Love Letter to My Hometown

Last night I returned to my hometown of Elkin, North Carolina for the night. My parents recently converted their guest house into an Airbnb (shameless plug: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/11062826) and I decided to take advantage of one of its rare vacancies to work on the upcoming essays and paperwork I am required to complete in preparation for ordained ministry. It was a treat beyond comparison to have the luxury of a quiet house all to myself, let alone to be able to walk next door at dinner time for a delicious meal prepared by my parents.
After a restful sleep and a delicious breakfast of homemade granola and fresh scones (thanks Mom!), I decided to go for a run through my hometown. To say it was nostalgic is an understatement.
Parks have sprung up in the most wonderful of places.
There is shade where it didn’t used to be.
Beautiful structures and bridges have been erected “in memory of” friends of my parents’ friends who it seemed like just yesterday were cleaning my teeth, or playing tennis at the park downtown.
I have incredibly fond memories of my childhood hometown. As I have become a parent, I only wish for an upbringing like I had. The town is fresh from the pages of a Norman Rockwell book. Many towns such as this one, experience the ravages of time, and suffer the consequences of urban flight and neglect at the hands of either disinterest or lack of funds. But time has been kind to Elkin. In fact, over the years, it has only gotten better.
There is now an extraordinary nature trail that snakes along Big Elkin Creek, replete with waterfalls and bird sanctuaries. I had hiked along these paths and played in these areas for years as a kid, but now I suppose they have been revealed to the world and declared “official”.
There are now breweries, wineries, antique stores, and coffee shops in our historic downtown, where we used to ride our bikes and line up to watch the annual Christmas parades. The old movie theater, where we would hide in the last row and sneak our first kisses in the dark, is being renovated to be a state-of-art performing arts center.
Change is inevitable. Time has a way of doing this. Thank goodness for our memories. Our bodies might ultimately fail us, but our memories are forever shelved in our minds, free to be dusted off and revisited as often as we like, for joy and warmth.
This is how I felt on my run this morning. It was a journey through time, but it was also an exciting glimpse into the future. I could write volumes on the memories I revisited as I jogged along the landmarks of my youth. But no one would be able to truly experience them in the same way I do. Those are special glimpses, preserved only for the eyes lucky enough to have seen them first hand. I will continue to share these memories to anyone who will listen- don’t you worry about that. But for now, I wish for new and exciting memories to be formed today by this next generation of Elkin youth. My message to them: one day you’ll wake up, like I have, and realize you’re a grown adult (even though you’ve fought it the best you can!) And you will realize how lucky you are to have grown up in such a special place.
So to all the incredible people of Elkin, North Carolina, thank you for making me the man I am today. Although I wish you would have made me a little taller, I carry with me the wisdom and insights of my youth you instilled in me so many years ago. I hope to make you proud.

With love and admiration,
Brook Seaford

Ash Wednesday Sermon 03/01/2017

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Oftentimes we hear that and interpret its meaning as some sort of depressing reality.
Some sad curse.

I think of Solomon lamenting in Ecclesiastes, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Or that horribly depressing song from the 70s by Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”
“everything is dust in the wind”
“all we are is dust in the wind”

Is that it?
Is that all there is?

To be fair, it is indeed meant to be a confrontation with death, so to speak.
Ashes are a symbol for death
thus are a reminder of our concrete, fixed place in the world.

But friends I invite you to expand your envision on this a bit and see this as blessing.
Not a curse.

Because understanding that we are dust and to dust we return is also a reminder that we are connected to creation.
And not just creation, but the heavens as well.
Quite literally in fact.

From a scientific point of view, the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff.

We are made of star dust.

And by being connected to creation and the heavens— which were all been deemed “good” if you recall—
we are connected to the creator

The ashes remind us of this.
Ashes, the usual sign of death, are put on your forehead
but not in some random pattern— but in the shape of a cross.
This alters the starkness of the message of gloom from

“you will die, you cannot change that”
to
“yes, you will die, but you can die in Christ, whose death transforms your own demise into everlasting life. Christ has conquered death.

It’s important to note that we follow these ashes- this concrete symbol of death-
with the very real, living presence of Jesus in Holy Communion

So we move from this concrete symbol which reminds us of our finality
to the very otherworldly reality of divine power in holy communion
Because in Holy Communion we actually receive Christ.

This is very intentional.

In this movement in the service, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ.

So all is not meaningless as Solomon might have suggested
And we are more than just “dust in the wind” as the song says

We are not stuck in death
In Christ we are reborn

So may this ritual remind you and prompt you to live into the life offered through Christ.
A new life that stands in contrast to the death of a life outside of Christ.

As Paul writes in Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Amen.

Wilderness As Preparation: 1st Sunday in Lent

*Automatically posted from http://www.sawdustandstone.com

Audio version available at http://www.crossandcrown.org

Text: Matthew 4:1-11

How many of you have ever found yourself in the wilderness, so to speak?
A place in your life where you seem somewhat adrift; not knowing the next steps and maybe even unsure how you got there.
Where the ground seems to be shifting
And the usual comforts and supports seem distant and far away
Where nothing seems familiar
And you’re craving direction
Guidance
Some sort of map to lead you out of your pain.

Maybe:
You’ve lost job and not sure how long it will take to find a new one or
maybe you have reached this stage in your career where you want a change; a more fulfilling existence, but you’re not sure what that is or even how to pursue it.
Maybe you’re experiencing or have experienced the end of a relationship; and suddenly everything you have known about yourself, about life, is sort of up in the air. Who are your friends when it has always been our friends? how will I provide for myself now that I can no longer count on 2 incomes? These are questions you might ask.
Or maybe its a Life transition / you’re now an empty nester and no longer feel confident in your identity -for years you’ve been the caretaker; running kids here and there; scheduling activities, soothing wounds, and celebrating victories. Now the kids have moved out and starting lives on their own and no longer appear to need you
Perhaps you’re recently sober and are unsure how to navigate the complexities of the world- professionally, socially— it’s all new and unknown; frankly its scary

There are many types of wildness experiences.
And none of them are comfortable.
We spend our lives avoiding the wilderness places
In fact, We employ every possible strategy we know
We try to chart our own courses
creating this illusion of control in our lives

We spend countless hours calculating our decisions and trying to reduce our risk
We remain guarded emotionally so we aren’t vulnerable and maybe won’t get hurt
We temper our opinions so we never “rock the boat” socially
We stay in “dependable careers”, even when they aren’t life-giving, so we can be “safe”

And even with all this effort,
no matter how hard we try
we occasionally still find ourselves in the wilderness.
Off course, and searching for our true north.

We might be tempted to cry out WHY? Why am I here? Why did you send me here, Lord?
That’s a normal reaction I would say.
I’ve said the same thing at various times in my life when I’ve found myself in the wilderness
But whether or not God sent you there is missing the more important point—
and that point is that God meets you there and is there with you

And as difficult as it might seem at the moment
It’s important to remember that
God uses this time in the wilderness to strengthen us.
To prepare us for the next stage in our journey

The text says “Jesus was led UP…into the wilderness”
In Scripture, any time the movement of the narrative was to go “up”
up the mountain
up to Jerusalem
this was usually a cue that teaching was about to take place
or a type of revelation

Wilderness time is a time of preparation.

Nelson Mandela watched his friends humiliated, tortured, and murdered as a result of the brutal oppression of his country’s racial segregation system known as apartheid.

He himself endured this abuse but decided to fight back, using non-violent resistance.
As a result of his role in an attempt to overthrow this oppressive government, he was imprisoned for 27 years in Cape Town.

But rather than wear him down and defeat him, the 27 years in the prison emboldened Mandela.
It deepened his resolve.
Upon finally being released from prison, Mandela went on to become the first black president of South Africa.
He eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the country’s apartheid

He Became an International emblem of dignity and forbearance

and a Prolific writer and world renown advocate for social justice and HIV/AIDS awareness.

When he eventually became president of South Africa, he went as far as to invite one of his white wardens to his inauguration

People are usually astonished by the sense of grace he displayed after being robbed of 27 years of his life.
But Mandela experienced the 27 years in captivity as a time of preparation.

The Apostle Paul had a similar experience;
having wilderness time in the form of prison time

According to biblical sources and biblical scholarship, Paul was likely in prison from between five and six years’ total. He was probably imprisoned in Rome at least two years, two-years in Caesarea and additional prison experiences noted in the Book of Acts.

Seems like a long time in the wilderness.

But consider this-
if Paul had not been imprisoned, we would not possibly have the epistles like Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Paul used the time that he was in prison to write these powerful books of the New Testament.
For Paul, being in prison was a huge inconvenience but for God, it was an opportunity for God to prepare Paul for God’s glory.

Both the Apostle Paul and Nelson Mandela could have just given up while in prison
But God had other plans.
God would use this time in the wilderness for good.

We don’t know why we find ourselves in our varied wildernesses.
But oftentimes we become keenly aware of God’s presence there with us.
In fact, sometimes, the wilderness is when we experience God the most fully.
When we’ve found ourselves in a place where none of our strategies of avoidance, none of techniques of control have worked.
and we are there
in our wilderness.
No map to follow.
No compass to guide us.
Only God.

Perhaps that is God’s intention
To lead us away from the distractions and the idols to have us experience God more fully
to finally depend on God.

When have you been in a wilderness?

Are you there right now?
While Jesus was in the wilderness, the devil kept at him with temptations.
In fact, many of our bibles have a heading for this passage that reads, “The Temptation of Jesus”.

But I argue this story is about much more than temptation.

Yes Jesus was tempted in the wilderness
But what did the temptation mean?

It wasn’t to prove that Jesus was the Son of God— the devil already knew this.
And it wasn’t to provide an opportunity for Jesus to prove to God that he’s up to the test.

Maybe the temptations reveal to us what our idols are
And to show us that the only real dependable source of security and comfort-
the only true guide-
is God and God alone.

Oftentimes temptations are the false promises
The easy way out
That usually offers short term relief but long term pain.
This surely was the case with Jesus-
The devil offers him several opportunities to turn away from God for immediate relief.

The same temptations tempt us today.
But they usually look quite different:

It’s that recently single ex-girlfriend or boyfriend to occupy the emptiness of a struggling marriage

It’s the elicit website glaring in the darkness to fill the void of intimacy

It’s the credit card-fueled shopping sprees to soothe a battered self image

There are many things to reach for when we are in the wilderness
All for the instant relief of avoiding pain

But God meets us there in the wilderness to fill the voids in our lives in a way nothing else can.
Maybe that’s what Jesus is trying to show us in this story today.
You might find yourself in the wilderness
But you won’t be there forever.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent.

Lent offers us the opportunity to recreate this experience of wilderness
to draw closer to the one who can truly satisfy our souls.
Lent is a time of preparation

So may you
Look to Jesus as the strength to resist the temptations and false promises that lead to death

May you
Trust in God to use your time in the wilderness to strengthen you and prepare you for whatever comes next in the adventure we call life.

And may you
Find in Christ the only true, dependable map to lead you out of the wilderness

And may you be awakened to the truth that this map and only this map
will lead you home.

Thanks be to God.
Amen