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Scripture: Genesis 18:1-15

In the movie Just Mercy, based on the book of attorney Bryan Stevenson and his fight for justice for many wrongly imprisoned, there’s a scene that captures a little bit of the Southern hospitality that folks down in Georgia and Alabama pride themselves on. Bryan goes to the meet the family of one of his clients, Johnny D, who is sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. When he shows up to meet the family, it’s not just Johnny D’s wife and kids there - it’s neighbors and cousins and aunts and uncles who show up to find out if there can be justice for Johnny D. The wife of his client sees him for the first time and reaches out to hug him, and says, “Thanks for coming all this way - most lawyers don’t even have time to call.” Once they are gathered around the kitchen table, each time Bryan takes a drink from his iced tea sitting in front of him, one of the neighbors quickly refills his glass to the top.
And as the family and neighbors begin to talk, began to express their anger over what the justice system did to their family member, it’s clear that their hospitality is an invitation to Bryan - they are welcoming this stranger into their lives, some hopeful that justice can be done and others hopeless that anything can change. But it seems an act of faith in the first place to open up their home, roll out that famous sweet tea, and welcome this stranger even in the midst of their doubt.
Of course, if you watch the movie, you know that Bryan famously is able to win an appeal and free Johnny D from death row against a racist, corrupt system there in Alabama, and it all began with a little Southern hospitality.
In our scripture this morning, I want you to notice a similar pattern - how hospitality leads to God doing a new thing.
Abram, who is called the Father of Nations, had been called by God to get up and go to a new and distant land, a land that God was going to share with him. Abram and Sara embarked on what became a long and grueling journey. And as they traveled, it probably seemed like Abram was a little crazy - he and Sara, despite being promised by God to have numerous descendants, still had no children, and their hardships made it seem unlikely that they would ever settle down. They were at that stage in life where having children seemed biologically impossible. Whatever God had meant to Abram seemed a pipe dream.
Finally, on a hot day by the Oaks of Mamre, Abram is sitting on the front porch of his tent, trying to catch a meager breeze to cool off, when scripture says the presence of the Lord came by. While our translation identifies them as men, artists have reimagined this scene as the Visitation. A particularly famous icon has imagines the presence of the Lord as the Trinity - Creator, Son, and Spirit - strolling through the desert. Another creative icon imagines them as three black mothers, full of wisdom, creativity, and hope. Whatever Abram sees, he recognizes the very presence of God and rushes to make them welcome, bringing out cool water to wash themselves, pitchers of iced tea, freshly steamed crabs, and a great big bowl of Franklin’s onion rings.
This is an act of faith. Remember, the reason why we open our worship often with a Call to Worship, the reason why we confess our brokenness, the reason why we sing praise songs or quiet our hearts, is an act of faith to make the presence of God welcome in our midst.
Are we ready to get up and set the table for the presence of the Lord? Are we ready to lay out a feast of our lives and experiences for God to use? Are we willing to take a risk?
And so something remarkable happens - God responds to that sense of hospitality with remarkable, life-changing news.
These three divine messengers pronounce that Abram and Sarah will have a son in a year’s time.
Of course, Sarah, listening in nearby, laughs. She is not a villain in this story - in fact, she is the most level headed one. She’s realistic. This old couple had passed the age to have children. They are tired. They are worn out. It seems like their stories were coming to an end, not taking a surprise twist to a new chapter. So, she laughs. Are these strangers joking? Doesn’t God know how human bodies work?
Her laugh is tinged with the laugh of women throughout history who have experienced abuse, pain, separation, violence, and denigration and were told, it will never happen again - only to live in a world where it happens again and again.
Her laugh is tinged with black mothers who have lost their children to violence and were told by well meaning public officials, we are going to stop this from happening again. We are going to make reforms and changes. And then a week later, another life is snatched away.
Her laugh is tinged with the hopelessness of so many who longed for more in their lives from the people they expected to care and fight for them, including the church, but then experienced rejection or silence instead of healing and renewal. 
Sarah’s laugh is a laugh of incredulousness.
But God seems to laugh right back - “are you saying we can’t do this, Sarah?” Are you saying the Creator is unable to continue to create? Are you saying God can’t bring life out strange and unusual circumstances?
Because for once in the story of Sarah, God can deliver. In a year’s time, she will have a child. Her laughter challenges God to answer, to show and prove that another future is possible. For the Creator to show that even when it seems like hope has faded, there are new stories to be told and written. Even when injustice seems to have taken hold, something new might burst forth.
In the marches in our past few weeks, we have seen an example of the creative winds of the Holy Spirit as young people responded to a call to demand something new, to demand a change in this broken cycle of violence and racism in America. A couple of weeks ago, if you had told me that this would have been possible, I would have laughed at you. A couple of weeks ago, and even some moments today, I would tell how little hope I have that we will face crises of our time - crises that claim black lives, immigrant lives, trans lives, crises that are threatening our planet, crises that our threatening hundreds of thousands of people.
And in a blink of an eye, God laughs back. God says to us, “Are you saying this story is over, Nathan? University Christian Church, do you really believe that your mission as a faith community in this unusual time is over? Are you suggesting that God has retreated and given up on this planet? Are you giving up on the power of our God to heal us and transform us from diseases of body and soul, whether COVID-19 or white supremacy?”
God says, “Let me show you what is possible.”
Our invitation in these times is to meet God at the flaps of our tent, to roll out the iced tea and red carpet, and to look with a renewed hope of what is possible - not just for our world - not just for our lives - but even for our church. Will we have the courage to meet God in the eyes of a stranger, in the eyes of a young person marching for change, in the unexpected gift of hospitality that can come at any moments notice?
Are we ready to go where God is prepared to lead us?
May our response in this time be hospitality - to the power of the Spirit - to the unexpected stranger - to the work of justice that we once might have thought impossible. Praise be to God.

(posted 6/23/20)

Who Is This?

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

By Rev. Nathan Hill

I want to begin by repeating the question you just heard asked of the crowds:

“Who is this?”

“Who is this?”

This is the question asked by the crowds today as Jesus and his ragtag band of disciples made their grand entrance into Jerusalem.

As the city got overflowed visitors from all over with anticipation for the high holy celebration of Passover, the people had heard rumors and caught glimpses of what Jesus had done throughout his ministry. There was excitement building - excitement among some that Jesus was their long awaited Messiah, come to deliver them from oppression.

So, when Jesus began his little procession, they lined the streets, shouting these victory words from Psalm 118:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord!

And the people went even further - they called him the Son of David, an heir to King David’s throne.

The people wanted a King. Desperately. They wanted relief from oppression - they wanted a restoration of the good old days - they wanted to be in charge. And a King could do that for them.

One of the themes that runs through the Gospel of Matthew makes clear that Jesus is King.

The gospel begins by telling us Jesus’ genealogy which is connected right back to King David himself. His birth stories are heralded by stars and celebrated by wise ones from the east. When the current King hears of his birth, he tries to snuff out baby Jesus before he could threaten his rule.

And then, as an adult, he begins saying strange things - that he is ushering in a new Kingdom, a Kingdom breaking in even now, a Kingdom already among us.

And so the people have gathered with their palm branches waving, symbols of victory that a people might wave to their conquering lord. They lay out the cloaks - the 1st century red carpet - in the gospel of John. They are excited and ready, ready for this King to march into the city, overthrow Pontius Pilate, kick the Romans out, and restore the Jewish government.

Of course, not everyone celebrated the arrival of this would-be King.

For the religious leaders, they saw Jesus as a threat to the fragile status quo that was in place. In fact, the first thing Jesus does after entering Jerusalem is to march into the temple and drive the moneylenders out, upsetting a steady flow of cash that filled the temple’s coffers. Uh oh. The Jewish stock market took a big hit that day.

For those in power - especially for Roman leaders, Jesus became another rebel that threatened the sovereignty and domination of the Empire. Another upstart who dared the threaten Ceasar who was the only one who could issue edicts of good news across the land.

And so by the end of the week - Jesus is as far from a throne as one could ever be - hanging, alone and abandoned, on a cross. Even the crowds that had once cheered him on now don’t claim to know anything about him.

And by the end of the week, Jesus’ words about ushering in a new kingdom seem to ring hollow.

By the end of the week, nothing has changed on the surface - Rome is still in power. The religious leaders have their status quo. And the movement Jesus was building has gone into hiding, and I am sure some of them wondered to themselves, “What happened? Was he really who he said he was? Who is this Jesus?”

In an article in the Christianity Today around Palm Sunday of last year, Jonathan Merritt reflected that the purpose of Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem wasn’t to pump the people up - but to disillusion them. In Merritt’s perspective, a common thing that happens to Christians, especially in difficult times, that “we expect God to be something and then discover that God is not at all like that. Or we expect God to do something, only to realize that God seems to have [different] priorities.” When that happens - our faith is forced into a crisis. We have to search for God anew - we have to ask, “Who is this?”, again and again.

Merritt reminds us that to those cheering crowds, Jesus was not the King they expected.

“Jesus is a king, but not the kind they wanted. He will serve rather than be served. He will die and not be killed. He enters unarmed, waging peace. This makes a larger point that God does not intend to meet our expectations. Instead, [God] meets our needs.”

Right now, in this time of COVID-19, I admit to you as your pastor that even I am out of a lot of answers. My daughter complained to me last night that she has heard us adults talking about how unusual things are right now way too much. She is sick and tired of it - and I am sick and tired of it too. I am so ready for a return to normal.

Wouldn’t it be great for God to send us a new King, to march in right now, to make all of our problems go away and get things back to the way it used to be? I’d go outside right now and wave my palm branches and thrown down my winter coats on the street and shout at the top of my lungs if that could happen right now.

But maybe… maybe that’s not what we need.

Maybe Jesus is here among us - in ER units, in clinics, in hospital rooms, among grieving families, and leaders struggling to put aside their ego to lead. Jesus is a healer - so Jesus surely is among the healers right now, empowering and encouraging and weeping.

Maybe Jesus is in this discomfort and uncertainty around our economic reality, challenging us to figure out whether we love God or our economy more, suggesting to us that there is more to life than eight hour shifts everyday, trying to look busy and productive. Maybe the discomfort is learning that we are dependent on more than our paychecks to survive.

Maybe Jesus is even here at work in our churches, casting off our limited vision for ministry to help us realize that there is a vast world out there where the gospel needs to go. Jesus is saying - I’m not in your buildings. I’m out here among hurting, broken people who are struggling to breath. Get online. Get outside. Expand your vision to a new generation.

Maybe Jesus is where we need him - not where we necessarily want him.

Even a time such as this, we are invited to ask - “Who is this?”

Who is Jesus today?

And what kind of Jesus will we reflect as we live out our call as the Body of Christ this week?

Will our neighbors see in us a longing for a kind of Jesus who will solve all of our problems so we can go back to being comfortable?

Or will our neighbors discover a witness, a testimony, to a living, resurrect Messiah who is so compelling, they too will ask, “Who is this?”

(posted 4/6/20)

Do you believe this?

Scripture: John 11:1-45

Today, in our scripture passage, one that I invite you to return to over the course of the week because of its power and relevance to our time, Jesus asks Martha a question. In the past few weeks of our Lent series called Questions Welcome, we have explored questions that were asked to Jesus and about Jesus. But today, Jesus gets to ask the question of Martha and of us.

"Do you believe this?"

The word believe can be a problematic word in our faith and in our culture.

Going back to its Gaelic or Germanic roots, belief is defined as placing confidence or trust in someone or something.

Right now, in our culture and in this time of crisis, we are being asked each day to place our confidence in people and markets and businesses and government institutions - and certainly in our faith.

But what do you do when your government leaders do not inspire your trust in them? No matter how highly they talk of their accomplishments?

How do you feel confident when different news channel address the facts of the day with their own particular spin?

How do you trust in the stock market when it seems to fluctuate on fears and anxiety and the flapping of a butterfly wing around the world?

How do you place your hope in our economy, which we were told a few months was a strong as it ever has been, and now discover how fragile it always has been?

Right now, we are also rediscovering how much trust we have placed in so many people around us - sometimes without realizing how important they are to our lives.

For families like my own, we are now going on 15 days since our children were last dropped off at school or put on the bus. I mean, 15 days - but who’s counting? With each day, we realize how much care and skill we entrusted to those teachers and school staff. How much we need those teachers, how thankful we are for them, even the mediocre ones.

We are having to be confident that when we stay home and order in our groceries and delivery that some complete stranger isn’t going to take our money and do whatever - but drop said items at our front door. That requires trust.

We are being asked to trust our doctors and nurses for our very lives - and we are so grateful for their sacrifice, for those who are spending all days setting up beds and providing care, those who are going into the ICU rooms to fight alongside those who are struggling to draw breath, and for those who are racing to find a vaccine.

And of course, we are being asked to have faith in our God - which can be hard when the death count from this virus spike every few days.

Ultimately, are we placing our trust in fragile things or on sure foundations?

When Jesus came to Bethany, he entered into a fragile situation, a traditional period of mourning for this Jewish community. There were weeping people. Martha came running to see him, overcome with grief, still wondering and hoping against hope for someone or something to bring her confidence. Someone or something to change the reality.

Jesus had known Lazarus well. They were close. The news hit him hard. Our scripture says that when he received the word, Jesus didn’t leave right away. I’ve never understood why, until I am reminded that losing someone close and someone dear often makes it hard for us to get out of bed, to eat, to muster the energy to face the day. Some of you have been there.

It took him a couple of days for he and his disciples to carefully make their way back to Judea, which was also dangerous - there were powerful people plotting to have Jesus arrested. So, they took their time and took the back routes to Bethany.

About four days later, they arrive near Mary and Martha’s house - and Martha is the first to run out to meet Jesus at the edge of their land.

When she confronts Jesus, she reveals something remarkable about herself.

She believes. She believes that Jesus, no matter how late to the scene he is, is capable of changing the course of their lives. 

We could read her questions and statements as someone who is in the throes of grief and is talking out of their mind - but I think Martha knew. More than knew, she had confidence in Jesus. She trusted him and the power he had access to through his connection with God, even if she did not always understand it.

And so the first words out of her mouth aren’t - “Hey, Jesus, come in and take a load off. I’m so glad you made it. Let me get you something to eat.”

Rather, she says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

What a bold way to get the Son of God’s attention. If only I - or we - had that kind of confidence, right? (Lord, if you had been here…)

She lays it right on Jesus' feet, and Jesus doesn’t back down.

Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (Vss. 25-26)

What follows next is incredible - in the most powerful verse in the entire gospels, “Jesus weeps” (V35). He is overcome with emotion as he gathers in with the mourners, those wailing in despair at the loss of their dear friend, a wailing at an unjust world that can claim lives so quickly - the lives of basketball coaches and high school teachers and nurses and doctors and children and artists and retirees and on and on. Jesus too weeps for a world that is too often marred by death and despair.

Greatly disturbed, Jesus comes to the tomb.

And there he commands the stone to be taken - and of course for those of us who have read ahead into Easter, we already resonate with what is about to come. The stench begins to waft out of that dark hole. You can hear the shocked cries of the gathered crowd. Jesus turns back to Martha and says with a face stricken with tears, angry and determined, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

And then he cries out to Lazarus - calls him out of that dark pit - that place of hopelessness and despair and dread and loss. And Lazarus comes out, still bound up in the trappings of death, but altogether alive once again!

The word believe is the word that draws us deeply into those whole scripture passage - it is the question that sits with us as we read this and the narrative of death and loss are so powerful.

So powerful that some of us are losing our damn minds in fear and anxiety.

So powerful that some of us have placed our confidence and trust in news channels, conspiracy theories, stock markets, guns and ammo, kombucha, and borders.

So powerful that some of us are wanting to turn this moment of “physical distancing” into sealed up tombs of death and destruction.

Through the wailing cries of anxiety, Jesus asks us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

The Raising of Lazarus is not a story that if we just believe hard enough - God will answer our prayers.

Rather, Jesus’ question asks of us each of us - what or who are we placing our confidence and trust?

Are we placing our trust and confidence in the things of this world, that no matter how important they are to enable us to do work and flourish, will never have power over the pits of darkness and despair?

Or do we place our trust and hope in a God who speaks such a word over our lives and even this pandemic that life somehow emerges?

Dr. Melinda Quivik writes, "Jesus creates the ability to believe by causing death again and again to turn to life.”

Jesus is worthy of our trust and confidence.

God is able through God's own Son to do the impossible - the impossible sometimes looks like miracles, like dry bones taking on flesh, and sometimes, it looks like strangers and neighbors and community on Zoom calls, handcrafting masks at home, praying for each other across fences, and organizing brown bag lunches to serve those who are hungry. It looks like love in a season of pandemics and uncertainty.

I wonder what it looks like for you and your family right now. Why not share with me in the livestream chat or send me a note this week?

We still will weep and grieve with those who hover at death’s door, but Jesus’ power is such to unwrap our eyes to see the impossible - a new world, a new way of life, a new way of being in community.

A colleague shared an article with me this week that revealed that after the devastation of the Spanish Flu in 1918 that wiped out millions across the planet, the ranks of the religious clergy swelled as people, grappling with their fear and their loss of trust in life, went to seminary to study and seek answers to make sense of what all of this tragedy and loss could mean.

This never implies that the tragedy we experience is God’s plan. No! Rather, it suggests that out of these experiences we often see and know God in a new way. And as Jesus unwraps our eyes, we work together for a world where “there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

Do you believe this? Do we believe this?

(Close in Prayer)

O Mighty God,
We are so fearful and uncertain.
We have placed so much trust and confidence in temporary things.
Now, Lord, help us believe.
Help us believe even in times of sorrow that your life-giving power is at work.
Comfort the families who suffer now by sharing your tears.
And command us to come out of our hiding places
To live with courage and compassion,
To see in every moment an invitation to join in your dance from death to life.
In the name of the One we call Jesus, Messiah, Resurrection and Life,
Amen.

(posted 4/1/20)

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