G.P.S.

Scripture:  Mark 1:1-8  

            Seven years ago Robert Zeigler was driving on narrow mountain roads around the remote Swiss town of Bergun.  He was reliant on his GPS to get him there, and it told him to turn down a dirt road.   Zeigler thought the road looked like little more than a trail, but he followed the directions.   It turns out, it actually was a trail. . .intended for goats!   He successfully navigated a SUV down this narrow mountain trail until the vehicle got stuck between trees.  He had to be rescued by helicopter.   Stories like that made me extremely hesitant to rely on GPS.  However, GPS navigation has improved a considerable deal in just a short time. If you look up GPS horror stories then you will find a disturbing number of people driving into lakes, to the edges of drop offs, or for one group of Japanese tourists into the ocean.   The one things that nearly all of these stories have in common though is their age.  These stories are all eight to five years old.   The technology has improved considerably.  Six years ago, my wife considered subscribing to Onstar a necessity.  This was a pre-installed GPS feature in the car, which required talking to a human operator, who would essentially look up directions on a computer and then route them to play over the car’s audio system.   That was only five years ago, and today that system seems archaic.   Today she uses a smart phone app, and quite honestly it is amazing how it works.  We really are living in the future.  If an accident happens up the road, the app can reroute a faster way around the back up and it is almost always right.   She relies on the google maps app daily, but again it took me a lot longer to warm up to it.   Up until fairly recently I would only use it as a backup.   I would still rely on written directions.   I would insist on studying a map before I went anywhere so I felt like I had a decent idea of where I was going.   If the phone told me something different than what I thought I remembered, then I went with what I thought.   Of course, the reality is more than once, I was wrong and the app was right. Today, I still prefer to look at a map to get a general idea but I am for more likely to trust google maps than I used to be. 

            If I am being honest, the biggest reason why I was so resistant to GPS systems was not because I just really love maps (which I do).   It had to do with control.   If I looked up and knew the directions, then I have control of where I am going and how I will get there.   When I was in Atlanta this past Spring, I had to get from a suburb on the north side to the airport on the south side.   The Interstate system had a three hour back up, and I would not make the flight if I did that.  I was 100% dependent on my phone.  It led me on a route that at times cut through neighborhoods, but it worked.   The entire time though I was trusting an app.  When it told me to turn left I did not where I was going, and I did not know what I was doing next until it gave me the next direction.  Even though it was not very comfortable, this was a big growing experience for me.   It truly was an exercise in trust and releasing control as I let something else give me direction.    The church season of Advent that we now find ourselves in is meant to be one of expectation, it is one of looking to what is coming with joy.    When we are staring into the unknown thought it can be hard to have joyful expectation.   One of the gifts for the soul that Advent can give us is direction, but we have to be willing to trust those directions.  

            This morning’s scripture comes from the beginning of Mark, and it begins with a quote from Isiah that interestingly enough contains directions, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.”   Mark tells us that John the Baptist appears to do just that.   Mark also tells us that John was kind of a big deal.   Mark uses a bit of hyperbole here and states that the all of Jerusalem went out see him, which literally is not the case.   However, it drives the point that John has captured the attention of the people, and a number of them traveled to see him.   We have to keep in mind that people could not just hop in the car and zip on over to him.   There are a couple of sites proposed for where John baptized, the one with the longest history happens to also be the one closest to Jerusalem.  However is still around a 30 mile walk, and most of that is through desert.  Mark calls this stretch of land the wilderness.  This was not a trip that people were making on a lark.  At the very least it would have been a three day venture, and it would require provisions and planning in advance.   Despite the effort, many people made the trek. 

            It is impossible to fully put ourselves in the mind of the first century Jew who traveled from Jerusalem to the Jordan River in order to see John the Baptist, but I have to wonder what motivated them.   Why did people make the trek?  I am sure for some it was curiosity.   More than any figure in centuries, perhaps John fit the mold and had the aura of an old Testament style prophet.   Perhaps they just wanted to see for themselves how true this was.  However, I imagine for many others they sought at John because they were looking for direction in their life.   John was offering a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  This was something different.   Baptism, a form of ceremonial washing, had been in Judaism for centuries.   It was common practice to do a ceremonial bath as a way to signify washing uncleanliness away.  However, that did not offer forgiveness.   Perhaps in the baptism that John was offering, people saw a chance for a fresh start.  They saw the way to rest and get their life going back in the right direction.    If that is the case, I have to wonder if the people who came to John looking for direction were excited or disappointed.   John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but that was not all he preached.  Verse seven of this morning’s scripture states this was also his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. “    People may have come to John looking to launch their life in a new direction, and John offered them directions to a new life.  

            It is not uncommon for us to find ourselves looking for direction in our life.  From time to time all of us are faced with life choices, big life choices.    It is not uncommon when we are in those situations to seek divine guidance.   It is not uncommon to stop and ask God for directions.   Of course discerning those directions can be a bit tricky.    There is a quote on preaching that is generally attributed to famed 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon that states, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross.”  The idea is that any scripture from anywhere in the Bible needs to connect back to Jesus in any sermon worth its salt.  That is sound preaching advice, but “make a beeline to the cross” is also sound directional advice.    In this morning’s scripture, we are reminded to make straight the paths to the Lord, and John the Baptist points us straight towards Jesus.   When we face uncertainty and decisions to make in our lives.  One of the considerations we should heavily consider is which choice will bring us close to Christ; which choice will better enable us, transform us, or equip us to be his faithful disciple transforming the world?   

            This was a lesson that I learned fairly early on in my Christian walk, and it is a lesson that hindsight and experience has only deepened.   I came to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior during my freshmen year of college, and at the very beginning of my sophomore year the opportunity to study abroad had opened up.   The University of Evansville, where I attended, actually owns a campus in England called Harlaxton.  I had essentially resigned myself that attending there was not in the cards.   However, it all came together that I could do it the second semester of my sophomore year.   What really added the cherry on top was that my then girlfriend (and now wife) was already planning on going that semester.   I was ready to commit, when someone asked if “I had prayed about it?”   Approaching prayer as a rubber stamp formality, I did.  Doing this created a discontent.  I had an overwhelming feeling in my heart and soul, that no, I was not supposed to go.   I really wanted to, it truly was a once in a life time opportunity.  I made these points in prayer to God, and I think I made them very convincingly, but the nagging sense that my direction did not involve spending a semester in England did not go away.   I gave up what I wanted and went the direction that I felt God was leading me.   I missed out on once in a life time opportunities to travel abroad and see Europe, but looking back I can see all that I gained because of that.   It turns out that semester I stayed in Evansville instead of going to Europe was monumental in my faith development.   During that semester I helped lead a bible study for the first time, I was appointed to the leadership team for a Christian campus group that I was part of, and I went on a mission trip to Mexico.    Looking back I can see the seeds of faith that brought me to a place to answer a call to ministry took root during that semester.  

            The direction that brings us closer to Christ is always the right one that we should take in life.   We should make a beeline to the cross, but there are a couple of things to consider.  First, this morning’s scripture states “prepare the way for the Lord make straight paths for him.”   A beeline is a straight path that goes right to where it is going, but a straight path is not always a level path.   Choosing life choices that bring us closer to Christ may involve climbing obstacles and journeying into valleys.  In the same way, Jesus once taught you can only enter God’s kingdom through the narrow gate.   Following the straight and the narrow is not always easy, but it will always lead us to being more like Jesus as his true disciples.  

            The second consideration is how we seek direction from God.   Taking things to God in prayer is a good start.   This morning’s scripture also reveals some other avenues that direction comes from God.  First, there is scripture.   It is not an accident that the gospel starts off with quoting the prophet Isaiah.   We believe that scripture is God breathed, and through God’s divine words they can still speak and lead us today.   Also, God uses people to give us direction.   Just like someone asking me “if I have prayed about it”, started me on the path to not studying abroad, God can use God’s people to speak into our lives.   This is why it is such a good idea for us to have Christian friends and mentors who we share our lives with.   God can work through them to help give us directions.   However, this works two ways, because God can also use us to give direction and guidance to others.  

            The final consideration is how God gives us directions, because it works a lot like a GPS.   A GPS gives us the optimal route to our destination, and we have to trust it to get us there.  Often we will not know the turn we are going to take until we are a 1/4th mile away.  This means we let go of our desire to be the one in control, to be the one who plots the course and makes all of the decisions.   If we are going to seek God for direction, then we have to be willing to trust God.   As Christians, the end destination we are all striving for is to be as Christ like as possible.  We know where we should end up, but the straightest path to get there may not be the most obvious to us.  We have to trust God as God leads us.   Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is like setting out on an adventure, we know where we are going but we are not sure how we are getting there. 

            Advent is a season of expectation, and very few things elicit more expectation than heading towards a destination we are excited about.   May the direction of your life be a beeline to the cross.  If you are off track, lost in the weeds, or you took a wrong turn somewhere back there then may you may trust God to give you the turn by turn directions to find that straight path.   May we be willing to accept the gift of direction this advent.   May we be willing to humbly submit ourselves before God and even if it means giving up control may we be willing to say “where you lead me Lord I will follow, where you lead me Lord I will go.” 

What's in the Box

Scripture:  1 Corinthians 1:3-9

A month ago when all of the aisles in stores dedicated to costumes and candy converted to being dedicated to ornaments, wreaths, and trees which kind of person were you? 

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According to this popular internet meme, there are two types of people those who are as excited as a child on Christmas morning that they can start decorating for Christmas morning and those who brace themselves with steely resolve for what is inevitably going to come.  Can I be honest with you, between those two I am in the “so it begins” camp.   When I see Christmas decorations start to creep out, my first thought is not “yay” it is sighing because I know it means I am going to have to carry dozens of totes up stairs, unpack them all, repack them with what got displaced, haul them all back down into a basement, and then undo the whole process in a month.  I am, at best, neutral about Christmas decorating.   However, there is one big exception.    If we are going to go through all of the effort to get haul those totes up, set up a Christmas tree, and decorate it then there needs to be presents under that tree.   Like many people, we went through the annual ritual of decorating last weekend, and the tree had not even been up for an hour before we had gift wrapped boxes underneath of it.   As a child, growing up, that was my favorite part of the Christmas traditions.   It was not getting presents, it was the expectation of getting presents.   Opening the present was not as much fun as the expectation and anticipation. I would spend weeks wondering what was in the box.   That was my favorite part of all the Christmas hoopla growing up, so if we are going through the trouble decorating, then I am going to make sure it is included. 

 Doing this is also oddly liturgical.  In the calendar of the church we are in the season of Advent.   Honestly, Advent is a bit of a weird time for us.   Advent is really not just pre-Christmas, or at least it is supposed to be more than that.   Advent, as it initially emerged in church tradition, is meant to be a unique season in the church.   Advent is a season in church life that is to be marked by expectation and anticipation.   This December, this season of Advent, we are going to seek to reclaim the season a bit.   Christmas is, without out a doubt, best known for presents.   Yet, when we focus on what makes advent unique, we find that it has gifts to offer us as well.   These are not physical gifts that can come in a gift wrapped box, rather they are gifts for soul.  They are gifts that if we claim them will provide a centering and grounding to our faith and life.   The first gift of advent is expectation.  

The bible is full of expectation.  It was with great expectation and anticipation, that the Israelites awaited delivery from Egypt.   After a long and painful journey in the wilderness, it was with expectation and anticipation, that the Israelites stood on Mt. Nebo looking to inherit the promise land.   Psalm after Psalm is written to evoke deep feelings of longing and expectation for God’s presence and deliverance.  The prophets fall just shy of making up half the books in the Old Testament, and page after page of the prophets are filled with expectation and hopeful prophecies pointing to the coming of the messiah.   The gospels paint a picture, that at the time of Jesus’ life this anticipation had hit a boiling point.   People were expecting the messiah, and they saw the great need for the savior during their life time.   In a lot of ways, the idea of advent is to get us into that mindset.   There was much anticipation and expectation for the messiah to come, and at Christmas we celebrate just that.    But remember, Advent is meant to be more than just pre-Christmas.   It calls back to the expectation that led back to that first Christmas, but Advent is more than that.   After the gospels, the rest of the New Testament manages to still be full of expectation.   From the letters of Paul to the letters of Peter to the Revelation of John the language is still full of expectation for what is to come.  This morning’s scripture from 1 Corinthians is a good sampling of the expectation we find in the New Testament:  “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.  He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on that day of or Our Lord Jesus Christ.”  

This morning’s scripture and many like it show that for the first Christians, expectation was a big part of their faith.   Just like a child is full of wonder and expectation of what could be in the box, the early Christians had just as much excitement about what joy the second coming of Jesus would bring.   If we are being honest, that sense of wonder, of excitement, and of expectation has kind of been lost.   Perhaps it due to the passage of time or just a change of perspective, but “holy expectation” is not a phrase many of us would use to define our faith.   It could be that, in part, advent arose in church tradition to help us preserve this.   The scriptures and focus of Advent remind us of just what we should be expecting.  

The reason why the first Christians were so full of expectation is because they were fully aware of a key theological point in our faith:   The Kingdom of God is here but not yet.   On Christmas, through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God invaded this world.   God set into motion a new age.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death was defeated, eternal life was offered, and people had the path to be forever reconciled with their Creator.   The Kingdom of God had begun, but the old age-the age of sin and death, had not passed away.  This is where we still exist.   The perfect love, the perfect forgiveness, and the perfect savior are all present and can be experienced.   The Kingdom of God is here and now.  However, the old age has not passed away.  People still suffer.  There is still evil and corruption in the world.   The early Christians were full of expectation for the day when all of creation would be made new, the old, broken ways of the world would fall way and the kingdom of God will be fully realized.  

This morning’s scripture reminds us that God is faithful and there will be a day of our Lord Jesus Christ.   On that day of the Lord, he will return, and the kingdom of God that is here and not yet will be fully realized.   The death that was defeated on the cross will be eradicated one and for all.   There will be no more death, no more tears, and no more sorrow.   We will be God’s people, God will be our God and the perpetual light of Christ will shine on us forever and ever, world without end. 

The image of a Christmas gift is a really good metaphor for helping us understand how we should expect this glorious day.   A child, can be full of wonder expectation, and excitant about a gift.   The reason why they are full of those things, is because they know the day is going to come when they can open the gift.  As the day gets closer the anticipation builds.  How many of you can remember the day of Christmas eve as a child?   It is the longest day of the year!  I remember that my brother and I would make elaborate plans to fill the day in an effort to make it feel like it would go faster.  The reason why that day felt so long is because the expectation and excitement to find out what was in the box had reached the highest possible level.   Of course there is a downside to Christmas gift expectation, if what is in the box does not line up with what we can expect there can be disappointment.  However, when it comes to expecting God’s Kingdom fully realized there is no chance we can be disappointed.   When Jesus returns in all of his glory and sits on his heavenly throne, there is no way we can be ready for it.  There is no way that our expectations, no matter how grand, are going to measure up to the incredibleness of God’s kingdom.   We should be able to have a level of expectation about what is to come, because it has been promised that the best is yet to come. 

The other reason why a Christmas gift works is the other reason why a Christmas gift builds anticipation.   It is the reason why gifts under the tree were/are my favorite part of the Christmas traditions.  From the time it is placed under the tree until the time it is opened, the gift is there.  It can be touched, felt, examined, and experienced.   Through how it shakes, how much it weighs, how it looks, we get glimpses of just what is in the box.  It is these glimpses that create the expectation.  In the same way we get glimpses of God’s kingdom.  We may not be to comprehend the full scope and awesomeness of God’s kingdom, but remember the kingdom of God is both here and not yet.   God’s kingdom has not been fully revealed but it is realized in part.   When the lost are found, when disadvantaged are cared for, when the forgotten are called by name, when the hopeless find hope, and when the unloved experience love then we get a glimpse of God’s kingdom.   When then disciples of Christ act as the body of Christ, and they are his hands that serve a hurting world, his feet that find a lost world, and his shoulder that comforts a broken world then we get a glimpse of the kingdom of God.   Whenever we humbly put aside our schedules, our biases, and our pride to serve the least of these then we get a glimpse of the kingdom of God.   The kingdom of God is here.   Brothers and sister in Christ, through our Lord Jesus we are heirs to that kingdom we may participate in building it here and now, and we should do with a holy expectation that there will be a day when His kingdom comes.  

In the life of the church we tend to associate the season before Easter, called lent, with the concept of spiritual disciplines.  Perhaps, though we could have some advent disciplines.  A spiritual discipline is a practice that we intentionally undertake to grow in faith.  This morning, we gave all of the children their own sparkle box, but perhaps all of us could benefit from creating and filling a sparkle box over advent.   Doing so would cause us to engage the world, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to live out Jesus’ message that the “kingdom of God is near”.  All of us could benefit from being more mindful of the actions we take that are gifts to Jesus through loving others.   Because when we take those actions, we will experience in a small part the kingdom of God.   When we experience God’s kingdom, we will be filled with expectation about what is to come.   And expectation, after all, is what Advent is all about.  

The Difference

Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

It is not very often that the United Methodist Church makes the national news, and usually when we make the news it is always for the wrong reasons.   But earlier this month, one of the churches in our connection made the news for being the church in the best way possible.   Perhaps you saw it cross you Facebook news feed.  The headline that was shared thousands of times was “Malibu Mayor ask Church to stop feeding the homeless.”   The Malibu Methodist Church, a congregation that is almost the exact same size as ours, had been feeding the homeless every Wednesday for months and months.  They were getting between 70-90 people a week.   I really dug this week to find out all I could about what was going on here.   The mayor and town council of Malibu did not officially demand the church stop, but they clearly informally made that request and strongly insinuated that they could act more officially.   The reason why the town leaders wanted the church to stop is because the Malibu United Methodist Church is in a neighborhood.  I looked on google maps, it is close to the beach and the neighborhood consist of some fairly good size houses.   I listened to some of the follow up local news reports, the issue is not that the people are against feeding the homeless the issue is they do not want them fed (and thus walking the streets) of their neighborhood.   Removed far from Malibu, it is easy for us to scoff at the lack of compassion that the civic leaders are showing.  It is hard for us to imagine how anyone can be against giving food to the hungry.   But what about giving water to the thirsty?   In the Southwest United States there is a group of Christians and humanitarians who maintain water stations in the desert.   These water stations provide a life line to migrant workers illegally crossing the border into the United States.  The number one cause of death of illegal migrant workers is dehydration, and these Christians have decided that preventing people from dying of thirst is more important than taking an ideological stance on illegal immigration.    The church in Malibu and the water stations in the desert, are both examples of Christians trying to serve the least of these.   However, chances are that for some of you one of these examples kind of bristled you a little bit.   Serving others the way this morning’s scripture advocates is always going to be a little messy, court a little controversy, and inevitably anger someone.   Despite that the teaching of Jesus is clear, to be faithful disciples we are going to have to wade into the mess and get a little dirty.  Jesus does not mince words in this scripture to be his true disciples we have to love the least of these.  

            In the gospel of Matthew this is the very last parable that Jesus tells.   From a literary standpoint the gospel has building to this parable.   Much like the finale of a firework show has the biggest lights and bangs, Jesus saved the most pointed and convicting story he tells in the gospels for the very end.   In this final parable, Jesus drops all pretense and fully claims his messianic role.  There is no mistake to us or to his original audience, that when Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming in all of his glory he is talking about himself.   At first glance this scripture seems fairly straight forward.   It can be easy for us to immediately think that sheep are those who follow Jesus and the goats are those who do not.   After all this fits, because Jesus refers him to self as the good shepherd and shepherd imagery is used in a positive light all throughout the bible.   However, a closer examination of this scripture reveals it is much more challenging than that.

            Verse 32 states “All the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”   It was a common practice in the fields of ancient Judea to have the sheep and the goats together when they were grazing.   When the herds were out on the range, they were one big flock of sheep and goats mixed together.  It was only when they needed to corral them together that the sheep and the goats would be separated into their own pens.   This means that sheep and the goats in this scripture are part of the same flock.    This point is driven home in verse 44.  The ones who have been separated as the goats are a bit surprised that they are told to depart, and they also refer to Jesus as Lord.  This scripture is not about those who claim to follow Jesus and those who do not.   The subjects of this scripture, the sheep and the goats, all claimed to follow Jesus.   The story of the sheep and the goats are troubling because in the story both groups follow Jesus, but Jesus claimed he only knew one.  The sheep cared for the least of these and the goats did not.  That is the difference.

            Who are the least of these that we are to help?   A lot of arguments have been made for various interpretations.  One interpretation that refuses to go away (and one with a lot of validity), is the least of these are those who have the least.   Jesus calls the least of these his brothers and sisters, because Jesus and God by extension identifies with the poor.  We see this throughout the bible.  We see it loud in clear in the prophets and we see it clearly evident in the ministry of Jesus.   God is on the side of the oppressed, the overlooked, the disadvantaged, and the needy.  The least of these are those who are so hungry they are starving, they are so thirsty they are dying, they are so poor the barely own the cloths on their backs, and they are the ones imprisoned and without hope.   In this scripture Jesus claims these people as his people. 

 The front of the bulletin has a sculpture that takes this understanding and presents it as art.  The sculpture is called Homeless Jesus and is the work of believer Timothy Schmalz.   Schmalz made the statue to remind fellow Christians that serving the least of these among us is the same as serving Jesus.   Two years ago, while on a cross country tour, this statue spent several weeks displayed in Indianapolis.   While it was in our state a woman driving by at night saw the statue, got a glimpse of the wounds, and mistook it for a person.  She called 911 asking that help be sent.   The statute did its job here and inspired a woman into action to care for the least of these.  

The difference between the sheep and the goats is not they heard of Christ.  The difference is how they took the way Christ has impacted their lives and lived out.   The sheep love Jesus by loving others.  They love the least of these, the people that Jesus identifies with.  In his famed and influential commentary, Matthew Henry, writes about these verses and this is what he has in his commentary: “Christ espouses his people’s cause, and interests himself in their interests and reckons himself received, and loved, and owned in him.  If Christ himself were among us in poverty, how readily would we relieve him?  In prison, how frequently would we visit him?”

The difference between the sheep and the goats in this scripture, is action.  It is action done in love.   The sheep served the least of these, because they recognized that by serving them they were serving Christ.   When it comes to serving the least of these there are a couple of things to note from this scripture.   First, did not just specify the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned.  He specified the least of these.   He specified the people who are the most in need, the most oppressed, the most unloved, and the most forgotten.   Loving these people can be messy, because some of them have lived messy lives.   Some of them have are buried under the weight of the consequences of one to many bad decisions, and some of them have calloused hearts because too many people have hurt them and too few people have loved them.   The least of these are the least of these, and these are the people the good shepherd tells us to love.  

The other thing to notice from this scripture when it comes to serving the least of these is that Jesus does not qualify it.   He does not say to only help those who help themselves.  He does not say to only feed the hungry if you can do it by keeping them out of a good neighborhood.  He does not say give the thirsty something to drink as long as they are not an illegal.  He does not say to only clothe the naked who are not refugees.   No what Jesus said was “whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Our job is not to judge who is worthy.  Our job is not to qualify who is deserving and who is not.  Our job is to serve the least of these and radically display the very love of Christ that has saved us.  

Considering that does bring up a potentially sticky theological point.   One of the core beliefs of the Christian faith is that salvation is by faith alone.   We are saved by the might acts of Jesus Christ, and those acts were a gift offered to us without price.   However, in this morning’s scripture it seems that Jesus is saying that our actions is what earns us our inheritance in God’s kingdom.  After all the difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did for the least of these, and only the sheep were welcomed in.   We are saved by faith in Christ alone, and not by works.   Serving the least of these does not earn us salvation.   Rather serving the least of theses should be the outward symptom of a changed heart.  When we have experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ, it must transform us.   It drives us to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, even (and especially!) the least of those neighbors.   If someone claims to know Christ, but they cannot have compassion and love for others then that is clear evidence that they do not know Christ.  South African Methodist Bishop Peter Storey sheds light on how this is connected in his book With God in the Crucible.    Storey writes, “Who is the focus of the church? . . .The person we exist to serve?  For Jesus there was no question.  In the kingdom the humble are lifted high and the most vulnerable have pride and place.  This is why you cannot ask Jesus into your heart alone.  He will ask, Can I bring my friends?   You will look at his friends and they will consist of poor and marginalized and oppressed and you will hesitate.  But Jesus is clear:  Only if I can bring my friends.” 

This final parable of Jesus is pointed and convicting because it gives us zero wiggle room.   Following Jesus is not like joining a club where we pay our dues and we get the benefits when they are convenient to us.  Following Jesus means when we offer our heart to Christ, we allow Christ to change our heart so that we can make room for his friends.  All his friends-the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hopeless, and the unloved.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, when the son of man comes in all his glory and sits on his glorious throne, may we be numbered among the sheep.   There is a lot of need, and a lot of least of these in this world,  we do not have to look very fart to find them.   May we love God by loving others.   May we serve those who most need someone to give them a hand up and show them that love is more than a word.   May you find the way that you can feed the hungry, give drinks to the thirsty, provide for the poor, or advocate for the oppressed.   May you find your way to do that, and then may you do it. May you be the difference, so that when that day of the Lord finally comes you may here the king reply, “truly I tell you whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.” 

Risky Buisness

 Scripture:  Matthew 25:14-30

            At the beginning of 2009, Finnish programmer Niklas Hed saw dark clouds on the horizon.   Back in 2003, while still a student, Hed and two of his friends hit it big and won a video game design contest with a novel and unique idea.  A couple of years later, emboldened by their success, they created a video game company focused on the new world of mobile phone games.  They even received a large influx of cash from an angel investor that gave their dreams a jump start.  However, by 2009 those dreams had stalled out.   Their fledging company was running in the red.   This was not from lack of effort.  Between 2005 and 2009 the company had released fifty one games for cell phones, but despite all of that effort they were not even breaking even.   Their investment capital was practically depleted.  It was looking like they were not going to be a good return on investment.   As 2009 came to an end, they released their fifty second and potentially last game.  This company’s name is Rovio and the game in question is a little app called Angry Birds.   It turned out Rovio was a good investment.   Angry Birds is the most downloaded mobile game of all time.   Angry Bird games combined have over three billion downloads.   Angry Birds turned out to be a multi-media juggernaut that eight years later is still profitable and still growing.   I have to wonder on the mindset of the investor.  In 2005, when the venture capitalists gave the beginning Rovio studio a huge influx of cash, just what did they expect?  Clearly they were hoping the company to successful, but did they expect the company they invested in to create one of the most successful video games of all time?   I wonder just what kind of return on investment they were expecting.   In the four long years of barely breaking even between 2005 and 2009, I wonder how patient these investors were.   Most of us do not have enough money that we can risk being a venture capitalists, so I think the idea of taking a risk on someone else to see if it pays off is a foreign concept to us.   I have to wonder what about the mindset of the investors, because I do not really have the proper mindset to fully understand the thought process.  However, this fascinating parable that Jesus shows us that God can absolutely understand and appreciate taking the same risk that a venture capitalist takes.   This parable shows that God regularly makes potentially risky investments, and what God invest in us.

            The most recent NIV translation used “bags of gold” to best convey the meaning of this parable, but if you have an older translation it is likely that it says the master entrusted his servants with five talents, two talents, and one talent.   A talent is an ancient measure of currency that is equal to a lot.   It is a rough figure, but one talent is approximately $280,000.  This means the servant given five talents was entrusted with somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.4 million dollars, so in this parable that Jesus told we are not talking about an insignificant amount of money.   I recently taught this same scripture at youth group, and I began by asking them “What would you do if I gave you $280,000 and I told you that I was entrusting you with it?”   Now, we have smart teens.   They latched on to the word entrusted, so they knew it would be irresponsible and wrong to spend it on stuff they want.   One of the teens said they would put in the bank, but the rest of them said they would hide it away, and because they are teens the lengths they went to hide the money kept getting more elaborate.   Unfortunately, they found they were in for a rude surprise when I read the scripture.   They quickly realized the answer they gave to hide or bury the money was the wrong one.   I asked the group what their impressions of this story are, did they think the master was fair or unfair.   They unequivocally said the master was unfair.     They went further to say the master seemed like a bit of a jerk.   Now, I can see why they might have thought that, but it is also a bit problematic because it is clear that in this story the master is meant to be God.   They latched onto an oddity in this story, the man was given one talent or bag of gold, and he successfully returned it.   Why did doing that deserve such a harsh punishment?  

            The uncomfortableness that emerges from this story has to do with us taking a far too conservative understanding of the concept of entrust.  The master was not just entrusting his money to the servants for safe keeping.   He was entrusting it to them, so that they could use it the way that he would use it.  Essentially, the master was investing in his servants.   It was the expectation of the master that the servants would put his money to good use.   This means that the servant who buried it, did a terrible job at honoring his master’s trust.   In verse 26 the master calls this servant wicked and lazy.   I have to wonder if the driving motivation though was less laziness and more cowardice.   In order to take his master’s investment and double it like the other two servants this servant would have had to take some risks.   The story is not fully developed, but I imagine the servants who doubled the money probably had some setbacks.  They had to spend their master’s money without a sure bet they would recoup the costs.  They might have been in the red before they made it in the black.   Yet they were entrusted with their master’s money, and they did their best to use the money in the same way the master would.  They honored their master’s wishes, and they were faithful and they were faithful to the task their master had entrusted to them.  It paid off for them in the end they heard their master say “well done good and faithful servant.”  

            This scripture is more than a lesson in venture capitalism.  It is a parable that Jesus told, which means it is a story with a point.  There are a couple of points being driven at here.  The first, is that God is the master and we are all the servants.    We have been entrusted by God with great treasure.    God has provided and blessed us all with so much, and part of that is what God has entrusted us with.   God has entrusted us with skills, abilities, spiritual gifts, and yes capital resources.   In the parable the master entrusts the servants to use what was entrusted to them to continue making money the way the master makes money.  In the same way God has entrusted us with much to continue on in the way that God would use these resources.   That is to use them in love to spread the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near, to proclaim that forgiveness is at hand, and to better perfect this world in love.  

            It can be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this scripture does not apply to us.  It can be easy to think that we are not who this scripture is talking about.  After all, when it comes to gifts, abilities, and talents we might have we can always find someone who does it better.  It can be easy to say, that it is their job not mine.   However, this story does not give us that option because it says the master gave the talents to each one according to his ability.  So, as an example it is true that there is someone who can probably do a better job at visiting people in nursing homes than you, but if that is what God has gifted and called you to do then it is meant for you to do as best as you can.   We can apply that same kind of flawed logic to our resources as well.   It is easy for us to say that we just do not have the funds to give and help others.   However, as Americans we have to confess that is not as true as we think it is.   Compared to the rest of the world, even Americans working at minimum wage have more available resources than 93% of the world.   Thinking more creatively about resources, we all have time as resource.   Some of us have more available in a day than others, but that is also a resource that each and every  one of us has been entrusted with and it is a resource we can use to further God’s good and perfect will. 

            In a variety of ways God has entrusted all of us and we are to use those resources to love people, to spread the gospel, to be the hands of Christ, to oppose injustice, to be agents of peace, and to transform this world into a more compassionate place.   We can make excuses, but they are just that.   I challenge all of you this week to give serious thought to exactly what gifts, abilities, and resources God has entrusted you with.  Write them down, it could be helpful to see it all on paper.  Then consider are you being faithful with what has been entrusted to you? 

            In order to truly be faithful, we are going to have to do something, and that something will require taking risks.   In his book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Bishop Robert Schnase beautifully defines what this kind of risk looks like in a faith setting.  He writes, “Risk-taking mission and service involves work that stretches people, causing them to do something for the good of others that they would never have considered doing if it were not for their relationship with Christ and their desire to serve him.”   Another part of taking a risk, is chancing failure.   When we try to reach out and serve those in need or take a step in faith and share the gospel, it is possible things may not go as planned.   We cannot let the fear of failure though hinder us from being faithful.   Remember, Rovios made fifty one failed games before they developed Angry Birds.   Often failure is a vital part of the learning process, and we cannot let our fear that it might not work paralyze us into doing nothing.  

            The second point that this parable is trying to get across is right in the beginning.  The scripture began with, “Again it will be like. . .”   If we trace back what this again is in reference to the previous thought in the gospel is a parable about the second coming.   That means that this too is a parable of when Jesus returns, and when that happens it will be like when the master comes back and we will have to account on how we used what we were entrusted with.   You When that times comes we will have either used what we were given or we would have done nothing with it.   Now, you might still be concerned that when that time comes you will be before God in heaven with nothing to show because you failed.   However, I sincerely believe that if we truly strive to use what God has entrusted us with to further God’s kingdom then we cannot truly fail.  There might be setbacks, wrong turns, and accidents but in the end if we are faithful to God then there will be much fruit, because Jesus himself told us “surely I am with you always to the very end of the age”, and if God is for us then what can stand against us.   I do not know about you, but when that time comes and I am before God it is the hope of my soul that I here “well done, good and faithful servant.”

            On days like today, I am thankful that God cares us for enough and loves us enough that God has actually entrusted us and invited us to help transform this world.   I am thankful that out of an unending goodness, God has equipped us and entrusted us with what we need to do just that.    I am thankful that God is that faithful to us, so may we be faithful to God.   May we be aware of what God has entrusted us with and may we use it in risky, wild, loving, and world transforming ways.   May we seek daily to be faithful servants of God, because that after all is what a disciple is supposed to be. 

           

 

Marathon Binge

Scripture:  Matthew 25:1-13         

   I have noticed two odd trends that have been developing over the past few years.   The first is one that has actually been developing for more than a few years, and I have heard people lament this fact for most of my life.   It is conventional wisdom that our attention span is getting shorter.   Last year you may have seen one of several articles making the round that thanks to the rise of smart devices, average human attention span is now only eight seconds.  We hear that statistic and we do not question it, because it sounds like it could be true.  It is a statistic that tends to validate what we already believe, and that is attention spans, especially of younger generations is getting shorter.   We can site a lot antidotal evidence, but there is little proof that attention spans are truly getting shorter.  The whole eight second stat is inaccurate, and it arose from a third party misinterpretation, misuse, and stretching of a Canadian study with a small sample size.  Even though it feels right to us, I am not 100% convinced that attention spans are shrinking.  In fact some statistics point to the opposite.  If attention spans are getting shorter, then it would make sense that movie runtimes would be getting shorter but the opposite is happening.  In 1992 the average run time of the top grossing movies was 118 minutes, twenty years later in 2012 the average was 141 minutes.   This leads to the second trend I have noticed.  If attention spans were getting shorter then binge watching would not be a trend.   A couple of weeks ago the hotly anticipated second season of Stranger Things premiered on Netflix, and according to the company 361,000 users watched all of the episodes in a row on the first day that it was out.   Our attention spans have not gotten shorter, our ability to focus on a singular task is still remarkable.   However, in our era of 160 channel plus cable TV, 24 hour streaming, smart devices,  and online video games our ability to not be distracted by entertainment has greatly diminished.   When people lament the shortening of attention spans, what they are really lamenting is the shortening of our ability to spend time not being actively entertained.   While I would like to think that most of us can go eight seconds before we change the channel or pull out our phones to look at funny cat pictures, it does seem we live in an era where it is easier to find distractions than ever before.   Given that, the prophetic parable that Jesus tells in this morning’s scripture seems shockingly relevant.   The call to alertness is one that we need to hear today. 

            I can remember way back in the day when I read through the Bible for the first time, and I came across this parable.  It left me scratching my head as I tried to figure out what on earth is going on here.  Why are there ten virgins waiting to meet the bridegroom?   It honestly sounds like the start of a terrible reality show.   How long were they waiting that their lamps ran out of oil?   At the surface level this whole story is just odd and it really requires some digging into the cultural and historical context as to what is going on.   First, the word used is unmistakably virgin, but contextually a better understanding is bridesmaid.   This parable uses a marriage custom of the day to illustrate the point.  Part of the wedding ritual of this time involved the groom arriving to the place of the wedding, and the groom was to be met and escorted by bridesmaids who carried lights.   This was part of the ritual and for the ten selected it was their most important part in the ritual.   Their job was to keep watch, and honor the groom by escorting him into the venue.   The other confusing part of this is the understanding of lamp.  Now initially when I pictured this story initially, I imagined them holding something more along the lines of the oil lamps found in cracker barrel, but that is the wrong image.   It is likely that what the young women were holding were more along the lines of torches.  This is why in verse six they trimmed their lamps, they had to cut off the burnt part to expose the rest of the torch so it could burn.  These lamps were poles with oil drenched rags on top, and the burning time would have only been fifteen minutes or so. 

            When we consider the context of this story, it begins to shed a bit more light onto what exactly is going on here.   The ten women in the story are chosen for the honor of meeting the groom.   They are where they are supposed to be on time, they light their torches in expectation of the groom’s coming, and they wait and wait.  As the story says, the groom is delayed, and the lights burn out.  Five of them brought extra oil in case this happened, and five did not.  The startling thing though, is that the five who did not do not instantly go to get more oil.  When their lights go out, they hang around and take a nap.   It is only when the groom is spotted, that they look to do anything about it.  They presumably had hours to fix the problem, and they did nothing.  The ones with oil could not share.  Remember, the oil only gave them about fifteen minutes of flame.  Presumably, half the oil would not have lasted the entire time it was needed for this part of the ritual.  If the five with the extra oil had shared, then all of the flames would have gone out to early.  With no other recourse at this point, they go to buy oil at midnight.  By that time the delayed wedding would have been under way.  These five women were tasked with one job and they failed in the most spectacular way. 

            Understanding the proper cultural and historical context of the story helps us understand the deeper point that Jesus was teaching.  This is one of the very last parables that Jesus told.  Directly preceding this parable Jesus is talking about his second coming.  In Matthew 24:42  Jesus states, “keep watch because you  do not know on what day your Lord will come”, and then this parable is told to illustrate this point. 

Ultimately, this is a parable that has to do with salvation.  When Jesus returns or our time on earth comes to an end, the clock will be up for us and we have to be prepared to meet the groom.   This parable is a warning for us to not put off until tomorrow what can be done today.   The irresponsible women had ample time to get oil but they did not, they chose to sleep.   They chose to not be aware, and when it comes to our eternal salvation there are sadly too many people who do this.   They may have a passing acknowledgement of God, but they never take the time to confess their sin, to open their heart, and to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.   There are too many people who go through life with a vague notion of faith, but they never truly commit to it.  There is always a distraction, something else that catches their attention.   This is exactly what this parable is warning against, this parable is one that is meant to create a sense of urgency.   If you are a place in your life, where you know that you have not truly made a faith commitment, then it is my prayer that you would feel this urgency in your life.  It is my prayer that you would use the time you have in this life to be prepared for when you meet the groom, the son of God.   If that is you, and there are reasons why you do not feel ready then I would love to sit down and listen to you someday soon. 

Even though the original intention of this story was to communicate being spiritually ready and right with God when the time comes, I think that the underlying message can speak to believers as well.   The women in the story were given a task to perform when called upon, some were ready and others were shockingly ill-prepared.  The underlying message of this scripture is to be ready, and it should lead us to ask are we ready?   The women in the scripture had the job of having their lights ready.   In the same way those who follow Christ have the job to be lights in the world.  We have the job to make disciples of the nations and to transform this world into a more loving, just, and kind place.   Are we like the five women who are prepared, waiting and ready or are we like the ill-prepared ones?  When through the holy Spirit Jesus calls on us to be the one who shares the gospel or show compassion to those who need it are we  going to be ready or are we going to be sleeping?  

            Challenging us to consider how ready we are to serve the Son of God, is where this scripture can speak and convict us today.    Because if we live in a culture of smart phones and binge watching, how are we going to be ready?   If we are so busy being entertained and distracted how can we be sure we are not going to miss it when the Spirit leads us serve?   It is easy to think that this is a technology fueled problem that only impacts younger generations, but the average American over 50 still watches over forty seven hours of traditional TV a week.   Smart phones and streaming technology may have changed the playing field, but our culture has long been distracted by entertainment.

            In his pamphlet “Rules of a Helper” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wrote some convicting words.  In this work Wesley was instructing leaders in the Methodist movement how to life an effective Christian witness.  In doing this he wrote, “Never be triflingly employed.  Never while away time.”  Over the course of his career, John Wesley wrote a lot about trifling and none of it was positive.  Trifling is an old word that old word that means not doing much.   It is a word that could be used to describe the women who slept instead of getting new oil, and we have to admit that it could also be used to describe binge watching all 13 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy in a week on Netflix.   This scripture challenges us to assess how ready we are to serve Jesus.   When we are asked to volunteer in a way that serves the needy or show the love of Christ to others are we quick to say yes?   Or are we more likely to say I am too busy, while we settle into a hallmark Christmas move marathon or grind another level of prestige in Call of Duty?  This scripture challenges us to seriously assess ourselves and consider if we are ready or if we are trifling. Now, believe me I am not saying that entertainment is wrong, I am not saying fun is bad, and I am not saying rest/relaxation are sinful.   However, I, we could probably all confess that we can become a little distracted by all of the entertainment and relaxation options that we are bombarded with.  

            If we are going to be ready, then that means we have to be ready.  Just like the women who brought oil, we have to be prepared.  2 Timothy 4:2 puts it this way, “be prepared in season and out of season.”   This means that we need to have open hearts ready to love and have compassion for whoever God has us cross paths with.  It means we have to open minds that we can accept and care for them without reservation, with judgement, and without imposing qualifications.  Finally it means we need to have open doors, so that when God call us on us we are not found unprepared, making excuses, or distracted.   When God appears in our lives and invites us to join God’s work in redeeming the world, spreading the gospel, and transforming the world may we not be like the women without oil who were caught unprepared for the task at hand.   Instead, may we be like the ones who were ready and prepared, may we be willing to follow Jesus wherever he is leading. 

World Without End

Scripture: 1 John 2:28-3:3

In Evansville, IN the most prevalent public green space in the growing city during the mid 1800’s was Oak Hill Cemetery.  It was a common practice on beautiful days to stroll the graveyard, paying respects to loved ones, and enjoying the sunshine.  Because of this, the prominent families in town built incredible monuments and structures on the hill.  If people were going to be walking through the cemetery they wanted to make sure their family names were the most impressive.   This was not uncommon,   Crown Point Cemetery in Indianapolis has similarly impressive headstones that look less like grave markers and more like monuments.  In fact most old American cities have a similar cemetery that was almost made to explored.  It make sense, in a way, because all of us by choice or necessity end up exploring a graveyard at some point.   Perhaps this is why so many tombstones contain an epitaph, a saying printed on the marker that records the deceased wisdom, wit, or sarcasm for generations.    For instance, famed talk show host and game show creator Merv Griffin had “I will not be right back after this message” on his tombstone.   Comedian Rodney Dangerfield continued is self-depreciating humor all the way to the grave.  He still doesn’t get any respect as his epitaph reads “There goes the neighborhood.”  Early 20th century writer and satirist Dorthy Parker was cremated and where her ashes are interred it reads “Please pardon my dust.”   When I was in my early twenties and attended a meeting, I had never given any thought to an epitaph.  After all that is not something on the mind of most twenty-somethings.    However, at this particular meeting they did an ice breaker.   Since it was around this time of the year, the ice breaker question was “what do you want your epitaph to be?”   Thankfully I was not first so I started thinking about it.  Because this was a Christian gathering, I could not just go with a bible verse.  That is what everyone was doing, and I wanted to be original.   I did though want an epitaph that was based in my faith and was suitably epic.   Right before it was my turn I got it.  When it came to me I introduced myself and then stated my chosen epitaph:  “Death is just the beginning.” 

            This is the day that we chose to mark, remember, and celebrate those who have gone before us.  We can gather in thanksgiving and celebration because for Christians death is not a period, it is a comma.    We can find joy in the knowledge that death is just the beginning, that there will be a day where there is no more crying, no more suffering, and no more death.   There will be a time when we enter a world without end.  In the United Methodist funeral liturgy it states “blessed are those who die in the Lord” and the reason for this is that in Christ we may be clothed with glory.”    While we celebrate that this morning’s scripture is a reminder to us.   It is a reminder that while we may look forward to glory with expectation, here and now we are already children of God.  

            Outside of Revelation, the epistles of John are the most recent books included in the New Testament.   1 John was likely written somewhere in the late 80s or early 90s of the first century, this was close to sixty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  At this point some Christian churches were entering their second generation, and the faith was still spreading.   John, who is typically regarded to have been the youngest apostle, is now an old man.   He wrote this letter as a circular letter that was meant to be passed around multiple churches.   In a lot of ways 1 John reads like a kind grandfather giving wisdom to his grandchildren.  The fact that 1 John tends to address the audience as “dear children” really helps drive this image home.  Given that, I find the choice of words in this scripture to be particularly interesting.   It has been my observation that the older a person gets the more they tend to focus on the past.   Yet John, who is in his 80’s and possibly his 90’s here is not focused on the past.  It would not surprise me if he faced that temptation, he might have thought of writing this entire letter as a “back in my day” diatribe.  That is not found here though.  The tense is never looking backward.   Everything in this scripture is based in the present or the future.   In fact, this section of scripture has a great balance of what is and what is to come.  For instance, it urges us in the present to continue in Jesus and it reminds us that now we are presently children of God.  Yet this scripture also reminds us that Christ is coming back and when that day comes “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” 

            This scripture hints to the complex realities of our faith.  We remember and celebrate a past event- the death and resurrection of Christ.    Yet, we live out the reality of that grace in our everyday present.   Then, at the same time we look expectantly to a future reality where that grace is fully realized in a world without end.   To be a Christian means we hold the past, live the present, and claim the future simultaneously.   This makes sense I suppose, since we worship an eternal God and serve a risen savior who was, who is, and who is yet to come.  As we struggle with what it means to live out our faith in the present we can make the mistake of over emphasizing the past or the future.  

            Starting at a very early time in Christian history, we put a great emphasis on tradition.   It is long been important to followers of Christ to remember and honor the past.  However, we can get a bit carried away with this.   Our faith experience can become all about what we have done.  We can get stuck in a rut where we endlessly look back on the faith victories of the path.  When you get someone stuck in this place to open up and talk about their faith they relay stories of when they met Jesus years or even decades ago.   When we dwell on the past we do not live out our faith in the future.  We fail to carry out the urging of this morning’s scripture to “continue in him so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.”  Unfortunately, I have heard colleagues in ministry tell stories of entire congregations who fell into this trap.    These churches become museums built to themselves, where all of the artifacts are preciously preserved and marked with memorial plaques.   At the same time these churches do not even remember the last time they had a baptism in their sanctuary, and their stories of serving the community are from a different generation.  We absolutely can claim, honor, and celebrate the past.   However, our faith story both as individuals and congregations need to also be based in what we are currently doing to make disciples and transform the world.  

            On the opposite side it is possible to get carried away with emphasizing the future.  We absolutely believe that there is a day when Jesus will come back, when he will judge the living and the dead, and that God’s heavenly kingdom will be established over a new heaven and a new earth forever and ever.   However, if wishing that day would come sooner than later becomes the most important aspect of our faith, then things are a bit out of balance.   We need to be cautious of Christian escapism.  This is where instead of engaging a broken, fallen, and scary world we look instead to the future when Jesus comes back.   The major focus of our life is waiting for that day that Jesus comes back or calls us home, because we would rather escape this world then love it.  Which is precisely the problem with over emphasizing the future in our faith.   Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to make disciples of all the nations.   If our focus is on escaping to a more prefect future then we cannot continue in Christ, because we are not following his commands.  This means that when we arrive in that future world without end we will be unable to approach the throne with confidence or unashamed because we would have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

            Instead of living in the past or always gazing to the future may we instead remember the past, anticipate the future, and live in the present.    We are saved by Jesus.  The sacrifice he made that earned our forgiveness and reconciliation has already been made.   May we claim that and clothe ourselves in Jesus Christ.    One day, like the precious saints we remember today, we will one day be clothed in glory.   However, friends we are clothed in Christ now so may we continue in him so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him in his coming.    This means we love and serve others with the same love and compassion that Jesus has already shown us.   Because of Jesus, we are now God’s children.  That is what we are; so may we earnestly act like it.   This is how we remember and honor the mighty acts of salvation that Jesus has already preformed in our present context.  

            The way we live out our future expectation of Jesus’ return in the present is through worship.   Imagine the day when we shall see and know Jesus in all of his glory.  Imagine the day when we take our place in the communion of saints before the throne of God.   Can you only imagine, what that day will be like?    While we cannot truly fathom it, I do think we can get glimpses of it in the present.   We can worship God, express our love to God in glorious expectation, that the line between the now and the not yet begin to blur.   This past summer, I got to experience what that is like at church camp.   It was Thursday night, and this was the night that the whole week had been building towards.   The evening worship that night was good and powerful, but it was a Jr. High camp and their attention span only last so long so as that evening worship drew to a close campers and counselors began wandering towards the bon fire.   However, the camp as a whole was not done worshipping the one true God.   As the fire began to die, a small group began to sing one of the worship songs for the week.  Soon others joined in, and it did not take long until the entire camp was standing in a tight group singing, “In the soundless awe and wonder, words fall short to hope again.  How beautiful, how vast your love is.  New forever, world without an end.”   As that happened, there was a holy moment, where that line blurred.  Where we no longer counselors and campers in patch of woods south of Bloomington, we were part of the communion of saints before the throne.   For a fleeting moment the future reality was tangible in the present.  

            Truly death is just the beginning, but eternal life does not begin with our death.   It began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, when he defeated death once and for all and won the victory.   Because of that singular event, we still live even though we die.    We can claim an eternal life that goes on with Christ in the presence of our heavenly father forever and ever and ever, world without end, amen.   May we joyfully anticipate that time, but may we remember that if we are clothed in Jesus Christ because we have accepted the forgiveness found in him then we are already living an eternal life in the present.    May we claim and live out that eternal life found in Christ Jesus in the here and now.  May we “continue in him so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him in his coming.”

The Fundamentals

Scripture:  Matthew 22:34-40

            Because my dad was appointed to the Methodist church there, I lived in Milan, IN in 1986.   That was a big year for that small town, because that was the year that the movie Hoosiers was released.   The classic sports movie was inspired by Milan’s 1954 Cinderella run for the state championship and their David vs. Goliath victory against Muncie Central.  The release of the movie brought a lot of attention, and the town was even on the national news.   I was not all   that old at the time, but all of the hoopla made a memorable impression on me, and of course that means I have seen Hoosiers a number of times.   In preparation for this morning’s scripture, I kept thinking about the training montage.  The team did not shoot, but they drilled endlessly on the most basic skills.  

    Coach Dale’s coaching style was considered unorthodox because he emphasized the fundamentals.   Instead of working on shooting he worked on dribbling, speed, and basic team work.  It is the emphasis on the fundamentals that connected on this morning’s scripture.  When it comes to our Christian faith this morning’s scripture of the greatest commandments are the fundamentals.   Perhaps, God loves you and Jesus saves might be the only truths more fundamental than this morning’s scripture.  Here is how fundamental this scripture is.  There is something called the lectionary, these are scripture readings that have been agreed upon by multiple denominations and they are divided up over three years.  The idea is that churches use during the worship, and if they do they will hit all of the highlights and most important scriptural points over a three year process.   We are currently in year A, and this reading from Matthew is from the year A lectionary.   A similar greatest commandment passage exist in Mark, and it appears in the year B lectionary.   Likewise, a similar greatest commandment story is found in Luke and it is part of the year C lectionary.  This means if the lectionary is being followed, we hear these greatest commandments read from the scripture every single year.

            Putting an emphasis on the fundamentals can be a key to success.  An example of this can be seen with free throws in basketball.  In the NBA the league free throw average is 75%.  However, the NBA fan site 82games.com did the math and determined that if an individual team could raise their average just three points to 78% then that would equate to two more wins a year just from free throws.  Despite what the numbers show, most coaches at the pro level do not emphasize free throw shooting to instead focus on other skills.  In our faith, we can be guilty of doing the same thing.   We focus on other aspects, on tangents, on actions, and ignore the fundamentals, like love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves.   There is a decent chance that a lot of you have heard these commandments before, but how well do we truly understand them.   Let us consider the deeper questions:  Why are these the two greatest commandments and how do we keep them? 

            When the Pharisees asked Jesus “what is the greatest commandment”, it was a litmus test of sorts.   In their mind there was only one right answer, and Jesus got that answer correct, but he did not stop there.   The answer the Pharisees were looking for was love the Lord your God.   This is the Shema, found in Deuteronomy,  it was and is considered the greatest commandment in Judaism.  To this day orthodox Jewish men will in accordance with the scripture bind this command to their arms or heads.   Jesus lifted it up as the greatest commandment, and as followers of Jesus that means it is our greatest commandment, but why is it?   For the Jews is the was the greatest commandment because it was the requirement for fulfilling the covenant.    The Covenant between the Israelites and God was that God would be their God and they would be God’s people, God made this covenant out of love so it was only through loving God could the covenant be fully honored.   As disciples of Jesus this is also our greatest commandment and the reason why is also because of God’s love.   Perhaps 1 John says it best, “we love because he first loved us.”   The word we use to describe God’s love is grace, and grace is always present in our lives. Before we could do anything to earn God’s approval or prove our worthiness of God’s love, it was already there.   We are born surrounded by God’s previenent grace.   Furthermore God proved his love for us on the cross.  It was for our sake that Jesus died, it was to proclaim God’s grace that Jesus was crucified, and it was by the grace of God that the grave could not keep him.   It is because of God’s grace that we are justified, that our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled with the God who love us.    The best yet, friends, is that there is more to come!   God loves us too much to leave us where we are.  It is by grace we are perfected and transformed.   It is by grace that we are sanctified, that we are molded and shaped to leave the worst parts of ourselves behind and become more like Jesus in our attitudes and actions.    It is by grace that we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the spirit.   All of this is God’s gift offered to us without price.    The reason why we should love God is because God’s love for us is extravagant, so unbelievable, so all-consuming that we only have two choices.   We ignore it and run from it, or we accept it at which case the only appropriate response is to love God in return.  

            If you have experienced the grace of God in your life, then you know God’s great love first hand and the “why” to following the command to love God is fairly straight forward.   The “how” can be a bit harder.  After all, how do we as mere people adequately express our love to the creator of the universe in a way that makes any sense.   The way that Jesus gives the command helps guide us.   In this morning’s scripture Jesus stated love the Lord your God with all of your heart with all of your soul and with all of your mind.   In other words, we are to love God with our entire being.   One of the ways that we do this is through the act of worship.   Worship can be hard to define, but it is an unmistakable experience.  Worship is quite simply the word we use to define our response to who God is and what God has done.  Often we use music to worship, but worship is not just music.   We can sing a song and not worship.   Heck, we can sing a song that is about God and still not worship.  If we are simply saying the words (even if on pitch) then we are not truly worshiping.  Worship is when our mind is completely focused and filled with God.  Worship is when our actions, our voice even our physical movements are being used intentionally to glorify and express love to God.   Worship is when our hearts, the very essence of who we are, is open to God.   True worship is honest, vulnerable, and passionate.  It is also an intentional action.   Worship are the acts we take and the way we invest our time to express our love for God.  

We often approach worship with the wrong attitude.   It is not uncommon to hear people say things like “I didn’t get much out of worship today,”   What an odd thing to say.   Worship is our response to who God is and what God has done.   Worship is the action we use to fulfill the command to love the Lord our God with all our heart with all our soul and with all of our mind.  It is not about us in the first place, worship is about God.  It is not supposed to be about what we get out of it in the first place, it is about what we express to God.   If our biggest concern about worshiping God is what we get out of it, then what we are really worshiping is ourselves.  Worship, however we worship, should be all about God.

            Worship is one the primary answers to “how” we can express love to God, but another way is actually to follow Jesus’ second commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  When Jesus answered the question about the greatest commandment, they were probably not expecting Jesus to mention this one as well.   “Love your neighbor as yourself” is found in the Old Testament law, but it is a lot more obscure.   Despite that Jesus elevated to the same status as love God and Jesus made clear that “all of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”   In the Old Testament prophets one of the themes that emerges is that God did not just love his chosen people, but God loved their neighbors as well.   God’s love was not and it is not reserved just for the special or elite.  It is for all, and in the same way the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is available for all.  One of the ways that we can best express our appreciation, devotion and love for God is to follow God’s example.   We love God by loving others, which is one of the primary reasons for why we love our neighbors as ourselves.  

            When it comes to how we love our neighbors as ourselves, it is shockingly simple: we just do it.   Of course, being simple in theory and putting it into practice are two different things.   Loving others cannot just be a theoretical, it has to be practical.  Our love for others has to be more than just words, it needs to be a love that is put into action.  Burger King of all places recently put together a PSA on bullying that illustrates this.  Due to having young children and some language concerns, I won’t show it but in this ad a hidden camera is placed inside a Burger King and a group of teenage actors enact a bullying scene.  At the same time the adults are being served “bullied hamburgers” that have been smashed.   When confronted the Burger King employee gives common bully excuses.  This is all happening while the actors portray bullying.  Of the adults in the Burger King 95% spoke up when their burger was impacted, but only 12% interceded for the bullied teen.  When something impact us we are more likely to speak up and do something, but as the PSA shows we see something wrong that is not technically our problem we are a lot less likely to take action.   How we love our neighbor as ourselves though, is we take a lot of the focus off ourselves and put it onto others.  

            There are no shortage of people who are in need, people who are disenfranchised, people who are lonely, people who are afraid, people who are lost, and people who are in need of love.  There is not a shortage of ways we can practice the how of loving our neighbors.   We see the needs and we meet the needs.  We find those people who are hurt and we tend those hurts.   We seek out those who need a hand up, and we enable those dreams.   We love them.   How do we love our neighbors as ourselves:   We love them the way that God loves us.  

            These are the fundamentals of our faith.   It can be so easy to get caught up in other stuff but at the end of the day we are here because God loves us, and if we have l responded to that love we love God.   One of the ways that we show this love, is that we put it into practice and we love our neighbors, we love those people around us who need to be loved the most.   This is what means to be a Christian.   May you truly love God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your mind.   May you love your neighbor as yourself.   May you practice the fundamentals day in and day out.   May you drill them to the core of your being.  As a disciple of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the Messiah of the world, The Lord of Lords, and the king of kings may you follow the greatest commandments he has given us.

It's a Trap

Scripture:  Matthew 22:15-22

            The weather is finally starting to cool down, and one of the positive side effects means that we are entering chili season.  There is something about a little coolness in the air that makes chili sound like the perfect dinner.  I have a question, that I bet every single one of you has an opinion on:  In chili, pasta or no pasta?   Chances are a few of you probably get unreasonably fired up over that debate.  Chili is an interesting phenomenon because there are all kinds of variables that can be included or modified.   It seems no one makes chili quite the same way as anyone else.  Since everyone makes it the way the way they prefer, most people tend to think there chili is the best.   Seriously it is odd, no one takes pride in how they make pancakes, but anyone who cooks even a little takes a lot of pride in how they make chili and they always consider their chili to be among the best.   This is one of those oddities, because statistically speaking not everyone’s chili be the best.   It is kind of like how the majority of drivers believe they are among the best drivers.   Another similar oddity that I have observed, is that the vast majority of people tend to think they are good at arguing and debating.   Again, this statically cannot be true.  It is impossible for the majority of us to be in the top half of something.   I think one of the reasons why we think we are so good at arguing is because we have a lot of experience.  I’ve parented through the terrible twos twice now, so I can confirm that we start being argumentative at a very early age.  The other reason why many people think we are good at arguing is that our brains are wired in a way to help convince us of this.   There is a psychological phenomenon called the backfire effect.  When someone is confronted with information that goes against what they already believe, then most people are actually less likely to change their minds and they are more likely to double down and dig into their beliefs even more.  One of the reasons why this happens is that being proven wrong activates the same part of the brain as actual physical pain and so we instinctively try to prevent ourselves from experiencing that.    This is why when pundits “debate” on cable news shows they always end up yelling over each other and their supporters walk away thinking the person on their side won.   It is why the comment sections on any webpage become toxic as people become more and more petty and more and more pedantic as they endlessly go back and forth.  Arguing our beliefs is a trap, because often the person engaging us is not wanting a discussion they want to prove they are right and we are wrong.   We are being goaded into a fight, that even if we win, we did not really win.  In this morning’s scripture, the opponents of Jesus try to set a trap and pull him into a debate and we can learn a lot from the example that Jesus gives us. 

            This morning’s scripture takes place during Holy Week, the week that led up to the crucifixion and resurrection.   At this point Jesus was well known in Judea and the Pharisees had long decided that Jesus was a threat to them and their beliefs.   The Pharisees were desperate for anyway to discredit Jesus, and that led them to the genius plan they tried to execute in this morning’s scripture.    To fully understand this scripture requires some cultural and historical context.   The Jews were under Roman rule, and the Jewish monotheistic faith was not a good mesh with the Greco-Roman polytheism.  In addition to this the Jews had a strong national identity.   They identified themselves more as Jews and less as subjects of the Roman Empire.  This put the Jewish people and the Roman rulers at a tentative and uneasy peace.   While the majority of the Jews merely tolerated Roman rule, a minority embraced it.   The Romans had propped up King Herod as a local ruler.  The Herodians mentioned in this scripture were those Jews who supporter King Herod and by extension Rome.   The Herodians were the closest to loyal Romans that could be found in Judea.  Typically the Pharisees and the Herodians would have been two factions not on speaking terms, but in this instance the Pharisees get their help to debate Jesus.  

            It is, of course, all a trap.  The Pharisees are hoping to trap Jesus in an argument that he cannot win.   Here is how the Pharisees were hoping that thing would play out.  They asked Jesus is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?   If Jesus answered yes, then they would argue that Jesus was a sellout, that he was not fit to lead true Jews because he bowed down to Caesar and not God.    However, if Jesus answered no, then the Herodians could argue that Jesus was rebellious, teaching sedition, and laying the ground work for insurrection.   Jesus was asked a yes or no question and either answer would put him on the losing side of an argument.  Jesus’ response is brilliant.   He completely chooses not to engage the debate.  He does not pick sides but acknowledges the reality of the situation.  Caesar is an earthly authority but he (and all Jews) answer to a higher authority.   Jesus recognizes that this is a trap, and he refuses to engage in the argument.   As followers of Jesus, that is an example that we should follow.  

            Even though we should follow it, we do not always do a good job at it.   You see one of the reasons why I feel confident that a lot of people believe they are good at arguing is because quite honestly I am one of those people.   Given that, it only made sense to me when I became a Christian to learn how to argue my faith.  If you go to a Christian bookstore today, you will find an entire section labeled apologetics.   Apologetics is all about how to argue our faith.  It is common to find apologetics books that contain theoretical objections to Christianity and then pages of how to respond to said objective.   I read quite a few of these books early on.   However, I then began to get a glimpse that arguing with his opponents was not the example that Jesus set.   

            One of the life lessons that really drove this home happened my senior year of college.  Hanging out in my apartment one evening, I got involved in a very big debate with someone.  We were both believers, and the debate was over (in the grand scheme of things) a minor theological point.   However, I was convinced that he was wrong and I was unfortunately further convinced that I needed to convince him that he was wrong.  Which I attempted to do.  I suppose if there was some way to keep score, I won that debate.   I could counter all of his points and offer up my own.  However, when it over and left at a reluctant agree to disagree, I did not feel like I won much of anything.   As he left, one of my roommates somewhat sarcastically asked, “Was it a good discussion?”   One of my other roommates, who had sat around and listened to a lot of that debate displayed great wisdom and said something that deeply impacted me.  He said something along the lines of “It was not much of a discussion.  There was a lot of talking but no listening.”  

            That is a perfect definition of arguing: a lot of talking, no listening.   Having a desire to be able to argue my faith was really foolish of me, and honestly prideful.   When people argue they do with the intent to have their position win.  Do we really think we argue someone into submission so well that they instantly change their beliefs because we won that soundly?  The number of people who have been saved because they lost an argument has to be close to zero.

            We do live in a culture that is becoming increasingly indifferent and sometimes openly hostile to our faith.   There are absolutely people who are itching to argue why our beliefs are wrong.   It can be so tempting to engage in that fight, but it’s a trap.   In this morning’s scripture Jesus was invited to an argument and he did not take it.  We could cynically assume it was because Jesus just did not have the gall to fight.  I do not think that is it.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus has little trouble speaking the truth in tough love.   There are instances where Jesus does engage the Pharisees in debate, but not this time.  The reason why Jesus did not engage in this argument is because the Pharisees and the Herodians had come specifically to argue.  They were ready to do a lot of talking and not any listening.   Jesus avoided this fight because there was not going to be anything fruitful to come out of it.   We live in a time and a culture that is quick to argue.   The ability to communicate instantly through social media means that we are even more likely to talk our mind and less likely to listen.  This is a spot where following Jesus will be a little counter cultural.  Instead of being quick to argue, let’s be quick to listen.  

            The example that Jesus set in this morning’s scripture was to avoid the trap of arguing.   If we look elsewhere in the gospels we see the example Jesus gives us as an alternative.   He ate in the house of known sinners and tax collectors, he engaged the woman at the well when no one else would, he healed lepers that others avoided, he let the little children come to him, and as Matthew 9:36 states when Jesus “saw the crowds he had compassion on them.”    The reality is that changing a person’s mind is a hard thing to do.   This is especially true when it comes deeply held beliefs that help form our identity such as faith affiliation.   Yet throughout the gospels we see that Jesus consistently is changing lives.   When people truly interact with Jesus their lives are transformed.  In more than one instance in the gospels, someone’s life does a complete 180.    In all of these circumstances, Jesus never once argued someone to submission.  The trick to changing hearts is not an iron clad argument, it is compassion.  That is the example of Jesus that we should follow.  

            Again, I am not denying that we live in a culture that can be hostile to Christianity.  I am also not denying that we live in a broken world that desperately needs Jesus.   However, we are not going to argue the world into knowing Jesus.    We need to follow the example of Jesus and love the lost, not fight them.   We need to be quick to listen and slow to talk.    You have probably heard the proverb before, but it is especially true about sharing our faith convictions:  No one cares what you have to say until they know you care.    I am thoroughly convinced and personally convicted that one of things this world needs are more Christians who care and less Christians who think they are good at arguing.  

            In this day and age of 24 hour news cycles, endless talking pundits, and unfiltered opinions you will be goaded into arguing and debating your faith.   May you follow the example of Jesus and realize it is a trap.  Like Jesus did in this morning’s scripture may you not engage in an argument that you truly cannot win.   Instead, may you follow the example that Jesus sets in the rest of the gospels and may you have compassion and love for others.  May you be quick to listen and slow to speak.   This world needs Jesus, and it is not going to be our words that change them.   It is going to be the love of God that changes hearts and transforms this world, so may that love be experienced through us. 

The Invitation

Scripture Matthew 22:1-13

In May of this year Graham Day turned eight.   Now I have a son who is already counting down the days until he turns eight in two months, so I have an idea of how excited he probably was when he woke up on that day.   He was having a birthday party neighborhood kids and classmates were all invited, the cake was made, and the boxes of pizza were delivered.   However, no one came.   To make it worse, this was not the first time this had happened to Graham.  He went through the exact same experience when he turned six.   Understandably the child was crushed, and the parents were distressed, hoping to find some way to salvage the day and bring joy to their son.   After nothing seemed to come together, they finally tried calling the police.  Graham wanted to be a police officer, so they were hoping that the officer on station could at least stop by to wish him a happy birthday.  In response to this request, the entire police force and fire department of Hurst, Texas showed up for the birthday party of Graham Day.  They came with all of their police cruisers and fire trucks and lined the street around his house.   In a May 29th, newspaper article, Graham’s mom was quoted saying, “By the end of it he had forgotten his friends did not come over for his birthday.  He was so happy.”   On that particular day, for that particular family the Hurst, Texas police force saved the day.   Now I am not a police officer, but I imagine that it is rare for them to get cake for saving the day.   It is a good thing that the police came through for Graham Day, but it is sad that he found himself at an empty birthday party in the first place.   Unfortunately, this kind of thing seems to be increasing.  I personally know a couple of parents who have gone through this, and judging by the number of posts on mommy blogs about this topic, it seems to not be an uncommon experience.   The thought to why this is increasing is two-fold.   The first is that kids today are more scheduled than they have ever been, and if a child is serious about any sort of sport then Saturdays (and too often Sundays) are dedicated to that sport or extra-curricular activity.   The second is that we live in a culture that increasingly devalues commitment.    It is becoming more common not to commit to something so the option to do something better if it comes up is always available.   Occasionally these two factors can combine in a perfect way to leave a child devastated when no one comes to their birthday party.  It must be heartbreaking as a parent, to see your child hurt in that way.  I can sympathize with the parents of Graham Day and I understand h they wanted to find some way to alleviate the pain their son felt.  This morning scripture lets us know that God understands this same pain.   In response to the rejection of no one coming, the Days invited the police department.   God, however went and invited everyone.  

            This morning’s scripture comes from one of the large teaching sections in the gospel of Matthew.  Matthew’s gospel is organized where there are large teaching sections broken up by narrative stories of traveling and miracles.   This particular teaching section comes from the end.  When Jesus went to Jerusalem for the last week of his life, he spent all day Monday teaching in the temple courts.   Matthew records that day in great detail, and this morning’s scripture is one of the parables that is attributed to what Jesus taught on that day.   The parable begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like”, whenever Jesus uses this it means we are in for an analogy of what God’s future kingdom is going to be like.   While it is always hidden in parable, when Jesus uses the phrase the kingdom of heaven is like, we know that we are often getting a glimpse into the heart of God.

            The kingdom of heaven is going to be like a party celebrating the Son.   Not only is it going to be a party, it is going to be a wedding party.   In first century Judea, wedding parties were THE parties.    They could last for days and were the most lavish parties that the majority of people would experience in their lifetime.   To turn down an invitation to a wedding party, would have been unheard of.  Yet that is exactly what happened in this scripture.   Worse, the people who turned down the invitation were rude and violent the second time the invitation.  This would have gotten the attention of the original audience, but I have to wonder if they knew Jesus was talking about them?  

            We have to remember that Jesus was a Jew, and his original audience were Jews.   The Jews are God’s chosen people.  They were meant to live in covenant with God where they are God’s people and God is their God.   However, the history of the Hebrew Bible is clear, they had a rough relationship.    Starting in the wilderness just weeks after leaving Egypt the tribes of Israel erect a golden calf.    Once they people enter the promise land, they turn to idols within a generation and they spent literally hundreds of years this way.   God had invited them to the party of the kingdom of heaven, by and large the invitation was ignored.   In response, God sent servants to reissue the invite, in the Bible these are the prophets.   The prophets though were also ignored and mis-treated.   From Elijah all the way up to John the Baptist during Jesus lifetime the prophets were scorned and even killed because they represented God and God’s holy truth.       

            Remember Jesus told this parable during Holy Week, he knew what was coming up in a matter of days.   It is at this point the parable goes from recapping what had happened to what was about to happen.   The chosen people had never fully responded to God’s invitation, so God opened the invite up.   God allowed anyone to come in.   Verse 10 states “So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all of the people they could find, the bad as well as the good.”    The sinners, the lost causes, and the non-churched; all were invited.  There was no pre-requisite to accepting the invitation all were invited, they simply needed to respond.  

            In parable form, Jesus was explaining the grace that he was about to make wide open.   In the guise of a story, Jesus was explaining what he was going to do on the cross.   It was on the cross that Jesus opened up the invitation.   It was on the cross that the grace of God became available to all, that God offered reconciliation to all of creation, and that we through the blood of Jesus be adopted into God’s family.  The kingdom of heaven is like a party, and thanks to Jesus Christ we are invited. 

            We are invited to God’s party is a high note to end on.   Honestly, a lot of people would probably prefer it Jesus stopped the parable right there.   God invites everyone, all are saved, end of story.   That is not where the parable ends though.  It was like Jesus anticipated this, and even continues with a “but. . . “  The king came to see the wedding guests who had come to his party and finds someone not wearing the wedding clothes, this man who was caught is thrown outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Some commentators understand this to be a reference to hell in the gospels, but the one thing that is clear is that the in the darkness outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth is a place of misery, separated from the love of God.   The middle of this parable is on such a high note and then this happens.  It is a bit of a downer and causes us to ask just what is going on?  

            Given how long ago Jesus lived and given the state of written records of that time, there is a lot we do not know about the everyday customs.   There is not any other ancient document that makes reference to wedding clothes.   Yet Jesus did not have to explain it in the parable, so clearly the original hearers knew what he was talking about.   Remember, a first century wedding was a big and expensive deal.   The thought is that the invited guests were given some sort of garment to wear to identify them as invited guests, this would be to keep wedding crashers and other revealers looking for a good time out.   That makes sense, what is troubling here is why on earth the man caught speechless was without wedding clothes.  It was an open invitation, and the wedding clothes for freely provided.   The man would have made the conscious choice not to clothe himself in these provided garments, and this would have been deeply insulting to the host which is why he was thrown out.  

            In one of his epistles Paul actually adds depth and context to this parable.   In Galatians Paul wrote, “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.  There is neither Jew, nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”    God has invited us to the eternal party of heaven, where we are reconciled to God and forever in God’s loving presence.   The party has been set, the invitation has already been made.  All our invited, the only question is who will respond?  

            We are invited to the party, but an invitation is not enough, we have to come and we have to clothe ourselves in Christ Jesus.    We do this by confessing that we have fallen short, and if we are being honest we truly are not worthy of the party.   We do this by accepting Jesus as our Lord and savior.   Jesus is not a cheap Halloween costume.  To clothe ourselves in Christ means we seek to live like Christ, loving God with all of our being and having compassion and love for our neighbors.   Just playing church, attending a house of worship and going through the motions that make us comfortable is not the same as accepting the invitation.  When we do that we are like the man who did not take the wedding clothes.    All have been invited, but when we get right down to it there are only two types of people in this world:  Those who have accept the invitation and those who have not.   Which one are you?  

            If you know that you have not responded to the invitation, if you have not come in to the party and clothed yourself in Jesus Christ.  Then I urge you to do so.  You are missing a heck of a party.   If there is a reason why you are not ready, then I respect that.   If that is true for you then, I would love to sit down with you and hear your story.   If that is you, then know that the kingdom of heaven is like a party and you, no matter who you and no matter what you have done, you have been personally invited by the Creator of the universe.  

            If you have responded to the invitation, then may you continue to clothe yourself in Christ.   I mentioned earlier that when Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven is like . . .” he is talking about what God’s heavenly kingdom will be like.  There is one more interesting aspect to this.  The kingdom of heaven is both here and not yet.   Going with the party analogy, the invitation has been made, the party has started but the cake has not yet been cut.  The dance floor has not yet been opened.  The party has started, but it has not really started.  If you have clothed yourself in Jesus Christ, then we are to live in hopeful expectation.  We are to live on earth as if were already in God’s heavenly kingdom.   This means that we embrace clothing ourselves in Christ and in the here and now, day in and day out we seek to live like Jesus.  

            The kingdom of heaven is like a party, and we are all invited.  May you respond to the invitation.   If you already have, then may the sacrament of communion we celebrate today be a celebration of remembrance as you remember and anticipate the party that is yet to come.  May you party on. 

I Need You

Scripture:  Acts 9:32-43

                Achim Leistner is one of the most important people in the world that you have never heard of.    He is an Australian lens maker with an oddly specific talent.   He can craft and create perfect orbs.   The imperfections in his orbs can be measured in nanometers.  To give you some perspective about how impressive that is, a single sheet of paper is 100,00o nanometers thick. What makes him important is what a perfect sphere can mean for science.  Scientific study requires exact measurements so that experiments can repeated with the exact conditions.  To help facilitate this there is a perfect physical model of a kilogram, called the Le Grande K.   This model is the standard for a kilogram that all other kilogram weights are calibrated against.  It is made of elemental substances that are very stable and had to modify.  In addition to that, it is kept in a very controlled environment.   Despite all of these precautions the Le Grande K has lost weight.   This technically should not have happened, and I am not even going to pretend to understand the theories of quantum physics that try to explain this.   This does create a problem for scientists though because how can you have a universal weight measurement if you cannot be sure that a kilogram is actually a kilogram.   This is where Achim Leister comes in, because if he can make an absolutely perfect sphere that weighs exactly one kilogram then scientists can count the number of atoms that make up that sphere and have an exact and universal measurement of a kilogram.  Now if you are like me, you are probably wondering why that is such a big deal but in the world of science when the most minute variation could change things it is vastly important.   Achim Leistner is extremely important to several fields of scientific research.   They vitally need him to succeed at making a perfect sphere.  Perfection to this magnitude though is not easy, because if he is off by just a handful of atoms it does not work.  No one else in the world is able to craft an orb as close to perfect as Achim Leistner.  If he succeeds, his odd skill will fill an invaluable need in scientific advancement.   

                We often equate importance with power, but that is a fallacy.  The people in charge might reap most of the benefits, but usually the most important people in any enterprise or organization are the ones who do something small but necessary that no one else can quite do as well as them.   This is why Achim Leister is so important to scientific advancement, they need him.  We see the same dynamic in this morning’s scripture.   Peter was one of the original twelve disciples, he was the one that Jesus said was the rock upon which his church would be built.    Today, even someone with a passing knowledge of the Bible would at least recognize Peter.  Tabitha, not so much.  However, to the believers of Joppa, it was Tabitha who was the most important disciple.  Tabitha was the one that they needed.  We should all strive to be so needed.  Tabitha is an example for us to live in such a way, that the response that others have to us is “I need you.”

                This scripture begins with Peter leaving Jerusalem and beginning to travel around to fledging groups of believers in other parts of Judea.   As he traveled around to visit “the Lord’s people” it is kind of hard not to envision this a bit as a celebrity appearance.  I do not want to oversell Peter, but he was kind of a big deal.  This big deal/celebrity image kind of gets cemented more when one of the first things he does is heal a man who had been bedridden for eight years in Lydda.  Hearing that Peter was in Lydda, the disciples from nearby Joppa come to get Peter.   The focus of the scripture quickly changes from Peter though, because they reason why they wanted him to come was to see if he could bring Tabitha back.   The scripture shifts from the “up front” person in Peter to the behind the scenes person of Tabitha.  She was the person who was so important to her community that when she died their response was to find a way to bring her back.  

               

                We get the sense that Tabitha was the kind of person who put their faith into action.   Jesus commanded his disciples to love their neighbor, and we get a sense that Tabitha did that.  Verse 36 tells us that she was always doing good and helping the poor.   While it is not explicitly stated, we get an idea of the kind of good work that she did.   Verse 39 tells us that all of the widows were mourning her death, and they showed Peter the clothing that she had made.   In first century society, widows were some of the most destitute and impoverished people in society.   If their husband died, then the widow had to rely on their son, but if the widow did not have a son or the son did not fulfill his obligations, then the widow was in very dire straits.   Tabitha cared for and provided for the widows.  Part of her work was clearly making clothes for them.   Yet that must have only been part of it, because the bible does not state that she “did a lot of caring for the widows.”   It states she was “always doing good works and helping the poor.”   The work she did for others and the care she showed the poor was what defined for.  It is what she was known for, and we get the impression that is what she was loved for.   It is why she was so needed, and her loss was such a great blow.    

It was Jewish burial practice in the first century to bury very quickly.  It was common to bury a body the same day that the person died.   Given that, it is amazing how fast they got Peter there.   Lydda was about 12 miles from Joppa.   Even at a marathon running pace, it would have taken nearly two hours to get there and another two hours to get back.    They really wanted Peter to be present, not so that he could attend the funeral but so that he could prevent it.      The need for her was so great, it seems, that they could not imagine going on without her and they went to extraordinary measures.  Tabitha made such an impact on her community that they did not settle for mourning her.   They were willing to go to any lengths to get her back.   When people gathered after her passing they did not start sharing condolences, their first thought was how can we fix this.  She was needed so greatly that God raised the dead.      

The only thing we know about Tabitha is what is in this scripture.  That unfortunately leaves a lot of questions unanswered.   The scripture says she was always doing good.   How did she do that?   Was she independently wealthy?  How else would she have the times and resources?  I wonder if she was older or childless, because I do not know how someone could find the time to raise children and always do good to help others.    Also, where did she get the energy to always help others? Did her veins pump coffee instead of blood?   As a single individual, especially in a culture that did not value the efforts of women, it is amazing how much Tabitha was able to accomplish, how much she was able to make a difference, and how needed she was in her community.    

We can and should definitely see the example of discipleship that Tabitha set as something to strive for.   However, it also seems she was playing on hard mode.   We should seek to be doing good, we should seek to be helping the poor, and we should meet needs in our community.   However, we do not need to take it all upon ourselves as individuals.   Single handedly trying to reach all of the needs of a community through doing good is commendable, but the reality is that doing so will quickly cause the vast majority of us to burnout.   Fortunately, we do not have to do it all on our own, and in fact it is best if we do not.   We have a congregation, a faith family-the body of Christ to rely on.  Tabitha was always doing good, and while it may be difficult for us to individually reach that level, together we can.   Together we can contribute what we are able to make a real difference.  Our combined efforts multiply and we can do far more good than we could on our own.   As a church we can become just as needed in Edinburgh as Tabitha was in Joppa.  There is a saying that is embedded deep in our Methodist tradition, which likely grew out of the teachings of John Wesley.  It goes like this:  “Do all of the good you can, by all of the means you can.  In all of the ways you can, in all of the places you can, to all of the people you can, as long as you ever can.   This could be our rallying cry and our inspiration.   As a church I sincerely believe that we do good, but the word all in that saying is convicting, just like Tabitha was always doing good.   We can celebrate the good that we do, such as supporting the food pantry and our heavy involvement with the cheer fun, but we have to also be willing to admit that both as individuals and as a congregation we are not yet doing all the good we can, by all of the means we can, as often as we can.   We are not there yet, but together we can.   

We can and we should do all of the good we can in our community, because that is what Jesus told us to do.   We are to love our neighbors, and one of the best ways that we can love them is to show them through our actions.   We serve them by doing all of the good we can.  When we do that we show this town that we are for them.  That we love them, because God loves them, and we have proven that by our actions.   

On more than one occasion I have heard Bishop Mike Coyner, former leader of the Indiana Conference of the UMC, ask a group of clergy two questions:   If a stranger came into town and stopped at the local gas station to ask for directions to the Methodist church would anyone in there know where it is?    The second question was If your church closed tomorrow, would the community even know you were gone?   Those are convicting questions, meant to challenge the pastors to consider how well the local churches they are serving are serving the community.   In this morning’s scripture Tabitha did so much good that her community needed so much, that they would not let her die.   May we follow her example, and as a church let’s go and do so much good in Edinburgh, IN that the community says “I need you.”   

In the life of American Christianity we are in a transition that is seeing a lot of change.  Unfortunately, part of that change is that churches are closing.  A lot of churches.  This year, it is given that somewhere over 4,000 churches will close their churches forever.   This has led to a lot of anxiety over how small and aging churches are going to stay viable.   The answer, in theory, is fairly straightforward:  be needed.   If a community needs a church because of all the good that church is doing, then it is not going anywhere.  A church is needed, when in trying to live out the radical love of Christ all of the members work together to show that love to the community by seeing needs, meeting needs, and always doing.   A church that consistently says to the community “I love you” will have the community respond “I need you.”   Brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s be that church.   

May we follow the example of Tabitha.  There are so many creative and vial ways that we can better serve and better love the people of this community.  Exactly how we can do that, I do not know yet.   Let’s figure it out together.  Let’s work side by side, leveraging our talents, our passions, and our resources to make an eternal difference in this community.   May we do all of the good we can to help all of the people we can as often as we can.  In doing so may we let this town know that we, the people of Edinburgh UMC, are for them.   

 

Matthew Party

Scripture:  Mark 2:13-17

In the Old City of Jerusalem, most of the tourists follow the via de la rosa, the path that tradition remembers as the path Christ took to the cross.   Because people like to make money, a large part of this path goes through a marketplace.  On one of the nights that I was in Jerusalem a couple of years ago, I was exploring the old city with another clergy colleague.  We were a little off the beaten path.  We were still in the market, but we were a few blocks removed from the main thoroughfare.  We stopped at a small stall that could only be properly described as a curio store.  It had a little bit of everything, and everything it had seemed to have a story to tell.  While my friend was looking at clergy stoles,

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I was drawn to this chess set.  It was buried to the back of the shelf, looking lost and forgotten.  It’s rugged simplicity and its hand made but not super artistic aesthetic really appealed to me.  In the shop, nothing was priced because haggling is to be expected.   When I asked him how much this was, he told me $55 US dollars.  We went back and forth and did the dance until we got down to $30, a price I was willing to pay.  I of course felt good about that, but on the flight home I realized that I could not have gotten that great of a deal because they guy was only going to sale something if he could make a profit.  When I got home, I did some research.  It took some time and clicking around but I finally found what is likely the origins of this chess set.  It is likely made in India through an outfit that works with local artisans to mass produce things like this.  So this chess set was made by hand, but it was done following an easily  reproducible template.   Something very similiar to this can also be purchased for between $25 and $35, so I did not do to badly.  Honestly though, I am not a fan of haggling, the back and forth, and the laborious steps just to get down to the price that is the most mutually beneficial.    I am not the only one who feels this way.  In American culture the only time we ever really haggle is when buying a new car.  A survey was done a few years ago and it was found that 83% of the people did not like the process of buying cars from a dealership.  In general, we do not like dealing with salespeople who rely on being pushy, dishonest shenanigans, and make the hard sale.   We do not like it because it feels like we are just a target to hit so that a quota can be met.  Anyone who has ever made a major purchase has probably had a negative experience with a pushy salesmen.  Given that there is so much negative experience with this, it is odd that a lot of how we try to share Jesus is similar with these high pressure sales tactics.  

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For instance, I have had this book for years.  This book attempts to walk people through a step by step, foolproof process for sharing faith.   I do not doubt the faith commitment of the author, but I struggle with his methods.  According to his own biographical blurb he comes from the executive world of multi-million dollar business, and it shows in his approach.  It almost feels like this book could be called The Art of the Jesus Deal.   It offers tips on how to start a conversation with anyone and lead them through several steps in order to get them to saying the sinner’s prayer.  While well meaning, this book is all about closing the deal above all else.   This book and several written like it that put forth similar strategies seek that are written with the goal of winning souls.  However, even that language is problematic, because those souls have names.  When our concern becomes just the winning of souls then the people are just a target and we become pushy salesmen where Jesus is our product.  Evangelism, sharing our faith, should not be hard.  You do not need to have a foolproof five point sales strategy.  Sharing our faith is not about marketing Jesus, rather it is about introducing friends to the person who has forever changed our lives.   We can learn a lot from this morning’s scripture and the example of Matthew.  

This morning’s scripture states it is about Levi, but we know from comparing the gospels that the Levi and Matthew are the same person.   Matthew was perhaps one of the least likely disciples of Jesus.  As a tax collector he would have been not very well liked in his community.  Tax collectors were seen as traitors to the people, and they quite literally lived high on the hog at the expense of everyone else.  Tax collectors got their income by charging more than the required amount.  Tax collectors were largely shunned by the majority of the community, but they were wealthy.  This meant that they tended to attract many of the other least desirable elements of society to them.  Tax collectors had a reputation then of being the life of the party where nothing good ever happened.   

We get the idea from this scripture this is exactly the kind of reputation that Matthew had.   Yet this all changed for Matthew when he encountered Jesus.  We do not get the whole story, but we know there must be more to the story.  Matthew lived in the region that Jesus frequented.  He knew of Jesus, perhaps even heard him speak.   Something about encountering Jesus profoundly impacted Matthew and convinced him to give up everything and respond to the invitation to follow me.  This is the same life changing invitation that all believers in Jesus Christ have experienced.  It is different for each of us.  We all have our own story, but to be a Christian is to have a life changing encounter with Jesus.   There is a moment in our life where we realize that the way we have been living is off, and that following Jesus leads to the peace, joy, and fulfillment we have been missing.  There is a moment that we realize for our efforts for all of the reasons why we tell are ourselves we are not that bad, that we are still guilty of sin and we can not save ourselves.   There is a moment of perfect clarity where we confess we are a great sinner but praise be to God Jesus is a greater savior.  In our Methodist tradition, this moment is called having your heart strangely warmed.   We do not get the whole story, but this morning’s scripture records the moment when Matthew’s heart was strangely warmed.  This is the moment where we realized there was more to life than the empty way he was living, and he realized that Jesus just might be the answer to his deepest questions.   

I think what is especially great is what Matthew does right after he makes this life changing, positive decision.   He throws a party and he invites Jesus!   Of course, Matthew also invites his old crowd the tax collectors and sinners.   While the scripture does not state this, I can not help but read into it a little bit.  I imagine Matthew was brimming with excitement and passion to introduce Jesus to his old friends.  Matthew had found a cure for ailed his troubled soul, and I imagine he was quick to introduce Jesus to the people they knew.   Jesus, to his credit, seemed eager to get to know them.   When the pharisees show up to throw some cold water and shade over the party, they also notice that Jesus seems to be very comfortable with the wrong kind of people.   It is then Jesus reminds the pharisees of a fundamental truth, one we sometimes need to be reminded of today:  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but he sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  

As we consider these words of Jesus as well as the calling of Matthew, I think there are two major thought we should really take away from this scripture.   First, Matthew had friends who were not good religious folks.  Right along with that, Jesus hung out with the non-religious folks.  We have to be clear, these were not the contemplative, I am spiritual not religious folks.  These were the crude, crass, hard partying, hard living kind of non-religious folks.   These are the people who had a reputation in their town as being the sinners.   Matthew was one of these worst kind of sinners, and he became a disciple of Jesus   Jesus was a friend of sinners, and we should be to.  Unfortunately, that is something we tend to struggle with.  Several statistical analyses have shown that once someone becomes a committed follower of Jesus, their  meaningful interactions with people who are from God actually decrease.  The longer a faith walk goes on the more these interactions decrease until they zero out.  In his book “Just Walk Across the Room”, Megachurch pastor Bill Hybels writes, “This trend spirals downward year after year until Chris followers realize . . . they have become completely insulated in an evangelism void vacuum. . .And here is what sobers my heart: rather than an isolated case or two, I believe that this is the path of nearly every average Christian.”  The mission of this church, and if we are serious about following Jesus the mission of every Christian, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.   In order to really do this we have to know and spend time with people who are not already Christ followers.   For some of us, this means we need to be intentional.  We have to go out of our way to put ourselves in places and situations where we can spend time with non-Christians.   

The second major thought that we should take away from this scripture builds upon the first.  It is important for Christians to have non-Christian friends, and the second take away is how we share our Lord and Savior with them.   I do believe that as followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to spend time with people who are not yet saved, but they must be our friends not little faith projects.  If the only reason we spend time with non-christians is because we want to find a way to pitch our faith, then we are not even poor friends we are just being an underhanded sales person.  In this morning’s scripture there is a party full of sinners.  It was the pharisees who defined them by their actions.  In the eyes of the pharisees they only saw these people as defined by their negative actions.  If we treat non-Christians as a target to make our evangelism hard sale on, then like the pharisees we only define these peoples by their choices.   In the scripture, Matthew saw these people as friends he wanted to introduce to Jesus.  That should be our approach as well.   We should be friends with non-Christians, because non-Christians need friends in their lives as much as we do.  We should be friends with non-Christians, because even if they do not realize it they are living in darkness and the light of Christ can and will shine through our lives. They do need the love of God in their lives and we can love them with the same radical acceptance and forgiveness that God has shown us.  A common thought found in many congregations is that the majority of the people believe they are not good at evangelism.  It is true most of us are probably terrible at pitching our faith in an effective sales presentation that closes the deal with the sinner’s prayer.   That is not what sharing our faith should really look like though.  Sharing our faith is not about selling Jesus to people, it is about introducing people to Jesus.   We do this by loving people like Jesus, so they know that we are for them.   They know that they are our friends not just projects.    We do this by living a life that follows Jesus, that way people see and experience Jesus in us.   When the time is right, after we have earned trust and invested our lives in others, we do this by passionately telling our friends how meeting Jesus changed our life for the better.       

Sharing our faith through example and word is an important part of being a Christ follower.  Many of us might be in the place that Bill Hybels described, where we have almost zero meaningful interactions with non-Christians.  For some of us the first step to evangelism might be to follow the example of this scripture and have a party.   In Just Walk Across the Room, Hybels describes something called a Matthew Party.  This is a get together where the guest list intentionally includes followers of Jesus and those who do not yet know Jesus.  The goal is not to create salvation projects, but it is to allow relationships to build and friendships to form.  We can do a better job at this, but as a church we do try to provide some Mathew party opportunities.  Part of the hope behind our monthly game nights is they can be a way for people to come together around the table.  In the upcoming newsletter, you will read about a church marshmallow roast, that would be a perfect Matthew party opportunity.    However you go about it all of us should be willing to get out of our Christian bubbles and engage our neighbors around us.    

This scripture shows that Jesus was a friend of people who needed Jesus in their lives.   We should be as well.   This will mean that we may need to take a step into uncomfortable territory.  It means we might have to reach out to people we tend to ignore, and it might make our lives a little messier.  Let’s do it anyway, because we are followers of Christ and that is exactly what Jesus would do.   May we find the people in our lives or spheres of influence and may we be their friends, may we love them, and may we let them know that we are for them.   In doing so and only by doing so, may we follow the Spirit’s leading and help make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of this world.  

Be a Neighbor

Scripture:  Romans 13:8-14

Because of my position in a church, I have an unique cross section of facebook friends.  I have spent years working with youth, so I am facebook friends with teenagers as well as several people now in their twenties.   I also have been in United Methodist churches since social media became a thing, so as people from older generations started using facebook I have many of them on my friends list as well.   This sometimes creates some unusual groupings.  There is a particular type of facebook post that people like to share.  It is the “remember this” nostalgia meme.  Often these posts will feature some sort of semi-obscure pop culture picture that is immediately relatable to anyone who liked it when they are younger.  Because of the cross section of facebook friends, I very rarely remember these things.  It has happened on more than one occasion that someone older than me will post one of these that shows a picture of something that I recognize as being from the 1960’s or early 1970’s but I have no clue what it is from, and then right under that someone younger than me will post something from a mid-2000 kid show that is equally foreign to me.  There are very few things that can span the generations, especially things that we remember in a way that activates that childhood nostalgia.  However, I can think of at least one or two such shows.  Let me know if this creates any kind of nostalgic feels in you:

Mister Rogers neighborhood aired nationally from 1968-2001.   Even though Fred Rogers passed away over a decade ago, many PBS stations still show an episode of his show at some point every weekend.   For a couple of generations, Mister Rogers is their grandfather in the TV.  Perhaps, this more than anything was the secret to the show’s success.  Even compared to the kids shows of the 70’-80’s Mister Rogers had a much slower pace with simple and less bombastic visuals.  However, the onscreen persona of Mr. Rogers was more or less the same as Fred Rogers.   By all reports he was a gentle and caring man with a  desire to nurture and love children, and somehow that all came through the TV.   Over the course of thirty three years Mr. Rogers inspired millions of children to be friendly neighbors.  It should be  no surprise then that Mr. Rogers was also Rev. Rogers, a minister in the Presbyterian church, because the idea of being a good neighbor is biblical.  

This morning’s scripture is about being a good neighbor and it is an especially fascinating one because it shows up in Romans.   For people who have quite a bit of church going experience under their belt this scripture might immediately sound familiar.   It is possible that some of you recognize the command “love your neighbor as yourself” as something that Jesus said, and he did.  The gospels record that when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he lists two and he includes “love your neighbor as yourself.”   To help put this in context, even if the earliest potential dates for the writing of the gospels are used, the writing of Romans still predates this.  Paul wrote the letter to the Romans as a way to teach the start up church.  The letter was meant to give them a summary of the most important beliefs of this fairly new Christian faith.  That means that what Paul is writing here is not just a quotations of the gospels, but rather love your neighbor as yourself was a teaching of Jesus that the early church embraced.   This is why what Paul wrote and what is recorded in the gospels is so similar.  Jesus said the law and all the prophets hangs on the command to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, and here Paul states that love your neighbor sums and doing this one thing fulfills the law.   

The command love your neighbor as yourself, naturally begs the question “who is our neighbor?”   This very question was asked of Jesus and he told the story of the Good Samaritan.  You can read the story for yourself in Luke Luke 10 but the too long; didn’t read summary is that anyone who is in need is our neighbor, or more specifically those who are in need that we take time to help are our neighbors.   While there is a lot of truth to the Good Samaritan story, we need to be careful not to overthink it.  Our neighbors are also our neighbors.   Our neighbors are the people who live next door to us or down the street.   In the context of being a church our neighbors are also the people who when they look out their front door and look up can see our steeple, they are the people who walk by our building on the way to get a polar pop, and they are the people who stop at the stop sign right out our doors on their way to work in the morning.   In short, as a faith community, our neighbors are the community that we find ourselves in.  So as Edinburgh United Methodist church we simply must understand that this town is our neighborhood and everyone who calls it home are part of our neighbors.  

The biblical mandate is clear, we should love our neighbors as ourselves.   As we begin to think about how we do that, I believe the example of Mister Rogers helps us out.   The Mister Rogers theme song ends with “won’t you please by my neighbor?”  That is such a beautiful question, and there are two profound truths inside that question.   First, Mister Rogers did not qualify who gets to be his neighbor.   In fact this was a vital element of the show.   Mister Rogers sought to be in a friendly neighbor relationship with everyone.   He did not qualify who got to be his neighbor.  There was not a prerequisite list of requirements that someone had to meet to be Mr. Rogers neighbor.   People did not need to look a certain way, dress a certain way, believe a certain way, or live a certain way to Mr. Rogers neighbor.  To love our neighbors we have to love our neighbors without condition.   We love our neighbors for who they are and as they are.  We do not love them in hopes they become who we want them to be.  

The second profound truth in the question “won’t you please by my neighbor?” is that it is an invitation.   It is a polite invitation at that.  It expresses that I want you to be my neighbor.  It is a question that has an underlying meaning that states, “I value you and I want to be in a relationship with you.”    As the people of God, a people who have been invited to respond to the grace of Christ Jesus, we need to be people of invitation.    We have a holy command to follow to love our neighbors.  We can only do that if we know our neighbors and we can only know them if we invite them to be our neighbors.   Our church has long and old roots in this community.   In the 1960s a little green book that records the history of the church up to that point was written, and it records that Edinburgh UMC stands as a monument to Methodism.  That is what our church was built to be.  It was built to be a shining  and impeccable example of what a Methodist church should look like.  In the 1950s and 1960s having such a beautiful monument with open doors, might have been all it took for the community to come in.  However, we have to be honest that the culture is vastly different than then.  Simply opening the door is not an invitation.    By its very nature an invitation is not passive.  Opening our doors and saying let the people come, is not an invitation and it is not being a good neighbor.   To state it plainly, people are not going to come here unless they believe we are good neighbors.  They are not going to believe we are good neighbors, unless they know we love them.   We can not expect them to come to us if they do not believe we are for them.   

As a church family, we should celebrate that we have done a decent amount to invite people in, to be a good neighbor, and to let the community know that we are for Edinburgh.  Just in the past couple of months we have had held a community block party and a school supply carnival.   Later this week, we will be serving snow cones and ice cream during the fall festival.   We have invited in teenagers during 5th quarters as well as groups like cub scouts, weight watchers, and narcotics anonymous.   We can celebrate that as a congregation we have taken step to fulfill the command to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we have to also be willing to confess that to fulfill the command of Jesus and the command shared in this morning’s scripture we can do more.  

There are two practical things we can do to better love our neighbors.  The first is simple, we love our neighbors by loving our neighbors.  As individuals we can take actions that express our love, care, and concern.  We show love by expending time and effort on behalf of others to express our caring.  A couple of weeks ago there was a great example of what it means to show love for neighbors.  A small Methodist church outside of Columbus, called Ohio Chapel, was severely vandalized.  On Sunday they could not use the building because it was taped off and still a crime scene under investigation, so they had their worship service outside.  Right as the service was getting ready to start a floral delivery truck drove up and dropped off flowers expressing sympathy.  This token of love was not from the church down the street or even another United Methodist church.  The flowers were sent by the Columbus Islamic Association.  In this instance, it is Muslims who show us the example of what it means to be a good neighbor, because they were the ones who took the time and effort to express their care.  To love our neighbor we simply have to take time to focus on them.   Each and everyone of us can do this.  In small but tangible ways we can take actions that communicate to our co-workers and literal next door neighbors that we care for them and that we love them, because God loves us.  

Once we take actions to show our love and concern, the second practical thing we can do is follow the example of Mr. Rogers and we can invite people.   We invite people not because we want bottoms in the pews and money in the plate, but we invite people because loving our neighbor is supposed to be who we are as the community of God.  We invite people because God loves them, and show them that love by loving them too.   To repeat for emphasis, we can not simply open up our doors and hope for the best.  We must invite.  A survey found that only 21% of church goes invite someone else to come to church with them in a year.  Yet, a different survey found that over 90% of non-church going people would be open to going if a friend invited them.  We must do better. Recently I was talking to a woman from Edinburgh who knew that  I was the pastor of this church.  She was telling me about some of the people she knew who attended here, and in the course of the conversation she stated, no one has ever invited me to come with them.   We  do a lot to invite the community, but we really can do better.  

A final thing of note, is that there is some urgency to this morning’s scripture.  Verse 11 states, “And do this, understanding the present time:  The hour has already come for you to wake from your slumber.”  This is a reminder that all of us are on a countdown clock.  We do not have forever to wait to love our neighbors and invite.  We do not have the luxury of waiting until a better time, because honestly now is always the best time to love our neighbor as ourselves.   May we do just that.   As individuals believers and disciples of Jesus, may we love our neighbors.  May we not just do that in theory, but may our actions show in concrete ways that we care for them and that we are truly for them.    

Sour Cream Pound Cake

Scripture:  Roman 12:9-21

Sometime ago on Facebook someone I know posted a link to a list entitled “Top Five Friendship Ruining Board games.”   I enjoy playing board games so I was curious what the author of this list picked.   They of course put the standards of Monopoly and Risk on the list, which I expected.  Their number one choice was also a decent one.   The author of this list picked Sorry as the game that is most likely to ruin friendships.   I do not know if you are familiar with this gaming standard, but it is a roll and move game with the simple objective of the player getting their pieces around the board.  However, it is possible to send another player’s pawn back to the beginning.   Given the title of the game, the game practically encourages you to say “sorry!” as sarcastically as possible.  This becomes grating after happens more than once.   However, the author missed the true game that holds the spot as the great friendship ruiner.   That is this game, Diplomacy.   It has been ruining friendships since 1959.  Diplomacy is a world domination game, think similar to Risk if you are more familiar with that.  Ideally the game is played with a full complement of seven players.  Where this is different from a game like Risk is that there are not any dice.  Any fighting is deterministic with the most pieces winning.  However, due to the way the game is balanced it almost impossible to attack another player without help.  This requires players to make secret alliances, backroom deals, and provide support for one another.  The final major mechanism is that turns are simultaneous.  All players write down their orders and then they are revealed and enacted at the same time.   This means that even though you make an alliance with someone you have no way of knowing they are going to honor what was stated until those orders are revealed.   Since the goal of the game is to win, that means every alliance is temporary and eventually someone is getting stabbed in the back.   Winning this game practically requires telling someone trust me, while fully knowing that they really shouldn’t trust you.    It really is impossible to play this game without betraying and wronging someone else, and unless you are the winner chances are someone is going to betray and wrong you as well.   I have played a lot of board games, and if I were to make a list of the top games most likely to ruin a friendship nothing would get as close to Diplomacy.   Despite this, the game has appeal because it has been in print and popular now for over fifty years. 

            I have not played Diplomacy for a few years now, but I could not help but think of the game when reading this morning’s scripture.   That is because if I were to play Diplomacy again, I feel like reading this morning’s scripture first would be a requirement.  This scripture is all about living at peace and harmony with one another, and the game Diplomacy certainly strains the ability to do that.  In this morning’s scripture Paul is writing out a description of what Christian character looks like.  Playing Diplomacy is a real test of character.    The nature of the game forces the players to deal with being betrayed, back-stabbed, and having trust broken.   The game forces the players to confront how they deal with those realities.   Can they say it is just a game, and live in harmony with another?   Can they resist the temptation to repay evil with evil, seek revenge, or hold a grudge?  Perhaps being able to explore these deep interpersonal questions in the safety of a game space is one of the reasons why Diplomacy has endured in popularity.  

            When someone betrays you or essentially lies to your face in a game it is a little bit easier to shrug that off, but it is far different when it happens in life.   When people who we thought we could trust prove they cannot be trusted it hurts.  When someone acts in a way that is petty and hurtful it leaves emotional scars.   When some belittles, tears, down or uses hurtful words it can harm a relationship.   We know this.   Several of us probably have far too much life experience with this.   Paul knew this as well.   That is why he wrote this morning’s scripture.    This morning’s scripture is messy advice for when life gets messy.   Life will get dirty, mud will get thrown and people will try to drag us down.   The conventional wisdom of the world is when this happens is when someone hits you, you hit them back harder.   If someone criticizes then you be a fighter and tell them how sad they are.   The conventional wisdom is that we fight fire with fire.  That is exactly the opposite of what Paul writes.   Someone seems to have it out for you then, Paul says “bless those who persecute you.”    Someone does you wrong, then Paul says “do not repay evil for evil.”    Someone betrays or takes advantage of you, then Paul says “do not take revenge.”

 Your first reaction might be one to scoff at this.  Because it sounds like Paul is insisting that we be a doormat and let people walk all over us.  But that is not what he is saying.   The way of the world is to get even, get revenge, and to curse those who wrong us.   Paul’s thesis statement though is “do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”   We all know the old saying, “two wrongs do not make a right.”  When someone does wrong, we do right.   They took the low road, so we show that grace comes from taking the high road.   This does not mean people walk over us, we are still taking action.  It is just our action is one based in love and mercy.   We embody the love, forgiveness, and grace of Christ.   When we do this, we do not get revenge but instead we overcome their wrong with good.  

There is a story that illustrates this perfectly.   Ethel had passed away.   She was a dear old saint of the church.  She had done it all taught Sunday school, led VBS, directed the choir, visited the shut-ins, and anything else in the church that needed doing.   She had also served as a mentor for a young man answered the call to ministry from his local church.  While it seemed an odd pairing at first, this young man and Ethel had many deep conversations, and Ethel is the person who helped him recognize his calling into ministry.  It seemed so appropriate to have this young man conducting the funeral.  But, for reasons untold, when the time came for the funeral to begin the young preacher was nowhere to be found, not had word been sent to explain his tardiness.  The crowd grew somewhat restless as the moments became minutes and threatened to become an hour.

As the restlessness grew, a middle-aged man in the congregation stood and addressed the crowd.  “For some reason the preacher has been delayed.  Until he arrives I feel as if I should share a special memory that is mine because of this dear lady.  My greatest memory is the time that she brought me a cake, and it wasn’t even my birthday.  I still do not know the reason that she chose to bring me the cake.  But I will remember her for this.”

Being seated, everyone turned their attention to a lady that rose to speak.   This woman had a reputation as the church gossip.  Whenever she spoke people tended to hold their collective breath, because they were never quite sure what she would say.  “Funny that you should remember a cake, because I too received a cake from this lady, in fact, I received several over the last few years.”

Amazingly, yet another man stood, claiming that he too had received a cake.   However, the cake he was given a sour cream pound cake.  This caused several nods and smiles around the room.  Ethel’s sour cream pound cake was legendary.    Whenever the church had a pitch-in the attendance that Sunday would be among the highest for the year as people came to jockey in line just to get a piece of sour cream pound cake.   The man concluded, “Ethel and I did not often see eye to eye, but she certainly did right by me.”

One after another, people rose to give testimony to the cakes that this woman had baked and delivered over the years of her life.  Some had gotten one; some several, some it seemed had received cakes several times a year.  More than one person stated, with some level of pride, that they had been fortunate enough to receive a sour cream pound cake. 

 

Seated on the front row, out of the attention of the crowd, was Martha.   Since childhood Martha and Ethel had been best friends.  As people spoke of the great number of cakes they had received, this lady sat strangely quiet.  This dearly departed lady had never, in the many years of their friendship, ever baked so much as one cake for Martha, her best friend.  As the testimonies continued, Martha began to feel hurt in ways she could not explain.

 

About this time the door opened and in rushed a winded preacher.  The frustration of delay showed clearly on his face.  Going to the pulpit, he addressed the crowd, apologizing for his delay.  The first speaker rose again and told the preacher that he was excused, “we have been sharing our favorite memories of this great lady.” 

 

The young preacher spoke again: “Since you have shared your memories, permit me to share mine.  When I first answered the call to preach I spent many hours talking to this saint about a wide variety of matters.  Once, we were discussing the way people cut and hurt one another, and I asked her how she handled it when evil or meanness was spoken of her.  The answer she gave has stuck in my mind to this day.  ‘When people have spoken evil of me, I try not to respond in kind, but in kindness.  When I learned who had spoken so cruelly, I would go to my kitchen and bake them a cake.  I would deliver it to them and never mention their unkind words.  Sometimes I had to bake several cakes.  And if they were especially cruel, I would go and prepare my specialty, a sour cream pound cake.  I learned that to repay this evil with kindness made the evil so much more bearable for me, and I hope that every bite of the cake would tell them that I love them, in spite of their actions.”

 

A stunned crowd left the funeral home that day, with one exception, a quiet lady who rose from the front row and left with a smile on her face remembering the cakes she never received from her dear friend.

            This morning’s scripture came from the letter that Paul wrote to the Romans, and the greatest piece of advice he gave them was to live in harmony with another.   The secret to doing this though, is found in verse 9: “love must be sincere.”   In the story, Ethel chose to love others, even those who wronged her, and she did this by baking a sour cream pound cake.   This did not erase the wrong that was done to her, but evil was overcome by good.   The evil that she overcame was in her own heart.    When someone did wrong by her, she chose to respond with love.  She put that love into action.  In the story, she perfectly embodied verse 18 of this morning’s scripture: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”  When we do this then it becomes easier to put the rest of this scripture in hope.  It is easier for us to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and mourn with those who are mourning if we are at peace with them, and our love for them is sincere. 

            The story of sour cream pound cake is how one woman chose to respond to evil with good.  Imagine if we all, each and every one of us did that.   This would be a congregation and a church that was fully defined by a since love for one another, it would be a love the poured out of this place.   Not only would we be at peace with one another and others, but we would be agents of peace.   Our very presence would calm and defuse tenseness because we will be a people characterized by peace and love.  . . and perhaps by cake if we follow Ethel’s example.  May we not be overcome by evil, but may we overcome evil with good. 

Use the Force

Scripture:  Romans 12:1-8

Trevor Santor grew up loving the game of baseball.   He played it as much as could and this got him a scholarship to play the game at Grand Canyon University.   Trevor was unable to pursue the dream all the way to the professional level, but he continued to be active in the game that he loves by being a high school baseball coach.    Laurie Kehler comes from a long line of gardeners.   Both her mother and grandmother took gardening very seriously.   Previously I did not know that competitive gardening was a thing, but Kehler grew up in a family that has won multiple awards for how well they get the soil to produce incredible plants.   Kehler continued this tradition and has spent her whole life in the garden growing things.   Now on the surface these two people seem to be very different.   They are from different generations, they have different interests, and neither one would understand the other’s world very well.    However, they share one similarity.  They are both authors.   In both instances their books takes the thing they love and connects it with their faith.   Trevor Santor is the author of Baseball Genesis:  Living for Christ through the game of baseball and Laurie Kehler is the author of Gardening Mercies finding God in your Garden.   These two authors are not alone in connecting the things they love with the God who love us.   Bookworm Matt Rawle has written books connecting some of his favorite literature with his faith such as Faith of a Mocking Bird and Redemption of Scrooge.   Apparently, I am also missing out because a lot of people find God on the golf course.   A thirty second search on Amazon reveals that Tony Small, Jon Decker, Gary Martiva, Ronald Mercillo, Phil Callaway, Barbara Hogg, and David Curry have all written books that find spiritual truth in the game of golf.   All of these people took something they enjoy and has a lot of meaning to them in their life and it helped them gain a much greater understanding of faith.   This is a natural thing that we do.  People, in general, are exceptional at finding patterns.   We are able to make connections between seemingly unrelated things that helps us gain a deeper understanding of both.   Before I followed Jesus and loved God with all of my being, I loved Star Wars.  I know you all think I am obsessed with it, but believe me that I am nowhere near the level of super fan that I would have been 15-20 years ago.  At that time I might have known just about everything there was to know about Star Wars, so when my eyes were opened to what is truly important, when my heart was strangely warmed, it was only natural to begin connecting this new world of faith I was discovering to what I knew the best.  

            I mention all of this because in those early days of my faith this scripture had a profound impact on me, and it continues to do so.    This morning’s scripture is full of wisdom, power, and truth.   It can truly be a guiding post for our life.    I came across this scripture very early in the beginning of my faith walk and I immediately saw a connection to Star Wars that has continued to guide my faith since then.    It does not matter how we approach this scripture, if we take it seriously then it should be one that points all of us to living more faithful lives.  

            In Star Wars the Jedi are empowered by the Force.  It allows them to do incredible things.   It is the source of their power, but they do not control it-rather they yield to it and the force flows through them.   In this scene from the original Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi explains it as such. 

 

            There is an important exchange here.  Luke Skywalker ask if the force controls his actions and the response is “partially”.   Years ago this scene instantly connected with this scripture, because to be a living sacrifice is to allow God through the Holy Spirit to partially control our actions.   To be a living sacrifice means we offer ourselves, our will, and our very lives to God.   However in doing so we are not puppets on a string.   We do not stop being who we are.   To be a living sacrifice is to offer up our lives to God’s service but we still have agency and choice in life.   In Star Wars the Jedi are essentially living sacrifices to the force.   In that clip, Obi-Wan was essentially telling Luke to have faith and trust in the force.  In doing so the force guided his actions.    In the exact same way, we offer up our bodies as living sacrifices to God and we do this by faith.   This is why this is a spiritual act of worship, we are our offering ourselves in faith.   Just like the force guides the Jedi’s actions when we are a living sacrifice God guides our actions.  As it states in verse 2 when we are a living sacrifice, “then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will.”    When we submit our will, our wishes, and our desires before God then we make room for God’s will.   When we stop listening to all of the other voices trying to shape us, but by faith commit to listen to just one voice then this scripture communicates to us that we will be able to discern, know, and follow the will of God. 

            I do not know about you, but that is an incredible statement.  We, you and I, can grow in faith to a point where we can in confidence act knowing that we are acting within the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.   How powerful is that?   Being a living sacrifice means that we choose to put God first above all else, and when we do that we can do more than just know God’s will.   This scripture goes on to speak about how the Holy Spirit empowers us.   This morning’s scripture is one of the other places in the New Testament that speaks of spiritual gifts.  As verse six states “we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.    The gifts mentioned in this scripture are prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, and showing mercy.  There is a much larger list of spiritual gifts found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  In all instances though, these Spiritual gifts are an empowerment of the Holy Spirit.   A spiritual gift is not just something we are good at, it is a way that God uses us to do something that we could not do on our own.   Through the spiritual gift of encouragement, God gives us the ability to say exactly the right words to the right person at the right time to make a true difference in their spirit.  Through the spiritual gift of serving we are able to give of our time and effort to make a maximum impact for the kingdom of God.   Just like the force allows a Jedi to do things far beyond natural human abilities, Spiritual gifts allow us to make an impact for God’s kingdom far beyond what we could do on our own abilities.  

            Early in my Christian walk this scripture first connected with me because I saw parallels between being a Jedi and being a follower of Christ.   I saw how trusting in the force in the Star Wars universe was similar to being a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, in our universe.   However, the reason why this scripture and this connection convicted me so powerfully way back then is that I realized I was Han Solo.   That is the character in the clip who was the cynic and the skeptic.   He is the one who said hokey religions were no match for a good blaster.   Before I became a Christian that summed up my feelings quite nicely.  A blaster, a space gun really, is a powerful tool that we have complete control over.    Any tool that I had control over seemed to be a better fit than a hokey religion.  Like Han Solo in the clip I hated the idea of not having control of my destiny.   Yet I realized that like Luke Skywalker I had to let go and have faith.   Doing so was my first step into a larger world.   Once I was a skeptic and a cynic who refused to believe in what I could not see.   I only wanted to trust what I could control, but taking steps in faith confirmed that God, Jesus, forgiveness . . .it’s true.  All of it. 

            This morning’s scripture was incredibly influential early on in my faith and it is one that I continue to come back to again and again.   I come back to it because I need the reminder.   I need to be reminded that my life is not my own, that my calling is to be a living sacrifice.    I need to be reminded daily that for my life and my faith to be functioning properly I am not in control.   I need to be regularly reminded that the most valuable way that I can worship God, the single best way that I can glorify Him is to daily say “take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.”     I needed to be reminded daily that I do this by giving up control, by laying down my will, my desires and my life before God and truly praying not my will but yours be done.   I need to daily remind myself these things, because I am not always the best at remembering it.   I cannot speak for you, but I like to be in control.   I often find relinquishing control, even when I need to, hard and uncomfortable. 

            We like to be in control, or at least we like to think we are in control.  We like to think we are the masters of our own destiny and nothing has providence over us.   However, where does that get us?   When we take the wheel are we truly at peace?   Do we experience true joy?   Are we filled with a sense of purpose?   Again, I cannot speak for you but in my experience that is not how it works.   We only find a sense of peace, contentment, and joy when we know in the depths of hearts and souls that we are rooted in and following God’s will.   We can only do that if we become a living sacrifice by submitting ourselves fully to God.   In order to do this we have to overcome our selfish desire to be in control.   When we are confronted with a problem in our life, something that needs doing, or an irritant to take care of our impulse it take control and deal with it on our terms in our way.   But that is not submitting ourselves to be a living sacrifice.   In the clip when explaining to Luke how to use the force Obi-Wan said “your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.”   In the same way our first impulse might be to reach for control in any situation and handle it ourselves but we have to let go.   Being a living sacrifice means we let go and we let God be the one that leads and guides us. 

            What is it in your life that you struggle to release control of?   Either God is the Lord of all our life or God is the Lord of none of our life, may you let go.   May you put your full trust in God and be a living sacrifice.    I think you will discover that when you do, you will find a greater sense of peace, purpose, and knowing than you have experienced before.  Because you will no longer be vainly chasing your own will but you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will.   Not only that, but by the Holy Spirit you will be empowered.  Like the Jedi can use the force you will have spiritual gifts at your disposal to carry out God’s will.   May you be a living sacrifice and in doing may you discover that the Lord will be you. . . always.     

Revival

Scripture:  Romans 10:5-15

I was born months after the Empire Strikes Back, the second Star Wars movie, premiered.   I remember playing with Star Wars toys at a very young age, and I remember when my parents took my brother and I to see Return of the Jedi.   I grew up loving Star Wars, but eventually that faded.  Like many young boys, in Elementary school I went through a dinosaur phase.   I also really liked Ghostbusters and then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and then comic books got my interest.   By the time I was in 7th grade, Star Wars was all but forgotten about.   It had been years since I had seen any of the movies, and Star Wars had more or less faded into a distant memory of something I used to like a long time ago from a galaxy far, far away.   However, on a lazy summer day in between my 7th and 8th grade year that all changed.   It was one of those situations where I had to find something to do, because if I complained about being bored my parents would give me something to do.   So I went looking through a stack of old movies that had not been watched in a long time, and out of that stack I picked the original Star Wars.   It was on that summer day when my fandom was revived, and 22 years later it is still going strong.    All it took was a single spark to reignite something that had long been dormant.   That is what a revival is after all, it is a spark.    Because of how the word has been used and potentially abused over the years, we sometimes tend to have the wrong idea about a revival.   Often we think of a revival as a Billy Graham style crusade only in a tent.  We tend to associate a revival with altar calls, sinner prayers, and evangelistic efforts to share the gospel with people for the first time.    That is not what a revival is meant to be though.  The goal of a revival is not to make new disciples, it is to remind the faithful why they are faithful.  A revival is meant to be the spark that renews a faith that may just be coasting by, smoldering, or has gone cold.  A revival is meant to remind of us of the power of this morning’s scripture.  

            In the book of Romans we get the closest thing to a systematic theology in the Bible.   The church in Rome had sprung up organically.  Paul or another of the original apostles did not plant this church.   Because they had never had an apostle visit or teach them, Paul wrote this letter.   Romans is meant to be a primer on what the gospel of Jesus Christ is.  It was a systematic way to explain to them what exactly this Christian faith was about and what they were signing on to.   Paul methodically and masterfully lays out in the first nine chapters why people need a savior, why Jesus is the savior, and why salvation can only come through faith in Jesus Christ.   In the first nine chapters Paul lays out the Who, the What, and the Why of the gospel.  Now, in this morning’s scripture, Pau gets to the How.  He answers specifically how one is saved, how one is forgiven, and how one is justified by faith.   The formula is simple:  “If you declare with your mouth and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.”   One of the things that the rest of Romans makes clear, is that the hard part of salvation has already been done, that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”   The rest of Romans makes it clear that our acts cannot save us,  Only Jesus saves.   Salvation is not earned it is given.   All that is left is for us to respond to it, to open the gift that has already been given, and we do this through faith.  To believe in our heart is to accept in our inner-most being that Jesus did the impossible, that he beat death and lives.   This belief, this faith that Jesus saves, must be strong enough that we do not hesitate to proclaim it.   We proclaim it with our words but we also proclaim our faith with our lives.   If we truly believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord and Savior then that must exist than more just theory.  True belief drives action and our actions should proclaim our faith.  

            Everyone who is a Christian has experienced this moment, there was a time when the heart of a believer said yes to God’s yes, that the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead took deep root in the heart, and a proclamation of belief was made.   For some of you this may have been at an energetic worship service at camp or even under the tent.   For others of you it may been at the depths of a dark time in your life.  Only when you reached rock bottom did you finally realize that you could not save yourself.  For others perhaps you grew up in the church, and one day there was finally a catalyst that caused faith to be more than tradition, but something very real in your heart.   Faith is like fire, it is a pile of dead things until a spark ignites it and gives it life.   What makes us Christians, and not just people who think church is fun, is that we have had this spark in our life, a catalyst that made Jesus real to us, and ignited our heart with the love of God.  

            How long ago was that for you?    When did the light of Christ first set your heart ablaze?    For some of us it was a long time ago.  The thing about fire is that it only blazes as long as you keep feeding it, and many believers have gone through times when that stopped happening.   Often our faith takes a back seat because a lot has happened in life.   Work got busy, Kids got older and driving them took a lot of effort,  a major illness seemed to consume everything, or the life stopped feeling less like an adventure and more like a rut.   The fire that once burned so brightly, is now diminished.   It lays dormant, but it is not out.   In 2002, I was a staff counselor at Camp Mone’to.   As it turned out I pulled a three week stint at Outpost camp.  At outpost camp we slept in big tents and everything was done by the fire.   By the third week, I had learned a thing or two about how to manage a fire.   On the first day of camp, the fire pit was dead and our Firestarter was not working.   Instead of going to the next site and borrowing theirs I began to dig.  I knew there had been fires roaring in this pit for the past two weeks, so I dug through the ash and I felt heat.  I uncovered a small coal that still had some heat trapped in it.   I put kindling on that coal and gently fanned that heat into flame.  Within minutes, what was once only a visible pile of ash was a blazing fire.   If you have ever experienced the life changing forgiveness of Jesus Christ, if you by faith you have ever accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, then there is a flame in you.  It does not matter how cold it feels, it is not extinguished.    Return to your first love, remember God loves you so much that he sent his son to die for you.  Be revived by the knowledge that you are forgiven, that your sins are as far as the East is from the West, and there is nothing that will ever separate you form the love of God.    Pray, read the bible, force yourself to come to church whenever you do not feel like it.   Do whatever it takes to revive that flame inside of you.  

                        Having the flame of faith burning brightly does more than just warm up your heart and life.    A revived and brightly burning faith can make a real difference in the lives of others.  This is what Paul is getting at in verses 14 and 15.   Others can only call on the name of Jesus if they believe in him, and they can only believe if someone tells them, and they can only hear if someone purposely goes to tell them.    The primary mission of any church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, to help others confess in their hearts and declare with their mouths that Jesus is Lord.    We can only do this, if our faith is on fire.   There is a quote in the Wesleyan tradition that speaks to this.   It goes like this, “Set yourself on fire with enthusiasm and people will come from miles to watch you burn.” 

            To have a faith burns brightly does not require you to be a slick-talking, bible-thumping, revival evangelist.   One of the greatest revivals in American history had an unassuming beginning.  It was 1857 and many were lamenting the spiritual state of the country, especially in the large cities.   In these cities the industrial revolution had brought a lot of industrialization which led to lots of workers living in close proximity and working long hours six or seven days a week.  These workers were tired.  Church and faith were not a priority.   Many churches during this time, were also moving out of the city centers to the outskirts where their wealthier patrons lived.   A 48 year old man named Jeremiah Lanphier, cared about the souls of those huddled in crowded cities.   His first step was to pray, and he put out a flyer advertising a prayer meeting.   The goal of this prayer meeting was revival as his flyer stated: “This meeting is intended to give merchants, mechanics, clerks, strangers, and businessmen an opportunity to stop and call on God.”  The prayer meeting was at noon and it was meant to be a chance for busy people to connect with God and revive their faith even a little bit. 

            The first meeting was on September 23rd of 1857.  Jeremiah Lanphier had the doors to the Dutch Reformed church of Manhattan open at noon.  No one came.   Finally after half an hour of praying on his own, a total of six men gathered.   This was enough for Lanphier to try it again next week.   This time close to 20 were in attendance, and by the third week this had doubled to 40.    The attendance continued to climb so the weekly prayer meeting became daily, and the tone of the prayer meeting began to develop.   The primary prayers being offered up were prayers for the souls of the lost.  Those who came and bowed in prayer would often pray by name for the people they knew who did not yet know Jesus. 

            Within two months, the prayer meeting had grown even more.   It completely filled the church.  So much so that daily there were three simultaneous meeting in different parts of the building.   The desire for prayer was so great that it began to spread throughout the city.   At one point a large theater began opening its doors daily for the prayer meeting and it would be filled with over 5,000 people.   This spread across the country.   Prayer became a daily ritual in places like Washington DC, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.  In St. Louis, the desire to pray was so high that many places would three different prayer meetings a day.   This was not a time of enthusiastic preaching, it was not a high pressure sales pitched to convert, it was people gathering to pray.   It was a revival movement where thousands of people had their cold hearts warmed by the Holy Spirit.    God answered all of this prayer, and many people called out on the name of Jesus and believed in their heart for the first time.   One report from that era claims there were 10,000 new converts on a single day in New York City alone.   The revival of 1857 is the single greatest evangelical effort that occurred in this country’s period, and it all began because six people gathered in an old church to revive their faith.  

            How is the fire in your heart this day?   If it does not burn as brightly as it used to then, may you remember that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, and God out of God’s great mercy has saved you.   May you earnestly work on revival to keep the fires of faith lit.   Like Jeremiah Lanphier may you seek God in prayer, and through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit may you get fired up about our Lord Jesus Christ.    May that true for each and everyone one us, may we be a church where revival rolls.   May we not keep our revived faith under the basket of this building, but may it be like a city on a hill that shines out in the darkness, may we burn brightly and may we take the gospel and victory found in Jesus to others, because as it is written How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!

The Insanity of Grace

Scripture:  Romans 9:1-5

            One of the many incredible places I got to see when I visited the Holy Land in 2016 was Megiddo.   Megiddo is a hill at the edge of the Jezreel valley, the flattest and most fertile area in all of Israel.   Megiddo is also overlooking the outlet of a mountain pass, the only reliable way into the valley from the coast.  There is a natural water source at the base of the hill, and over the centuries people found a way to hide it and dug hidden channels to get the water into a cistern within the city walls.   For all of these reasons, Megiddo was a strategically important town.   It was so important that whenever an aggressive power came into the region, the first thing they had to do was deal with the town.  Which is what they did, and inevitably the town would fall and be destroyed.   However, this new conquering power would then do an amazing thing.  They would rebuild the town, claiming it as their own.   You see they could not just abandon it, the location was too strategically important.   Then when a new aggressive power came through the region the first thing they had to do was deal with the town built at Megiddo.  Once it was destroyed, the new power had a great idea. . Let’s rebuild it!   Megiddo is an archeological treasure trove because of this cycle.   All told, in its history Megiddo was leveled and rebuilt 25 times!   Finally in the fourth century BCE, people finally learned maybe this is not such a good idea and the site was forever abandoned as a settlement.   For generations though, the site would be destroyed and then rebuilt.  I imagine each time it was done with the thought that this time it will be different.  Insanity, it has been said, is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. We have probably all heard that before, and oddly that quote is regularly mis-attributed to Albert Einstein today.   I am not sure why Einstein gets the credit for it.  I suppose it is because it sounds so smart, but the quote sticks with us because we understand it on an intuitive level.    For instance many of us probably relate to this clip:

 

            Many of us have been in situations where we feel we like are Charlie Brown having our own mis-dealings with a Lucy and a metaphoric football.   The definition of insanity quote resonates with us because there is a lot of wisdom in not doing the same thing over and over again.   Almost always, this is great life advice.   But this scripture points us to an exception.  Every now and then, there is something that is worth doing over and over again in hopeful expectation that there is a different result.  By human standards it does seem doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is insane.   However, with God all thing are possible, and that means that sometimes doing the same will yield a different result.   It means that this time the Holy Spirit will move, grace will break through, and life is changed forever.   

            This morning’s scripture is about Paul’s brush with insanity.   It is about how we kept doing the same thing over and over desperately praying for different results.   He wrote about how he had a great sorrow in anguish in his heart for his people the Jews.   Before his conversion, Paul was a Jew among Jews.  He was a Pharisee of the highest order, and his birth lineage was impeccable.   He lived and breathed understanding that the Jews were God’s chosen people, but then on a road to Damascus he encountered the Living Christ.  His eyes were opened truly for the first time, and he experienced the grace and forgiveness that only comes from the cross of Jesus.  Paul had found and encountered the Messiah.   After a period of time, he eventually sought off to share this good news with others.   He of course started by traveling to synagogues to share this good news with the Jews spread across the Roman Empire.   This did not go so well for him.   The book of Acts records time and time again that when Paul met resistance and even violence in a city, the Jewish population were his primary accusers and persecutors.   Paul’s message of radical forgiveness, grace, and salvation did find an audience.  Some of them were of Jewish heritage, but most were Gentiles (non-Jews).   This led Paul to eventually understand himself as the apostle to the Gentiles.  Despite that though, Paul never quit preaching to the Jews.  Even after beatings and arrests he kept doing the same thing expecting a different result.   He did this for a couple of reasons.  First he cared deeply about his people.  In this morning’s scripture he goes as far as saying that he would willingly give up his own salvation if it meant that the people of Israel could truly experience grace.   The second reason that Paul never gave up on preaching to Jews is because he believed in grace, and there is an insanity to grace.  

            If doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is truly the definition of insanity, then God might be insane.    The story of insane grace is found throughout the Bible.    The patience that God shows the Israelites in the Bible is crazy.  After being freed from Egypt, while God is giving Moses the commandments, the Israelites rebel and build an idol.   God forgives them.   This establishes a pattern that goes on for centuries.   The people rebel against God, they turn to idolatry.   They anger God and they break God’s heart.  In the prophets we find warnings, that if the people persist in this then there will be consequences, but if they turn their hearts back to God he will forgive everything and continue to honor the covenant to be their God. 

            We probably find the same thing true in our lives.   In the folk -rock song Thankful by Cademon’s Call, lead songwriter Derek Webb sings “I ran across and old boxof letters while bagging up some clothes for Goodwill.   You know I had to laugh, that the same old struggles that plagued me then are plaguing me still.”  I do not want to be presumptuous but I imagine many of us can relate to those lyrics.   How often do we confess our sins before God, we acknowledge our wrongdoing, earnestly repent to live differently?   Yet, weeks, days, or at our worst hours later we are back doing the same thing, confessing and repenting the same sin.    Yet, each time-every time- God forgives us.  

             It is crazy, it is not rational, it is insane!   That is entirely the point.  There is an insanity to grace, and thank God there is!   In dealing with our sin and wrongdoing, the rational and logical thing to do would be to justly deal with us, to punish us for iniquities and transgressions.   Yet God, out of God’s divine love offers us forgiveness instead of punishment.  God grants mercy instead of justice.   Again and again, God forgives.   It is insane, but what is really crazy is that it works!   

            I cannot speak for you, but grace has changed my life.   I am not the same person I was before knowing Jesus.  Something deeply fundamental about me has changed and it will continue to change.   I might have some of the same old struggles, but not all of them because there are some victories in my life that the blood of Jesus has won.   I am so thankful for God’s crazy love, because not only has that love saved us, it transforms us, and it continues to mold us to be more Christ like.  

            I am also eternally thankful for the people who continued to share that love with me.   When my heart was turned from God, I imagine that those youth group leaders, Sunday school teachers, and Christian friends thought it was insane to keep trying to share scriptural truth with me.   After all they kept doing the same thing expecting different results.    It was insane, but the crazy thing is that it worked.    The Holy Spirit worked through their persistence, grace broke through, and my hardened heart was softened as I turned back to my creator.  I know that I am not the only one.   Over the years I have heard so many testimonies that have a similar thread.   The person was not living a God-honoring life.  The circumstances are always different, but the result is the same their life choices were leading them on a trajectory away from God.   Yet, there are people or sometimes just a person-in a lot of these stories it always tends to be a grandmother- who will not give up on them.   This person was faithful in constantly praying for the person giving the testimony.  However, they did more than just pray, they shared their faith from a place of deep love.   They did the same thing over and over again praying for a different result.   Because these stories are always faith testimonies, it means the different result did come.   It may have taken years, but God’s grace eventually broke through, and a heart truly repented and bowed to Christ as Lord and Savior.    There is an insanity to grace because it is driven by God’s crazy love and that love is the fuel of miracles.  

            This morning’s scripture speaks to Paul’s deep concern and even anguish over the response to grace that he had seen so far by the people of Israel.    Yet, he never stopped sharing this grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ, with them because Paul believed that even the most incredible of miracles can happen today.    Many of you can probably appreciate the way Paul described his feelings in this scripture.  Paul wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.”   Paul felt this way for his people, but many of you feel this way for the ones that you love.   Several of you probably have a friend, a parent, a grandchild, or a child who does not know Jesus, whose heart is turned from God.    You no doubt pray for them all the time, and you have probably had several conversations about faith with them.  For some of you these conversations may have left you in tears when it was done, and it did not go so well.   You may have faced more rejections from some of the people that you care the most about then you care to remember.   You may feel insane because you have shared the same words of love again and again hoping beyond hope for a different result this time.   If that is you, then with all of your being please hear me:  Do not give up.   Do not EVER give up.   The love of God is just so crazy incredible that sharing it one more time just might work.   No matter how much we wish, we cannot make someone choose Jesus, we cannot force someone to say “yes” to God’s forgiveness and reconciliation that was offered by Jesus on the cross.   However, we can keep sharing it with them we can keep proclaiming the grace and Lordship of Jesus the Christ.   We can and we should do this boldly because God is a God of miracles.   God is a God that loves us so much that he sent his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but haveeternal life.  God’s love is so crazy relentless that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any power, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God.   God’s love is capable of saving every single person who has ever lived, is living, or ever will live, so do not give up and never stop trying to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who do not know it. 

            I have observed an amazing thing this past week.  On last Monday, a retired pastor who I am facebook friends with died unexpectedly of a heart attack.   Because people tagged him or wrote on his wall people’s outpourings became visible on my facebook newsfeed.   It was humbling to read the amount of lives that he has touched, and to get a glimpse of how many peoplehe influenced to live a life of faith.   Even though you may be in great sorrow and anguish over their rejections, may you not give up.   May you continue to share your faith, so that someday you might be the person in a testimony.  May you share your faithand may you live such a faithful life that someone can say, “I am a Christian because you did not give up on me.” 

Yes, Mary Knew (Summer Rerun Series)

Luke 1: 46-56

You may or may not have been aware of this, but all this month we are going through a “summer re-run” series.  The past few weeks I have been sharing with you updated version of what I consider to be the best of the over 150 messages I have preached since coming here.  I can statistically say that today’s message is the most popular thing I have ever written.  Every week we take the Sunday messages and post them on our church website.  Because it is just a click of a button and I am curious, I tend to check out the website stats whenever I go to upload a message.  I get to see how many people have viewed our church website (averages 2-4 people a day) and what they are viewing.   About a year ago, I noticed something unusual.   The post from December 23rd of 2014 was getting multiple views.   For over a year now, this has been consistent.    Regularly, someone is reading the message entitled “Yes, Mary knew.”   It seems just about every week, and sometimes multiple times a week someone reads that post.   When I started noticing this trend, I dug a little deeper and discovered that all of these views of this message came from google searches.   I do not understand how the Internet sorcery of google works, but there is some search that people make regularly that pops up a 2 ½ year old message from our little church website.  Sadly, I do not know what that search term is, but I am not surprised that people are making Christmas related searches in the middle of July.   The middle of July with the heat and sun feels about as far away from Christmas as we can get, yet it is also past the halfway point so for those desperate for the hope and joy that comes with the Christmas celebration they start to imagine evergreens and snow on the horizon.   

            Whatever the reason something leads people to making google searches related to the popular Christmas song Mary did you Know in the middle of July, and through Internet magic those searches bring people to our church website.  The song Mary did you know was first released in 1991 and it quickly became a Christmas classic.  I realize since it is July it has been months since you have heard the song, so here it is:

 

The song though ask a question, and it is a question that is begging to be answered.   The song asks “Mary did you know?”   The answer is Yes, Mary knew.   She may not have known that Jesus was going to someday walk on water or calm a storm, but she knew that her son was special.   In fact she knew that her son was the most special child to ever be born, and she knew that the child she delivered would one day deliver her.   This morning’s scripture helps shows us that Mary knew.  She did not know the details of what would happen but she knew what God had promised her.   This morning as we consider what Mary knew, I think we should also be open to learn from the example that Mary set about how we can best follow God. 

            In general we tend to picture Mary as a scared teenager.   A lot of this imagery comes from us reading into the story.   What we know of 1st century Jewish culture means that yes Mary was almost certainly a teenager.   We think about an un-wed teenager being pregnant and away from home because of the census.   It is easy for us to project fear on her.   What we are missing though, is that Mary did not have reason to be afraid of what was happening, because she had the assurances of an angel.    When Mary found out that she had been chosen by God, the angel Gabriel told her “Do not be afraid”, and she was not.   This morning’s scripture, traditionally known as the Magnificant, is not a song of fear but a song of confident praise.     Mary knew who Jesus would be because the angel told her.   Luke 1:31-33 records: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever: his kingdom will never end.”    Mary knew what this meant.   Being a faithful Jew during this time, Mary would have been familiar with the Messianic expectations.   She like all Jewish people were looking and hoping for the savior, and the angel’s description is exactly what she and others had been looking for.  A king sent from God to redeem and restore.    This morning’s scripture makes it clear that Mary knew what was promised when she sings, “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.”   From anyone other than the mother of the promised messiah, that would sound extremely arrogant!   This morning scripture ends with “He has heled his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”   Again, this shows that yes, Mary knew.  She knew that Jesus was being born for greatness.   It shows that she knew Jesus had a special destiny.   It shows that she knew, Jesus was the messiah.  

             Yes, Mary knew-but she did not know everything.  How could she?    She knew her son would be the messiah, but how would she know what that meant?    Very early on she got glimpses though.   Luke records that after Jesus was born that Mary and Joseph took him to the temple as Jewish custom dictated.  While there they were they met Simeon an old, devout man who had been promised through the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the messiah.   Simeon once again reiterated that Jesus is the Messiah, but he also told Mary about Jesus, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.”     Likewise, when the Magi came to visit in the gospel of Matthew, one of the gifts they brought was Myrrh, which was most commonly used as a burial fragrance.   It did have value, but surely it had to strike Mary as an odd gift to give to a young child.   Mary knew Jesus was the messiah, but how could she know what that would lead to?   How could she know that events would lead from her placing her baby in a manger to having her soul pierced when she watched him hang in agony on the cross?   She could not.   She knew what the angel had said, and that led Mary to praise God in this morning’s scripture.   She did not though the details.  She did not that she would one day urge Jesus to turn water into wine, that he would walk on water, or that he would one day be executed.   She knew what God had promised, but she did not know how that promise would be carried out.  

            There are many things that we can learn from Mary as her story is presented in the gospels, but today as we consider what Mary did and did not know, what we should take away is that even though she did not know everything she was still faithful to what God was calling her to do.   In fact she did what God asked of her without question.  In fact after the angel told her what was to happen, Mary replied “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”  Mary knew who Jesus was to be, she knew the gravity of what God was asking her to do.   However, she did not know the full story.   She knew her child was special but she did not know what that meant, or what pain that would cause her.  In the same way, we can follow God’s leading with confidence but we have to be willing to follow even though we do not know the full story.  

We do not like that though do we?   We like to know where we are going and what is going to happen.  We do not like the idea of committing until we know exactly what we are saying yes to in great detail.   We tend to only like sure bets and we try to avoid risks.    We want to know the full story before we sign on, but that is not how God works.  Abraham did not know where he was going when God told him to go.  Moses did not know what was in store for him when he met God at the burning bush, David did not know what he would go through when Samuel anointed him king.   The disciples did not know what they were in store for when they left their nets behind when Jesus said “follow me.”   And Mary did not know what being the mother of the son of God would entail.    In all of those instances though, there was an assurances from God.   They knew they could count on God, but they did not where that would lead them.   They had to trust God in the process.    They did not know what the ups and downs would be, but they knew that it was God was the one that was asking them.   Like Mary sang in this morning’s scripture they all knew that “His mercy extend to those who fear him, from generation to generation.  He has performed mighty deeds”   We are several generations removed from that song, but God is still merciful and he still performs mighty deeds.    God is also still calling and wanting us to trust him.  

            It is probably a fair statement that none of us have had an angel visit us the way Mary did, and none of us have had as much asked of us as Mary did.  However, we do have the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised us, and I sincerely believe that through the Spirit, God still leads us and guides us today.   The workings of the Spirit are different in that life.  Sometimes the Spirit is a still small voice that speaks to our inner most being, other times it is a nagging feeling about what we need to do and it does not go away until we do it, and other times the Spirit leads with a sense of urging that it feels like we are going to jump out of our skin if we do not do it.    If we are not careful we can be guilty of ignoring the Spirit.  We try to silent that small voice, we run from God’s leading, we hide out of fear.  We run and we hide because we do not know the whole story.  We tell ourselves we would gladly do whatever God is telling us to do, if we knew what it all entailed, if it was safe.    That is not how it works though.  God call us, and we choose to respond or not.  We choose to trust in only what we can see or we trust in the loving creator of the universe.   

            They do not come along every day, but if we are faithful at seeking to follow God then we will find ourselves in a moment, a point of decision.   Sometimes these come upon us in a flash, and other times they build up over months and months of discerning and deep reflection.  I know for myself and many of my clergy colleagues their calling in ministry was one of these pivotal moments.  From time to time in our lives and in our faith journey we reach a point where it becomes clear that God is calling us to do something, to take a risk, and make a real difference.       When these times come we will not have an assurance that it will be safe, that it will be comfortable, or that we will succeed by our definition of success.  What we can be assured of though is that God is with us.   We may not know what the end plan is going to be, but we can be faithful step by step because we know that God is faithful to us.   When we follow God’s leading we may not know what tomorrow is going to bring, but God does and that should fill us with hope.  Like Mary, that should give our souls reason to glorify the Lord and our Spirits should rejoices in God our Savior.”   

            I do not know what it is in your life, but if God is calling you to take the risks that you have not yet taken, may you follow the example of Mary and say “I am the Lord’s servant.”   Whatever step in faith you need to take, may you stop waiting for it to feel safe and may you instead trust in God to be there for you.   Chances are being faithful to what God is leading you to do, will lead you physically, emotionally, or spiritually to places you were not expecting, to things you could not anticipate.   There is a reason that we talk about living our faith we often talk about a faith walk or faith journey.  If we are being faithful in following God, then that should take us places.    May we be faithful to God and in turn discover just how faithful he is to us.   In doing so, we may find ourselves like Mary, proclaiming our own song about how good, great, and faithful God is.  

Praise the Lord!

Scripture:  Psalm 150

            It is almost impossible to separate a practice and an understanding of Christianity from music.   For as long as there have been Christians we have been singing.  The gospels of Matthew records that the disciples sang hymns together on the night of the last supper.  Paul and Silas were singing songs of praise while imprisoned in the book of Acts.  The letter to the Corinthians mentions congregational singing, and the letter to the church in Philippi even includes quotes from an ancient Christian hymn.   This scripture from Psalm 150 this morning, shows us that music has long, long been away to worship the living God.  

            It honestly is no surprise that music is such a big part of worship.  There is something uniquely special about music.  A popular quote, which is actually a mixture of several different quotes and can be attributed to no one in particular, is “music is the language of the soul.”   There is perhaps something to that.  Music tends to speak to us on a level like nothing else.  This is backed up by science.   There are very few things that light up our brains like music does.  While the music styles differ, this is a universal human response across cultures.   More than visual images, music has the ability to fire up the emotional centers of our brain and create a genuine emotional response.   Music is stored in our memory differently, which is why when you cannot remember where you put your keys down you can still sing the words to a song you have not heard for two decades.    Music can also activate the language and comprehension parts of brain.   This not only helps remember lyrics, but it is easier for us to understand and find deep meaning in song lyrics as opposed to an academic book.   It is no wonder music has been so central to Christian worship.   Music enables us to experience and understand God like anything else. 

            Of course, because even as Christians we are imperfect and flawed there is a dark side to music in the church.   It has long been a point of controversy.   It is hard for us to think about it now, but songs like When I survey the Wondrous Cross were once controversial.  In an era when singing the scripture of Psalm was most common, Isaac Watts began writing new hymns, like When I survey the Wondrous Cross, and some people were not happy about it.    The hymns of Charles Wesley, such as O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, were once scandalous.   Wesley wrote his songs to reach the unchurched so he would often set his profound lyrics of worship to familiar tunes that were commonly used in taverns and pubs.   For the past twenty years too many churches have spent too much time and energy fighting the worship wars between traditional and contemporary.   It starts to become a silly argument when you realize that many of the songs first considered “contemporary worship” are now pushing thirty years old.    

            It is true that we all have music styles we prefer.   Some people feel that an organ is the music of heaven, others think that old time gospel music is the music of the heart, still others desire the beat of rock and roll, and others worship best when someone drops the bass in hip-hop music.  There are so many different music styles and they can all be used to praise the Lord.   That is the point of this morning’s scripture.  Did you hear how many different instruments were named?   They all produce different styles of music, but they can all be used to worship and praise the Lord.   The type of music is not important.  What is important is that God is glorified.

            Worship is when we turn our hearts fully to God.  Music helps us to do that better than anything else.   When we praise God in genuine worship, then that is the most beautiful sound in the world, regardless of the musical style.    It should not matter if the song is too slow.  Praise the Lord anyway.   It should not matter if the song is too loud.  Praise the Lord anyway.   It should not matter if we are not familiar with the words.  Praise the Lord anyway.   When we worship God we should focus not on what we prefer or our most comfortable with, but the focus should be on praising, worshiping, and glorifying the triune God. 

            May everything that has breath praise the Lord.  Praise the Lord!   May you praise the Lord.   May you always be willing to worship in Spirit and in truth. 

Break the Frozen Heart (Summer Rerun Series)

Scripture:  Romans 5:1-10          

  Part of my nature is that when I commit to something, I really commit to it and go all in.    I learn all that I can about it and really engulf myself in it.  Something I learned as a parent, is I apparently do the same thing with the stuff my kids get into.  A few years ago I was an expert on Thomas the Train.   Now a days, Connor has made it easy on me by loving Star Wars so I already have a brain full of knowledge on that topic.  However, over the past couple of years I have become a real contender in Disney trivia, especially Disney princess trivia.  Like a lot of little girls Callie is all about the Disney princesses.   From Aurora to Merida she has them all.   She goes back and forth as to her favorite.  For a while it was Cinderella, and she is a big Snow White fan as well.  However, her consistent favorite is one of the first ones she saw and that is Elsa from Frozen.  Ironically, Elsa is not even considered a Disney Princess.   In part, that is because she is technically a queen, but it is also because Frozen as a brand is too popular.  So far Elsa and her sister Ana have been kept separate from the Disney princesses so that Disney marketing can keep Frozen its own entity.  Frozen is going to be four years old this Fall, but it is still going strong and is still loved by children.  Even though parents might be tired of hearing some of the songs again and again, I think the movie resonates well with all age groups.    The strong characters, catchy songs, and nuanced plot will ensure that this is a movie that sticks around for generations.   Like all of the best stories, Frozen touches on the greatest story of all.  One of the great appeals of Frozen is that it is a story about love, but it focuses on more than just romantic love.   Frozen tells a story of an all-consuming sacrificial love.   This is the same kind of love found in the Bible, the same kind of love God has for creation, and the same kind of love displayed on the cross.    The message of Frozen shares some similarities with this morning’s scripture.  Both teach us how and the necessity for breaking our frozen hearts.   

            I realize that not everyone has been so thoroughly surrounded with Frozen like we have, so a clip might be helpful.  One of the characters is Olaf, a talking snowman.  In this scene he is trying to help Princess Ana who through an accident has had her heart frozen by her sister’s icy powers.  The only way that Ana can be cured and saved from turning to ice is by an act of true love.  To help keep her warm, the snowman builds a fire and this conversation happens:

 

            “Some people are worth melting for.”   This morning’s scripture says the exact same thing, it just does it in a bit more verbose way:  “You see, at just the right time when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”    On the cross Jesus communicated to us that some people are worth melting for.   We, me and you, were worth dying for.   The uncomfortable question, though is what makes us worth it.   Paul, knew this was the question, which is why he went on “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, but for a good person someone might dare to die.”   Paul is brutally honest, and points out that when it comes down to it, most people are not worth that high of a cost.   In the way we normally view things, most people are not worth melting for.   Thankfully he continues and writes “But God demonstrated his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ dies for us.”  

            What is it that Jesus saw in us, that he thought we were worth melting, worth dying for?  If we are being honest with ourselves, we know that we are not the kind of good or righteous person that someone might die for.   At best, we are a fixer upper.  If anything, Jesus qualifies as the kind of person that we should be willing to die for.   This is why, we are left with the question, what makes us worth it?   This makes me think of a scene from a different movie, but one that is considerably less child friendly.   In Saving Private Ryan a group of soldiers risk their lives to save one other solider, whose brothers have all died.   One of the questions asked throughout the movie is what makes Private Ryan worth the risk and sacrifice of all the others.  At the end, Private Ryan is saved but at a great cost.  As the captain, played by Tom Hank is dying from a German bullet, he grabs Private Ryan and whispers in his ear, “earn this.”   Do you know how much more comfortable it would be if Jesus said this to us?   We are really good at earning things.   We are really good at having a sense of responsibility and paying back our debts.    Earning something is very comfortable for us, we do a lot better with the idea of earning something than being given something.  The infuriating beauty of this morning’s scripture, of the gospel, is precisely that we cannot earn it.    Christ died while we were still powerless and he died for the ungodly.   

A strong part of my theology is that Jesus did not just die for those who were predestined to be saved, he died for the world.  For everyone, for all of the ungodly people.   This means that there is nothing we can do to earn it.  There is no way we can prove ourselves worthy or pay back the debt.  Christ died for you and me, but he also died for everyone else who is stuck in sin, whose back is turned on God, and even for those who take great pride in their ungodliness.   I cannot fathom the reasons why or the depths of God’s great love, but out of that love he found all of us worth melting for.   We cannot earn it, the gift has already been given.   Love is an open door, we just walk through it and accept what has already been done for us.   

We cannot earn God’s love and salvation, but surely we must respond to it.  Out of great love God sacrificed his son.   He took all of our personal sin, evil, wrongdoing and He let it go.   If we truly claim that kind of love in our life, then it must be life changing, we have to respond and change in some way.   We cannot pay God back and earn it, so how do we respond?   The answer to that question, may not be the most comfortable one of us.  After washing his disciple’s feet Jesus said in John 13:15 “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  And Philippians 2:5 reminds us that we should have the very mindset of Christ.   This example set, this mindset is that Christ died for the ungodly.   The example given is being able to tell people that they are worth melting for.   The example given is showing an act of true love to those who do not deserve it.   In order to do this, we need God’s help to break the frozen heart.   The heart we need to break though is our own.

I do not care how good of a person you are, there is at least one person in your life you cannot stand.   Be honest, there is.  Sometimes it is just simple personality clashes that put us as at odds with people.  Through no true fault of their own there is something about that them that we find grating.   Other times there are people we cannot stand because we have a difference with them.   Other times there are people who have deeply hurt us or hurt someone we love, and we cannot let that go.    We have to remember that all of those people the ones who annoy us, the ones who hurt us, the ones we consider enemies, and even the ones that on darker days we say hate- God loves them all.  Jesus died for them.   If we are going to respond appropriately to that same love shown to us, then we have to be willing to love those people in that same true love sort of way.   To do this, we have to stop seeing them as our enemies, we have to stop focusing on the reasons why we tell ourselves they are bad people.   We have to see them the way that God sees them, because God saw those people as worth dying for- and we should too.   In their song Jesus, Friend of Sinners the band Casting Crowns sings, “Jesus, friend of sinners open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers.  Let our hearts be led by mercy.  Help us reach with open hearts and open doors.  Oh Jesus friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours.”   God so loved the world that he gave his only son.   The thought of us, of his precious creations being lost, broke God’s heart to the point that he was willing to sacrifice greatly to change that.    Whatever it is, whether it be old prejudice, unforgiveness, or a pain we cannot yet face, that divides from those people in our lives, we must let it go.   The frozen parts of our hearts must break, and we must love like Jesus. 

An example of what it means to do this comes from Corrie ten Boom.  During World War II in Holland, out of Christian conviction, she and her family helped Jews escape the Holocaust.  They were caught and imprisoned for it.  After the war she became a great social worker,  author, and a well-known preacher.   In a Guidepost magazine article entitles “I’m still Learning to Forgive” she told this story:  “It was in a church in Munich that I saw him- a balding heavy set man in a gray overcoat.  People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken.   It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives- that when we confess our sins, God cast them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.  I saw him working his way forward against the others.  The Ravensbruck memories came back with a rush.  The man who making his way forward had been a guard, one of the most cruel guards- and he was now in front of me, hand thrust out:  “A fine message Fraulein!  How good it is to know that, as you say all sins are at the bottom of the sea.” 

“And I who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather take his hand.  He evidently did not remember me, but I remember him, and the leather crop swinging from his belt.   “You mentioned Ravensbruk in your talk”, he was saying.  “I was a guard there.  But since that time, I have become a Christian.  I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well”-and again the hand came out- “will you forgive me”

“And I stood there-I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven-and could not forgive.-  Betsie, my sister had died in that place-could he erase her slow terrible death simply by asking?  It was the most difficult thing I ever had to do but I had to do it- I knew that.  And still I stood there with coldness clutching my heart.  “Jesus help me” I prayed silently “I can lift my hand.  I can do that much.  You supply the feeling.”

“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me.  And as I did, an incredible thing too place.  The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, spring into our joined hands.  And then this healing warmth seem to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.  “I forgive you brother” I cried “with my whole heart.”  For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands the former guard and the former prisoner.  I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”

If you are holding on to negative assumptions that cause you to look down on people.  Let it go.  If you are holding onto past pain.  Let it go.  If you are clinging to hate and bitterness. Let it go.  If you are refusing to forgive.  Let it go, Let it go!   Then for the first time in forever, you will experience God’s love more intensely because now you are loving as Christ loved you.  

May you know that you are so loved by God that Jesus considered you worth melting for.   And may you consider others in the same way.   May you share the unimaginable true love of Christ with the sinner and ungodly people who you know need it.   This day, if there is coldness in your heart then may you have the courage to ask God to crack the ice apart and break the frozen heart.    One of the many lyrics from one of the many songs from the Frozen soundtrack stuck in my head goes like this: “Throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best.  True love bring out the best.”    May you find this to be true, because when we dare to love others we find that it brings out the best.   In us.   This week, may you seek to show that kind of love and discover how true that is for you.    

One vs. All

Scripture:  Matthew 10:24-39

The show is not as popular as it was back at its height, but do you all remember Who Wants to be a Millionaire?   This game show tasked a person to answer multiple choice questions in an effort to reach a million dollars.   The show broke new ground, because the contestant could always just walk away at their current level.   The tension between guessing and climbing the ladder or taking the money and walking away created a lot of tension.   The game also had a “I can do this feeling” because the contestants had a series of lifelines.   This meant that even if they did not know the answer themselves they could rely on a lifeline to pull them through.  The most dependable lifeline was poll the audience.  In the history of the show Who Wants to be a Millionaire the majority of the audience picks the right answer 91% of the time.  That is really crazy to think about.  Presumably the average audience member is roughly of equal intelligence to the contestant.  Each individual person is just as likely to know the answer as the contestant who is struggling, so why then as a group does the audience get it right so often?   This is a well-known social science phenomena called group intelligence.  It was popularized and shown to be a real thing by a well-known experiment in 1987 involving jelly beans.  Students were asked to guess how many jelly beans were in a container, and everyone was wrong.  Most people were wildly wrong.  However, the average of all the guesses was only 2.5% off from the right answer.   This experiment has been replicated many times with similar results.   In general, we tend to trust crowd wisdom.  In advertising, it is the Holy Grail for a product to become the most trusted brand because it has group wisdom.   All companies want their product to become the one that “everyone” knows is the best.   Most cultural convictions, mores, and values are upheld by group wisdom.    We instinctively know where the majority falls, and we fall in line because we do not want to be an outlier.  This morning’s scripture thought is a bold and honestly uncomfortable challenge to that way of thinking.  When seeking to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ puts us at odds with group intelligence or group wisdom what do we do?  When it feels like we are one vs all how do we know that we are on the side of truth?   These are the questions that this morning’s scripture seeks to answer. 

            This morning’s scripture is a difficult one for us.  It comes from the middle of a major teaching discourse in the gospel of Matthew.  Jesus is commissioning his twelve disciples to be sent out on his behalf, and he is telling them what they can expect to encounter.  What he tells them is not good news.   He tells them they will be insulted, they will be threatened, they will be hurt, and they will experience discord.   What is worse, is that the Jesus tells his disciples that this is not just theoretical, but it is something that they will experience personally and close to home as following Jesus will set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.”    Jesus tells his disciples that following him will cause conflict in their life because it will make them an outlier, it will put them as one vs. all.   Despite that Jesus urges his disciples to follow in his footsteps boldly.  Three times in this morning’s scripture Jesus declares “do not be afraid.”   Jesus told his disciples to make bold proclamations in the light of day and to proclaim truth from the rooftops.  He dramatically and passionately urges his disciples to follow him, no matter what the cost.

            Throughout the course of Christian history, this is exactly what faithful disciples did.  In the early centuries of Christianity, disciples of Jesus stood for their faith under persecution that was sometimes intense and led to death.   Generations later when corruption had begun to seep into the church, faithful reformers sought to return God’s people to holiness and passionate faith.  They did this despite immense political pressure and in some rare instances burning at the stake.   Still later, it was faithful Christians who took on many of the social ills in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.   It was faithful Christians who went against the grain to abolish slavery as a moral imperative.  It was faithful Christians in the United States who willfully broke the law to help slaves escape and move to safety along the Underground Railroad.  It was faithful Christians who sought to educate poor children as a way of freeing them from a life of poverty, and it was these same Christians who campaigned tirelessly to protect the rights of children and create child labor laws.   It was faithful Christians who were at the forefront of the civil rights movement.    In all of these instances, the faithful Christians went against the grain, they broke with the group wisdom, and they stood alone for the sake of the gospel.  They picked up their cross and followed Jesus    

            We celebrate these faithful witnesses of our faith who put their belief in Christ into action by taking a stand for justice and love.  However, we have to acknowledge that while these people were living out this morning’s scripture, their opposition, the crowd who belittled and threatened, were often made up of good religious people.    While some Christians were working to abolish the evil practice of slavery, others were twisting scriptures to explain why slavery and white dominance was the God-ordained way of things.   While some Christians were seeking to end poverty through education and compassion on children, others were chiding and belittling their efforts by criticizing that God only helps those who help themselves.  We have to remember that in this scripture when Jesus said “do not be afraid of them”.  The them he was talking about were the Pharisees, the respected religious leaders of his day.  We have to be willing to take a long, hard look in the mirror.   We have to be willing to humbly confess that sometimes we allow the group wisdom to dictate our choices instead of walking the path of Jesus.  

            This does lead us to ask the question.   How do we know the group wisdom is wrong?  How do we know when being faithful to following Jesus will lead us to stand apart from the crowd?  If we feel like taking an action that puts us as one vs. all, how do we know that the action we wish to take is God-inspired and not just from our own minds.   I think by looking at this scripture, scripture as a whole, and considering some of the failings of group wisdom we can find ourselves on solid ground. 

            Further research on group intelligence or group wisdom has found that it somewhat limited.   Group intelligence is excellent at getting trivia answers correct, but it is significantly worse at innovation.  For instance one study had a group of people pick between four food options.  One was plain chicken and rice.  The others were much more exotic and creative featuring flavors like garlic, jalapeno, and ginger.  The majority picked the plain chicken and rice.  However, the people were also asked to rank the dishes, and chicken and rice was the least favorite.  More people picked chicken and rice than any other single dish, but everyone who did not pick the blandest option rated it the worse.   This experiment and many others like it show that group wisdom tends to the safest choice.  Group wisdom more often than not bends towards maintaining the status quo.   The status quo of this world is that it is fallen, it is not the way that God has intended it, and it is infected with sin.   Jesus most certainly challenged the status quo during his time on earth.  He had compassion on those considered undesirable.  He loved those who were considered unloveable, and he forgave those who were considered unforgiveable.   If we are feeling led to put our faith in action in similar ways, then we can feel confident that we are being faithful to following Jesus.

              In this morning scripture Jesus states, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”  To acknowledge Jesus we have to acknowledge all of his message, life, and teachings-not just the bits we like.  This means we acknowledge Jesus by showing compassion for the marginalized and downtrodden of society.  This also means, that like Jesus, we are not afraid to humbly point out the wrong of oppressing the poor or using religion as a weapon to beat others down.   When we stand by the type of people Jesus stood by and we oppose the type of people that Jesus opposed, then we will find ourselves pushing against the status quo.   We will find opposition, just like Jesus said we would in this scripture.  

            Given that, what is our next step?   What should we do?   If seeking to follow the example of Jesus makes us a cultural outlier, if it puts us as one against the group wisdom, then we should do it anyway.  Not only should we do it, but we should do it with boldness, because Jesus himself said “do not be afraid of them.”   In verse 25 Jesus encourages the students to be like the teacher or the servants like the master.  He encourages us to be like him.  If we truly take that seriously, then we will do world transforming things that will make tangible and eternal difference in the lives of others.   We will be doing something significant.   I am reminded of a quote from Canadian pastor Carey Niewhof.   He once wrote, “The best way to incite zero opposition is to do nothing significant.”  Whenever we put our faith into action we will be doing something significant and that will always bring opposition.  The message though of this scripture is clear, do it anyway.  

            Often the opposition we face is not violent or hateful resistance.  No, often the opposition is more along the lines of “we’ve never done it that way before” or that is not possible.  Often the impossible is impossible until it becomes possible.   For generations it was assumed that it was impossible for the human body to run a mile faster than four minutes.  Then in 1954 the impossible happened and Roger Banister did it in 3:59.4.  Since then the record has been broken 18 times and the current world record is 3:43.13.   History is full of incidents of the impossible becoming possible.   If as people we are capable of doing the impossible, then how much more true is that for God.   Just because it has never been done or it does not seem possible is a poor reason to oppose something.  As it says elsewhere in Matthew, “with God all things are possible.”  

            Do you believe that?  With the help of God does the undoable become doable and the impossible become possible?   When we encounter someone else who is seeking to bring the impossible into the world, when we encounter someone who is seeking to join God in transforming the world, when we encounter someone who is seeking to follow the example of their master and teacher Jesus Christ may we not be among the opposition.   May we seek to encourage them.   May we go a step further though, may we acknowledge before others our Lord Jesus by loving the people that he loved and serving the kinds of people he served.  May we not be afraid to take risks, even if that means taking up our cross.  May we follow Jesus with such a reckless abandon that it can only be described as faith.   May we may not be afraid, even if following Jesus leads us to challenge the status quo.  May we not be afraid, even if following Jesus leads us to going against group wisdom.   May we not be afraid even if following Jesus makes us feel like we are one vs. all.   May we never be afraid, because we never stand alone.  If we are standing for love, peace, and compassion then we can be assured that God and the heavenly host is standing with us.