We experienced  our first Church Without Walls (CWOW, we called it) last Sunday. Here’s what it looked like (thanks to April Kennedy and her assistant Alden for the excellent pics!).

The idea was simple: every Sunday of the year we gather to worship, which includes someone talking about what we believe. What would happen if one Sunday instead of worshiping, we went out into our neighborhood and demonstrated what we believe by serving others? We would be a church scattered, a church that had left the building, a church without walls.

Our memory verse for the week is Luke’s version of the Golden Rule:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Luke 6:31

So last Sunday we dressed in work clothes and came together at 9:00 AM for bagels, muffins, coffee and juice. After we sang, prayed and listened to a brief word for the day, we took to the streets. The plan was to have several teams serving in different ways: painting storefronts along the Brookland Park Boulevard commercial corridor, picking up trash in the neighborhood, building A-frame advertising signs for the merchants, tending the community garden, praying for our neighbors, etc.

August in Richmond is always brutally hot and humid—except for the day we planned to be the church without walls. At 9:00 AM it was 66 and raining. We were not able to paint, but everything else continued as planned. Actually, cooler and wetter than planned.

One of our members summed up the day this way: “I don’t feel like I’ve been to church; this morning I’ve been the church!”

A group of folks spent the morning in the soggy community garden, weeding and planting fall crops. I was at Embrace Richmond for Thursday prayers and heard our neighbor, Richard LeTang, who leads the community garden, say, “When I saw the weather on Sunday, I just knew they would cancel the plan to work in the garden. Monday morning when I saw what those people accomplished on Sunday, my spirit was lifted and my heart was full of praise! They really did a lot of work!”

Lifting spirits and filling hearts with praise was what CWOW was all about.

I’m pretty sure we established a tradition.

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Love Your Neighbor

The verse we are learning this week is Matthew’s version of the Great Commandment:

Jesus replied:  ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22:37-39

The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” occurs 8 times in the Bible. You can listen here to how I worked with the text last Sunday.

In the gospel of Luke the command sparks the question, “And who is my neighbor?” which Jesus answers with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I felt that a conversation about loving one’s neighbor on July 21, 2013, called me to speak about Trayvon Martin’s death and the recent verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Here’s what I said:

We are in the midst of a great national debate over the questions: Who is my neighbor? and How do I treat my neighbor?

The debate has been going on for generations, but it intensified with the death of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, and it escalated with the jury’s verdict last Saturday night.

At the heart of the debate are the age-old questions: Who is my neighbor? How do I treat my neighbor?

I realize this is not what you hear debated on television because the lens of these two clear questions is smudged by hot button political issues such as the right to bear arms and to stand your ground when threatened. The lens of the two primary questions is smeared with arguments about the fairness of our courts and whether we truly have justice for all. Now, these are important national questions that need to be debated and resolved, but they cloud the central issues: Who is my neighbor? How do I treat my neighbor?

What we do as a nation is to choose sides and go to our opposite corners—Fox news interviews George Zimmerman’s brother, CNN interviews Trayvon Martin’s parents—where we watch the channel that confirms our biases. Our opinions galvanize and our egos take over until all we can see is either/or, right/wrong, my side/your side. And nothing changes.

But if we let Jesus into the room he will immediately go to the heart of the matter.

Who Is My Neighbor? by Clark Fitch

Who Is My Neighbor? by Clark Fitch*

Jesus will tell a story about one man dying in a ditch and another man who helps him, with great effort and at significant personal expense. And he will have the men be mortal enemies. Jesus will paint a picture of what loving your neighbor looks like. For one person it is an inconvenient interruption to serve someone you have been taught to hate; for the other, helpless and barely hanging onto life, you are forced to receive the assistance of someone you’ve been taught to hate.

Then Jesus will ask, “Now, who is your neighbor?”

Remember that Jesus, companion of outcasts, draws the circle very large. Pharisee and Sadducees were his neighbors. So were tax collectors, peasants and prostitutes. In Jesus’ vocabulary neighbor is not a word that some people are and others are not. Neighbor is the people you like and the people you don’t. Neighbor is the people you are comfortable with and the people you were taught to shun because they are lesser beings. For Jesus, neighbor is all of God’s children.

Now that Jesus has clarified who our neighbors are, how do we treat them?

If we were serious about following him, the pistol would stay in a drawer, the fists would unfold and remain in our pockets.

We reside in a world in desperate need of repair. But we can only fix the world out there when we have fixed the hearts in here.

Who is your neighbor? According to Jesus: everybody. And how will you treat them? Let’s start with not hating them.

As Greg Brewer, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida put it:

I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride to get him out of the rain that night.

*Thanks to my friend and Northminster member, Clark Fitch, who worshiped with the community on Sunday and then created this beautiful digital painting in response.
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Giving Is Receiving

We’re memorizing a more well-known verse this week. Hang around almost any church very long and you’ll hear it quoted. A lot.

“Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use will be used for you.” Luke 6:38 (NIV)

This verse is popular in church circles because of that first word—Give—which is always linked to financial giving. The prosperity gospel folks use it as the centerpiece of their entrepreneurial heresy (give to the church/pastor and God will make you wealthy).

Curiously, the verse does not promise that wealth will be given in return: “It will be given to you,” Jesus says. Not wealth but it. And the only way to link Luke 6:38 to financial giving is to wrench it out of its context.

The verse is the conclusion to a paragraph in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus issues 13 commands, all of them requiring us to give something. Give mercy, forgiveness, love, the coat and shirt off your back, Jesus demands. (You can read it here.)

As for the it that will be given to you, he is pointing to the experience of God’s power and presence, something he called the kingdom of God.

In Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Jesus, she quotes South African writer Michael Brown:

“Giving is receiving is the energetic frequency upon which our universe is aligned. All other approaches to energy exchange immediately cause dissonance and disharmony in our life experience.”

And then goes on to observe:

“Surely Jesus knew this as well, and his teaching … invites us into a deeper trust of that flow.”

river1When Jesus commands us to “Give,” and then promises, “and it will be given to you,” he is inviting us to step into the stream of God’s divine energy. Like a mighty river, it flows just beneath where we measure and weigh. Whenever we give to others what we would like given to us—love, forgiveness, mercy, the shirt off our back—we wade into the great river of divine energy. There we find clarity that giving ourselves away is what we were made for.

When we give, Jesus promises, we receive in return far more than we have given away. A good measure, he says, pressed down, shaken together running over, because God is not chintzy. What we receive in return for giving generously, in my experience, is something like touching the hem of Jesus’ garment.

You can hear me talk about what the verse means here (but you’ll miss seeing me measure oatmeal into a cup, shake it, press it down and spill it all over the table).

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The Legend of Nicodemus

Like many preachers, I went to bed Saturday night wishing my sermon was better. I had worked hard on it, but my last thought as I put my notes away was, “This needs about two more days of work.”

I was up early Sunday morning, and after making a cup of tea and feeding the dog, I sat down with my manuscript and was pleasantly surprised. “This is better than I thought!”

Then I remembered the Legend of Nicodemus.

George Buttrick, one of the great preachers of the mid-twentieth century, taught my first preaching class. In a lecture on avoiding the sin of pride, he suggested that sermon writing, like any creative endeavor, is a partnership with the Divine Creator. To illustrate his point, he told this story:

st_matthew005Nicodemus was a famous sculptor in ancient times. He had been hard at work on a commissioned statue, but late one day he botched the job. That night Nicodemus fell on sleep with a sad heart. While he slept, angels came and carved away his mistakes.

The next morning Nicodemus stood looking at the beautiful, finished statue and said, “I carved much better than I thought!”

Whenever we create something good, there is always an element of the creation that is beyond our capability. An artist friend calls this inspiration, meaning our art is infused with some element from beyond us. Creating is at some level a partnership with the Creator. It’s good to remember this, no matter what your art.

Otherwise, we become Nicodemus.

I was shaking hands with the congregation after worship, and someone offered a compliment along the lines of, “That was a really good message.”

“Thanks,” I responded, “Angels came and carved in the night.”

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Crushing Your Enemy

We’re in a summer message series called Verses to Know by Heart.

It started with the idea that we would offer our children weekly memory verses during July and August. Then we thought, “Why not include the youth and adults?”

The first week’s verse is John 3:16, not much of a challenge to most of our adults and youth. So, I added a bonus verse.

Which brings us to Romans 16:20. I had wanted to preach on this text since hearing Rob Bell explain how he did it at his preaching conference a few years ago. Sunday was my chance.

Here’s the verse: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” Romans 16:20

You can hear the message on the church’s website. The Cliff’s Notes version is:

You have been shaped by what you have heard others say about you. Sometimes an angry sentence barked by a cruel adult becomes a message in a child’s head that plays for a lifetime: “You will never amount to anything!”

All of us have messages playing in our minds; which ones do we listen to?

I suggested that we focus on what God says about us:

You are acceptable

You are valuable

You are lovable

You are forgivable

You are capable.

This is the bottom-line truth about who you are. And if you can focus on hearing God speak those five adjectives over you, it’s like floating on a river of shalom (the Hebrew word for peace, wholeness, being complete).

The problem is that other lying voices are very loud and so persistent. They are always shouting things in our heads like:

     “You’re not good enough!” 

     “It’s just like you to always mess things up!”

     “No one has ever really cared about you!”

     “You’re not smart/industrious/pretty/handsome/motivated enough!”

     “You’ll never amount to anything!”

Where do these messages come from?

Paul uses the proper noun Satan in our memory verse. If you’ll read the first two chapters of the Bible book of Job, you’ll find yourself watching a courtroom drama (the ancient equivalent of Law and Order). God is the judge and the prosecutor is called Satan—the Hebrew word for prosecutor. His role is to accuse humanity.

I find it interesting that the other word used to personify evil is Devil: diabolos in the original  language of the New Testament, a compound Greek word which literally means “to throw around.” The Devil is one who throws around confusing ideas/thoughts/strategies, hoping to steer you off course.

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” 

DSC_0936-50I asked everyone to take off a shoe and use a Sharpie to write on the sole the phrase that the Prosecutor uses to torment them. Then I explained that with every step they took this week, they would be crushing Satan under their feet. (thanks Rob!)

On Tuesday I was explaining all this to someone who had missed the worship service. I took off my shoe and the red letters I had printed on Sunday morning were almost rubbed out.

Then it struck me: I had not heard that most haunting phrase in my head for three days.

Shalom indeed.

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Mother’s Day

My first preaching professor taught us that Mother’s Day is not a Christian holiday but a conspiracy of the greeting card companies. He insisted that we should never preach a Mother’s Day sermon.

The first few years I was a pastor, I took his advice. On Mother’s Day I followed the lectionary and preached on the assigned text for the day. If I were following this pattern now, here are the suggested texts for May 12, 2013. You can see what a stretch it would be to connect Mother’s Day with any of these suggested passages.

As a young preacher, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I was swimming against the current. The 2nd Sunday in May would find me talking about Paul and Silas’ famous jailbreak while everyone’s mind was on mothers.

Year after year I found myself wanting to explain: “But my preaching professor said….”

Greg Sutton tried to help me out a decade ago. Greg was a botanist by trade who worked for the Commonwealth of Virginia most of his life traveling all over South America promoting agricultural trade. Greg and Liz were longtime Northminster members, deeply spiritual people, and a childless couple. Greg had painful memories of past Mother’s Days in church that had left his wife feeling discouraged.

One afternoon as we sat on his back porch, Greg shared his idea for how a preacher should handle Mother’s Day.

“Every living thing has a belly button,” he informed me.

While I flipped through my mental file cards of living things to decide if he was right, he elaborated, “Humans, horses, vegetables, fruits. They all have a navel.”

When I protested that a stem wasn’t exactly a navel, he explained that they serve the orange_200-87b3c0790677699243dcfe5fac28964785d7d465-s6-c10same purpose. “Every living thing begins life connected to a mother,” he explained. “So there’s your Mother’s Day sermon. The day shouldn’t really be a celebration of the oldest mother or youngest mother or the mother with the most children. The day should be about everybody who has or had a mother and what our mothers gave us. And you might even want to mention the Great Divine Mother to whom we are all connected,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

I admit that I’m a slow learner. But this year, I’m going to try Greg Sutton’s approach.

I plan to preach a Mother’s Day message aimed at everyone who has or had a mother. We’re going to look at 5 scenes from the life of Jesus’ mother to see what she taught him. And what she is teaching us.

You can check out how I did HERE .

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Resurrection Garden

7656_606292506066051_2116799984_nEaster happened in a garden.

The details that the empty tomb was located in a beautiful garden and that the risen Christ was mistaken for the gardener are not-so-subtle reminders that God intends to restore a broken creation that began in, that’s right, a garden (John 20:1-18, Genesis 2-3).

And God is inviting us to partner in this great restoration project—which means that you and I get to practice resurrection here and now.

Here’s one of the ways my church stumbled upon to practice resurrection.

Five years ago a handful of Northminster members who had served in our food pantry felt that fresh vegetables would be a loving addition to the bags of food they would distribute in the hot months of summer. I remember talking with two of our would-be gardeners and asking a basic question, “So, do you have any gardening experience?” “No,” they replied matter-of-factly, “we’ve never had a garden.” “So then,” I asked, “how are you going to know how to plant and tend a garden?” They looked at me like I was the densest man on the planet and answered, “The internet of course.”

And so it came to pass in the spring of 2008 the Northminster Community Garden was born. I left on a summer-long sabbatical promising to pray for their efforts, and while I was away that Internet Garden produced in epic proportions. Neighbors enjoyed tomatoes and squash all summer long. When I returned in August our Internet Gardeners showed me a refrigerator filled with squash–the garden was producing more than they could give away.

I did wonder how it had continued to produce so bountifully during the July and August draught. But it had. God’s miracle community garden.

Shortly after I returned from sabbatical, Northminster was visited by someone from the department of public works, wondering what we were doing differently around here. They apparently were not surprised that baptists would be using more water than other churches, and in the summer many people try to keep their grass alive. But they couldn’t believe the increase in our water consumption. (note: when a representative of the water department comes by to check on your water usage, you’re using a lot of H2O.)

A month of investigation turned up a broken pipe related to our heating system. It was spilling 1,000 gallons of water a day directly under the community garden. Think of it as a reverse parting of the Red Sea—God providing what the garden needed to produce bountifully while a group Internet Gardeners gained experience.

This year we are giving more Northminster members than ever the opportunity to participate in the garden. On March 10th we distributed soil and seeds during worship, asking our church family to lovingly grow some plants to be transplanted in May.

I picked up 3 packs of seeds and here’s how they’re doing:

Plants at 3 weeks (taking over the dining room)

Plants at 3 weeks (taking over the dining room)

Two rows of tomatoes, broccoli, squash (at one week)

Two rows of tomatoes, broccoli, squash (at one week)

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