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Draw Close to God's Heart

Scripture: John 1:10-18

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.




My kids and I love to talk about the movies we see, and a few months ago, I told them this bit of wisdom I had learned somewhere that all movies and stories ever made have two basic plots:


  • Someone goes on a journey.

OR


  • A stranger comes to town.

And when you think about it, it kind of holds up.


Sometimes, the kids and I sit around and talk about our favorite movies and classify them in one of those two categories:


  • A movie like Rise of the Skywalker about Rey, a Jedi Warrior, who goes on a journey to find the hidden base of the evil bad guy. (No Spoilers)
  • Or a movie like Knives Out about a detective, a stranger, who steps into the lives of a dysfunctional family to solve a murder mystery.

Now there might be movies that break the mold, but we probably don’t have one that comes to mind right away. Who would want to watch a movie about a hero who stays at home watching TV all day?


Both plots suggest something happens - change unfolds, either from the outside or from characters going to a place they have never been before.


One of our favorites captures both - Princess Bride. A masked man who goes on a journey to rescue his true love. His refrain is as you wish - which really means I love you.


But to shift gears a little bit, I’m curious - what plot fits your life right now in this New Year? Are you prepared to embark on a journey into the unknown, or has a stranger showed up and knocked your world upside down?




Today on this Epiphany Sunday, we transition from Christmas and celebrate God’s light in this New Year. This is a day when we sometimes think about the wise ones, magi, astrologers, who go on a journey, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to pay homage to the King of the Jews, as told in the Gospel of Matthew. But this is also day when we think about and sit with the incredible gift that is the Light of God come into our midst through Jesus, a child who came like a stranger into an insignificant family’s life in a tiny remote village far away from the thrones of power, and by doing so brought upheaval to his world and our world.


In some way, both of those basic kinds of stories line up with the gospel story about Jesus.


The Gospel tells us God says to us - as you wish!


In our scripture from John 1, verse 10 and 11, Jesus is described like a stranger who shows up out of the blue:


He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.


Especially in the light of recent events among anti-semitic violence against Jewish neighbors, I recognize this scripture passage is confusing. For far too long, Christians used verses like these to justify harassment and violence against Jews - that our Jewish neighbors rejected Jesus or were responsible for Jesus’ death. But let me be clear - we sin when we use and abuse scripture to justify any kind of harm against anyone.


A better understanding of this scripture is that Jesus was rejected just like so many prophets are - rejected especially by those who are powerful, those who prefer status quo, those who only later begun to understand the what his life meant.


Jesus was the stranger - and only after the people thought they had lost him, even some of his own disciples, did they realize who he truly was.


In verse 14, John describes the most epic of journey stories:


And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.


Numerous theologians remind us that the Greek words could literally be translated to “pitched a tent among us”. God came and walked the earth in human form, just like we walk it. Most religions - and lots of Christian conversation - is about getting to heaven, getting to where God is. And yet, God’s movement through Jesus appears to be in the opposite way. While we want to get up there, God is risking everything to go on an adventure to be among us, to walk through a beloved Creation.


That’s a divine journey!


Both of these movements, God as pilgrim and stranger in our midst, are grounded in grace - and it’s why we look forward to Christmas, why we celebrate the presence of God in our midst on Epiphany, why we journey with Jesus to the cross, and why we are perplexed and confused by the Risen Lord among us on Easter.


  • Jesus is that stranger waiting to be discovered by us - through prayer, worship, and reflection - through our service among those who are suffering, our care of our neighbors and family. When we find Jesus, our world changes. Our lives change. We might experience a complete 180 in our life, like Saul who was even given a new name and vocation after meeting Jesus. Or like the Canaanite woman who cries out for Jesus to hear her pleading, experiencing a sudden, unexplainable healing for our family and a generous welcome into the abundant grace of God.

  • Jesus is also that one who invites us to get up and go to a land we may not know, to do something different and new, to let ourselves be stretched and vulnerable. Even as a church, Jesus says, come and follow me. And that journey, if we dare risk it, will transform us. We are like those disciples, scattered to the ends of the earth after Jesus gives the Great Commission. According to church legend, some, like St. Thomas, even went as far as India to proclaim Jesus as Lord.

What’s clear and I affirm powerfully from our scripture is that when people met Jesus, they felt close to God’s heart. Jesus was not a stranger who brought misery to those he met, except perhaps those set on causing harm to God’s beloved - when people saw Jesus, they felt close to the very presence of God. And out of that experience, they sought to share this light to others.


And Jesus encouraged it, saying - “You are the light of the world…. Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”




This has only become more real to me as I prepare to board a plane to Israel and Palestine for the next 11 days. I will join a group of clergy and colleagues to visit Holy Sites, be in deep conversation, seek to understand the conflict, and tread on the ground where Jesus and his disciples walked. Please pray for us!


And we go right now as it seems like our country is poised to extend and deepen existing conflict, already when we have been at wars for years in Afghanistan so much so that we sort of stop thinking about it, when even here in the US anti-semitic attacks remind certain groups of people that they are not safe, when our polarization and distrust are as high as they have ever been…


I shared in my blog post on the website this week that I was hopeful that this New Year would bring a change, and so far, I am not impressed.


And yet, as one who has experienced the Light of Christ, I am asking myself - how can I let my light shine before others?


I am going on this trip in hopes that I will find Jesus over there - to walk those ancient paths where he and his disciples walked - to find hope buried in the midst of conflict, walls, oppression, and fear. To find Jesus in the eyes and stories of strangers, who are in all things trying to be faithful. And maybe bring back some clues to share with you all…


But in truth, we are all on that journey in this New Year - we are all being asked, how will you let your light shine before others?


How will we, University Christian Church, let our lights shine in a time of division and anger and injustice?


How will we let our lights shine in opposition to more conflict and more war?


How will we let our lights shine among our Jewish neighbors and Muslim neighbors and our non-religious neighbors, revealing the grace and love of God?


How will we let our lights shine enough that this community, our families, each of us will experience the fullness of God’s grace and glory, right here and now?


In one of our readings for the trip, Jean Zaru, a Palestinian Quaker leader, shared about her own experience of walking with Jesus and finding Jesus even in her enemies. She suggests that “love your neighbor” and “love your enemy” are not that dissimilar, quoting GK Chesteron who wrote, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” For Jean, who struggles to advocate for freedom and justice for her Palestinian people and the Palestinian Christian community, it is agonizing and challenging to try to love those who seem intent on disrupting your lives for the worse. And yet - it is the journey that reveals our light - and God’s light. When we find the courage to listen, when we find the strength to resist the pessimism and war-mongering of our time, when we dare reach across boundaries, when we seek each day to honor the light of God in every stranger we met along this journey, we too draw close to God’s heart. We radiate with the light of our Risen Lord.


Maybe you need to go on a journey this year with God - into a new place, following Jesus and being stretched and transformed.


Maybe you need God to show up in flesh in your life - to walk with you, to disrupt your status quo, to shake things up.


May you be blessed in that new beginning today!


As a signal to begin this journey, I have a small gift for you to take with you. Your very own nugget of Frankincense. The wise ones journeyed from long distance to worship Jesus. This gift of Frankincense is a gift of fragrance. You can place it in your fireplace or in your grill - and the smoke will rise up like our prayers for each other and our world. I invite you to take it with you - hold it til you are ready - and then use it. As the smoke rises, as the fragrance fills your home, experience God’s presence. Welcome Jesus - and

(posted January 5, 2020)

On Pilgrimage

From January 6 to 17, I’ll join a number of clergy colleagues, classmates, and pilgrims on an 11 day class and experience to the Holy Lands in Israel and Palestine.

I hope you will pray for me as I undertake this pilgrimage.

This is not a vacation but a learning experience. I will be engaged in conversation and prayer, walking where Jesus walked, hearing the experiences of the people of the land, and trying to understand the beauty and conflict in that part of the world. It's going to be a life changing experience, and I'm thankful you give me the opporunity to keep growing through this Doctor of Ministry coursework.

We don’t always use terms like “pilgrimage” in our faith. Sometimes, we joke about going on pilgrimage to a famed sports stadium of a beloved team, but I usually don’t hear any of you talking about taking a “pilgrimage” out to Bethany Beach for a church retreat. And yet, we are each taking pilgrimages every day of our lives - especially when we venture into the unknown and learn something about who we are.

That’s the ancient meaning of this practice that goes back to the earliest Biblical witness.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” - Genesis 12:1

In my first Bible as a youngster, I remember thumbing through the maps at the back of it. One of them showed the routes that Paul might have taken on his own pilgrimages and journeys to support churches and share the startlingly good news of Jesus. I didn’t get it. Why couldn’t Paul just stay in one place and let the people come to him?

How easy church would be today if we could just sit back and let people come to us!

Rather, Paul’s journeys, I believe, aided his message. He had to be creative and fluid. He had to listen and learn and adapt. His journey placed him into communities and lives that were desperate to hear some good news. Paul’s journeys took him and the gospel into the unknown, and the church grew.

“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. “ - Ruth 1:15b

From my life experience, journeys to some place new almost always stretch us. We learn about different customs and cultures. We experience sacred space in different ways. Our lives are changed by encounters with neighbors and the opportunities to humanize distant communities and practices. We see that we are all the same and all so different. The world becomes both larger and smaller.

The Christian practice of a pilgrimage mirrors the journeys of Abram, Ruth, Elijah, and the early church. We go into a foreign place where we must learn new words and practices to get by. We recognize, even if we are coming from a culture of privilege, that we are outsiders now. In the process of feeling clumsy, of messing up, we rely on the hospitality and grace of others.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” - Matthew 28:19

What if 2020 became a pilgrimage year not just for me but for our entire church?

Some of you are beginning this year in new jobs, planning trips to take you into unfamiliar territory, or looking for experiences to stretch and grow. You are already on board with this, I bet. But sometimes, we get comfortable with status quo. Some of us would rather talk about church bulletins than evangelism. What if we took this risk together to embark into the unknown and discover something new about who we are and who God is calling us to be?

As a church, especially as we continue our Epiphany process, we are likewise being asked to stretch and grow. We know our future as a congregation does not mean doing what we used to do better. Being the church at the intersection asks us to be open, not just to those passing by, but invitations to go deeper into our community and rely on the hospitality of others. Faith and spirituality is changing. The needs of the world press in all around. What will University Christian Church look like in ten years? How do we get there?

Let’s put on our walking shoes together… and see.

Please join me in prayer for the journey ahead:

God of this New Year, you are calling us to be on the move. You are calling us to walk paths into places we have not been, to meet strangers who we need to hear, to create relationships that we never thought were possible. Challenge us to take risks. Stretch us. Use us. Shape us into something new. Trusting in your guiding, we ask your blessing on this journey ahead. Amen!

(posted January 3, 2020)

Peaceful Joy

Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-15 Matthew 1:18-25

Friends, we are here - on the doorstep of Christmas.

I will be real as your pastor - I was so looking forward to this season of Advent and had mentally prepared all the things I was going to do to make it especially heartwarming and fun and… well, it’s almost over. And it still feels like so many things need to happen between now and Christmas Eve.

It never fails. No matter the hard work or preparation or inspiration to do things differently, to worship more deeply, to get the task list done, to write up the Christmas cards back in November, to be more generous - something always goes wrong at this time of year.

But luckily, I’m not alone. Like this family in Austin, TX, who setup their Christmas decorations in an attempt to win their coveted neighborhood competition, and well, added some extra drama to people’s lives in a way they did not intend:

Watch the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyaNQK4oOAQ

I’ve mentioned it before, but National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one of my faves. I’m not ready for the season until I’ve sat down and watched it. For me, it captures both the beauty and insanity of this time of year in American culture. And really, I can’t get into the spirit of the season without watching this movie.

In this movie, Clark Griswold, described by his co-workers as “the last true family man”, desires nothing else than to have a good old fashioned Christmas - and for him, that means being with family. It means a big Christmas tree. It means extravagant Christmas decorations. It means food and gift giving and memories and gratitude and love. But, since this is a comedy, nothing goes right.

The family gathers from far and wide and go about annoying each other and griping and complaining. The turkey is too dry. Their Christmas tree catches fire. A squirrel gets loose in the house. A SWAT team breaks through the windows. There’s even a sewer gas explosion. On and on.

I think this movie is popular because it speaks to all of our own desires to make this season special and the reality of how difficult it can be. How, no matter our meticulous planning, no matter how thoroughly we think things through, no matter how hard we pray, the unexpected will happen. Our plans will be disrupted. It won’t necessarily be silent and holy and joyful and peaceful.

At the end of the movie, as he watches his Santa Claus lawn ornament hurtle through the air following the sewer gas explosion, Clark finally finds a bit of peace when he seems to finally accept that Christmas is here - messy and chaotic, sure - but it is here.

---

Maybe this is true of each of us in someway.

Maybe you were looking forward to this season, to the Christmas cards and music, to the opportunities to be with friends, to the fun of gifts, to the sights and sounds of our church gatherings and prayers.

But, so many things haven't gone to plan, have they?

Instead of hope for the future, we have been treated to another chapter in our nation’s ongoing leadership crisis, a crisis that bitterly divides us in a cauldron of fake news and uncertainty and bitter partisanship.

Instead of a fount of joy, too many of us have been stained by grief and heartache, longing for loved ones to be made whole, struggling to navigate dysfunctional and shattered families, overcome by tears and despair.

Instead of experiencing an abundance of love, we are anxious - anxious about the loss of healthcare, anxious about the inability to get a single job interview, anxious about our bills, anxious about our children and grandchildren. Anxious about the Mary and Joseph’s without a place to call home.

Instead of a glimmer of peace in this season from perpetual conflicts around the world, we see more lives uprooted and snatched away by war and violence, protests being squashed, voices crying out for justice silenced.

So despite our plans, despite what we may have prayed here we are - on the doorstep of Christmas - still waiting for peace - looking to the sky for a sign. Looking for God to speak to us in all this mess and chaos.

----

I think Joseph knew what we were experiencing too, and in fact, Joseph would have felt a little kinship to Clark Griswold.

All the scriptures tell us about Joseph is that he was a descendant of the line of King David and that he was righteous. He came from a royal family, although, there wasn’t a lot royal about them anymore. He was a carpenter, which was honest and decent work, but certainly didn’t put him in the top tax bracket. As a righteous man, Joseph wasn’t perfect, but he followed God’s ways as best as he could, fearing the Lord, living with integrity and honesty. His Twitter account, if he had one, would have been blessedly free of meltdowns and tirades and insults.

So, maybe it’s just my own imagination, but I think Joseph, as he became engaged to this young dynamic woman from his village named Mary, probably didn’t ask for much. He probably didn’t ask God for anything more than a normal, ordinary family and to be able to be the best parent he could be to his future children.

But then the most shocking news came - Mary was pregnant, and she and Joseph hadn’t even held hands yet.

That’s not how this is supposed to work.

After praying about it for a long while and thinking about what would be best for Mary and for him to walk away from this engagement quietly and respectfully, Joseph had one of those hard nights of sleeping, tossing and turning, one too many Christmas cookies in his belly, with the kind of dreams that you can’t forget. I’m going to go on record that I don’t think angels were the soft, white robe, feathery winged creatures like we see depicted around. I think angels were probably terrifying - beings of might - who caused you to take notice, which is why their first words were always, “Do not be afraid!”

That night, the angel of the Lord spoke in Joseph’s dreams, “Look, I know this is not what you planned or dreamed of, but Mary IS pregnant and her child - your child, is special. You will name him Jesus, and he will save your people. He will even be called, as the prophet Isaiah said, Emmanuel, God With Us.”

Can’t you imagine Joseph waking up in a cold sweat and wondering, couldn’t I just have a good old fashioned Galilean Christmas?

Can you imagine the drama set off in Nazareth, the tongues that were wagging, the accusations that were whispered?

Can you imagine the word from cousins and neighbors and friends who were suddenly unavailable during the upcoming wedding celebration?

There's a viral article going around once again reminding us that the original Christmas was anything but silent. There was no symphony orchestra playing softly in the background. There was no room service long ago.

Rather, Jesus came to a young couple who were likely scared out of their minds
    came into a world filled with tyrannical, egotistic, vicious lords and leaders
        came into a world of violence and war
            came into a world of injustice and grief and trouble
                came into a world where children and families were at risk
                    came into a world where peace seemed a pipe dream…

So can you also imagine the incredible courage of Joseph and Mary as they accepted this strange news with courage, trusting in God?

Can you imagine the peaceful joy that must have overcome them to face the difficult road ahead… together.

Into this mess and chaos, God came.

Christmas happened anyway.

---

Martin Luther King Jr. summarized the meaning of this gift of peace when he said, “Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force–war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force–justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.”

When the prophet Isaiah dreamed of a leader coming to save the Hebrew people, he said the child would come from a young woman - and he would taste “curds and honey”, a symbol if you remember from our study of the Book of Joshua of the promised land. The Promised Land wasn’t just a literal place, a plot of land, or a singular nation - the Promised Land was an invitation to live fully into God’s abundance, to live into right relationship with the earth and all of humanity in such a way that even the nations of the world came to learn and study war no more.

This is the peace that Christmas offers us - the same that Mary and Joseph no doubt relied upon - the peace of our God who loves us so much to break into the mess and chaos of our lives, into the courts of corrupt leaders, into the dysfunction and violence of our world and families.

An invitation to tastes the "curds and honey” of God’s shalom - of wholeness for me, for you, and for all humanity.

---

Father Elias Chacour, in his book Blood Brothers, tells the story of the first parish he served in the hills above Nazareth. When he showed up on his first day, the place was a mess. The church doors were hanging off their hinges. Someone had stolen the communion cup. The benches were warped. There was no bed in the rectory for him to get a good night’s rest. And furthermore, the church was divided, seen as untrustworthy, sparsely attended, overcome by conflict.

The one person in charge of keeping the affairs of the charge was a nasty old man who stalked after Father Chacour wherever he went, told him where he was allowed and not allowed, and barred access to the church to certain people in the community who he didn’t like.

And beyond that, in the village, there was strife daily. One family of brothers hated each other so much, that when their mother passed, the brothers couldn’t even be in the same room together. There were violent feuds between neighbors. There were accusations. The people had no use for the church, no longer saw the gospel as good news because it seemed the church over the years had gone out of its way to foment conflict more than seeking peace.

For months, Father Chacour labored courageously, going door to door, knocking on houses, sharing coffee, getting to know the neighbors and inviting them to worship - but progress was slow. Every effort seemed to face resistance. The people were angry and bitter. Many wanted this priest to go back to where he came from.

So finally, Father Chacour decided to do something drastic. Out of the whole year, the only time the church had a large crowd was Palm Sunday and Easter, so that year, on Palm Sunday, they gathered, standing room only, in the little village church. Worship was lifeless. People sang listlessly, not from their hearts. Father Chacour struggled with fear throughout the worship, preaching one of his worst sermons, fearful that what he was about to do could cost him everything.

Finally, at the time of the benediction, Father Chacour, rather than offer parting words, took a deep breath, asked God to give him the strength, and then marched silently, all eyes fixed on him, to the church’s entrance. There, he took a chain and padlock out from a hiding place, wrapped it around the doors, and locked the doors shut. The temperature in the room seemed to rise.

He turned around to address the congregation:

“Sitting in this building does not make you a Christian. You are a people divided. You argue and hate each other - gossip and spread malicious lies. What do our Muslim neighbors and the unbelievers in our village think when they see you? Surely, that you religious is false. If you can’t love your brother that you see, how can you say you love God who is invisible? You have allowed the Body of Christ to be disgraced.”

The anger in the room began to rise. The old man who stalked the priest looked like he was about to explode, but Father Chacour continued, “I have tried for these months to help you, but I have failed. So, now, the only one who can help you is Jesus. Now, I will be quiet and allow Him to give you that power. If you will not forgive, then we will stay locked in here, and I will do your funerals for free.”

Father Chacour said it felt like an eternity passed as no one spoke, as the people stood silently. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. He wondered if he had failed, if it was all for naught.

And then, suddenly, the eldest brother of one of the feuding families rose to his feet. In a shaking voice, he looked out at the church and began to ask forgiveness, for the hatred in his heart, for the violence he wished upon his own family, for the anger he held at the priest. And suddenly, his three brothers, moments before separated by years of distrust and vitriol, rushed to him. They embraced.

Father Chacour said that suddenly, the church erupted into chaos - but not a chaos of fistfights and shouting matches - but of tears, of apologies, of hugs, of confessions, and of forgiveness. Of a glimmer of shalom, peace on earth and goodwill to all. God With Us.

Friends, we are on the doorstep of Christmas, and there is still messiness and chaos ahead. Perhaps the gift you might bring in this season is to embrace the mess and chaos add some of your own. Maybe you don’t need to do anymore shopping - the gift you might offer is peace - to offer grace, to offer an apology, to seek forgiveness, to start again with someone estranged, to embrace the stranger. Maybe it is our call as a church to find the peace God is offering us in the chaos and confusion of our life so we can be a witness in troubled times.

And maybe - Christmas will come. Christmas will happen anyway.

And then, we will be able to sing with joy, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

(posted December 23, 2019)

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