3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
NCIS, which stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service, is a television show recently renewed for its seventeenth season. The show revolves around a special agent team who conducts criminal investigations involving the US Navy and Marine Corps. It’s an interesting show. It resembles most of the other crime shows on television where crimes are overly dramatized and strategically resolved in fifty-five minutes with time for bathroom breaks built in along the way. I’m not pushing the show for any reason other than to credit the director and team for their signature move each episode. As the show begins, and after each commercial break, the first thing you see is a snap shot of a later scene in the show. That snap shot is a picture of the last scene before it goes to the next commercial break. It’s a clue about what is happening later – allowing you the chance to be in on solving the mystery. In essence, you see the end before you even begin. It’s genius, I think. I study that snap shot hard for the two seconds it remains on the screen to see if I can figure out what has happened. Turns out? I’m a terrible investigator. I suppose that’s all part of their plan. After all, it would spoil the whole thing if you truly figured out the ending before the episode even begins.
It seems very much like something we’d like to do in real life. We’d love a snap shot of the end of our lives to see how it all turns out… it’s why the Face App is so popular – we’re more than a little curious about what we’ll look like down the road. For some of us, however, knowing the ending is too much to bear. We might, however, be interested in seeing what happens at life’s commercial breaks… the chapters of our lives where we transition on to something new… new places, new relationships, new phases. If you snapped a shot of this moment and showed it to me ten years ago when my family started ministry with you, I would not have imagined this image. It’s a wonderful snap shot. I can see all of you in it. If I printed out a picture of this moment, I’d sit down with my kids in a quiet moment down the road and point you all out.
“That’s so and so,” I’d say. “We really laughed hard about that. That guy, there toward the back, with the funny haircut, we played some great games of basketball together. I always let him win, of course. He didn’t know it but letting others win was part of my pastoral contract. And there… do you see those youth? Weren’t they great? Remember when they duct taped me to the light pole? Good kids. We had some amazing times. Ooo… and that family, right there? Love them. We buried a loved one together… it was hard but we leaned on each other and found a way forward… and that couple, I married them in the new sanctuary on my birthday… and that guy right there – we bunked together at Camp Christian once. He told me the most amazing stories about his life deep into the wee hours of the morning and got stung by a wasp during closing worship of the retreat. That young man there? We walked to Sunday School together every Sunday for years – my favorite part of Sunday morning week after week.”
And on and on as I pointed you out to my kids. It’s a wonderful snap shot of memories. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of it ten years ago as a thirty-year-old minister who had never served in a role like this. I had nothing but a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a Bible, and hope in my heart that God was guiding this journey. But we never know how things are going to play out in the real world, you know?
We all make plans. I was going to be a sports broadcaster. I wrote little clever SportsCenter quips all the time and I would mute ESPN as a kid and offer up with my own commentary. I could have imagined that snap shot. Then I was going to be a forensic psychologist… a real life CSI’er, you know? I could have seen that snap shot in this moment. Those were my plans. What were yours?
You’re in this picture I’m holding. How did you get here? Who invited you along the way? Who didn’t give up on you when you had given up on yourself? What have you gone through to make it to this moment in time? I am beyond grateful for the ways our paths have crossed. I’m not sure if you see it as part of God’s plan… but I’m so grateful to have journeyed with you. I’d like to think God pulled us together for one reason or another – maybe some reason we’ll not know until the end of the age. All the while, we’re making our own plans. I think our own plans sometimes get in the way. Joseph Campbell agrees with me (or I with him, I suppose). He said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
There is life waiting for us if we’ll just commit to living it to the fullest. I used to think it was the plan that was the most important. It seemed like the responsible thing to do… to have the life flow chart all in place and check each item off the list when it was completed. The plans were all check points of life… college, grad school, marriage, kids, career, travel, etc, etc, as if they were things to get done instead of life to be lived. You don’t enjoy them as you should when they are seen as tasks… and if you’ve got it on a checklist, you panic if they don’t come to pass. But when it’s life, not task, you drink it in a little differently. The book of James sees it this way.
James challenges those who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13,15). It’s not about the plan… it’s about the living. The writer of Deuteronomy also agrees, “Choose life,” he says, “that you might live.” I’m not saying you should have no plans. Plans are responsible… you know, take care of your teeth, pay the light bill, put a nickel away for retirement. But it is more an attitude toward living that I’m wondering about with you today. What is it I miss today because my plan of task completion gets in the way of relationships that God is putting before me?
I thought I had to have it all mapped out. Have that snapshot of the end in hand and figure out how to get there. Instead, I realized God has created me to be a particular person that needs to be me wherever I am planted. It’s a calling to be a kind of person… not necessarily a destination. Being who God creates you to be means that you’ll be prepared to step into each moment with faith because that is who you are created to be. There is always risk involved. Imagine the disciples. A snap shot of them leading a new radical religious movement shown to them when they were still fishing for a living would have sent them to the floor of the boat laughing hysterically. But the opportunity came. They were living the kind of lives that made them ready to say “Yes!” when the call presented itself. Jesus found them… “Come, follow me,” he says. And they did it! Greatest risk they ever took. Are you living that kind of life? Is your head buried in tasks and plans or is your head up, ready for the life that is waiting for you?
Movers are showing up at our house in the morning. I can hardly believe it. This move is a bit of risk of course. In part, the risk involved the number one question we’ve been asked about the move. “Does Columbia have a QuikTrip?” You can rest easy – Columbia has one, single, beautiful QT and we’ll drive across town to get there. That’s a serious question, yes. But the greater risk is leaving this marvelous church family. We love you all so much. You have invested in us and we have in you. If you weren’t aware, you are a special group of God’s people. You risk. You love. You challenge yourselves and one another to step forward in faith. Our children have been raised under your care and we will forever be grateful that you have shown them what church can be. But the Call of God has come. We prayed, at times, that the Call might pass like a bad case of heart burn but God can be persistent, you know? We are anxious and excited and nervous and sad to go, but we are stepping forward to use the gifts we have… gifts that you have nurtured in us… that we might lead in this new way.
I look through the snapshot of this moment again and grieve what it means to miss you graduate from high school or see your babies born or your kids grow up with ours. We grieve what it means to miss the group studies, and the prayers, and the place to lean on shoulders when there is crisis as we know they come. But we know we grieve because we risked loving one another. Did you know this is how it works? You can stay to yourself, not get involved, not show any vulnerability and go through this life pretty lonely. Or you can share your life with others. It means there will be sadness when transitions occur but life is so much richer for the journey. Now is the time for you. Get involved and share your life with this body of people. Don’t wait until it’s too late and wish you would have. This is the day the Lord has made… will you rejoice and be glad in it?
This epistle of Paul’s to the church at Philippi is one of my favorites… and one of Paul’s too. As someone once said, “It is a lovely thing when remembrance and gratitude are bound up together.” That’s this letter. It is pure, Christian joy. As one great theologian summarized the whole point of this letter is simply: “I do rejoice. Do you rejoice?” There is a joy in praying for each other. There is a joy in Jesus Christ being proclaimed. There is a joy of sharing and growing in our faith. And Paul notes there is even joy in the suffering; in the challenges; in the growing edges; in the discovery of our ability to survive the toughest of times. I laughed at a post someone recently shared that said, “If your mom is between 36 and 44 years old, don’t try her. Tupac, Biggie and Dr. Dre raised her.” It was funny because I grew up in that era but what it made me think of is the way we sharpen each other’s faith – to learn from each other, to raise each other, to strengthen our resolve, to know we’ll be loved even through our adversity. I stand here, looking at this snapshot of our last Sunday grateful for what we pulled through together. It wasn’t always easy. And I didn’t always know how to proceed or if I should lead differently… if I should have pressed harder here or waited longer for God’s lead there. I’ve heard some of your voices over time who said, “That was the one sermon I just couldn’t get on board with…” Which if there was only one of the five hundred sermons I’ve preached in this place, I’ll take it. But honestly, it may have been the one sermon that was most needed.
Saint Archbishop Oscar Romero, a priest in El Salvador who was murdered at the Communion Table while celebrating the mass said, “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed – what gospel is that?” As we’ve found our way together, we’ve loved our way through with respect, with welcome, with hope that the Gospel that has transformed the world wouldn’t leave us where we were either but transform our very souls as well. I pray that in today’s snapshot, if you could see yourself in it, you might be able to say that over this decade together or whenever you jumped in along the way, you’re not the same… that Christ has worked on your heart, expanded your soul, widened your compassion, challenged your assumptions, stretched your gratitude, deepened your joy. Author Steven Pressfield who wrote most famously, perhaps, The Legend of Baggar Vance, shared this sentiment: “In the end, it comes down to the [journey] itself. [Have you crept] closer to the wonder?” Ultimately, he says, “You have to, or you can’t keep going. Any other motivation will burn you out.” I pray you’ve crept closer to the wonder… the majesty and mystery of God. I know I have. And I pray we’ll never stop.
We had a meaningful week at the General Assembly of our denomination in Des Moines, Iowa this past week. I am grateful for your encouragement and support of me and my family as we had the honor of sharing in worship on Tuesday night. A lingering snap shot from the Assembly for me came at the closing worship service on Wednesday when the Rev. Dr. William Barber II preached an other-worldly message about how today’s rejected by the world, like Jesus was, can ultimately become cornerstones – building blocks of the Church. He led this passionate altar call at the end of his message, calling people of every diversity and beauty and struggle and identity and rejection to run up those steps and stand with him. My, oh my, here they come… one after another… free in Christ, built up by the Spirit, treasured as a building block to the future… flooding the stage. Before any of us realized, my eleven-year-old son, Dane, has taken off from the near back of the arena, running with all his might to join Dr. Barber and the transformative Gospel moment on the stage. Here he is on the far left… caught up in the wonder of it all. Now he may not know the depths of what this moment held for the future of the Church and the very gospel of Jesus Christ but I knew (through the tears of his mother and some of my own) that one day, I’ll give that picture to him saying, “Son, you’re one of the building blocks of the church of Jesus Christ… you stand with and on the shoulders of giants… the likes of Dr. Barber, and the likes of each of you who took a moment to care, taught a class, offered a word of support, prayed a prayer, prepared communion, held a hand on the CROP Walk, sang a song.” This is how we build the church, my friends. The snapshot that comes at the end is only the result of the daily choices we make to be faithful; to show up again for God and one another. Even if it’s hard in the moment, you won’t regret it when it’s time for the final snap shot.
I was reflecting a great deal this week on all that we’ve shared together. Before I left the building last night, I passed through every row in this sanctuary, brushing my hand across each chair as I prayed for you who would sit in each chair today just as I did the night before the first service in this renovated space in these new pew chairs. They are nice chairs… and the building team sweat the choice of moving out the pews in exchange for these new, crazy, modern chairs, right? They are nice chairs, but they’re just chairs. The symbolism of that very sanctuary chair you’re sitting in now, however, as I once heard Fred Craddock say, is much deeper than that. What does that chair symbolize? It symbolizes
“You… sitting there in the presence of God. It’s an individual thing in this regard. If there is going to be any singing, you are going to have to sing. If there is going to be any offering, you are going to have to give it. If there is going to be any Communion, you are going to have to participate in it. If there is going to be any worship, you are going to have to do it. You are before God, in God’s presence at the altar, God is here, and there you are in your chair. But the other thing about these chairs is that they are called ‘pew chairs.’ They interlock, and you put several of them together to make a pew. A pew is truly a Christian piece of furniture because it’s where lots of people gather. You are not by yourself in your chair. You are with other people. Somebody is going to pass the tray for you to give your offering. Somebody is going to hand you the bread and say, “The body of Christ, given for you.” Somebody is going to be your minister and your friend and your fellow worker. You are never alone.” And as Craddock reminds us, “The grand resource of the church is each other.”
There is no end to this togetherness. None.
We drove back to Tulsa from Des Moines on Wednesday night. As the familiar skyline appeared as we headed into town on I-44, it was hard to imagine this moment even as it was a growing presence in my soul. I couldn’t quite make out the snap shot. What would we wear? What songs would we sing? Who would be here? Underneath those more practical questions were so many things on my heart that I wanted to say and so much that I knew would have to go unsaid. There simply isn’t enough time. “How do you start at the end,” I began to ask myself. But then of course, in the Christian faith, the end is always just the beginning. In fact, the ministry increases, the love grows for we know God is the glue that holds the Body of Christ together. The passion of your spirit we take with us and our hope is that our spirit remains alive in the even greater ministry that is yet to come at HACC. I look at this snap shot with incredible gratitude.
To my colleagues and our staff team – truly the best there is – thank you for your commitment to the cause, for picking me up, for following at times and leading the way at others – my very deepest gratitude. To our lay leaders – for your beautiful offering of yourselves to the work of Christ in this place – I am in awe. To the many who carry the load behind the scenes and seldom are seen or desire to be seen – you undergird the Gospel and there is a special place for you in the glorious kin-dom. For the joys and sorrows shared, the laughs that spilled out of us freely and the stories that solidified the reality that we were made for more and made for each other in a season such as this – I cherish forever what it means to have been among you… the faithful Body of Christ stationed at 55th and Harvard. That’s why I love Paul’s words so much…
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7t is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
This is my heart for you. There is good work being done among you and God will be faithful to complete it in you as you continue to make yourself available. Step boldly into your future and love every bit of it along the way. Thank you for holding us in your heart as we will always hold you in ours.
My dad once told me a sappy story about something he told my mother when they were dating and attending colleges miles and miles away from each other. He said to her, “Whenever you step outside on a clear night, look up at the stars and know that I’ll be looking at the very same stars.” Pretty smooth, dad. As mushy as it sounds, I’ve grown to understand those words and will appreciate them differently now.
When the Brileys step out on a clear Missouri night, we’ll lay down with the kids and the dog in the back yard, look at the stars, and think of you… as we share the same stars, the same passion, the same love. May your love overflow more and more with knowledge and insight to help you determine what life is waiting for you now, so that you can share in the harvest; the harvest of ministry that carries on; the harvest of relationships that flourish when you take the time to share your life, the harvest of faith and hope and new souls finding a way to Christ because of you, and yes, the harvest of even the magical stars. That, my friends, is a beautiful snapshot.
 From Cherry Log Sermons. Fred Craddock. Pgs. 114-115. 2001. John Knox Press.