Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Idol of "Being Liked"

My father was my first grade basketball coach.  While this provided additional time for me to be around my childhood hero, it also provided more of an opportunity to be admonished by my father who was somewhat of a disciplinarian.  I’m sure many of you fathers and sons can relate…

(This is actually my kindergarten team.  I am directly behind my father)

As I continue to reflect on my relationship with him, I am growing more and more aware that much of my early life was driven by my desire to please my dad.  He was smart so I wanted to be smart.  He was good looking so I wanted to be good looking.  He was an athlete so I wanted to be an athlete.  

I remember one day at the end of basketball practice he told the team to do the shuttle run.  I did not do particularly well at practice that day do so I felt the need to redeem myself.  I was going to win that shuttle run even though I knew I wasn’t the fastest player on the team.

Much to my surprise I got off to a quick start and held the lead for most of the run.  By the time I made it to the final stretch, I was gassed.  I couldn’t maintain the fast start and was overtaken by the point guard in the last few steps.  

In a desperate attempt to prevent this from happening, I veered into his running path.  We collided and neither of us finished the run.  I can’t really remember another time in my life where my father was as upset as he was that day.  And to add insult to injury I was disciplined in front of all my teammates.  

When I remember that night, I can still feel the lingering feeling of shame in the pit of my stomach.  There is not doubt that I wasn’t nearly as concerned about knocking my friend down as I was about disappointing my father.  Not only had I failed to be the best athlete on the team, I had also let my dad down in my mindless attempt to be the best. 

It wasn’t until many years after my father’s death when I learned that my dad’s love for me didn’t depend on how smart I was or how good looking I was or how good of an athlete I was.  Even when I was about to be ordained as clergy in the church, almost seven years ago to the date, I remember wondering if my dad would be proud of me.    

But as a father, I now understand fully that my dad’s love and acceptance of me was a simple as the truth that I am his son.  If I won the shuttle run that day, my dad would have loved me just the same.  I also know that his disciplining of me on that night was perhaps one of the most powerful displays of his love for me.  He knew I was better than that and did what he could to tell me that I didn’t have to cheat to win.  

On that night the main difference between me and my father was that he didn’t take it personally and I did.  I didn’t really like my father for a few weeks because he humiliated me in front of my friends.  But my father’s wasn’t concerned about that.  He was concerned about shaping me into the person God created me to be even if that meant I wouldn’t like him at times. 

One of the greatest false idols that human's worship is the desire to be liked.  On some level, we all struggle with this desire to be liked and accepted, a desire that might get us what we want but more often this desire complicates things even more.  

More often than not, our desire to be liked ends up putting us at odds with others in our life.  Our desire to be liked causes our loyalties to be stretched.  We set off a chain of events that run wildly out of control.  Ultimately, this path leads us to isolation like I found myself isolated from my father and my teammates.  

In today’s letter to the Galatians, St. Paul admonishes the churches there because of this desire to be liked and accepted.  These Galatians, who were Gentiles, were trying to find approval from the Jews.  Some Jews in this area were teaching that in order to be true followers of Jesus of Nazareth these Gentile converts must also conform to the Jewish culture and customs, they must conform their life to the law of Moses.  

However, this led these Gentiles to proclaim a false gospel, a gospel that depends on following certain culture customs as opposed to a gospel that is defined by Jesus and the work of the kingdom that Christ completes in all of us.

Instead of proclaiming a gospel that believes that salvation in Christ can be worked out through any culture or custom or circumstance, they were proclaiming a narrow view that says there is a very specific way to God based on certain rules and observances.  

For this reason, Paul says, “ Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  In other words, the Galatians desire to be accepted by these Jews caused them to abandon the true gospel and pervert the gospel for their own sake.  

Of course these Gentiles aren’t the only Christians who have compromised gospel beliefs in order to be liked or accepted by members of the community.  At some point, every church and Christian has given into this temptation.  More often than not this temptation is nuanced and less than obvious.

There are plenty of things that are done in the name of Christ that are contrary to the will of God.  Some are born from ignorance.  Some are born out of fear.  Some are born out of malice.  Some are born out of mere confusion.  

         So at the end of the day, this is why instead of proclaiming a certain way to live our life, the gospel proclaims a relationship with Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life, the One who shows us the Kingdom of God—and as you know there are plenty of avenues in which we find ourselves in relationship with God in Christ—just read your Bible!    

One modern day pastor and theologian said, “When the preferences of the church members are greater than their passion for the gospel, the church is dying.”  In other words, when we care more about how the church is run than we can about how the gospel runs the church, then we are in trouble.  Put another way, when we care more about conforming to the customs of the local community than we care about how the gospel conforms us to the love of Christ, then we have missed the point entirely.  

The gospel puts us in relationship with Jesus Christ, the one who fulfills the law, the one who loved us first, the one who calls us to consume his word and his work.  And what happens after that is the fruit of the gospel—kindness, goodness, self-control, gentleness, joy, courage. What happens after belief in the gospel is a life that grows more rooted in the kingdom of God, not a life that just happens one day, but a life that we grow deeper into each and every day.

In the most recent article of the week, an atheist turned Christian says it like this, “My Christian conversion has granted me no simplicity. It has complicated all of my relationships, changed how I feel about money, messed up my public persona…”  There is no doubt belief in the gospel will complicate how you view all tangible and personal relationships in your life.

However, as people who follow Jesus, we are seekers of truth.  And as seekers of truth, we come to believe more and more that it is the knowledge of God’s love for us that makes us right.  It is the knowledge that we are made in the image of God that reminds us of who we are.  

Like I said last week, this Christian life isn’t about working to attain some perfected version of ourself.  Instead, this Christian life is about remembering who we are—beloved children of God.  This Christian life is about growing back into this name we are given at baptism.  

This Christian life is about growing in grace, about growing into the full stature of Christ.  And because we are a slow witted people we grow by living daily to the reminder that all of us are loved beyond measure no matter the things we have done or neglected to do.  So I say to you again, God’s love for you is enough.  In fact, belief in God’s love for you is the only way to break free from the insanity of trying to gain approval according the the impossible standards of this world.  Amen.      








Tuesday, May 24, 2016

3- D Sunday


           If I ever get the time, one of my favorite things to do is go to the movie theater.  In case you were wondering, I like sci-fi, adventure, mystery, fantasy type movies.  But these days it seems I am more into Disney Princess movies…not by my own choosing, of course. 
 In 2009, before Mary Katherine, I was particularly looking forward to the newest James Cameron film called Avatar.  The film takes place several centuries in the future where human beings begin to colonize a distant planet that contains a valuable and expensive resource.  The conflict in the movie centers on the fact that this valuable resource is located underneath the indigenous people’s most holy ground.

            In addition to the sci-fi/fantasy factor, the movie was also attractive to me because it was done in 3-D.  And this wasn’t your momma’s 3-D movie.  This was state of the art, best technology kind of stuff.  After sitting in the theater for almost three hours, I didn’t want to leave when the movie was over.  It was the best movie theater experience I had ever had.
            And like the human avatars who took on the genetically modified body suit of the indigenous people, the 3-D movie experience left me feeling like I was also an inhabitant of this distant planet.  I couldn’t wait to watch the movie again and re-live that experience.
            I did watch the movie again—at home and in 2-D on my DVD player.  This time I could barely stay awake for the two hour and forty-five minute movie.  It wasn’t the same.  I still enjoyed the film but watching it the second time in 2-D did not allow for the full experience that I got when I watched it in 3-D.
            Today, on the first Sunday following Pentecost, the Church recognizes Trinity Sunday—the day when preachers try and fail to explain how God is three persons in unity of being.  So for the sake of everyone, I am going to skip over the part where I give you heretical analogies that attempt describe the Trinity and talk about how experiencing the triune nature of God or experiencing God in 3-D matters to your faith. 
First of all, knowing God in a 2-D kind of way can only hold our attention for so long.  But when we know God in 3-D, in a way that recognizes God as a communal and eternal being, we get to be a part of the reality of God in our own flesh and blood.  God is not simply a concept to be understood; God is a reality to be experienced that is communicated best in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If there is one big take away that results from a 2-D understanding of God that results from reading endless papers and books about the Doctrine of the Trinity, it is that God is unable to be explained by the limits of human intellect and words. 
At the end of the day, we are, like St. Thomas Aquinas said, simply grasping at straw.  Our theological questions and answers can only take us so far.  Ultimately, the question of God’s nature is something to be experienced beyond words.
But please don’t think that I am suggesting you not read and talk about God in a 2-D way.  Rather, I hope that as you read and mediate and study scripture and theology, you discover that there is something more to a life with God than what is written on paper.  I hope your theological musings take you on a journey where you become less impressed by human definitions of God and more captivated by the experience of trying to articulate the nature of God. 
Frederick Buechner said it like this, “Theology is the study of God and his ways.  For all we know, dung beetles may study man and his ways and call it humanology.  If so, we would be more touched and amused than irritated.  One hopes that God feels likewise…”
 In other words, God knows we don’t have the words to get it right but God delights when try because when we try to know and articulate God, we are taken on a journey where we grow more and more secure in the truth that God claims us as beloved children, the truth that God makes us citizens of his heavenly kingdom in this life and in the life to come.
Jesus himself even suggests that the question of God’s nature cannot be answered in a three year course on Christianity.  As we read in his farewell discourse, Jesus tells the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…” 
            As I have been saying quite a bit over the last few weeks, Christianity, Jesus, the Spirit, God desires to guide us into the experience of eternal truth as opposed to revealing all the answers on the right way to live or think.  God’s truth is revealed well beyond the topical index in the back of your Bible. 
Sure, this journey into eternal truth might very well lead us into a better way of living and thinking.  But even more, this journey toward eternal truth has the power to take us beyond easy answers to hard questions. 
If there is one thing that I am growing quite tired of in recent days, it is a moralistic Christian rhetoric (that exists on both sides of the aisle) that claims they have all the answers when it comes to complicated questions about human sexuality, gender identity, suicide, poverty, or any issue dealing with the complexities of the human experience. 
And if there is any church that should thrive in the middle of the ambiguity of these questions, it is the Episcopal Church.  The DNA of our church is poised to lead the world through these muddy waters with a faith that believes that God will help us find a way to the other side with a commitment to corporate prayer, the communal reading of scripture, and faith in the active presence of the Spirit. 
And like the Hebrew people who wandered for 40 years, we know that the sorting of eternal truth in the midst of humanity’s limits to understand will take time.  While these difficult questions get sorted out, I hope that Episcopalians, like you and me, stand convicted in a faith tradition that has a lot to offer during times of conflict and tension.
Put another way, I hope we don’t try to settle on the most convenient or most popular answer.  Instead, I hope we continue in a faith that believes a life immersed in God’s eternal truth will transform us and how we see and interact with a broken world, a world that is hungry to know love, a world that is hungry to know truth, a world that is tired of easy answers to complicated questions. 
At the end of the day, all Christians have the same faith.  Ours is a faith that claims the story of the One who took on the flesh of God.  Ours is a faith that claims the story of Jesus, a story that is marked by eternal truth being sorted out in the midst of the human limits of understanding.
And this is good news.  Because living toward eternal truth produces more fruit than does living toward getting it right because when we focus more on getting it right we limit how we interact with God and with others, we reduce others who don’t think like us to strawmen, we treat the other as a one-dimensional being. 
And I know I don’t have to remind you what happens when we treat others as one-dimensional beings.  We make assumptions that aren’t true.  We make judgments that prevent us from love and understanding.  We not only diminish the dignity of the other but we also diminish our own dignity as a people who have the capacity to think and show compassion.    
But when we focus on a search for enteral truth, our capacity to know God grows and as our capacity to know God grows so does our capacity to love, so does our capacity to show compassion and mercy.  As our capacity to know God grows, so does our capacity to know and understand the neighbor who doesn’t think and act like us.  And I certainly hope that our search for eternal truth will have us saying, “I might be wrong” more often than, “I know I’m right.”
As we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the Sunday that recognizes the Church’s highest of all theological and intellectual achievements with the Doctrine of the Trinity, I hope we don’t fall into the trap that believing our best articulation of the nature of God is the end of our search to know God. 
God is more than what is written on paper, more than a 2-D experience that can only hold our attention for so long.  Instead, I hope that the Church’s striving to articulate the true nature of God is the beginning of our experience to know God, the beginning of a 3-D experience of God, the beginning of an experience where we can’t get enough of God. 
I hope that our experience of God calls into question all the easy answers we give to difficult questions, especially answers that are cultivated out of fear and ignorance.  I hope that our striving to understand the true nature of God gives room for the Spirit to lead us and guide us deeper into eternal truth, a truth that is rooted in God’s perfect love for all creation. 
May you have the grace to let go of trying get it all figured out and let God pull you into a life where God’s truth will give you all you ever wanted and more.  May you have the grace to see that experiencing more fully the vast mystery of God opens you up to a life where you grow more certain that God’s love is the answer to every question.  Amen.

Monday, May 16, 2016


“So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (Genesis 11:1-9)        
I want to tell you a little bit about my own experience with Babel, an experience when God confused my language and scattered me across the map.  I grew up in a suburb of Birmingham called Mountain Brook.  If you know anything about Mountain Brook, then you know that it is sometimes dubbed “The Tiny Kingdom.”
          The median household income in Mountain Brook is about $150,000.  The racial make-up is 99.5% white.  The only chain restaurant in the city is Starbucks.  The city has some of the best public schools in the state and even the country.  And just about everyone graduates from high school and goes on to college.
          As you might imagine, I spent much of my childhood and early youth living in a bubble.  While I am thankful for a good education and a safe place to live, I recognize that I was deprived of seeing how the other 99% lived.  In a way, Mountain Brook is like the city of Babel—everyone has one language and the same words and the city has the means and resources to do anything they want.
          Growing up I attended St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.  The church itself was representative of Mountain Brook.  However, the Episcopal Church provided ways for the youth to venture outside the safe confines of the Tiny Kingdom.  One such experience was a mission trip to North Carolina where we encountered people who lived in extreme poverty. 
Another experience was Sawyerville Day Camp where we met the poorest of the poor in the Black-belt of Alabama.  Even more, this was the first time in my life where I spent any time with members of the African-American community.  In addition to seeing poverty first hand, I learned a very different language and culture.  My cultural horizons were enriched by getting to know these families. 
          These experiences opened my eyes to the truth that the world was not as predictable and clean and pleasant as I thought.  This experience also opened my eyes to a rich culture that grew out of poverty and slavery—one that is marked by courage and resiliency and creativity.
In so many ways, these experiences uprooted me from my world, from the Tiny Kingdom.  Through the Episcopal Church God literally confused my language and scattered me across the many cultures and languages of Alabama and the South. 
While these experiences were often uncomfortable and continue to be uncomfortable, I have come to value these experiences as vital to my formation as a citizen of God’s heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that is populated by all races and nations and cultures. 
I am becoming more convinced that the greatest threat to our common life together is tribalism.  Tribalism is when people of one culture value their culture over all other cultures.  This is dangerous because the more and more we separate ourselves into groups that speak one cultural language the more we disconnect ourselves from the rest of the world.  This separation creates fear and misunderstanding and animosity and violence and even war.
Even more, tribalism is contrary to God’s dream as revealed through his Son who is drawing all languages and nations to himself.  God knows the dangers inherit in tribalism and that is why God scattered the people of Babel across the land and confused their language--God did them a favor.  Just as God’s creation is diverse with species of plants and animals so is God’s creation diverse with different languages and cultures that reflect the full image of God. 
Today’s scene from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1-21) reflects how God completes the story of Babel.  Pentecost reconciles the many different people who have been separated into different tribes that speak different cultural languages.  And God does this by the power of the Holy Spirit. 
And notice was the Holy Spirit does.  The Holy Spirit makes the people understand each other in their native tongue.  In other words, the Holy Spirit breaks down the walls put up by cultures and customs and languages by helping the people hear one another.  Ultimately, the Holy Spirit makes this diverse group one people who speak the truth of God and the Church is a born, a Church that reflects the rich diversity of God’s people. 
One of the most valuable lessons I learned in conflict management class is the fact that most conflict is reduced or resolved when people understand each other.  It is truly amazing what happens when human beings really begin to understand each other—fear of the unknown begins to disappear, understanding grows, room for compassion is cultivated, and the first fruits of reconciliation are born. 
Resolving conflict is not about convincing someone else why you are right and they are wrong.  Instead, the foundation of reconciliation is discovered when people know the story of the other.  Reconciliation begins when the Spirit of truth helps people listen and understand where the other is coming from.  It is amazing what happens when the truth is spoken and heard. 
Perhaps the most powerful modern day witness to this truth happened in the years following apartheid in South Africa.  President Mandela and Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu created what became known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

(Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission)

The truth-seeking function set out to uncover the real story that was free from cultural-bias and historical revisionism.  The reconciliation function focused on restorative justice as opposed to retributive justice.  The goal was not to punish the offenders.  Instead, the goal was to reconcile a people who were broken by tribalism and power-structures that abused the vulnerable. 
If you have ever seen coverage of these movements, you have seen how incredibly painful they were.  Truth and reconciliation is not peace signs, daisies and roses.  Truth and reconciliation is hard.  Truth and reconciliation forces people to drop their pride and their obsession with the justification of self. 
In a very real way, truth and reconciliation feels like a violent wind and it feels like your head is on fire.  Using the words of St. Paul’s, this process of truth and reconciliation is the beginning of the birth pangs.  In the Word for the Week, I quoted Tim Keller who said, “People are messy; therefore, relationships are messy.  Expect messiness.” 
And as Christians who know the story of God, a story that includes a bunch of messy people, this messiness should inspire hope and not despair.  While the process of truth and reconciliation is painful and confused, we know that the way to salvation through Christ is painful and confused.  But the good news of Christ says that truth and reconciliation is saving us from the same old story of us vs. them.
          Even before I moved to Selma, I heard a refrain in my prayer life and through many of your voices and the voices in the community.  I kept hearing, “the Spirit is alive in Selma.”  And on this Pentecost, this refrain leads me to believe that God is using Selma to be a witness to how the Holy Spirit can break down the walls that divide.  Selma is poised to be a witness to how people of different cultures and languages can come together and work toward healing and unity, as people who reflect the kingdom of heaven on earth. 
          But if Selma wants to live into this witness, we must be prepared for the violent wind and the tongues of fire, we must be prepared to endure some pretty difficult conversations, we must be prepared to care more about listening to the story of the other than we do about telling our side of the story.
          In a very real way, this will be like hip surgery.  Before healing can begin there must be a willingness to dig deep and open the wounds and scars that are just under the surface.  But as Christians, we are given reason to trust that this pain is the path to healing and wholeness.  We of all people know that the way of the cross is the way that will prevail and show abundant life. 
          I haven’t quite figured out what this looks like in practical terms.  But I do trust that the Holy Spirit is moving in this parish and in the community to help us figure that out.  I do trust that the Holy Spirit is and will continue to put people with good-will together in the same room like the Spirit did when 120 gathered in the same room on Pentecost. 

          So on this Pentecost, I invite you to pay attention to how the Holy Spirit might be calling you and St. Paul’s and members of the community into the same room to work toward healing.  And I know many of you are engaged in this work.  I know many of you have been ready to give up.  But the truth is, you are planting seeds in order for the power of the Holy Spirit to work in this community.
And believe me there is not some magic formula.  Instead, the call is to be faithful to the Spirit of truth.  The call is to be faithful to the truth that God’s love will endure, God’s love will beat down the walls that divide one brick, one person at a time.  God’s love will create community that surpasses our wildest dreams—I saw it happen in Hale County at Sawyerville Day Camp.  I keep seeing it happen here in Selma.
At first, all this truth and reconciliation talk might sound like a lot of babel.  It might look like Bonnie and Hugh trying to reason with their eight-month son Hugh who will be baptized in a few minutes.  But after a while, Bonnie and Hugh will pick up on baby Hugh’s baby babel.  After a while the difference between an “I’m hurt” grunt and an “I’m tired” grunt will be abundantly clear. 
Soon relationships will develop and expressions of good-will will be shared.  Collaboration will inspire creativity.  Soon God’s people will live more fully as the people God created us to be.  Like a choir who sings in four parts making one melody, the Spirit will show the world how the many cultural languages of this world speak to the one true love revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen. 


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Community of God

Article first appeared in the Selma Times Journal on Friday, May 6, 2016

In a recent article titled “If Not Trump, What?”, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks suggests that it is time for a new American story—one that is “less individualistic and more redemptive.”  He goes on to say, “maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss…”  I hope Brooks is right.  I hope that America’s new story is a story of healing.  

As for now, our country and her communities seem stuck at an impasse.  On one hand, there are those who believe that a return to some past glory is the answer.  On the other hand, there are those who believe that we as fallible human beings have the capacity to create some kind of future utopia.  The problem with these two answers is that they call us to live in a place that doesn’t exist—in a dream world. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, activist, and theologian during the Holocost, writes in his book Life Together, “Nothing is more dangerous to authentic community than our dreams for it.  For we will always love our dreams more than community.”  He goes on to say, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

In the final chapters of the Book of Revelation, we are given a vision of God’s final community—the holy city of God.  The most common theme that runs through these final chapters is that God’s holy city is a place of healing and restoration.  While this vision represents the final stanza of God’s salvation project, we also know that this project of healing is being worked out even now through the great love God shows us through the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s project of healing and restoration begins to take shape in our communities when we are willing to recognize that everyone is deeply broken in some way, everyone knows the pain of loss, everyone is trapped by shame and guilt for things done and left undone,everyone longs to know healing and wholeness.  

And the great tragedy is that instead of coming together to find healing as a community, we do our best to beat the “other” up.  Instead of trying to understand the deep pain of others, we resort to labeling people we don’t even know.  Instead of using our brokeness as a place to find common ground, we inflict the pain that we have onto others making the chasm even wider.

Somewhere along the way we forgot who God made us to be.  We forgot that God made us to love and not hate.  God made us to create instead of destroy.  God made us to live in community—not some idealized utopia or some nostalgic past.  

God made us to live a community that is held together by love and mercy and justice and compassion.  These are the ingredients that create the community that God dreams up for us in Christ.  These are the ingredients that can turn a story of brokeness into a story of healing.  And we know the power of these ingredients because of the One who embodies them perfectly is risen from the worst hell imaginable.     

Monday, May 2, 2016

Searching for Something...

Click here to listen to Podcast of Sermon

Every once in a while a song takes ahold of me.  I become like a child who wants to listen to the song over and over again.  More recently, that song is The River of Dreams by Billy Joel.  I imagine that a part of the reason that the song has such an impact on me is because some of the best memories of my father are associated with this song.  The song helps fills a part of my heart that was taken away when my father died. 
In one of the verses Joel sings, “In the middle of the night; I go walking in my sleep…And I’ve been searching for something; Taken out of my soul; Something I would never lose; Something somebody stole.”  I imagine that we can all relate to Joel’s song on some level.

We are all familiar with loss.  Loss of a spouse.  Loss of a sibling.  Loss of a parent.  Loss of a friendship.  Loss of the good old days.  Loss of a job.  Loss of a marriage.  Loss of security. And the list goes on.  And it really does feel like something has been taken out of our soul. 
It feels like something we never dreamed of losing is lost and it seems the only possible explanation is that it was stolen.  Ultimately, this loss forms a gaping hole in our heart and soul.  And like Joel said, we go searching for something—something that will fill the hole.
Generally speaking we search in one of two directions.  Either we go racing back in time in order to create some semblance of that former reality.  We try to make it so things were as they once were.  And if we do that, then we won’t have to suffer pain or loss.  But instead, this search calls us to live in the past where we long for something that will never be. 
Or we run toward the future to claim some reality that captures a perfect life.  We try to create a situation where we can avoid pain and heartbreak.  We just know if we find this ideal place then things will be better.  But instead, this search calls us to live in a future that will never come into being.
Ordering your life so that you might relieve some past glory is not the answer and neither is ordering your life so that you might achieve that idealized future you dream of.  Both searches will ultimately dump you into an ocean of obscurity where you are lost forever. 
            Instead, the answer is right in front of your face.  The answer is made known through the mystery of faith, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The search begins and ends by living a life in Christ—a life that looks something like the image we get in today’s passage from Revelation.

Holy City of God, Jo Pate, Artist

            In today’s lesson, John is taken to the top of a mountain by an angel where he sees the holy city of God.  And in this city John sees something old, something blue, and something new...
            The old being that John sees things that remind him of salvation history.  He sees things that suggest that this city is populated by the people of God who are defined by the twelve tribes of Israel and by the twelve apostles. 
            John also sees something blue.  He sees something flowing from the throne of God.  He sees the River of Life and on each side are twelve trees that bear fruit in every season.  He sees that this tree lined river where the leaves are for the healing of the nations.
            And finally, John sees something new.  He sees that in this city there is no need for a temple because God and the Lamb are the temple.  In this city there will be no more darkness because the glory of God is its light and the Lamb is its lamp.
In the vision of the holy city of God we get a picture of restoration.  Some call this vision the restoration of Eden.  This is the place where we finally find what it is we’ve been looking for—healing and wholeness—a place that completes our past, fulfills our future, and reveals something new. 
This is the place where we will finally see God face to face.  This is the place where it becomes abundantly clear that God has marked us as his beloved.  This is the place that God is unveiling even now through Jesus our Savior.    
The take away here is that God’s salvation project is not some process of humanity of evolving toward some perfected utopia that dangles outside of our grasp and neither is God’s salvation project about returning us to the original garden of Eden hoping that we will get it right the second time around.
Instead, God’s salvation project is a restoration project, a project that restores humanity to its original nature—the very nature that God looked upon and said, “It is very good.”  God’s salvation project sets us on a journey to discover how God is making us new by restoring us to who God made us to be in Jesus Christ—beloved child of God. 
And God restores not by throwing away our past mistakes and heartache.  Instead, God restores by healing and redeeming our past.  Eugene Peterson says, “There is nothing so evil in my unfaithfulness and nothing so obscure about my life that is not, even now, being fashioned into the foundation stones and entrance gates of heaven…everything in history is retrievable.”
Yesterday I was having a conversation with Rachel Cannon about Douglas and Gerald’s tee-ball game.  Of course, the first thing I asked was, “Who won?”  Rachel then informed me that the other team won in extra innings.  Then she said Gerald was happy because his friend who played for the other team scored the game winning run.  Gerald said, “I’m glad she won the game.  Maybe I’ll win one day too.”
Gerald just reminded us of who God made us all to be.  God made us to live in community.  God made us to be glad when others do well.  God made us believe that we will all have our turn in the sun. God’s dream is to restore humanity to peace, unity, and concord where all nations and tribes and languages are reconciled to God and each other.  God’s dream has been a part of who we are from day one.
But somewhere along the way our communities divided into different tribes.  Somewhere along the way we grew jealous and contemptuous of our colleagues when they did well.  Somewhere along the way we grew to believe there is only room for a few to shine in the sun and we are going to be the few.   
And slowly over the course of time, through loss and pain and heartache and disappointment and failure, we lose this vision.  There grows a gaping hole in our heart and we go on a tireless search for meaning and importance only to find ourselves in an ocean of obscurity. 
Eugene Peterson says, “The beginning is the strongest and mightiest.  What comes afterward is not development, but the flattening that results from mere spreading out.  It is the inability to maintain the beginning.  The beginning is emasculated, and then exaggerated into a caricature of greatness.” 
At this moment, it seems a country that was once the strongest and mightiest, the United States of America, is destined for that ocean of obscurity.  Because of our obsession to be powerful and great and wealthy we are on the cusp of spinning wildly out of control. 
It is becoming abundantly clear that the pursuit of worldly greatness and power are the very things that are tearing a hole in the heart and soul of our country.  And the answer is not about a return to some past glory and it is not about achieving a future utopia.  Instead, the answer is right in front of our face.  The answer lies in God’s reconciliation and restoration project made known in Christ—a project that makes all things new. 
In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, David Brooks names the frightening path we as a country are on and dreams of a new America by saying, “I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer from addiction, broken homes, trauma, prison and loss, a story of those who triumph over the isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today.”
I have no idea what our national story will be.  I hope David Brooks is right.  But I do know what God’s story is all about.  God’s story is a story of redemption and restoration—not just for individuals but also for communities, for the world. 
God’s story is about healing the lost and broken hearted and that includes you and me.  God’s story is about restoring humanity to its original nature where we are designed to live in community, in peace, unity, and concord. 
Instead of choosing the path that leads into an ocean of obscurity, I hope we choose to jump into the River of Life.  I hope that we let God’s salvation song take ahold of all of us and take us to a place beyond our wildest dreams.  I hope we trust that God’s story of healing and salvation will take us on a journey where we all remember who God made us in the first place—beloved children of God. 
I hope that we come to trust that God has and is and will make all things new through a love that is interested in the whole body and not the self, a love that mends the hearts of all through the one who was broken for you.  Amen.