Who Is Going to Take the Lead?

Scripture: Amos 7:7-17

Yesterday, I joined Bill, Smitty, Janise, Karen, and John on a 21 mile bike excursion on the Baltimore-Annapolis trail.

It was fun. It was hot. And my legs are not praising God this morning. The rest of me is - but my legs are not happy.

Here’s the thing that we did every time we stopped to rest, have a drink of water, or just catch our breath - Smitty or Janise would ask, “Who is going to take the lead?”

Who is going to take the lead?

Who will set the pace?

Who will guide us to where we need to be?

Who will take the lead?

Now, take a breath, because this morning as I preach, I am going to invite us to let God take the lead in the midst of what has been another long and difficult week in this world, in this nation, and in our lives.

The prophet Amos let God take the lead.

When a prophet arrives on the scene, though they may be charismatic and colorful, the prophet, one who speaks and interprets God’s will, really points those who hear them back to God. Ideally, the prophet’s words are both their own and not their own. The prophet’s message is often harsh and beautiful, cunning and clear, telling individuals, peoples, even nations that their actions and ways have angered God. And God is moving swiftly to act in pursuit of justice.

While the prophet often has a message of judgment for the people and their broken ways, a prophet can also represent mercy. If we can hear the prophet’s words, we have an opportunity to re-adjust, to change, to transform, to reorient ourselves and get back behind the leader.

When the prophet Amos, a native of the southern Hebraic kingdom of Judah, arrives in the northern kingdom of Israel, his ministry then is not about himself - his brilliance or his oratory. His words ultimately point to God and what God thinks about Israel and about the political and social reality of this time and place.

What are some of those things that the people have done?

God calls out Israel and their neighboring nations for war crimes, for murder, for targeting women and children without recourse. God slams Israel for mistreating the poor and living without integrity. God convicts Israel for worshipping other gods, other idols, for making God’s sanctuary into a profane place. Israel is off track. Israel is not letting God lead them anymore.

The vision God gives Amos is that of a plumb line, a building or carpentry tool used to measure and guide how straight things are. (see sanctuary.) Are you building a wall or a house that will fall over with the gentlest of nudges? Or are you building something that will stand the test of time? The plumb line seems to represent God’s judgment, to show that the people of Israel, including the King, are no longer measuring up to the life-giving way of the Torah, of God’s instruction.

Amos proclaims bluntly to Israel, “Your land is going to be destroyed. Your high and holy places will be abandoned and ruined. I will find a new people. And this king Jeroboam, he will die by the sword he uses against his own people.”

The high priest Amaziah is one of those in Jeroboam’s presidential cabinet, and he lets the king know that Amos is up to no good. Amos is standing in the way of Jeroboam’s great and glorious reign. Amos must be dealt with. Silenced.

Every person in leadership and power has people in their corner, ready to back them up. And that can be a good thing. We all need people in our corner, to stand with us when times are tough - except when the person or force in the opposite corner is God. Do you hear me?

Ultimately, Amaziah and Amos clash. It is an example of two paths, the way of status quo and the way of God.

But Amos doesn’t need to show his credentials or prove his worth. God called him. God told him to speak. He’d rather be home tending to his herds - he’d rather be home working on his sycamore trees. But God gave him a message - and God, not Amos, is the mover and shaker in this story.

Amos chooses to let God lead rather than seek to curry the favor of King Jeroboam, some short term power who will be here one day and gone the next, nor the favor of some high priest who seems more invested in the status quo than the care of his people, nor does he seek the power of this earth, wealth, or any other idol which promises more than it can ever deliver. Amos lets God take the lead.

And the people of Israel, including ol’ King Jeroboam, will have to decide - do they follow their God, a God of Justice and Mercy, or face the consequences?

I wonder if Amos spoke a word to us today - this same vision - do you think we as a nation right now, in the face of mass shootings, racism, inequality, grief, and division, measure up to God’s plumb line? Are we off moving in some other direction? Or are we letting God lead?

Yesterday, the white gunman who shot and killed over 20 people, including children, wrote a rant that was filled with anti-immigrant hate. The gunman claimed that his country was being invaded. That same anti-immigrant message has manifested in the halls of power, in policies that are making it frightening for some of our neighbors to step outside their front doors, to seek medical treatment, to pick up their kids from school, or to get legal help for fear that they could be separated from those they love. Refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom are Christian, are coming to our border out of fear of violence are being treated like prisoners in overcrowded cells, called all sorts of names, and made miserable in attempt to dissuade them from seeking refuge in a violent world. There is even a rumor that this country’s long history of welcoming those whose lives have been uprooted by dictators, war, famine, and religious persecution is coming to an end. Friends and colleagues of mine would not be able to serve God and serve our church and their community if the doors of this nation were not open to those whose lives have been shattered by violence and oppression. These actions, policies, and messages are linked. Somebody is choosing to follow that lead.

Whose lead will we follow?

If Amos came to our church this morning and called us out for being mis-aligned, far too infatuated with the way things are and what we are already doing, too afraid to be bold and clear in our faith, who would we decide to take the lead? 

A study that came out this week indicated that 8 out of 10 LGBTQ youth in our community who become homeless come from religious homes. Many of those come from Christian homes and churches who have chosen to follow a way that thinks kicking your child out to teach them a lesson is better than loving them and accepting them for who they are. Some of those youth are so distraught that they try to hurt themselves. Our choices even as a church can save lives, if we have the courage to let God lead.

If Amos came to your homes, your workplaces, the organizations where you spend your energy and work to steward with your gifts, how would they line up with God’s plumb line? Are there times when you feel drawn off track, willing to sacrifice a little bit of your integrity to make an extra buck? Or are you letting God lead even there?

Theologian La Ling Elizabeth Ngan of Baylor University reminds us that as we look at the troubling words of Amos and struggle with the grim portents and visions of what the future can be when we stray from God’s way, we also pay attention to our own place in the structures and powers of this world. For example, you can envision the prophet Amos as a poor shepherd. He was someone on the bottom of society who was called by God to go and preach to the King of Israel. But, she says, you can also see Amos as an influential businessman, trading in sheep and lumber, who was well aware of the intricate international trade markets of his region. And from that place of privilege and influence, he answered God’s call to remind the people to return to God.

The reminder is that wherever we are - we have an opportunity to respond.

We can let someone else lead - and I think we see how too often that costs us and our neighbors so much - or we can take the prophet’s words as an act of God’s compassion. And let God take the lead.

(posted August 5, 2019)

Jesus Is on the Move

Scripture: Luke 10:1-11 Luke 10:16-20 Isaiah 66:10-14

One of the hidden features of my iPhone that I use fairly often is the Find Friends app.

With my Find Friends app, I can link to people close to me, and, as long as they are connected to the internet, get a glimpse of where they are. At any moment, I can find out what adventures my brother might be up, where my mom currently is, and so on. This works for my wife, Yunkyong, too - so if I tell her I am stopping at Target on the way home, she could theoretically check to see if I am where I am supposed to be.

Let’s be clear - this feature is not supposed to be used to spy on the people in your life, but it could be handy also if you lost your phone or need to know how much time you have to clean the house before someone gets home.

This week, at General Assembly, I got to spend time with a good friend of mine, Vy Nguyen. Vy is the Executive Director of Week of Compassion, and he and I are linked on Find Friends. Vy’s role with Week of Compassion has him responding constantly to disasters, famine, and turmoil in our world. Sometimes, I open Find Friends and discover Vy in Switzerland, Puerto Rico, Baltimore, Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea, Haiti, Jordan, and all manner of points in between.

And I know if Vy is there, it means that Jesus is there. It means that caring hands are there. It means help and friendship is there.

I’m not suggesting that my friend, Vy, is a perfect human being - but I am suggesting that Vy’s work with Week of Compassion on our larger church’s behalf means that the love of Jesus Christ follows him all over the world to communities that are hurting.

I wonder if someone could say the same thing about you.

I wonder if someone could say the same thing about me.

Does Jesus go where we show up?

In the gospel story we just heard, Jesus sends his disciples and followers out ahead of him. He tells them to pack light and depend on the hospitality of those towns they will visit. This group of seventy go in pairs, announcing peace and God’s love and reign in every little village and home that will take them.

What fascinates me about the scripture is that Jesus sends them to places he is preparing to visit. They are sort of Jesus’ advance party - wherever they go, Jesus is going to show up, healing those who are hurt, sharing in meals of radical welcome, confirming God’s favor upon the people there. But only after the disciples go first.

Rev. Nancy Growler, pastor at First Christian Church of Puyallup, preached a message on Sunday night of General Assembly about the kind of shoes you need to be ready to wear when “abiding” with Jesus - when following Jesus. You’ll need walking shoes, dancing shoes, soft slippers, work boots, and more. You’ll end up at wedding feasts, in private rooms, around dinner conversations, on mountaintops, and in tombs. Here, we see a glimpse of some of those shoes that the Disciples will wear as they participate in God’s reign on earth.

But again, what is so interesting about this scripture is that Jesus sends his Disciples first.

Sometimes, we hear about Jesus telling his disciples to follow him. But this time, Jesus follows his disciples. Isn’t that wild?

Yes, this text could be problematic if we take it to mean that Jesus is dependent on us to show up, and if we don’t show up, Jesus won’t come walking on by. I’m not sure Jesus always waits on us. From my life of faith, I know there are plenty of times that Jesus leads the way, and we must grab the courage to seek after him where he leads.

But there are times when Jesus does wait on us. Where we go, where ever it is, Jesus comes in after us. Our workplaces. Our classrooms. The metro. Hospital rooms. Bedrooms. Living rooms. Sanctuaries Cells. Block parties. Big towns. Little towns. Places halfway across this world - in Singapore, in Oklahoma, in Nigeria, in Scotland, in South Korea, and more.

The old quote goes - “You may be the only Jesus someone will ever see.”

Best of all, where Jesus shows up, evil loses.

Jesus tells his disciples when they return that he saw the evil one fall out of the sky as they carried out their ministry announcing God’s reign. The forces of injustice don’t stand a chance against the power of God.

Some of us have been in some evil places. Some of us have been locked up and left out. Some of us have been placed in harm’s way because of who we are or who people think we are. Some of us have been called nasty things and judged. Some of us have been shut out by systems of injustice and oppression. But when Jesus is on the move, the goodness of God always has the final word. Those evil things and actions do not have power in God’s beloved community.

Rev. William Barber, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, reminded us this past week that this coming of God’s reign doesn’t begin “on some glad morning when our lives are over” - it begins “now”.

Jesus sent his disciples out to announce the Kingdom of God being present now.

And we get to join in that work.

University Christian Church is part of that work right now, and we have done that work in the past. We can look back and see that Jesus has followed us into tough situations when we have cared for neighbors, stood up for each other, and blessed others.

Where ever we go, when we follow our God of love and trust that God is going where we are, Jesus follows after us. Jesus is on the move after us. And where Jesus is, there is love and there is peace.

The prophet Isaiah says it - God’s vision is to comfort us - to comfort the suffering cities and places of our world, whether they are West Baltimore or the border or Mar-a-Lago. God’s comforting love is not an abstraction but begins with cities and places where we call home. “Our bodies shall flourish like grass.” - the prophet cries out. What a word for a world where too many bodies are being broken over and over again by sin and death. Where young lives are not allowed a chance to grow. Where neighbors are turned away. God desires for them to flourish!

God’s work through Jesus is to walk into our lives over and over again. To walk into our towns. To move with cosmic love that helps us flourish. And sometimes, we are the ones to crack that door open to allow the abundant life of Jesus to take hold.

Will we go out and lead Christ into our villages, homes, neighborhoods, and classrooms?

Will people say what they do about my friend, Vy, that wherever WE go, Jesus shows up?

A Blessing of Shoes

I want you to take off your shoes for a minute. I know for some of you that is easy, and for some of us, that may take a minute. As you take them off, think about where your shoes were last week. What places did you go? Did you travel, did you work, did you spend time in waiting rooms and doctor’s offices? Did you pace the floor of your home? Did you walk through some frightening realities?

And think about where your feet will take you this week. To a classroom? To a church or some other sacred space? Into the halls of power? Into a family dispute? Into a funeral home or a place of sadness? Into God’s wide open creation?

Think about those places. If you want to hold your shoes, do so.

Lord, we pray for these shoes and for the feet of those who will wear them, that wherever you might take them this week, your presence might abide in and through them. Give us courage to speak a word of peace where we are needed. Give us courage to proclaim your reign in those places. Be on the move, Jesus. Be on the move through our lives. Be on the move wherever it is that you would have us go. May your revolutionary love bring an end to all evil, pain, and suffering to those places where we will take you this week. And then lead us on to where we need to be next. Amen.

(posted July 28, 2019)

Look What God Can Do

Scripture: Luke 8:26-39

One of the movies that the family and I went to see recently was Toy Story 4 - and there was a narrative that ran throughout this film that I found pretty fascinating:

Forky repeats a refrain - "I’m trash." He asks constantly, does he have value? Do he have worth?

Forky believes he belongs in the trash. He is not a toy. He does not have value. His purpose is something other than bringing joy to this world.

For the little girl, Bonnie, who delights in all of her creations and her imagination, even trash has value and deserves to be loved.

Spending this past week with middle school kids at Camp Mary Mac, I am reminded the little subtle ways that young people are told that they don’t have value - that they are trash. They are criticized for their weight and appearance. They internalize messages about beauty and value. They don’t feel like they are good enough. They aren’t always listened to. Adults can sometimes reinforce those messages with a harsh word or a quick judgment or an insensitive remark meant as a joke. And then those kids turn around and do what we taught them - they criticize each other for not measuring up. They trash one another.

The stories of teenagers who are assaulted by powerful men but then not believed by authorities and investigators is one of those messages that says to young people - you don’t have value. When a young person is hurt and then there are no consequences by our legal system, it tells our young people that their pain is less than other people’s pains. Then we diminish them to the garbage heaps of our world and grow up to do the same to other people who don’t fit in the approved boxes or have the right connections or physical appearance.

Are you trash or treasure?

Jesus’ ministry among the Galilean people is a ministry among people who may have been told or led to believe that they are trash.

The man in this story is possessed by demons who call themselves LEGION. There are many of them. They overwhelm him and have him behaving in ways that are not life-giving, that are harmful, that are frightening. But just as the man is occupied this force of demons, the whole Galilean countryside is occupied by actual legions of soldiers. This is occupation upon occupation of expectations and violence and power that has the people acting out of their right minds as God’s beloved people.

This man’s family and townsfolk, the people who should be the first to care for him, have chained him up. They’d rather dump him where the dead things are, toss him out with the trash, than figure out a possible caring for him and his problems. I know his family were certainly exhausted - maybe this was the only option they had left - tossing him out to rot among the dead as a way to avoid and forget about this problem.

But Jesus comes along, and Jesus is in his right mind. In Philippians 2, Paul says that the mind of Jesus is that of a servant, one who comes to serve even the lowliest. And so Jesus does not see this man who is bound up among the dead things as someone unworthy of his time - but actually quite worthy of a touch of God’s ability to make trash into treasure. He casts out the demons that possess this man with the life-giving power of God, forcing those spirits of evil down into a herd of pigs. And those swine go rushing into the water in probably one of the stranger images of the gospels.

Those pigs plunge into the waters become a strange sign of God’s reign breaking forth - the unclean things, since the faithful Jews of Galilee may not have been caring for the pigs out of their own freewill, since pork was not eaten according to the law of Moses, were rid of the landscape so that something healthy and new could potentially take root.

This strange act of healing became a sign of freedom.

That Jesus came to free us from our occupying powers - whatever that occupying power might be.

Free us from our critical thinking.

Free us from ways that keep us dominated.

Free us from a life that seeks only to dominate others.

Free us from a life without accountability in how we care for others.

Free us from looking at ourselves only as trash that can’t beloved and can’t bring joy to this world.

Jesus offers this man freedom - and he is suddenly in his right mind. Suddenly, he can see and think clearly. Suddenly he understands that he doesn’t belong chained up but back as part of his family and his community. Suddenly, he knows he is a child of God ready to praise God for the wonderful things the Creator is doing in his midst. This man couldn’t sing a praise song just moments ago - but Jesus changes his life in such a way that he is ready to go worshipping and shouting and proclaiming the good news throughout the city.

Jesus tells this man to go and tell the world what God has done.

Look what the Lord has done for me.

Look what the Lord has done for you.

Look what the Lord has done for those who are occupied by violence, power, pain, and self-hatred.

The man explains what God has done. He has transformed a lowly life into something special.

Kind of like how a little spork can be transformed into more than trash but a friend.

Kind of like how a bunch of middle school kids can experience a week without put downs, with laughter, with counselors who invest in them and love them just as they are, and give them space to get in their right minds.

Kind of like how we a church of a 100+ people can arrive at this table each Sunday as a mess and leave with a little more hope, a little more luster, and a lot more love.

One of the closing rituals of our week at camp is for the older kids to pass the light of God on to those campers in the grade below them. Their act of passing the light is a way of saying - look what the Lord has done. Look what God can do in your life. Look at what God can do in the sacredness of church and community. Look at what God can do with my life. Go and share that good news that -

God can transform trash into treasure.

God can transform even beat down lives into something wondrous.

God can touch lives in this complicated and difficult world.

Look what the Lord can do!

Closing prayer:

Look upon us, O Lord,
and let all the darkness of our souls
vanish before the beams of thy brightness.
Fill us with holy love,
and open to us the treasures of thy wisdom.
All our desire is known unto thee,
therefore perfect what thou hast begun,
and what thy Spirit has awakened us to ask in prayer.
We seek thy face,
turn thy face unto us and show us thy glory.
Then shall our longing be satisfied,
and our peace shall be perfect.

(Augustine, 354 - 430)


(posted July 16, 2019)

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