Homecoming: A Sermon

**This sermon was originally preached at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church (Dunwoody, GA) on October 25, 2015 for the final Sunday of their stewardship season.**

1 Corinthians 3:9-11

For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

—–

I want to tell you a story. It takes place in this very sanctuary, on Christmas Eve, 23 years ago. My family had just joined St. Luke’s a few months earlier, and we found ourselves quickly recruited to be a part of the 5:00 Christmas service for families. So my mom and stepdad and brother and stepsisters and I all dressed up as shepherds and acted out the journey to go and see the newborn baby Jesus.

On this particular Christmas Eve, Jesus was played by a baby girl appropriately named Grace, and Mary and Joseph were played by her parents. They sat huddled together on the chancel steps. From the side balcony, an angel appeared to us and instructed us to go and find this newborn savior. In response, we gave our best impressions of awe and wonder. And my stepdad—as chief shepherd—in the role of lifetime, spoke his crucial line, ”Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened!”

And so we set out on our long trek around and around the sanctuary, guided by hope, and finally made our way down the center aisle, drawn toward the promise of this small, new life like we were coming home.

That might have been the first time in my life that I walked through this building and felt like I was coming home, but it wouldn’t be the last. Over the years that followed, this place became a home, a community, a refuge for me like no place else in the world. By third grade I was sending letters to the pastors with suggestions for how to make things better. I spent weeknights sneaking around these hallways and climbing up into the crook of that stained glass window back there. Sundays as an acolyte or goofing off in youth group, and summers encountering Christ all over this wide world while on mission trips with friends who became family.

It’s probably no surprise then, that, years later, when the time came for me to leave home and venture out to Texas, I called Shannon and confessed to her that I was terrified to leave because I was afraid that there wouldn’t be another church out there that felt so much like home. She told me two things back then: First, that there would be other good churches and communities of faith – that I would be surprised. And second, that even if there wasn’t, I had a responsibility to go out and share the kind of home and community I found here with the world. When I followed that advice right into ordination, I told the story of this church and how I felt called to work for a world where every child of God could feel the sense of home and belovedness that I felt growing up in this place.

The story of that Christmas Eve, that journey to hope and home within these walls, is part of the story of this place. That story doesn’t just belong to me. It belongs to all of you who I suspect and hope have had your own such moments. It’s a story that belongs to everyone who has been a part of this community and everyone who one day will be. We all know that there is something special here.

But the story is even bigger than that. It is the story of every community of faithful believers on down the long centuries. It is the story of the ancient Israelites in exile as they lamented the home they had lost and dreamed of the home God would bring them to in time. It is the story of those first faithful few who gathered together with Jesus in an upper room to share in hope for a better world and faith in something bigger than themselves. This story—of community, and relationship, and belonging—this is our inheritance from the one who first created us—the one to whom we all belong.

My own experience here has convinced me that church at its very best feels like home. I believe this is what the Christians in Corinth found too. It’s what they were learning to build together on the foundation of Christ. Paul was instructing them to understand that they were building something bigger than themselves. They were created a space for people to encounter the love of God. Paul wanted them to understand that their work was part of a bigger story, just as we know the story of this place is part of the larger story of our faith.

In the early days of Christianity, this idea of church as home was literal, as believers gathered in each other’s houses to worship and break bread together. Today, we build that sense of home in a multitude of ways that respond to our modern context.

Here at St. Lukes’s, you come together weekly for faithful, heartfelt worship. You have Christian education programming for children, youth, and adults to gather together and grow each week. You foster opportunities for community and fellowship that extend beyond just Sunday morning. And you seek out and commit to opportunities to serve others in your own city and around the world, finding new family in every corner of this earth. You share meals and prayers; you visit one another in sickness and in loss and in joy. You learn with each other and from each other.

In this way, for the many years that this church has flourished on the corner of Mt. Vernon and Manhasset, it has joined in the same work of many other communities of faith both now and throughout history. It has built a sense of belonging and comfort for so many beloved children of God who have walked through its doors. Nurtured in this place, faithful Christians have gone out into the world, sharing the spirit of love that they encountered here in new and even unexpected places.

When I look at the lives of my peers who grew up with me in this church, I am struck by the impact that our faith formation has had on the people who we have become. Nonprofit workers and pastors, parents and world travelers, people who love and do good for others because we were first loved here by so many who committed and invested their lives in making this church a reflection of the love of God. People like you.

Of course, we all know that all of the good programs and work done in this church—all the tangible ways that the money and time and talents of church members get put to use—those tangible things are not ultimately the point. They are the means. The point of every effort by this church and its members, by all churches at best, is—as y’all say in your mission statement—to know, serve, and share in Jesus Christ. It is to know what grace looks and feels like, and to know that you and everyone are beloved children of God—to know it so deep down in your bones that none of the sin and brokenness of this world can ever take that knowing away from you or stop you from sharing it with others. The point is to help people know whose they are and where they belong.

The risk though, in church feeling like home—is that we can come to believe that home is about the building, the specific programs, even the people around you. And those are so important. But that is not where our sense of home is truly rooted. We are not at home in church, we are at home in Christ. Church feels like home because it draws us closer to Christ. And so church, where we come together as community to travel that journey together—is not truly about “being home” so much as it is about coming home. Ever closer to the one who calls us beloved.

This communal work of drawing nearer to Christ does call us to commit and invest ourselves wholly into the good work of our community so that we and others may continue to grow in our understanding of God’s grace and love. But it calls us to more than that. It calls us to holy dreaming, to firm and certain hope, to prophetic imagination. It calls to trust and a willingness to be on the move. Because Christ is on the move in this world, and our home is wherever Christ is.

This can be uncomfortable. It requires us to show up boldly into unknown spaces, holding onto our faith that God knows even when we don’t. It sometimes requires us to let go of some things we had once been called to so that we might take hold of the new callings with which God graces us.

We are not alone in the daunting work of building something beyond our own imagining. It is also the hope and encouragement that God offers the exiled Israelites. This is the work with which Paul charges the Corinthians. The Chiristians in Corinth were struggling to hold on to the church they knew and loved, even as they opened themselves to God’s expansive vision for the future. This balance, as Paul tells them, is the very heart of faith. We are building onto what has been built before us. And others will build onto what we have built. What binds us is our common foundation, our home in Jesus Christ.

Even though this part of faith can indeed be uncomfortable, it is also amazing and transforming. Think of the first 12 so long ago. Jewish men who faithfully followed their rabbi into a new religion, a new world, a new and bigger promise than they ever could have conceived of. And on this Reformation Sunday, we would do well too to remember the faithful Christians who five centuries ago took bold risks in great love for their God and their church—never anticipating that they were midwives to the birth of Protestantism and a new incarnation of Christian faith. I’d wager that St. Luke’s founding pastor, Moss Robertson, would have opened his eyes wide with wonder and disbelief if he had been told all those years ago all that this community would one day come to be.

And certainly, I never imagined as I goofed off in these hallways and prayed in the nook of that stained glass window as a child that one day, God would call me to stand here and witness to all of y’all about the profound experience of love and grace this community gave me growing up.

Who knows what beautiful new thing is being born in this very place at this very moment? Who knows what seed is being planted or what holy thing is being raised up? We can only trust that our foundation—our home—is in Christ. We can only trust that the Spirit is at work and on the move and daring us all to come along. We can also trust that even though the work is bigger than us and our imaginations, it is also incomplete without us.

I want to tell you another story.

For nearly a century, there was a big, beautiful church that reigned prominently over Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia. It was called Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church and for decades, Philadelphia’s elite citizens would dress in the finest and gather in that cathedral for worship and community. For decades they would come to feel at home. But over time, people moved on and membership dwindled. The church fell into disrepair and the congregation petered out until—in the early 2000s—the old building seemed mostly hollow and empty of life.

But a young pastor and some other hopeful Christians felt the spark of a new dream. They created a new community in the old space and—though they originally thought it would be a church for young artists—it also drew many people who walked Philly’s downtown streets seeking shelter and refuge from their hunger. Broad Street Ministry—as it became called—began serving meals in their sanctuary and providing social services to those in their community who were experiencing homelessness and poverty. They called the meals “Breaking Bread” and hundreds of people came—and still come—every week to share food, to find community, and to know the grace of God.

A few years ago, I interned at Broad Street for a summer while in seminary. Every week at staff meeting, folks would share important stories from the week. One Wednesday, our head of Social Services shared that the day before at Breaking Bread, a man had sat down at a table to eat. This may not sound all that remarkable, but here’s why it matters:

That man had been coming to Broad Street for meals four times a week for years. He had been traumatized by experiences of hunger and poverty and violence on the streets, and he had eaten every meal in all those years, standing up with his back against a wall to protect himself. Until this one day, when—in the sanctuary of this old—and also new—church, he sat down at a table to eat with friends because he finally felt safe enough—home enough—to do so. Who could have imagined what a home Chambers-Wylie Memorial Church would become? Only God. And who can imagine what God will do—is already doing—with us?

Jesus Christ is at work and on the move in this world. In that church and in this church. And he is calling us. Calling us beloved. Calling us to show each other what grace and love feel like deep in our bones. Calling us to give all that we can of ourselves for that grace. He is calling us to hold fast to faith and to dream beyond our own imaginations. And he is calling us, always, to follow him and to come home.

Amen.

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Love Me Too-Tender (A Magictober Poem)

You know how everything about falling in love
feels cheesy
until you’re in it?
And then you’re just
too busy racing their heart against yours
to care?
Here is a cheesy thing:

October is the month I fall in love.
It’s true.
So many years in a row
that I’ve called it Magictober.

And so this year I came looking
when October rolled around
for love in the corners
and under the leaves.

Magic abounds
but always in that mischief way
that laughs at you while it dances.

I have woken up in bed
with this year’s love
every day this month
and fallen more deeply, like clockwork
like a train on schedule.

Only this time, the lover was myself.

It’s true
that everything about it is cheesy
But I’m too busy thanking God
for this too-tender heart
She gave me
to care.

Between the Universe and Ashes: A Sermon

**Originally preached for the 4:00 Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church – Chicago on Oct. 18, 2015.**

Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
and say to you, “Here we are”?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cling together?

‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?

———————————————————

In general, movie days in class during high school were only exciting to the extent that they got us out of long-winded lectures, pop quizzes, and other more effort-dependent pursuits. The movies themselves tended to seem boring, dated, and irrelevant. For me, one of the only exceptions was the 1989 modern classic “Dead Poets Society” which I first encountered in my 11th grade English class.

Set at a prestigious all-boys boarding school in New England in 1959, the movie follows a group of young men caught up in a system that guarantees their success in every traditional way, but denies them freedom of imagination and self-exploration.  Their new English teacher Mr. Keating—himself a graduate of the institution—attempts to draw them past the conservative boundaries of their prep school world by exposing them to poetry about life and emotion and the wondrous expanse of creation. His message to them is clear: the world is much bigger than you or the lives planned out for you. Take it in. It is a gift. The boys are at first baffled by Keating’s enthusiastic and unorthodox philosophy. But one by one, they buy in, starting their own secret poetry club and finding inspiration to dream beyond the life paths prescribed for them. In response, their parents and other teachers chafe at their newfound liberalism and the tension rises in ways both frustrating and ominous.

In one scene, in the midst of this rising tension, Keating recites part of a Walt Whitman poem to them. The poem describes the seemingly ceaseless struggles of the world and then declares the ever-present question, “What good amid these, o me, o life?” And then, as Keating shares with his young students, Whitman’s poem offers this, “Answer: that you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on –and you may contribute a verse.”

The question “what good amid these, o me, o life” has echoes of Job’s struggle to understand the immense suffering he endures and how to hold onto hope or faith in the face of it all. While Whitman’s poetic answer and Mr. Keating’s inspiring enthusiasm might have resonated profoundly and transformatively with the boys of Welton Academy, it’s hard to imagine that such a concise and idealistic answer would have offered much comfort to the beleaguered Job. Indeed, the suffering that Job endures is far beyond the rigidly oppressive control that the boys of Dead Poets Society face.

In fact, Job’s bad fortune is so extreme that it sets a hyperbolic standard. His life serves as a fable of faithfulness in the midst of suffering so that—whatever suffering we encounter in our own lives—we can look to Job as an example. He loses his livelihood, his reputation, his wife and children, and even his own health. And somehow, he maintains his faith throughout it all—but not without some serious questioning. Like the poet, he wonders aloud what good is to be found amidst all the loss and pain? What point might there be? How could a good and loving God allow any of it to happen?

The risk in reading Job is that his circumstances might seem too ridiculous and extreme to relate to. But the truth is that the worst suffering a person has ever endured is still the worst suffering they’ve ever endured and it can seem unbearable. And certainly there are times in life when challenges seem to amass in an ever-growing pile and we wonder if things could possibly get any worse… and then they do. In these moments, like Job, we find ourselves with heavy questions. Why? What does it mean? And God, where are you? We seek to understand because we hope that somewhere in that understanding there will be comfort. Still, in our most painful moments—answers, however well intentioned—rarely provide the comfort we seek.

This is definitely true for Job, who listens to each of his friends ramble on and on for verse upon verse, seeking to explain away the depths of Job’s pain as the inevitable result of his own shortcomings. Job knows these explanations ring hollow and he dismisses them all as bad counsel. Only then does God speak directly to Job out of a whirlwind. And—perhaps knowing the impossibility of a satisfactory answer—God doesn’t offer Job one. Instead God offers a litany of God’s own questions which dwarf Job’s queries.

“WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I LAID THE FOUNDATION OF THE EARTH?” God thunders.

Tell me, if you have understanding.

5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

6 On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

7 when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

On and on it goes, for many more verses that we didn’t read today, with God naming wonder after wonder of creation, describing the intricacy and care and power and love imbued into every aspect of life. Over and over God questions Job, “was it you who did these things? Or was it me?”

34 ‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,

so that a flood of waters may cover you?

35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go

and say to you, “Here we are”?

Well. It is, if nothing else, an impressive response to Job’s questioning. But at first glance—and even at second and maybe third glance—it is not a particularly comforting answer. Job asks, “why do I suffer like this?” And God says, “Forget about that – look at this incredible universe I’ve created!”

Thanks a lot, we might think along with Job. After all, this isn’t the response we want from a God who loves and cares for us. We want God to come running. To drop everything and take us up in embrace. We want undivided attention and unmitigated solace. In the worst of our pain and suffering, it is hard to imagine that any less than that could suffice as balm to our hurts. Instead God offers a song of wonder and power about the expansiveness of the world. Where, we might wonder, is the comfort in that?

I have to be honest with you. When I started working on this sermon earlier this week, I joked that I was being forced to find hope and comfort in God saying, “The universe is way bigger than you and your problems and therefore, your pain really doesn’t matter.” But of course, it’s not that simple.

There is something here, in this passage I think, about recognizing how big the world beyond our experience is. There is life outside of our suffering and life after our suffering and life in spite of our suffering. Our worst experiences of pain and loss can overwhelm us and our lives can shrink to the pinpoint of our circumstance. But whether we can feel it or not—there is more to God’s creation and God’s intention for us than that.

This is a profound, if not always comforting truth. But it is not the only truth present in God’s song to Job. Because here’s the thing: all the while that God is going on and on about God’s power and might and creating, all the while that God seems to be trying to shrink Job down to size—God is also taking the time and space to speak to this poor, hurting man. And that too says something about who God is and how God cares for us.

The year before I began seminary remains one of the hardest years I’ve ever experienced. In the space of a few months, I said goodbye to all my friends in town as they moved away for new adventures. I started a new job about which I was passionate but which forced me to confront devastating realities on a daily basis. My family lost our beloved grandmother unexpectedly to a stroke and a cat I had newly adopted had to be put to sleep within just a few months. My first real relationship ended painfully after several months of long distance and the person I had loved suffered a breakdown. I was alone, in deep pain that never seemed to quit, and my faith held on by the barest thread. My therapist validated my experience and helped me work through my depression, but that alone could not provide me the comfort I needed.

My mother suggested that I might find solace in becoming part of a faith community again and, for once heeding her advice, I began attending Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Austin, TX each Sunday. I sat in a back corner, barely spoke to anyone, came in late and left early. But week after week I heard scripture and sermons, sang hymns, and watched the life of that faith community unfold around me. More often than not, I wept silently throughout the service feeling both pain at my own struggles and joy at knowing that a world existed beyond them and that I had place in that world too.

There was comfort to be had for me there. Comfort to be had in both the humility of knowing the world was much larger than me and the recognition that my presence, too, mattered.

There is a Jewish oral teaching called the Two Pockets often attributed to a rabbi named Simcha Bunim of Pesishka. It goes like this: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the universe created.”

But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”

The comfort for Job and for us in this song of God’s out of the whirlwind is the tension between its extremes. We indeed worship a God who has created a vast universe down to its most intricate details. But that same God has created us each with the same intricate intention and deemed the universe incomplete without us. The frustrating reality of a God who will not drop everything to comfort and placate us is also the profoundly comforting reality of a God who will never, ever, for any reason and for even a moment drop any one of us. Who even while balancing the entirety of creation in her hands will sing a song of wonder for us from a whirlwind.

The proof of God’s care and concern for us is all around us. For who else but a steadfastly loving Creator would design a world of such loving detail? And who else but a steadfastly loving Creator would grant us a part in the magnificent unfolding of that world?

In the end, God’s message to Job isn’t so different from Walt Whitman’s answer in the poem that Mr. Keating recites to his students in the Dead Poets Society. As the movie unfolds, the boys explore new dreams and push the restrictive boundaries of their world more and more. Eventually, things come to a head when one boy’s pursuit of acting against the wishes of his father leads to a fight and then, tragically, the boy’s suicide. The parents accuse Mr. Keating of inciting their son with ridiculous notions, and he is fired, while the other boys are left to their grief and questioning and a system that still seeks to control them.

It seems at the end, that the pain and the struggle have won. It seems that all that Mr. Keating has done to teach these boys that the world is vast and wondrous and wondrous too is their part in it—all of that inspired teaching will end in nothing but more pain and destruction. But then, as Keating gathers his belongings and quietly makes his way out of the classroom, one boy after another stands on top of his desk and calls out, “O Captain, my captain.” Another Whitman reference and a resounding witness to the truths that Keating has taught them. They get it. There is a bigger world and a bigger hope. They get it.

Job gets it too. After God’s song Job is awestruck and apologetic. He remains steadfast in his faith and in time his pain gives way to new joy.

Do we get it too? The strange comfort to be found in the vastness of God’s creation? Will we walk outside this day and breath in the crisp autumn air, behold the crests of the waves on Lake Michigan and the falling colored leaves, and find comfort there for whatever pains we carry? Will we hear the song of God singing for us in the whirl of the wind and know that our  hope rests not in a God who loves any one of us more than everything else, but in a God who loves all of us every bit as much as each intricately woven, beloved thing? Will we trust and believe that God does not drop everything for us but holds us all and always in loving arms? In our joy and in our pain, in our hope and in our hurting, in the precious space of tension between the universe and ashes.

A Poem for Magictober

I’m fond of the impolite gust
That the first of October brings.
That chill that creeps across your skin
Like a sly smile and a sideways glance
I want in on that adventure
I want to be up to something
October is my month
Of up to somethings
It unfolds like so much
mischief
Like the wonder of
Maybe just believing for awhile

The heavy shuffles off,
And settles to the ground
And in its going
glows with new color
I can marvel at and glory in
And let go
Unencumbered
Giddy somewhere deep
With the stir
Of as yet unrecognized
Possibilities

Yes,
This is a magic I can believe in
Because who knows
In this month of days
That open like gifts
Who knows
What the gust
Will bring?