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)

Who am I? (5 Hard Questions)

Scripture: Luke 18:1-8

I told my spiritual director just a few months ago that I had this revelation about my life.

In December, I’m turning 40, and the strange thing is - it feels like I’m just now becoming confident in my skin, what I believe deep down, who I want to be. For too long in my life, I have either let other people define me or made choices based on fear of what others may think about me. But no more. Basically, it’s taken nearly 40 years to really begin to understand who I am.

This morning, I’m inviting you to ask that question of yourself - “Who am I?”

Our new sermon series is based on the 5 Hard Questions from Gregory C. Ellison II’s book, Fearless Dialogues - these questions are part of a dialogue that aims to bring people from all walks of life together and recognize their shared humanity. He writes this about the first question:

“Who am I?” Seems easy enough, but when you ask this question, others quickly follow. Who am I not? Who am I when the shades are drawn and the lights are off? Have I worn a mask so long that I cannot differentiate who I am from who “they” say I should be? If I know who I am, then what do I call myself? What do I call myself? I pose this inquiry to all first-year students in my classes, because the world can call us all kinds of names.

Shameful. Sinner. Traitor. Cheater. Thief. Lazy. Liar. Unbeliever. Poor. Racist. Angry. Failure. Hysterical. Nobody.

Some people in our world, like author Elizabeth Gilbert in her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, have the kind of money in their bank account to travel the seven seas to experience food, spirituality, and romance - all in an expensive effort to discover who they are - but for most of us, who are tied down with jobs, family, commitments, and modest financial resources, we don’t necessarily have that option. We don’t get to take vacation days to discern our deepest identity or get in touch with the core of our being. We have to make it up as we go - and it’s messy work.

So, I get it. Some of us give up fighting for our identity - to discover who we really are and who God made us to be - and just give in to the names that the world gives us.

  • Maybe I am a cheat.
  • Maybe I am not a good person.
  • Maybe I deserve to be poor.
  • Maybe I should get used to be disrespected and mistreated.
  • Maybe I don’t know what I am doing.
  • Maybe my life doesn’t matter.
  • Maybe I am a sinner, and God doesn’t love me.

Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke knew what it meant to be called names too.

Our scripture says he was rich, and he was a tax collector. That’s one heck of an introduction. In the politically charged environment, of Jesus’ time, that meant a lot of things. That meant, that when Zacchaeus’ back was turned (and sometimes to his face), he was called a lot of stuff by his neighbors:

  • A cheat
  • A traitor to his people
  • Greedy
  • Conniving
  • Backstabber
  • Dishonest
  • Unfaithful
  • Unclean

In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire collected taxes in collaboration with good Jews like Zacchaeus, and anything extra that Zacchaeus was able to collect over what was due for his district, Zacchaeus got to take home. Tax collectors were notoriously corrupt - adding credit card processing fees and surcharges and shipping and handling and compound interest to every dime they collected. Our scripture doesn’t tell us all of these details, so we are invited to imagine them. Did Zacchaeus skim extra off the top? Was he particularly ruthless and ambitious? Did he deserve some of the names he was called?

Add to that, Zach was short. Vertically challenged. If you’ve ever seen a small dog go up and intimidate a big dog, Zacchaeus might have been like that. He hadn’t worked out his issues with his therapist. He was overcompensating for something. It could turn into bullying behavior. Mean. Tired of being overlooked (literally) and picked on. Zach used his position and wealth to place himself on even footing with those who whispered behind his back.

Zachaeus let those names define who he was, and he turned around and did the same to his neighbors.

But even if we think of Zacchaeus as the villain of the story, there was something deeper in Zaccheus. A hunger. More than meets the eye. Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus - stories of healing, teaching, miracles, and salvation - and he wanted to see if this rabbi was the real deal. He gets wind that Jesus is coming his way, and Zaccheus wants a peek.

Verse 3 of our scripture says Zacchaeus was trying to “see” Jesus. In Greek, the root word can also be translated to “experience or attend to”. Zacchaeus, whether he understood it or not, was ready for an encounter with the Living Christ.

Picture it though - here is Zacchaeus, that traitor to his people, that thief, that man who is part of the oppression, trying to cut his way in front of the crowd to see this holy man. Why would a holy man like Jesus have anything to do with a crook and a scoundrel like Zach? The crowds lining the road threw some elbows and shoved that little man back to where he couldn’t see a thing. Serves him right. Who does he think he is?

Zacchaeus was not going to give up. He was going to see this so-called messiah, no matter what, and so he clambered up this sycamore tree to get a glimpse himself. For at least today, to see something holy and pure.

Can you imagine it? A filthy rich tax collector climbing a tree, dangling off a limb, to see a rabbi?

Here comes Jesus, taking his time, meandering along the route there in Jericho, people reaching out to grab an arm or a brush of his robe, crying out for mercy, for hope, for healing. The crowds were pressing in on him.

But Jesus stops. He “looked up to” Zacchaeus. In Greek, that verb shares a root with the verb that means to “recover sight”. It’s not that Jesus can’t see - it’s that Jesus can suddenly see Zach. Recognizes him. This peculiar human being, perched on top of a sycamore tree, staring at him with wide, curious eyes.

Jesus sees him.

All of him.

The color of his skin, the look on his face, his curly hair, his excitement, his energy, the unspoken questions, the beating heart, his stature, his weariness, his broken heart, his need for love and compassion.

Jesus does the unthinkable, “Hey, Zacchaeus, we’re having dinner at your place, right?”

Scripture doesn’t say if Jesus and Zach had a prior relationship. All we see in this passage is that Jesus speaks his name. Calls out to him by the name given by his father and mother, two good faithful Jews. Jesus doesn’t pick any of those slanders tossed out by his neighbors. Jesus doesn’t identify him by his occupation or his mistakes. Jesus doesn’t seek to embarrass him or ridicule.

Somehow, Jesus knows his name. Calls him by name. Affirms the beauty of his name.

Funny things happen when people see you. Truly see you.

When people see your value beyond your bank account, your education level, your resume, your skillset.

When they look past your race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, or sexuality.

When you are seen fully as a beloved child of God.

This encounter with Jesus changes Zach. His life matters. God sees him. God doesn’t just knows he exists - God loves that he exists.

His life will not be defined by others and the stereotypes or rumors they place around him.

His life becomes defined by his God createdness.

Zach, that day with Jesus, surely had to answer the question - “Who am I?”

Am I what others say about me?

Am I what I think about myself?

Or am I something else altogether?

Zaccheus experienced a life transformation in that moment. Even though he was the same person with the same name, everything was different. Zach couldn’t go back to being the old guy, the mean one, the bully, the skimmer. He turned half of his wealth over to the poor, and in addition, he committed to repaying back 4 times anyone he had wronged. His life got turned upside down.

Salvation. Forgiveness. Freedom. Justice.

One of my favorite praise songs:

I will never be the same again

I can never return, I've closed the door

I will walk the path, I'll run the race

And I will never be the same again

This morning, I ask you to ponder this:

Do you need Jesus to see you?

Do you need to see Jesus?

Are you here in worship today because you are desperate to climb that sycamore tree to see the Living Christ, the one who walks on water, the one who promises to offer ever flowing water from a living well, the one who can raise the dead and make the blind see?

Are you here just because you hope there is a God, a God who might look and notice you, your hurt, your pain, your grief, your unanswered questions?

To be seen by God, to see God - these are accurate ways to talk about our spiritual life. Something happens, like Zach, when the Spirit descends on us and we encounter our Creator in flesh. We become saved. We are asked to turn our life around. We say, “My Lord, my Savior, my God.”

And suddenly, in a profound way, we begin to answer that question - “who am I?” - in a different way. Yes, we remain with our occupations and stories and backgrounds. We check boxes on those forms that say our race, ethnicity, gender, how much we make, and how old we are. But in Christ, there is something there in and through and beyond all those things.

We are God’s beloved.

We are worthy of God’s gracious love.

Once we know that, our lives can never be the same.

When Dr. Gregory Ellison conducts one of his Fearless Dialogues experiences, he stands outside the room where they are prepared to meet, and he says to everyone who makes there way to the event, “It is good to finally see you.” He recognizes the power of being seen - how if we are to be known we must first be seen. (Turn to your neighbor, look them in the eye, and say - “It’s good to finally see you.”)

What might be different about our neighborhood if we could see each other? What would be better about our polarizing political divide if we could see each other? What would be healing about our work to address the needs of those experiencing homelessness and poverty if we could see one another? How would we treat our neighbors better if we could but see them?

See who we really are.

May our fearless dialogue with ourselves and God begin today, and may the Living Christ see us, know us, and remind us who we really are.


(posted September 11, 2018)

Do you deserve a break?

Scripture: Nehemiah 13:15-22

On Wednesday night, I was sitting in a church meeting at our regional office. It was late. Past 9 PM. It had been a long day with a ton of stuff on my plate. So I tweeted out a mild complaint - “I’m stuck in a church meeting - someone get me out of here.” And one of my friends on Twitter, Jason Poon, replied:

Someone preach the theology of the Sabbath to these people!!

— Jason Poon (@jasonhpoon) August 30, 2018

Like many of you, I live a hectic life. As your pastor, my schedule is crowded with meetings and demands. Sometimes, I stay late into the night here at the church in vital conversation with you about the future of our church and how our ministry can bring Christ’s compassion to our community. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it and believe in the mission God has given us - but I am the first to admit that sometimes it wears me out. Sometimes, I get tired.

Our church is made up of full-time students, federal employees, Uber drivers, teachers, contractors, consultants, and professionals of all kinds - each of you who knows this struggle - doing something that pays the bills and brings you joy but also wears you down. And even for our retirees in our church, some of you are busier after you retired than when you were working full-time.

Work is a gift - but friends, on this Labor Day weekend when we reflect on the gift of getting things done and enjoy a long weekend, I want to ask a practical but theological question -

Do you deserve a break?

In our capitalistic culture, we are taught and encouraged to work hard from a young age.

However, when we talk about vacation and rest in our culture, too often we treat them as luxuries, something that you must earn. Not everyone deserves a day off. Vacation is accrued. We call them benefits. We’ll pay you to work here, and as a bonus we’ll let you take a couple of days off every so often. Of course, those higher up on the food chain tend to have all the benefits they desire.

Too many struggling families have to make life or death choices over what they dare risk missing work for. Too many individuals could use a day off to deal with trauma and pain in their lives but cannot afford to do so. Too many bosses see a worker taking a day off as an annoyance rather than the best thing they can provide.

The word I want to focus on in my question at the core of this sermon is “deserve”.

  • Do we deserve time away from the hard work and stress of life?
  • Do we deserve the dignity of being able to recharge and refresh ourselves?
  • Do we deserve opportunities for self-care and self-love?
  • Do we deserve a chance to free our bodies from catering to the demands of others and instead experience being with God?

Whether or not you deserve a break is a question and a value that God is adamantly concerned about throughout scripture.

In our reading this morning, we pick up in the middle of the memoirs of Nehemiah, a Jewish leader and reformer who was tasked with helping his people return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem and their beloved temple. Jerusalem and its temple were at the center of Jewish religious and political life. This was a monumental task to be undertaken with great care and hard work.

Stone by stone, gate by gate, building by building, Nehemiah helped the people begin to put back the pieces of their homeland, torn apart by conquering armies years before.

In the midst of their efforts, Nehemiah’s people discover a scroll hidden away behind a wall in the temple, stashed there for safekeeping when the invaders toppled the walls and pillaged their capital. The scroll is a book of law, containing instructions for how to live according to God’s way. When Nehemiah himself hears these words, he tears his clothes out of grief for how much the people had forgotten how to live as their Creator asked.

Among those ways of God that the people had let drift from being central to their lives was Sabbath.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 reads:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

The Sabbath day was meant to be holy, but as human beings do, we find loopholes in our rules and regulations. Some ancient Jews no doubt asked, “Work is prohibited on the Sabbath, but can’t I go shopping? Shopping isn’t work.” Or, “If we Jews aren’t doing the physical labor, isn’t it okay to assign the work to those foreigners over there?” In Jerusalem, Nehemiah discovered that on Sabbath the gates of the city were left open so that those foreign merchants, who maybe didn’t have to follow the rules like the Jews did, could come in with their food trucks, credit card offers, same day delivery, and fine boutiques to the delight of the residents.

Nehemiah in his effort to restore the glory of his beloved city knew that rebuilding the walls would be useless if the people did not rebuild their care for the life-giving ways of God - if they did not restore the respect for the holiness and sacredness of their lives. Sabbath was intended to be a distinctive practice that shaped the people apart from the ways of the world. Sabbath challenged them to worship God rather than money, consumption, and stuff.

So Nehemiah commanded the gates to be shut, shutting out the marketing, so that on Sabbath, his people might rest and take a day off from moneymaking and wealth generation and buying and selling and improving their status and filling their closets.

For one day a week, shut the gates, so that all people might join Creation in rest.

Sabbath was not just for human beings - but for everything:

In God’s Sabbath, even the livestock that provide us with meat and milk and eggs deserve a break.

In God’s Sabbath, even those who aren’t like you or those lower on the economic ladder - even those who were “slaves” of ancient Israel - and those who are victims of modern day slavery - or stuck in minimum wage jobs - even they deserve the dignity of a day of rest.

Sabbath speaks directly to the reality that human beings too often treat each other as livestock. We treat fellow human beings no different or worse than we treat the animals. We treat each other as animals of burden to help us achieve what we want, creatures to be loaded up and worked to the bone until we can replace them with the next low-skilled laborer in line.

Sabbath is resistance to that - Sabbath affirms the value of all human beings and the value of all living things in Creation.

And when we begin to practice Sabbath, we might begin to imagine a world where there is no more slavery and economic ladders and rat race and debt.

The good news of God is that we all deserve a break, a day off, a time to relax, refresh ourselves, and feed our souls.

Nehemiah shut the gates of the city to create that possibility for the people of Jerusalem -

Will we shut the gates in our lives so that we may return to a cycle of rest with God and all of Creation?

What are some ways we can do this?

  • We can take a break from success. Our society teaches us to crave success. If we aren’t climbing the ladder, then we are going nowhere. Success is wonderful, but God is far more interested in our faithfulness. We must shut the gate to the idea that we are only worth what we do and achieve in life. We are more than our accomplishments and our failures. We are God’s beloved, and that is enough for today.
  • We can receive mental health care. All of us will experience times in our lives when it is life-giving and sacred to get help to deal with the stress, anxiety, and pain we carry. I am always happy to meet with you as your pastor and do my best to listen and pray together, but a trained licensed professional can help any of us sort through the burdens we carry so that our bodies, minds, and souls may rest. It is never a shameful thing to seek help. And if you don’t need it, maybe you will encounter someone this week who does. Here are two numbers to remember - National Suicide Hotline - 1-800-273-8255, UMD Counseling Center - (301) 314-7651
  • We deserve to be with our people. This may be family, this may be a circle of friends, this may be people who know your journey best and can understand you better than anyone else. Sometimes, this is your church family - but sometimes, even your church family can’t be this for you. We all deserve space where we don’t have to perform for each other. Where we can be who we are just as we are. Where we can shut our walls and be who God created us to be. Do you have people like that in your life? Do you have space like this in your life? If not, you truly deserve it.
  • We deserve no more church meetings that go past 9 PM. (Haha)

Black feminist author Audrey Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Our Sabbath practice as Christians is resistance to a world and society that often seeks to devalue and degrade our human dignity - some more than others. In God, our humanity and our bodies are celebrated as temples where God’s Spirit dwells.

Yes, we deserve a break.

May we work for a world where all living things experience rest. May we care for ourselves and each other. May we take a break along with Creation

(posted September 4, 2018)

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