent! God was with Jesus, ministering to him, serving him, waiting on him.

I believe this says something about how we sometimes encounter the presence of God. Oftentimes, the discovery of a divine presence or a holy providence comes during times struggle and testing. So, in an amazing and ironic kind of way, we can thank God for our troubles. Because without such struggling, without human suffering, we may never know this inexplicable yet undeniable grace.

I believe this also says something about the danger of pride. I believe we are sometimes tempted to believe that we can make it through our wilderness alone, on our own power. We are tempted to believe that physical power, financial power or even our own spiritual power can see us through our Monday mornings.

We must be able to humbly recognize that come Monday, we need another power. If the Son of God needed angels to wait on him in his wilderness, how much more do we need angels? How much more do we need God’s abiding presence? How much more do we need the church? How much more do we need one another? How much more do we need those who have been called to be God’s transforming agents in this world, who are, even now, sitting all around us?

It’s Sunday morning.  Gathered here, in the presence of God, we are loved, and we are affirmed. The heavens are open. God’s Spirit fills this room, and God is speaking to our hearts.

In a few moments, we will receive the bread and the cup, and we will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are loved with a grace that is greater than our sin. We will pray. We will sing a hymn. And we will make commitments and our re-commitments. During the Benediction you will hear the wonderful words: “You and you and you and you are God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.”

Yes, it is Sunday morning, and here in the very presence of God, we are affirmed.

But we can be certain of this:  Monday morning is coming. For some of us Monday morning may come this Sunday afternoon. As sure as we are here, it is coming. But always remember…

Remember the Israelites.  They found God and the promised land.

Remember Moses. He found God and the Ten Commandments.

Remember Elijah. He found God in a still, small voice.

Remember Jesus.  The son of God found God through angels who waited on him.

And as children of God, as sons and daughters of God, so can we.

No, so will we.  Because when I look around this room, you know what I see?

I see angels.