Category Archives: Sermons

Trust Jesus and Elvis | Second Sunday in Easter (Year C)

The following sermon is by Susan Sparks via

Recently, I returned from a trip to the holy land … Memphis, Tennessee. Now, Memphis is holy land for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their BBQ. Now, for those of you who are not Southerners, please understand BBQ is a holy thing. In fact, it is part of what we call the southern trinity: BBQ, Basketball and the Bible. Memphis is known for their BBQ, especially their ribs. As my neighbor used to say, “Good ribs would make an angel weep.”

Now BBQ is not the only reason Memphis is considered holy land. The primary reason, of course, is because it is the home of Elvis.

While we were in Memphis, we visited Sun Records, where Elvis recorded his first song. In the studio, there was an “X” marked on the floor with duct tape indicating the exact spot where Elvis stood. The tour guide told us that just the week before, Bob Dylan had come into the studio, said not a word to anyone, walked over to the “X,” got down on all fours, kissed it and walked out. For many, Elvis has reached an almost holy status.

In fact, there has been studies on the parallels between Jesus and Elvis, most notably by the renown scholar (and standup comedian) Adam Sandler. He explains:

Jesus said: “Love thy neighbor.” (Matthew 22:39); Elvis said: “Don’t be cruel.” (RCA, 1956)

Jesus is part of the Trinity; Elvis’ first band was a trio.

Jesus is the Lord’s shepherd; Elvis dated Cybil Sheppard.

Given that kind of reverence, I believe that we as Jesus fans, have a lot to learn from Elvis fans. Especially in terms of faith….

Like any good pilgrims, we took time on our Memphis trip to visit the shrine of Graceland. There was the great welcome sign–a twenty-five foot high Elvis saying “Welcome to the Blingdom!” And after the requisite photographs, we got in line for tickets. As we were waiting, I turned to one of the tour guides and asked, “So, how long did Elvis actually live here?” There was an audible gasp from the surrounding crowd. The guide looked at me with shock and whispered, “We don’t use the past tense here.” She then pointed at her t-shirt, which read: “Graceland, where Elvis LIVES.”

It didn’t matter that she had never actually seen Elvis or that technically Elvis stopped walking the earth over thirty-two years ago. It didn’t matter. She didn’t care. Elvis fans don’t care. Without any proof, they believe he lives! Elvis lives, baby. The King lives.

It’s a shame we don’t all live our lives with that kind of faith. I’m afraid that most of us tend more towards the disciple Thomas than the tour guide at Graceland.

Our scripture today is the familiar story of doubting Thomas. There we find the disciples locked up behind closed doors after Jesus’ crucifixion. And Jesus came and stood among them. When they saw him, the disciples rejoiced. But Thomas was not there at the time. When the other disciples later told Thomas about it, he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger … in his side, I will not believe.” A week later, when Thomas was with the disciples, Jesus appears again and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. When he put his hand in Jesus’ side–he knew.

“My Lord and my God,” said Thomas.

Jesus then said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We’ve all heard this story before. More importantly, we’ve all lived it. We’ve all had times in our lives where we’ve doubted, where we have said to God, “Show me a sign! Give me some proof!” Maybe it was because we were in a place of unbearable pain, or a time we faced hardship with no answers, a time when God seemed silent. We have all been at that point where, like Thomas, we yearned for a sign from God.

And why not? We live in a world where “proof” trumps faith. We send robots with cameras to the farthest ends of the universe so we can know for sure what’s out there. We won’t believe an assertion until a complicated mathematical equation says it’s true. And anytime–anytime–there is a wall bearing a sign “wet paint,” we will touch it just to be sure.

If only we could have the faith of Elvis fans, a faith driven not by empirical proof, but by the voice in our hearts. Finding that kind of faith can change our lives. For when you believe something in your heart, you begin to act it in your life.

Look at Elvis fans. They not only believe he lives, they act like he lives. For example, they are constantly looking for Elvis. The Bible says seek and ye shall find. Well, Elvis fans follow that to a tee. They are constantly looking for the King. And, sometimes, they find him. There have been Elvis sightings all over the world–from a spa in Tokyo to a Burger King in Michigan. There was even a woman who claimed that she found the image of Elvis in a taco shell.

If only we’d put even 1% of that kind of energy towards looking for Jesus, we might actually find him too. Maybe we’d find him in the eyes of a little child or the downcast gaze of a homeless stranger. Maybe we’d find him in the face of an enemy or the tears of a loved one with whom we are fighting. If you believe he lives, you’ll act like he lives. You’ll look for him and you’ll find him.

Another thing–Elvis fans believe he lives, so they look for others who believe as well, like through Elvis fan clubs. I heard a story on the Graceland tour about a woman who was in a fan club called “Taking Care of Business.” She had to have major surgery and afterwards received hundreds of cards and letters from “Elvis friends” all over the world. We Christians can learn something from this. Community is what gives us strength, support and focus in times we most need it. Finding families of faith is what helps us keep our faith. If you believe he lives, you’ll look for others who believe as well.

Here’s a third example, and probably the most important. Because they believe he lives, Elvis fans go out into in the world and share his message. They play Elvis’ music; they dress up as Elvis impersonators; they decorate their homes with Elvis memorabilia. One of my favorite things at the Graceland gift shop was an Elvis sprinkler. It was a foot-high plastic Elvis in a sequin jumpsuit, and as he watered your yard, he would swivel his hips. Whether through word or music, impersonators or sprinklers, Elvis fans proudly proclaim the message of the King.

This provides an interesting contrast to the disciples. Before Jesus appeared in their midst, the book of John tells us that the disciples were in hiding behind locked doors. They weren’t looking for Jesus. They weren’t going around looking for other believers. They weren’t out in the world preaching the word. They weren’t proclaiming the message of the King. They were hidden in fear, locked away in shame because they didn’t believe he lived.

I’m afraid that many of us live a similar existence; a life with little or no faith in the risen Christ, our hearts locked up and closed away.

A young woman on the tour told a story about how she grew up listening to Elvis. Sadly, she lived through an abusive childhood, but she talked about how she used daydreams of Elvis as an escape. “He was my safe space,” she said, “my little corner of heaven.” Because she believed he lived, she honored him in her heart and that enabled her to find peace in the hardest of places.

If only we would open our hearts to Jesus in the same way. When we honor the risen Christ in our hearts, we have our own safe space, our own little corner of heaven in which to rest and to heal.

If you believe he lives–you’ll act like he lives. And Jesus’ message is certainly a message of action. Elvis apparently felt the same way. For Elvis said early in his career, “Music and religion are similar–because both should make you wanna move.”

The gospel is a living, vibrant force that should make us want to get out and move, move around in the world, move towards each other in love and compassion, move towards bringing in the kingdom–or the blingdom–or whatever.

I want a religion that makes me wanna move.

I want a savior that makes me wanna put on a sequin jump suit and sing.

I want to believe in a Jesus that lives.

Don’t let the doubts and fears of life shake your belief. Don’t let your faith be driven by anything but the voice of your heart. Remember: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” For if we believe he lives, our lives will change. We will search for and find him; we will proclaim his message; we will honor his spirit with ours.

Sometime this week, find a quiet moment, ask yourself, “Do you believe?” From the deepest parts of your heart, the answer will surely come: He lives. He lives, baby. The King lives.

Please join me in prayer.

God of all things good, barbequed ribs, basketball, Elvis and Jesus, ease our troubled hearts and calm our doubts and fears. Bring us faith so that we might act like a follower of your Son, and always, always, whisper daily the words we need to hear in our hearts, “He lives! The King lives.” Amen.

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The Prophet Mary | Sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor | Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year C)

The following is one of my favorite sermons by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is based off of the gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C (John 12:1-8). Enjoy!

Today we are headed to a home in the Jerusalem suburb of Bethany, where Jesus stopped in to see his old friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus before he entered the city for the last time. He loved them, John tells us, although he does not tell us why. Maybe there is no “why” to love. They called him Lord, so they knew who he was, and yet they were not his disciples, at least not in any formal sense. They were his friends, the three people in whose presence he could be a man as well as a Messiah.

Just days before, Jesus had worked a miracle at their house. He had been across the river when the sisters’ urgent message reached him. “Lord,” it read, “he whom you love is ill.” So he had come to them, knowing full well it was too late. Lazarus was so dead that he stank, so dead that Jesus stood in front of his tomb and wept. Then he roared so loud at death that he scared death away. While the sisters tried to decide whether to run away too, their brother Lazarus came stumbling from his tomb, trailing his shroud behind him like a used cocoon.

Now Jesus has come back to Bethany with the temple posse hot on his trail. By raising Lazarus from the dead he has graduated from the category of “manageable nuisance” to “serious threat.” News of the incident has sent his followers over the top. There is not a chance Pilate is going to ignore them during the Passover festival. It is time for Jesus to be disappeared before he leads hundreds to their deaths. So his days are numbered and he knows it. When he arrives at his friends’ house in Bethany, they can see it on his face.

So they take him in and care for him, shutting the world out for this one night at least. Lazarus is still clumsy from his four days in the tomb. He sits and stares while Martha makes a stew. Mary, meanwhile, has slipped away, gone to find something in her room. Martha is used to this. Mary is always disappearing, even when she is sitting right there with everyone else. She gets this look on her face, like she’s listening to music no one else can hear. Martha knows there is nothing to be done but to work around her, being careful to reel Mary in when she drifts too far.

Finally, supper is on the table and they all sit down to eat, saying what they hope and hiding what they fear. Lazarus sits near his friend Jesus, unaware of the trade that has occurred. Jesus was safe across the river, beyond the reach of his enemies. By returning to Bethany, he has traded his life for the life of his friend. Funny, huh? The recently deceased Lazarus of Bethany will outlive the savior Jesus of Nazareth.

No one notices that Mary has gone again until she comes back holding a clay jar in her hands. Wordless, she kneels at Jesus’ feet and breaks the jar’s neck. The smell of spikenard fills the room–sharp scent halfway between mint and ginseng. Then, as everyone in the room watches her, she does four remarkable things in a row.

First she loosens her hair in a room full of men, which an honorable woman never does. Then she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which is also not done. The head, maybe–people do that to kings–but not the feet. Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends. Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair–totally inexplicable–the bizarre end to an all around bizarre act.

Most of us are so moved by the scene that we overlook its eccentricities, or else we don’t care. The point is that she loved him, right? Right. But we also confuse this account with three others in the Bible–one each from Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the first two, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head at the house of Simon the Leper during the last week of his life. In the third story, the scene happens at Simon the Pharisee’s house, much earlier in Jesus’ ministry. There Jesus is eating supper when a notorious sinner slips into the room and stands weeping over his feet, then drops to the ground to cover them with kisses before rubbing them with oil of myrrh.

Only in John’s version of the story does the woman have a name-Mary–and a relationship with Jesus–not a stranger, not a notorious sinner, but his long-time friend–which makes her act all the more peculiar. He knows she loves him. He loves her too. So why this public demonstration, this odd pantomime in front of all their friends? It’s extravagant. It’s excessive. She’s gone overboard, as Judas is quick to note.

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold for a whole lot of money and given to the poor?” That’s what Judas wants to know, but Jesus brushes him aside.

“Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”–which is

about as odd a thing for him to say as what Mary did. Here is the champion of the poor, always putting their needs ahead of his, suddenly reversing course. Leave her alone. Leave me alone. Just this once, let her look after me, because my time is running out.

Whatever Mary thought about what she did, and whatever anyone else in the room thought about it, Jesus took it as a message from God–not the hysteric ministrations of an old maid gone sweetly mad but the carefully performed act of a prophet. Everything around Mary smacked of significance–Judas, the betrayer, challenging her act; the flask of nard–wasn’t it left over from Lazarus’ funeral?–and out in the yard, a freshly vacated tomb that still smelled of burial spices, waiting for a new occupant. The air was dense with death, and while there may at first have been some doubt about whose death it was, Mary’s prophetic act revealed the truth.

She was anointing Jesus for his burial, and while her behavior may have seemed strange to those standing around, it was no more strange than that of the prophets who went before her–Ezekiel eating the scroll of the Lord as a sign that he carried the word of God around inside of him (Ezekiel 2), or Jeremiah smashing the clay jar to show God’s judgment on Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 19), or Isaiah walking around naked and barefoot as an oracle against the nations (Isaiah 20). Prophets do things like that. They act out. They act out the truth that no one else can see, and those standing around either write them off as nuts or fall silent before the disturbing news they bring from God.

When Mary stood before Jesus with that pound of pure nard in her hand, it could have gone either way. She could have anointed his head and everyone there could have proclaimed him a king. But she did not do that. When she moved toward him, she dropped to her knees instead and poured the perfume on his feet, which could only mean one thing. The only man who got his feet anointed was a dead man, and Jesus knew it. “Leave her alone,” he said to those who would have prevented her. Let her finish delivering the message.

So Mary rubbed his feet with perfume so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year, an act so lavish that it suggests another layer to her prophecy. There will be nothing economical about this man’s death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life. In him, the extravagance of God’s love is made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest.

This bottle will not be held back to be kept and admired. This precious substance will not be saved. It will be opened, offered and used, at great price. It will be raised up and poured out for the life of the world, emptied to the last drop. Before that happens, Jesus will gather his friends together one last time. At another banquet, around another supper table, with most of the same people present, Jesus will strip, tie a towel around his waist, and wash his disciples’ feet. Then he will give them a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you.

At least one of the disciples will argue with him, while others will wonder if he has lost his mind. But a few will watch him working on their feet and remember Mary bending over his feet like that–the prophet Mary–who knew how to respond to Jesus without being told, the one who acted out his last, new commandment before he ever said it. Remembering her may help them leave him alone while he finishes delivering his message.

At home in Bethany, the storm clouds are still piling up against the door when Mary gives the forecast: it will be bad, very bad, but that’s no reason for Jesus’ friends to lock their hearts and head to the cellar. Whatever they need, there will be enough to go around. Whatever they spend, there will be plenty left over. There is no reason to fear running out–of nard or of life either one–for where God is concerned, there is always more than we can ask or imagine–gifts from our lavish, lavish Lord.


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A Beautiful Defiance | Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent (Year C)

The following sermon was preached Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday in Lent (Year C). At two points throughout the sermon, seven readers repeat the Psalm and stand up from the various positions in the congregation. Many thanks to the people who are Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia for inspiration for this sermon.

It was clear from the beginning that this was going to be a very long journey. And on top of that, they had no idea where it would end up. As a community, they had a vague understanding of what it would represent. But how it would be constructed and what it would look like was anybody’s’ guess.

One thing, however, was understood by everyone: this was not going to be the task of one person or even a few. No, this journey could only be traveled with the entire community. That was, simply, the only way that this would be brought to life and the journey completed.

And so it began. At a church-wide retreat in autumn of 2006, each person of the community – male, female, young and old, alike – was taught how to fold a small paper crane. But this was not to be only an exercise in mere physical dexterity or artistic expression; rather, it was above all to be a spiritual practice in the power of prayer. Each small paper crane was created with a prayer upon the lips of its creator. Each paper had on it a prayer for a specific member of the community. Others still had general prayers for peace and wholeness for a world in need of God’s goodness.

But one weekend retreat was simply not going to be enough. Therefore, a small group of congregants began to assemble bags to be distributed to everyone in the community. Each bag contained several sheets of paper of various vibrant colors, a list of names and prayer concerns, and instructions for how to fold.

And so it continued, for months the congregation folded and prayed, prayed and folded. After well over a year, throughout the cramps and the paper cuts, the congregation had almost completed this incredible, multi-colored, flying prayers of the people.

In what must have been a laborious and painstaking process, the cranes were strung up on fishing wire. Each strand of cranes was then fixed to a trefoil shaped trinitarian symbol made by a congregant and hung from the ceiling of the historic, wooden sanctuary.

If you look at the end of your pew, you will find a couple of pictures of the end result.

What you are looking at is a piece of liturgical art made by the people who are Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. This also so happens to be the congregation that our guest today, Michael Morgan, has served for the past forty years as organist.

Like you all here at Silver Creek, the folks at Central Presbyterian Church have become a second family to me. As such, Central has become my “default” church when I don’t have Sunday responsibilities elsewhere. Now I haven’t been there in some time because I been blessed to be with you all for the past five months.

And while they might look very different from this community, y’all are very similar because like you all, the folks at Central Presbyterian Church have been and are indeed at this very moment going through some difficult transitions. And like you all have been inspiring me for the past five months, they too have inspired me with their courage and faithful expression of the gospel.

From the first moment I laid eyes upon their flying, color-filled prayers of the people, I was hooked. Each Sunday, it seemed, I was captivated by the soaring cranes in different ways; each Sunday it struck me differently.

One Sunday, I would look upon the explosion of color and be fascinated by the fact that this “Wing and a Prayer” (as they took to calling it) was both incredibly communal while at the same time being intensely individual; the sea of color represented the collective prayer of the community by each individual contributing one or several particular prayers.

Another Sunday, I would marvel at the sheer amount of time and effort that it took, as an entire community, to pray this prayer. One Sunday, I decided to crunch some numbers and learned that there is an estimated 2,500 cranes which hover above the congregation. Assuming that each crane took five minutes to fold, that means that the congregation spent well over 208 hours folding these cranes. And that’s not even to mention the time that was spent planning it and putting it together. So many Sundays I simply would gaze in the air, getting a crick in my neck, marveling at the commitment that this community had to create this prayer.

However, one Sunday (in fact, I believe it was the Sunday immediately before I began my time with you all in October), I was sitting directly beneath this holy, hovering work of art. It had been a rough week for me. I don’t remember exactly why but I was, that morning, feeling discouraged, dismayed, and…dislocated. The wilderness of the world was taking its toll on me and the color of the cranes contrasted to the dreary grey of my heart.

I looked up, straining my neck to fit all of the thousands of cranes into my gaze. And that morning, I saw something new. I saw a beautiful defiance. I thought to myself, how dare we hoist such a beautiful prayer in the midst of such a wilderness? What right do we have to pray in beautiful color when the world at times seems to throw nothing but darkness and grey our way? Who are we that we sing such a gorgeous song to God when we see another school shooting, another church split, another worker laid off, another person executed, another person sleeping on the streets?

But for some reason, in that moment, I did not attempt to answer that question (to be rather blunt, I don’t know if I could if I tried). I did not attempt to understand why we have such confidence, such beautiful defiance, in the face of such a wilderness; I simply gazed at the thousands of colors dancing above me… and marveled at the fact that we do.

Stephen: The Lord is my light and my salvation!
Reader 1: whom shall I fear?
Reader 2: The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
Reader 1: of whom shall I be afraid?
Reader 3: When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh –
Reader 2: my adversaries and foes – they shall stumble and fall.
Reader 4: Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;
Reader 1: though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident!
Reader 5: One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
Reader 3: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
Reader 2: to behold the beauty of the Lord,
Reader 4: and to inquire in his temple.
Reader 6: For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble;
Reader 1: he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
Reader 5: he will set me high on a rock.
Reader 7: Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me.
Reader 3: and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy!
All: I will sing and make melody to the Lord!

I will sing and make melody to the Lord. It’s beautiful. And what I think makes this statement even more beautiful is the fact that the verses before it do not attempt to gloss over the difficulties of the wilderness. In fact, the Psalmist is quite specific. Evildoers assail him. They are devouring his flesh. An army is encamping against her and she is a victim of war. The Psalmist gives voice to the wilderness in which you and I find ourselves and does not beat around the bush.

But as I was talking with Michael Morgan this week, he pointed out to me that each statement of woe, each cry of distress, is coupled by an even stronger statement of courage and defiance. The grey of the wilderness is matched by the colorful hope of the him who has steadfast trust in the goodness of the Lord. The one who is traversing the land of the wilderness is singing her praise to the God who she knows will join her in the land in the living.

And because of this they sing. And we sing. For the Lord is our light and our salvation, our stronghold of our very lives; of whom shall we be afraid?

And because of this steadfast confidence, this beautiful defiance, we dare to hoist our prayers to the God who hears our every cry.

Stephen: Hear, O Lord, why I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
Reader 7: “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Reader 6: Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Reader 5: Do not hide your face from me.
Reader 4: Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help.
Reader 3: Do not cast me off,
Reader 2: Do not forsake me,
Reader 1: O God of my salvation!
Reader 7: Teach me your way, O Lord
Reader 6: and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Reader 5: Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
Reader 4: for false witnesses have risen against me,
Reader 3: and they are breathing out violence.
Reader 2: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!
Readers 1,3: Wait for the Lord!
Readers 4,5: be strong!
Readers 6,7: and let your heart take courage;
All: wait for the Lord!

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Friends, this passage is a beautiful testament to the defiance of proclaiming the beauty of God despite the wilderness in which we know find ourselves. In fact, perhaps the Psalmist is telling us that it is not in despite of the wilderness, but rather precisely because of it that we are called to show defiant confidence in God, our help in ages past. The colors of this psalm shatter into the monotony of the wilderness, into the grey of our struggles, our splits, our sins. Even in the wilderness, the beauty of God, the goodness of God, is to be proclaimed.

Now here I must admit that I would be neglecting my responsibilities as a preacher if I didn’t acknowledge that perhaps there are some of you who have not always seen the goodness of God. I can think of times in my life (fairly recently actually) when the goodness of God has failed to be seen by my eyes, felt by my hands, and received in my heart.

In fact, perhaps some of you, even this day, are not in a place where you can see the goodness of God in the land of the living. Perhaps some of you are praying that faithful and honest prayer to God: “I believe, help my unbelief!”

I’m here to tell you this day that that’s ok. It’s alright if you cannot, at this very moment, believe the goodness of God. It’s alright if these words of confident trust stick in your throat.

This Psalm tells us that the goodness of God does not depend on our belief in it. God’s goodness is present in the land of the wilderness no less that it is in the land of the living.

In fact, if you this day cannot believe in the beautiful goodness of God, if you one day find yourself lacking the energy to hoist up one prayer to God, be strong, and let your heart take courage for you are in a community that will do that for you.

And so, together, we are strengthened by the Spirit to continue our journey as a community. Holding up one another as God has called us to do, we will continue this long and winding road to the cross where we trust that we will see the goodness of the Lord…in the land of the living. And on this road, there is one thing that we ask: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of our life and to behold the beauty of the Lord.

Friends, I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!

I believe that you and I will soon gaze upon the sight of that empty tomb.

But for now…in this wilderness…let us defiantly proclaim the goodness of God for we have never needed it more.

And until then…while you wait for the Lord…be strong…and let your heart take courage for I believe that we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Amen.

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Holy Ground | A Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

This sermon was first preached at First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia on August 28th, 2011. Exodus 3:1-15 also appears in the Revised Common Lectionary in the Season after Pentecost (Proper 17).

“Holy Ground”

Exodus 3:1-15
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ Then God said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ God said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

​…He just didn’t see it coming. And let’s be realistic with each other – would you? Would I? In just the previous chapter Moses had committed an act of the utmost evil: he killed a person. That’s right, this young Hebrew man, who would go on to serve as the vehicle for God’s earth-shattering, reality-altering emancipation of the Israelites, was a murderer. A fugitive from both God and Pharaoh, Moses flees to the land of Midian where he finds a lovely wife and has resigned himself to the simple life of a shepherd. Those days by the Nile are sufficiently behind him. He has escaped that messy situation in Egypt and has found his niche in life. This morning begins like any other, as he gathers his staff and takes his sheep into the wilderness. The simplicity of the moment is a pleasant reminder of his “comfortable” life, a life in which he is quite content to exist the rest of his days.

​But how foolish these hopes turn out to be! The author of this text reminds us of this by inserting what I find to be a rather cleverly-placed verse immediately before today’s lectionary passage. You see, right before today’s passage and right after the mention of Moses’ new wife and son, the author of the text slips these verses in the midst of this seemingly “happy” ending: in verse 23 of the second chapter, we read that “after a long time…the Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out…God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

​Just when Moses was getting comfortable, just when he had resigned himself to a life of simplicity and normalcy, God takes notice. God takes notice of a dysfunctional social reality that is in need of being changed. And if there is one thing we, as a worshiping community can say for sure, it is that we have never worshiped a God who has ever been satisfied with the status quo.
​And so it is at this point that we find ourselves standing in the sand next to our friend Moses who has perfected the art of the status quo. But this sand, this earthen floor, is no generic foundation. No, it is something entirely different. So different, in fact, that God reminds Moses (and ourselves!) to remove the sandals from our feet, because the place on which we are standing is holy ground! …Holy ground.

​So what is this text saying to us here and now? What is it, exactly, that makes this ground, right here beneath our feet at this very moment, so holy? Is it the fact that we come together as a community to worship God in this beautiful sanctuary? No, for Moses is standing in no structure built by human hands. Is it the fact that we have come here today to follow God’s commission? No, that can’t be it either because we can be fairly sure that Moses awoke that morning with no intention other than to watch a flock of sheep. So what is it that makes this ground holy?

​I have found that the revised common lectionary is a helpful tool when pondering the mysteries of these fruitful (if sometimes elusive!) passages. Often the different lectionary readings for each Sunday will speak to and with each other and it is often helpful for ourselves, as readers and engagers of these texts, to join in the conversation. Today’s gospel passage comes from the book of Matthew and we find ourselves standing next to Peter, a character with whom I have always shared a fond connection. However, this passage is not exactly the shining moment of his career as a disciple. After months of being on the road, healing the broken and feeding the hungry, everything is going great! But Jesus decides to throw the disciples a curveball and state that it will be necessary for him to suffer and die. Peter, however noble his intentions might have been, strongly disagrees and receives a harsh rebuke by his friend and savior, Jesus.

​Peter tends to get a bad reputation for many such stories in the gospel narrative- whether here where he is compared to Satan himself, or when he cuts off the ear of the soldier dragging away Jesus, or when he sits by that charcoal fire warming his hands in the moments after he betrays Jesus. But the fact remains that perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter because you and I, if in that same situation, would probably have reacted similarly. Jesus, things are going so well! After all, we have brought sight to the blind, food to the hungry, hope to the hopeless, and faith to the faithless. God forbid you suffer and die! You are supposed to be our savior, our victor! Who else is going to save us from the Romans? How dare you take us away from our routine, our vibe, what we are comfortable with!?

​…But our God is not a “comfortable” God. We know this because the same God who became manifest in the flesh, who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and freed those who were enslaved by the chains of that society, did a most curious thing. Jesus shatters into our existence not by amassing an army and overthrowing the Romans (as you, Peter, and I might have preferred), but by dying on a cross next to common criminals and overcoming death, an enemy even the Romans could never defeat. And though we never could have predicted it at the time, Jesus reformed and recreated any expectations that you, I, or Peter could have ever had.

​This story, I think, is an “echo” of our journey today with Moses. God re-created Peter and Moses into something which they could have never predicted through means that they would have never employed. And furthermore, God shatters into our status quo (making no small commotion along the way) and invites us into the work of God’s re-creation using people who we would never expect.

​That, Sisters and Brothers, is what makes this holy ground. These texts force us to re-shape who we thought we were and redirect us to what we are created and called to be. Like Moses, we are witnesses to that which forces us to “turn aside” and behold that which rips us from our comfortable reality and sets us upon ground that is holy. “Holy” – the very word comes from the Hebrew concept of being separate, of something different, something set apart.

​This holy text which we engage on this holy ground before our holy God, sets us apart from our preconceived notions of what is right and just. And, friends, this is something we need desperately. Because if left to our own devices, if left to our own conventional thinking, the Israelites would still be in Egypt and Moses would still be in Midian shepherding Jethro’s flock to this day.

​ But that’s not the end of that story…and it’s not the end of our own…for if there is another thing that we, as a worshipping community, can say for sure it is that we have never worshiped a God who is happy with leaving us alone! For the job is not over! This text reminds us that there are still oppressed peoples in the world and we, as we stand next to Moses barefoot in the burning sand before that blazing bush, are challenged to respond to this call by opening ourselves to the this counter-cultural text that shatters any societal norms that ensure the enslavement of any people, whether that slavery be physical, political, or theological.

​Friends we are standing next to Moses, you and I, at this very moment! This text calls us, the people who are First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia, to do something. For we, you and I, are members of a society that continues to oppress our sisters and brothers, whether for their political beliefs, their skin color, their economic placement, their gender, or their sexual orientation. Like Moses, we are forced by this text out of our comfort zone, out of our routine, and into those places where oppressed people cry out to God, for God takes notice. We cannot ignore this holy ground, we must respond. Oh, I suppose you and I could continue on our merry way here in Dalton, in our comfort and in our status quo. But you and I would do well to remember this fact: that the inaction of Moses would have been just as detrimental to the oppressed people of Israel as any action Pharaoh could have done.

​Sisters and brothers in Christ, we stand upon holy ground. We have been called, we have been invited to bring freedom to those who have been robbed of their voice, whose backs are burdened by the oppressive weight of intolerance and ignorance. And if we take the time to remove the sandals from our feet, we will find ourselves that much closer to our foundation, to that through which we have been created and are being created anew each and every day. If only we “turn aside” and gaze upon this great sight will we find ourselves carried into places that force us out of ourselves, and into each other, and into the community which God has created us to be.

​Friends, people are oppressed. They are crying out to God. God has taken notice. And you and I must turn aside.

​Amen…so be it…amen!

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I, Paul

The following sermon was preached at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on January 20th, 2013.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

I, Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to you, the people who are Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It warms my heart to be with you today for I have traveled far and wide on a very unpredictable road to be with you this day. In my journeys I have heard of your story and I know that you have had a painful history these past months and years. But I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace that has been given you and because of the grace that I hear is reflected in both your words and deeds. And it is for that reason that I have so anticipated this moment when I could stand before you and proclaim that God is faithful! By the Spirit of God you are being called, this very moment, into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord!

But before I share with you my love and support and encouragement for the long road that is still ahead, I must testify to the grace that has brought me, a sinner of God’s own redeeming, to you this day.

Friends, I stand before you today as one who has sinned boldly before the face of God. If I boast, I do not boast in my strength but in my weakness for it was in no short supply! For I was not living the life that the Lord had assigned to me. I was not seeking the advantage of others but rather only to myself. I was oppressing the people of God while at the same time existing as a child of God oppressed by the relentless weight of my own sin. I was on a long and lonely road.

And then it happened. On that long and lonely road I was struck blind and was led by God’s grace in a way I had long been too stubborn to allow. How foolish I must have looked, stumbling and wandering around in the dessert of God’s grace. And after what seemed like forever, my eyes were opened and it hurt! The light was blinding for my eyes had long slept in the darkness of my sin. Friends, it took some time before my eyes could adjust to the brilliant light but the sight that I saw when they did…it’s why I’m here before you this day. For I am with you today not through any merit of my own but only by the relentless grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who met me on that road and led me home. The same Spirit that holds us together as the Body of Christ opened my eyes to the grace which would not let me go!

And it is because of this grace-filled moment, this fount of every blessing, that I haven’t been able to shut up about it since! For God’s grace has led me home and I must respond in the only way I know how. I have been called by God and sent forth in the Spirit to proclaim the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And so…I began to walk. I began to walk on a different road, not an easy road, mind you, but a different and a better road. Empowered by the Spirit of God’s grace, I knew that I was prone to wander and prone to leave the God I love. On this better road I could not help but sing “O to grace, how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let thy grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee!” It was a better road indeed.

And so here I am, a sinner of God’s own redeeming, before you this day proclaiming the grace and peace of our Lord to you, my brothers and my sisters of the Church of God in Silver Creek! I have heard many things about you in my travels and I feel that you, too, know what it is like to be on a long and lonely road. It might not be the same road that I traveled but long and lonely nonetheless.

But I have come to you today because I know that you have heard many things on this road and I do not want you to be uninformed! You see, others may have told you that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord.

You may have heard on this long and lonely road that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord because you are too small – as if the Gospel wasn’t first preached by a small group of men and women.

You may have heard on this long and lonely road that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord because of your interpretation of the Gospel – as if the Gospel were a convenient black and white instruction manual.

You may have heard on this long and lonely road that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord because you are too old – as if the Gospel could only be preached by the latest trends.

You may have heard on this long and lonely road that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord because you are too young – as if the Gospel wasn’t first held by a young girl named Mary.

Friends, I do not want you to be uninformed for those voices which tell you that you cannot proclaim that Jesus is Lord are wrong. For that is exactly what I have heard you are doing! Perhaps not in the same way as everyone around you but in a way that the Spirit is calling you! Every day you are proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and I announce to you that no one, not one person, can say or do that except by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, the Holy Spirit is in this place! Not a different Spirit but the same Spirit that opened my eyes and my lips to stand before you this day and to proclaim God’s grace!

This same Spirit is calling you to proclaim that Jesus is Lord in a new way. Now I don’t pretend to know what exactly that is going to look like for you; after my journey with the Holy Spirit on that unpredictable road I learned to expect the unexpected from the Spirit. But I do know what I have heard and I do know what I have seen among you and I have come before you today to encourage you all to embrace the gifts that this same Spirit has allotted to you.

For I am convinced that there are a variety of gifts here given to you by the same Spirit that has sent me!

I have heard that many of you are educators, those who have dedicated their lives to the instruction of our young. It is through the Spirit’s gift of your ministry that an utterance of knowledge is bestowed upon those who are sent to make this a world which reflects God’s grace. This community depends on you to use your Spirit-given gift of knowledge.

I have heard that some of you have the gift of healing. The Spirit has empowered you, either by your medical knowledge, or by your gift of listening, cooking, walking, holding, and singing, to heal the wounds of a broken world. This community depends on you to use your Spirit-given gift of healing.

I have heard that some of you have the gift of youth. The Spirit has given you an open mind and fresh eyes to look upon the world and teach those of us who have forgotten what it means to be a child of God. This community depends on your Spirit-given gift of faith.

I have heard that some of you have the gift of old age. The Spirit has given you a lifetime of joy and sorrow, love and loss, questions and answers to teach us what it means to fight the good fight. This community depends on your Spirit-given wisdom.

I have heard that some of you might even be considering a call to ordained ministry. This Spirit has given you a discerning heart and a faith that seeks to be challenged. This community depends on your Spirit-given gift of leadership.

Friends, the gifts abound! I look among you and I see young and old, male and female, student and teacher, liberal and conservative and everywhere in between and that gives me hope!

It gives me hope to stand here before you and proclaim with you that Jesus is Lord!

It gives me hope to come to you this day and give witness to the variety of gifts that the Spirit has bestowed upon this community.

It gives me hope that you are embodying these Spirit-given gifts amidst the turmoil of the long road you have traveled.

And make no mistake of it, the road ahead is long but it need not be lonesome!

For the same Spirit that brought this sinner of God’s own redeeming to you today is the same Spirit that has activated in each one of you a gift to be shared. The same Spirit allows us to call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and to be a part of his Church.

And though I do not know exactly how you will proclaim that Jesus is Lord, I will listen with eager ears for news of your journey along that long and unpredictable road. And as you journey, giving the gifts that the Spirit has bestowed upon you, know that the same Spirits binds you and me together as we are called forward to serve just as the Spirit chooses!

I, Paul, a sinner of God’s redeeming and glad recipient of God’s un-ending grace, urge you to respond, to keep the faith, to give what the Spirit has allotted to you, until I am again blessed to be among you. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.


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New Year, Old Promise

This following sermon was preached at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 13th, 2013.

Luke 3:21-22

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Or ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love, in you I find happiness” (CEB).

Recently I have been organizing documents such as sermons, sermon illustrations, bulletins, liturgy, prayers and such in a digital filing program. As I “file away” documents for future use I have been “tagging” them with labels to reflect the various themes of each. Therefore, in years to come, I can search a word such as “prophetic” and the program will present me with previous documents that I have labeled with that word or phrase. If I were to “tag” today’s lectionary readings from Isaiah and Luke, I might add the following labels to describe these scriptures for future reference: Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 13th 2013, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, baptized, Isaiah, Luke, God’s Son, beloved, redeemed, held, adored, precious, my sons, my daughters, intimate, warm, comforting, claimed, belong, intimate, embraced, the list could go on and on.

All of these words, descriptive and diverse though they are, inevitably fall short of describing the outpouring of affection that, quite literally, explodes from the heavens in this moment. Perhaps, this is why I have long been frustrated with the translation of “with you I am well pleased.” It just doesn’t seem to cut it. Being “well pleased” with something, at least in my ear, does not inspire such as list as those words we might use to “tag” the intimacy of this moment. I was “well pleased” with the cup of coffee on the rainy day that I was working on this sermon. I was “well pleased” that the Kansas Jayhawks won last week. I am “well pleased” with the fact that my seven year old laptop is still running with God’s grace. But God being “well pleased” with Jesus just doesn’t reflect, at least in our vernacular, the beauty of this moment.

Thankfully, you and I live in an age where we have access to multiple translations, each with their own biases, nuances, and voices. A few years ago, I happened upon a fairly new translation, the Common English Bible, whose language, I am convinced, better embodies the intimacy of this baptismal moment. Listen again to the Word of the Lord: “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’”

Ah, now that’s better! Baptism, when viewed through the lens of this translation, is the moment when God looks upon Jesus, and says: “Yes! You are the one I have created! I claim you as my own! You are the one that brings me joy and warmth and hope and laughter! Yes, you are my beloved and I couldn’t be happier!”

When I hear those words, when the skies are broken apart and the Spirit comes to seal Jesus’ baptism, I am reminded that those words, that love, that unconditional claim is directed at you and me. For as we are baptized with Christ, we are affirming the perhaps unexpected news that God finds happiness in you and me, sinners though we are. For if such were not the case, God incarnate would not have descended upon us and waded in the river, waiting in line to be baptized in solidarity with us. It is an intimate grace, isn’t it?

A congregation that I have visited recently embodies this intimate grace in a unique way. Having recently renovated their sanctuary, they made the decision to place the baptismal font not up front or off to the side but literally within the congregation. About 6 or 7 pews back, right dab smack in the middle of the people, their font is placed in a clear glass bowl, where all can see the clean water from every angle. As I left the pew to move forward to receive the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, I exited the pew and had no choice but to pass by the font. I followed the lead of many of the members of the church and placed my right hand deep within its basin and felt the refreshing coolness of the water on my palm, I could hear the dripping of the water as I brought my hand out of the font and made the imprint of a cross on my forehead with my thumb. Because of the water now on my forehead, I could feel the breeze on my wet forehead as I approached the Table to taste the most delicious bread dipped in sweet grape juice. As I returned to my pew, I sat in that holy space, a space that was enlivened, in part, because I was reminded of how intimate our baptisms are; they are intimate because God baptizes us, claims us publicly as the ones in whom he finds happiness.

But if I am to truly receive this good news, to embody the happiness that, for some reason, God finds in me, then I have rejoice at the baptismal promises that I see fulfilled all around me.

Whether you have realized it or not, you, the people who are Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, have claimed me, a young seminary student, as one of your own. You have accepted me, nurtured me, challenged me, and loved me in a ministry that is nothing short of reciprocating the happiness of which God finds in you! Because of your ministry to me, I have witnessed this community’s celebration of Lara Grace and Olivia Kate’s baptism. I saw the warm smiles on your faces as you shared with them and their families the love that God has first shown to you. Even amidst the chaos of the past year, you have remained firm in your commitment to proclaim the love that God gives us, the very love that stood in line and was baptized with us. I cannot tell you how much strength it gives me to be among you, to witness the faithfulness with which you are fulfilling your baptismal covenants! Such a blessing it is to be among you as you reciprocate the happiness that God finds in you and in me.

It is quite remarkable when you think about it: that a sovereign God whose majesty and magnificence is limited by neither time or space would find happiness in us! In you and me who are such broken people, who stray and wander and stumble and grumble. It should, then, be a relief that you and I are not called to explain why or how this could be (for that would be a most impossible task!). You and I are called not to explain but to proclaim!

Friends, I announce to you that you are claimed by God. You are claimed by a God who finds happiness in you. As we move forward into a new year with new challenges and new possibilities, we will go forth strengthened by a very old promise: a promise which must not stay in this place. How will you respond to this old promise in this new year? And as you ponder the ways that God is calling you to respond to this old promise, remember that Christ responded to this old promise in some very new and improvisational ways. Strengthened through his baptism, going forth with the assurance that God found happiness in him, Christ went into the wilderness and ministered to and with the most unlikely of characters, those people in whom God finds perhaps the most happiness!

So as we journey into a new year, into unchartered territory, take heart! For Christ too goes with us into the wilderness, accompanying and leading us on the road traveled by the ones in whom God finds happiness! Thanks be to God!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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A Healthy Tension

The following sermon was preached at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on Sunday, December 23rd. The service as a whole was a journey through our tension between lament and praise. I was inspired to craft the service in this manner because of the (healthy) tension which exists between two of the lectionary passages for that day: the lament of Psalm 80 and the praise of Mary’s Magnificat. It should be noted that a common misconception of lament and joy is that they are two separate and “neat” stages (i.e. to move from lament to joy to never return or vice versa). However, it is healthy, both as an individual and as a community, to have fluidity between the two. I like to think of lament and praise as a conversation, with each expanding our vocabulary of the other. This sermon is the first step in a journey I am embarking upon to further explore this healthy tension which finds its roots throughout the entire biblical narrative.

“The Visitation” by Qi He.
Read Psalm 80 here.
I highly recommend the responsorial setting of this psalm as found in Psalms for All Seasons.
Psalm 80 is perhaps best described as a communal lament. And although it shows up every year in the list of Advent readings, nothing in it, at least at first glance, screams “Advent!” Not surprisingly (as I am no expert of the Psalms), I did not know that this text showed up in the lectionary for Advent until I sat down with a colleague of mine a few months ago to organize the service of lessons and carols at Columbia Theological Seminary. Since our vocations prevent us from having services on campus for the days of Christmas and Easter, this is one of the most well-attended services of the year. The better part of 150 members of the community gathered a few weeks ago on the last week of classes to celebrate the coming of our Lord and Savior.
We decided to do this setting of Psalm 80 as a confession of sorts and used the Zephaniah text that you and I read a few weeks ago as the Assurance of Pardon. For me, however, (and I suspect that I am not alone in feeling this way) this musical setting of Psalm 80 was the most powerful part of the entire service. Perhaps it was the fact that it was not sung by me but in fact sung by two vocalists of much more talent! One female and one male traded off the verses that I just chanted and the entire congregation sang that intimate and heartfelt refrain that we just sang together. It was a powerful moment indeed.
I believe what makes Psalm 80 such a powerful cry is that it is so very raw. It does not beat around the bush. It does not gloss over the sharp edges. It does not whistle “always look on the bright side of life.” No, it is a very blunt prayer indeed and, perhaps, those are the most faithful if not always easiest. In fact, many of us don’t do so well with such blunt prayers. As I was doing research for this sermon I stumbled across a story by Shawnthea Monroe. The Ohio pastor tells a story of how during a clinical chaplaincy internship she spent time with a woman who had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She writes, “as we held hands, I cautiously picked my way through a prayer, asking for peace, for strength, for healing of body and soul – nothing controversial or unattainable. When I had safely concluded my prayer, the woman squeezed my hands and added, ‘Almighty God, I want you to take this cancer away from me. I know you have the power, and I want you to do it. I want to be healed and I want to go home. Amen.’ When she finished, she looked into my worried face and said, ‘Don’t be shy with God. If I don’t ask for what I want, how can I hope to get it?’” Don’t be shy with God…the wisdom of that woman is the wisdom of Psalm 80 who cries out to God. It is the wisdom of the staggerers, wanderers, sitters, and loathers of Psalm 107. It is the wisdom of Hannah who cries out to God for her womb to be restored. These prayers of lament and petition are perhaps difficult to read but in them is a liberating word that gives us the vocabulary to speak of our communal and individual faith journey.
Another favorite story of mine is from one of my professors at Columbia, Christine Yoder. She told us of a time when she read a difficult passage in worship; you know, one of those passages that the preacher reads as quickly as possible in hopes that the congregation will miss it? Christine read the following passage from Isaiah 54 in which God is speaking to the Israelites after the exile: “For a brief moment, I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you…” As she spoke these words, a woman in the congregation became visibly upset and left the sanctuary. After the service, Christine found the woman and said, “I saw that you were upset when we read that passage, would you like to talk about it?” “Oh, those weren’t tears of sadness, they were tears of relief,” the woman said. Christine was certainly taken aback for the words from the text very clearly state that God had abandoned (which is not a verb that we usually like to attribute to God). The woman continued to tell Christine of the incredible hardship that had been in her life in the past year. She described how the most painful part of the whole experience was hearing her friends saying “there, there, it’s not really so bad…God hasn’t abandoned you…when there was only one set of footprints it was when God was carrying you…” and so on and so forth. The woman explained how her friends, though kind and speaking with the best of intentions, unknowingly denied her the lament she was experiencing. The woman explained to Christine how the text from Isaiah, in its speech of God abandoning and hiding his face, gave her the vocabulary to speak of her grief. And that, ironically, was not traumatic but therapeutic.
Friends, the language of Psalm 80, blunt and raw though it is, is healing language. It is healing language for it gives us the vocabulary to speak of our pain. It is healing language for, whether we know it or not, a powerful trust is needed even to utter its words. For within the difficult language is found a steadfast trust that the God to whom we cry for justice where there is none is none other than the very God who alone is our only hope of salvation. Yes, Psalm 80 is a communal lament. But even more so is it a cry for God to act! It is a cry for God to break down the fourth wall and to come and do something about it. Restore us, O God, let your face shine upon us that we may be saved! God, your move!
Read Luke 1:39-55 here. It is my opinion that this passage is best read by a female liturgist.
So there we have it! God has heard our cry for restoration and responds, curiously enough, with childbirth. And the emotional depth of this passage echoes the wonder of this perhaps unconventional divine response. Now, as a male preacher, for me to go on about the feelings associated with pregnancy is awkward at best and perhaps even arrogant at worst. Therefore, last week I asked several of the female members of the Sunday school class to describe the feeling of having a child kick for the first time within the womb. Many described the first kick as a moment of sheer elation, of indescribable joy and wonder. It is a moment of happiness and excitement even when you are not carrying the son of God within your womb! Others described the kicking (or leaping as today’s passage would describe it) as being wonderful at first but uncomfortable at times, especially when sleep is the desired goal! Either way, the recognition of life brings forth wonder and praise.
As such, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps within her at the sound of Mary’s voice. You and I know this child to be John the Baptist, who though still growing in Elizabeth’s womb was somehow able to call us to repentance last week (still not quite sure how that works!).
At any rate, both John the Baptist and Mary move in this passage from recognition to response. John the Baptist hears of Jesus’ coming and, quite literally, cannot wait be born so that he might respond to it. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Mary responds with a voice that John the Baptist does not yet have. She sings what is now known as the Magnificat (the Latin phrase for its opening words “my soul magnifies the Lord”). She sings this glorious alleluia because the Lord has looked down on the lowlinessof his servant. As a scared, pregnant, teenage girl on the margins of society, perhaps the cry for help of Psalm 80 was not foreign to Mary’s lips. For she knew in that moment, that something miraculous was about to happen. A new (and unpredictable) thing will happen when one cries out to God for help. Indeed something so new and so unpredictable that the life given to Mary in her womb is not simply her own but rather a gift of life for the entire world! And as such, a song is in her heart and perhaps it is not a song too foreign to our own heart.
For this congregation has had its “Psalm 80 moments.” You and I have had our home congregations split in two: restore us, O God! Far too many of God’s children sleep on the streets and have no food to eat: restore us, O God! You and I have seen the darkness of human tragedy in recent weeks: let your face shine upon us, Lord! You who are Silver Creek Presbyterian Church are being reoriented towards a new and unpredictable day: restore us, O God, that we might be saved!
But today we are reminded that, like Mary, we have had our “Magnificat moments” as well! You have seen the Presbytery join you in your hour of need to grieve and praise with you: your soul magnifies the Lord! You have provided a very grateful young seminary student a loving community to continue his growth as a pastor: my spirit rejoices in God my savior! You have seen new life breathed into a congregation that has endured so much: for God has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant! You have gathered together as the Body of Christ to provide meals for local families in need: for God has filled the hungry with good things!
So Sisters and Brothers in Christ, you and I are caught in a healthy tension between lament and praise. And as we journey together in these final days of Advent, we will be propelled towards a new day where God is doing a new thing, a new thing that causes us to sing for God is about to stir things up and we will never be the same!

We join with Mary and make her song our own because we have journeyed through Psalm 80, we have cried out to a God who hears our every cry. And although it might not be done in a way that we might have wanted or predicted, God has responded and is responding and will continue to respond forever more. God will send to us Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus our Savior and friend who will journey with us through our every joy and our every sorrow. And, friends, I announce to you this day that this Christ-child will be no less that our God who is with us all, amongst us all, and, most importantly, for us all! Restore us, O God! Amen!

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