Scripture: Genesis 2:4-7, 2 Corinthians 4:5-15

When I was just a kid, I have this memory of my parents taking me to a swimming class.

I loved going swimming, but this swimming class terrified me.

The instructor was teaching us how to float, and so to test our skills, he took us out into the deep end of the pool, which I was deathly afraid of. The shallow end was my place. My little feet could touch the bottom. The deep end was the place of nightmares. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t believe there was a bottom there.

But the instructor had us climb in to the deep end and hold on to the edge of the pool. And then, first with very encouraging requests and later with more frustration, he pleaded with us to let go of the edge of the pool, push out into the deep, and float. He reassured me - I was completely safe, and I could do this.

But, I’ll tell you, nothing on heaven and earth would pry my hands from the edge of that pool.

I wonder if you have had any moments in your life or even in your spiritual journey where you clung to the edge, despite being asked and pleaded with to let go and trust that someone or something would be there to keep you safe.

In some ways, this is an image of faith with God.

Throughout the Bible, from Old Testament to New Testament, God’s messengers bring the good news by saying, “Do not be afraid.”

And yet, even as we begin to learn to trust that voice, we find ourselves clinging to the edges of what we consider safe. Of what society tells us is safe. Not able to truly let go and rely on God.

Part of the reason why is what we call sin. Our sins are not just those moments in our lives when we mess up or make bad choices and say or do something that wounds others. Sin is also the narratives at work in our world that misshape us - that misshape all of us. These are the old stories that tell us that we aren’t good enough, that tell us that we aren’t successful enough, that tell us that we should be afraid of others, that give us permission to hate or denigrate or ignore our neighbors. We have fancy words for some of these old stories - like racism, misogony, homophobia, and greed. If we have the courage to look, we can recognize that on deep levels, through our societies, these messages have messed us up.

In this time of division, as our national leaders talk impeachment, as presidential candidates tout their agendas, as our communities experience division, as our own lives are placed under such pressure, we know behind it and beneath are these stories that are bringing us death. They are killing us and our planet. And though we may dream of what life would be like without them, we cling to them, hanging on to the edge of the pool, afraid to let them go.

My mentor, Rev. Lari Grubbs, told me once - “The opposite of faith is not doubt - the opposite of faith is mistrust.”

Our deepest faith struggles are not when we aren’t sure what we believe, but when we do not trust God - when God calls us to let go of those stories that have misshapen us and choose to push out into the deep of God’s abundant love.

The life and ministry of Jesus is about that invitation, over and over again.

Will you let go of the edge and trust that God is going to be there?

In our Christian practice and in this church, baptism is one of the ways we celebrate and invite each other to let go of sin and evil and begin living into who God has created us to be.

The church began, some think, with John the Baptist, who was a fiery preacher, the kind that never got invited to the White House, and Jesus’ cousin, who taught out in the wilderness and baptized thousands in the Jordan River as an act of cleansing and repentance .

Even in Jesus’ day, the Jewish people had been misshaped by all kinds of evil messages.

This act of baptism reminded and restored the people as Chosen by God.

Our church continues this practice along with most Christian traditions. And we recognize that there are many ways to see this beautiful sacrament, but one of the ways I invite us to think about this moment in our faith journey is that baptism is the beginning of our rejection of the stories of evil and injustice that have misshaped us, a letting go, and reemerging as new creations of God.

In our scriptures today, we hear affirming stories that we should hold close as part of our understanding of baptism and how God is working in us.

In Genesis 2, this ancient remarkable story declares that God formed human beings out of the dust, bending down and molding us out of the dirt like playdoh, and then breathing into us a breath of life.

Can you imagine it - we all have the breath of God in us, filling our lungs and feeding into our whole bodies?

We are God’s creation - there is something intrinsically beautiful and precious about each us.

Many of the stories that have misshapen us tell other things - that we are not beautiful creations of God. That our lives don’t matter. That our lives are only as valuable as what we can produce. That our lives are just chance.

But God’s story reminds us that our lives are gifts.

Later, the apostle Paul, one of the leaders in the early church, would write amazing letters to encourage and guide Christian communities who were struggling to survive in the midst of persecution and conflict. In 2nd Corinthians, Paul describes Jesus’ transforming work in us as that which brings life out of the deadness of our world. He acknowledges the immense pressure that so many faithful disciples struggled under. It was hard to live in the way of Jesus when the culture around them and the stories that had misshaped them seemed so strong and threatened to kill them and snuff their faith out. But Paul recognizes that God’s power was greater than those other stories. And God’s power was working in us even if we didn’t always see it. In verse 8 and 9, he writes, “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”

When we reorient our lives away from sin and evil and to the way of Jesus, Jesus becomes alive in us so “that Jesus may be made visible in our bodies”.

When we follow Jesus, when we are baptized, when we accept this incredible gift, it’s not just God’s breath that is in us - but it is Jesus who comes alive in us.

And with Jesus, we have the presence of God with us.

Our new friend and facilitator for our Epiphany retreat, Rev. Robin Curras, said to us yesterday, that she knows the only way she can get out of bed each morning is because God is with her.

Do you need to be reminded each morning that God is with you?

Are you living as you were created to be, as God made you, filled with God’s own breath?

Are you still clinging to old stories that have misshapen you? Are you ready for a better story for your life?

Even as a church, are we, University Christian Church, holding on to too many things that are killing us, afraid to let go?

With Jesus in our lives, that daily gift is ready to be receive. Baptism is an act of faith that represents our choice to let go of the edge, let go of those old misshapen stories, let go of the same of our mistakes and our past, and sink into God’s love which is enough even in a time of impeachment, school shootings, disaster, division, and hate.

Of course, baptism is the beginning of a journey. One author I was reading described baptism as like the onramp to a highway. Whenever that journey began, whether you were baptized as an infant or immersed as an adult, it can take some time to merge into your lane and get going. Sometimes, you will break down on the side of the road with a flat tire or a blown gasket, or you might even get a little lost. But at any moment, God welcomes you back. You don’t need to be re-baptized or start over. God’s grace invites you back into the flow of traffic, continuing your journey.

As part of our Disciples of Christ movement, one of the values we hold about baptism is that it is an invitation from God for which you have the freedom to make. If you feel God is calling you, you can say yes and ask to be baptized. If you feel you have gotten off track in your faith, you can say yes again to Jesus and renew your journey. Are you in either of those places this morning? I hope you will think about that and pray with me later in worship if you feel the Spirit move you in such a way.

In recent years, Hollywood seems to have run out of ideas for movies. And so, they have chosen to do what seems like an endless amount of “re-makes”. Now, sometimes, these “re-makes” are pretty good, with better graphics and actors and so on. But so often, the “re-make” ain’t as good as the original. The original stands the test of time. The original can’t be beat.

I believe that part of the truth of baptism is that deep down, every human being, no matter the terrible things we have done and need to account for, is loved by God as a precious creation. We are each an original, and no matter how the world might try to “re-make” us into something better, God is inviting us to discover how beautiful we already are and how we too can be a part of God’s story, a story of wholeness and hope.

Take a breath. Feel God moving in You. Say yes for the first time. Say yes for the hundredth time. Let go of the edge, and sink back into God’s love.

(posted November 17, 2019)

Well, We're Here Now

Scripture: Joshua 24:11-21

In my backyard as a kid, we were blessed to have some fruit trees.

One of them was a Chinese pear tree. Just about every year, the tree would bloom and produce these beautiful pale yellow pears, absolutely overflowing, weighing down the branches. If you picked them too early, they would be too sour and hard to eat, but if you waited patiently toward the end of fall, they’d be ready and perfectly crisp and sweet. We could fill baskets full to bring into the house to enjoy.

The best thing about this pear tree was that we didn’t plant it. Someone else did. Maybe the person who lived there before us or the person before them. Whoever it was, though, we got to enjoy the fruit of that field.

I’m curious if you had an experience like that growing up - or even now - being able to go out and enjoy something that you had nothing to do with.

And really, that’s the best kind of fruit. You didn’t have to plant it, and you didn’t have to pay for it.

But thank God, right, that someone, many years ago, not even thinking of you probably, planted a tree or a bush whose fruit sustains your life.

As we close out this short series through the Book of Joshua, we have come to a similar kind of moment for the people of Israel - where they are told in no uncertain terms, “I gave you a land on which you had not laboured, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

Chapter 24 comes at the end of Joshua, as this leader has grown old and is prepared to die. Just like Moses, he gathers the people together for a final speech, a final time of commitment. Joshua begins by recounting anew the whole story of the people of Israel. He reminds them how God saved them and brought them out of Egypt. He reminds them of God’s care for them in the desert and God fighting for them against powerful kings and enemies. Finally, Joshua summarizes the whole military campaign to enter Canaan, do battle against Jericho, and advance with every decisive victory to claim what God had promised them.

Of course, Joshua doesn’t mention those Canaanites, like Rahab and her family or the Gibeonites, who managed to outwit or find a way to survive the violence and destruction. And if we look carefully, we’ll discover that there are other Canaanite cities left standing. So, there’s some tension here even as Joshua claims with confidence all that God had done.

The point of Joshua’s speech though is that God is and has always been the one in control for the people of Israel.

God is the prime actor. God is their chief strategist. God makes all of this possible.

And now, they get to, at least for a time, enjoy the fruits of all of God’s work. They didn’t have to plant the fields or build the cities or lay out the subdivisions. God had set it up so they got to reap what was tended and nurtured and labored by someone else. And at least for a time, kick back and live the good life.

Two weeks ago, as we heard the challenging uncomfortable message from Mark Charles, a Navajo leader and speaker, I hope this passage feels a little jarring to you. It is to me, knowing about American history, about the destruction and violence wrought upon Native American communities as European settlers and then American settlers pushed west, hungry for land and resources. According to historians like Michael C. Mann in 1491, those first European settlers found a landscape teaming with abundance - new fruits and vegetables, plentiful game, and immense beauty. It’s no wonder they thought it was like the Garden of Eden, and all of that, as historians and archaeologists continue to uncover, was because there were people and communities and trade networks and sophisticated nurturing and care for this landscape.

And as progress unfolded across North America, the price was the lives of indigenous communities, removed to claim that land and this bountiful land.

For me, it’s even more personal since I am from the great state of Oklahoma. In our state history, this swathe of land was given to a number of Native American nations to live, some of them forced there on a death march by US forces. There were treaties and maps and agreements - it was all official. Eventually though, American settlers began to see that this Indian Territory was actually a beautiful place with rich soil and lots of value, and not long after, lands promised to Native American nations was bit by bit taken back, re-assigned, opened up to settlers.

When the Wichita-Caddo tract was opened up, before anyone else had a chance, churches were allowed to buy tracts of land. Our own Disciples of Christ Board of Church Extension bought tracts of land for $1, and wherever that was, they started a church there. One of those churches was in a little town that came to be called Anadarko, and it came to be my home church where I was raised up in Sunday school, where I was baptized, and where I had my first communion.

Breaking bread, sharing the cup - on land that really belonged to someone else

What do we do, as people of faith, as followers of Jesus who came so that we might have life, life abundant, when we benefit from lands and abundance that is not our own, that came at the expense of someone else’s suffering and conquest?

Certainly, human history is filled with numerous examples of conquest, war, and terror - and often, the people fighting those battles claimed that god or their particular gods were fighting alongside them, justifying their violence and mayhem. The Book of Joshua is one such narrative of conquest, where God seems to be bloodthirsty and violent and unforgiving, but what I have tried to do through this series is also point out the tensions in the stories. Daniel Hawk, author of Joshua in 3-D, thinks that Joshua is filled with signs that the community of God was having an internal argument about this, and that stories like Rahab and the Gibeonites challenge the dominant narrative. God was also with those who were spared, those who survived, those who resist destruction.

It’s as if the deep question beneath this text is what Joshua commands the people:

Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.

Will you serve the Lord?

Joshua makes clear - “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” - but his question hangs in the air. “Well, we’re here now - who will you serve? What kind of life will you lead? What God will you follow?” He has seen the people at their worst. He has seen that they are likely to wander and get distracted and lose sight of God in all that the world offers. It’s like he asks again, will you serve the Lord?

I think that question hangs in the air for us too as we come to the end of this series:

We know our country’s history. There is so much trauma and pain, from slavery to colonialism to genocide to assimilation and violence. We can’t take it lightly. It is not a history that has receded in the past, but it is a history that right now affects us and keeps us from living into deep community together.

And at times, it has felt like we have traded in the God of Abraham and Isaac for the God of Success, Stock Markets, and Starpower, all the while some people suffer.

How will we live with this knowledge of who we are and where we come from?

How will we choose to live at this intersection, knowing what we know now?

Will we accept the stories we have been given and the world as it is?

Or will we choose to be shaped by another way, another narrative, of one called Jesus, which by the way is just the Greek translation of the name Joshua, to lead us all into a new life and a new community?

As for me and my house, my faith doesn’t let me ignore these questions. Certainly, I have much to learn, and I don’t always know how to respond or be a part of the healing that God seeks in our land, but I cannot simply enjoy the fruit of this time and place without doing something to mend our broken landscape and our broken relationships.

As for you and your house, what will you do? How will you respond with what you have?

There is an old Chinese proverb or saying that goes - “Those who come after rest in the shade of the tree planted by those who have come before.”

It speaks to this wonderful mystery of life and faith that so many of us would not be here today if it wasn’t for someone else. That so many of us here have had success because someone else intervened or mentored or blessed us. It speaks to the decisions that people made that only years and years and years later, sometimes without their knowledge, open the door or make life possible for someone they would never know. And it moves in gratitude and humility also, for the people who were here before, for the people still among us, for those who deserve to be heard and seen, for all the ways we each need restoration.

We recognize that the mending work, the work of God’s reign, will not happen overnight, but perhaps, we are called to begin planting fruit trees and stacking stones that someday will nourish those who will come next and form the cities that will bring us back into right relationship with God and each other. That seed for you might be an act of generosity today that will sprout in someone’s life tomorrow. That seed for you might be to refrain from being silent when hurtful words are aired, even in a church setting. That seed for you might be to sit at the feet of an elder and listen as to how we got here. That seed for you might be to help us as a church imagine a future where we can alleviate the suffering of the hurting and poor in our community and nurture the next generation of leaders. That seed for you might be to choose integrity over a quick buck, honesty over the easy way out.

And I pray, it is to choose our God who came that we all might have life, life abundant.

Who will you serve?

(posted October 31, 2019)

Trick Play

Scripture: Joshua 9:1-21

Right now, if you are a fan of some kind of sport, it’s one of the best times of the year.

- The Washington Nationals are poised to host their first ever World Series. Go Nats!
- There is playoff soccer.
- And there are all kinds of football, whatever flavor you might want.

What I love about sports is the competitiveness, human beings striving to win in intense games where every play counts. But not only are strength and speed and stamina vital, the great athletes and coaches use their minds to outwit and outmaneuver their opponents.

We call them trick plays, moments of misdirection and manipulation designed to catch your opponent off guard, to create an advantage for your team, or turn a losing situation into a winning one.

This morning, I want you to think about this image of the trick play as we examine our scripture together.

And more deeply, I want us to think about the trick plays that God might be calling us to run in our lives, in our churches, and even in our world to turn death-dealing situations into life-giving ones.

In our scripture, the Gibeonites are destined to be defeated and destroyed - until they run their own trick play.

You see, the Gibeonites are Canaanites, and as Canaanites, the Israelite’s mission is to wipe them out. Remember - I’m not mincing words during this series on Joshua. God is clear, and the Israelites are in the midst of military campaign to do just that. At the beginning of the chapter, as word spreads about their victorious battle over Jericho and the King of Ai, other Canaanite rulers get scared and start to gather together to battle the Israelites. There is power in numbers, right?

The Gibeonites, however, realize that they are in trouble. Archaeologists believe the Gibeonites occupied about four small villages in between Jericho and Jerusalem. They were too small in number to have their own king and too small in number to have an army, so they were in deep trouble. And they had heard enough stories about the Israelites and about the God of the Israelites to know that they needed another way to deal with this situation.

Gathering their best scientists, minds, and sages, the Gibeonites quickly concoct an elaborate plan. They literally get in the Halloween spirit and throw on tattered old clothes and scuffed up shoes that were gonna be given to Goodwill. They cover their faces with dirt and shoulder their heaviest worn packs. Finally, they climb on their donkeys and go “trick or treating” over at the Israelite camp.

In verse 4, it says “they on their part acted with cunning”. We sometimes think of cunning as deceptive, like what a scammer or fraudster would do, but the root Hebrew word for cunning is close to “prudence”. The Gibeonites were being wise in the midst of a desperate situation. If they failed, they would die. But if they can succeed, they might just live. They were willing to do anything to give their people that chance.

The Gibeonites ring the doorbell of these Israelites, and at first, they are met with suspicion. Who are you? Where did you come from? But the Gibeonites, along with their masterful costume, tell a masterful story - a story that tugs on the heart strings of those Israelites - a story about being a people from far away, a wandering people, a people who have seen hard times, a people who have come to be blessed, to find peace in this hard world.

Can’t you just imagine the Israelites feeling so much compassion for these people who had suffered as much as they have?

So, the Israelites make an oath with the Gibeonites and pledge to let them live in peace.

As I mentioned before, this story and others in this book stand in contrast to the narrative of Joshua which claims God asks the Israelites to completely cleanse the land of all Canaanites. But suddenly, because of a bit of misdirection and cunning, the Israelites find themselves in trouble. Their oath to the Gibeonites has seemingly put them at odds with their order from God. And yet - there is more to the story. Maybe because of this act of kindness and mercy from the Israelites, the Gibeonites reveal to Joshua himself a reverence for God.

And in a remarkable turnaround, from being sworn enemies to the Israelites, Joshua gives them a role - they become “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the people and for the temple of the Lord. They are more than economic laborers but included in the life of worship and reverence of the people, supporting the whole “congregation” of God’s people in their devotion and pursuit of God.

Just think - one day, they were destined to be killed. A few days later and a cunning trick play, they become part of God’s larger community.

This story, like others through Joshua, set a sharp contrast from the image this book gives us of a cold, cruel, bloodthirsty God who commands the Israelites to kill and slaughter. All of a sudden, we are invited to ask questions. How many more people in Canaan, if given the chance, would have shown reverence to God? How many would have been willing to co-exist? If God really wanted the Israelites to wipe everyone out, why did God seem to honor this oath and not punish Joshua and the people?

The Gibeonites’ trick play forced the Israelites to see them as humans. Not as enemies to be wiped out. Not as people who were outside of God’s love. The Israelites saw them as humans, worthy of respect and life and an opportunity to know the God of Abraham and Isaac.

That’s an upset.

This remarkable story gives us room to think about the trick plays we might need to run to save our lives or save someone else’s.

Friends, the challenge is that we live in a world that is beset by conflict. What the narrative of Joshua gets right is that sometimes we are going to face situations that seem dire and deadly. Sometimes, we are going to be up against people and forces that want to harm us and destroy us. Sometimes, justice is going to seem out of reach.

Too often, we have bought into the narrative, as Mark Charles challenged us last week, that a life of faith with God is supposed to be good. Happy. Prosperous. Smooth sailing.

But the way of Jesus is a way of suffering, conflict, and difficulty. It’s true for me as your pastor - I can only imagine it is hard for you too. The only way we will survive and thrive sometimes is when we face those situations that seek us harm and flip them around for our own good using every gift that God gave us.

In my email to you all on Friday of this week, I told you about a time in my life when I felt distant from the church because it seemed like just about every church I went to wanted me to leave my brain at the door. Wanted me to stop asking questions and believe. Wanted me to not go deeper in scripture. Wanted me to read only one particular kind of theology. Wanted me to stop thinking so hard about this faith.

But in this era when we have smartphones in our hands, when too many people have been hurt and abused by so-called Christians, when toxic behavior is tolerated less and less, when too many churches are comfortable with the status quo, that kind of faith and that kind of church isn’t good enough.

Jesus called his disciples to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your MIND.” (Matthew 22:37)

The gift of the Gibeonites is that they used their minds in a tense situation where life or death was at stake - and likewise, we are challenged to be the kind of church and kind of people who never leave our brains at the door.

Our Christian history and tradition are filled with creative, faithful, wise saints who navigated conflict through amazing trick plays.

In the 11th century, a young man nicknamed Francois was so captivated and convicted by his love of God and his dedication to the poor, that he began stealing or borrowing his wealthy father’s clothes and selling them so he could give to the poor. When his father found out, the young man was beaten and ridiculed and eventually brought before the Bishop to be reprimanded, but in a trick play for the ages, young Francis, rather than give in to the ways of injustice, stripped naked, renouncing his father and all of his father’s possessions, and claiming only one Father, his Creator. His father was so mad that he couldn’t speak, and the bishop so impressed that he blessed St. Francis for his call and devotion to the poor and justice.

In more recent history, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and other Civil Rights leaders stood upon their faith and principles of nonviolence to turn violent oppressive situations into justice-birthing reckonings. Nonviolent protest meant that black men and women were captured peacefully exercising their rights even as authorities turned loose dogs, water hoses, bully sticks, and even bullets to brutalize these children of God, and when TV cameras beamed the images of such mistreatment and evil around the world, those protestors were humanized and a movement for justice and life for the poor and people of color grew. Nonviolence was a kind of trick play against the powers of racism and injustice.

What does this look like for you? For us as a church? For our work for justice and wholeness?

Sometimes the trick play we are to run is not to give into evil. To not chose to hate. When the world goes in that direction, we go in the other.

The gospel story is one elaborate trick play that opens the door for people destined to be left out to be welcomed in, to be given space and home central in God’s community. When Jesus ran his trick play on Easter morning, it had seemed like evil had triumphed. Just three days before, he had been nailed to a cross, pierced in his side, laughed at and spit on, abandoned, and laid in a tomb. And then, on Easter morning, he rose. Jesus feigned like he was going one way and ended up somewhere else and claimed victory for all who love and follow him.

Ephesians 2:13 says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

The world needs those kinds of trick plays - the kinds of disciples who will humanize those destined for destruction and find victory in impossible circumstances. The kinds of disciples who use all their gifts and wits to seek God and seek the goodness of our community.

(posted October 20, 2019)

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