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.           

New Quest

Scripture:  Matthew 9:35-10:8  

It is crazy to think that both of my children are growing up in a world, where there from perspective smart phones have always existed.   They have no idea how big of a cultural impact those little devices have had.   I suppose every generation of parents has a similar revelation.  I bet my grandparents thought the same thing about television when my parents were growing up as the first generation where TVs in home were commonplace.  I also wonder if my parents had the same thought with me and my siblings about video games.   Since I was old enough to understand how to use it, I have had access to a controller.  Like most children of the 80’s I started on an Atari 2600, moved on to a Nintendo Entertainment System, and I have not stopped playing video games.   I used to play video game a lot more than I do now.  At one point in my life I was on a first name basis with the GameStop employees and I even got to live the dream and I got paid to play video games as a reviewer.    In my lifetime I have played a lot of video games.  I have played video games across all systems and genres.   Of these hundreds of video games I have played, one of my absolute favorite games is called Skyrim.  In gaming terms Skyrim is a fantasy action role playing game in an open world.   What this means is that to play Skyrim I create a character, and then that character is put into a digital world.  In that world I can go anywhere and do anything within the confines of the game.   It is up to me to discover and essentially create the story of my character, and Skyrim gives a ton to explore.  The world that can be explored is a digital 16 square miles, and there are 244 quests options available.  Again, for those who have never played a game like this the player can go anywhere in that digital space and they can choose to complete or ignore any of those 244 quests.  It is truly an incredible game and an amazing experience.  

            There are some other games of a similar nature, but I think that Skyrim is the best.  I notice though that I behave differently in that game than I ever would in real life.  I am pretty big introvert.   To put it mildly I am not at my most comfortable in a room full of strangers.   I tend not to be someone who is quick to engage a random person I have never met in idle conversation.   However, when I am playing a game like Skyrim it is the exact opposite.  In Skyrim, you can never quite be sure who will happen to have a quest ready to be completed, so I run around that game mashing the interact button like crazy in an effort to talk to everyone and find a new quest.   Like most people, on most days, I go about real life doing the things I have on a “to do” list to get done.   However, in the digital life of Skyrim I am more concerned about finding a great quest and going on an adventure.   I think this morning’s scripture is a challenge to us.  It is a challenge to live life differently.  Instead of going through our daily routine once again, what if we approached every day looking for a new quest and a new adventure?  

            This morning’s scripture begins with a problem.  “The harvest plentiful but the workers are few.”    The implication here is that there are lots of people who were in need and ready to be receptive to the good news that Jesus was going to bring them.  However, Jesus knew he was on the clock.  He knew that he only had so long on this earth to share that good news with as many people as possible, so he sets forth a solution.  He gave his disciples a quest.  He instructed them to go.   He sent them out and expected his disciples to do big things.  This was a bit unusual at the time.  In the rabbi-disciple relationship the disciple was supposed to learn to imitate the rabbi through intentional listening and observation.   This event occurs fairly early on in the gospels, so there is no way that Jesus’ disciples had enough time to truly learn how to imitate him.   This gives the impression that Jesus wanted his disciples to have more than just observational training, he wanted them to put it into practice while they were still learning.  

            As I just mentioned, this event occurs closer to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry than the end.  So this is before Jesus gives the great commission was given to go and make disciples of all the nations, this is before the Holy Spirit came and empowered the followers of Jesus, and this was before the gospel was preached to gentiles.   All of those developments does not negate the basic message of this scripture.  In fact those later developments enhance it.   Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means that we seek to model our life after his.  We seek to imitate him in how we live with others, love others, and serve others.   Like the original twelve disciples listed in this morning’s scripture we are not meant to do this just through passive observation.  We are meant to learn how to be a disciple by putting our faith into practice.  We are to learn by going on a quest.   As we consider this scripture, I believe there are three things we should consider as we prepare to go on our own new quest.  

            Most of us live life mostly unconcerned about the people around us.  Honestly, we treat the people behind a checkout counter, next to us in line, or in the same store to us as movie extras.   We more or less think of those people as part of the background of wherever we are.   However, we should shift from that perspective.   To move towards having a perspective that allows us to be a questing disciple, we need to see people as Jesus sees them.   This morning scripture contains a perfect description of that.  Verse 36 states, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”   Jesus took time to notice people.   He did more than just notice them, Jesus has compassion for them.   We need to change our perspective.  When we are in a crowded place like a grocery store, a restaurant, or a school we should realize that every person there is created by God, loved by God, and that God desires to have a vital relationship with them.   We should have compassion on all of those people, because I guarantee that in a room full of strangers every single person there is struggling with something.   We may not be able to tend every hurt or enable every dream, but there might be somewhere that we can help.  We might be the right person at the right time that God can use to make a permanent difference in the life of someone else.   However, we will miss out on that great quest if we do not have the right perspective.  Our perspective must seek to recognize that everyone around us has sacred worth and we have to have hearts open enough to have compassion. 

            The second thing for our consideration, is that we have to consider who we are sent out to have compassion for.  The short answer is everyone, but we have to be more strategic than that.  If one person tried to reach everyone, then that person will probably end up reaching no one.  In this particular scripture, when Jesus sent out his disciples he gave them a particular target to shoot for.   He told them not to go into any gentile or Samaritan towns but rather to have compassion for “the lost sheep of Israel.”   Eventually, in Acts Jesus would command these same disciples to take the good news to Samaria and the ends of the earth, but to begin with Jesus limited the Disciples to Jewish towns.   In the same way, if we are going to be a disciple of Jesus who has compassion on those around us then we need to be strategic and start with an obtainable goal.   We need to pick our mission field and then harvest with all of the energy and heart we have. 

            In April when I went to Atlanta to attend the Orange conference one of the presenters, Sam Collier, shared how he had been convicted to do just that.   He realized that he had gotten stuck in the walls of the church and in order to be a better more faithful disciple of Jesus he had to find a mission field and go on a quest to have compassion for and love people like Jesus did.   He made his mission field the places he visited regularly.   He apparently has a big Starbucks habit, so he made his local Starbucks his mission field.  His reasoning was that the baristas were required to talk to him anyway, so he might as well pray for them.  He started asking them how can I pray for you, and he kept asking them.  He kept praying for them.  It did not take long before the Starbucks baristas were the ones initiating the conversation.  They would come and tell him how their prayers had been answered and they started trusting him with the deeper, more serious hurts in their lives that needed prayer.   He could not fix some of the big and deep troubles and hurts that weighed on the hearts of these people, but he faithfully prayed for them.  After doing this for a couple of months, he was hanging out in the local Starbucks and the store manager brought him his favorite drink, in the biggest size they have.   The manager told him it was on the house, and when he asked why the manager said “since you have started coming here the atmosphere and attitudes in this place of everyone has changed.”   When we have compassion for people, then lives are changed.   

            The final thing to consider is what the disciples did when Jesus told them the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  They went.   Look at Jesus instructions to the disciples.  In verses 5 through 7 the word go is said three times.   Following Jesus, having compassion for people going into the mission field; these are not academic theoretical ideas.   To be a faithful disciple we have to do them.  We have to go!   The end of verse eight should energize us: “Freely you have received, freely give.”    We have received the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness.   We have received the confidence that God is always with us.   We have received the hope and the joy that there is more to existence than just our daily routine.  We have received the acceptance of being God’s people.   It would be a shame, not it would be a sin, if we kept that to ourselves.   The harvest is plentiful.  There are so many people, who need the good news that we already know.  There are so many people who need someone to give them a second chance.  There are so many people who are desperate for someone else to notice them and have compassion for them.   If the workers are few, then that is on us.   If the workers are few it is because we still need to go.  We, I, should approach being a disciple the same way that I approach video games like Skyrim, always looking for the next quest.  

            May you learn to better follow Jesus, by putting the teaching of Jesus into practice.  May you have the same perspective of Jesus.  May you truly notice other people and have compassion for them.  May you love them the way that God loves them.   May you find your mission field.  Your mission field is not inside these walls.   It is out there.  It may not be in another country, it could just be down the street.  Find the place that you are being sent, being sent to make a real difference, and may you go.    May you find that God does indeed have a new quest for you to love your neighbors, to make disciples, and to transform our world.     

Church the Musical

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:3-11

A couple of years ago I was in Nashville, TN to be a presenter at a Christian education conference.  As those things tend to do, the mornings started with a time of worship and devotion.  After singing the closing song the woman next to me, a complete stranger, turned to me and completely unsolicited said, “I could not help but hear you, would you like a few pointers on how to sing?”  What made it worse is that she used the same tone and had the same accent that southern women have when they say, “Oh bless your heart.”   I knew that I had just been savagely insulted.  Unfortunately this is not the first time I had been put down because I cannot carry a tune. 

            Even though I cannot sing, I still end up listening to music.  The live action Beauty and the Beast remake came out 79 days ago.   In that time I am fairly confident that I have had to listen to the soundtrack about 790 times.  Despite that, I have not seen the movie and I have little desire to do so.   I mentioned it before, but I do not like musicals.   They really are not my thing, and if you asked me to I could give you a detailed explanation complete with examples as to why I do not like musicals.  I could rant and rave about it, but that would all be cover for the truest reason.   If I am being 100% honest the reason I do not like musicals is because they assume a world where everyone and anyone could break out in song at a moment’s notice.  They are based on the assumption that everyone, even the random people on the street, can break out into perfect harmony.   I do not like musicals because they create a world that I cannot participate in, because I cannot sing.           

            Here is the thing though, I actually can sing.   Only about 2% of the population is actually incapable of singing.   My vocal chords work just fine, and I am not tone deaf.  I am physically capable of carrying a tune, it just does not come easily or natural to me.  I think the reason why from a very early age I have been convinced I do not know how to sing is because people to whom singing comes more naturally assume everyone knows how to do it.  They do not quite know what to do with someone like me.   Singing is something that I am capable of learning it is just not easy.  In fact, it is not easy for anyone of us.  Researchers have found that 60% of untrained singers regularly make pitch accuracy errors.   That means that only 40% of us are naturally good singers, but 98% of us have the capability to be so. 

            I see a strong connection between my life long struggle with music and this morning’s scripture.  This morning’s scripture puts forth that “Now to everyone the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”   Notice the scripture does not say just to the pastors, to the prophets, to the saints, to the gifted.  It says everyone, all people who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, have a manifestation of the Spirit in them.   Every single one of us have a way that we can be used by God to serve and transform this world.   However, much like how only 40% are natural singers, on average only 40% of regular church-going Christians participate in the ministry and mission of the church.   The premise of all musicals is that everyone has a song inside of them that needs to come out.   Perhaps, there is more truth to that than I care to admit.   The premise of this morning’s scripture is that every believer has the capacity to serve God in incredible ways, and that is the absolute truth.  

                        It is easy for us to forget how important the Holy Spirit was to the early church.   The church did not really exist as the church until the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost.   The Holy Spirit was the fuel that got the fire of church going, and it was the Holy Spirit that fanned that fire into flames that spread and caught hold wherever it was blown.   Today, the Holy Spirit is still what is responsible for the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel.   For as this morning’s scripture says there are different kinds of workings but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.   Anything successful that any church does that bears fruit, changes lives, and makes a real difference is because God is at work.   The way that God is at work in the world is through the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of God’s people.   In the same way this morning’s scripture states “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”   It is the Holy Spirit that is the agent of God’s grace and love before we ever acknowledge God.  It is by the work of the Holy Spirit that our heart is softened and our soul is open to receiving grace and forgiveness.  It is the Holy Spirit that enables us to say yes to God’s yes of salvation for us.   Yet, the Spirit works once again through the body of Christ.   It is only through the words and actions of God’s people that others can be told the story of Jesus and his love.   When you get right down to it, church without the Holy Spirit is not a church, it is just a less fancy country club. 

            It is through the workings and power of the Holy Spirit that miracles happen.  It is through the working and power of the Holy Spirit that this world is transformed.  It is through the working and power of the Holy Spirit that souls are saved.   It cannot be overstated, the Holy Spirit is the power of God at work in this world.    It is almost incomprehensibly amazing that this Sprit of the Living God, was promised by our savior Jesus to come and dwell in us.  Again, this scripture tells us that to each one a manifestation of the Spirit has been given to the common good.   To some that gift is a gift of knowledge to impart, or wisdom to counsel.  To others the Spirit grants a faith that inspires others, generosity that makes the greatest impact, and the power to heal and to comfort.   The list of spiritual gifts in this morning’s scripture is not complete.  There are other gifts, and we need to be clear about what these are.  Spiritual gifts are not just churchy sounding titles for our natural abilities.   Spiritual gifts are manifestations of the Holy Spirit.  They are the very power of God working through you to bring life, love, compassion, kindness, gentleness, and justice into this world.   If you believe in God and if you proclaim Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then the witness of the Bible is the Spirit is in you, and you (yes you!) can be used by God, empowered by the Spirit, to change this world.  

            If each and every one of us, can be empowered by the Holy Spirit, if each and every one of us is given a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, then why do only 40% of church goers actively engage in the mission and ministry of the church?   I think the answer, is the same reason that people like me do not think we can sing.  So many disciples stay on the sideline because they do not think they can do it.    Following the leading of the Holy Spirit and using spiritual gifts will always require us to take a risk or make a change, and for many people that does not come easy.   Far too often, faithful people shirk away from fulfilling their God-given gifts because they think it is something they cannot do or they fear they will not do it right.   

            Researchers have determined the #1 reason that people who claim they cannot sing cannot sing, is because they do not sing.   The single best way to get better at singing is to sing.   It took a science experiment to conclude that people who sing more regularly are better at singing than those who do not.   It sounds like common sense, but there is profound truth to that.  We cannot get worse at the things we do with great regularity.  In the same way, if we seek to take a step in faith to serve God in some way we will get better at it.   If we daily seek to practice whatever spiritual gift we think we have, then we will get better at utilizing that gift to serve God and fulfill the mission of the church.  In the book of Romans, Paul also wrote about these Spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit.   There he wrote, “If your gift is prophesying then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving then serve, if it is teaching then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement, if it is giving then give generously if it is to lead, do it diligently, if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.”   

            Paul’s words were best summed up by Nike:  Just do it!   Each and every one of us here, right now, has been given a manifestation of the Holy Spirit; a Spiritual gift that has the potential to changes lives and transform the world.   Chances are, deep down, you already know what this is for you.  You know the way that the Spirit has been tugging on your hearts.  You know the people that the Spirit has a lit a fire in your soul to reach out towards.  You know the nudges to do something incredible that you have been ignoring.   Each and everyone one of us know how God can use us.   We do not know where being faithful in that will lead, we do not know how successful that will be, and usually that is what keeps us back.   What keeps non-singers like me from singing is we know that the noise is not going to be perfect so we stay silent.   How tragic it is when the same type of fears and hesitations get applied in our faith.  Instead of trusting God, stepping out and being faithful to the works of the Spirit we stay silent, we stay still, and we continue to do nothing.  

            When a bad-singer like me sings a song of praise to God, then God is glorified.   The bible never states that praise needs to be on key and pitch perfect.  It just said to make a joyful noise.  In the same way, if anyone takes a step in faith and seeks to serve God by loving and being sacrificial on the behalf of others then God is glorified.   It may not be executed perfectly and the impact may be smaller than we imagined, but God is still glorified.   The assumption of this morning’s scripture is that each and every one of us has a manifestation of the Holy Spirit and through that we can serve and glorify God.   In the same way, the assumption of all musicals is that everyone has a song that they are ready to start singing.   If that is true, then that means even a non-singer like me has a song just waiting to burst out of them.   If that happens it will be a terrifying experience for me, it will be pitchy, have problems with finding the right key, and probably keeping the right tempo.   However, if that song praises God then God will be glorified.   If someone like me can do that, then someone like you, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can use that power to serve God, glorify God, and make a real difference to someone. 

With that in mind :  “I’m going to sing when the Spirit says sing/ I’m going to sing when the spirit  says sing/  I’m going to sing when the Spirit says sing/ and obey the Spirit of the Lord.”

             May we all obey the leading of Holy Spirit and glorify God no matter what our gift or song might be.     

There and Back Again

Scripture:  Acts: 1:1-11

            In 1917 the elderly Phoebe Webb utilized her local library in San Francisco and checked out a collection of short stories entitled Forty Minutes Late.  I am guessing the stories within the book must have been dripping with irony, because Forty Minutes Late was returned.  . . a little more than forty minutes late.  At the age of 83 Phoebe Webb passed away a week before the book was due.   Her family, unaware that the book was from the library, packed it away in a trunk with some of her other possessions.   This trunk became a family heirloom, passed along the generations but unopened.   Finally, in the 1990’s Phoebe’s great-grandson Webb Johnson finally opened the chest and discovered the book.  However, since it had been checked out nearly 80 years previously, he assumed the book now belonged to his family.   Twenty years later though he had a change of heart, and decided to return the book.  On January 13th of this year, Forty Minutes Late was finally returned about 100 years late.  Webb judicially waited until the San Francisco libraries had a two week amnesty program where any book returned late would not be fined.  That was smart on his part because it allowed him to avoid a $3,650 late fee.  

            This was all reported in the January 16th edition of the San Francisco chronicle, but there is so much more to this story that I want to know.   I am curious just how a book gets so overdue.  I know that in 1917, the library could not just call or email Mrs. Webb’s estate.   Did they send letters that went unanswered?   Presumably there was a ledger or catalog system that kept track of books that were checked out.  I know at some point the library went to a digital check out system, when that happened did they move over their ancient records.  I am really curious if when they returned the book if the library had forgotten it ever owned that book, or if truly was an open unreturned book in their system.  I like to imagine that the library system knew the book was overdue, and it was on a list that the librarians were patiently waiting would someday be returned.  It took a while, but Forty Minutes Late was eventually returned.    This morning’s scripture reminds us that collectively the church has been waiting a while.  This morning’s scripture ends with the angels telling the disciples that Jesus will be coming back.  However, like a wizard messiah’s are never late nor early, he arrives precisely when he means to.   That time has not yet come, and collectively as the church universal we are still waiting.  Jesus has gone back to heaven, but we believe he will come back again.   This morning’s scripture is about more than the second coming, it is a challenge about what we will do during the waiting.  

            This morning’s scripture takes place at a unique time in biblical events.   This is after the resurrection, after the amazing events where Jesus first appeared to his disciples.   As this morning’s scripture states Jesus made multiple appearances to his disciples.  He convinced them fully that he was alive.   He continued to teach them about the kingdom of God and about the Holy Spirit.   Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be one of the disciples at this point?   They had to know they were at the ground floor of something special.   They had all sacrificed much to answer the call to follow Jesus, and now their obedience to that prompting to follow him had paid off.  They had truly found the messiah, the Christ, the savior of the world.   Can you just imagine how much joy, confidence, and excitement the disciples must have had?   The atmosphere around them had to be electric, their enthusiasm must have been contagious.

             They had to all be trying to figure out “so what’s next?”  That is what is at the heart of verse six.   This is why they ask if Jesus is going to now restore the kingdom of Israel.   Even at this point the disciples were still thinking that Jesus might be an earthly king who would reign over Israel, but the disciples also knew that Jesus was more than just a political savior.  They now knew that he was a spiritual savior, so when the disciples were talking about the restoration of Israel, their scope had broadened.  They were no longer just referring to the restoration of Israel as a sovereign nation state.   They were referring to Israel as it was meant to be.   Israel was originally called by God to be a holy nation, where God was their God and they were God’s people.   It was a restoration to this understanding of Israel that the disciples were referring to.  This was before the Holy Spirit had descended on Pentecost and before the apostle Paul had started preaching to the gentiles, at this point they did not realize just how big God’s plan was.  They did not realize that God’s people was to expand beyond just ethnic Jews.   However, they were beginning to get a sense of it.   

            After the disciples ask Jesus if the time to restore Israel is now, he reminds them that only God the Father knows the times and place when all of creation will be restored.   Jesus then answers the questions for the disciples, he tells them what is next.   They are to be his witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.    This happens to serve as a summary for the entire book of Acts, because that is exactly what happens.  The disciples start sharing the gospel first in Jerusalem, then the rest of Judea and Samaria.   By the end of Acts Paul is taking the gospel of Jesus Christ, the story of his death and resurrection, and the good news of salvation through the forgiveness of sins as far as Rome.   Church tradition tells us that by the end of the disciples’ life they had spread the gospel as far East as India, as far South as Ethiopia, and potentially as far west as the Iberian Peninsula.   We continue in that fourth phase as there are still people living today scattered all across the earth who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus.  

            I think it is funny what happens next, after giving the Disciples a mission to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth, Jesus is assumed back into heaven.   The disciples stand there looking up to the sky.    How long were they there I wonder?   All the bible says is that they were intently looking into the sky, but I feel like it was a silly long time that the disciples were just standing there looking skyward.   I wonder if that is why the angels had to come to shoo them along and ask “why do you stand here looking into the sky?”  

            Jesus had given the disciples a job to do, a mission that would take a lifetime.  Instead of hitting the ground running on this, they instead chose to stare at the sky to see if Jesus would come back out of it.  Today, we are still waiting for Jesus to come back.  Unfortunately, to many of us, like the original disciples are still staring intently at the clouds.   There seem to be a lot of Christians with an obsession about the end times.  This is not a new obsession.   Many of you have probably heard about the best-selling Left Behind series, which started in 1995 and ended in 2004.  However, that was not the first bestselling book series about tribulations leading up to the second coming.   Sydney Watson wrote a similar trilogy that was published between 1913-and 1916.   Of course, Watson’s books saw World War I as a sure sign of the impending end of the world.   This obsession with seeing the signs of when Jesus will return and mapping out what that will look like and when it will happen is a cottage industry.   One of Amazon’s theology subsections is completely devoted to books on this topic and it has over 8,000 entries!  Often these books will seek to map current events and argue how they fulfill such and such scripture.  These books will float out hypothetical timelines for when certain event will happen and sometimes even conjecture as to when Jesus will return.  Which honestly, is lunacy.   I have to wonder if these numerous authors ever read this morning’s scripture where Jesus clearly states, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”   

            The biggest problem with all of this speculation and guessing about when Jesus is coming back is that it amounts to nothing more than staring intently into the clouds.   It is hard to love the hurting world next to us and around us if we are too busy staring up to notice them.   Amazon also has a subsection about Christian books that are written on the topic of social justice.  These are books about issues related to serving the hurting, the oppressed, and the marginalized in the world.  Sadly, there are significantly less entries in this section than there are in the end time’s section.  It seems that on a whole more Christians are more concerned with figuring out when Jesus is coming back again than we are with loving our neighbor as ourselves.  The question is why? 

            I have to admit I do not understand the Christian obsession with the end times.  Why put so much time and energy in figuring out when you get to leave this world, when you can instead join God in the work of redeeming it?   It seems to me that we have a choice.   Are we going to stare at the clouds or are we going to be Jesus’ witnesses to ends of the earth?   I think perhaps the way to frame it is in mission.   What is the mission of a church that’s primary focus is preparing for the second coming?    I suppose it would be to wait and watch.  It would spend a lot of time trying to interpret just how close the big event is.  The mission would be to huddle tight and look to the clouds in expectant hope.   I do not know about you, but that does not sound terribly appealing.   It also does not sound like the mission that Jesus gave his disciples to be his witnesses to the very end of the earth.

              A mission statement that sounds more in line with that is to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world.  We make disciples by sharing the love of God made known through Jesus Christ.  We share this gospel through our words and through our actions.   We tell people that God loves and forgives them, but then we show them by being the very embodiment of that love and that human expression of that mercy.    We be the people who love the unlovable, who accept the cast out unconditionally, and offer second chances to the people who have struck out at life.    We nurture disciples by coming along beside them.  We provide a supportive community in faith, and like iron sharpening iron we collectively strengthen our faith as we practice it together.   We transform the world when we act justly and we love mercy.   We be the body of Christ, his hands and his feet by taking God’s great big love and putting into action in the world to make this world a more compassionate, just, and loving place.    When we do those things, we are being witnesses to Jesus.   Our little witness might not reach to the ends of the earth, but we can bathe Edinburgh in light.  

            Do not get me wrong, I sincerely believe that Jesus is coming back.  There will be a second coming, and it will be glorious.    When Jesus comes back again, what is he going to find?   Will he find his modern day disciples staring into the clouds or will he find them being loving witnesses in the world?   Which one do you think Jesus would want to find?   May we keep our eyes off the sky and instead keep our focus on sharing God’s love.   May we be willing to get down and do the dirty work of radically loving people who have not yet experienced the amazing grace of Jesus Christ.  May we as a church truly be the witnesses of Jesus Christ in all of Edinburgh, IN.      Most of all, when Jesus does come back again, may we be living as the kind of disciples that he wants to find.  

           

#JesusNation

Scripture: 1 Peter 2:2-10

I have a confession to make.  I am hesitant to do it, because I realize that it is one of my odder quirks that is hard for a lot of people to relate with.   Here it is:  I do not have a favorite sports team.   I generally find watching sports enjoyable but I am typically more interested in watching a close competition and less interested in a particular team winning.     Now of course I have my arbitrary favorite for every sport, but what I mean by that is that I have practically zero investment in the success or failure of any sports team.  I have tried, but I just cannot do it.  The closest I get is rooting for the US national teams in events like the World Cup or Olympics.  Cheering those athletes on make sense, because they represent me.  However, when it comes to rooting for a professional sports team, how I am wired it does not make any sense to me.   For instance, if I had to name a favorite football team I would say the Colts just because they are the Indiana team.  However, they are not my team.  I have no ownership or stake in the team.  If the players were all from Indiana then I might have some investment, but the players are just professionals who happen to be at the Colts because they are the team that offered them the best contract.   Even the fact that the Colts are in Indianapolis seems tenuous, because if the state and city does not meet the demands of the organization, the team could just as easily move to another city.   The thing that creates fan ownership in a team is more or less deciding arbitrary that this is your team and going all in on it.

            Again something about how I am wired keeps me from doing that, and I realize I am missing out.  If you are a fanatical fan of some sports team then I am happy for you, and statically speaking you are happy too.     I am not the only one to notice that the levels of devotion that the most fanatical fans have to their team is a little out of sync with the level of investment the fans have.  This has fascinated researchers and tons of social science studies have been done on the phenomenon of sports fanaticism.  These studies show some consistent results.   For instance the most rabid sports fans consistently have higher self-esteem, are less likely to be depressed, or experience feelings of loneliness.  The studies go into a lot of detail but they can all be summed up simply:  rooting for your favorite team makes people feel better about your life.   Sports fans get a deep sense of connection and being part of something bigger and better than themselves when they invest themselves in their team.  If this is true, then the large appeal of sports across ages and cultures is that it taps into something deep within in the human spirit.   I think it is by God’s design that we have a desire to be part of something greater, to be fully invested in something outside ourselves, and to know we belong to something that last.   This morning’s scripture is about how our faith fulfills those needs. 

            Over the past several decades the passion and level of sports fanaticism has been on a steady rise.   One of the thoughts about why this is happening is a tribalism theory.  This theory also recognizes the desire that people have to belong to something greater than themselves.  According to this theory many people found this connection through their tribe, their local network of connections with people like them.    However, as the world as continually become more global, Western culture particularly has become less tribal and the theory states people are finding their new tribe in sports.  This idea of looking for tribes has a lot of validity, and it goes a long way to shedding light on this morning’s scripture.   Peter wrote this letter to Christians living in what is now modern day Turkey.  This letter would have been circulated around the cities of that region.  Tribalism was alive and strong in the age that this letter was written.   The city the person was from or the people they belonged to went a long way to forming the identity of a person.   The customs they followed, the languages they knew, the friends they kept and even the religious practices of a person were all dictated by their tribal affiliation.   This created a big crisis for those early Christians who converted to follow Jesus.  They had to give up the religious practices that helped provide that tribal glue.  Christianity cut across ethnic lines, so they found themselves bound in fellowship with people different than them.   These early Christians found themselves disposed by the culture they had grown up in, and they had essentially lost part of their identity.   Imagine the biggest sports fan you know, and imagine how radically different they would be if they were no longer devoted to their team.   That is the kind of situation that these young Christians that Peter was writing to found themselves in.   

            Peter acknowledges that these believers are probably feeling a little out of sorts.   In verse four he compared Jesus to a living cornerstone that has been rejected by most people but chosen by God.   He states that in the same way they have been rejected but chosen by God to be built into a spiritual house.  It is in verse nine and ten though that Peter gets to the heart of his encouragement for isolated feeling believers.  Peter wrote, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praise of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people but now you are a people of God, one you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”   Can you try to imagine, how profound this message was?   The people Peter were writing to felt cut off from a large part of their identity, they were probably being pressured to turn back to their old life, to their old tribe.   Then Peter connects the dots for them.   They have a tribe, they have a nation because they have been chosen to be a holy nation.  Membership in this nation is not by birthright, but it is by mercy.  The message though is even more remarkable than that.   Can you imagine how much grief, bullying, and abuse these young Christians had to put up with when they turned to Christ and away from old traditions?   Peter reminds them though that the words they have been told are lies.  They are not losers or rejects they are God’s chosen people.   God chose them to be God’s people.   More than that though, God chose them to be a royal priesthood.   In the first century, it was only through a priest that someone could connect with the divine.  Yet as God’s chosen people they had this connection already.   They did not need another priest to intercede for them because their intermediary (and our intermediary) to God the Father is Jesus the son.   For those first century Christians that this was written to, it must have been incredible news!   They had lost part of their identity, but found a new identity in Christ.  They had lost their tribe, but they found a new tribe in the church.  

            I have a hard time summoning the emotional energy to be a dedicated sports fan, but being enthusiastic about my faith is something I get.   It is something that I am deeply invested in, because how could I not be?   I know the depths of sin from which Jesus saved me.  As this morning’s scripture states I have tasted that the Lord is good.    Because He lives, I have a blessed assurance in an amazing grace that has saved my soul.    I cheer that there is victory in Jesus.   I celebrate that because he has won the victory I know I have nothing to fear because the Lord is with me.   We are God’s special possession, which God cared enough to redeem from darkness, we have received mercy, and we are a holy nation united under King Jesus.   Brothers and sisters in Christ that is something to get fired up about!  

            The question is why don’t we?   Why do we tend not to have the same level of excitement and enthusiasm about living out our faith and worshipping our savior as we do about sports teams?    I remember back in the mid 2000’s when the Colts were at the height of popularity and success.  If the colts played a 1PM game, then it was a given that 11AM church services were going to be lightly attended.  In the same way during those years, if the Colts played at 4PM, then I knew youth group would only have the handful of non-football watching students.  Skipping church for the big game was just expected.   Why do we not skip the big game for church?    Why is the idea of even doing that laughable? 

            Years ago someone pointed out to me a fascinating aspect in American Sign Language.   In ASL, this is the sign for Methodist.  The fascinating piece is that there is another word in sign language that uses the same sign.    The sign for enthusiasm is the same thing.   When the etymology of sign language was developing throughout the 19th and early 20th century, there was a clear connection between being a Methodist and being enthusiastic.  For all of the reasons already stated, we should be enthusiastic about our faith.  So brothers and sisters in Christ, help me.   Let’s reclaim our enthusiasm.  When someone serves God sacrificially we should cheer that on as much as a fan cheers on their team getting a homerun.   When prayers are answered and God work miraculously we should be on our feet just like there was third down conversion touchdown.   When we gather to worship God, we should do so with as much as excitement as when the true blue fans have when their team takes the field.   May we be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, and may we be so enthusiastically. 

            We can reclaim the same level of devotion that many feel for sports teams in our faith, but there is a dark side to fandom.   When researchers want to do studies on hatred, they use diehard sports fans and ask them about their feelings on rival teams.   You can do this experiment yourself.  Find a Colts fan and start praising Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots in front of them, watch how fast they get red with indignation.  This here is our tribe, but we need to draw the circle wider.   We need to avoid the worst of denominational tribalism and recognize that everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior is on the same team.  I feel fairly confident in saying that there is not a scoreboard in heaven that keeps track of which denomination is winning the most souls.   It is silly for churches to view one another as the competition.   Until every knee on earth bows and confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior there is plenty of kingdom building to go around, so when another faith community has a win we should rejoice with them.   When another faith community succeeds the kingdom of heaven is built up, and we should all find great happiness in that.  

            This is our team.  We are part of a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.  We are God’s special possession.   May we allow those truths to deeply speak to identity and who we understand ourselves to be.   May we realize that as believers and followers of Jesus Christ we are already part of something bigger than ourselves.   May we live out our faith with such investment, such passion, and such excitement that it can only be described as enthusiastic.   As this morning scripture states may we with all the enthusiasm we can muster “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”   In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:  Go team!!

The Gatekeeper

Scripture:  John 10:1-14

Have you ever had a time when you had an impish thought enter your head, when you seriously considered doing something completely out of character for you?   Did you do it?   The last time I really had one of these experiences was at Gen Con last year.  On one of the days I was outside of the convention center, and across the street was bullhorn guy.   If you have ever been in a place with a mass of people assembled, you have probably heard bullhorn guy.  This is the guy who stands on a corner and preaches to the masses about salvation, and usually with a fair amount of condemnation.   Bullhorn guy was doing his thing, and as I heard him preach, my first thought was “He’s not very good at this.”   He was referencing obscure scriptures, he was actively insulting the people he was trying to reach, and he was rambling.  My second though, the impish thought, was “I can do it better.  I wonder if he would give me a go?”   I wanted to go over there, and ask him if I could have a turn.   The only reason why I did not was because I had a ten minute walk to and then back from my car to drop off and pick up some games, I had someplace to be in an hour, and I wanted to make it back before the rain started.  I was determined to give this a shot though, but the rest of the con I did not see bullhorn guy.   As I walked to my car away from bullhorn guy, I thought about what I would actually say if he gave me a turn on his bullhorn.  I think the difference I would take is that he was preaching at the Gen Con attendees, and I would attempt to preach to the Gen Con attendees.   I would try to relate the gospel that those at Gen Con could relate to.   I would have said things like “The kingdom of God is like a Tardis.  It is bigger on the inside”   or “The love of God is like the force, it surrounds us and binds us together” or “When life seems out of control, remember that even though you roll the dice, it is God who makes it crit.” 

            Now I realize for some of you those analogies do not mean anything, because you are not into Dr. Who, Star Wars, or roleplaying games.  Yet, at Gen Con I believe that would have been a more effective presentation of the gospel than bullhorn guy’s standard turn or burn stump speech.   Jesus was a very effective teacher, not just because he was a storyteller, but because he was relatable.  The parables and analogies that Jesus made were ones that his audience instantly connected with.  Even if they did not fully understand the depth and nuance of what Jesus was saying, they had a good starting point because the examples Jesus used were pulled from their everyday experiences and their cultural context.   Since we are 2,000 years removed in time and culture, we often have to spend a lot of time unpacking what Jesus said.   This morning’s scripture is a great example of this.   We miss some of the deep nuances Jesus is making in this masterful analogy of being the gate and the good shepherd.   However, when we properly consider what Jesus is saying here we gain a better understanding of who Jesus is to us and who we are in relationship to him.  

            What is so brilliant about the words of Jesus here is that Jesus was communicating on two different levels.   The gospel of John, plays a little lose with time and events so it is can be difficult to construct just when and where things happen.  However, if we go back a couple of chapters and try to piece together the details then an image of this event begins to emerge.  This morning’s scripture comes at the end of a contentious bout between Jesus and the Pharisees during the festival of Tabernacles.  Depending on how one interprets it this scripture takes place following that festival before Jesus left, or it takes place during the Festival of dedication which would have been a few months later.   In either event, there are a few things that can be established about what is going on.   First, Jesus is in Jerusalem and as he talks about being the good shepherd and the gate he is in the temple courts.  Jesus, like several Rabbis, would preach in the temple courts during festivals.  Much like how we go to conferences or seminars today, the people would spend time in the courts during these festivals listening to and interacting with the teaching rabbis.   Second, this means that the audience of Jesus would have been a mix of people.  The Pharisees, would have been there, because good Pharisees had to be seen doing the most religious stuff they could do.  However, there would have been Jews from all over.  Jews were expected to travel to Jerusalem for the large festivals, and the Festival of Tabernacles was right after Passover in terms of importance.  Judea and Galilee were mostly rural areas.   This means when Jesus talks about sheep, they knew exactly what Jesus was talking about.  The people understood sheep.   Finally, Jesus was in conflict with the Pharisees.   The gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus firmly established that Jesus did what he did and said what he did by the authority of God the Father, and the Pharisees firmly rejected Jesus in this regard.   This brought them to constantly challenge Jesus and attempt to dismiss his authority to speak of God while asserting their own.  

            Jesus was speaking on two levels here.  The first level he was speaking to the assembled crowd, the ones who would understand the pastoral analogy.   Shepherding in first century Judea was done a bit differently that it was in Europe or even with cattle on the American west.   When we think of shepherds, we think of border collies, and wrangling animals to where we want them to go.  Sheep have a herding instinct, and the way most familiar to us in how that is utilized is to push the sheep to where we want them to go.  However, in the middle east in the first century, the shepherds did not push or corral the sheep, they led them.   Shepherds were responsible for their animals from birth and helped raise the creature so that the sheep knew the voice of the shepherd.   The shepherd effectively established itself as the leader of it’s herd, so it could call to the sheep, the sheep would come to the shepherd and then the herding instinct kicked in.   The herd followed the shepherd.  The people would have seen this practices on the hillsides of their villages.  They knew exactly what Jesus meant when he said “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of the, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”   In the same way the people would have known what Jesus was talking about when he described the gate.   They would have known exactly the kind of enclosures that Jesus was talking about, because they would have seen them-perhaps even had one outside their town.  

            The second level Jesus was speaking on was directly aimed at the Pharisees.   The imagery of the shepherd leading the people is all over the Old Testament.  For instance, Zechariah 10:2 states, “Therefore, the people wander like sheep, oppressed for lack of a shepherd.”   These type of statements are all throughout the prophets.   The Pharisees did not realize that these scriptures are all pointing to the good shepherd, so they cast themselves in that role.  They saw themselves as the shepherds of Israel, leading the people into righteousness.   However, they never took the time to know the people, to be with the people, the people did not feel led they felt corralled and pushed.  

            There are other prophetic scriptures that talk about sheep and shepherds.  Scriptures like Isaiah 56:11 which describes the leaders of Isaiah’s time as such, “They are shepherds who lack understanding, they all turn to their own way, they seek their own gain.”   The Pharisees, may have been dense in matters of faith, but they knew their stuff.  They knew the proclamations of the prophets.   When Jesus declared himself the good shepherd, they knew exactly what scriptures he was referencing, and they knew the implications of what he was claiming.   They also knew who the thieves and robbers Jesus was talking about were supposed to be.  They knew that Jesus was essentially claiming what he would later state plainly that he, and he alone is the way, the truth, and the life.  That no one comes to the father except through him.  

            In this one teaching the words of Jesus masterfully speak on two levels.  To one group of people, Jesus speaks words of hope.  He speaks of leading and caring for those who seek the voice of the good shepherd.   To another group, Jesus speaks words of conviction.   He challenges the Pharisees to humbly confess that they too are sheep who have gone or astray or to dig their heels into and be stubborn shepherds who do not truly have a flock.  I believe these same messages speak to us today.   The question is which message do we need to hear?  

            Jesus is the good shepherd.  As this morning’s scripture state, he has earned that right because as the good shepherd he lays down his life for his sheep.    The good shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  The sheep follow the voice of the good shepherd.   Remember, the first century shepherds, the type of shepherd Jesus compared himself to, do not push their sheep, they do not corral them, they lead them by calling out to them.   This scripture invites us to insert ourselves into the figure of speech and ask the question what kind of sheep are we?  Are we like the sheep descried in Zechariah, the kind that wander, or are we following the good shepherd?   The sheep either follow the shepherd or they wander off on their own.   The sheep that follow the shepherd may not know exactly where they are going but they have a confidence and security because they know to whom they belong.  They know in whom they trust.  They recognize the voice of the good shepherd.  The sheep that wander, know where they are but they go at it alone.   They know where they are in the short term, but eventually they find themselves lost, cut off, and separated from the good shepherd they are following.  Which one are you?   

            If you are following the good shepherd, may you follow wherever he leads.   May you be willing to go, even if you do not know how it is going to work out may your trust be in the Shepherd.  If you are know in the depths of your beings that you have wandered alone, then may you listen for the voice of the good shepherd.  Another story Jesus told was about a shepherd who left 99 sheep behind to find the one who is lost.   If you feel like the one that is lost, then The Good Shepherd does not give up on you and you can return to the flock.   Those who belong to the good shepherd, know his voice so may you listen and run to that voice.  

            This leads to the second message of this morning’s scripture.   Jesus directed this message to the good religious folk of his day.  Specifically, Jesus reminded them in verse 7 and 9, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. . .I am the gate whoever enters me will be saved.”   Even today, the good religious people need a reminder that Jesus is the gatekeeper, not us.    This scripture never says that sheep of the good shepherd will all look the same or even act the same.   It is not up to us to pick and choose who should come.   It is not like heaven will have priority seating for the right kind of people.    People come through the gate of salvation into the pastures of the heavenly father because they hear the voice of the good shepherd.  It is not our job to choose who gets to be part of God’s flock, it is our job to welcome them into the fold regardless of who they are, what they look like, or what they have done.  

            While it is somewhat paradoxical, Jesus is the Good shepherd and Jesus is the gate for the sheep.   This is what makes Jesus the gatekeeper.   It is only through him that we may have life and have life in full, but he is also the one that leads us into this life, calls us into this life, and shepherds us.   Wherever you are in life, may you hear the voice of the good shepherd.   May you lay down at his feet your desire to be the gatekeeper.   May we as God’s flock, faithfully follow the voice of the good shepherd to wherever he is leading.  

Wookie Sized Faith

1 Peter: 1:17-23

            You may not be aware of it, but one of my favorite holidays is coming up this week.   I am not sure why it is not yet a national holiday, but this Thursday is May 4th, Star Wars day.  Then, two weeks ago the Star Wars celebration happened in Orlando and a whole bunch of new trailers and information about the Star Wars universe was released.  So between all of those announcements and May the 4th (be with you) coming up this week, I really have Star Wars on the brain (more than usual).  As much as I love Star Wars, I have to admit there are some things about it that do not make sense.  Even with the suspension of disbelief required to accept laser swords, planet destroying weapons and an all-powerful force that binds the universe together there are still some unanswered questions and unexplainable oddities.  A few of these revolve around the character Chewbacca.  If it has been a while since you have seen Star Wars, then hopefully this scene can remind you.   Chewbacca is the big furry alien. 

 

     As you heard Chewbacca’s language is a series of growls.   So if that is true, how on earth did he ever communicate that his name is Chewbacca?   Also, why is his name something that he apparently cannot even pronounce?   How does that work?  Another thing that is not fully explained is why Chewbacca even spends time with Han Solo in the first place.  To get answers to that, you have to go fairly deep into Star Wars lore.  In the novelization for the original Star Wars it is explained that Chewbacca owes Han Solo a life debt.   At some point Han Solo did something so profound and great for Chewbacca, that he pledged his life to Han Solo.  The official Star Wars cannon mentions this is related to freeing Chewbacca from slavery, but none of the exact details are known.  In 2019, there is a young Han Solo movie coming out so that might finally answer this detail that Star Wars fans have wondered about for years. 

            The idea of a life debt is an interesting one.   While the fictional details are not known, Han Solo did something so profound for Chewbacca, that the Wookie forever changed how he lived his life in order to honor something that he could never hope to repay.  As I first read this morning’s scripture I was reminded of the life debt that Chewbacca owed Han Solo, and I wonder if the idea of a life debt can help define how we understand our faith? 

            One of the reasons why this morning’s scripture invokes the idea of a life debt is because it frames salvation in economic terms.  Verse 18 states, “for you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you were redeemed.”   The word translated redeemed could also just as accurately be translated as “ransomed”.   A ransom is a payment made to get something back.   The New Living Translation states this most plainly and renders verses 18 and 19 of this morning’s scripture like this:  “For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. 19 It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God.”

            God paid a ransom, which means God wanted us back.    The concept of a ransom implies that we were God’s, but we were lost.   This one word contains so much about the condition of humanity.   We were created by God, in the image of God, to be in relationship with God.  But we were lost to sin and death.  Our own rebellion separated us from our creator, and like stubborn sheep we all went astray.  As we just celebrated a couple of weeks ago, it was through the sacrifice of Jesus that we were redeemed.   Jesus came to be the price that ransomed us from slavery to sin and death.   The life of Jesus was the price to buy our eternal life.   It is through him that we are reconciled with God.   It is through him that we are liberated from the empty way of life.  It is through his example that we are shown a new way to live, and it is through him that sin has lost its power and death has lost its sting.  

            What is truly remarkable about this ransom is that God was willing to pay it.  This morning’s scripture states, “[Jesus] was chosen before the creation of the world but was revealed in these last times for your sake.”  God created humanity out of God’s goodness and love to be in relationship with God.   Yet this verse implies that God knew humanity would break God’s heart.   God knew we would rebel, God knew we would worship false idols, and God knew we would be stiff-necked.  God knew humanity would fall and God knew humanity would turn their back on their Creator.   Despite knowing all of the trouble we would cause, God created us anyway.  God loved us so much that before the world began, he chose a part of Godself to be the price that ransoms us from our sinful behavior.   Think about that.  God created humanity knowing that God would have to ransom back God’s own creation.  God created us knowing the price to be in relationship with us was Jesus himself.   Indeed, how great the Father’s love for us is!  For God so love the world he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  God’s love was so great, so unfathomable, that God resolved to do this before the world was even created. 

            As this scripture states, Jesus has been revealed, and it is through him we believe in God; it is through him we have faith and hope.   God so love the world that the gift has been given.   The blood of Jesus was shed to atone for the sins of the world, not just a chosen few.   As this scripture states, Jesus was a lamb without blemish or defect.  He was the perfect sacrifice.   The life of Jesus was pure enough, strong enough, and valuable enough, to redeem all of humanity.   The ransom for you, me, and every single person who has and will ever live has been paid.   We simply need to accept that truth, we need to open that gift.   As Paul wrote in Romans, “If you declare with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.”  

            This all-encompassing love of God that was made known through Jesus Christ is quite honestly defines comprehension and attempting to define it boggles our minds.   In the hymn “And Can it be that I should Gain”, Charles Wesley attempted to define this love.   In the first verse of the hymn he asks the question that all of us should be asking:  “Amazing love!  How can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?”  We cannot understand the depths of that love.  This is what makes the grace of God so amazing.   We cannot understand this love, but we can respond to it.   The question is, how?  Once we accept that Jesus is our savior, once we accept that he died for our sins how do we continue to respond and honor that great act of love?  

            This is where the concept of the life debt comes in.  Like Chewbacca and Han Solo, Jesus has done a great act on our behalf.   The ransom paid to reconcile us with God is something we can never repay, but like Chewbacca we can honor it with our lives.  Since we cannot repay the debt we owe to Christ, we can do the next best thing.  We can submit our life to him.  In Star Wars Chewbacca does this by pledging to always be there for Han Solo for the rest of his life.  In our faith, we can have a similar Wookie sized faith by submitting our lives to Jesus rule.   That is what Peter advocates here.  In verse 22 he wrote, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, lone one another deeply.”   We have to remember that Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.   He was the one that Jesus said would be the rock that church would be built on.   It makes sense then, that Peter tells followers of Jesus that in response to the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ, that he tells them to love one another.   After all, when we look at the gospel of John, Jesus gives his disciples a new command:  Love one another.   Peter lifts up following this command as a way to express our gratitude to Jesus and to honor the debt we cannot hope to repay. 

            Peter also gives a great expression what it looks like to do this in verse 23 the letter states,: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable through the living and enduring word of God.”  When Chewbacca swore a life debt to Han Solo, it was a bit like being born again.  He gave up the life he had previously known to be the first mate to a smuggler flying all over the galaxy.   In the same way, our faith should lead us to being born again.   The way that we live our lives, should be different than the way we used to live our lives.  Being saved through faith should have a real and tangible effect on how we live our lives.  Try to consider, if you were not a Christian, if you never accepted the gift of salvation made possible through Jesus, how would your life be different?   If you did not know grace how would you be living differently?     If trying to think about it from that direction is a little too hard, consider it this way:  How is your life different because you are a Christian?    We should be living as if we have been born again.   We should be live life differently due to the fact that we are saved by grace.  As Christians we should live life as if we have sworn a life debt to Jesus.   The act he has done on our behalf is so great so impossible to repay, that we should seek to honor that sacrifice with every fiber of our being. 

            There are many people whose faith story exemplify what this means.  One such example is Johnny Lee Clary.   Clary grew up in a racist environment in the 1960’s and he fully embraced the white supremacy.  He became a leader in the ku klux klan, where he intimidated and beat people of color.  His life of hatred and violence led him to a point where he committed arson and burned a black church.  After serving time for that crime, he had his come to Jesus moment, repented, and lived a born again life.   Clary sought to make amends and seek forgiveness of those he had wronged and those he had hated just because of their skin color.  Over time and living out a life based in love and repentance, Clary found himself as a recognized evangelist and elder in the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African American denomination.  The former racist became a leader in the type of church that he had previously set fire to.  

            Clary’s found faith in Jesus, and it changed his life.  From that point forward he did live as if he was trying to honor a debt that he could not repay.  Most of us have not lived a life that was defined by hated like Clary, but all of us can allow our faith to better define our life.   We can turn away from the things that we know are wrong and empty in our lives.   We can follow the example of Jesus.   We can love God with all of our being we can love our neighbor as ourselves.  We can perfect the love of God by loving one another.   We have been redeemed, ransomed, back to God because of the blood of Christ.   May we live like the redeemed.  May we live like those who have born again, and may we seek to honor Jesus with our lives.   May we have a Wookie sized faith, where all we do is done to honor our Lord and our savior. 

           

Jesus the Risen One

Scripture:  Matthew 28:-10

A lot has changed in the past 75 years.   Seventy five years ago, while the United States was in the midst of the Second World War, duct tape did not exist as a commercial product.   A bottle of coke cost five cents, a gallon of gas (which was rationed to three gallons a week) was fifteen cents, and a new car cost an average of $920.   One of the most popular movies to come out that year was Casablanca, and the most popular song on the radio was White Christmas by Bing Crosby.  There is a lot that has changed since then, but there are some things that have stayed the same.   For instance, 75 years ago Batman was very popular, and that is true today.  In fact, it might be truer today.    One of the keys to Batman’s popularity is that he has been reinvented so many times.   The Batman of the original comics is very different from the campy and silly Batman of the 1960’s, which in turn is different from the more serious portrayal in Batman the Animated Series from the 1990s (my favorite version of Batman).  But then this version of Batman is different from the more realistic and gritty Batman of the Dark Knight trilogy of movies.   Most recently Batman has been reinvented in plastic brick form for the Lego Batman movie. 

            There are multiple other ways that Batman has been portrayed and been given different spins throughout the 75 years.   Often these portrayals of Batman are almost appear as different characters.  For instance Adam West’ 1960’s Batman who carries Bat-Shark repellent is worlds different from the gravely-voiced, intense Batman portrayed by Christian Bale.   Even though all of these different portrayals of Batman emphasize different aspects of the character, they all share similarities.   It does not matter if Batman is a grim and gritty detective or made of Legos, Batman’s origin story is always the same.   What led him to be Batman is the tragic murder of his parents, his desire for justice so it never happens again, the choosing of a bat has symbol to strike fear into criminals,  and the fact that his only superpower is an intense force of will to make himself the best in the world to accomplish his objective.    No matter how Batman is reimaged for a new generation, those elements of what makes Batman, Batman never change.   A deep and compelling origin story that resonates deeply with the fans has allowed Batman to span the generations and stay continually relevant.  

            Over the years different aspects of Batman have been emphasized.   In the same way, different theologians and biblical scholars have put a greater emphasis on different aspect of Jesus.   Throughout lent we have focused on some of these various aspects.   We have looked at how Jesus could be experienced as a healer, understood as a savior, related to as a rebel, and defined as the Lamb of God.  Over time, some Christian thinkers and writers have emphasized the humanity with Jesus.   They find a point of connection that on Good Friday Jesus suffered and felt pain the way any other person would.   There is relational power in the fact that Jesus knows our pain and died our kind of death.   Then there have been other Christian thinkers and writers who have emphasized the divinity of Jesus.  They find a messiah to worship in the King of kings and the lord of lords sitting at the right hand of the Father in all glory.   Whether we emphasize the humanity of Jesus or the divinity of Jesus, whether we frame Jesus as lamb or rebel, there is an unmistakable fact of what makes Jesus, Jesus.   Just like Batman’s origin is what defines every iteration of him.   There is an aspect of Jesus that defines every understanding of who he is.  It is what we are here to celebrate today, it is the fact that Jesus is risen.  

            If asked to define Christianity in just three words, I think most disciples today would say “Jesus loves you.”   However, if we were to ask the original twelve disciples or if we were to ask the first generation of Christians, their response would be “Jesus is risen.”   In the gospels, it is the resurrection, not the crucifixion that is the climax of the stories.    Since the beginning of Christianity, we have gathered to worship on Sunday because it was on the first day of the week that the resurrection occurred.   In the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters when the apostles seek to make a case that Jesus is the messiah, there first point of evidence is always the resurrection.   Paul even put forth that the resurrection is the basis and most core belief of the Christian faith.  In Romans 10:9 he wrote, “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”       

            The early church saw the resurrection as vital and central to understanding Jesus.  The question is why?  In the gospels, Jesus raises both the daughter of Jarius and Lazarus from the dead.  In the book of Acts both Peter and Paul raise someone from the dead.   None of those people are elevated to the Messianic proportions.    It is not just the fact that Jesus rose from the dead that makes him special.  There is more to it, and that more is found in this morning’s scripture.  In verse 6 the angel tells the women, “He is not here, he is risen just as he said.”  It is not just that Jesus rose from the dead, it is that he said he was going to do this.   The fact that he did this amazing, unbelievable thing after he called it was proof to the early church.   Theologian Stanley Grenz wrote, “The New Testament indicates that the early believers viewed the resurrection as God’s confirmation of Jesus’ understanding of himself and his mission. . . as a consequence Jesus’ resurrection stands as the sign of his divine identity.”    In the gospels Jesus never shied away from his divine purposes and he did not hide who he is:  The messiah that was sent to reconcile the world back to God.    For the early church though, for those who lived when Jesus lived, the resurrection and the empty tomb confirmed that what Jesus said was absolute truth.  

            Jesus is the risen one.   It is one of the most central tenants of the Christian faith.  For us, John Wesley enshrined it as such in the articles of religion that define the core beliefs of the Methodist movement.  In article three he wrote, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead.”   Even though it is such a core belief, or perhaps it is such a core belief, it is one that skeptics have sought to discount.  In fact this goes all the way back to the beginning.  We stopped reading in Matthew at verse 10.  If we had continued to verse 15, then we would have read about how the Jewish leaders paid the guards to spread the rumor that the disciples stole the body.   Even today, it is not uncommon to find cynics and skeptics who claim that since there is no forensic or non-biased proof of the resurrection, it is likely something that the disciples made up.   Another common claim is referred to as the “swoon theory”, which holds that Jesus was not truly dead on the cross but that he simply appeared dead.   

            Both of these skeptical viewpoints are flawed.  For instance, the historical tradition is quite strong that every one of Jesus’ original disciples died for their faith in Jesus as messiah.  If Christianity was a lie they made up when they stole the body, why would they die for a lie.  Surely if facing certain death or telling the truth and being spared one of them would have caved.   The swoon theory also is problematic, because it assumes a very biased view that the ancient people were not sophisticated enough to know the difference between alive and dead.  That is quite honestly ridiculous and comes from a place of arrogance in looking at the past.   The biblical account, the long standing tradition of the church, a reasoned inquiry, and the collective experiences of the saints throughout the centuries confirm that the resurrection is the truth.  Jesus is the risen one.  

            Since that is true, the final question is what do we do with that truth.  Batman is continually reinvented to be relevant to each new generation, so what makes the eternal truth that Jesus is the risen one continually relevant to us today?  This is an area where our quest for relevance fails us, because the simple fact of the matter is that Jesus never stopped being relevant.  The reason why the resurrection of Jesus was miraculous and needed when it happened is the same reason why it si so miraculous and why we need it today.  Jesus is just as relevant to our everyday life as he was seventy five years ago or even forty six years ago.  It was then, in 1971, that Bill and Gloria Gaither wrote a song that expresses why the resurrection of Jesus is so very relevant to us.  They wrote Because He Lives, I can face tomorrow.”  We can face tomorrow, because just as the early church believed, the resurrection of Jesus proves that all he said is true.  We can claim the promise that God knows our needs, that God hears our prayers, and best of all God is with us.  We can face tomorrow because we know that come what may, we know the way, the truth, and the life.  We know that because he lives, we can take Jesus at his word:  truly he is with us “until the very end of the age.”

            The song continues:  Because he lives, all fear is gone.  Along with making clear that Jesu is risen another constant theme in the bible is that God is a God of justice.  Even though God is patient and slow ti anger we do not want to be on the wrong side of God’s judgement.  This is a problem for us because as Romans states “all have fallen short of the glory of God.”  However, because Jesus is the risen one we can be reconciled to God.  The punishment that brought us peace was upon him.  Jesus defeated sin and death once and for all, so we have nothing to fear; not even fear itself because Jesus conquered that too. 

            The Gaithers continued the chorus with “because I know he holds the future, and life is worth the living just because he lives.”  The resurrection is more than just a historical event and a fixed point in time.  Jesus rose form the dead, and life won over death forever.  In our traditional communion liturgy we proclaim the mystery of faith:  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  We have a hope that cannot be quelled by the forces of this world because Jesus is risen.  We have a joy that cannot be diminished by the grimness of reality because we know that Jesus holds the future, and one day he will return in final victory.  We know this is true, because Jesus is not in the tomb.  The grave is empty and Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father.  I cannot speak for you, but for me knowing that I serve the risen Savior, who has conquered death, who has reunited me with my creator, who suffered on my behalf, and who entrust us to work on his behalf to make the world a more kind and loving place are facts that absolutely make life worth the living.  No matter what is happening in my life, I know that he lives, that Jesus Christ is the risen one, and that makes all the difference. 

            There are a lot of ways to define Jesus.   There are a lot of different facets of Jesus that we can relate to.  No matter what, the defining way that we understand Jesus should be as risen one.  It is because he is risen that he is the messiah, that he is the savior of the world, and that he has enough authority to be the Lord of our lives.  As the women did at the end of this morning’s scripture, may we fall at his feet and worship him.  May we worship him because he is risen, because he lives. 

Jesus the Lamb

Scripture:  Matthew 21:1-11

A few years ago I attended a seminar by Dr. Leonard Sweet.   He is a prolific Christian author and thinker who has written over sixty books.   During the time of this seminar he was working on a book entitled From Tablet to Table, and much of that research was influencing his talking points.   He pointed out an interesting phenomenon, about ethnic Jews in the United States.   American Jews make up 2.5% of the United States population.  Yet, they comprise 48% of the US billionaires.   When a list was made of the United States top 200 intellectuals, 76% had at least one Jewish parent.   Of American Nobel prize winners 37% are of Jewish heritage, and yet even though they make up less than 3% of the population, 7% of people on corporate boards are American Jews.   Dr. Sweet had a fascinating hypothesis as to why as a people, American Jews have been so successful.   He set forth the reason for this level of success, is that American Jews know who they are.  Many of us put a lot of effort at various points in our lives discovering who we are.   Our teens and twenties might have been spent full of rebellion, experimentation, and self-discovery.   Sweet put forth that in the Jewish culture, while clearly there is still teenage rebellion, this phenomenon was not as prevalent.  The reason he gives is that Jewish families know their story.    Every year they gather around the table and they tell their story.   The Jewish Seder, or Passover meal, is a highly ritualized time where the family remembers its heritage.  They remember where they come from and who they are as a people.   Dr. Sweet argues that this grounding in their tradition has allowed many American Jews to not spend time and energy discovering themselves so that they can instead fully devote themselves to professional or cultural pursuits.   It is an interesting hypothesis, which is why it has stuck with me.  It stuck with me because it emphasized the importance of gathering around the table, which creates a grounding community.  It also stuck with me because it emphasizes the importance of story.  

            In our faith tradition, we do not always do the best job at telling our story.   A recent survey of UK parents found that 73% of them did not think their children knew the Easter story.  The Jewish faith finds its grounding and focus in the belief that they are God’s chosen people.   We should find our grounding and focus in the belief that we are saved by grace through Jesus Christ.   In an era when biblical literacy and church attendance has reached an all-time low in our country, it is imperative that we do a better job telling our story to one another.  The story of the Christian faith is not the same story as the Jewish faith.  We clearly share the same roots, after all Jesus himself was Jewish.   Our understanding of God, of faith, and of the messiah is different, but today -Palm Sunday- is one of the places where our faith stories intertwine the most.   To better understand our story we need to better understand the Jewish story.   Because the story of Palm Sunday is more than children waving palm branches, it is the story of how Jesus is the lamb.  

            Passover is an important holy day in Judaism to this day.  Its practice and celebration is truly ancient, and its start can be found in the story of the Exodus.   God had made covenant with Abraham.   From Abraham he would rise a chosen people.  They would be God’s people, and God their God.   Abraham taught this to his son Isaac, who taught it to his son Jacob (also known as Israel), who taught it to his twelve sons.   Due to the treachery of his brothers, the youngest son Joseph ended up enslaved in Egypt.  But God was with Joseph.   What his brothers meant for ill, God used for good.  Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt and he had power at just the right time to provide a safe haven for his family that settled in Egypt.  Centuries passed and the tribes of Israel grew and became a people.   However, over that time they also found themselves reduced to slavery in Egypt.   They cried out to God for help, and in God’s timing, God called out to Moses.   God sent Moses to the Egyptian Pharaoh with the message, “Let my people go.”  Pharaoh refused.  God responded with signs and terrible wonders.  But Pharaoh’s heart was hard.  He was proud and stubborn.   Through nine awful plagues Pharaoh would not relent, and this led to what would be the final plague.  The LORD was to go through Egypt and claim the life of every firstborn son.  However, to the Israelites God gave special instructions, in these selected verses from the 12th chapter of Exodus:

            “The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt . . . ‘Tell the whole community of Israel       that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for             each household. . . The animal you choose must be year old males without defect, and      you may take them from the sheep or the goats.  Take care of them until the fourteenth          day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.  Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and   tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. . .On that same night I    will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals and I       will bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt.  I am the LORD.  The blood will be a sign        for you on the houses when you are, and when I see the blood,  I will pass over you.”

            The lamb was a sacrifice for the Israelite families.   The unblemished lamb, gave its life so that the Israelites would be spared of God’s judgement.  The 12th chapter goes on to include instructions to observe this ceremony and continue to remember the Passover.   In Jesus day this was a major religious festival, and Jews from all over would come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.   Families would come, select a lamb, and care for it.  The Passover lamb continued to be viewed as sacrifice on behalf of the family.  It was a sacrifice that continued to claim God’s care and provision over them.  It was a reminder that God loved them enough to spare them and redeem them from slaver.    

              When Jesus came to Jerusalem, on Palm Sunday, he was coming during the beginning of Passover.   The day that Jesus made his triumphal entry was on the same day that all of the lambs would have been brought into the city.   These sacrificial lambs that came from Bethlehem would have come through in the mid to late afternoon into the temple area through the same gate that Jesus entered.   The gospel of Mark mentions that after Jesus entered the temple it was late so he left, this means that Jesus likely followed the sacrificial lambs in to the temple.  Again this is not a coincidence.  

            Jesus, the man born in Bethlehem, followed the lambs born into Bethlehem in a procession to the temple.   The lambs were being brought there to be selected to sacrifice as a symbol of God’s forgiveness, protection, and redemption.   Starting in the evening, families could start selecting lambs to care for.  Jesus came in behind this procession to signify that he was God’s pick for the Passover lamb.   He was to be slaughtered as the final sacrifice to cover the sins of not just a family, but to cover the sins of the world.   Jesus processed into Jerusalem and presented himself as the lamb because as it says in Isaiah, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”  

                As Christians it is not really culturally appropriate for us to celebrate and observe the Passover.  In fact the United Methodist Book of Worship states it is only appropriate for Christians to observe the Passover Seder as invited guests in a Jewish home or in consultation with representatives of a Jewish community.  That is because the Passover is their story not ours, even though the Passover is mixed into our story.   Jesus became the ultimate paschal lamb.   Much like the original Passover lambs, the blood of Jesus was spilled to protect us.   Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross frees us from God’s judgement by opening up a way for us to be reunited with our creator.   Much like the Passover lamb led to the Israelites being redeemed from the bondage of slavery.   Jesus as the Lamb of God, frees us from slavery to sin and death.   The Passover lamb’s life bought the Israelites the grace of being passed over so they could fully live as God’s chosen people, and the life of Jesus bought us forgiveness so that we can fully live as God’s children.   The Jewish faith has it’s special meal to remember the Passover, but so does the Christian faith.  As we did last Sunday and as we will celebrate this Thursday, at the Lord’s table we remember that Jesus body was broken for us and his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.  His body broken for me and for you.  His blood poured out to offer forgiveness for my sins, for your sins, that is our story.   

             How well do you know the story?  How well do you know your story?    If Dr. Leonard Sweet is correct then knowing their faith story is the key to Jewish success and prosperity.  Jewish families tell their children the story of their faith and it speaks to their identity.  Even if it is not that simple, I do think that he is on to something with the importance of knowing our story.   The Christian story of Jesus can and should speak to our identity.  Knowing the freedom and life that comes from knowing Jesus as our Lord, savior, and Paschal lamb is the key to peace and purpose.   The Jewish tradition is to tell their story to the children, when is the last time you have told the story of Jesus or your story to your children? 

            For a lot of people Easter tends to become another family celebration and get together.  It is a good time to gather around the table, but we should tell the story.   It does not matter if your children are little like mine or if they are grown.   We should take time to remind ourselves of the story of Jesus.   We should take time to share our story:  the story of how we have experienced forgiveness, grace, new life, true joy, and a peace that surpasses all understanding because of Jesus Christ, our Lord.  When is the last time you have told someone your story?   I promise you it is certainly a story worth remembering, and it is a story worth telling.       

       This morning’s scripture tells the story of when Jesus triumphantly entered into Jerusalem and declared himself God’s chosen lamb.   During Lent, and during Holy week is when we do the best job at liturgically telling our story.   From the palms of today, to the sacrament of Maundy Thursday, to the pain of Good Friday, to the joyful expectation of the Easter sunrise we seek to tell our story, experience our story, and live our story through corporate worship every year.   I hope that this year you are able to make time to join us for those worship experience as we remember our story.  Even if you cannot, then this year may you still tell the story.  May you tell the story of how God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whoever believes him will not perish but have eternal life.   May you be willing to tell your story, how your experiences confirm to the depths of your being that Jesus is truth.   May we be a holy people, a redeemed people, an Easter people, who can honestly proclaim, “I love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”