Update: Church Safety

The safety of our young people and children is of deep importance to our church and to our mission as a congregation and our effort to share the love of God.

Key leaders, representing Christian Education, Administration, Membership, Trustees, and families, have been working hard on an update church safety policy which outlines are procedures and priorities when it comes to protecting children and vulnerable adults. We submit this for a period of review to the congregation before moving to a congregational vote later this year. We welcome your questions or clarifications. Please submit them to the church office -

- The Board of Directors of University Christian Church

(posted September 26, 2018)

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What is my gift? | Sermon by Rev. Nathan Hill

Scripture: Mar 9:33-37

Dr. Gregory C. Ellison in his book, Fearless Dialogues, opens with this story about his childhood:

This may come as no surprise to you, but I was a strange child who asked big questions. After all, I was reared in the home of activists, and I walked the hills of Atlanta in the shadows of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. In all her wisdom, my Aunt Dotty was unalarmed when I, at eight years old, asked how I could change the world. Honoring my boyish justice impulse, she responded, “Baby, I don’t know how to change the world, but I can change the three feet around me.”

As we ask this morning, this hard question, “what is my gift”, I think the wisdom from Aunt Dotty helps us begin.

Maybe your gift is the way God can use you to change the three feet around you.

I want you to look around the three feet around you right now.

I wonder, today, could you change that three feet for the better?

Right now, many people of all ages are searching for their gift, the thing that they were born with or God gave them to make a difference in this world. Indeed, as we watch the news or scroll through our feeds, our world needs gifted leaders today. Right now. But what is so confusing about our gifts and the reason why many of us continue to look for them - we have bought into the idea that gifts are tied to our success.

  • If we are good at it, it must be our gift.
  • If it is fun to do, it must be our gift.
  • If we can get away with it, it must be our gift.
  • If it comes easy to us, it must be our gift.
  • If we make a lot of money doing it, it must be our gift.

If we think our gift is only that thing that helps pad our bank accounts or brings us notoriety in the world, we may be missing the three feet around us. We may be missing the call of God on our lives. We may not know who we are or why we are here.

If using what we believe is our gift means someone else gets hurt or someone else gets humiliated or someone’s story gets trampled over or we have to lie to ourselves others, it may not be our gift.

Sometimes, our gifts do not bring us success. Sometimes, using our gifts moves us against the grain of our culture. Sometimes, using our gifts takes us lower rather than higher. Sometimes, our gifts draw us into conflict for the sake of our neighbors.

This morning, I want to challenge you to rethink what your gift may be. Does your gift make a difference for the three feet around you? Does your gift serve you or serve God? What is your gift?

In our scripture, Jesus notices that his disciples may have caught this idea that their gift was about power too. Jesus, sitting in his house in Capernaum, overhears them in heated conversation, arguing about who is the greatest of the disciples. They wanted to place each on a pecking order. Which disciples is the smartest? Most handsome? Most trustworthy? Most faithful?

To be clear, some of the disciples may have believed big changes were coming.

Soon, Jesus was going to lead the people to overthrow King Herod.

Soon, Jesus was going to tear down the pillars of Rome like Samson.

Soon, Jesus will rule with his trusted disciples at his side.

And those disciples, they will all get book deals, appear on the best talk shows, and become wealthy and famous.

And one of them will be Vice President. But which one?

Jesus does the most remarkable thing. He overhears them saying these things and says:

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

You can picture the disciples looking at each other now with a little uneasiness. A minute ago, they were arguing about who was the first - and now Jesus says, that position is open. It’s available, but if you want it, you must be willing to serve everyone. Get down on your hands and knees and shine shoes and scrub the floors and wash feet. Not quite the position of prestige that they expected.

Suddenly, it was so quiet in that house that Jesus could hear the uncomfortable shifting of feet of his disciples.

Then Jesus brings a child from the crowd then to illustrate his point:

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

In Jesus’ day, in the Roman culture around him, children were, for lack of a better term, non-beings - they were inconsequential. It would be highly unlikely for children to be present in this gathering of important men at all. Children were to be with their mothers or grandmothers. Jesus subverts the standards of the day by calling the attention of these Jewish men to recognize these children as those who were worthy of love and respect.

To welcome this little one was to welcome Jesus.

Jesus’ point is that leadership, true leadership, centers on the three feet around you and whoever it is that God has placed in your care. A good leader is not concerned with climbing the ranks of the world - a good leader, a Godly leader, sees and cares for the vulnerable. Good leaders make space for those overlooked. Good leaders humble themselves. Good leaders don’t argue about who is the greatest. Good leaders care for those who are hurting and cast down.

If our gift doesn’t make a difference in the lives of children and victims of sexual assault and refugees and people experience homelessness, then it is not a gift.

To be great in the eyes of God is to serve the least among us.

Indeed, three feet around us, wherever that may be - our work or home or neighborhood or mall - is filled with people who may desperate to change their world. They may have a gift. They may not know they have a gift.

Sometimes, those who are struggling and beat down and have experienced trauma as a young woman or man have with great courage endured it and discovered their gift - but so many in our culture are told that they have no value and no gifts to offer. They may not even have a hard life, but they may have been told by a parent or an authority figure or whoever that they don’t have anything to contribute to our broken world.

And that is not true.

Jesus reaffirms that child - a child whose story had yet to be written - a child who was probably already used to being overlooked and ignored by men like Jesus and his disciples - Jesus reaffirms that even a child had something of value and worth to offer our world.

Dr. Ellison in his book writes this powerful section:

One you can truly come to see a maitre d’, a drug dealer, a homeless person, or a traumatized teenager as someone made in the image of God, with a potential and perhaps undiscovered gift that can change the course of a community, you can no longer disregard that human being. You can no longer overlook them, bypass them, or step over them, because you have seen them cross within your three feet… and once you see, you cannot not see.

A dear mentor and friend once said to me, Our call is something we cannot not do.

Perhaps that begins your search today - perhaps it helps you define what it is you are here on earth to do. What is your gift that the world cannot afford to miss? What is the gift that you cannot not do - no matter the job you are in right now or the situations of your life? What is your gift that will transform the three feet around you?

ESPN story by Sarah Spain:

Kansas City Chiefs Running Back Deland McCollough

Born to a teenage mother who put him up for adoption. She believed a doctor’s family in another part of the state adopted him - but he ended up across town.

He never knew his father was - even as he grew up, played football, got a scholarship to Miami University, became a coach, and had a family of his own. A successful man.

He remembers the day a fancy car pulled up out of his high school, and he was introduced to a recruiter from Miami U. The man, Sherman Smith, impressed him. He was impeccable, confident, successful. Deland decided he wanted to be like him, and he would go to Miami for football and school.

“I would tell the players, ‘You may not be looking for a father, but I’m going to treat you like you’re my sons,’” Smith says. “And so I just looked at every guy like my son. I just wanted to be a positive role model for Deland and exemplify what I thought my father exemplified for me.”

“He was everything,” McCullough says. “If anything was going on, I was going to talk to Coach Smith. Everybody in that room gravitated towards Coach Smith just because that’s the type of person he was. What he’s about rubs off on you, so I always wanted to be around that.”

And this relationship would continue - even as Deland’s coaching career evolved and he needed advice or support. Coach Smith was a call away.

When he went searching, uncovering the files - it turned out his father was rumored to have been a local star football player, just like him. Recruited. Successful. When he finally learned the name of his father after reuniting with his biological mother - it was Sherman Smith.

“I look at it, and I just say it’s a God thing,” Smith says. “It’s grace. It’s undeserved. And that’s what’s made it great for Deland and for all of us, how everyone has embraced this and is excited about our new family.”

Sometimes, the three feet we can change doesn’t just change what’s around us - but changes us and brings us closer to God. What is your gift? How has God blessed you to be a blessing?

(posted September 25, 2018)

Why am I here? (Sermon: 5 Hard Questions)

Scripture: Mark 2:1-8

“Why am I here?”

According to legend, Billy Graham, the famous evangelist and advisor to Presidents,

told about the time in a small town when he asked a boy how to get to the post office. After getting directions, Mr. Graham invited him to come to his revival that evening.

“I’ll tell everyone how to get to heaven,” he told the boy.

The boy’s response? “I don’t think I’ll be there. You don’t even know your way to the post office.”

Today, as we dig into one of the 5 Hard Questions from Dr. Gregory C. Ellison’s book, Fearless Dialogues - “why am I here”. This is not a question about directions - whether to the post office or heaven. This morning, I am not asking why you are here in church, though I am glad you are here. Nor am I asking you about how you came into being. No one came to church this morning to hear the nitty gritty details of that moment. Nor am I curious what brings you into Maryland or DC or Virginia or wherever it is that you call home right now.

In the words of Dr. Ellison from his book:

Why are you here? Here? Here? Some split-second decisions were made so that you could be here and not somewhere else. Recall that moment when you could have followed the crowd, but you turned the other way. So, now you are here, and they are there. How did you get here? Somebody sacrificed so you could be here. Somebody worked long hours and prayed all night so you could be here. So, what are you gonna do, now that you are here? Grandaddy used to say, “We sit under shade trees we did not plant and drink from wells we did not dig.” So, are you planting trees and digging wells while you are here? Or are you here just to be here? Why are you here?

This week as I reflected on the tenth anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry, I spent time thinking about the names and the people who have shaped my journey - who have challenged me and encouraged me - who dug wells and planted the trees - that made my journey possible. In Christian talk, we can call them out great cloud of witnesses. Some might call them your ancestors or the saints.

I wonder who those names are for you, who those faces are, who made you figure out not just who you are but why are you here. Your purpose. Your path. Your “why” in life.

I lament all the people of this world who never get to experience or live out that “why” - because of violence that has taken their life or of generational poverty or of a system that has shut them out. These people are not just young people - some of them are you. What would it look like to be a church that helped people find their “why”? What would it look like to be a faith community in this neighborhood who helped people of all ages and backgrounds answer that question with boldness?

How does Jesus change our why when we decide to follow him?

In our scripture today, the gospel writer, Mark, begins by grounding us in location - in the here of his day. The scene unfolds at Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern edge of the Lake of Galilee in Jesus’ modest home. The crowds have heard Jesus is back in town after being away on the first preaching circuit through the countryside, proclaiming repentance and good news, so they come by the hundreds, packing into every available space, sitting, standing, elbow to elbow.  Curious. Hungry. Expectant. Standing room only.

They are there to hear the one who already been called “the Holy One of God”.

But then this bizarre scene takes a strange turn - someone, maybe so desperate to hear what Jesus had to say, starts digging a hole through Jesus’ roof. It’s outright property damage. In Jesus day, the walls of his home would have been coarse, probably some kind of stone, but the roof was a combination of mud and straw. It wasn’t too difficult then to begin to dig there and widen a hole.

I imagine Jesus pausing in mid-sentence in his sermon - dust and debris trickling down.

A beam of light piercing into the space.

Everyone looks up, craning their necks to see what is going on.

Suddenly, a mat slowly lowers down through the hole, carefully, inch by inch, right to the floor. On the mat is a man, a man who is obviously not well. Jesus looks at the man quizzically, not sure whether to laugh or get angry, and looks up again, squinting at the newly made sunroof and the sweaty faces of this man’s friends who probably looked on with faces filled with hope.

Now, some people used to wear those bracelets - what would Jesus do - but let me tell you - if you come put a hole in my roof, I’m probably not going to think of forgiveness right away.

But Verse 5 says:

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

“Their faith”.

“Their faith” suggests Jesus was moved not just by the need and sorrow of the paralytic man on the mat - but the faith of his friends who labored persistently forward in their “why” thought brought their friend “here” so that he may be healed.

One of my favorite things about scripture is that we are always invited in to go deeper. We are invited to wonder about the love of these friends of this paralytic man. The text just says they are “some people”. Maybe they are family and close friends, aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and siblings, who have gathered together with courage to bring their beloved into the presence of this rabbi, Jesus. Maybe they are neighbors who have staying up long nights to pray for this child, offering sacrifices at the temple that God might have mercy for this man’s life. Maybe they are best buddies - maybe among the group is a fiancee or betrothed who longs to be with their love.

Their faith caused them to gather, to stand in solidarity with this man in their midst, to carry him, literally shoulder his weight along who knows how long of a journey, and to cause a ruckus, literally dig a hole in this notorious rabbi’s home, risking his wrath and the scorn of the gathered community.

But in the presence of Jesus, the Lord’s gaze is one of mercy, grace, and compassion.

Jesus recognizes the audacity of their faith. Their courage. Their determination.

He looks back into the eyes of the paralytic man, he sees him, and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Whatever guilt or pain or regret or shame that the man carried alongside his physical challenge - erased by the mercy of Jesus.

And though some of the other Jewish religious leaders began to grumble - how can a teacher like Jesus forgive sins - Jesus announces his “why” to that crowd  - “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic — ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”

Jesus isn’t here to mumble in the corner or to debate the humanity of anyone who comes before him or to go half way in offering the love of God to all who hunger.  Jesus is here to bring the fullness of salvation to the world - forgiveness and healing to all who cannot live the fullness of life to which God promises.

The man gets up and passes through those stunned jam-packed crowds, embraced by his family and neighbors, shouting in praise to God, and his life begins again.

The crowds can only wonder in response, “We’ve never seen anything like this!”

For that man who was healed that day, his friends were those who dug those wells and planted those trees for him. They did not give up on him. They prayed for him. They did more than pray - they participated in God’s kingdom. They dug with their bare hands and sweated for his sake - so that that he might know life.

Our mission as a community of followers of Christ is to introduce people to Jesus -

- not so that our church gets bigger
- or get more musicians for our music ministry
- or have more kids in our children’s ministry
- or have a bigger budget
- or more volunteers

We want to bring other people to Jesus so that they may experience the forgiveness and healing found in the Risen Lord. We become the ones who dig the wells and plant the trees for those who come next. We may not get to enjoy the shade - or the fruits of those fields - or the refreshing drink that we pull up - but those who are hungry for something true and whole in this world of broken relationships and anger and injustice.

This is not something new - this is the story of our church - founded as a “mission church”. How many stories can we tell of those moments when we grieved over the loss of someone close, when we prayed together for healing and held each other tight, when we brought our hearts and broke them open in quiet conversation, when we invested hours in one another’s life so that we might bloom in God’s care, when we kept showing up even after a nasty disagreement or uncomfortable moment?

For those who are visitors, life can be lonely and difficult. There are many places in our world where we can find community, and indeed, no church is not perfect. We sure aren’t. But you deserve a community of friends who would dare rip off the roof of God’s house to bring you closer to healing and forgiveness in your hour of need. You deserve that, no matter the kind of life you lead.

In Jesus’ gaze, there is mercy for all.

“Why am I here?”

Is it all just a coincidence?

Or can I make a difference in my own way?

Can I dig a well so that someone else might drink?

Can I plant a towering oak for the shade of my neighborhood?

Can I take a brick down from the walls of injustice around me?

Can I be someone else’s saint and encourager and friend to draw them closer to their wholeness in God?

Is it possible that we can continue to be the kind of church, with God’s help, where people say “we’ve never seen anything like this?”

(posted September 21, 2018)

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