This Week’s Sermon – Overflowing!

SCRIPTURE – Psalm 23 –

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
    he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

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SERMON
Overflowing!
Psalm 23
Sept. 25, 2016

Don’t worry, you didn’t accidentally walk into a funeral service this morning. This scripture might make you feel that way, since the only time we hear it read these days is at a memorial or graveside service. And that makes sense, because the themes of comfort and protection in this psalm are soothing during times of grief and loss. But I want to ask the same question about this psalm that I ask about your savings account. Why wait until you die and let someone else enjoy what this passage has to offer? There’s a message for us here today about what it means to follow God.

Our church was honored this weekend to host the Regional Assembly for all of the Disciples churches in Kentucky. It was wonderful to gathering with our brothers and sisters across the state to worship, work, and fellowship. The theme of this year’s assembly was “Grounded, Growing, Overflowing!” and I thought that pretty well captures where we are at Crestwood. We’re grounded in the love of God and the Good News of Jesus Christ; we’re growing in space and in spirit; and we are overflowing with the blessings God has given us. I was walking through the South Wing this week, and I’m concerned it’s already too small for all the babies and kids who are here. Anyone want to pay to add a second floor? That’s about the best problem I could imagine having. God’s blessings truly overflow for us.

That’s certainly true for us as individuals, as well. But if you’re like me, it’s easy to take that for granted. Most of us live pretty comfortable lives, so we’re not challenged to rely on God for our basic necessities. We’re not driven to our knees in prayer by the weight of our trials or forced to depend on God’s grace for our next meal. And that influences how we see God. Our experiences shape our theology. So if we feel like we need saving from something, including ourselves, God is our savior. If we feel like we are under attack, God is our fortress. And if we feel like we are blessed, then God is the one we should thank for our blessings…if we remember.

Psalm 23 proposes another metaphor for God, that God is our shepherd. The psalm was written by David, who spent his younger years as a shepherd before being crowned king of Israel. It’s the same metaphor Jesus uses in the John passage Trish read. The problem with this image is that not many of us can relate to it today. While my family and I were in Ireland this summer we visited a working sheep farm, and it felt like a throwback to another century. There aren’t a lot of want ads for shepherds on CareerBuilder.com, so we may not be able to connect to the power of this image.

W. Phillip Keller, a shepherd and pastor, wrote this great book called, “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.” It was written the same year I was born, which means the book is about 29 years old, but Keller’s wisdom and experience is helpful in understanding how this psalm about taking care of sheep applies to us non-shepherds today.

To understand the role of the Good Shepherd, you first have to understand sheep. If God is the shepherd, that means we are the sheep. I learned in our brief encounter with sheep in Ireland that they are stubborn, smelly, slobbering animals. How do you like being compared to THAT? Please check your neighbor for drool to confirm whether or not this is true. Taking care of these animals was a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week commitment. The shepherds literally gave their lives to caring for their sheep.

Their dedication was so strong and they spent so much time with the sheep that the shepherd would come to know each sheep by name. “There’s Fluffy, our best wool producer; there goes Tubby, who never stops eating; and see the one over there, the one with three legs and half an ear missing? That’s Lucky.” The shepherd knew each sheep by name, just as God knows each of us by name. And because of our shepherd’s dedication, we don’t want for anything.

I learned an important difference between cows and sheep. For a farmer to move a cow, they have to be herded from behind. But sheep will follow their shepherd. It’s a lot easier to lead a church from the front than pushing from the back, and the view’s a lot better, too. That’s why the shepherd can lead the sheep to green pastures and still waters. Sheep don’t go anywhere that the shepherd hasn’t gone first. And if left to their own devices, sheep would stay in one place all day and never move. Unlike all of us, sheep don’t like change. Unless someone shows them something better, they’ll settle for what they have.

When I was growing up, we had a wonderful Chesapeake Bay retriever named Beau. He was an awesome dog, but he had a nasty habit of drinking out of the toilets. Even if his water dish was completely full, if he walked by the bathroom he be like, “Hey, open bar!” I would call his name and lead him to his water bowl, and he’d look at me like, “Wow! Who put this here? This is great!”

Sheep do the same thing. They’ll drink the same polluted water or eat the same burnt grass or make the same bad choices or think the same destructive thoughts because they think that’s all there is. But the shepherd shows us…er, them…a better way, greener pastures, more peaceful waters. Did I mention sheep are stubborn animals? Thank God for guidance of the shepherd.

But guidance isn’t the only thing the shepherd provides. He also gives us protection. When the shepherds like King David would take their sheep out, they would lead the flocks up onto mountains to find the greenest grass that grew after the snows melted. But sheep can’t go straight up mountains; there are simply no hiking boots in their size. So the shepherd would have to take the gentlest grade possible, which often meant going through valleys. These valleys were prime locations for predators, who would perch up high and swoop down on the sheep as they passed through. It was like a woolly dessert cart rolling through the valley. So the shepherd’s job was the lead the sheep through the valleys without them getting eaten.

What the shepherds knew was that the only way to the top of the mountain was to go through the valley. We’ve been there, haven’t we? One day life is grand and the next day we’re in the shadow of the hospital room or funeral home. And what this psalm reminds us is that God is standing there with us. Notice it doesn’t say that the shepherd walks the sheep into the valley or around the valley; it says they go through the valley together. We may not be able to see the other side of the valley, but if our shepherd has walked into it with us, then the shepherd will walk out of it with us, too.

On that journey, the shepherd uses tools to help keep the sheep on the right path. The rod and the staff were used to ward of predators and keep the sheep from wandering off a cliff. If a sheep started to stray from the safe path, the shepherd would gently tap it with the end of the staff as a way of course correction. Have you ever felt that divine nudge, helping you put your feet back on solid ground after you’ve begun slipping? The Good Shepherd is always watching out for us.

Another role of the shepherd was to make sure the sheep didn’t eat anything harmful, because sheep aren’t too concerned about being gluten-free or not eating poisonous plants. The shepherd would often go ahead of the sheep to a grazing area and meticulously pull out all the noxious weeds and toxic flowers. The shepherd was preparing the table from which the sheep would feast. And the shepherd would often rub a homemade concoction of oil on the sheep’s head, which acted as an insect repellent and kept the sheep safe from infection.

So you can see the shepherd had a big and important job, and that was to keep the sheep safe and fed and happy. How’s God doing as your shepherd? Do you have a home to live in? Do you have food to eat? Are you comfortable and happy and blessed? Then I’d say, along with Psalm 23, that our cups overflow. Therefore, and there’s always a therefore when naming God’s blessings in our lives, we are called to share that overflow with others. The whole concept of “overflow” is that it means you have more than you need. God is an abundant giver, pouring out on us love and grace and blessings far more than we’ll ever need. God doesn’t do this to be wasteful; God does this to teach us generosity. As we have been given, so we give.

As we start our Stewardship Campaign today, we have the opportunity to be blessings to others. As you consider what amount to put on your pledge cards in a few weeks, I hope you’ll remember all the kids who are learning about the love of Jesus here. I hope you’ll think about all the parents of those kids, who are finding support here as they ride the roller-coaster of parenthood. I hope you’ll remember the adults who are deepening their faith, getting to know and experience and connect with God in new ways. I hope you’ll smile as you think about our older folks, who are receiving care and cards and visits from their church family. And I trust you will think about all the people who aren’t a part of this church whose lives are changed though our outreach ministries and the open doors of our Mission Center. As you think about what to give, I hope you’ll remember how you have received in such abundant ways, how you have been guided and protected by the Good Shepherd.

There was an elderly lady in my home church, Louise, who as the epitome of a ray of sunshine. Anytime you asked Louise how she was doing, she’d say, “I’m drinking from the saucer.” At first, I didn’t know what that meant. Did she not have cups at her house? Was she a cat? At least she didn’t say, “I’m drinking from the toilet!” Then I found this poem by John Paul Moore, and suddenly what Louise was saying – and living out – all made sense:

I’ve never made a fortune, And I’ll never make one now
But it really doesn’t matter ‘Cause I’m happy anyhow

As I go along my journey I’m reaping better than I’ve sowed
I’m drinking from the saucer ‘Cause my cup has overflowed

I don’t have a lot of riches, And sometimes the going’s tough
But with kin and friends to love me I think I’m rich enough

I thank God for the blessings That His mercy has bestowed
I’m drinking from the saucer ‘Cause my cup has overflowed

He gives me strength and courage When the way grows steep and rough
I’ll not ask for other blessings for I’m already blessed enough

May we never be too busy To help bear another’s load
Then we’ll all be drinking from the saucer When our cups have overflowed

 

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Finding God…at Home

This sermon concludes my series on the different places we can find God around us.

SCRIPTURE – Rev. 21:1-4 – Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

SERMON
Finding God…at Home

Rev. 21:1:4
September 18, 2016

You all probably know I’m a huge baseball fan. While on sabbatical this summer, I was able to see games in four different stadiums, including the opportunity to go on the field after the game in the home of my beloved Cincinnati Reds. I was reflecting on my love of baseball this week as I was thinking about the meaning of home. Almost every sport has as its goal the conquest of the enemy’s territory, penetrating their controlled area in order to deposit a football, a basketball, or a puck in the other team’s goal or end zone. But not baseball. There’s no time limit, no “us vs. them” territory, and the goal is not conquest. The goal of baseball is to get to home. After all my travels this summer, that resonated deeply with me. But I also realize home can become so familiar that we forget its spiritual dimension. Where is God in our homes?

We conclude our sermon series today called “Finding God,” in which we’ve searched for God in some of the most taken-for-granted places, like the ground under our feet, the water, and the neighbor. As I reflect on the ways I experienced God on my travels during my three-month sabbatical this summer, I have been exploring with where to find the God I met out there now that I’m back here.

Maybe the easiest place to take this for granted is in our own homes. These places become so familiar to us, and their uses so utilitarian, that it’s easy to forget that our homes are meant to be sanctuaries, both in terms of safety and in terms of God’s presence. Home is the place where we can unwind, let our guard down, be ourselves, but do we see our homes as God’s dwelling places as well as ours? The Revelation passage reminds us that, “The home of God is among mortals” and that God dwells with us. When we cross the threshold of our homes, do we remember that we’re standing on holy ground?

I posted a question on Facebook this week asking people to define what “home” meant. I received 35 comments, which included everything from warm, heartfelt responses about comfort and safety to this pithy answer: “It’s where my laundry gets done.” Most of the comments could be separated into two categories: home as defined by family, the other people who shared that space, and home as related to feelings or emotions like love and comfort.

One definition I didn’t hear in those responses was that home was a building. That makes more sense for younger generations, who’ve most likely moved more than their elders. I would bet that gone are the days were people will live in one house for 40 or 50 years, which was not uncommon just a few decades ago. I was adding it up this week, and by the time I was 18 I had lived in seven different homes, and I’ve lived in nine more since then. So for me and many others, the definition of home is not tied to a particular physical location.

The most popular response to the meaning of “home” was tied to family. Home is wherever our loved ones are. Of course, the definition of family has changed a lot recently. It used to be that a family, at least as society defined it, was a husband, wife, 2.5 kids and a dog named Rover. Folks who fit that definition were families, and those who didn’t were pitied, because they were somehow missing out on the benefits of being a family.

That’s ironic, because I’ve read the Bible a few times and have yet to find this prototypical nuclear family. In fact, the word “nuclear” isn’t even in the Bible! Instead, I’ve found a lot of other kinds of families. Let’s see, there’s a naked, childless couple living in a garden (their kids come later); a tribal patriarch with several wives and handmaidens who bear his children; a very popular king with a harem of women; several arranged or coerced marriages; and an unmarried man who hung around with 12 other guys. Oh, and by the way, he was the product of an unwed teenage mother. No sign of Rover anywhere. The modern definition of “family” is messy these days, almost as messy as the Bible’s definition

And yet, whether it’s a single person, a Brady Bunch menage of step- and half-kids, an empty nest, a same-sex couple, a rainbow of adopted or foster kids, or a widow or widower, all the ingredients are there to make a home, because as many of my respondents said, home is as much a disposition or feeling as it is a building. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “It is a sacred location, a place of aspiration and dreams, of learning and habit, or relationships and heart. It’s a place where we can be truly ourselves.”

When Sydney was about two years old, we lived in Columbus, Ind., while I was in seminary. It wasn’t easy being cooped up in our small apartment with an energetic toddler, so Leigh would often take Syd out into the community to let her burn off some steam. One day, they pulled into the parking lot of Target, one of our favorite destinations in Columbus. When Syd looked over and saw the familiar red Target sign, she exclaimed, “We’re home!” Homes come in many different forms.

Home is also the place where we learn how to be in this world. As the location of our primary influences, home is not only where we CAN be who we are, but it’s where we LEARN to be who we are – fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, friends, family. Home is the habitat where we learn the habits we use when we leave that place.

When I do premarital counseling with a couple, one of the things we spend time on is their family of origin. We look at the environment they grew up in, because that is usually a major determining factor in the kind of home they will create as husband and wife. If their home life growing up was contentious or detached or chaotic, I guarantee their new home will mirror that. What we learn at home becomes a part of who we are. If we learn kindness at home, it’s easier to practice kindness in the world. If we learn violence at home, it’s harder to resist doing the same in the world. If we hug our kids, they will learn to hug others. If we yell at our kids, they’ll learn to yell at others.

Butler Bass calls our homes “incubators” for our first habits, which are the repeated actions that form our characters. It’s the place where we are formed and transformed. The TV channel that plays most prevalently at our house is HGTV. I’m not big on the arrangement of furniture and arguments over paint color, so I jokingly nicknamed it “Hoochy Goochy TV.” But I recognize that there’s power in what HGTV shows offer. It’s not cut-throat reality TV or toxic 24-hour news. It’s a channel full of shows about making a home, and that brings us comfort because it reminds us of the refreshing possibility that broken things can be fixed and run-down things can be restored. That’s so down-right spiritual, I think we should call it “Home with God TV.”

As I think about our homes, I think there are two places in them where we learn our habits and that embody most powerfully the presence of our comforting, transforming God. The first place is the doorway. The door is what lets us keep our families safe, the location where we can control who does and doesn’t enter our safe places. But a door is not just about keeping people out; it’s also about letting people in.

On my sabbatical, three different times I used AirBnB to book lodging. AirBnB lets people with extra room in their homes advertise it as a place for travelers to stay. We stayed in the guest house of a home in LA; the finished basement of a house in DC; and the extra room in an apartment in New York City. In each place, the home owner extended hospitality to us, opening up their homes for these strangers to use for rest and renewal. We were welcomed in like Abraham welcomed the three travelers, and the invitation to pass through those doors made those spaces home for us, if just for a few days. How do we practice hospitality at our doors? Who do we invite in? Who do we keep out?

The other location in the home that embodies the transformative presence of God is the kitchen table. As I write this, I’m looking at our kitchen table, which has seen better days. It has lots of dents and scratches, there are crayon and marker stains from various craft projects, and at least one of the legs wobbles. But it is our table, the place we commune together to share a meal and much more.

I was having lunch with Virginia Long in her home earlier this year, and she was telling me about the table at which we were sitting. Over some delicious cheese biscuits, she told me the story of how the table was a gift from her husband’s co-worker, and how she restored that table to usefulness. That table became the centerpiece of their home. Virginia writes in her blog, “A surprising number of snapshots that span half a century represent good times spent around our table. I can’t think of a single memory that isn’t a pleasant one. We’ve all heard the expression, ‚If these walls could talk…’ and one of my daughters laughingly remarked recently that if our table could speak, ‚Oh, the stories it could tell.’ It is indeed a table of contents.”

Our tables are our personal altars, places of sacrifices and blessings, locations of conversations about school or lost loves, the bearer of stories about heart-to-heart talks and epic games of Monopoly. Our tables are the places where we are fed and nourished, and that has nothing to do with food. The table reminds us that at the center of our lives is a feast in which we celebrate the gifts of food and community, and remember those who came before us and those who made this meal possible, and give thanks to the One who is the true Giver of all our gifts. It’s the place we live out the economy of love we’ve been taught, the place where we practice gratitude and hospitality, the place where we remember how blessed we are to have enough.

When we pass through our doorway, when we sit down at our table, let us remember that the overarching theme of the Bible is that of God’s people searching for a home. And still today, in our world there are many, many people in our world who are out of place – immigrants, people dislocated by war, famine, conflict, religious persecution, economic hardship. How are we extending hospitality to those who are wandering? How are we cooking a feast to share with those who don’t have a table?

I found God this summer in all the places we traveled, and the God I met there was so much bigger, more majestic, more mysterious than I could have ever imagined. But my biggest surprise was returning to Lexington to find that same God was here, too. My prayer is that we see that God in the most common places around us, and realize that God’s presence transforms them into sanctuaries, into holy ground. The promise of the Bible is that, ultimately, we will find our home in God, who has come to dwell among us in the form of Jesus Christ. And in Christ, in the grace and forgiveness and acceptance he offers, we are truly home.

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Finding God…in the Neighbor

This is the third sermon in a series called “Finding God,” where we are looking for God in the most routine places around us. Is the God of the Really Awesome Places also the God of Lexington?

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 22:34-40 – 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

SERMON
Finding God…
#3 – …in the Neighbor
Matthew 22:34-40
September 11, 2016

In this passage, Jesus gives a command that he puts on par with loving God, and that is to love our neighbor. How are we doing with that? I read a quote recently by spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, who said, “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear and do harm.” Pretty spot-on, right? That was written in the 1970s, and in the subsequent 40 years, we haven’t gotten any better at loving our neighbor. And yet, by not doing so, are be missing an opportunity to encounter God.

We’re in the midst of a sermon series called “Finding God,” in which we’re exploring the places we can find God around us, including the most mundane, taking-for-granted ones. This series stems from my recently completed three-month sabbatical, where I experienced God in some amazing places. Is the God of those places also the God of Lexington? And if so, where around here can we find God?

The word “neighbor” comes from the Old English words for “near dweller.” A neighborhood is formed when people settle into a certain geographical area and make it hospitable. That makes me think that my neighbors are those who live close to me, but we all know that just living on the same street doesn’t make someone our neighbor. So what makes someone our neighbor?

I’m remembering Mrs. Blackwell, who lived next door to Mom and me on Ellison Ave. in Louisville. I was a latch-key kid, with complete freedom from the time I got home from school until Mom rolled in from work. I often ended up at Mrs. Blackwell’s house, where she had a snack waiting for me. Her son, James, let me play his state-of-the-art Atari 2600 videogame system. He even had Space Invaders! They looked out for me, the only child of a young single mother. They were neighbors to us.

Could you imagine letting your kids roam freely and unsupervised for three hours today, flitting in and out of neighbors’ houses? Neighborhoods have changed a lot. People have gotten busier. Kids are involved in tons of after-school activities. In most households, both parents work, leaving less time for socializing. And we’ve become more keenly aware of the dangers that exist around us. Every time a car I don’t recognize turns down our cul-de-sac, red flags go up. The events of 9/11 were 15 years ago, and yet the fear fueled by that event still has a grip on our hearts. Our world has made it a lot harder to be good neighbors to each other.

That’s not the only way neighborhoods are changing. As older people move out, new people move in, and they bring with them different values, lifestyles, and ways of relating. We no longer can guarantee that the people who live around us also look like us or think like us. When our family moved here, we settled on Hunters Rest Ct., an 11-house cul-de-sac in southeast Lexington. At the time, our girls were the only kids on the block, and we were surrounded by an eclectic cast of characters, including a neighbor on one side we called “Crazy Mary” and a neighbor on the other who had a pool but never used it. It drove our girls crazy! We threatened to tear down the fence between our yards and rebuild it around the pool so it was a part of our backyard.

Slowly, we began to see turnover. At one point, there were three houses in our cul-de-sac for sale. Leigh and I tried not to take that personally. As of today, there are 16 kids on our cul-de-sac, and our little street includes a single Muslim mom and her two kids; a lesbian couple; a mixed-ethnicity Catholic family; a non-church-going good ol’ boy, his wife, and three kids; and a pastor and his family.

Our neighborhoods are changing. As human beings, we’re conditioned to group together around like-mindedness, and when the family next door doesn’t look like you or believe like you or eat the same food as you, there’s less of a motivation to get to know them. My non-religious neighbor faced this when he was considered buying the house next door. I was outside one day when they were looking at the house, so I walked over and introduced myself. We exchanged pleasantries, include what we did for a living. About a year or so after moving in, he confided in me that they almost didn’t buy the house, because he said he couldn’t imagine living next to a minister. Now he lets us use the pool anytime we want. But in most cases, if we don’t know or don’t like the person next door, we plant hedges, we put up privacy fences, we close our garage doors before someone sees us. We’re not always good at being neighbors.

Our neighborhoods may be changing, but the Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” is still the same. A lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” so Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish man is beaten, robbed, and left to die. Two Jewish religious leaders see him and pass by, but a Samaritan stops to help. Samaritans were in many ways the cultural enemy of the Jews, so this twist in the story would have been unsettling to Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Jesus ends the story by asking the lawyer, “So, who in this story was the neighbor?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

So, according to Jesus, a neighbor is not defined by proximity or similarity, but by only one criteria: the ability to show mercy. The command to be a good neighbor is not exclusive to Christianity. Jews follow the teaching in the Hebrew Bible, which says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Hindu scripture reminds its followers, “This is the sum of duty: do naught unto another which would cause you pain if done to you.” And listen to these words: “Worship God and join none with Him in worship, and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, the poor, the neighbor who is near of kin, the neighbor who is a stranger, the companion by your side the wayfarer you meet.” Sounds a little like the 10 Commandments, doesn’t it? It’s from the Koran, the Islamic holy book. In fact, that book teaches that it is an offense to Allah if a person harms or annoys their neighbor. You can’t even annoy your neighbor? If that’s the case, I wouldn’t make a very good Muslim.

If every religion teaches the importance of being good neighbors, why are followers of every religion so bad at it? I think a lot of it has to do with the fear I mentioned earlier. Fear brings out our basest instincts and narrows our sense of belonging to self-preservation. When we feel threatened, we’re less likely to extend hospitality and mercy, and more likely to cluster in groups with those who look and think like us. Certainly, the events on this day 15 years ago heightened that fear in us. We feel safer when we see ourselves in those around us. In the Old Testament, the Israelites would often kill and conquer their neighbors rather than interact with them. That’s easy to do when they don’t worship the same God you do. But what do you do when you worship the God of all nations, the Creator of all tribes? What do you do when the call to show mercy doesn’t have a privacy fence around it?

Maybe you start by living out Jesus’ command. A year ago, one of our neighbors, Olawa, the Muslim woman, lost her brother when he was shot and killed at a park in Lexington. The family was struggling, not only with their deep grief, but with paying for the funeral. My first inclination was to keep to myself. Olawa is fairly private, and while I felt badly for her, this wasn’t my loss. But our kids had played together; we’d help shovel each other’s driveway; we’d shared food together at a cul-de-sac cookout. So several of us pooled together some money and delivered it to Olawa. We stood there on her porch – Catholics, Christians, Muslims, none of the above – and expressed our condolences and shared our shock and shed our tears. In our clumsy way, we did our best to show mercy.

The challenge for us in being good neighbors today is not only stepping out of our comfort zone; it’s also that the boundaries of our neighborhood have been blurred by technology. In the Good Ol’ Days, your neighborhood was defined by how far you could ride your bike before your mom got mad. But now, because of the internet, our world is a giant neighborhood. When I wake up in the morning, I look out our bedroom window to make sure everything in the cul-de-sac is in order. But then I read my email, or check a news website, or log into Facebook. By the middle of the day, I’ve checked on hundreds of people. I’ve sent them a text, or like their post, or commented on their status by saying, “I’m praying for you,” which is like delivering a virtual casserole to their doorstep. Some of them live next door, some of them live across town, and some of them live around the world. And yet they are all my neighbors, they are my spiritual “near dwellers,” because they have given and received mercy.

I had the chance to meet many of these neighbors this summer on sabbatical, and was reminded that each one of them had an amazing life, a story, a dream. There was Holly and Hank, the young couple who just had their first child and opened a BBQ food truck in Talkeetna, Alaska, to help make ends meet. Believe me, I didn’t want to eat all that BBQ, but I sacrificed in order to support their worthy cause. There was James, the church custodian of North Hollywood Christian Church, who opened his home and let me use his shower when I was running late. There was Red, the ice cream truck vendor in New York City who was working that job to pay his way through school as he earned his MBA. I don’t live near any of those folks, but they are neighbors because each in their own way showed me mercy.

So how do we deal with the Samaritan down the street, the one who painted her shutters that awful color, the one who uses his leaf blower at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, the one who has that other candidate’s sign in her yard? It might serve us well to remember the etymology of neighbor, which is “near dweller.” That term reminds me of someone else who chose to dwell near us, who moved from far off in order to be close to us, who took up an abode here on earth in order to abide with us. God, in the form of Jesus Christ, is our near-dweller, our neighbor, and each person who lives around us is the embodiment of that incarnation. God lives in the neighborhood with us, whether locally or globally, and therefore each person is worthy of mercy.

We have the power in our lives to draw our boundaries however we would like. We can put up our fences, close our doors, avoid eye contact, choose not to connect with people different than us. But I don’t remember Jesus every encouraging us to keep to ourselves. Instead, he called us to go out into the world, sharing God’s love and showing God’s mercy, because that’s what it means to be a good neighbor. On this day, when we remember how or world changed 15 years ago, do you think we could change this world again if we all tried to extend mercy to each other? Go and do likewise.

 

 

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Bored

This summer, while on sabbatical from my work as a minister, I decided to disconnect from social media. Completely. Like, not even trolling. Those who know me know how monumental a decision this was for me. I’m usually on Facebook like paparazzi on a Kardashian. I had several church members seriously doubt if I could do it, and several more concerned about my mental state if I actually did it. “Will you be OK?” “What will you do?”

Fair question. Email and social media take up a good chunk of my time and attention. I 18a8559spin this by saying it’s part of my ministry. I often learn more about a church member’s circumstances through their Facebook posts than through our face-to-face interactions on Sunday morning. Through my “likes” and comments, I can offer support, encouragement, prayers, and reminders of God’s presence.

That’s the official answer to why I was on Facebook so much. The unofficial answer? I was afraid of being bored. My generation was the first to be introduced to the personal computer, which provided the life-changing option of a second screen (beyond the good ol’ boob tube). Two shiny, flashing things to hold my attention? Hello, multi-tasking! In college, it wasn’t unusual to find me with the TV on, typing on a computer, reading a book, and sometimes playing a CD in the background. It’s amazing I ever graduated.

But now, my brain is conditioned to focus on several things at once. Checking Facebook, sending a text message, watching Netflix, writing a sermon…often at the same time and in that order of focus. Because of this, I don’t calm easily. My mantra is, “Be still…but first check that notification.” I knew, going into sabbatical, that for my time away to be fruitful, I needed to remove some of the distractions that keep me from settling. So, for three months, no Facebook. No work email. No groan-inducing puns. No comments on my woeful Reds. My screen went blank.

Almost immediately, I was bored. “Well, NOW what do I do?” my over-functioning brain 1c00898said as it ran in circles like a dog chasing its tail. No dings or chimes. No little red numbers on my apps signifying someone wanted my attention. No chance to comment on cute baby pictures or friends’ running logs.

When I once complained to my step-father that I had nothing to do, he responded, “Only small minds get bored.” I took it as an insult at the time (come to think of it, it probably was!) but now I sense a deeper truth there. The creative side of my brain had atrophied due to years of bombardment from numbing stimuli, so that when that switch was flipped off, my brain took a while to reorient, like a person groping their way through the dark until their eyes adjust.

But when I did finally adjust, something sparked inside me. Here’s the best way I can get at it, thanks to British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, who wrote this about boredom and children: “Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching toward a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which is real desire can crystallize…the capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for a child.”[1]

Or a multi-tasking, screen-using, social-media addict like me. With social media no longer an option, when I came to a stopping point in my day, I didn’t have the option of filling that void with a news feed or status update. I just had to sit with lack of something to do, which was very unnerving for this “go-go-go” guy.

You probably don’t remember the big-budget movie from 1989 called “The Abyss.” There’s a scene where Ed Harris is preparing for a radically deep sea dive, and in order to prepare, he has to fill his lungs with a special liquid that will allow him to breath at dangerous depths. As his lungs fill with the fluid, he starts thrashing about like he’s drowning, unable to breathe. At one point, he loses consciousness. But a few seconds later, he revives, breathing at a normal rate with this special liquid in his lungs.

 

For me, boredom was that liquid. At first, as it filled the space within me, I started thrashing about, fighting back against what felt like suffocation. But once I let the boredom fill me, I started to breathe. I mean deep, deep breaths, the kind you take when you come up for air from an underwater handstand, or when you leave a musty conference room and walk out into a sunny day.

My boredom drove me to recapture some of the creative focus I had lost over years of multi-tasking. I started writing again, voraciously. I devoured books like they were slathered with BBQ sauce. I went to worship, spent time with my family, traveled, goofed around. I did some cool things. What I didn’t do was pull out my phone every five seconds to check for updates. I didn’t fall down click-bait rabbit holes about hidden messages in “Avenger” movies or the 10 ugliest celebs without makeup. I didn’t take pictures of what I saw in order to post it on Facebook. I actually SAW what I was seeing. Without the stimulus of social media, I was able to think my own thoughts, instead of commenting on someone else’s. I was able to be present in the moment, not pre-occupied about how this would play to my “friends.” And – thank God for small gifts – I was able to avoid all political commentary. Lord, help us.

I’m back from sabbatical now and back on social media. As much as it may sound like an attempt to rationalize (or “rational lies”), it IS a ministry tool for me. But with my Facebook fast under my belt, I’m better able to draw lines around my social media usage, leaving time in my life for the things I’ve rediscovered that truly feed me or help me take a step forward in my faith. As Phillips said, in that empty time I can feel my hope being negotiated as I both wait for something and look for something. What is that something? Well now, I guess I’ll just have to be bored a little more to find out.

[1] Phillips, Adam. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life. 1998.

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Finding God…in the Water

This is the second sermon in a series about the different places we can find God around us.

SCRIPTURE – John 4:7-15 – A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

SERMON
Finding God…in the Water
John 4:7-15
September 4, 2016

We continue our sermon series today called “Finding God,” in which we’re looking at the different places around us where we encounter the living God. This series stems from my recent three-month sabbatical, during which I was able to experience God in some amazing places. Now that I’m back home in Lexington, can we find the same God here that I found out there? I believe so, if we only know where to look. Last week we found God by looking at the ground underneath our feet. Today, we’ll look for God in our most common and precious source of life.

I grew up on the banks of the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Ind. For me, the river was always there, so much so that I kind of forgot about it. It’s like the story of two young fish who are swimming along and pass an older fish, who says to them,” Hey boys, how’s the water?” A little later, one fish turns to the other and says, “What the heck is water?” The Ohio was what it was: an ugly brown body of water, a barrier to get across, another dull feature in the landscape. I took its water for granted.

I wonder if folks who grew up in Lexington feel the same way about water, but for a different reason. Because I grew up near water, it became invisible. But there’s no water flowing through Lexington, no river to remind us of its power or beauty. Other than a few small creeks and streams, water is not a regular part of our landscapes. In Lexington, we also take water for granted.

That’s easy to do, since water is so easy to find, easy to use, easy to discard. Buy a bottle at the store, turn on your sink, even press a button on your fridge, and water is right there. Clean, clear, refreshing. Under control. A commodity to be used to make our lives easier, cleaner. I talked a few weeks ago how I had become so familiar with God that I had domesticated God. In our modern times, we’ve taken the element that carved the Grand Canyon and fills the oceans and domesticated it. To us, water is just…water.

That’s not completely a bad thing. I like a hot shower just as much as anyone. But by taming this source of life, not only have we learned to take it for granted, but we’ve forgotten the power that water has. In our passage today, Jesus compares the life he has to offer to H2O, presenting himself as “living water.” I wonder how we would treat our water differently if we saw its divine qualities.

In the Bible, water is anything but domesticated, and certainly never taken for granted. It’s feared for the power it holds. Back then, no one knew what was under the water, so it had this dangerous, mysterious quality to it. It was thought to be the locus of evil and home of the great sea monster Leviathan. From the very beginning, in Genesis 1, we see God’s spirit hovering over the waters, bringing order to chaos. Not long after that, God sends water to the earth to wipe out evil humanity, only rescuing Noah and his family in the ark. Just a book later, God provides an escape for the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by first parting the Red Sea, then causing it to come crashing down on the Egyptian soldiers. Water in the Bible was not to be messed with.

But just as it can take life away, it can also give it. Baby Moses is sent afloat on the waters of the Nile, where he is scooped up by Pharaoh’s daughter. When the Israelites are wandering in the desert, Moses is able to provide water from a rock to quench their thirst. The psalmist writes of how God leads him beside still waters as a way of restoring his soul. Water has the power to create life, or to destroy it. But we forget that when we can control it with the twist of a faucet knob.

The Bible takes our understanding of water a step further. Going beyond the literal power of water, biblical writers tap into its metaphorical power as a source of God’s providence and presence. One of the best examples is from the prophet Amos, who rails against the Israelites’ disobedience to God. Decrying their false and empty worship, God proclaims, “Let justice flow down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream!” Water’s presence in our lives is supposed to remind us of God’s presence, which brings justice, vitality, and the reminder of the gift of life.

Do we remember that when we’re watering the lawn or washing the dishes? Does water remind us of God’s presence when we see rain in the forecast? Every day I pour out glasses of water that were fixed and then forgotten, or run the sink for a few minutes to get hot water. Water is so available, so accessible, so free, that we forget its fragility, its finiteness.

There’s a lot of water on this planet. About 71% of the earth is covered in it. See, there’s plenty of water, right? Except that about 96% of that water is salt water, leaving only 4% fresh water. Two percent of that is in the form of ice, meaning we only have two percent of earth’s water to use, and only .3 percent of all the earth’s water is actually readily available to us. .3 percent. I’m suddenly aware of all the times I’ve left the water running while I brushed my teeth.

Why not just make more water? It sounds easy, right? Combine two molecules of hydrogen with one molecule of oxygen. But if you’ve seen the movie “The Martian,” you know that trying to make water can be a combustible process. Matt Damon almost blows up his space station trying to do it. We live on a pretty big space station, and sometimes it feels like we’re trying to blow it up in other ways, but trying to make water isn’t one of them. The water we have is the water we’ll have.

We might find more motivation for recognizing the divinity of water if we look backward, not forward. If we can’t create water, that means the water we have now is the water we’ve always had. The water in your water bottle may have been part of the Red Sea, or have borne Jesus’ footsteps when he walked on the Sea of Galilee, or was present at creation when God’s spirit hovered over it. Our water connects us back to creation and God’s story. It’s not just a commodity; it’s a reminder of God’s sacred presence with us.

I certainly became aware of this in all the ways I encountered water on my sabbatical. The town I stayed at in Alaska, Talkeetna, was at the confluence of three rivers – the Talkeetna, the Susitna, and the Chulitna, all derived from the Athabascan name for “river.” Standing at the confluence, the waters roared by, carrying large trees and boulders. The raw power of that water was scary.

I experienced water’s power in a much different way while standing at 180 Greenwich St. in New York City, site of the 9/11 Memorial. Two large caverns in the ground have been turned into in-ground waterfalls, with tons of water rushing from the surface into the holes left by the towers. The sound of the water is sobering, drowning out the noise of the city. That water carried the pain of the past and the hope of the future.

As we prepared to travel to Europe, the girls were excited to fly across the ocean, until they realized all that really meant was several hours of looking at an endless horizon of water. The vastness of the ocean was mesmerizing. And in Ireland, we saw the River Shannon at the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnoise. Spiritual pilgrims would follow the river in order to find the monastery. The river was literally the pathway to God for those early spiritual seekers.

Water plays such a powerful role in the lives of people around the world, but that’s easy for us to forget when we don’t have to rely on water in its natural form. We can push a button or turn a knob and have all the water we need. But in other places, the lack of clean, usable water is causing disease, drought, and death. For example, former farmers and fishermen in Middle Eastern countries are being driven off their land and into the cities, where, as they struggle to survive, they became more susceptible to joining radical religious groups. We may think the challenges of water are someone else’s problem, but they are ours, too. We are all connected by the waters that flow around us.

I remember vividly a story I read on CNN during the search for the lost Malaysian flight. Rescue planes over the Indian Ocean thought they spotted some debris from the downed flight, but instead it was report to be “just a floating pile of garbage.” A floating pile of garbage so big it could be seen from an airplane thousands of feet in the air. Does that make you mad? I admit it didn’t make me mad, because it wasn’t my water.

Of course, ultimately, it’s ALL our water, on loan to us from God. And the more we mistreat it, the more damage we do to our neighbors, our space station, and I would argue, to our understanding of and relationship with God. In England, we visited the city of Bath, which was the site of an ancient Roman worshipping community that had built up around a natural hot springs. The Romans believed that bubbling water signifying the presence of the goddess Minerva, so they built a temple on the site to honor her. The saw the divinity in their water.

I’d say Christians have done something similar. Rather than finding water and building a temple, we build a church and then include the water, in the form of a baptistery. That is holy water for us, and something transformative happens whenever someone enters into it. But – here’s a secret – at Crestwood, that water comes from a tap. Just like the water you use to boil green beans or water your hydrangeas. That knowledge might lessen your view of the holiness of our baptismal water, but I pray instead it elevates your view of the water use you every day. Every drop of water we have now was present at creation. Every drop of water, from the bathtub to the bottle to the baptistery, is holy water.

In the very first chapter of the Bible, we are told that God’s spirit hovered over the waters. In the very last chapter of the Bible, we read this: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” And then Jesus, in some of his last words, says, “Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

The living water offered to us through Jesus is truly a gift. But so is the literal water that flows around us. It is infused with God’s spirit, which has coursed through it from the beginning of creation. Every time you take a drink, or go swimming, or relax in the bath, remember you are encountering nothing less than the living presence of God, which has the power to fill us, refresh us, transform us.

 

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Finding God…in the Dirt

This sermon is the first in a series about the different places we can find God around us.

SCRIPTURE – Genesis 2:4-15 – In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; 12 and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

SERMON

Last week, I talked about how, before my three-month sabbatical, I had lost Big-G God and replaced God with a smaller, cheaper version. I shared with you the different ways I experienced Big-G God while on sabbatical, and how I’m now working to pay attention to God here at home, so that I don’t lose the mystery and the majesty I experienced while I was away. Today, we start a sermon series called, “Finding God.” I hope to share with you the different places and ways I found God while I was gone, and what that means for our life together now that we are reunited. Big-G God is here, if we know where to look.

One of my favorite purchases for my sabbatical was my first pair of hiking shoes. I thought it was kind of crazy that I’d never owned hiking shoes, until I remembered that I’d never hiked before. If you don’t hike, you don’t need hiking shoes. But I was planning on doing some hiking while I was in Alaska, so I thought I should at least look the part and get hiking shoes.

These shoes were pretty awesome. They were slick-looking, came from Eddie Bauer, and I got them at half-price. Score! I purchased them a few months before my sabbatical started so that I’d have plenty of time to break them in. So I started hiking. I wore them while hiking around Target. I wore them while hiking around Wal-Mart. They were waterproof, which came in handy when I stepped in a puddle while hiking from the parking lot to the mall. These shoes were ready for Alaska!

I got to put them to use my first day there. After checking into my hotel in Anchorage, I drove outside of town to Flat Top Mountain, a popular hiking site whose website included phrases like “easy-to-follow trail” and “low-key circuit tour.” It said that fit hikers can go up two or three different times. Hey, I’d hiked around Fayette Mall two or three times, so what’s a little mountain? My shoes and I were ready!

I found hiking up Flat Top Mountain to be pretty easy. As I was walking the trail, I looked up and saw the plateau at the top, and then a much larger mountain in the background. I said to my shoes, “Sure am glad we’re not climbing THAT one!” Then I realized the big mountain WAS Flat Top Mountain. My shoes immediately complained, “We can’t do that! We barely made it around the mall!” But I trudged ahead, because I didn’t want the money I spent on my shoes to go to waste. The “easy-to-follow” trail disappeared about two-thirds of the way up, blocked by a recent snow and huge mud ponds. I navigated my way around, finally making it to the top to enjoy the gorgeous view of downtown Anchorage and they bay beyond it. But then I looked down at my poor hiking shoes, covered in mud and snow. They looked like they had…well, climbed a mountain! And my first thought was, “Oh no! I got my hiking shoes dirty!” Take a minute to let the absurdity of that comment sink in.

I don’t like to get dirty. Growing up, I was not your typical boy. I had no desire to make mud pies or splash in puddles. I didn’t like dirt because it was so…dirty. Even as a boy scout, I preferred to stayed in my tent playing cards than go trapsing through the forest. I had what author Richard Louv calls “nature-deficit disorder.” Louv claims that many children today are living in a de-natured environment and are missing out on the benefits of spending time in God’s creation. He lifts up the example of a young boy who was asked his favorite place to play. The boy said, “I like to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” I bet that boy didn’t own any cool hiking shoes.

For the most part, we are a de-natured society, cut off from the land, surrounded by a buffer zone of technology and convenience that keeps us from having to interact with creation. For us, the land is one more thing to be controlled, mined, managed, in order to get what we want. We don’t feel any special kinship with dirt; dirt is something to be washed off and removed.

That’s a far cry from what the Bible tells us about our relationship to the land. In the Genesis passage we read, you’ll notice how God made the first man, Adam, whose name is derived from the Hebrew word for “dust.” God scooped up a palm-full of dirt and breathed life into it. Adam was literally animated dirt, and each one of us who have come after are made from the same material. We have a soul-deep connection to the ground around us. It’s not a commodity to be used up; it’s a part of us.

Land played an important role in the development of the Israelites’ story. When God comes to Abraham he promises him two things: ancestors and land. Moses leads the Israelites out of the land of Egypt toward the land flowing with milk and honey, the Promised Land. To be in that land was to be close to God, and the worst punishment the Israelites could suffer was being exiled from that land, which happened when they disobeyed God’s commands.

Jesus picked up on that theme, telling agriculturally-based parables about farmers clearing fields and seeds being scattered on different types of soil. The Bible animates creation, telling us that rocks cry out and rivers clap their hands and mountains sing for joy. You’ll remember that in the very first book of the Bible, when God made everything, first God made the earth, then humans. The earth was here before us. When we finally came along, it was because there was no one to till the ground, so God made us and gave us our marching orders to “keep the land.” The earth is alive, and we were created to be its custodians.

But we haven’t been very good at following those instructions, have we? The Industrial Revolution drove us off the land and into the cities. The soil became something to manage or remove. Farming has become a mechanical process of food production, not a relationship with the soil. And the church has done its share of the damage. By focusing on the importance of getting to heaven “up there,” we’ve sent the message that the earth “down here” is only a means to an end. We’ve lost our connection to the place from which we’ve come. And in doing so, we’ve demonized the very ground under our feet.

Does that sound too strong? Let me ask you this: as the saying goes, what is next to Godliness? Right, cleanliness. We often talk about baptism as washing away our sins, as if they are a layer of grime covering our soul. Salvation means cleansing us of our spiritual dirt. It’s only a short leap to say that anything unclean is unholy. Our dog, Sadie, loves to run around our yard, especially when it’s wet, so when she comes back in it looks like she’s wearing black boots. We playfully scold her about tracking dirt into the house. How dare she sully our pristine house, which we work hard to keep clean, by bringing in such earthy filth? Even the primary definition of dirt on Dictionary.com is biased: “any foul or filthy substance, such as mud, grime, dust, or excrement.” How did we get from the stuff God used to make human life to…excrement? We’ve lost our connection with the land.

That connection is one of the things I experienced most strongly while on sabbatical. I was blessed to see places where there’s not a Starbucks on every corner or a mall waiting to be shopped. On my flight-seeing tour of Denali in Alaska, we flew over parts of that state that were completely undeveloped. I don’t mean there weren’t any Walgreen’s; I mean there weren’t any roads. It was untamed, and it was a beautiful, because it’s something we so rarely see anymore – God’s creation being what it was created to be.

There are so few places like that around here, and I believe that’s created a hunger in each of us to reconnect with creation. Here’s an example: raise your hand if you have a garden at your house. The National Garden Association says that one in three households are now growing food, even in urban areas. We love going to farmer’s markets and eating at Kentucky Proud establishments. Leigh and I started a garden last year, three little plots with tomatoes and zucchini and green peppers. Leigh grew up in the country, so she gets all the credit for anything edible that we pick. But having a garden is a big step for this city boy. When I was young, I thought potatoes grew in bins at Kroger. But there’s something deeply satisfying about digging your hands into the dirt, planting a seed, watching it grow, reaping the benefits.

Obviously, there’s more at stake here than just some weekend hobby. Our land is responsible for feeding us, and yet we mistreat it to the point of crisis. Because of over-development and climate change, we are losing farmable soil four times faster than it can be replenished. As author Diane Butler Bass says, we literally need to gain ground in order to keep this planet alive. No soil, no food, no us.

But I would argue the crisis goes even deeper within us. There is a natural connection we have to the earth, one that’s been severed by our desire for progress. I certainly was a victim of that, and didn’t realize how much I was missing until I experienced God’s creation first-hand. Standing on the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska, watching the crystal blue water flow through tiny canyons as it carved its way down from the mountains. In Ireland, we saw sheep and cattle grazing in the green fields. In LA we saw put our toes in the ocean and saw seagulls swooping and feeding. This earth we inhabit is alive in wondrous ways, and the only way it’s going to stay that way – and we’re going to stay that way – is if we take seriously our role as custodians.

It might be helpful to remember that the God who we’ve traditionally thought of as “up there” isn’t really up there. God has come to earth in order to be with us in the form of Jesus. Theologian Paul Tillich called God “the ground of all being.” We are grounded in God, who made us from the ground. From dust we are made, and to dust we shall return.

But thanks to Jesus Christ, we don’t have to stay there. Through our faith in Christ, we are promised that one day we will also rise from the ground, like all living things rise from the gorund, to experience the new life Jesus offers us. Because God chose to come down here and get God’s hands dirty with us, we can know the life God offers us, the life that started when God scooped up some dirt and infused it with life. All life comes from the ground. It is not something to be feared or avoided, but sought out and enjoyed. The creation is here for our pleasure, not our abuse. Put on your hiking shoes, plant a tree, nurture a garden, get your hands dirty, and remember the land is not just a gift entrusted to us, it is a part of us. From dust we have come.

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This Week’s Sermon – Losing God

This is my first sermon back from sabbatical. I was as nervous as my first Sunday at Crestwood! It was good to be back in the pulpit again.

SCRIPTURE – Job 38:1-18 –

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

“Who is this that obscures my plans
    with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
    Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
    or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
    and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?

“Who shut up the sea behind doors
    when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
    and wrapped it in thick darkness,
10 when I fixed limits for it
    and set its doors and bars in place,
11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
    here is where your proud waves halt’?

12 “Have you ever given orders to the morning,
    or shown the dawn its place,
13 that it might take the earth by the edges
    and shake the wicked out of it?
14 The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
    its features stand out like those of a garment.
15 The wicked are denied their light,
    and their upraised arm is broken.

16 “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
    or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been shown to you?
    Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know all this.

 

SERMON
Losing God
Job 38:1-18
August 21, 2016

One of my prized possessions growing up was a baseball. But it wasn’t just any baseball. It was a baseball that I got at a real baseball game. But it wasn’t just a baseball I got from a baseball game. This baseball also was signed by the San Diego Chicken.

If you know the San Diego Chicken, then you know his importance place in the history of our country. OK, that may be overstating it a bit, but he was pretty cool. The Chicken started in 1974 at the San Diego Padres baseball stadium. He was one of the first sports mascots, and he would travel around to different ballparks with his zany antics and comedy routine. In 1982, the Chicken crossed the road to Louisville to visit their new minor league team, the Louisville Redbirds. It’s never safe for a chicken to come to the home of KFC, but he did, and he was hilarious. I was at that game with my mom and grandfather.

I was lucky enough to get a foul ball from one of the bullpen pitchers, and after the game I stood in line for an hour to have it signed by the San Diego Chicken. Seems only appropriate to ask the Chicken to sign a “fowl” ball, right? From that moment on, the San Diego Chicken baseball became one of my favorite things in the world.

That lasted for a few months, until I wanted to play catch with a neighborhood kid. Problem was, we didn’t have a ball. “YOU don’t have any baseballs?” he pleaded. Well, I did have one. But it was signed by the San Diego Chicken! In the end, the desire to play catch won out over my Chicken worship, and from that point on, the ball was in play. The signature gradually faded, and at some point I lost the baseball, probably up on a roof or in a dog-guarded yard. That ball went from the pedestal to the playground to…who knows where.

I’m sure you can relate, right? Growing up, you had a favorite stuffed animal, or a favorite baseball card, or a favorite blanket. You carried it with you, you slept with it, you guarded it like a dog guarding a lost baseball. You were devoted. But then, as you got older, grew up, it wasn’t cool to have a favorite doll, so you moved onto bigger and better things, or at least things that did a better job of holding your attention, and that once-revered item was cast aside, relegated to the pile of things that you used to care about.

I’d like to say today that we do the same thing with God. At some point in our lives we were excited about our relationship with God, we couldn’t get enough of Sunday School or youth group or Vacation Bible School. We prayed regularly and made sure we had something each Sunday for the offering. But then, as time passed, the relationship softened, the passion dulled, God was just…there. It’s not that you kicked God to the curb, but God got pushed aside for bigger, better, shinier things, things that had more allure and promised more of a payout and were actually real. And God went from the pedestal to…who knows where. Of course, God is still there if we REALLY need God, but God is not our favorite thing anymore. We’re no longer devoted.

In hindsight, I think that’s something like what happened to me before sabbatical. It’s not that I gave up on God or stopped believing; in fact, it’s a bit of the opposite. God didn’t grow distant from me; instead, God grew too familiar. God lost that other-worldly quality, that mystery and majesty that makes God…God. At some point, I stopped worshipping God and starting working with God. God got demoted from Creator to co-worker.

In Old Testament times, households would often have their own sets of gods, little carved images that would sit on a table as reminders of these little-G gods’ presence. At some point, I became so familiar with God, the Big-G turned into a little-g. God became so familiar to me that I started taking God for granted. I domesticated God. My Lord’s Prayer became, “My buddy, who’s just hanging around, what’s up?”

In some ways, I blame my job for this. I study God, I teach about God, I help others understand God. At some point, I began to believe I must know God pretty well. Take God out of the box, show God off, put God back in the box. I believe God expands or contracts to fit our level of reverence. The lower our reverence, the smaller our God. After 15 years doing this work, my God had gotten pretty small. I had respect for God, but not reverence. Big difference.

How big is your God? Does God still have the ability to take your breath away? Does God still command your attention, compel your response? Do you look forward to worship, to prayer, to time with God? Or is God just…there? Our little household god, sitting on the shelf, waiting for us to actually need God, to actually pay attention. I wonder if our God is too small.

The one overarching thing I was reminded of while on sabbatical is just how big God is. God is so much bigger, so much grander, so much more majestic than I ever gave God credit for. During a string of blog posts I kept alternating between the phrases “awesome majesty” and “majestic awesomeness” because I ran out of adjectives to describe the God I was encountering.

I first experienced this when I stepped out of the airplane at the basecamp of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. We were about 8500 feet up, and surrounded by these 18,000 and 20,000-foot peaks that absolutely dwarfed us. And as I stepped onto the crunchy snow and looked up, I heard God say, as God said to Job, ““Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.” And at that moment, I realized that I didn’t understand, that I had seriously underestimated who God is.

Standing at the basecamp of Denali, looking out over the Pacific Ocean, taking in the view from the top of the Empire State Building, standing among the ruins of Clonmacnoise monastery and Stonehenge. The source of all this majesty and awesomeness is God, pure and simple. Only God. God did this and so much more. I think I know God, I think I understand God, I think I can explain God to others. Then I see the mountains, the oceans, the diversity of my brothers and sisters, the wondrousness of the Cliffs of Moher and the Eiffel Tower. It was as if God was saying to me what God said to Moses. “I AM.” And my only response was, “You sure are!” I had forgotten that.

The irony of my sabbatical was that it was designed to bring me closer to God, but instead it caused me to step back from God, to get a better view, to take in the bigger picture. And I learned that I don’t know God, not really, not even close. I know my version of God, but that is such a miniscule mis-representation. But I also learned that what I think I know doesn’t matter. What matters is that God knows me. The God who made all those things knows me. And you.

And, as I came to understand, that knowledge compels a response. If we truly believe that God is that big and loves us that much, then we are compelled to respond, not out of duty and obligation but out of gratitude, out of a sense of privilege for being called “child of God.” The same God who made all this also made and loves us. Us! We are compelled to respond.

That response takes many forms, some of which can be lived out through the church – worship, generosity, service. But other forms of response go deeper within us. They are not as much behaviors as they are perspectives or worldviews. The ancient Christian writers would call them disciplines. The one discipline I learned I need to practice is that of paying attention. To put it a bit more bluntly, it’s the discipline of shutting up when God is trying to speak. That may be harder for preachers than for anyone. But several times on this trip I was so awestruck by what I was seeing that I literally speechless. My family will tell you only God has the power to do that! My experience of God in those places was so palpable that all I could do was take it in. There were no words. God was there, tangibly, palpably there, in a way I had not experienced for a long time. I had lost that God and replaced God with a smaller, cheaper version.

Now that I’m on the other side of sabbatical, I’m still wrestling with this revelation, because I’m back in the setting where I thought I knew God, and I feel the old forces tugging at me, tempting me to go back to my small, domesticated God. So much easier to explain, so much easier to control. I can’t walk out of my house and see a mountain, or drive a few minutes to the beach. There are no sights of majestic awesomeness to render me speechless. At times I feel like I left God in those other places in order to return to Kentucky.

Have you ever felt that way? You take a trip or attend an event or have a mountain top experience, and you just want to stay there, to linger in God’s presence, to be reminded over and over again of God’s bigness. But you can’t stay there, so you reluctantly return to the carpool and the drop-off lane and the grocery store line and the stoplights. And you grow nostalgic and melancholy, because when you were at that other place, you really felt like God was present with you. God was SO big!

But is God only there? Does God only reveal Godself in the grandest of places, the loftiest plateaus, the most expansive terrains? Or is God also in the most mundane of places, the lowest plateaus, the most paved-over terrains? If God can be experienced in the grandeur of the Palace of Versailles, can God also be found in Versailles? If God is tangibly present in the mountains of Alaska, is God also present in Mount Sterling? If God hovers over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, does God also hover over Tates Creek? If I’m expanding my understanding of my lack of understanding about God, then I have to admit that God is in all these places, not just the ones where I open myself up to experiencing God. If my experiences of God only happen in awe-inspiring places, if I can only experience God by getting away, then the issue may not be with God’s presence; the issue may be my lack of vision to see God right where I am. Maybe my God is too small.

If we can work on the discipline of paying attention, I pray that our eyes will be opened to seeing God everywhere, to find God in the most familiar of places, and then to respond to God’s presence with our gratitude. Yes, God is in all the places I experienced this summer. And God is in Versailles. And on Tates Creek Road. And in the grocery store. And in the garden. And in the traffic jam.

At some point over the last 15 years, I lost God, at least capital-G God. But by being able to step away, I was reminded that the God I had fabricated in my mind wasn’t the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the great I AM. I found that God in all the places I traveled, but much to my surprise, when I got back home, I found that God was here, too. Right here with us. And God’s not my co-worker or my companion; God is my Creator, my Savior, the source of all good things in my life. I feel like I should have seen that all along, but I wasn’t paying attention. I am now.

 

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