Montreat Youth Conference Sermon #5

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences.

Six hundred kids attended the first week and 1200 kids the second week.

The theme was “Be the Difference” with a sub-theme each day. The theme for Friday was “Be the Difference In the World.” This sermon is from evening worship on Friday, the fifth and final day of the conference.

My first sermon on the Call of Paul can be found here.

My second sermon on the Young Man Born Blind can be found here.

My third sermon on Pentecost can be found here.

My fourth sermon on Breakfast at the Beach can be found here.

Liturgy for this service can be found here (scroll down for Friday).

Exodus 2:1-10

Our stories this week have us beginning and ending with water.

Water is Creation’s bookend to stories that showed us how our Biblical ancestor’s lives were disrupted, turned upside down by God.

In our stories, each person took risks to create a thread of collective voices that gives us a picture of the life of faith.

This is how we want to look at our stories from the week—as a collection of voices and lives that were disrupted, turned upside down, people who were stopped in their tracks, sought a place of belonging, longed for a new type of family, a radical type of love that would accept and nourish them.

What these voices from the week give us is a way to live out our faith.

Paul was blind, couldn’t see or care about how he destroyed lives and relationships.

The young man born blind was healed and could see.

The Pentecost church showed us that in relationship we are called to look, listen, and feel.

Jesus and his disciples showed us that we need to die to certain ways of life in order for new life, the resurrection to take hold of us.

God wants nothing more than for us to be included in God’s story of dying and rising, death and resurrection.

Today our subversive, radical, freedom-bound women in Exodus call us to act.

Pharaoh is trying to prevent the growth of the Hebrew people who are slaves, he’s trying to prevent revolution. If there are more slaves that oppressors, Pharaoh knows the Hebrew slaves will rise up and demand freedom.

Enter the young people. Enter our subversive women, our women who end up disrupting

Pharaoh’s plan and set in motion the liberation of the Hebrew people.

In a prophetic act designed to save Moses’ life, or at least let him live a few more days, Moses’ mom sent him down the river. Miriam, Moses’ sister, takes over once mom places Moses in the Nile River, watching over him, witnessing him float down the river, acting as Moses’ guardian angel as was said this morning. Enter Pharaoh’s daughter, an Egyptian princess. We know what the princess’ dad would have done—Pharaoh would have tipped over the basket.

That was the law.

By law, the princess should have at least just pushed the basket down the river and let someone else deal with the baby.

As Rodger mentioned this morning, the Nile River was a place of death, with thousands of male babies dying in its waters.

The princess, for a moment, subverted the River, turned it upside down as a place of life and new beginnings.

The princess acted, she took a huge risk, broke the law, her father’s law, for the sake of saving baby Moses’ life.

Blindness with Paul and the young man.

Seeing. Looking. Listening with Pentecost.

Feeling. Dying and Rising on the beach.

Now we act.

Those are crucial elements to the life of faith. When we are blind, not paying attention, asleep, numb to the world and those around us….we are called to see, to look, to listen, to feel, to die and rise in order that we can act and be a difference in the world.

On our last night together, I wanted to leave you with some thoughts on how you might transform your Montreat experience once you get back home.

How you might see, look, listen, feel, die, rise, act once you get home.

First: what is critical to be the difference is this--

You are stronger together. You are stronger as a community.

The one voice, the hero voice, the individual has some power.

When you act as a youth group, as a church you increase your power, your ability to make change.

Picture one person from your youth group goes to Session or committee with an idea about something that needs to die in order for new life to begin again at your church.

That’s just one voice. One person. Honestly one voice can be dismissed when you stand in front of those in the room with power.

Now picture your youth group going to Session or committee all of you packed into one room. It will be hard for that group of people to ignore your voice.

One thing I always tell my co-workers, I tell myself this all the time too---you need to come to power with a proposal. Don’t go to your committee with words like “we just wanted to get your feedback on something” or “what do you think of this idea.”

No. Go to Session or your governing body with a proposal.

We want to do this. This new idea needs to happen. This is the plan.This is our hope, our dream for our Church in order  that our church can create space for the resurrection.

With a proposal, a plan, your Session, those in charge, those with power have to react to you.

You are showing them while they have power as far it goes with the structure of your church, you have power with your hopes, dreams and the size of your group.

Always go to power with a proposal. Be organized.

Know that when you go to power with a proposal, you are going to bump up against risk and vulnerability.

You need to take risks to create change. You need to put yourself out there. And that can feel really vulnerable.

People can disagree with you. That disagreement might rattle you. It might rattle a relationship. And we are called to take risks for the sake of new beginnings.

Remember—all you need to do is tell your own truth, like our young man born at birth. Don’t feel like you need to have all the answers. Be passionate. Use the religious language you’ve experienced this week. Disrupt ideas. Call for death and dying in order that God can shape new life. Nourish relationships.

Create a place of belonging and welcome. Love difference.

Another way to create change:

Invest in your worship.

Eric, Amanda, Nathan and I have been planning worship for this week since January.

We’ve had numerous conference calls to bring an intention and focus to our worship services.

I learned this in seminary: if you want the world to change, you need to experience change in worship. If your worship stays the same week after week, then really what you are saying is that you don’t want the world to change. How we worship reflects how we see and dream for a world made new.

You’ve experienced new music this week, probably experienced new ways of doing a benediction, new ways of praying like we did last night with silence. These experiences were intentional so you could experience what change feels like.

If your worship is the same week after week—you need to tell your worship folks that when God says to sing a new song, God actually meant a new song.

Another thought on creating change….

Dinner as a family.

Meals with family are crucial. We have a busy schedule in our house and we try to sit down together as much as we can, even if one night we are all eating cereal.

We start off with highs and lows—our kids, Sam, Maddie (12) and Ryan (9) usually groan….why do we always do this….

Maddie and Ryan always offer a high and low to the day. Sam usually passes and listens.

One night we sat down and Ryan asked his dad for a high and a low.

Bob works with homeless folks, and there have been times when Bob has known someone who has died because they frozen to death on the streets or overdosed on drugs.

One night Ryan asked his dad for a high and low.

Bob paused.

Ryan said, “what’s up, did someone die?”

Yes, Bob said. Someone did die today. Tears started to come down Bob’s cheeks.

Maddie kicked into blunt caregiver mode and said, “alright dad, let’s get right to it. Do you need to talk or not talk about. Do you need to be alone or around us.”

Meals are crucial to our sense of belonging as a family, as a community.

We see each other. We can look, listen and feel. This is why Jesus shared breakfast on the beach.

One way of being a difference is sharing meals, even if you are eating together at 9pm and dinner is ice cream.

Creating change idea #3:

Come to The Pilgrimage.

Come to Washington, D.C. to look, listen, and feel the stories of the homeless and poor.

Come to reflect, take risks, step out of your comfort zone, have your lives intersect with the most vulnerable in the nation’s capital.

We have $500 grants our Pilgrimage groups can apply for—we call these grants SEED grants and they are given to Pilgrimage groups who want to start something new, be part of change in the community.

We’ve given out grants to help start community gardens, build picnic tables for a senior citizen center, create blankets to hand out to those on city streets.

Come to The Pilgrimage to be the difference.

Change idea # 4

Take bag lunches out to homeless folks in your city and neighborhood. Our youth and kids at Pilgrims do this—kids like 4 year old kids do this.Our Pilgrimage groups do this, too.

It sounds like no big deal.

We pack up some bag lunches with a sandwich, granola bar, fruit and walk around together, sharing a lunch with those who need one.

But when you share a bag lunch with someone, you share your name, a conversation starts, stories are shared…even for a few minutes….our kids are impacted and remember the experience.

Our confirmation group last year did this, Sam was part of the group.

As we walked along and handed out some lunches, Sam could barely stop asking me questions and Sam is a kid of few words.

Sam asked:

Where do people go to the bathroom around here?

Is there a place for them to shower?

Do the police bother them?

How many homeless people have a job?

Does dad know any of these people?

Sam was seeing Pilgrims neighborhood in a new way and the walk was getting him to ask really important questions about what it means to be homeless in D.C. You want to see your neighborhood through the eyes of those who are hungry, homeless, seeking shelter and clothes. You don’t want to assume what’s going on with the least of these. You and your youth group, your church need to see the streets of your city/town through the eyes of the least of these.

Last thought on how to create change: if you see guacamole in your church refrigerator with an expiration date of 2007, toss it out. Don’t hold on to it. Don’t wonder if someone else will take care of it. The guacamole isn’t serving you anymore.


Everyone in our stories this week took some incredible risks for the sake of a world made new.

And in every story a community, an individual died to ways that weren’t serving them anymore. They participated in God’s invitation to dying and rising in order to create a world made new.

In that dying and rising with Paul, young man born blind, Pentecost community, breakfast at the beach, women in Moses’ life, they were part of a ripple effect, a movement forward, they embodied the Spirit, they lived out a holy welcome and belonging for everyone.

Keep looking, listening, feeling, seeing; let yourself be disrupted, let yourself be healed; let yourself be loved so you can be more loving.

Die to those ways that aren’t serving you, in order that you can be part of God’s story of dying and rising. God wants nothing more for us than to be made new, than to be resurrected for the sake of the planet, God’s home, which is deeply broken and in need of healing.

Montreat: you have been changed. So as you go . . .back to your homes, back to your churches, back to your schools, back to your families and friends,

May you be led into this new truth, this new understanding, this new way of believing, this new way of loving, so things will change, so lives will be different, so you will not return to where you once were.

Because God’s Word is within you.


Montreat Youth Conference Sermon #4 Breakfast on the Beach

Energizers with Eric Wall, Rodger Nishioka, Nathan Proctor and 1200 youth.
Energizers with Eric Wall, Rodger Nishioka, Nathan Proctor and 1200 youth.

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week and 1200 kids the second week. The theme was “Be the Difference” with a sub-theme each day. The theme for Thursday was “Be the Difference With Your Peers.” This sermon is from evening worship on Thursday, the fourth day of the conference.

My first sermon on the Call of Paul can be found here. My second sermon on the Young Man Born Blind can be found here.

My third sermon on Pentecost can be found here.

Liturgy for this service can be found here (scroll down for Thursday).

John 21:1-19

Jesus invites us into the risen life, a resurrected life.

This Jesus story in the Gospel of John invites us into a story when everything feels like it’s over, and something entirely new begins again.

When has that been for you?

When something felt like it was over and something entirely new begins again?

Our breakfast on the beach story takes us to death and resurrection, that the resurrection of Jesus means God is always doing a new thing.

God is always with us, God is always around to show us beauty in the present moment, God is always there to show us love in one another and in the neighbors and companions God has given us.

This story today is about death and resurrection, it’s about faithful dying and discovering resurrection, or new life, is always around us.

This is my faithful dying and resurrection story.

My dad died almost four years ago.

My dad had been living with Parkinson’s for about a year. Parkinson’s is a disease of the nervous system that affects movement, slowly, over time.

Parkinson’s is similar to Alzheimer’s in that it creates a very, very long goodbye.

My dad had also been living with arthritis in his spine which made it painful for him to walk.

In moments when humor was needed with our dad’s physical struggles, my twin brother, John, along with our older sister, Paige, would describe our dad’s body as “a hot mess.”

I got the phone call from John, my twin, on a Sunday afternoon.

Dad fell in the backyard. He had a massive heart attack. The paramedics revived him, he’s at the hospital, he hasn’t woken up.

I flew to Columbus early the next morning to be with my mom, Paige and John.

Our dad was in a hospital bed with lots of machines and tubes that went beep over and over again. He was on a ventilator, unable to breath on his own. He could open his eyes, he could hear. But we weren’t sure what he was hearing or seeing.

He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t move. His fall had left him paralyzed.

Within 24 hours it became clear to us that we needed to take my dad off the ventilator.

Our dad was always clear about his wishes for the end of his life—he had it in writing, he had told us verbally what we wanted.

My dad’s hospital room turned into a steady stream of friends and colleagues coming to say goodbye.

I was so taken, so thankful for their courage to come to his bedside, stand next to his dying body, grab his hand, touching the last of him.

My dad’s body wasn’t serving him anymore after his heart attack.

He couldn’t breathe on his own.

His body was paralyzed from the fall, and he had Parkinson’s. My dad’s body wasn’t serving him, his body unable to stay alive without machines.

We needed to let our dad die.

And that’s what we did.

Grief is hard, it’s very hard work. It’s hard emotions.

My 14 year old son, Sam, I mentioned last night, who said it’s easier to look away has told me before that he doesn’t like feelings, his feelings make him feel uncomfortable.

In my grieving, at one point, I told my spouse, Bob, I felt like I spent my days wanting to punch people in the face.

People would ask me simple questions and I would just look at them like “seriously, you have a question about the church database? My dad just died. Back off.”

Bob reminded me that I wasn’t walking around punching people.

My thoughts hadn’t become actions. Yet I knew I was suffering, and I needed some change.

My mind would go back to my dad’s hospital room, picturing his body all hooked up to those machines that went beep, remembering how his body wasn’t serving him anymore.

A question finally came to me “what isn’t serving me anymore?

What in me, in my life isn’t serving me anymore?

What did I need to let go of? What did I need to release? What did I need to die to in order that I could rise, I experience newness?

What did I need I need to die to in my life in order that I could experience a more authentic me?

What did I need to die to, let go of in order that I could love more, share more love?

What did I need to die to in order that I could be transformed, I could be made new, create a new beginning, participate in a risen life now, a resurrected life where I let go of fear and live more boldy for the sake of Jesus.

Let me be very clear about how I am using the words “What I need to die to.” I didn’t think I needed to physically die in order to be experience the risen life.

By using the words “what do I need to die to” I’m not taking about physically dying.

Jesus wants me to live just as Jesus wants you to live. Jesus wants to meet me in this life just as Jesus wants to meet you in his life. Jesus wants me and you alive on right now, right here

There have also been some of us who have been told “I wish the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender part of you would die.” Or “I wish your struggle with gender identity would die” or “I wish your skin that’s black and brown would die.”

This is exactly what happened in Orlando—a man wanted people to die because they were LGBT folks with black and brown skin. That’s not what I’m talking about when I say “what did I need to die to.”

Those things are of our essence, those things are part of our being made in the image of God.

Before my dad died, I had already done some death and dying.

When I was in Atlanta I had to let go of, die to the future I had envisioned for myself.

I had to die to the ways I thought about what it meant to be successful. I had to die to the ways of thinking I had to have all the answers and be perfect.

The Apostle Paul had to die to how he was living in the ways of the Roman establishment. Paul died to the ways of violence in order that he could rise, be made new in God’s love.

The young man born blind at birth had to die to the reality he wasn’t blind anymore, he had a new identity of follower of Jesus.

The crowd around the young man had to die to the young man’s old identity, rise to his new identity. The same with the young man’s parents.

The football team from Olivet, MI from the video this morning in keynote….had to die to what it meant to be a football team.

They had to die to what it meant to score a touchdown.

Justice Miller, the wide receiver died to his own ways of being himself—he said that before that series of plays on the field, he was concerned about himself.  After that, he wanted to make everyone’s day.

What in your life do you need to die to? What in your life is keeping you from loving, from caring for those around you? What needs released?

Maybe it’s you thinking your love doesn’t matter to someone else, that you don’t matter to other people.

Maybe it’s thinking you matter too much, your sense of entitlement needs to die.

Maybe what’s needs to die is the thinking you have nothing to offer yourself, your friends, those around you.

Maybe what needs to die, needs to be released is you think you will look uncool for loving the world.

Maybe what needs to die is the image of yourself, how you look and dress because your image preserves your ego, your sense of self. A lot of times we focus on our image, how we look in order to wall ourselves off from the fear that we’ll be rejected.

Expectations? Priorities? Fear? Anxiety?

Internal voice that tells you to look and be like everyone else. Maybe self-hatred needs to die because you don’t feel you are worthy of God’s love?

Almost on a daily basis, I have a conversation with my internal voice, my inner critic that tells me to stop.

My inner critic tells me that idea I have for worship might make me a target for conflict, I’m not that creative….remember that idea of being a doctor or a lawyer might voice might say……maybe I should have done that instead. You’d probably be better at it.

I know that the dying I have done in the past few year,  the letting go of things that aren’t serving me  like letting my inner critic drive my choices, is connected to my dad’s death.  Silencing my inner critic are moments of resurrection for me.

There are parts of us that we need to die to, die to thoughts, ideas, choices, beliefs that aren’t serving us anymore.

We die to those ways in order to create new ways to serve in love.

Why is this dying so important? Why do we need to let go of these parts of ourselves?

Our breakfast on the beach story is about Jesus’ resurrection, and it’s about Jesus death.

You can’t get to Jesus resurrection without claiming the horrific way he died.

God is pushing us to walk right into this story that is about Jesus’ death and dying because God wants so much to include us in God’s resurrection. We can’t get to new life, new beginnings without the experience of some type of dying and God wants nothing more for us than to be resurrected.

After Jesus’ died, as Rodger mentioned this morning, the disciples went back to what they knew—fishing.

Jesus asks for fish—the disciples initially had none. Jesus gives them a bit of instruction because the disciples were fishing on the wrong side of the boat.

This was Jesus way of saying, “ok, when God says to do a new thing, God means a new thing so get on the other side of the boat.”

Once they catch a net full of fish, Jesus immediately invites them to come, have breakfast.

There was a charcoal fire with fish and bread—a really beautiful image.

With the sun rising, Jesus tends to a fire to make a breakfast of fish and bread.

As the disciples are learning to fish again, fishing from the other side of the boat, as Peter is naked, putting his clothes on, jumping off the boat, as the disciples are learning to see Jesus, see him as the resurrected one, as all of this change is going on….

Jesus invited them into a moment of nourishment, of community.

The meal of fish and bread has Jesus was teaching the disciples, yet again, how to be companions, friends with each other.

As I shared in last nights sermon, “companionship” means “with friends” or “with bread”  in Latin.

This is how we are the difference with our peers, our companions, our church members, we stop, we sit down, we share a meal to tend to the ties that bind us. We take care of each other with a meal and conversation.

Considering change is part of who we are, how we are made up as humans and as people of God’s way, nourishing, feeding, caring for each other is crucial.

We need to die to, release, let go of the ways we skip over listening, looking, and feelings the emotions of who and what is around us.

When we skip over moments to be tender and loving and kind, we miss turning towards love.

We need to die to the ways that keep us from realizing Jesus is in front of us and the ways Jesus call us to be companions with each other.

As a Church we can get consumed by keeping the church alive. We can obsess over how many new people members we get in a year, how many are in a youth groups, are we entertaining you all enough.

We can spend all our time on agendas that stay focused on the building and budgets and making sure worship and the choir sounds perfect.

But really…that’s not our work as the Church.

Our work is death and resurrection, dying and rising.

As the Church we are called to practice loving and being loved.

And we need to die to the ways that keep us from loving and being loved.

Montreat—Churches love nostalgia. Nostalgia is a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

Maybe you’ve heard things like “oh, years ago we used to do this” or “remember when we used to do that….that’s when people loved coming to church.” Or when suggests a new idea, a change in worship and someone says “oh, we can’t change that, that’s not how we do things.”

Jesus death and resurrection tell us that dying and rising is the least comforting way to new life.

Death doesn’t take us to the point where we can finally feel in control of our lives.

It actually does the opposite.

Both death and resurrection toss out the familiar, our comfortable hopes, and re-fashions a future, unhinges us from the past that we cling to.

The disciples went back to fishing on one side of the boat.

Jesus said, “it’s a new day, a new time, time to fish on the other side.”

This is why Montreat the Pentecost story has you all as the ones to dream and envision a world made new.

The way you make a difference as peers is when your church peers stays stuck in the past, consumed with doing the ways of yesteryear over and over again,

Your work is to disrupt those ways, your work, your visioning and dreaming means asking your church why do we do what we do, what we are doing and is what we are doing practicing loving and being loved?

One Sunday at Church of the Pilgrims, my son, Sam, and I were looking for something to eat in the church’s refrigerator.

As we rummaged around the refrigerator, Sam pulled out a thing of guacamole and read the expiration date. Sam said, “Mom, the expiration date on this is 2007.”

After I almost barfed in my mouth, Sam said, “wow, I was 6 years old when this guacamole expired. Then Sam said…. I wonder what I was doing when I was six years old….

Ok, so when your 14 year old starts to get all nostalgic about expired food in the refrigerator….the church refrigerator might just need to die.

We can fear the future of our churches, it can be very hard to let go of the past.

Sam tossed the 2007 guacamole into the trashcan. In an incredibly simple physical act, Sam showed what is needed in so many of our churches—that we need to die to some things, let things go in orderto make room for something new that is needed now….and what’s needed now and always is to live in the ways of God’s love.


Once again, this is why the Pentecost story calls you, the youth, to envision and dream.

Because the adults in the Church are clinging to 9 year old guacamole, clinging to the past, fearful of change and what change might bring.

Sometimes children, youth are more courageous than parents, adults.

Sam’s the one who tossed out the guacamole. He didn’t ask permission. He said this is gross. Tossed it. Done. Finished.

Goodbye guacamole from 2007—you aren’t serving us anymore.

What need to die in order for new life, for us to experience and witness the resurrection?

I asked that question to Pilgrims Session, our governing body, this past March.

So, what here at Pilgrims needs to die in order  to create space for love and compassion to rise up, come alive in us?

Rob Nelb, who is an elder on Session, immediately raised his hand and said,

“I think we need to move coffee hour that we have after worship from the community room down the hall to the sanctuary.”

Rob had noticed that few people were going into our community room down the hallway from the sanctuary after worship, people were staying in the sanctuary. Rob said let’s have coffee hour in the back of the sanctuary after worship.

Rob said, we have all these beautiful and creative and vulnerable experiences in worship—we need to stay in the sanctuary, drink punch, eat salty snacks, and be together in this space that has given us so much life.

Two weeks later coffee hour was in the back of the sanctuary.

And we are much more of a community.

Pilgrims died to a 30 year old way of doing coffee hour for the sake of love, for the sake of strengthening and nourishing relationships at Church of the Pilgrims.

This was Rob being Jesus like, saying we are fishing on this side of the boat with coffee hour in the community room, while everyone is on the other side of the boat in the sanctuary.

And now after worship, with coffee hour on a couple of tables behind the last set of pews, we savor our worship experience and we savor the relationships that have been created and been made new during worship.

What has to die in your church in order for more love to happen?

Something has to die in order for love to happen, there has to be a death in order for love to rise up, come alive, be resurrected.

That’s the story God so lovingly wants for us.

We are called to die to those ways that push us to obsess over things as a Church like longevity and security, significance and being the most popular church on the block.

Remember that Jesus went from having a few thousand in feeding of the 5,000 to a handful of followers to Maundy Thursday when he gathered to share the bread and the cup to Good Friday when he was put to death with 2 others and a handful of people, mostly women, looked on.

Jesus—not exactly the cool kid on the block.

We are called to die to ways that keep us from loving and being loved in order to live into God’s resurrection because God wants nothing more for us than to include us in God’s story of death and resurrection.

The hard part about the work of love is that our part is the dying part. The resurrection is God’s work.

When we moved coffee hour into the sanctuary we didn’t know how it was going to go.

When the Apostle Paul was transformed, the young man healed, the Pentecost community disrupted by the Holy Spirit….something came to an end.

Something died in order that Paul could live in the ways of love, in order that the young man could be part of a new community, in order that the Pentecost church could come alive after the death of Jesus.

My dad’s death called me to ask “what isn’t serving me anymore” and now I’m preaching at Montreat.

Almost two years ago, Mary Goodnight Thomas, one of our co-directors, sent me the email asking me to be the preacher here at Montreat.

First I almost deleted the email because I thought it was a pitch to come to church camp and why would I want to do that?

I called Mary and said “you know I preach to about 80 people on a Sunday.”

Yes, we know said Mary.

You know we have a rainbow flag over our sanctuary doors that says “All Are Welcome.” Yes, we know that.

You know we’ve been ordaining elders who are lgbtq and doing marriage equality before all of that was legal right? Yep, we know.

You know I’m UCC not PCUSA. Yep, know that too.

Ok, let me talk to my spouse Bob and run this by him, thinking oh Bob will shut this down. Who wants to parent three kids solo for 2 weeks?

I tell Bob and he says, “wow that sounds like a great opportunity, you should really do this.”

At that point, the only thing stopping me from saying yes to this was my own fear and anxiety. So I died to that and here I am with you.

We are here to nourish and love, serve and feed, care for each other.

Montreat you can be a difference for your peers, your Jesus companions by trusting that God is doing something new with you, God is doing something new with your peers, your neighbors. You can make a difference by being about love, the dying kind of love.

The kind of love when we step back, take a breath, and we can say, something is dying here and my God it’s still beautiful.

Montreat Youth Conference Sermon #3 on Pentecost

Glow sticks as Pentecost chaos light up Montreat sky.
Glow sticks as Pentecost chaos light up Montreat sky.

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week and 1200 kids the second week. The theme was “Be the Difference” with a sub-theme each day. The theme for Wednesday was “Be the Difference in Your Church.” This sermon is from evening worship on Wednesday, the third day of the conference.

My first sermon on the Call of Paul can be found here. My second sermon on the Young Man Born Blind can be found here.

Liturgy for this service can be found here (scroll down for Wednesday).

Acts 2:1-21

Today is Pentecost for us Montreat the day we name dreams and see visions and this Holy Spirit of ours is no tame spirit.

Our Holy Spirit is less than predictable in order for God’s dreams can be released through us.

Here is my Pentecost story: I celebrated Easter while I was in Atlanta with the Open Door Community, the community I worshipped with while I lived in Atlanta during my JVC year.

Open Door is an intentional Christian community that shares meals and clothes with the homeless of Atlanta, makes visits to those in the Atlanta jail and on Georgia’s death row.

When I worshiped at Open Door, I worshiped with middle class folks, people whose stomachs rumbled with hunger, people who used to be in jail and prison, family members of those on death row in Georgia, and those who were homeless on Atlanta streets.

That Easter morning, while I was in Atlanta, the Open Door had a breakfast for close to 500 homeless folks in downtown Atlanta—that was Open Door’s Easter worship…living out the resurrection by sharing food with the most hungry.

There I was at 5am with volunteers and homeless folks. I was given the job of boiled eggs. I would hand out one boiled egg to each person to go along with their coffee, sausage, and grits full of butter and cream.

As the Easter sun was coming up, hundreds of homeless folks were gathered for breakfast.  Those who had made the food for hoping for enough eggs and sausage and grits.

The energy was palpable as people who came to eat were hungry, volunteers were rushing around non-stop, trying to keep on top of tasks and stay organized.

It was chaotic and lovely all at once.

I was busy at my boiled egg station—very determined to be the best boiled egg hander outer of all time. Place egg on top of grits in Styrofoam bowl. Egg on top of grits.

I placed eggs on top of grits for 2 hours. As things were winding down, as the late comers came to the line for the last of the food, as my body and brain started to slow down, a guy came to my boiled egg spot, asked for an egg,

I placed it on the bowl of grits. I looked up. We made eye contact.

The man said, “Happy Easter.”

And I just froze in place. Stopped in my boiled egg tracks.

Happy Easter I said back, almost stunned.

Right. It’s Easter.

For 2 hours I had been super focused on my job as the boiled egg woman in the chaotic scene of sharing breakfast with hundreds of hungry folks.

My homeless friend stopped me in my tracks, like Paul with that light from the heavens, and my friends 2 words scorched my heart.

Yes. It’s Easter.

The day when love and connection and community and the radical act of sharing things like boiled eggs show that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

My homeless friends two words created a connection—I was so busy handing out eggs I forgot about the people in front of me.

I remember leaving that Easter breakfast realizing I had just felt (not just thought about), felt the resurrection.

Just as the parents in our story from yesterday missed the moment to say “We love you” to their son, I was missing the moment with the other 499 homeless folks who came for a boiled egg.

I wonder……when you’ve been in a place, where chaos and noise and confusion were everywhere and all of a sudden you got a crystal clear message.

Something just stopped you in your tracks.

When you realized that you weren’t paying attention to the loudest message, you were hit in the face with the clearest message.

The Apostle Paul was stopped in his tracks, blind, couldn’t see until the scales fell off his eyes and he was able to see Jesus’ message of love, sharing and non-violence.

The parents and crowd of our friend the young blind man were stopped in their tracks, confused, agitated over the healing sight received.

Now we are at Pentecost, the day we not only see, we see and we hear and feel the Spirit.

When my homeless friend said “Happy Easter” those words went through me. I felt them. We made eye contact. We heard each other. And I felt his words in me, my heart, my brain, my spirit.

And I just went that Easter morning to serve some boiled eggs.

What I got, again, through the words of my homeless friend, was God turning me upside down, dumping me on my head, and saying pay attention—share that boiled egg with some love, some compassion.

Not just plunk goes the egg on the grits.

In our Acts story, people had gathered together for a spring grain harvest, a Jewish celebration called Shavout.

These friends of Jesus were still heartbroken over his death.

Yes he had been resurrected yet Jesus physically wasn’t there anymore. And that must have been really sad.

For those of us who have gone through loss and grief, community gatherings and predictability after a death can be important.

This would have been their first Shavout without Jesus.

Shavout was going to be a predictable experience—something the people had done over and over again, something they could count on.

Jesus’s friends weren’t gathering because they knew God was going to blow the doors open and this incredible Pentecost Day was going to happen.

A simple, planned feast of grains turned into an experience of confused, chaotic, multi-lingual, Spirit-driven outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Where have you been and the unexpected happens?

Have you been somewhere, expecting and needing things to go “as planned” and everything was disrupted?

Where all of a sudden you realized you had no idea what was going on?

When you thought you were in charge, or you were the one in control or you knew what to expect?

Do you see and hear the patterns in our stories this week?

When did you think you had it all figured out, when did you think you knew where life was headed, when the notion of family was disrupted to mean the body of Christ?

The Holy Spirit was let loose on Pentecost in order to for those Pentecost folks to hear these prophetic words from Joel:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, your sons and daughters shall prophesy, they shall tell God’s truth, your young ones shall see vision, your older ones shall dream dreams.

 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit; and they shall prophesy.

Our God is a dreamer and God has been dreaming since the beginning.

From chaos to order at Creation God dreamed of beauty and community for all of life.

After the flood, God dreamed of life again. God dreamed for our Biblical ancestors who struggled to survive in the ancient middle eastern desert.

As the Israelites imagined liberation, God dreamed for their freedom.

As Mary and Joseph prepared to become parents, God dreamed for family and love.

As the baby Jesus grew, was presented at the Temple; as Jesus found his own voice, after Jesus almost got run off a cliff, God dreamed.

God dreamed for life as Jesus died on a cross, and when God did an amazing thing and made Jesus alive again, God kept on dreaming.

Paul’s life was transformed by God’s dream of a community of Jews and Gentiles.

The young man born blind had dreams as he begged on the streets, he had more dreams after he became a Follower of the Way.

I love what Rodger said this morning about who these words are directed to: the youth, sons and daughters (youth again), older folks, and slaves.

The directive to see visions, dream dreams and prophesy didn’t come to the powerful and in charge.

The task of dreaming, visioning, prophesying wasn’t given to royalty, the military, or those we typically think of being in-charge and being the experts on visions.

Again, as Jesus can flip our lives upside down, Jesus and the prophets flip upside down our understanding of power, our understanding of who is powerful in the name of Jesus, how we see communities organized—

Dreaming for the sake of God starts with those we most often overlook.

And these dreams, God’s dreams….. aren’t just happy go lucky dreams.

These aren’t magical, far off and away dreams like a Disney movie.

God’s dreams are for a world made new. Our planet is broken—fractured, polluted, impoverished, starving….

God dreams for a world made new where there is healing and wholeness, love and sharing, where Creation can breathe without filling out lungs with pollution.

The Holy Spirit scorched those Pentecost folk, tossed out the original plan for their festival, tossed it all into the air, pushed everyone out of their comfort zone in order to tell the truth about God’s dream and vision for the planet, in order to get folks dreaming about a world made new.

And that truth is this: the seeing, the knowing, the hearing, the feeling that comes to us from the Holy Spirit as we live as followers of the Way are not for ourselves alone.

What does a world made new look like? It means that my homeless friend in Atlanta wouldn’t have to go to a parking lot on Easter morning to get a boiled egg.

God’s dream for my friend would be he’d have his own home where he could cook his own egg, possibly with his family; my homeless friend would have a job that paid well and an apartment that he could afford.

Everything got tossed up in the air on that Pentecost Day, got set on fire because God’s dreams;

God knows we need to be turned upside down, our doors need to be blown open and our hair needs to be set on fire to get our attention, pull us out of our routines, out of our places of privilege and power in order that we can dream in the ways of God.

The Pilgrimage is the primary outreach ministry of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C. where I am one of the pastors.

The Pilgrimage is set-up like a hostel inside Pilgrims building and we welcome youth and college groups all year round to do service learning and reflection around urban poverty and homelessness.

8,000 folks are homeless in DC on any given night. Almost 500 of those folks are homeless youth—young people your age living on the streets or in someone else’s home.

So take all 500 or so of you and put you on the streets of DC for the night and that’s our homeless youth.

When groups come to The Pilgrimage we tell them right away to listen, look, and feel.

Listen to the stories of the poor and homeless. Look for the ways the Spirit is at work on the streets of D.C. caring for those who are neglected and rejected.

Our Pilgrimage groups open their eyes, their ears so they can hear and feel stories of folks they might otherwise walk past on a daily basis.

We want our Pilgrimage groups see how the Spirit comes along and breaks things wide open, our wild, fierce Holy Spirit that comes to places of brokenness and seeking and longing and incredible emptiness and that Spirit rushes in like a mighty wind in the shape of a bagged lunch, a hot meal, a warm, dry blanket, a meaningful conversation.

Our Pilgrimage groups listen to the stories of the poor and homeless while they are with us.

Listening to stories is crucial to disrupting myths and stereotypes about homeless folks—the myth that homeless folks are lazy, uneducated, don’t want to work, are choosing to be homeless.

Our Pilgrimage groups hear stories like these:

They hear from David, the Pilgrimage’s own Poet-in-Residence, and his work of tending to his depression and caring for his heart disease.

David lived on a bus stop for several years while homeless in D.C., living with depression and health concerns. David now has his own apartment and a team of doctors at Georgetown Hospital who care for him.

Pilgrimage groups hear the story of John who lost his job at the same time his home burned down.

He lived in his car in a shopping mall parking lot for a while before he started living on the streets. For John, homelessness was an exhausting experience. “it was hard to look beyond whatever day it was.”

They hear the story of Steve who was involved with drugs and alcohol at a young age. His mom was incredibly abusive. In 2005 Steve became homeless. Steve says, “As I walked down the streets of DC, I saw people on every single park bench, and it hit me: They’re homeless, and I am too.”

Steve found a bench and stayed there for 18 months. He met a volunteer from a homeless care and outreach van who asked Steve, “Would you allow me to help you?” Steve said yes.

As our Pilgrimage groups hear and feel these stories of homelessness, you can see the scales falling from their eyes. You can see the mud getting washed away and clarity coming—our Pilgrimage groups start to see Steve, David, T, John are people with faces, names, families, people with hopes and dreams for their lives.

It’s a Pentecost moment when our Pilgrimage groups ideas, myths, stereotypes, assumptions get tossed into the air like the chaos of the original Pentecost day.

I was driving to a soccer tournament with my 14-year-old son, Sam a couple of weeks ago. We were at a stop light when we saw a woman holding a cardboard sign that read, “Homeless. Please help.”

Sam turned his eyes away from the woman, looked at me and said, “Mom, it makes it easier if I don’t look, if I turn away.”

Yep. Sam’s right. It does make it easier.

When we turn away, don’t see or look for the hungry and homeless, it does make it easier to ignore homeless folks.

When have you looked away?

When have you looked away because you didn’t want to hear or feel the story of someone who was hurting?

When have you looked away because someone who was homeless, hungry, sick made you feel anxious or uncomfortable.

When has your church looked away to the homeless and hungry—those living on your streets, those hungry in your city and living on someone else’s couch?

When has your church said “it’s easier if we don’t look, if we turn away.”

Our Pilgrimage groups hear and feel the dreams of David, T, Steve, and John.

Dreams of a job. Dreams of a healthy body. Dreams of medication for depression. Dreams of a home. Dreams of a world made new where folks aren’t living on the streets, kids aren’t living on someone else’s couch, dreams where families love rather than hurt, dreams of living a sober life.

God dreams for a world where all have homes, all have food, all have enough.

Groups come to The Pilgrimage to practice dreaming—we can get out of practice in dreaming with God.

We plod along in our routines, conforming to the ways around us.

We can be the difference in our churches when we dream.

Montreat: This is the difference you can make in your back home church.

Let’s picture this:

Your youth group goes back to your church, you all go to a committee meeting and an adult will probably  have a nice, typed out agenda of the meeting, everything will be in order and then your youth group blurts out

“God has dreams for hungry folks to have food. God has a dream for everyone to have a home. God has a dream for everyone to be cared for when they are sick. What First Presbyterian Church of “our city” are we going to do about those dreams?”

If those committee folks stumble with their words, say that’s not on our agenda, and act like the parents of the blind young man and say, “Um. No idea, go ask that other committee. They meet tomorrow night” you keep telling God’s truth about God’s dreams.

Your youth group can be the difference, make a difference when you disrupt how your Church conforms to the ways we ignore the poor by telling them:

We dream of a church where everyone is welcome.

We dream of a place we all can call home. We dream of a world where justice is flowing, with hope and peace growing, God's will is done. Make it so, make it so Church.

We bring our dreams for a world made new to the communion table tonight.

Our table where we will share in the meal of bread and the cup is a place for us to dream.

It’s free drink for the thirsty. It’s free food for the hungry, healing for the broken and hurt, love for the outcast, a gentle touch for those we’d rather not touch.

The meal of bread and cup is rest for the weary. Like we’ve been saying all week, everyone born belongs at the table.

When we gather in Jesus name we gather as companions which in Latin means “with bread” or “friendship with bread.” The table lets us embody that companionship and belovedness.

This is Jesus’ meal where we proclaim like a scorching fire, like a powerful wind blowing doors and windows open, that we all have dreams for a world made new, that a new world is possible.

Every time we come to the table, we are made new and we proclaim it all in the name, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul was made new. The young man was made new. I was made new and will continue to be made new.

You have been made new and will continue to be made new. Your families have been and will be made new with a Pentecost Spirit.

New life, fresh life, full life is always God’s story for the Church and each of us.

And for that we give God thanks.

Montreat Youth Conference Sermon "The Young Man Born Blind"

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week. 1200 kids the second week. The theme was “Be the Difference” with a sub-theme each day. The theme for Tuesday was "Be the Difference in Your Family." This sermon is from evening worship on Tuesday, the second day of the conference. My first sermon on the Call of Paul can be found here.

Liturgy for this service can be found here (scroll down for Tuesday).

Matthew 1:1-16

John 9: 1-34

Jesus gives us another story of life getting turned upside down.

Yesterday we had the Apostle Paul whose life was flipped upside down while on the way to Damascus.

I told part of my story of Jesus turning me upside down. I wonder what story came up for your yesterday of life disrupted, life turned upside down.

Our story today gives us a young man, probably around the age of 14 or 15, who was blind, he was homeless, begging on the streets.

Jesus cakes this young man’s eyes with mud and in an act that seems quite similar to baptism, the young man was sent by Jesus to wash the mud off his eyes in the pool of Shiloam and, like Paul, had sight restored.

Like Paul, our young man was born anew with the waters of Creation.

Many stories with Jesus, when Jesus initiates a moment of change, when someone or something is transformed, when there is a new beginning in Jesus’ name, a crowd of people usually get very nervous, and uncomfortable and anxious.

I wonder if you’ve ever had that?

When you are part of something hat is changing and your heart starts to race, brain starts to jump with thoughts, anxiety starts to kick in.

Anxiety starts to kick in the crowd in our story because our young man had changed.

The young man was known around the city as being blind, being a begger.People have known this young man, who doesn’t even have a name in the story, all his life as blind.The crowd and his parents have known him as “the blind man” and “the blind begger.”

That’s how people talked about him, how they referred to him—the blind begger. Those two words shaped and formed our young man’s identity. Those two words “blind begger” shaped how people knew him, talked to him and interacted (or didn’t interact) with him.

The young man was in a box when it came to who he was and how he was known to others.

I wonder if you’ve ever been put in a category, placed in a box of how you are known? You feel like you’re seen as just one thing.

You’re just the football player. You’re just the musician. You’re just the kid to be bullied. You’re just the smart kid, the gay kid, the liberal kid, the conservative kid, the artistic kid,  the kid who lives in “that part” of town, your just the Christian kid. Or you’re the kid who tripped on the field in marching band. Or the one goalie who missed the penalty kick.

Or the one with divorced parents, or the uncle who drinks too much at the bar down the street, or the one who has an estranged cousin.

For lots of reasons, most of them not helpful or healing, we can get boxed in, only seen by others as one thing.

As if people just call you “the smart kid” and act as if you don’t have a name or that there’s anything else about you.

In keynote this morning, Roger said this morning we can’t live compartmentalized lives. We can’t live fully when we are put in a box, when people define us by one thing.

Then what happens when things shift and change.

What happens if your conservative or liberal shifts. Or you are no longer the football player or swimmer, you’re no longer a musician. You’re the kid whose parent are no longer married.

This happened to the Apostle Paul in our story yesterday.

After his call to follow Jesus’, people in Damascus didn’t know what to do with him.

“Isn’t he the one who was wreaking havoc among those in Jerusalem who called on God’s name?”

How can this be the same man?

When I was coming to realize that Jesus was the way for me.

I wasn’t the Ashley that my family and friends knew growing-up.  They had to let go of who I was and embrace the change I was going through.

Has this ever been for you?

That was our crowd today after our friend, the young man, was able to see.

In this deeply unsettling moment, the crowd reacts with questions: Is this not the man who used to be a beggar? Isn’t this the blind man? How were your eyes opened? Who are you? What I love about the young man in this story is how he responds to these questions.

He just kept telling his own truth.

Folks kept asking “what happened, what’s going on” like they are trying to collect data for a research project and the young man’s response never seemed to satisfy the people’s need to know.

The young man just kept telling his own truth. The crowd kept asking “is this the same man?”

The young man kept saying Yes, it’s me. It’s true. I am the man.

He had to say this over and over again.

High school has come to an end for some of you, it will come to an end at some point for the rest of you.

You might be getting questions, “what are you doing after graduation?” or “what school are you going to?  or “what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” You may be getting these questions over and over again.

That’s when you tell your own truth and that truth might be “I don’t know. I don’t have a clue.” And that’s OK because it’s your truth.

Do you see what the Gospel is giving you permission to do? The Gospel is giving you permission to be yourself, no one else.

The young man seems to be pretty annoyed at one point just proclaiming, “one thing I do know that though I was blind, now I see.”

When questions would fly at me when I started to change, I would get really frustrated with myself because I never seemed to have enough words to explain what was going on with me.

I would get questions like, “what’s going on?” “why are you doing this?” “do you really have to do this Atlanta thing?”

Those questions were tough for me to hear in the moment.

When I look back I can have some compassion for those questions because I know at times when I’m face-to-face with something that is beyond my own experience, I can scramble for some sense of security.

And in those moments of scrambling for security, a sense of control I can lose a moment of connection with the person in front of me.

Even if someone is having a different experience than our own, even if it appears we can’t even relate to what’s going on with the other person we can still have a connection.

I wonder what it would have looked like or felt if someone in the crowd would have asked the young man, “what is it like to see now? Is this a big shock? What was it like to see your mother’s face? What was it like to see and touch your father’s brown skin?

What are you going to miss about being blind? You aren’t on the street corner begging anymore, now what do you hope to do?”

What question would you want to ask the blind man, a question that would create a connection?

Healing like with the blind man, with the Apostle Paul, with me…. was change.

Healing with Jesus usually means change and change is always hard, especially with those who are closest to us like family.

The parents of the young man are included in this experience of change, the escalation of tension and questioning.

“Is this your son?” they were asked.

The parents respond with “We know that this is our son, that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees. Ask him; his is of age. He will speak for himself.”

This sounds pretty awesome. Parents saying our child is old enough to tell his own story. Ask him! The parent’s words sound so empowering!

And then we find out the young man’s parents said “go ask our son” because they were afraid, afraid because people were already getting kicked out of the synagogue for following Jesus.

The young man’s parents were afraid that if they spoke about the change their son was experiencing AND Jesus in the same sentence, they might get kicked out of their synagogue.

I picture my own parents trying to explain my movement towards living in Atlanta, then going to Union Seminary in New York City to try to figure out this thing called ministry.

I picture my parents at a party and their friends ask, “so we heard Ashley moved to Atlanta?

And now she’s going to seminary? What’s seminary and what’s that about?”

I see my parent’s faces becoming flushed, anxiety rising and them blurting out “No idea what that’s about! Go ask her!”

Their response rooted in their own unknown as parents, their insecurity about what I was doing, who I was becoming, that they really didn’t have much of a say any more about the path my life would take.

I picture a parent in their neighborhood grocery store, standing there examining the price of milk when someone comes up and asks “Hey, is your son is gay? That’s what I’m hearing. Is that true?”

In a flash the words start to fall in that parent’s mind “don’t tell the truth. What will people think of me, our family? How am I to even explain him being gay?

“Will my son be safe from harm which is a real fear considering 50 plus parents in Orlando are grieving the death of their child.”

The parent in the grocery store really responds, “Go ask him” after stumbling through words.

There are times when parents don’t have as much courage as their children.

There are times when as parents we let our own fears and anxieties get in the way of being supportive.

Being a family is hard especially when change and identities of how we are known to each other shifts and gets disrupted.

Just ask Jesus. Jesus knew what it meant to be family.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went back to his hometown only to find his family and friends having a really hard time adjusting to the radical nature of his life and work.

Jesus’ family had such a hard time with who Jesus had become they tried to run him off a cliff.

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus looks around a crowd and says “here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever loves and hopes and dreams with God are my brothers, sisters and mother.”

Jesus casts a net wide when it comes to what it means to be family and it means that for everyone born, there is a place at the table, Jesus draws each of us deeper into his community of welcome and love.

This is what Jesus did for the young man born blind. While Jesus restored sight to the young man, the real healing was the young man now being part of a community that was going to love and welcome him.

This is what Jesus did for Paul—Jesus took a violent man who disregarded human life and brought him into the community of love and welcome.

The young man’s community and family structures weren’t giving the young man the support, the love he needed. Jesus was creating those structures to welcome and love those whom the structures were failing.

Like the young man, Paul was able to see again. Paul’s real healing was Jesus loving and accepting Paul.

We see this wide circle, sacred, incredible embrace of family in Jesus’ family tree, in the genealogy of Jesus.

Forty plus generations of people are claimed in Jesus family tree and as we talked about this morning, it isn’t a perfect Instagram picture of love and acceptance. In Jesus tree we see a loving family (possibly biological, possibly not), a messy and complicated family, a broken family, a mixed-up family.

Jesus’ family tree has it all: those who suffered from violence, those who were violent, those who loved, those who were rejected, those who dominated and those who were dominated.

Jesus’ tree includes five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary.

It is significant these women are included because they can easily be dismissed and ignored. In our keynote this morning, Derek, from Montgomery Ohio noticed there are only 5 women in the family tree of Jesus. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary, represent those in family trees who have been silenced.

Picture your family tree right now. Picture those who are loving. Those who are struggling. Those who are broken and suffering.

Those who have been forgotten, those who have died, those who embrace everyone in the family. Those who have a tendency to judge and question. Picture your kinship, your kinfolk right now. Jesus gives us a family tree that is full of people’s whose lives were turned upside down by God and faced rejection and questioning, people who wondered about who they belonged to.

Just like Paul. Just like the young man born blind. And we can’t get to Jesus,  we can’t have Jesus without this tree of imperfect, faithful, messed up community of people. We can’t have the story of the young blind man without his parents.

I can’t tell my own story without talking about my imperfect, broken family. My grandfather was abusive to my grandmother. When my grandfather died, my dad and his sisters couldn’t muster the strength to have a funeral. As much as I don’t want to think about that, my grandfather and grandmother are part of my story.

Can you tell your story without talking about your family? You can’t. There is no you without your family tree. What it means to follow Jesus means seeing family in a new way. That was the real healing in this story of the young man—he found a new way and community to be loved.

And Jesus’ family is where Jesus initially learned about the bonds of kinfolk, his family taught him to cherish the connection and bonds of kinship.

Jesus knows what it means to be family. Roger brought that up this morning—families shape us in all kind so of ways.

I imagine young man’s experience with the crowd, with his parents shaped his welcome and acceptance of others.

Later on, in life, when someone came up to the young man and said, “you’ll never believe this, I was blind and now Jesus restored my sigh.” I would like to imagine the young man saying “oh that is beautiful, come on into our worship, we are gathering in this house to share a meal and sing songs and pray together.”

Rather than “really? You can see? You? Please. I didn’t see it myself so must not have happened.”

Our own experiences of rejection and heartache can give us strength to follow someone like Jesus and can shape the communities we are part of.

Paul did this—he knew God trusted him even with his past as a violent agent for Rome. Paul experienced in an incredible way what it means to be trusted,  to be welcomed, to accepted. Paul continued that work as he organized Jews and Gentiles to be one body as the early church. We can take our differences, and we all have something that is different about us, and allow those differences to shape us to be the followers of Christ we want to be.

That’s our work as Jesus’ family—to claim our differences, to allow those difference to shape how we welcome and love each other. That’s the work of the kinfolk of Jesus—the community we call Church.  Can we talk about our faith story, our relationship to the Church without talking about the 40 generations of those in Jesus family tree?

We can’t. Our faith stories are part of those 40 generations and those stories teach us about the faith.

In the keynote this morning, Jane from South Bend, Indiana said the genealogy shows that Jesus is related to generations of important people. That’s our family. If kinfolk to God, If kinfolk to Jesus, then kinfolk to us.

Can we talk about our churches the stories of our Churches without talking about those in Jesus family tree? No. We can’t.

In our keynote this morning, Jackson, from Gulf Breeze Florida said the genealogy is like a prologue to a book, the gets your ready for what’s to come. And Jake from Knoxville, TN said it’s important to understand where Jesus came from because all those stories tie into Jesus.

If kinfolk to God, If kinfolk to Jesus, then kinfolk to us, then kinfolk to the Church.

Which means as a Church it isn’t perfect and orderly relationships that shape us.

As Rodger told the genealogy this morning, your “ooh” and “aaah’s” and “oh’s” and “boo’s” sounded out the mess of these relationships.

These relationships that are a mess are the ones that guide us in our faith.   There’s pretty much no way around this. It would be nice to have a Church where the relationships looked like a present covered with unicorns and glitter, tied together with a pretty bow.

Sometimes we do that to our churches. We try to look perfect. Be perfect. Hide our imperfections.

Do you ever find that with your families or your churches?

Folks try to hide the hard stuff, the struggles.

When Roger told the story this morning of his grandfather dying and the conversation Roger had with his own dad.

It was time for Rodger’s dad to tell that story to Rodger the time had come, and with that story Roger had a more truthful, more expansive, more honest story of his family.

Jesus is about truth-telling. Jesus is about expanding whose lives and stories are included in family trees.

Bottom line is this: All stories are welcome, no exceptions. Jesus calls us to create a family, the Church, out of imperfections, out of brokenness, out of our vulnerabilities because that’s who we are.

There’s pretty much no way around that either.

We are a Church of the young blind man. Of Paul. Of the 40 generations of people in Jesus’ family tree.

Jesus is calling us to create a church that embraces and welcomes all the us—the joys, differences, and brokenness.

That’s how love enters. The parents of the young man missed the moment to say “we love you” when he regained his sight, when he was healed and transformed.

Instead they got all wrapped up in fear and anxiety.

We have those people in our lives, too, those who have missed moments to show love and support.

Can you picture that person?

Someone who missed the moment to share love with you when life was changing and shifting.

When someone is hurting in our churches, Jesus wants us to ask “how can we love you?

How can we support you?” The same goes for our families.

That’s how we create space for love to enter people’s lives in their brokenness.

And that’s what the parents missed in our story today—they missed that moment as their son was changing and shifting and being healed by Jesus—they missed the moment to share love. The young man’s parents instead conformed to fear and anxiety.

This is like Ananias and Paul. Paul had to let go of conforming to the ways of status quo and establishment. Ananias trusted God that Paul was to be welcomed into Jesus’ family, the words “you are my brother” affirmed Paul’s leadership, showed Paul’s transformation was of value.

You are my brother said Ananias. You are my kinfolk.  You are now family. In a way Anaias said “if you are kinfolk to God, kinfolk to Jesus then you are kinfolk to me.”

Last night I asked you to think about your Ananias. Who was your Ananias who loved and supported you when life turned upside down? We can bring that person into this story, too. Like Ananias to Paul, that person treated you like family, like kinfolk.

Now picture the person(s) who have put you in a box, seeing you as just that one thing.

Now picture the person who missed the moment is offering love and support during a time of change.

All 3 of those people---that’s family. Add those folks names to Jesus’ family tree.

Who is my family? To whom do I belong?

Jesus had a long family tree full of promise and deliverance, with misfits and adoptions, betrayal and reunion, love and hope.

We can be a difference in our birth families, in our church families, in Jesus’ family tree when we tell the truth about the imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power struggles.

We can start living with the truth, we can tell our own truth, empowered to use our voice to testify to the love found when we live as God’s family.

May we see with new eyes to see the person in front of us as a companions in Christ.

May it be so.

Montreat Youth Conference Sermon "The Call of Paul"

In early June, I was the preacher for weeks 1 & 2 of Montreat High School Youth Conferences. Six hundred kids attended the first week. 1200 the second week. The theme was "Making a Difference" with a sub-theme each day. I preached this sermon the first evening of worship. The liturgy for this evening can be found here. 

Acts 9:1-22

The Call of Paul

Theme: Making a Difference. 

Montreat Youth Conference 2016

Weeks 1 & 2

What strikes me about the Apostle Paul is how his life was so on track.

Paul seemed so sure about his life before his call to follow the way of Jesus, so sure of himself. Paul was a man on a mission as he moved his way through the ancient Middle East, and he moved through the city and desert landscape like a one-man wrecking crew.

Paul was violent. Incredibly violent.

As Paul would go into cities, he would gather up followers of Jesus, followers of The Way, and haul those people off to prison, or worse.

Paul would write about his early life later on in the Book of Acts:

I threw believers into jail, left and right, voting for their execution whenever I could. I stormed their meeting places. I bullied them into cursing Jesus. I was a one-man terror obsessed with obliterating those who believed in Jesus.

Paul was driven, violent and living life in one way and one way only.

I wonder if you have ever had an experience like this. Minus the supreme violence.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like your was life tracked? So sure about the way your life was going. So certain that what you were doing was the way, the one way, the only way.

As I was growing-up in Upper Arlington, Ohio, I was certain I would be a doctor.Or a lawyer. I would be a professional that made a lot of money, would go to our country club, have a profession that eventually I could quit so I could stay at home with kids who I would have with my husband who would also be a doctor or lawyer or banker.

That was the dream.

And this was my community—a place full of wealth and status and nice cars and expectations that this was the way to live.

This was my track. My focus. My certainty.

This was the dream that my community, my family, my parents imparted upon me.

The image of my future was shaped at an early age giving me little room to imagine or envision anything different.

People were doctors. So I could be a doctor. People were lawyers. Maybe I’d be a lawyer.

Why would I ever want anything else?

Like a huge flash of light, certainty can be disrupted.

As the Apostle Paul was walking the road to Damascus, on his way to round up more followers of Jesus and haul them off to prison or worse, he was struck to the ground, light flashing all around him.

Paul heard this voice, “What in the name of Lord are you doing?” Paul dropped to his knees, practically unable to move until some kind strangers came along and helped him to Damascus.

I wonder what those 3 days in Damascus were like for Paul when Paul’s certainty got pulled out from under him.

I wonder if Paul was shaking or scared or gasping for breath or just in a deep bewilderment about what was happening to him, his body, his mind, his “what’s next.” What questions were rushing through Paul as he sat in Damascus, blinded and taken down by the Holy Light.

I wonder if you’ve ever been stopped in your tracks? Your certainty disrupted and turned on its head.

As if you were knocked down by a light, gasping, wondering, shaking, thinking “what is happening.”

The flash of light from the heavens that encircled me, knocked me to the ground came in the form of the religion department at Denison University where I went to college.

I didn’t really grow up in the church. I went to church but I kind of hated it. I was a shy kid in a 2,000 person church. I felt horribly uncomfortable most of the time in youth group and in worship. The thought of going to a place like Montreat? Forget it.

At Denison I stumbled upon the religion department and there the light flashed.

I discovered the stories of Jesus. I became curious about how theology is part of social transformation. I realized what I was learning about our liberating, God and Jesus was impacting how I saw the world and my place in it. I started to find that God was becoming a way for me to find my own voice, my own path, my own way.

And it wasn’t the way of a banker or a lawyer or a doctor. That image of my future was disrupted, tossed up into the air and I found myself wrestling, struggling, gasping for air as I started to realize all the change that was going on with me.

It was just that I didn’t want to be a big time professional anymore. I was struggling with who I was, feeling uprooted with belonging and connection.I had grown up thinking my life was going to be a certain way and now all those thoughts and dreams and images were all jumbled up.

My parents were appalled at the theology, the God-talk, I was learning. They were baffled at why my life was changing, why I was changing. Who wouldn’t want to be a doctor and go to a country club?

They were certain that Dr. Woodyard, my theology professor, was brainwashing me.

During my senior at Denison I told my parents that after I graduated I was going to do the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, JVC, a domestic peace corps type program similar to PCUSA’s young adult volunteer program.

When I shared this news, my parents flipped out.I still remember the phone call. I was anxious, excited to tell them. Hey, I’m going to do this JVC thing, live in Atlanta, Georgia, live in community, make about $75 a month, work with poor and homeless folks. It’s going to be great!

No. I heard. No, you’re not doing this. Why don’t you just be a banker they said.

With those words, I dropped to my knees in a puddle of tears. In comes Sara, one of my roommates. Sara comes in, asks what’s going on.

I tell her. Sara says,“Oh, you are going to do this alright. You’re going to Atlanta.”

I went to Atlanta.

Sara was my Ananias. She hugged me, tenderly, and said “Go. Do this JVC thing.”

Ananias gently loved Paul as Paul was on the threshold of moving forward in the ways of Jesus, leaving the life of violence and destruction behind. In that moment in Damascus, Ananias gently laid his hands on Paul and said “Brother Paul, Jesus sent me so you could see in a new way and let you know you are filled with the Holy Spirit.”

With that Paul could see.

Sara told me to go to Atlanta, go live in this new way, so I could learn to see the world through the eyes of Jesus.  Ananias said to Paul go now in the ways of love and compassion, go in the ways of the Spirit, love the poor, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothes to those without. Sara with her hug and words of affirmation, told me to do the same.

Who is your Ananias? Who is that person who has loved you when life has came to a grinding halt, when life took a new turn, a new way?

When I was doubting and scared in my puddle of tears, Sara’s words let me see and know “yes I am going to Atlanta and yes I will still be loved.”

Who is that person who has loved you when you had a plan and life got turned upside down?

Who is that person you told your parents were divorcing and that person said “your parents are divorcing and you are still my best friend.”

Who is that person when you big time messed-up, gave you a hug, a reminder you weren’t alone. Who is that person you told that you were really struggling with who you were said “thank you for telling me.”

We all need a companion like Ananias, like my friend Sara.

Ananias was a stranger to Paul and Paul was open to this strange person who became the one to confirm a new way of life for Paul.

Are you, Montreat, open to that friend, that companion, the stranger, that strange one, who might be telling you that as life comes to a thunderstruck halt, as life takes a turn, God might be calling you to get up and walk even more deeply in the compassionate ways of Jesus?

When your someone looks at you and says “actually not this way, your life is now going that way” can you trust that voice might be God claiming you?

Before Paul was called on the road to Damascus, he was conforming  to the ways of those in charge at the time.

The establishment, the empire of Rome, expected Paul to be a violent, awful person. And that’s what Paul did. He bended to the ways of Roman authority.

I grew up conforming to the ways of my childhood community. My community, with the best of intentions, groomed me to live a certain way.

As Stephen said this morning in keynote: there was a conformity issue with the tower of Babel. But the Jesus stories of justice and love and kindness that I was learning drew me in another direction.

When we try to conform. When we wear clothes we think we need to wear. When we long to fit in with a certain crowd.  When we act like a bully because we think we will feel bigger by making someone else feel smaller are we open to the one who might just be the voice calling us to be more of ourselves and less of someone else?

As the scales started to drop off my eyes and I could start seeing how I wanted to live my life, my heart started to ache more. I shed more tears. The transformation and change I was undergoing was profound and painful.

How would I explain any of this to my high school friends who knew me before Atlanta? How do I talk about this to my family? How do I tell people that instead of figuring out what law school I was going to apply to, I was now trying to figure out where the best soup kitchens were in Atlanta?

Instead of trying to one-up my friends with the next best job plan I was sitting on the streets of Atlanta listening to stories of the hungry and homeless.

Paul was blind even before he got hit by God’s holy light, blinded by the ways of the status quo that had him acting like a violent wrecking crew. After the scales fell from Paul’s eyes, when he could see, he got up and right away was baptized, the waters of new beginnings, of community, of belonging washing over him.

Before Paul could say “I have been an awful person. I’m a murderer. I’ve destroyed lives and relationships, I am not worthy of this call, this way of living with God” Paul received the waters of baptism.

History doesn’t tell us who baptized Paul and for the sake of the story let’s imagine Ananias.

With the muddy, dirty waters of an ancient world’s river, Paul received the water of baptism from Ananias, covering Paul and his heart seeking to be made new, baptismal waters claiming that  Paul wanted to begin again.

Paul’s baptism symbolized that even a violent guy was made in the image of God, that even Paul bore God’s name in his very being. Baptism didn’t make Paul perfect. He was still kind of a mess. Paul was still insecure, he didn’t work up enough miracles for those around him, he was getting in trouble, getting beat up, in and out of jail, rubbing people the wrong way.

And God still trusted Paul. Pauls’ baptism was a marking point, a disruptive shift in identity, when Paul could let go of his violent life, and embrace love.

Holy baptismal waters let Paul feel belonging—a belonging to community, Followers of the Way. Paul needed to feel that belonging because his work ahead was going to be rough—he had to convince people he was the real deal. He had to stay focused on the ways of Jesus in order not to fall back into the horrific ways of the Roman establishment. Baptism was to be Paul’s reminder as he went forward that he could not do the work of building community with Gentiles, Israelites, and Kings alone.

I was baptized as a one-year-old with my twin brother, John, at the First Presbyterian Church in Washington Court House Ohio. Twenty-years later the waters of baptism were coming alive in my life, the waters re-affirming in how Jesus was jostling me around and mashing up my life with the homeless in Atlanta.

The waters of life were pulling me to a life of peace, justice and mercy; the waters of life were turning me upside down to find truth and healing, laughter and joy in my relationships with the poor and homeless, sick and broken of Atlanta.

The Jesus community, the Church, welcomed one whose past was full of horrific events; it welcomed one whose bourgeois life got yanked apart in order to share a meal with a homeless woman on an Atlanta street corner.

And that Montreat is how God calls us to be different.  The church isn’t a country club with a membership fee and other social status type criteria.

We’re not a gym that wants you to have a perfect body.We’re not a school that wants you to stress out about grades and projects and prove how smart you are.

We are the church.

No matter what you belong to Church. You belong to God. You belong to Jesus.

If you have failed Algebra 3 times and now you are in summer school, you belong here. If you’ve been kicked out of school, you belong here.If your body has curves, lumps, and bumps you belong here.If you belong to a country club you belong here.

If you have been bullied you belong here. If you are straight or lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender,

If you have the loudest laugh; the most purpleish of hair, if you are questioning everything that has to do with the faith; if you are questioning everything that has to do with you, if Montreat is the first time you’ve ever been to anything that has to do with Church, you belong here.

That part of you that doesn’t conform, that is unique, that part of you that looks different, sounds different, and we all have something that is different, is the part of you the church needs the most.

Church needs our differences the most because as shocking as this might sound…..Sometimes the church has a one-track mind.

The church conforms. The church becomes the face of the status quo, tempted to follow the crowd.

That’s not the way of our God. We are to open our blind eyes, unclog our ears.

Let God startle us, surprise us, disturb us, call us, set us on a path to follow the one who flips life upside down, Jesus Christ.

In a minute or so, we will have an Affirmation at the Water as part of our worship.

As Paul baptism reminds us, water is a way we encounter the sacredness of God and are reminded of God’s love and acceptance.

For many of us, this water may remind us of our baptism.

For all of us, this water points us to a God who created, called, delivered, and blesses us with water.

It’s a reminder that we can begin again, we can be made new, we can the resist the ways that push us to conform and silence that what makes us unique and different.

Like the Apostle Paul, those who thirst for God’s love will be invited to come forward during the Affirmation at the Water to receive a blessing, a reminder of your belovedness.

Like Ananias did with Paul, you will be marked with water, a gentle touch with the waters of life, the waters of creation.


We follow a God who turns our lives upside down for the sake of justice and freedom, to create a Church that is full of a bunch of upside down people. May we see our upside-down-ness, our difference, as our belovedness.

May it be so.