Thresholds and Threshing Floors

<Listen along!  A sermon that is heard is appreciated more than a sermon read.>

Revelation 21:1-6

Are you ready?

thresholdThen I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.

On Thresholds and Threshing Floors

Make us new today, Lord.

Make Raleigh new.

Make Cary new.

Make Durham new.

Make Garner, Sanford, Fuquay new.

Help us make Houston new. Miami new.

Make all things new, God, and let us play a part.


How many of you listen to Krista Tippett’s podcast “On Being” on NPR?  Ok. Everyone get out your devices and download that podcast.

Tippett’s recently aired interview with that mystical marvel of a theologian, the now sainted Irishman John O’Donohue, had me captivated for an hour last week, especially as my Father was sending me pictures of Ireland while he and my mother were there on holiday.

He has this wonderful quote, though most everything that drops from his mouth is a pearl of wisdom,  but he said that “Music is what language would love to be if it could.”

Man, I love that.  The poet in my loves that. The musician in me loves that. The pastor in me who comes from this musical tradition known as Lutheranism loves that.

He goes on to say that beauty, in and of itself, is one of the things in this world that can remind the soul about God.  He claimed that so many people have left the faith, and left God, because the “God question” for them has died for them because the question has been framed in “repetitive, dead language.”

Leave it to humans to take a beautiful God and reduce it down to bland dogma and doctrine…

Which is why, here, we must continue to talk about God in exciting and interesting ways, like music which moves in us and through us and actually moves us to action.  Like random bits of beauty, like these banners up here made by one of our own, which speaks to God’s creativity not only in our brains, but also in this harvest time we’re entering.

Pure language just won’t do; we must be inventive in how we introduce and re-introduce the God question for Raleigh and the Triangle because it is still a question worth asking in our times.

O’Donohue finishes this thought by saying that this world today is missing the “thresholds where people can encounter these things that lead them deeper and wider into knowing God and one another,” particularly the God known in the person of Christ.

Think of what a threshold is: it’s the dividing line between one place of being in this world and another.

It comes from that old word “threshing,” where grain was separated from the husk.  The threshold was the place of separation.

We are at thresholds all the time, Beloved.

Think of that old ritual of the newly married couple, and one of them picking up the other to walk across the threshold.

You know that old custom was an ancient Roman way of embodying the idea that the couple was becoming something new in their shared home, but still reluctant to leave their old life.  Before they were one way and reluctant to leave their families.  And now, in this shared home, they are another way.  Transformed. Changed.

That’s a threshold: that place where you move from one way of being to another.

Your phone rings at 2am.  Someone is in the hospital; time is short.  Everything planned for that day changes because we’ve entered a threshold where priorities are adjusted.

The pink slip is on your desk. A threshold.

Your baby moves out of the house. A threshold.

A baby moves out of the house. A threshold.

Your parents move into the house. A threshold.

You move into a new home. A threshold.

You get engaged. A threshold.

You get divorced. A threshold.

A hurricane. A threshold.

There are thresholds all around us, those place where separation happens between the way we used to be and the way we need to be now.  And the church, Beloved, when it’s at its best, is the place that helps us all, helps Raleigh, to frame these thresholds, these changes, in the shape of the cross.  Because despite what the ancient people used think about thresholds, thresholds are actually the place where God hangs out.

And we see this in Jesus as he pushes the disciples over the threshold of seeing the bleeding woman, the man born blind, the paralyzed friend, as not someone outside of God’s grace but at the center of God’s grace.  We see this in Jesus as he pushes us all over the threshold of the cross where sin and shame go to die with God and we are made newly resurrected.  We see this in the person of Jesus when, even as a newborn infant, the angels sing about God’s salvation to a bunch of shepherds and the world hasn’t been the same for 2000 years.

Thresholds are experiences that need framing and reframing; they are the God question asked over and over again in our daily lives, “Where is God in all of this?” and we, Beloved, are invited to be a part of helping one another, helping Raleigh to see how God is in their lives at every threshold, good or bad, because every one is life-changing.  It is the very concept our cross-generational ministry is based upon: marking different thresholds in our lives, setting them apart, lifting up their sacredness, even though they’re sometimes mixed blessings.

And, when we’re really honest, a lot of thresholds just feel like tragedy.  Like curses.  Like crosses.  And in the Jesus story we hear that God is even there, mysteriously, not causing it but already in the act of healing it as we reach for the hem of the garment of meaning.

You know, Good Shepherd is at a threshold of sorts, too.  In the past few years we’ve had total pastoral turn over, new staff members, new mission and vision work.  Sometimes I’m sure that all the newness can get pretty old.

But this is part of God’s work, too, Beloved.  Making all things new, even this living organism that we call church, here.

If God is indeed making all things new, if we are indeed at thresholds daily, then this place can be the threshing floor, that place where we start to sort it all out together through music and beauty and scriptures and water and meal.  God is not found primarily here.  I fully believe God is encountered primarily out there.  But here is where we take the puzzle pieces that different thresholds have left us in and start to put them together.

And I bet, beloved, that when we put that puzzle together they’ll fit in the shape of a cross, reminding us that no matter what thresholds we encounter in life, God is with us, calling out to us with love and forgiveness, peace and mercy, inviting us to be made new.



“What Flesh and Blood Teaches Us” or “Pay No Attention to Shiny Objects”

<You can listen along to the sermon here. The mic cuts out with about three minutes to spare, but I speak loud enough that you can hear everything…I’m loud>

Matthew 16:13-20

Are you ready?

img000513Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

“What Flesh and Blood Teaches Us” or “Pay No Attention to Shiny Objects”

You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God

And it’s important for you to remind us that you’re alive, Lord

Because we forget…and then we become gods.

Remind us again today that you live and breathe and move

In us. In our neighbors. At the margins. Calling us from the center.

And back into you.


The bald and beautiful New Mexican monastic Richard Rohr started out Thursday’s devotion…well worth signing up for, by the way, coming to an in-box near you should you choose to accept it…but Richard Rohr started out his Thursday devotion with this simple sentence:

“It is in falling down that we learn almost everything that matters spiritually.”

The truth-power of that little sentence has enough juice to keep many a people going in hard times, if only we’d remember it.  It seems in hard times all we can remember to do is look down, and remember Beloved that many a person has starved in a pantry because they’ve only focused on the floor.

I say this all because I don’t want any of you to get the wrong idea about Peter, or yourselves, for that matter.  Or me, even.

The scene of today’s Gospel lesson is as important as anything else in the text.  Jesus and the disciples find themselves in Caesarea Philippi, that bastion of Roman commerce and wealth.  If Rome was their Washington DC, Caesarea Philippi is their New York City.  So here Jesus and the disciples are in the vicinity of massive wealth, commerce, success in the eyes of everyone worth anything in that world.

Wait, let me rephrase that, so here the penniless disciples who have given these years to following a homeless Rabbi are in the presence of luxury apartments, and fame, and money, and power, a few losers in the midst of winners in the eyes of the world, and it is here that Peter refuses to be distracted by the shiny objects around him and looks at Jesus and says, “You are the Messiah. The promised one.”

And Jesus says to him this line, “It is obvious that flesh and blood did not tell you this,” which is probably my favorite line from this Gospel.  And it got me thinking what flesh and blood tell us in this world as opposed to what the flesh and blood of Jesus tell us is true.

I mean, I think flesh and blood tell us that a full bank account is a sign of intelligence. I think flesh and blood tell us that success in business means success in life.  I think flesh and blood tells us that sane people don’t get depression or have disorders, they aren’t gay, they don’t have marital strife, and they certainly don’t contemplate suicide.  I think flesh and blood tells us that well-adjusted parents don’t yell at their kids, and their kids certainly don’t have ADHD and why can’t they just behave and be quiet?  I think flesh and blood tells us that climbing the ladder of success is how you get to the top, (but a well-known secret is that it certainly helps if you have wealthy relatives).

I think flesh and blood, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, to hang out with people who look like us and love the same people we love.

I think flesh and blood tells us all the time that things are either right or wrong, people are either good or bad…and the church has run with that doctrine and has told people just that the past 2000 years…because it has listened to flesh and blood.

Implicitly and explicitly we get these messages, distracted by the shiny objects around us, the envy of the family that seems to have no problems, the envy of people on TV or at the gym, all the while we feel hurt and pain and guilt and regret inside because, well, there must be something wrong with us if we don’t measure up to the expectations that a flesh and blood society put on us.

It is so ingrained in us, that we don’t even realize we’re falling into it most of the time.  Steve Martin, that comedian of cosmic proportions, wrote in his autobiography _Born Standing Up_ that stand-up comic Jack E. Leonard used to punctuate jokes by slapping his stomach with his hand.  And that one night Martin was watching Leonard on “The Tonight Show” and Leonard’s punch lines were absolutely unintelligible, you couldn’t even hear the joke, and yet the audience actually laughed at nothing when he cued them with the slap of his hand.

A flesh and blood society cues us constantly like that slap of a hand, signaling success at all of these shiny things in life: be shiny, be clean, be perfect.

But in the land of shiny and clean and perfectly successful, in the land of commerce and business and wealth and power, it is admirable that Peter makes this bold claim that this homeless, wandering Rabbi is the embodiment of God’s delight and love for the world when the world, even at that time and ever so much more now, falls in love with and takes delight in everything but what that 160lb Jewish guy from Palestine looked like and stood for.

But don’t think that Peter somehow gets a gold star for life because of this one claim he gets right; this is not where Peter gains his most lasting spiritual insight.

Because remember that in just a few verses Jesus will call him Satan, or “the tempter,” and tell him to take a back seat to it all.  And remember that Jesus will tell him to put away his sword that fateful night in the garden when Peter is determined to fight his way toward salvation.  And remember that he will deny even knowing Jesus, he’ll deny him three times in fact, which is not just pretending you don’t know someone, but absolutely disavowing them.

And then the rooster crows, and Peter remembers, and weeps, and imagines that he can never be forgiven.  But Jesus does forgive him, and that is where he will learn the deepest spiritual insight that any of us can learn: grace is more powerful than we can ever imagine and Divine forgiveness is the strongest substance in the universe.

Grace leaves the successful without anything to hold on to, and the powerful cut off at the knees. Forgiveness, especially forgiveness that is rooted in God, can move mountains of shame in this world. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he claims that the church can loose what is holding people back: when the church is at its best it is a conduit, an agent, of Divine forgiveness in a world hell-bent on destroying itself with vendettas and grudges and guilt.

And, when it’s at its worst, well, I’m sure many times Jesus has said to organized religion, “Get behind me Satan…”

This understanding helped our own Blessed Martin, not Steve Martin, Martin Luther to utter these final words on his death bed: we are beggars; this is true.  Beggars for grace and forgiveness.  In the end, this is all we cling to.

And this is the thing about what our God in heaven reveals to us through the flesh and blood of Christ that we take at this altar every Sunday.  Think about it: you are all welcomed to this table, from the oldest to the youngest.  And everyone who comes up receives something, a piece of bread filled with grace, a sip of wine filled with compassion as God takes on our passions from the previous week, and for some a blessing full of promise, reminding them that God is with them no matter how small they are, and no one…no one…leaves without something.

Everyone is invited up, and no one leaves without something.

Everyone is invited, everyone receives.

This is what the flesh and blood of Jesus tells us, flesh and blood that, while hanging on that cross looked like an utter failure in the eyes of a world that is so distracted by shiny objects and 24 hour news coverage and blustering politicians and smiling white teeth on Facebook pages from happy families who snapped that picture just after they’d had an argument and fully bank accounts that get more full while bellies go empty and…

We are flesh and blood, susceptible to falling into the traps that beings of flesh and blood fall into: lusting after all the shiny things in this world.  But God in Jesus tell us that, even though we have a tendency to do that, God is lusting after us. Constantly.

Put another way, a flesh and blood society tells us not to fall or fail or else we’re losing, which is kind of like telling the ocean not to be wet: flesh and blood will fall and fail, and in some ways, thank God for that, because that means we are constantly put in a position to learn something spiritually significant.  And in a flesh and blood society tells us not to fall, God in Jesus comes along, falls from the cross, falls out of the tomb, and redeems us all.

But does God redeem our failures or our shiny successes that the world wants us to applaud?  Probably both, if I’m honest with you.  Because I kick myself too much for my failures and hang my hopes to much on my so-called successes.  People of flesh and blood tend to do that.

Perfect people don’t need a God, after all.  And, it seems, God doesn’t need perfect people, if Peter is any indication.  So come up here, Beloved, for on this imperfect rock of an altar God has built a home, a refuge, a grace-filled place for us licking our wounds from our latest fall, or perhaps you’re hanging too high on your latest success.  Regardless, come forward for a bit of redeeming grace.  Flesh and blood will tell you that it’s just a piece of bread and a sip of wine.  Flesh and blood will tell you that it’s just tap water in a bowl over there.  Nothing shiny or spectacular.  In fact, it’s all a little boring, maybe.

But what has God revealed about it to you?  For you? For us?

That they are the gifts of God for the imperfect and yet perfectly loved people of God.  Thanks be to God for that.




On Good Bones, Eclipses, and Awe

augustsolareclipseMy friend and colleague posted the poem below the other day, a poem that I’ve read at various times in various ways.

Poetry and parables are like that: there are many entrances and exits, depending on your state of mind, mood, and context, and so the meaning shifts depending on the shifts within you.  It’s entitled “Good Bones” and I had to do a minor edit, but the passion still comes through.


Good Bones
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying to sell them the world. Any decent realtor, walking you through a real [mess], chirps on about good bones: This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.

I love this poem.  But I’ve been both frustrated and awed by the world recently, though I’ve tried to keep the former from my children.

The shifts within me the past few weeks have been a bit seismic. I was horrified by Charlottesville, and I know some just wish we could all forget that, but that forgetting that we’re constantly doing is part of the problem.

And so we had this terrible, divisive march in Charlottesville and the political fallout, and then on Monday we had this wonderful, beautiful, awe-some (and I don’t use that term lightly) solar eclipse that brought everyone out into the street for another reason: to gaze up in awe as the moon passed in front of the sun and day became night in parts of the world, which is only possible because while the sun is 400x the size of the moon, it also just happens to be 400x farther away…

Science for the win!

In Charlottesville we saw strangers who wanted to break one another and break apart society.  And on Monday I saw strangers standing in the parking lot of Harris Teeter sharing NASA glasses with the utmost kindness and curiosity and a shared sense of wonder at what was happening in the sky.  As I was walking in to buy some grocery store sushi (it’s a thing), I heard someone from a group of people say, “God, it’s beautiful to see!”

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is a prelude reading to a seismic shift that will happen in the Apostle Peter’s life.  You can read it here to get the full picture.

Don’t worry, I’ll wait while you do.

Read it?  Good. Onward.

In the midst of the bustling commercial city of Caesarea Philippi, Peter makes the bold claim that Jesus is the Messiah who will save the world, which is a surprising assertion to make in a city so addicted to fortune and success because Jesus didn’t have either of those.

Jesus then says, “Certainly flesh and blood hasn’t revealed this to you. Such a statement could only come from God.”  It’s one of my favorite lines in the Bible…more on that on Sunday.

But Peter doesn’t really even buy his own medicine in the end, which we find out a bit later as he tries to persuade Jesus that he doesn’t need to go to Jerusalem, where he will surely be killed, but rather they can escape and fight violently and live.  It is at this time that Jesus will reply with that line, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Peter displays both insight and ignorance here.  Which makes him super likeable to me because I feel like I do that all the time…

But Peter is such a fine case study, and this whole progression is so important for us to remember, because Peter, in his very person, his flesh and blood, lays bare the truth for us that sometimes the stranger who is kind and sometimes the stranger who would break you are the same person…this is most certainly true of Peter, and me.

And you.

How can he say something so beautiful, and then say something so antithetical to Jesus’ own teachings?  How can ignorance and inspiration live within someone like that?

How can we live in a world where beautiful eclipses bring people together, and torches in the night divide?

What are we to do with the fact that we live in a world where people still hate people for the color of their skin? That we have a hard time exorcising the prejudices and privilege within us, and yet we have these wonderful moments of beauty and wonder that, if just for a few minutes, bring us from our centers of work and commercialized madness to gaze once again at the stars, like Magi trying to make sense of what they’re seeing?

There are parts of the scripture that call the Messiah the “Bright and Morning Star,” and the “Sun of Righteousness.”  Those words ran through my heart on Monday.

Is the world half terrible?

You know what one of the most amazing parts of the eclipse was for me?  It was the whole irony of the fact that the particles of stardust that we call “humans,” the trace elements and water that we are, were all staring together up at a big beautiful part of the universe that is, in some part, in our very bones.

That first story that the ancient mothers and fathers of the faith wanted you to read when you picked up the Bible, that Genesis story of creation, has God scooping up the disparate parts of the recently-untangled and now-docile galaxy, we call it dust, and breathing life into it.

We are stardust mixed with the breath of God, and to me, Beloved, that means that whether we are insightful or ignorant, whether we are kind or break one another, there is hope, by God, because we do, actually, have good bones.

And with God’s help, we can make this place beautiful.  We can exorcise the hate. We can learn to stand together in love. And even though we’re imperfect, even though we have wars raging in the streets and between nations, even some wars raging inside our very bodies as our own prejudices fight against God’s call on our lives, God reminds us that we were conceived in love and have good bones.

This place could be beautiful, right?


But we can’t keep that message from our children, because they’ll hear too many other messages in this world, so we can’t keep this a secret.

We’ll share it loudly, especially this Sunday.  We’ll share it like we’re calling people to come watch this amazing thing happen that they must experience, except instead of looking up at the sun in the sky, we’ll look toward the Son in our sons and daughters, in strangers and friends alike, and we’ll say, “God, it’s good to see you.”

And it will be beautiful to see.

See you in church.



That Person

<Click here to listen to the sermon. Ignore the part(s) where I choke up.>

virginis-is-for-lovers-not-racists-charlottesvilleImmediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crows. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up to the mountain by himself to pray.  When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “it is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, and started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  But when noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

That Person


We need your voice to be loud in these days.

And maybe that means you make our voices loud,

Lord knows we’ve heard your word enough to know what to say…

But we’re afraid.  The waves of social unrest are large,

We might get lost in them.

Remind us that, at your call, we’re never lost.

In the strong name of Jesus we pray all of this,


My son, Findley, just this morning was watching Thomas the Train in the early hours.  If I had a dollar for every episode of Thomas I’ve watched…

But Rhonda called me this morning because Finn was watching Thomas the train, and if you’ve never seen Thomas, you should know that the principal characters are trains or machines of some sort, and they’re all different: green, red, pink, blue, yellow, brown, orange.

And after the episode this morning he turns to Rhonda and says, “Mommy, those are all of Thomas’s friends, right?”  “Yes,” she replied.  “And they’re all different colors.  But they’re all friends.  Because they know each other’s names and they love each other, right?”

Now, I don’t know if he’s been hearing Rhonda and I talk in horror about the hell that is Charlottesville this weekend.  We’ve tried to talk in hushed tones because we’d love for our boys to be shielded from the evils of the world, especially the evils of racism and white supremacy, though I certainly need to talk to him about it because he was born on the boat of economic security and of white privilege, and so I need to be honest with him about how Jesus calls us from that boat in the Gospels.

It’s interesting the boats we find ourselves in sometimes.  I remember protesting in Chicago over an unpassed budget, and subsequently unpaid public servants like sanitation workers and teachers, and all of a sudden a part of the protest began to chant something I couldn’t stand for, a chant about violence, and I freaked out a little bit because, well, what they were saying was not what I stood for.

But I was in that boat, and the thing that changed that chant was a bunch of us who started chanting louder, drowning out that other voice.

If there’s something that white America must own up to its that we are in this boat, whether we want to be or not, and so pretending that we’re not susceptible to the kind of racism on display in Charlottesville just won’t do, and keeping silent about it is just not defensible if you’re going to say you follow the Christ who calls you to love your neighbor.

The call then, Beloved, and I think this is the exact call from Jesus that we have in the Gospels where he tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, is to chant louder and with more voice than those white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville did. And the sad reality of that march…I still can’t believe it…is that the majority of those marchers were millennial white males. Or, in other words, me. And they went without hoods, meaning they weren’t concerned of the scorn they’d receive or losing their jobs.

Which means, people of God, that we are not speaking up enough when we hear that racist joke, see bigotry on display, or even when we feel the subtle racism within ourselves rise up. We are sitting quietly in the boat too much, and not stepping out into the waters, baptismal waters where we are entrusted with the responsibility to work for justice and peace in this world with Jesus as our guide…and if you wonder if it’s in the baptismal rite, you can read it right now, it’s in the responsibilities section. We sit in the boat silent too often because we think, “Well, that’s not me.” Or we’re afraid, like Peter, that the waves of social unrest will overtake us and we’ll be caught in a war of words, or that we’ll lose friends, or that we’ll be seen as “that person” who won’t go along with it all.

Today, Beloved, I want to tell you that Jesus is calling you, calling me, to be “that person.” And Jesus was “that person.” for and with the poor and the marginalized, stepping out of the boat of empire and religious order, and calling us to step out too.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one in which God’s love went so far as to be willing to die for all people, that they might have abundant life.  God was willing to give God’s life for “that person” because Jesus, in bucking the Roman authorities, in bucking the religious Pharisee boat that he found himself born into, walked out onto the baptismal waters of grace.  And though he sank into the grave because he wouldn’t stay silent, God has a few tricks up God’s sleeve and just wouldn’t stay dead.

Because the voice of a God who calls out to us, who advocates on behalf of the oppressed like a persistent widow, who infects the gardens of the status quo like a mustard seed, who dares to heal on the sabbath even though it’s illegal, who dares even to call you out of the boat you find yourself in and to walk on the water is one that cannot be silenced, but, by God, has the power to silence.

It can silence bigotry and hatred and shouts of “Just wait for the ovens” and “Black must get back.”  It can even silence death.

Which is good, Beloved.  Because Heather Heyer, who was run over by a white supremacist yesterday when he rammed his car into the counter protest attempting to outshout the hate, needs that promise.  Her last social media post before her death was, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Are we?  Enough to say something in love, loudly, drowning out the voices of hate?

My son Findley, God I would love to be in a boat with him the rest of my life.  He’s kind, and friendly, and loving.  But there are some boats I want to teach him to exit at the call of Christ.

Some boats I’m still learning to exit, because I fail all the time.

Which is the last great thing about this story: that even when Peter failed, Jesus was there to catch him.  That the waves wouldn’t overtake him.  He could take the risk and step out of the boat.

In other words, he could be “that person” who takes the risk to go out to the Jesus of radical love, raising his voice to drown out the hate in the world, even if all he could say is “Lord, save me!”

Not a bad mantra for today, to be honest.

Jesus was willing to be that person for us, calling out “Father, forgive them.”  Yes, forgive us all, Lord.  And make us that person today.


From Where I Sit…

<Listening to a sermon is better than reading it.  Trust me, it is. If you want to listen along, click here.

John 3:1-16

Falling-asleep-forestNow there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform he signs you are doing if God were not with him. Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” “How can someone be born when they are not old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spoirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are a teacher in Israel,” Jesus said, “and you don’t understand these things?  Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you trust if I speak of heavenly things?  No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven, the Son of Man.  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who trusts may have eternal life.  For God so love the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

From Where I Sit…

May we be born again today, God.

And again. And again. And again.

Until we are made absolutely new in you again in the end.


I’ve decided to write this sermon like a letter from camp because, well, I composed it at camp in one sitting.  There was another sermon started earlier in the week, but it withered, like “leaves of grass” as Whitman would say.  So, here we go:

“Dear Beloved,

I arrived at camp a few hours ago and can say that by all appearances none of our children are ready to leave…and may not be ready to leave when the time comes.

As I pulled onto the gravel road, I thought to myself, like those disciples said to Jesus on that mountain top, “It is good to be here, Lord.”  This last week has not been an easy one in many ways.  Summer’s lazy days are still full of mixed blessings: hurts and goodbyes, unexpected blessings, tough conversations and love notes…like this one.

The naturalist and first-rate American tree-hugger John Muir once wrote that, should you be troubled you need only “sit under a fern for a spell,” and you’d feel it all melt away.  He called the forest the first cathedral. Perhaps that’s what my spirit was anticipating as I pulled into camp.  Very truly I tell you, throughout the history of our religious heritage, we have sought the Divine in nature, felt the Divine in nature, found God in nature.  Even so much so that those early cathedrals put huge indoor pillars in place, mirroring those trees Muir marveled at.

But, as that cantankerous pastor Lilly Daniels says, it’s easy to find God in the sunset. Everyone can find God in the beautiful sunset. It’s harder to find God in the cranky and messy and infuriating and broken people around you.  This is also very true.

So running to the forest, to nature, has always been a refuge when God has been hard to find in others.

But less than anything about the forest, perhaps the real spiritual gift of the forest is that, for most of us…and definitely all of us here in suburban “glory”…it provides a different point of view, a new perspective on life.  There is a reason that we use the idiom, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” From where we sit, it’s difficult to see everything clearly sometimes.

Very truly I tell you, in difficult moments in our lives, where we get lost in the tree of the moment, it is difficult to see the forest of grace and love we’re wandering in, by God.

Rhonda the boys and I spent time in Banner Elk this last Fall where we got to see the glory of God displayed on the leaves.  And here at Camp Agape, in the forests just outside of Raleigh, I hear the kids tell me, more than one, dare I say most, that in those forests they first started to take their faith seriously, the full glory of God showing on their faces.

The new point of view that they gain there (dare I suggest that they’re even born again and again?) gives them new eyes to see the world.  I’d even call them Christ-eyes to see the world, their own lives included, in a different way.  From where they sit in this forest, things look different. The sacredness drips like sap from most every moment.

And in a time in their life, in those Middle School years that can be very difficult, where it can sometimes feel as if they’re perishing more than flourishing, it’s a good change of perspective for many of them.

I do wonder how long we’ll have escapes, places to offer us new points of view in the world. According to the UN, 18 million acres, or land roughly the size of Panama, is unsustainably deforested every year.  This is certainly not meant to be a letter to convince you to save the forests, it’s just a question I’m pondering in the forest.

Because I’m very grateful for the forest, and especially this forest, which has apparently both strengthened people in their faith in Christ, strengthened their bodies and bonds, and strengthened their appreciation for God’s creation.

And if I’m grateful for something, I usually respond with thanksgiving in caring and tender ways.

Nicodemus can’t understand that Jesus is inviting him to a new point of view on life, a new perspective.  Perhaps he believes, as a Pharisee, that his religious training and social status has given him enough perspective for life.

And then he meets Jesus and Jesus tells him to do the impossible, to be born again, or in other words, put on God’s salvation eyes for a while and see things differently.  “How can I do this?” he wonders.  John Muir might tell him to crawl under a fern…but that will only do so much.

Nicodemus wanders away in a forest of confusion at Jesus’ command.  But sometimes we have to wander a bit, get lost in the forest a bit, even a spiritual forest, to gain a new point of view.

Fear not, Beloved, Nicodemus will gain a new perspective one day.  He’ll do so by looking up at a forest of three cross-shaped trees, one on which Jesus died.  And he’ll take that body of Christ and, as the Gospel of John tells us, will bury Jesus like a seed in a new tomb.

And then Jesus is born again.  And Nicodemus…and you…and me…and those forest-loving kids along with him, with the Christ buried within us, too.

It’s interesting, under the tree of the cross of ultimate love we can gain a new perspective on so many things: our lives, one another, even our North Carolina forests that we’ve been given as a gift of God.  And somehow pondering that cross, that Christ-perspective in these forests gives me the ability to do that harder thing: see God in everyday people and tough situations.

Very truly I tell you this from where I sit in these trees.  It’s funny: many times we run to the forest to find God.  It’s almost like we have to get down to the ground to see things from above.  Kind of like Jesus got down in the tomb to show us the love from above.

Anyway, pool time is almost over, and I see kids getting icy pops and no matter how much I’m thinking relatively deep thoughts, I don’t want miss out on that.

So, Beloved, from the forests of Agape where it appears that God in Jesus has shown up again amidst the trees to provide a new perspective on life, I wish you much love and hope and new life.

Gratefully,  Pt…


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Matthew 9:35-10:8

processed_eed31ad3-0260-4e90-8cb7-7eba08131f6c35Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10:1Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.


Number us amongst the apostles today, Lord

            Remind us that we’re called

                        And remind us that the kingdom of heaven has come near.

                                    And then make us into such a kingdom.


The other night I was reading some poetry, some of it is included in your bulletin actually…at the back.  I’ll get to the specific poems in a second.

But I was reading some poetry and I came into the living room and said to Rhonda, “Poetry makes life worth living.”

And she looked at me and she said, “Really?  Because for me, cheese makes life worth living.”

And I posted this conversation on Facebook, mostly because I was so dumbfounded, and apparently everyone thought that it was their job to vote on who was more right, and in the boxing match between poetry and cheese, cheese wins, hands down.

At least amongst our Facebook friends.

Disappointingly, there is no cheese today in church.  Well, at least not the kind you eat…I’m pretty cheesy, though.

No, no cheese.  Just bread and wine.  And some poetry.

Because, and this is a short sermon, so let’s not beat around the bush here: Jesus sends the apostles out into the world to tell the world a very specific thing, that the kingdom of God has come near.  And he sends them out into the world to do very specific things, like cast out demons and cure the sick and raise the dead and make the untouchable lepers touchable again.

And I just have to ask you, and myself truthfully, what are we doing?

Because here’s my thought, and here’s my fear:  we’ll go to Alexandria, Virginia and we’ll say, “The kingdom of God is near!” after a deranged gunman obviously held by some sort of evil intent had just tried to mow down members of congress.

And we’ll say this to them and they’ll look at us and go, “Sure…”

Here’s my thought, here’s my fear: we’ll go to Kabul after that suicide bomb, or Manchester, or pick a place, and we’ll say “The kingdom of God has come near” and amidst the broken hearts and broken bones we’ll hear the disbelieving refrain of, “Sure…”

Here’s my thought, and here’s my fear: we’ll stop saying that “the kingdom of God has come near” to those placed where shadows and evil have broken through the peace, and instead will just keep saying it in suburbia with our 2.5 kids and half-million dollar houses, the drug problems of our children not withstanding and the greed in our hearts not withstanding, and we’ll say “the kingdom of God has come near” and everyone will look around at relative ease and say, “Sure!”…and nothing changes.

Here’s my thought, and here’s my fear: we’ll stop saying “the kingdom of God has come near” to families who need to hear it, and we’ll stop hearing it from families that need to speak it to us, because we’re so segregated by race and politics that we won’t be able to speak it to one another.  Sure…that’s happening already.

I feel that, these days, we have an abundance of words and talking points and talking heads and tweets and verdicts and news headlines, but we have a poverty of meaning…and even this phrase, “The kingdom of God has come near” is impoverished by both overuse by overzealous televangelists, and underuse by people who have lost hope, belief, or any sense of what it means anymore.

Which is why, I think, that we need poetry in these days.  Because poetry is like words, but rearranged and slanted and pointed into arrows that can cut through apathy and despair and hurt and anger and depression and fear and get to the beating heart of a person to remind them that it is still beating, by God.

Good poetry, at least, can do that.  And Jesus used a form of that good poetry in quoting the Psalms and telling parables.

Bad poetry, though…well, you’re better off with the cheese if you encounter some bad poetry.

But go with me on this, ok?  Let’s look at that first poem, not the Father’s Day Blessing by O’Donohue, but the one on the other side of that page.  These are both by Nayyirah Waheed, and African American poet who has really been speaking to me lately.

But that top one:

Sometimes the night wakes in

the middle of me.


I can do nothing





I’ve yet to hear a better description of depression or grief than, “Sometimes the night wakes in the middle of me.”  And when I look at Arlington, Virginia and that tragic shooting, and I look at Kabul and Manchester and London and who knows where else, the only image that comes to mind now is that the night, the shadows, woke up in the middle of those moments.  A societal depression.  A societal grief that is the result of a sick society that we have today, sick with hatred for other people and partisan vitriol and systemic greed and classism and racism and every ism that you can imagine.

And remember…Jesus commands the apostles, commands us, to heal the sick.  What are we doing about that?

But so to go into those moments where the scary, frigid night has disrupted the middle of peace and to proclaim, “the kingdom of God is near!” Or, another way of hearing and saying that, “God is not far away!  God is on the ground, on the scene, and I’m here to show you that”…well, what do you think we are doing when we say that but becoming a moon, reflecting God’s son/sun?

This last week I was at Camp Agape hanging with the counselors for their “Pastor in the hotseat” time of staff training.  I fielded and answered a bunch of questions, from aliens to my thoughts on hell to ghosts.  But one question in particular had me saying something like this, “And so I am convinced that God is constantly redeeming everything through Christ.  Everything.  And we take a part in that redemption at God’s invitation.”

And I have to remind myself of that conviction, especially when I find myself cynical or defeated by the never ending news cycle that peddles in fear or when public trials don’t go the way I think they should, or when the massive systems of this world that keep the poor poor, the wealthy wealthy, and if feels like the world is ending, I must remember the promise of Jesus that he is “with us always to the end of the age.”  And if that is true, then we are constantly in the presence and process of redemption. Which brings us to that last poem, which I think encompasses that feeling so well:

I don’t pay attention to the

World ending

It has ended for me

Many times

And began again in the morning

I don’t take that as vapid optimism, either.  Optimism is blindly believing the best because you can’t handle the worst.  Hope, on the other hand…which is how I take that poem…hope is staring the worst straight in the eye and knowing that it cannot overcome you.  The world may end, but it begins again, by God.

Because the kingdom of God has come near.  Everywhere you go. Wherever the body of Christ is, the kingdom of God has come near.  In your personal life.  In the larger world. On the killing fields. Everywhere.

And it is at this point where you look at me and say, “You expect me to buy all that pastor? The kingdom of God has come near?”

To which I say,


Comebacks and Remakes and a God Who Won’t Stay Gone for Long

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Acts 2:1-21

confirmation.jpg1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles] were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ”

Remakes and Comebacks and a God Who Won’t Stay Gone for Long

Fall upon us freshly today, Lord.

Let us hear your voice in the many languages we speak

            In the language of lawyers

            In the language of doctors

            In the language of engineers and accountants

            In the language of stay-at-home dads and moms

            In the language of Republicans, Independents, Democrats, and Libertarians

            In the language of the wealthy and the struggling to make ends meet

            And, especially today, in the language of teenager.

Help us to hear you in all of our many languages

For you have called us all.


Today, Beloved, I’m afraid that most of you just get to eavesdrop on a sermon.  This particular sermon is going to be directed mostly at these few rows of shining and embarrassed faces sitting here.

And I know that you are all beginning to realize what Jungian scholar James Hollis says, “you are the only person who is constantly present in every scene of that long-running drama we call life,” so I want you to see yourself and some truths about yourself in this text from Acts today:

First, the disciples were all gathered together in one place.  This is significant because, here’s the thing: I really do not think that there is such a thing as a solitary Christian.  There are certainly solitary Jesus-followers, but if they are really, truly following Jesus, they will not be solitary for long because God in Jesus always leads us to gather together.

We must gather together because if we stay alone for too long we forget what God looks like.  Yes, we do.  Because if we stay together for too long, we might begin to think that God looks a little too much like us. You.  You might begin to think that God dislikes the people you dislikes, really likes the things you likes, and even thinks exactly the same thoughts that you think.

You need other people around you to remind you that, if we are to trust the Genesis story, God created humanity in God’s own image…all of humanity bears an image of God, and no one image has a monopoly on that.

So the Christian story is the best kind of story, especially to Americans, because the Christian story is a comeback story.  That is, Christians, when they’re following God in Jesus, will naturally come back together: to eat bread and drink wine, remembering God’s gifts to us. To sing and dance, to hear the scriptures, and recall just why it is we’re following this crazy prophet in our lives.

This is all a long way of me saying that I expect to see you again next week.  Confirmation is not graduation, no matter how much the churches have equated the two.  You cannot graduate from God, Beloved.

Second thought to ponder: just why do we follow this crazy Rabbi who we profess is the embodiment of God on earth?  Well, it’s a complicated story, and I would gander it’s different for everyone on some level.  In fact, having sat with many of you over coffee (OK, I had the coffee, you all had hot chocolate or tea or lemonade…and Josh Lewis ate about 2/3rds of my donuts), but at some level I think we all in some way realize that we follow this Jesus guy because, well, it’s through the message of God in Jesus that we see the ability to really remake things: our world, our selves, our possessions…everything.

And, America loves a good remake, right?  Just look at Hollywood.  You’re too young to know it, but Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers…all remakes.  And for you older folks, think Maltese Falcon, that 1941 Humphry Bogart and Mary Astor classic is actually a remake of an early 1931 film, a newer “talky” as they called them back then.

We love remakes because we love the same old story told in a new way, which is essentially what we do every week in church, by the way.  But this is the thing: there will come a point and time in your life when you will make a major mistake.  Maybe a couple points and times in your life.  And I need you to know that, if the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection says any one thing loud and clear, it is that everything can be redeemed, anything can be remade, even you.

And when you think that your life is stuck in the same old story, just remember that God specializes in the remake.

So do not believe the narratives out there, narratives that seem loudest in high school for some reason, that say that you are screwed up for good.  We’re all screwed up on one way or another.  From the oldest in here to the youngest in here.  As the author and theologian Ann Lamott once wrote, “Every one of us is screwed up, clingy, and scared.” And she’s right, which means we have to stick together…going back to my first point.

And I have to think that these disciples, even though they had been with Jesus, seen him after his death, were still in that upper room screwed up, clingy, and scared of the world.  And while the dominant view of the world is that you have to be good and perfect to have good things happen to you, these screwed up, clingy, and scared disciples are the ones who receive the Holy Spirit.  Not the kinds in the castle.  Not the hyper-religious folks in the temple.  But these men and women (yes, women were there folks…Jesus had women disciples, they just rarely go named because that seems to threaten many men), but these women and men with little distinction in all of their crazy confusion are the ones to receive the Holy Spirit.

God can redeem and remake even the screwed up, clingy, and scared parts of us, people.

Which brings me to my third point, and it’s one where I’ll use a quote from Christian psychotherapist Ian Morgan Cron, and it is this: “Christianity is not something you do as much as something that gets done to you.”

Think about it.  God had, by all appearances, left the disciples again.  Yeah, sure, Jesus promised that God would show up again, but there are a lot of empty promises in this world, and perhaps, just for a second, they thought that might be one of them.  Just like when Jesus was crucified and buried, God has left the disciples again.

But here’s a sneaky little truth that I hope you’ll remember in your life: though it might appear that God is gone, God never stays gone for long.

And notice that these disciples don’t go out seeking the Holy Spirit.  They don’t go out inviting Jesus into their heart or any such thing. God will not be controlled, people! Instead, the Holy Spirit like a violent, untamable wind, breaks through the room, through the locked hearts, through the locked doors, through the skeptical minds, and descends upon them.  And this follows the great testimony of Scripture where people didn’t sign up to follow Jesus like you would at a job fair, but rather Jesus calls out to the disciples and brings them along, just like God called out to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and Miriam, and Ruth, and even Jesus’ mother Mary.

Which gives a lot of hope and freedom to those of us who often find ourselves skeptical and doubting when it comes to everything in this world, especially faith.  I am naturally skeptical.  It’s both a blessing and a curse.  And I know many of you are blessed and cursed in this way, too.

But just as Paul was absolutely surprised that Jesus would call out to him on the road to Damascus, today, tomorrow, when you’re 22 and not sure what’s going on in your life, when you’re 51 and having a midlife crisis, do not be surprised when God in Jesus happens to you.

It has happened to me again and again in this life, and it always catches me off guard.

And I need to leave you with one more thought here, Beloved, because this text is so rich and full that it’s like a ripe tree with different kind of fruits that, the more you pick at it, the sweeter it gets.

The disciples are together, screwed up, clingy, maybe scared, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them, God happens to them, Christ happens to them, and then these little tongues of fire appear on their heads, a sign of Divine presence, enlightenment.  And God has certainly done this before.  God led Israel with a pillar of fire in the Exodus.  God showed up to Moses as a burning bush that wasn’t consumed.  God came as fire upon the altar to Baal at Elijah’s bidding.

Fire, this energy that humanity stumbled upon and harnessed back when our ancestors lived in caves.  Fire, this heat that transforms even the hardest substances into moldable liquid.  We’ve always been fascinated by it, scared of it, comforted by it.  No wonder God uses it to get our attention: it always does.

The ancient Greek philosopher Hereclitus once wrote, “This world was and is and shall be ever-living fire.”  I love this thought because it brings me back to something that we glimpse in this story from Acts: all of these people were gathered together from all the known and far-flung parts of the ancient world, and each one of them heard the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their own language.  Which means, to me, that God is present and active everywhere, an ever-living fire sparking and flaring, something we don’t own but can coax out of every moment in any place, by God.

As Father Richard Rohr says, “Low-level religions put all their emphasis on creating sacred places, sacred time, and sacred actions.” He goes on, “While I fully appreciate the need for this, unfortunately, it leaves the majority of life ‘un-sacred.’ Your task is to find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. The bad is never strong enough to counteract the good.”

And perhaps that’s the perfect way to end and celebrate this Confirmation rite today, with that thought on our hearts and lips.  Because God has happened to you, Beloved.  And we’re gathered here together, reminded that while God doesn’t look like any one of us, God’s image is in every one of us, and this and every moment is sparking and flaring with divine grace, a refiner’s fire that has the power to redeem and remake us and everything, again and again.

So our task, now, is to give into the fire, to be moldable, and in doing so find the good, the true, and the beautiful, dare I say ‘the sacred’ in everything, even and most especially the problematic.  The bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, Beloved. And in the days of attacks on London, Manchester, Kabul, and who knows where else, that’s important for you all to bear witness to.

The bad is never strong enough to counteract the good. Never.  Because God never stays gone for long.