Adventskranz 1. Advent

The Unanxious Fig

The text for this week’s sermon is Luke 21:25-36

Do you ever feel anxious about the future?

That’s a silly question, I know. Everybody does.

What do you tend to get anxious about?

For some people, it’s the state of the country or the world-at-large. They wonder, “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?” For others, it’s particular circumstances that may or may not be arising in their future. Younger folks tend to ask questions like, “Will I get the job I want? Will I find true love? Will I have kids?” People at the middle of life’s journey ask, “Will I keep this job? Will my kids turn out okay? Will my marriage last?” Sometimes, they even have to jump back to the first set of questions as life, jobs, and relationships don’t turn out exactly as expected. Finally, people in the latter part of life’s journey ask, “What will happen to my spouse/kids/home after I’m gone? Will there be anyone left to care about the things I care about?”

I’m currently at the stage where I worry most about all the many things that need to get done at work or at home. It seems sometimes like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to keep on top of every task that needs to be completed.

Whatever the object of our anxiety, the process remains the same. Furthermore, there will never come a time when all of our excessive worrying turns out to be the key that unlocks the solution to all of life’s problem. There will never be a day when the headlines on our newspapers read, “Local hero cures anxiety by thinking about it real hard.”

Thankfully for us, the problem of anxiety is nothing new for the human race. Ancient writings reveal that the battle with fear has been waged for thousands, if not millions, of years. In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus describes a time when “dismay,” “confusion,” and chaos come upon the earth. He says that people will “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like every age of human history to me.

It should be no surprise that doomsday prophets keep popping up in the media, year after year. Because every period of history has felt like the “end times” to those who lived in it.

In response to this “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus does something very interesting. If you remember, he has just described the shaking of entire planets and “the roaring of the sea and surging waves.” So, what symbol then does he use to conjure up hope in the midst of chaos and anxiety?

Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.”

He goes back to one of those small, simple images from nature. This seems to be a favorite teaching strategy of Jesus. He draws his teaching illustrations, not from huge, dramatic happenings, but from the little things of this world. When people asked him to describe the kingdom of heaven, he pointed to flowers and birds, farmers planting crops and workers harvesting them, bakers kneading bread dough and merchants trading in the marketplace. When Jesus points out the fig tree in today’s reading, he’s giving people the smallest glimmer of hope in the midst of big anxiety. I can imagine scared people shouting back at Jesus, “Hey man, what gives? The whole world is coming apart and you want us to look at some little tree?! That’s ridiculous! You’ve got to give us a better sign of hope than that.”

The images Jesus uses are all very ordinary images from everyday life. There’s nothing particularly dramatic or profound about them, yet these little things, according to Jesus, are the things that reflect the glory of God’s kingdom on earth.

Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.”

Jesus points out the sprouting of the fig leaves, not because they are a powerful sign of hope in themselves, but because they indicate a deeper, natural rhythm that pulses at the heart of the universe, like a heartbeat. This rhythm was put there by God. We can even see it with our own eyes if we stop to look… really look.

Day and night, summer and winter, new moon and full moon, childhood and old age, work and rest, breathe in and breathe out. These signs of hope are there. They tells us, in their own quiet way, that this universe is not just some random explosion of chaos into which we humans have accidentally stumbled for a few odd years of existence. The pulse of nature whispers to us that there is a divine plan unfolding within us and around us. The psalmist tells us, in Psalm 19:

Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork. One day gushes the news to the next, and one night informs another what needs to be known. Of course, there’s no speech, no words—their voices can’t be heard—but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth.

Both Jesus and the psalmist are urging us to listen for nature’s silent voice. We can’t hear it with our ears, so we have to listen with our hearts. Unlike some other religious traditions, Christians don’t believe that nature itself is God, but we do believe that the created universe has the capacity to reveal something of God to us, provided that we have the ears to hear.

If we do listen to nature’s message, Jesus promises, we will “know that God’s kingdom is near.” Now, here’s something we’ve done together before. I’m returning to it again (and will continue to do so in the future) as a helpful reminder. The old King James Version of the Bible translates “God’s kingdom is near” as “the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.”

Hold out your hand in front of you. Think about that phrase, “the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.” Heaven is not far away. God is not far away. The place where God lives and reigns is “at hand.” God really is this close to us, “closer to us than our own hearts,” as St. Augustine would say.

Our lives in this universe are not some random accident, they are part of the divine purpose that is unfolding from the heart of all things. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.” In other words, the individual, little parts of this universe (i“heaven and earth”) are certainly finite and temporary (“will pass away”), but God’s plan: the purposeful, underlying rhythm of the cosmos (Jesus called it “my words”), is eternal (“will not pass away”).

The image of the fig tree is meant to remind us of God’s plan, so that we might draw hope from it.

This hope we discover when we listen to creation’s heartbeat, according to Jesus, is not simply for our comfort; it asks something of us as well. In response to the nearness of God’s kingdom (manifested in the sprouting fig tree), Jesus gives us a Don’t and a Do.

The Don’t is this: “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.”

Now, we could easily take this command of Jesus as a simple condemnation of all alcohol (many Christians have done so), but I think that narrow interpretation misses the point that Jesus is trying to make. Jesus is not trying to say that alcohol itself is evil. It’s simply another substance on this earth. What concerns Jesus is our relationship with all the substances of this earth. Jesus is warning us against our very human tendency to want to numb ourselves against all the painful things that can happen in life. And we don’t just do this with alcohol either: we numb ourselves with drinks, food, sex, entertainment, work, even religion. None of these things are bad in themselves, but all of them can act like a drug to keep us from experiencing the true depths of life.

The problem is this: the anesthesia we use to numb ourselves from the pain of life also numbs us against the experience of deep joy and hope. If we refuse to feel the bad, we will not be able to feel the good either. Jesus said in John 10:10, “I came so that [you] could have life—indeed, so that [you] could live life to the fullest.” Staggering through existence in a numbed state until we die is less than the kind of full, rich life that Jesus intends for us.

The Do Jesus gives us is this: “Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”

Jesus tells us, his followers, to “stand up straight” when the rest of the world is “faint[ing] from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” When we see the disturbing reports on the news, when we hear the end-time fanatics prophesying doom and gloom, the believer’s job is to remain still and calm, like the eye of a hurricane. The storm may rage around us, but we remain at peace in the center. We may not be able to do anything to change our circumstances, but we can remind ourselves that there is a divine purpose at work in the unfolding of this universe. Our spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and meditation, help us to stay in touch with that calm center.

When the rest of the world sees this difference in us, it will wonder why we do not fear what it fears. The people around us will ask, “Why aren’t you panicking with us? Don’t you realize the world is coming to an end?” And we can answer in the words of the old hymn:

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name…

When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace;
in every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.

By Rhoda Baer (Photographer) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It Gets to be a Gift

In the wee hours of this morning, I was called to the hospital to participate in one of the most solemn privileges that comes with the calling to pastoral ministry:

Praying by the bedside of a dying parishioner as she crosses over from this world to the next.

There in the bed lay someone I have known for a little over a year. She and her mother officially joined the church last September. Owing to my negligence in updating the parish register, I will now be adding and removing her name from the roll of active members at the same time.

Over the past year, I have walked with this person through wins and losses, successes and failures, hopes and fears. In short, we’ve done life together. And there we were last night, quickly ending that phase of our relationship much sooner and more suddenly than expected.

Surrounded by family at her bedside, the decision was made to discontinue life-support after the doctors confirmed that there was no higher brain function. When the medical staff had finished their work and left us alone to say goodbye, I unfolded my stole and began to say last rites. After anointing her forehead with oil, I kept my hand on her shoulder as we prayed.

As we began to say the Lord’s Prayer, she gave two or three deep sighs… and smiled gently. And after that moment, she was gone. I’ve seen many amazing things at the bedside of dying or recently deceased people, but never before have I seen a smile come to the face of someone whose brain was no longer functioning. I was so dumbfounded, I almost couldn’t finish the prayer.

In moments such as these, I am reminded of the deep truth that pastoral ministry is not “just a job” and I am not primarily a “professional.” This is a calling. It has less to do with what I accomplish or how many hours I put into the office each week and more to do with who I am and the relationships I form with God’s people.

In the midst of this exchange, there is a very real grace that is communicated. The predominant “low church” understanding is that the role of the pastor is to stand beside the people and point to God’s grace wherever it can be found. Some would say there is nothing special or necessary about the pastoral office, as such. The “high church” understanding, on the other hand, is that the priest is an arbiter of grace via the sacraments and the spiritual authority granted by virtue of ordination.

Personally, I am uncomfortable with both of these simplifications. I have no desire to set myself or my fellow pastors in the position of “gatekeepers” for grace. People can (and should) have dynamic, personal relationships with God that develop outside religious institutions in ways that are entirely unique to the individuals involved. So, there is a sense in which clergy don’t need to be there as the ones through whom God’s grace must flow.

However, the fact remains that we clergy are there and God’s grace does flow through us to touch people’s lives. I got to experience something of that at the hospital this morning. It feels less like a necessity and more like a gift.

The ritual itself, with someone specifically designated to serve in a symbolic presiding function, was a gift to the family as they struggled to say goodbye and commend their loved one to God’s care. It was certainly a gift to me as I was allowed to bear witness to God’s grace at work in the lives of these amazing people. Finally, in some way that I cannot explain, it even seemed to be a gift to our dying sister, even though there was no scientifically observable way for her to consciously participate in the last rites. Her smiling and passing away at the instant we were reciting the Lord’s Prayer may have been just a coincidence, but something deep inside of me is resisting that interpretation.

After we left the hospital, I went home and got some much-needed sleep. Later on, I got up and had lunch with friends at a pancake shop. In the middle of our meal, I got up to take an important phone call and was shocked to discover the deceased woman’s entire family seated at the other end of the same restaurant. We exchanged kind words and warm hugs once again, as we had several times in the days before. One close relative said to me, “I’m glad this happened. I’m really mad at God right now, but running into you like this tells me something. I don’t know.”

Once again, this our collective presence in that particular restaurant at that particular time may have been just another coincidence, but something in me refuses to believe that. I experience this presence as a gift. My privilege is to play a specific role in this unfolding drama. It doesn’t have to come through me, but it gets to. And for that gift, I am grateful.

Honest Preacher

This is the best, most hilarious thing I’ve seen all week. And it’s totally true. I hope this video goes viral. Subscribe to Friend Dog Studios. Share with your friends.

Every clergyperson has weeks like this sometimes.

[Just for the record, I am not having that kind of week. In fact, just last night I was telling the elders of North Presbyterian Church how proud I am of them and how thankful I am to be their pastor. That being said, enjoy the video and have a laugh.]

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015. By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Sermon for the Feast of the Reign of Christ at North Presbyterian Church.

The text is John 18:33-37.

Do you remember when you were a kid and the first time your parents asked you to do something work or chore-related?

It was pretty miserable. Up to that point, your time was your own and you could do what you want. But then, all of a sudden, you had these jobs and responsibilities beginning to pile up. Who wouldn’t avoid that, if they could?

So what do we parents do to grease the wheels of our kids’ burgeoning work ethic? We offer rewards. Treats, allowances, etc. Basically, we bribe our kids into doing the right thing. Alternatively, we threaten punishments if they don’t do the right thing.

All in all, it’s not a bad system. Rewards and punishments offer a kind of moral reinforcement for young people, whose ethical character is not yet fully formed. They drive home the idea that if we do good things, good things will happen; if we do bad things, bad things will happen.

There is a pretty solid scientific basis for this. Our brains have a system of neurons inside them called the reward pathway. These neurons get triggered whenever we experience something we like. A chemical called Dopamine then floods the pleasure center of our brain and we feel great.

Our parents gave us rewards for good behavior because these things stimulated this pleasure center in our brains. Similarly, punishments for bad behavior trigger the opposite response in our brains and we feel bad. Our parents’ hope was that we might begin to associate good behavior with good feelings and bad behavior with bad feelings, and therefore be naturally drawn toward the good.

This is a fine system for training kids in morals and good behavior. Not only is it scientifically accurate, but it also matches the natural patterns of behavior in humans for countless generations. Moreover, it’s consistent with what we read in the Bible.

The book of Proverbs forms a big part of Hebrew wisdom literature. It’s full of little nuggets of good advice, like:

  • “Kind persons benefit themselves, but cruel people harm themselves.”
  • “Fools see their own way as right, but the wise listen to advice.”
  • “Patience leads to abundant understanding, but impatience leads to stupid mistakes.

The general message of Proverbs, as wisdom literature, is “do good things and good things will happen.” Now this, generally speaking, is correct, isn’t it?

In our favorite movies, the hero saves the day while the villain goes to jail.

Our doctors tell us that if we eat healthy food and exercise regularly, we are more likely to live a long and healthy life. But if we sit around the house all day on the Dunkin Donuts diet, we will be more likely to get sick. So, we can see there is a general element of truth to this wisdom literature.

But things don’t always necessarily work out according to this plan.

Sometimes, in real life, the sleaze-bag gets away. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes you can eat right, exercise, and still get sick or die young.

Does this mean that doing the right thing is pointless if there is no reward? Does it mean all that stuff we read about in the book of Proverbs is wrong?

I think it just means we have to grow up and take on a more nuanced vision of reality.

Fortunately, the Bible prepares us for that. Apart from the book of Proverbs, the biblical collection of Hebrew wisdom literature also includes the books of Ecclesiastes and Job, where good people suffer unjustly and life sometimes appears to be meaningless. I think the authors of the Bible included these books in the canon to remind us that life is complicated, and things don’t always work out like they should, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t in it (somewhere).

I’m glad these books are included in the Bible because I think they call us to a deeper level of spiritual maturity, where simplistic systems of reward and punishment give way to reverence for the mystery of God’s presence in the world.

Rewards and punishments are useful for a time, while human beings are first forming their sense of morality in the universe, but the complicated realities of life threaten to undo our religious upbringing, unless we are willing to look deeper and go beyond “religious upbringing” to “spiritual maturity.”

I think we can see an image of that motion happening in today’s gospel reading. The story is set near the end of John’s gospel, as Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate on the day of his crucifixion.

Pontius Pilate, as you may recall, is the Roman governor of Judea. He is Caesar’s official representative in this occupied country. All the power belongs to him.

In front of him stands Jesus, the carpenter, rabbi, and movement leader who has been stirring up trouble and causing civil unrest in Pilate’s territory.

Pilate’s only interest in this story is to maintain order in the province given over to his charge. He is neither a good guy nor a bad guy. He is simply doing his job.

His way of looking at the world can be characterized by rewards and punishments. Pilate has been granted power over Judea by Caesar. If he can maintain order, he will be rewarded as a loyal friend of Caesar, but if he fails in this task, he will be deposed and executed. For Pilate, the game is all about maintaining the balance of power and making Caesar look good to whole Roman Empire. Pilate serves the cause of power.

Jesus, on the other hand, plays by a completely different set of rules. He stands in front of Pontius Pilate as a person who understands his divine-human identity and his role in the unfolding story of the cosmos.

Any other peasant would be trembling with fear to stand before Pilate’s judgment seat. They would tell him whatever he wants to hear in order to save their neck. But Jesus is most uncooperative, from Pilate’s point of view. He answers every question with another question, or with some kind of cryptic statement that is almost impossible to decipher.

Jesus isn’t interested in telling Pilate what he wants to hear. He just wants to tell it like it is. The most straightforward statement Jesus makes to Pilate is, “I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth.”

Jesus serves the cause of truth, while Pilate serves the cause of power.

Pilate and the cause of power are tied up entirely with the simplistic systems of reward and punishment. Everything looks black or white. Obviously, this cause has served Pilate well as he has advanced to a position of such great political power. However, this cause has its limits. The reward system is based on the human desire for pleasure. When it is not questioned and transcended, the pursuit of pleasure remains the central motivating factor in human life. Those who serve the cause of power are never able to grow out of pleasure’s defining role in their ethical systems.

There comes a point in every kid’s youth when they are no longer offered rewards for doing what needs to be done. A person with an established moral character does what is right, no matter the cost or reward. Washing dishes and doing laundry are part of living life as a family. There is no price tag that can be put on that.

The cause of truth, on the other hand, accepts reality as it is. Sometimes it is complex, sometimes it doesn’t make sense, sometimes bad things happen for no reason, sometimes we can’t control the outcome of situations, no matter how hard we try.

Jesus stands before Pilate in this morning’s gospel as the servant of the truth. He is, if you will, an enlightened being who operates “at a higher level of consciousness.” He is not interested in any political maneuvering or game-playing. Jesus isn’t concerned about what he can get out of his conversation with Pilate. His only goal is to “speak truth to power.”

What this means for those of us who follow Jesus is that we too are called to grow out of our juvenile obsession with rewards and punishments. We are called to live in reality as it is, with all its complexities and frustrations. We are called to “testify to the truth,” as Jesus did. We must “speak truth to power” in all our words and actions.

On a practical level, this means that we must be committed to doing the right thing, even when it costs us something and there is no reward. We must be driven by the same force of compassion that motivated Jesus’ life, even when it doesn’t feel safe to do so. We have to take risks in the name of love, not because it is sound policy, but because Jesus Christ commands it.

Jesus knows something about this. He has been this way before.

After he had spoken truth to power before Pilate, he was led away to be crucified. This didn’t happen because of any offense he had committed, but because Pilate served the cause of power, and his first duty was to maintain order in the empire. Jesus came “to testify to the truth” and he ended up dying for it.

But you and I know that the story doesn’t end there. Because, on the third day, the power of love overcame the love of power. On the third day, the heart that was impaled by a soldier’s bayonet began to beat again. On the third day, after the powers of this world had said “No” to Jesus and rolled the stone across his grave, God said “Yes” and rolled that stone away. On the third day, God rejected our rejection and “led captivity captive.” On the third day, God made power look weak and intelligence look stupid. On the third day, God gave fear something to be afraid of and sentenced death to death.

On the third day, Jesus Christ rose from the dead. This is our faith. This is our only hope. This is truth upon which we hang all our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.

Therefore, if we believe this, if we dare to call ourselves Christians, then we must pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. We pledge our allegiance to King Jesus over and against every enemy, every competing allegiance, every business interest, every political party, every ideology, every flag, every border, and “every other name that is named in heaven or on earth.”

And just as Jesus is a different kind of king, so we must be a different kind of army. Our Commander-in-Chief has given us our marching orders:

“I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me… I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” (Matthew 25:31-45)

Brothers and sisters, this is the commandment our king. It is our bounden duty. It is not an option. And if anyone, however powerful, acts otherwise, if they abandon the millions of “the least of these brothers and sisters” of Jesus who stand trembling at our gates while the bodies of their children wash up on our shores, then that person, like Pontius Pilate, is serving the cause of power and is therefore guilty of High Treason against cause of truth.

Living the Dream

J. Barrett Lee:

This year’s support letter for our ministry at North Presbyterian Church. Visit our website to learn more about our special church. Please consider supporting our ministry.

Originally posted on North Presbyterian Church:

North Presbyterian Churck, KZ-308Dear friends,

When a person’s life is full of affection, comfort, and happiness, people often say that such a person is “living the dream.” Did you know that God has a dream, too? According to author Verna Dozier, “The dream of God is that all creation will live together in peace and harmony and fulfillment.” The mission of Christ’s church is to live God’s dream on earth as in heaven. All of humanity is invited to share in Christ’s “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18) between God, ourselves, our neighbors, and creation.

North Church, a mission community of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, has a special call to live God’s dream in relationship with people who have mental illnesses. We practice ministries of advocacy and accompaniment with clients in the social service sector. We demonstrate the healing power of relationships at the Togetherness Group, our weekly social activities outing. We…

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By Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España (135/365: Piedras) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Not Even One Stone

I delivered this sermon this morning just after announcing to the congregation our session’s decision to leave our building and move our church’s ministry to a new physical location after almost a century at the corner of Burdick & Ransom. I don’t think it was a coincidence that today’s gospel reading in the lectionary is the story of Jesus predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Some weeks, the Holy Spirit makes more work for me…

The text is Mark 13:1-8.

If you knew that you only had a week, month, or year to live, how would you choose to spend that time? What do you want your life to stand for? When other people look back at your life, what would you want them to remember about you? These are the questions that a wise person asks in the face of mortality.

The truly wise among us realize that life cannot last forever, therefore the truly wise among us also realize that each life must be lived for something larger than itself. Every mortal life, it seems, is a means to an end.

Each of us has probably known, met, or heard about at least one person who made his or her mortal life meaningful by dedicating it to something larger than himself or herself. We tend to respect or admire such people when we meet them. Their examples might even inspire us to look more deeply at our own lives, face our mortality in new ways, and discover meaningful possibilities within us that we hadn’t noticed before. It’s a beautiful thing when that happens.

As it is with individuals, so it is with groups of people. These groups might last much longer than we do, but they too will one day fade from existence. Families are mortal. Surnames and lineages come to an end through a lack of offspring. Churches and other faith communities are mortal. There comes a point when dwindling membership and a lack of funds causes an institution to close its doors. Nations are mortal. The Roman Empire was once the dominant superpower in the world, unlike anything else that had come before it. Where is the great Roman Empire today? Buried under the rubble of history and preserved in ruins frequented by tourists in Bermuda shorts. Finally, even the planets and stars are mortal. One day, our very own sun will burn up all of its hydrogen fuel and explode into a violent supernova, momentarily becoming the brightest star in some distant sky.

If coming to grips with our own individual mortality is difficult, accepting the mortality of families, churches, species, and stars feels almost impossible. Yet, the same truth applies to these larger mortal beings that first applied to mortal human beings: it is in facing mortality that we find meaning.

Let’s look at this idea in relation to this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The story opens as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the great Jerusalem temple, the epicenter of Jewish worship in the first century CE. Jesus, as usual, is storming out in a huff after yet another fight with the established religious authorities.

It’s at this point that Jesus’ disciples, in their usual tactless and somewhat dimwitted manner, decide to stop and admire the lovely architecture of this religious icon and national monument of Judaism. They say of the temple, “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!”

Jesus is unimpressed. He says, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

He’s talking about mortality of the temple: this central symbol of religious and national identity for the Jewish people. They were under the impression that this sacred building would stand forever under divine protection. For them, the temple was immortal. It was an end in itself as a center of worship. The idea had never occurred to them that it might not be there one day.

As it turns out, Jesus’ prediction was spot-on. The Jerusalem temple, like any human being, was mortal. It was eventually burned to the ground by the Romans during an uprising in the year 70 CE. It was never rebuilt. The site where it once stood is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred places in Islamic religion.

The destruction of the temple was unthinkable to the average Jew, but to Jesus it was inevitable. The wisdom of Jesus did not stop with an awareness of his own individual mortality, but extended to embrace the mortal and finite nature of all things. Just as it was for individuals, so it is for temples, religions, countries, species, planets, and stars: to face mortality is to find meaning.

If our great struggle in life is limited to ensuring the continued existence of particular people, places, institutions, or things, then we have already doomed ourselves to failure. Nothing lasts forever. We need to accept that. What Jesus said about the Jerusalem temple, we could say about anything: “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” All things are mortal.

The sooner we realize this truth, the sooner we can get on with the business of asking the really important questions about existence in reality. Concerning our individual selves, we can ask: “What am I living for? What will people remember about me when I’m gone? What will be my lasting contribution to the world around me or the universe as a whole? What is the meaning of my life?”

The day will come when we, along with our families, our church, and our country, will only exist as a chapter in a history book. Accepting the inevitability of this fact, we need to ask ourselves: “When that day comes, what will we want that chapter say?”

As a congregation, we’ve been asking ourselves some very hard questions this year. We’ve been participating together in the New Beginnings assessment and discernment process. Throughout this process, the biggest and most pressing question we’ve had to ask ourselves is: “What is the church?”

Is the church a building? Is it an institution?

Or is it a community of people on a mission? A community of people, called together by Jesus Christ, living together in Christ, and following Christ into the world to live that mission?

Our final answer has been that third option: the church is a community of people on a mission.

Because we believe this, we have been able to make a bold new decision this week. We have decided to leave the building where we have worshiped for almost a century in order to continue the ministry of our church in a new location. The session, the presbytery, and I are currently working together on the details, and we will call a congregational meeting in a few weeks to let you know what the plan is.

This new move is not a death, but a resurrection.

We are not doing this because the church is dying; we are doing this because Jesus is alive.

We are honoring the heritage of the ministry that has been passed down to us, not by preserving it, but by continuing it.

We are doing this because:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon [us],
because the Lord has anointed [us].
He has sent [us] to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We are doing this because Jesus said:

“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

Our ancestors in the faith (and in this church) believed this, I believe it, and the session believes it. Brothers and sisters, do you believe it?

Let’s go follow Jesus.

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Where the Reformation Got it Wrong about the Eucharist

By Kelly Pigott

Reblogged from Patheos Progressive Christian

When we consume the bread and the wine we become naked, vulnerable, compelled to draw near to a God who instills both dread and affection. Beware. When we acquiesce, WE become that which is truly transubstantiated as we share in the very passion of Christ. So that the eternal question one must ask of communion is not, am I worthy? Nor is it, what happens to the bread and the wine? Rather, what happens to me? Do I change into the flesh and blood of Jesus? If in some small way this happens, more often than not we will find ourselves walking away from the service not commenting on the preacher or the band or the drama, but silent, because we have become intimate with the One who understood Himself to be the “man of sorrows.”

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By StarHeal (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Turning the World Upside Down

In lieu of my own sermon, which I am accustomed to posting here on Sundays, I would like to offer instead this mighty moment that took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC today.

The event is the installation of Bishop Michael Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. I got to experience it as it was broadcast over the livestream this afternoon. Bishop Michael had me cheering, shouting, and clapping, even though I was alone in my bedroom.

I love both traditional liturgy and progressive theology. There are some who say, “Those religious rituals are dry, joyless, and spiritually dead.” There are some who say, “Those liberals are biblically illiterate heretics who only preach about what they don’t believe and reduce Christian faith to political activism.” I have been told more than once that there is no way that Jesus Christ could be present by the power of the Holy Spirit in my church.

To those who would make the above accusations, I would invite them to take forty minutes or so to listen to Bishop Michael’s sermon. You may not agree with everything you hear, but I sincerely hope that you will see what I see here: Jesus Christ living and working through a progressive Christianity that is theologically grounded, biblically shaped, Spirit filled, and sold out in service to God and neighbor. Get ready, my friends, because it’s time for CHURCH!

Oliver Spalt [CC BY 2.0 (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Living stone
the river of fire
in the Province
Beyond the River

Bound by magnetism,
not gravity;
not necessity.

Pebbles worn smooth
by the passage of time:

The lava threatens
everything in its path
that is not
in its way.

the great civilization
in its very act
of creation.

Fire turns to stone,
rests as solid ground,
only when
river meets river.

The Real Legacy of the English Reformation

Reblogged from The Liturgical Theologian.

Cranmer was responsible for the first piece of liturgy written in English (the Great Litany of 1544), much of the Book of Homilies, the inclusion of the Great Bible in parishes around the nation, and the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer. These landmarks insured one thing: a common language for the faith and worship of the Church in England. Every parish in the country would now read the same Bible, hear the same homily, and pray the same prayers in the exact same language…

…What then is the true legacy of the English Reformation? A common Bible and a common prayer book in a common language for a common people.

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