Salty Words

Scripture: James 3:1-12

             For two years I worked as a substitute teacher. For whatever reason I ended up in elementary level class rooms more often than not, and a peculiar thing happened regularly.  Almost once a week there would be a child who would ask me if I was from England or Ireland.   Across different schools and different classrooms this same question would come up.  My best guess as to why this kept coming up is that I tend to talk a little faster than average, due to a childhood speech impediment I never quite mastered I tend to pronounce the R sound softly, and unlike most of the people in southern Indiana I keep “g” on the end of words like running.    I suppose these three things added up to make the way I talk sound just a little off to those young ears.   I find accents fascinating.   It is incredible how with the same language just making minor changes in how we form and say words can completely change how it sounds, as this woman brilliantly demonstrates:


            What is really neat about accents is that it is more than just pronunciation.  With just a little practice anyone can start to get the basics of an accent down.  However, to truly speak with an accent requires mastering the cadence, the phrasing, and the idiosyncrasies of that accent.    Our accent can speak to where we are from, even within the same country.  For instance if you met a group of people that included someone from North Dakota, Texas, and Brooklyn you would probably be able to tell who was from where just by talking to them for a few minutes.   While accents can change and modify over time, they form when we are young and without a lot of intentional work we never outgrow them, and everyone has an accent.   An accent is a way that our words communicate something about us, about where we are from, and about who we are.   When I read this morning’s scripture I have to wonder just what would a Christian accent sound like?   If you hear someone with a Scottish accent talk for instance, there is no doubt where they are from.   So is there a way that our words can instantly communicate who our Lord is?  

            One of the things that comes up again and again when I get to teach Bible studies, is how much things do not change.   We are separated from the era the bible was written in by thousands of years.   The language we use and the language the bible uses are radically different, and the cultures of antiquity and our modern day American culture are light years apart from one another.   Despite all of those differences, so much of what we find in scripture is so relevant today.   This morning’s scripture is such a prime example of that. 

 Sometimes to get a better understanding of scripture, it require some careful cultural and historical context to unpack but not this one.  What it is saying is perfectly clear, and the point still rings true today.   Our words can get us in trouble.   The old saying goes sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt me is a bold faced lie.   Words can cut deeper.  Words may not break our bones but they can piece our hearts and crush our souls.   This morning’s scripture also points out that just like a bit directs an animal or a rudder steers a ship, our words guide us.   The tone we take, and the way we talk with other can be a guiding force in our lives.   Just like our accent, the way we pronounce our words, communicates something about us, the way that we use words also communicates something about our character and heart.   Practically speaking, to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ we need to sound like faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.   To have a faith that works, we need to be known by our Christian accent, and I think there are three ways to develop the proper accent.   

First, we have to be mindful of our words.   In this morning’s scripture James is quick to point out there is an odd juxtaposition in how we use words. As James writes, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father and with it we curse human beings who have been made in God’s image.  Out of the same mother comes praising and cursing.  My brothers and sisters this should not be.”   It is odd that we can go from singing “How Great is our God, sing with me. . .” to the things we say about the driver of the car going really slow in the left lane. 

However, this scripture is about more than avoiding George Carlin’s seven dirty words.   It is very possible to curse without cussing.  This scripture is about the intentions of our words, do they build up or do they tear down.   I really appreciate how James makes this clear at the end of this morning’s scripture by comparing our words to a spring of water.  The words we use, the way we speak with other people can either be refreshing and life giving or they can be bitter and salty. 

I probably do not need to explain what salty words are like, because all of us have been on the receiving end of someone spitting venom our way.   We also have to confess that we are all guilty of using words to try and hurt or harm another person at some point.   With our words and our tone we can quickly tear down and deflate another person.   Sometimes people try to spin this as a positive.  Someone might be quick to say, “they just tell it like it is” or “it’s not my fault if someone else can’t handle the truth.”   But that’s not being honest is it?    When someone says they are just telling it like it is, they are not trying to engage in honest conversation, they are trying to destroy someone else’s position.  We are not telling it like it is, we are using our words to tear someone else down.   We are purposely using salty words that are intentionally meant to be bitter to the people we are speaking to.   Our words can be absolutely destructive which is why James wrote “The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.” 

The opposite of salty and bitter is uplifting and edifying.   Jesus himself talks about this and in Matthew 13:35-37 Jesus states: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.  But I tell you that everyone will have to give an account on the day of judgement for every empty word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” 

We can tell the sound of a Christian accent because the words are not empty, they are sincere, they build up, and they are good.   As Christians we should have good stored up in us because of the abundant overflowing of grace from God the Father made known by Jesus the son, and that good should flow out in our words.    A Christian accent is not known for the gossip it spreads, it is known by being a non-anxious presence that brings peace and assurance.  A Christian accent is not known by cynical snark, it is known by encouragement that inspires.  A Christian accent is not known by empty words and hollow boasts, it is known by sincere empathy and genuine love.    A Christian accent is not known by its cursing, it is known by the praises of the Great God it sings.    This scripture really challenges us to consider do we have a Christian accent?   One of the ways that we develop a Christian accent is that we have to be mindful of our words, because the way we use our words speak to the goodness in our heart and show just how much Jesus is truly Lord of our life.

The second way to develop a Christian accent is that we cannot fake it.   I have spent more time in my life than I willing to admit trying to learn how to speak in an Irish accent.  I got a little bit of it down, but I am “meh” at best.   If I would ever try to use it with someone who is actually from Ireland, it would be insulting and laughable at how fake it is.   People who hear and speak a certain way can easily hear when it is not being done right.   The funny thing about a Christian accent, is that even people who are not Christians can tell when someone is faking it.   It is possible to try and fake a Christian accent.   Someone can attend church, they can use the right words, the can “amen” and “alleluia”, and they can sound very churchy.   However, if Monday morning through Saturday night, it is a different story, then that is the very thing that this morning’s scripture is all about.   Out of the same mouth should not come praise and cursing.   We cannot fake a Christian accent, the way we speak on Sunday morning is the same way we should speak the rest of the week.   Christian author Brennan Manning once rightly said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”   We cannot fake it because again, a Christian accent flows from our heart, it is an outpouring of goodness because we have responded and are filled with God’s goodness.  

The final way to develop a Christian accent is that it stops being an accent we practice at, and it becomes just part of who we are.   We do not think about it, but every single one of us have an accent.  It does not sound like an accent to us, because it is what we are used to, just like Australians do not think about the fact they are speaking with an Australian accent because that is what they are used to.   In the same way using words that are uplifting, encouraging, full of grace, and love should be what we are used to and should be how we always are.   Even, when we are not talking to others.    Studies have found that for the average person 60-70% of their self-talk is negative.   If I am being brutally honest, this is a great struggle for me.  I am pretty hard to insult, because there is not much negative you can say to me that I have not already repeatedly said to myself.   However, Jesus warned about the dangers of empty words and in this morning’s scripture James wrote that we should not praise God and curse human beings. . . which includes cursing ourselves who have also been made in God’s likeness.   This does not mean our self-talk should be only about how awesome we are, we do not need to adopt a narcissistic, Pollyanna outlook.   We can be humbly honest about failings, our shortcomings, and how big our need for grace is.   Our self-talk, my self-talk, should still have a Christian accent.  It should still be uplifting and edifying.   Even our self-talk that dwell on our failures can still praise God as admit to ourselves that we may be big sinners, but thank God Jesus is a greater savior!  

So may your words not be empty or salty, but may the way you speak to others be refreshing and life giving.  Practically speaking the words we use speak volumes about who we are, so may your words give you a Christian accent.   A faith that works is one that is always active, so may you not just speak like a Christian on Sunday mornings but may your words always be full of grace, truth, and light.   May the love of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ reside deep in your heart, may that love like a fresh water spring pour out of you, so that when you speak everyone wants to hear what you have to say.  

Sacred Worth

Scripture: James 2:1-10; 14-17

In a fast paced and even faster changing world, some churches feel the need to make adjustments to better appeal to the modern culture.  When churches want to communicate they are fully modern or contemporary one of the ways to do this is to replace the pews with padded chairs.   For many pews are a classic symbol of traditional church.    The concept of “old time religion” and the image of simple wooden pews seem to go hand in hand.   However, pews are not quite as ancient as we think and their history is far more complex.   Pews started to enter churches during the time of the Reformation, so the first 1,400+ years, almost 2/3rds of Christianity’s existence there were no pews.   Pews spread quickly throughout Europe, so they were popular.  However, they were expensive so to offset the cost they were sold.   Many of the first pews were bought by families (and to be clear, they were bought by the richest families), and they even came with deeds, like property, that were transferrable, inheritable, and saleable.   Other churches took a landlord approach, and leased their pews.   People would pay pew rent to guarantee they got to receive their pew, and they took this seriously.   In British and American colonial churches, you can still find evidence of this.   The best pews would have gates on them, and these gates would be locked.  Only the family who had paid the rent would be awarded the key.    This took root in England but it was also widespread in the United States during the colonial era and for a large portion of the 19th century.    By and large pew rent went away towards the end of the 20th century, but believe it or not to this day the practice is still ongoing in one location.  The Anglican Church on the Island of Stark still collects pew rent from a handful of families due to the terms of 19th century contract, and if you were to attend that church you would be unable to sit in the first nine pew because they are reserved.  

For several decades pew rent was a fundraiser that a lot of churches utilized, but as you can imagine it created some problems.   It became established that many churches had “free pews”, and congregations quickly became stratified between those who could afford pew rent and those who were relegated to the cheap seats.   One of the off-shoots of the Methodist church in the 19th century were the Free Methodists.   One of the disagreements that the free Methodists had with the Methodists Episcopal Church was the practice of pew rent.   The dissenters broke off and chose the name Free Methodists for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons was to communicate that the Free Methodist church would be a church where all of the seats were free to everyone.    We probably would like to think that the practice of pew rent died out because by and large everyone came around to this more high minded thinking, but that probably is not the case.  John Charles Bennett wrote is 316 page doctrinal thesis on pew rent and he concluded that the practice declined because of a lack of profitability not because of a high moral standing.  

It is honestly a bit of a head scratcher to me that the practice of pew rental ever came to being in the first place.  After all calling out giving preferential seating to the rich while regulating the poor to the worst seats is literally what this morning’s scripture says not to do!   I have to wonder how an 18th century preacher could read this scripture on a Sunday morning and do anything else but point to the gated pews and say “do better.”

The book of James really is a guide to having a practical faith that works.   Because of this it can often be a convicting book because it points out all of the impractical things we do to cause our faith to nor work like it is supposed to.   We may not charge pew rent anymore, but this morning’s scripture challenges us to ask do we show favoritism still and what should we be doing to prevent that? 

As the history of the pew tax shows, favoritism has long been a problem in the church, but in the first century it needed to be especially called out.  The culture of first century society was extremely stratified.   James was writing to a preliminary Jewish audience and this was very much a honor/shame culture.   Honor was and still is in many parts of the world an invisible social currency.   People seek to accrue more honor and avoid shame which lowers honor.   One of the impact of this mindset, is it creates a natural honor pecking order.  Everyone is aware of roughly where they line up compared to everyone else.   Thus the person who was most honored always got the best seat, the first pick, the most deference and respect.   While honor was an invisible currency, real world visible currency had a very real impact on honor.   The rich were considered more honorable, while being poor was a mark of shame. 

So this means the behavior described in this morning’s scripture would have been normal.   For the society of the day, if a person who was clearly wealthier than everyone else came into the church, it would have been natural to give them the best and most honored seat.   Likewise, if someone was present who was clearly poorer than everyone else, then the majority would naturally assume they get the worst position.    This was the common position in the culture of the day, but James write in no uncertain terms:  “Believers in our Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.”   Full stop.    There is no contextual wiggle room, there are no corner cases, and there are no special exceptions.   Favoritism does not belong in the body of Christ. Period.    James goes as far as to state, “If you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

The reason why James is so strong in this opinion in this scripture is because showing favoritism under cuts the entirety of the gospel.   The gospel of Jesus Christ is God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that all who believe in him will have eternal life.    The revolutionary truth of the gospel is that even though we all fall short of the glory of God, Christ died for all while we were still sinners.   The ground at the foot of the cross is level.   When it comes to our need for grace none are more honored or shamed than anyone else.   The love of God and the forgiveness made available by Christ is for all no matter who they are or what they have done.   The church, the body of Christ, is meant to be the physical embodiment of that love on earth.   We are to love one another with the same sort of unconditional love that God has for us, so that the love found within these walls is a living testimony of what God’s love is like.  Picking favorites and not loving everyone absolutely destroys that message of an accepting, all encompassing, and all-consuming love.  

            In some ways we can read this morning’s scripture and feel like we are in the clear.  After all, we no longer charge pew rent.   We do not go out of our way to give the wealthy a seat of honor while intentionally making the poor sit in the worst places.   We do not show favoritism in the way this scripture mentions it, but this scripture causes us to ask, are there still ways that we end up practicing favoritism in the church?    Statistically the answer is yes.   Perhaps you have noticed that our current culture is becoming increasingly polarized.    People are more willing to paint anyone who disagrees with them on political issues as “those people”, and we are quick to demonize those people as the worst of the worst.   During the first century the cultural attitude of favoring the rich infected the church, and it seems today the cultural attitude of polarization showing favoritism to those who agree with you has also infected the church.   This is backed up by the results of two surveys released recently.   LifeWay Research recent found that 57% of regular church goers prefer to attend church with people who share their political views.    This preference has real implications, because a Washington Post survey from last month found that 14% of regular church goers left their church after the 2016 election, and a “healthy portion” of those who left then cited the divisive nature of politics.  In other words, they left a church they had been attending because they felt unwelcomed because portions of the congregation disagreed with their particular stance.  

            This is not how it should be, because favoritism in all of its forms should not be in the church.   The reality is the body of Christ does not look like an elephant or a donkey, the body of Christ is supposed to look like Jesus and love like Jesus.   If we agree with someone that Jesus is Lord and Savior then that is more important than what we disagree on.   If we agree with someone that Jesus is Lord and Savior then that means they are our brother or sister in Christ, and we are supposed to love them the way that God loves us.   This morning’s scripture rejects the cultural message that wealth gives honor, and in the same way we should reject the cultural message to hate those we disagree with.  Even if you do not agree with them, you should still love them, and we still recognize everyone as someone with an inherent sacred worth.     That means if another person who professes Christ voted for that other person that you do not like, you should still love them.   This means if another person who professes Christ strongly advocates a position that really bristles you, then you should still love them.  We should not make those who disagree with us feel like they are on the outside looking in or ghost someone because they support a different political party.    The message that an unbelieving world should receive by observing the church is that it is for more than only people who support a specific agenda.  The message they should get is “you are welcome here, because this is a place that truly keeps the royal law found in scripture: love your neighbor as yourself.” 

            I really appreciate that James goes on to better define what it means for us to love one another.    The love that we are supposed to show to one another is not hypothetical.  It is not something that exist in thoughts only.  We are supposed to define that love by our actions.   We are supposed to care for one another by our actions.   Notice James specifically calls this out in verse 15:  “Supposed a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.”   We are supposed to care for one another and the way we care for one another is a metric for a living and vibrant faith.  So when one of the people that we worship with is having a problem, then praying for them is a good start, but it should not be our stopping point.   We should ask “what can I do to help.”  Or better yet we respond with “May I help you in this way. . . “ and then freely volunteer to do something that is needed.   One of the things that brings me great joy, is that many of you do this.   We could be here for a good long while if we shared stories of the all the different times that another church member was a blessing to you.   We should celebrate that, and we should be thankful for the fruitful faith that is so on display.  

            However, we should also humbly confess that perhaps we are guilty of showing favoritism.   It may just be we have our group we are comfortable with or perhaps we have not just been as open and accepting of someone like we know we should.   If we are being honest we could probably all identify someone we worship with regularly that we have not truly taken the time to get to know or taken the time to show them that we care for them and love them the way God does.  Over the next couple weeks, may we all commit to remedy that. 

            Our faith is based in the extravagant love of God made known to us by Jesus Christ.   Having a faith that works means that we live out that love in our day to day lives.   To do that we are to practicing loving one another, the church is to be the body of Christ where the love of God is made known and is tangibly experience.   May we not show favoritism along any lines, and may we reach to include others.   May we keep the royal law found in scripture, and may the world know we are Christians by our love. 

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Scripture:  James 1:17-27

Heather Sellers was profiled in a 2013 article for the magazine New Scientist.   Heather suffers from a condition that most of us will probably find unusual.   In the article Heather gives an example of the types of issue her problem causes her.   She said: “I’ve been in a crowded elevator with mirrors all around, and a woman will move and I’ll go to get out the way and then realize: ‘oh that woman is me’.   Heather suffers from prosopagnosia or face blindness.   She completely lacks the ability to recognize faces, including her own.   People, like Heather, who suffer from this condition do not have a vision problem.  They can see just fine.   They also do not suffer from a memory disorder.  They lack the ability to recognize a face.   Human brains are typically wired to recognize faces more readily than other objects.  There are specific parts of our brain that light up when we see a face.  Neuroscientists studying face blindness have found that people with face blindness have a part of the brain light up when they see a face but then the part of the brain that is responsible for processing this information fails to trigger.  People with face blindness are physically incapable of processing what a face looks like.   Often people with this condition are able to compensate and learn other ways to recognize people.   Also, face blindness appears to be a gradient, not everyone who suffers from this condition has it to the degree Heather does where she cannot even recognize herself.  It was once thought that this condition was rare because it is often not diagnosed in those who suffer from it.   However, today neuroscientists believe as many as 1 out of 50 people, or 2.5 % of the population suffer from prosopagnosia.   It is absolutely fascinating to me to think that this condition is recorded in the Bible, James used it as an analogy to prove his point.  Someone who looks at his face in a mirror and after looking at himself goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like sounds a lot like prosopagnosia.  While they would not have known the neuroscience behind it, there is every reason to think that the people of the ancient world were aware of this condition.  That means that James was not making up an example, but writing of a condition that people could have known about.  

            Moreover I think knowing that prosopagnosia is a real condition, helps give James overall point here more depth. James, a letter attributed to the brother of Jesus, is a practical, down to earth primer on how to have a faith that works.    In this morning’s scripture James is writing about the stuff that gets in the way of our faith working.   The point that James is making, is that we are all in danger of suffering from spiritual prosopagnosia.   The difference is when we look into the mirror it is not our face we do not recognize, it is our heart, our inner being that is lost to us.   In this scripture James explains what causes this condition and how we can cure it. 

            Because of the language used, this morning’s scripture can be a tricky.   The way we use words is often nuanced, and it is easy to get the wrong read.   This of course is compounded when reading scripture, because it is written in a language not native to us and we have to rely on translations.  To properly understand this scripture it is important to all be on the same page about some of the terms being used here.   For instance verse 21 mentions to humbly accept the word planted in you, and then verse 22 states: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves, do what it says.”  It is clear that the word being referred to here is the same thing, but it may not be what we are thinking.   In our modern day church language we have been conditioned to automatically equate word with the Bible.  In fact, it is not uncommon to see verse 22, taken out of context and listed as what the Bible says about the bible.   However, this scripture is not about the Bible, when it speaks of the word it is not talking about a book.  Rather it is talking about the word that is mentioned in the first chapter of the gospel of John:  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  The word that we are supposed to humbly accept planted in us, the word that we are to do what it says, is the gospel.   It is the word that God became flesh and dwelt among us.  It is the word that declares repent for the kingdom of God is near. It is the word that says “go and sin no more.  It is the word that says, you are loved, you are forgiven, and that you were worth dying for.   The word referenced in this scripture refers to more than words planted on a page.  The word is the greatest gift that God, the giver of every good and perfect faith.  The word is the seed of faith planted in us speaks to our souls that Jesus is Lord and messiah!  

            The idea being presented here is the gospel of truth, the good news of Jesus Christ, is supposed to grow in us.   Like a seed planted it is to grow, flourish and transform us.   A belief in Jesus is not merely an academic pursuit.   It is not a box we check on a form, it is not some bit of demographical data.   Being a Christian is supposed to continually renew us and make us new as we listen to still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, and we do what the word of God within us says.   When we do this we truly become more Christ like.   When we get it right we live like Jesus where we love God with all of our being, have genuine compassion for others, and we willfully do not sin.   We become a living reflection of our Lord and Savior.   And then. . .

            And then, like a person with prosopagnosia we forget what Jesus is supposed to look like.   We are like the person who forgets what our face looks like as soon as we walk away from the mirror because we stop living our faith, we stop doing what God says.   It truly is easy for us to suffer from spiritual prosopagnosia.   We can identify the problem, but what is the cause?   James writes about this in verse 21.  The NIV renders it this way, “Therefore get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is prevalent.” 

            I have spent fifteen years in youth ministry at this point.   Early on in working with teenagers I relied a lot on curriculums and resource books.  Many of the included a lesson on media choices, and without out fail those lessons would use this scripture as a clobber verse.  This verse would be used why the music/tv/movies/ whatever that was popular at the time was bad.   Now I do believe that the media choices that we all make (not just teenagers who get picked on in this regard) are important to give careful thought to.   However, James was not writing about rap music here.   This is another area where there are some language difficulties.  The NIV translation of moral filth uses filth as a noun.  This naturally gives the impressions of some sort of physical object.   Other translations avoid this by referring to conditional states and speak of getting rid of all filthiness and wickedness.   Verse 20 gives an example of what is being talked about here as it states “human anger does not produced the righteousness God declares.”   I think the reason why we are so quick to want to make this scripture about moral filth focus on things like TV and music is because it is more comfortable.   It feels like an easy answer to tell teenagers “you should not listen to certain music because it is moral filth” than it is to focus on changing our own actions and attitudes.    This scripture is about more than just media choices it is about the sinful thoughts and attitudes we give ourselves over to.  This scripture gives anger as an example but pride, jealously, lust, selfishness, and hate would also fit the bill as the kind of filthiness we are to rid ourselves of. 

            Now on one hand, we know this on the other hand though, we still struggle with this, and the other day I had a realization as to why this might be.   I was watching my son play Minecraft the other day.   There are a few things that you need to know about Minecraft.  First, it is a video game.  Second this video game is not old, but it is made to look that way.  The game intentionally uses a block old-school graphic aesthetic.   This means that relatively speaking the game is not as graphic intensive as most games.   Finally, it is a sandbox video game.  This means that players can build and create more or less whatever they want. This is why my son loves it and he had built a gold house floating in the air with lava pouring out of it, over top of a literal mountain of waterfalls, which has a roller coaster going around it and whole herds of dolphins.  He had thrown a lot into this little part of a little digital world.    So in this world he had built a portal.   What I noticed is that when we came back through the portal, the system struggled to load all of the stuff he built.  Even though it has simple graphics there was a pause as everything reloaded block by block.   If we left and came back, it would do it again.  The game created a digital world, but it could only keep one part of it loaded at a time.   When we left one part, the system would essentially forget what that part of the world looked like, and it had to then reload it.   I think our hearts are the same way.   We are focused on, and have Jesus loaded up or we do not.  

            Our hearts, our inner most beings only have enough space for one thing to occupy our souls.   If it is not Jesus, then it is anger or greed or jealousy.   Whenever we focus our desires on those wicked motivations, then we have to push Jesus aside to make room for them.   This is why we are spiritually like someone who looks in the mirror and forgets what they look like, because we stop trying to be like and look like Jesus!  This is not a modern day problem.  Robert Robinson wrote about all the way back in 1758 in the song we sang today:  “Let thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.  Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”

            So the problem is we do stop doing what the word of God in us says and the cause is that our hearts our prone to wander back to the dirt we swept under the rug but never actually got rid of.  Finally, what might the treatment be?   We actually have been looking at this scripture backwards, because James started by giving the solution to the problem.   In verse 16 James wrote, “Don’t be deceived my dear brothers and sisters.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows.”   God’s goodness and provision is a constant that we anchor to.   Perhaps the best way we can do that is through regularly thanking God for every good and perfect gift.    The fact that you were able to get up and travel here today?  A gift.   The freedom to worship? A gift.   The people sitting next to you?  A gift.  The breath you just took?  A gift.  More importantly, the faith we profess?  A gift.   The forgiveness that takes away our sin?  A gift.  The bond of love that reunites us with our Creator?  A gift.   The savior that makes it all possible?  A gift.    Every good and perfect gift comes from God the Father, and we have so much to be thankful for!   

When we give thanks to God that is where our focus is.  When we give thanks to God, then we move closer to loving God with our whole being.  When we give thanks to God we are moved to compassion for others because we realize how much compassion God has had on us.  When we give thanks to God we do not willfully sin, because we know how much the forgiveness of sin costs.  

God chose to give us birth through the word of truth, so may we be forever thankful for that.  In doing so, may we truly hear the word planted in us seeking to shape us to be more Christ like, and may we not forget what we have heard.  May we stop being like someone who looks into a mirror and then forgets what they look like.  Instead may we be able to honestly and truly ask, “mirror, mirror on the wall who is grateful for all?” and may the reflection we see be an honest answer to that question. 

Suit Up

Scripture:  Ephesians 6:10-20

It all started in February of 1937.   That is when Lee Falk’s first daily newspaper strip for the Phantom was published.   The trend that the Phantom started was costumed super heroes.  Older heroes like Zorro or the Shadow wore regular clothes with an added mask perhaps.   The Phantom though wore a black mask that whited out his eyes and a skin tight purple costume.   This outlandish and exotic costume set what would become the standard and what followed was the age of costumed super heroes.   I am generally a big fan of super heroes, but I do have to admit the costumes can be a bit silly.  They tend to be overly bright and overly flamboyant.   They also are not terribly practical, as this clip from the Incredibles illustrates: 

            In addition to showing why capes are a terrible idea no matter how cool they look, this also captures how important costumes are to superheroes, they are part of the genre.  Without the cowls and capes super heroes just are not super heroes.   The characters may have powers, they may be driven to do good, but it is not until they suit up that they become proper heroes.   Perhaps that is the message of this morning’s scripture as well.   As follows of Jesus we can have faith, we can have a drive to be more Christ like, but we need to suit up to be proper disciples capable of changing the world. 

            This morning’s scripture is very dramatic.   It uses strong action oriented language and it calls forth evocative imagery like standing against the devil’s schemes, struggling against the powers of this dark world, and brandishing the word of God like a sword.    Because this morning’s scripture is so dramatic it is also a bit problematic.    There is a phrase that is not found anywhere in the Bible that’s origins and traditions relies heavily on this passage.   That phrase is spiritual warfare.   Typically, this is not a phrase commonly found in Methodist circles, but there are other branches of Christianity who really run with this idea.   There are hundreds of books that have been written on this topic, and there are a lot of them that fall into an odd little sub-genre.   The 2005 book by David Humphry Sr. called The Warrior’s Agenda: Combat Study Guide is a perfect representation of this grouping.   The back of the book describes it as such, “  The British has the S.A.S, the Navy as the SEALS, the Army has the Green Berets, and he Kingdom of God has you!  The first of it’s kind book on Tactical Spiritual warfare, for the true spiritual warrior.  God has begun his mop-up campaign and . . . he is looking for volunteers as He prepares to shatter Satan’s hold on the lives of millions.”

            This book presents and ultra-militrisitc, John Wayne, cowboy up, kick down the door, and take names attitude to faith.   Given that there are a lot of books that present that attitude, this imagery appeals to certain people. I imagine the idea of being some sort of elite commando unit, that God sends on missions to fight the devil is very appealing to some people.   I can kind of get it.  It is flashy and feel heroic, a lot like a cape does.   However, like a cape can be dangerous for a hero a militaristic faith can be dangerous because that image more or less misses the entire point of this scripture.  

            To be very clear, I am not against the concept of spiritual warfare, I am critical of how it is often presented.  I do believe there are spiritual forces of evil.  One of the membership vows to join the United Methodist Church is to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, and reject the evil powers of this world.   Then the second membership vow is to resist, evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.   Rejecting spiritual evil and resisting injustice and oppression is what spiritual warfare should be all about.  This is where I think books like Humphry’s warrior agenda get it completely wrong.   He compared being a Christian to the S.A.S., the Navy Seals, and the Green Berets.  Those are all elite units that tend to function as the “tip of the spear” in offensive combat operations.  They are highly trained specialists who are the first to attack.  Again, this morning’s scripture is the basis for spiritual warfare imagery, and it says nothing about attacking.  Instead it is just the opposite. Ephesians 6:11 tells us to put on the full armor of God so that we can take a stand, later on in verse 13 the scripture reiterates, “put on the full armor of God so that when the day of evil comes you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything to stand.” 

This scripture is not about attacking with righteous fury it is about having a faith that stands firm.  It is about having a faith that does not move with the crowd, a faith that does not make way for injustice, and does not bend to appease evil.   It is about having a faith that renounces wickedness, rejects evil and resists oppression.   The first century church that this scripture was written to needed to hear that message.   The Greco-Roman culture of the time was pagan and pluralistic.   The Christian faith stood in stark contrast to that.  Just like today, it proclaimed there is but one God and the way, the only way, to God the Father is through Jesus the son- the way, the truth, and the life.    To have faith in the risen savior would have put the first Christians at odds with all of their non-converted family and friends.  It also put them outside of the cultural norms and set them on the fringe of their society.   There must have been an enormous societal, emotional, mental, and spiritual pressure on these early believers to fall back into line.  They must have faced temptation to retreat from their newly found faith and fall back into line with the culture around them.  This scripture was a reminder to those Christians to stand their ground to renounce, reject, and resist.    For us today it continues to be a reminder and a call to stand our ground as we actively make disciples and transform the world, and then after we have done everything to stand.  

Just like the first century believers, we need to hear this message because we too face the temptation to retreat.   The powers of this dark world manifest themselves differently than they did in the first century and our struggles are not quite the same.   Yet we do face pressures that seek to get us to fall into line and retreat from the truth of the gospel.   Daily we are bombarded with messages that run contrary to the faith we seek to root ourselves in.   We live in a culture that elevates wealth above all else in a way that states “greed is good.”  We hear talking heads on the TV say “truth isn’t truth”, and what the bible lifts up as wrong a majority of people polled say “it’s right.”   When confronted with wickedness it can be easy to ignore.  When we see evil it is simpler to be quiet than it is to reject it, and it feels more comfortable to retreat than it is to resist oppression.  Yet this morning’s scripture is clear we are to stand our ground.  

In order to properly do this we need to be properly equipped, which is what this morning’s scripture is about.   To describe the tools in faith we need to stand he used the analogy of armor.  The description Paul gives is based off of the Roman legion.  In his analogy, Paul described all of the armor of the roman legion.   It is worth noting that in going through the armament, with the exception of a single sword left out all of the weaponry.   Again, this is intentional because in this warfare analogy our goal is not to attack but to stand firm.  If we list out the pieces of armor and then take away the physical component, such as the breastplate we are left with righteousness.   If we do that with all of the pieces we have an impressive list of virtues:  truth, righteousness, gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God.  The armor of God represents our connection to God.   Righteousness is a churchy word for how good of a job we are doing living out our faith.  We are righteous when how we live matches up with what we say is right.   Faith, truth, and salvation are the ways that we have an assurance that we are connected to God.   The analogy of armor works really, because armor is something we clothe ourselves in.  It covers us and what we are clothed in is the first part of us that we present to the world.  When we put on the armor of faith, it means that we are suiting up as Christians.  It means that our faith is not some small part of our life.  It is what we are clothed in, it is our life.  It surrounds us, molds us, shapes us, and completely covers or defines who we are.    When our faith has this level of importance in our lives then we are ready to stand against evil, and there are two ways we can go about doing this. 

 First we personally stand our ground.   In the Methodist tradition there is a great emphasis on personal holiness.   Personal holiness is a fancy way of saying we act like Jesus, even when known one else is watching.   We stand firm when we do tolerate wickedness, evil, or oppressive attitudes in our own lives.    This is what discipleship is all about, this our goal as followers of Christ.   We seek to get to a place like Jesus where we love God with all of being, have compassion for other people, and we do not willfully sin.   This is our goal in faith, and getting to this point is what this morning’s scripture meant when it stated “and after you have done everything to stand.”

The second way we stand is that we do not abide evil.  When we see evil in the world, when we see the fruit of the devil growing wild, we call it out.  We stand in its way.  We plant ourselves by the river of Truth and we say to the evil in the world, “No you move.”   Evil is like darkness, it only exist in the absence of light.  The devil can only truly flourish where the light of Christ is not present.   When we seek to follow Jesus’ example, to live righteously and let our faith define our lives, then we shine.   We show up, we stand firm, hold the line of truth, and wickedness will flee.  

Finally, brothers and sisters in Christ, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.   Take courage and stand your ground.   We will all be faced with the temptation to not be concerned, to be silent, or to even retreat.   May we not do that.   For those of you who have taken the step in faith to join this church then may you recommit to your membership vows to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.   I sincerely believe the world needs us to stand, to stand for what is right, to stand for love, to stand for those who cannot stand for themselves. “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything to stand.”  It’s time to suit up. 

Can't Stop the Feeling

Scripture: Ephesians 5:15-20

            Today super heroes are a big deal.   In the past ten years there have been twenty movies with marvel super heroes released, and there is no end in sight.   Moreover, these movies are wildly popular.  For instance, so far four of the top five highest grossing movies of 2018 are super hero movies.  It is easy to forget that this was not always the case.  In the mid-90’s, after the abysmal bombing of the terrible Batman and Robin super hero movies were thought to be dead and done.  It did not help that the handful of superhero movies released during this time, like the Shadow and the Phantom, were forgettable and terrible.   During this dead era for the super hero genre, there were a couple of bright spots:  most notably the 1999 release of Mystery Men.  At this point Mystery Men is fairly obscure.  It is a comedy movie of a group of outcast with questionable special abilities.  For instance one of the characters could turn invisible only when no one was looking at him.   Over the past couple of months, I have actually been thinking about this older movie quite a bit.  It has been in my thoughts because one of the main characters is Mr. Furious.   Mr. Furious’ super power is that he gets really, really angry.   That is it.  He just gets full of a lot of undirected rage.   This has been on my mind recently, because it seems like today there are a lot of people who can claim the title of Mr. (or Ms.) Furious.   A lot of people are really angry right now, and statistically speaking several of you are part of that group.   A 2017 survey found that 68% of Americans get angry about something they see or hear on the news at least once a day.   What’s fascinating is that the percentage holds true across the political spectrum.  In the past, those who identified with the party in power tended to be happier, but not now.   Now the majority is angry daily, and I feel like in the past year that percentage has probably only gone higher.   Perhaps, what the survey really shows is we need to just turn the cable news off more often.  It can be easy to get angry at the things we see on the news.   It can be easy to view the cacophony of current events with rage-filled cynicism.   It can be easy to fill like everything is falling apart and that the world is on fire.   Yet to give us some perspective, all the way back in 1989 Billy Joel reminded us all that “We didn’t start the fire.  It’s been burnin’ since the worlds been turnin’ “

            This morning’s scripture gives us a bit more perspective because it dates back a little bit further than twenty nine years when Paul urged the Ephesians to make the most of every opportunity “because the days are evil.”  It can be easy for us to think the world is worse than it has ever been, but that is not really true.   We live in a broken and fallen reality.  The fire has been burning since sin entered the world, and it will burn until Jesus comes back.   That does not mean we should take a nihilistic, “nothing really matters” approach.   We should absolutely resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.   However, we also need to avoid becoming like Mr. Furious.   We need to avoid being consumed by impotent rage, helpless fury, and joy-crushing cynicism.   Paul’s message to the Ephesians is relevant today, because the days are evil.   When confronted with everything, we can’t stop the feelings, but we have do have some choice and agency in what we feel.

            The entirety of Ephesians is worth reading, because it is Paul’s encouragement to live as faithful Christians in an unfaithful and unfriendly culture.   It is full of advice and directive that are both practical and deeply spiritual.    The letter to the Ephesians would have been truly life giving words to the struggling church of Ephesus.   Our current culture is moving towards being post-Christian both in belief and in demographics, but our experience does not hold a candle to what the Ephesians endured.   The attitudes that non-Christians tend to have today towards the church is most often indifference and at worse sarcastic cynicism.   However, the Ephesian church was in hostile territory.   Culturally, the Christians were an extreme minority.   Ephesus was a city that was devoted to the Greek God Artemis, and it had a large temple dedicated to her.   The city was fiercely devoted to the worship of Artemis.    In the book of Acts when it was thought that Paul’s preaching would somehow threaten the continued well-being of this temple, the entire town got caught up in a riot.   In just a few years after this letter was written, the church of Ephesus would experience true persecution.  It is fair and accurate to say the church of Ephesus experienced dark days that felt evil.   This is why Paul urged them to be very care how they live, not as unwise but as wise and to make the most of every opportunity.  

            So what does that mean?   In days that are evil, how do we live as people who are both wise yet also faithful Christians?   I think perhaps the better way to look that is to consider what unwise living looks like, and there are two unwise ways of thinking we can fall into.    The first one, the problem that seems to be endemic today, is to be consumed by anger and cynicism.   Being cynical often leads to assuming the worst about everyone, and the most cynical of people will even try to spin that as being wise.   Naturally assuming the worst in everyone is a negative attitude that feeds anger and creates a polarized us vs. them attitude.   An attitude that is tragically far too common today. 

            It would not have been hard for the Ephesians to fall into an “us vs. them” way of thinking.  It may not have been too far from the truth for them.   They really were a small group and the majority of their culture was against them.   However, this is the exact kind of attitude that Paul warns about when he told the Ephesians to make the best of every opportunity.   The opportunities that Paul is specifically referring to are opportunities to share the gospel.   The opportunities that the Ephesians and by extension us, are supposed to make the most of are the opportunities to communicate the love, forgiveness and acceptance of God.   The only way we can effectively share that message with people is by having love and compassion for them.  Quite simply put, we cannot show care and compassion for people who we assume are and treat like our enemies.  

            The second unwise attitude is the exact opposite.   If the first unwise attitude is to get angry, bitter, and cynical when confronted with evil days, then the second is to put our head in the sand and ignore it all.   This unwise attitude is to sit and sip coffee as the world burns, all while saying this is fine.   Paul gives an example of how the Ephesians were tempted to take this attitude when he urged them not to get drunk on wine.    Trying to bury problems at the bottom of a bottle has been a phenomenon in humanity for a long, long time.   Today we have a lot more tools at our disposal than alcohol if we want to ignore the evils of this world and deaden ourselves to the problems around us.   The truth is that if we switch off the news but instead watch a Fixer Upper marathon or play Nintendo for twelve hours that does not do anything to make the world a better place.   We may not be angry all the time, but we choose to deaden the feelings with entertainment.   If the vast majority of our time, energy, and resources is going to keep ourselves comfortable and entertained then we are honestly not making the most of every opportunity and we are not being very careful then in how we live.  

            So in order to live wisely in evil days we need to avoid giving ourselves over to feelings of cynicism and we need to avoid deadening our feelings all together.   So then, what should we do?   In the midst of all that is happening, when the days are evil, and the world feels like it is on fire, what should we be feeling?   In this morning’s scripture Paul answered that question for the Ephesians when he wrote, “sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”    The feeling that should define us in dark times are hope and joy.  

            I really love the phrasing Paul used in this morning’s scripture:  “make music from your heart to the Lord.”   The idea of making music from one’s heart, really conjures up the image of a musical where people just break out in song.   In fact, in the Sound of Music Julie Andrews really captures this feeling well when she sings, “The hills fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears.”   Having our heart filled with music means we have internalized and we feel deeply that which we sing about.    Singing songs to the Lord should just flow out of us because it is based out of a feeling that we cannot stop.  

            Even if the days our evil and even if the world feels like a dumpster fire, we should be able to sing with courage to the Lord.   We can hope, because we know that the light of Christ as come into this dark world, but the darkness cannot and shall not overcome it.   We can have hope because we know that sin has been defeated once and for all,   Jesus in his might power has broken every chain and can frees us from the sins and wrong choices that so easily entangle.    We can have hope because death has been defeated and the grave has lost its sting.   Once this hope has taken root in our hearts, then brothers and sisters how can we not sing from the depths of our hearts to the Lord in Joy?    Because we are filled with joy then sings our soul, our Savior God to thee, how great thou art.   Because we are filled with joy then we should be able to sing about amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.   We should be able to sing because we’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts.  Where?   Down in our hearts to stay! 

            Because of Jesus we have an infinite source of hope and a wellspring of joy.  The way that we live as wise is that we do not allow the darkness of the world drown out the light of our hope, and the way we make the most of every opportunity is to let our word and actions share the love of Jesus with joy.  In the midst of evil days, this should be the feelings that define us, and this should be the feelings we face the darkness with.   Instead of being cynical and cast ourselves into us vs. them factions, we should have compassion on lost souls, because they need Christ just as much as we do.   Instead of ignoring the pain in the world around us, we should roll up our sleeves and try to make this world better.  We should do this because we have hope in a source of goodness and light that no amount of evil can overcome.   

            May love of Christ give us a hope that is down in our heart, and may that lead to a feeling of joy that can’t stop.   Today, 68% of people find the news as a source of anger, so let us introduce people to the good news that isn’t fake.   May they experience the good news through us and through the way we show them love and compassion.    May they know it is real, because our hope and joy is authentic.    It is so easy to be pessimistic and cynical about this day and age, so may we be wise and confront the problems of this day and age with a hope that is grounded in the greatness of Christ.   Being so grounded, may you be full of joy as we constantly encourage one another and give thanks to God the Father for everything.      

The Good Bread

Scripture:  John 6:35; 41-51

            In the summer of 2012 I led a youth mission trip to Nashville, TN.  We went with a group called Students Living a Mission.  This organization combined elements of a church camp such as fun activities and a structured evening worship with a day full of service.   In the evening there was always a meeting where the youth group leaders and the organizational staff would meet to check in and be briefed on what is coming up.   On one particular evening the plan was to serve communion.   The other group leaders had participated in previous years, and one of them asked if they “were going to use the good bread like last year?”  The other two group leaders were pleased to hear this, and the one of them followed up and asked, “Where did you get the idea to use that bread for communion?”   The Students Living a Mission leader replied, “From the Methodists.  It is what they all use. “

            At that point I instantly understood, the good bread was King’s Hawaiian bread, and he was right it is what the Methodists use.   I tried to track down why this is, to see if there is some lost story behind the tradition as to why Methodists use Hawaiian bread for communion so regularly.   I could not find it.   The best explanation I can come up with is an educated guess.  There is a directive that when communion is served a full loaf should be used.   This Holy Mystery is a treatise that outlines the Methodist belief and practice of communion and it states: “The use of a whole loaf best signifies the unity of the church as the body of Christ, and when it is broken and shared our fellowship in that body.”  So it seems that with the tradition of using a full loaf of bread, Methodists as a whole gravitated to using Hawaiian bread because, well, because it is THE good bread.   There is a simple but irrefutable logic to using the best possible bread for communion, because as this morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus is good bread, the best bread, the bread of life.  

            For those of you who grew up in a church setting, you have little problem, associating Jesus as a human being with bread.   Even non-believers today are often familiar with the idea of communion.  They may not understand it, but it is not considered scandalous or shocking.   This was absolutely not the case though in Jesus day.   In this morning’s scripture Jesus declares himself the bread of life, and there is some serious fallout to this.   If we kept reading in John chapter 6, we would get to verse 66 which states, “From this time many of his disciples turned their back and no longer followed him.”  This incident happens right as Jesus’ ministry is beginning to pick up steam.   People were truly beginning to flock to him, and a movement was beginning to coalesce around Jesus.  However, that comes to a big speed bump here.   There was something about Jesus stating he is the bread of life that caused many people ready to follow Jesus to pause, state this is a hard teaching, and then to ultimately walk away.  This should cause us to pause and really ask, just what made this such a hard teaching then?  Is it still a hard teaching today, and as 21st century people seeking to follow Jesus of Nazareth, just what does it mean to believe that Jesus is the good bread, the bread of life? 

            The scripture we focused on this morning picks up in the middle of the story, I think to fully understand why this teaching was so upsetting we have to take a step back.   In John’s gospel, Jesus proclaiming I am the bread of life happens right after the feeding of the 5,000.  Jesus then gets in a boat, but because of rough water they are slowed in crossing, and a lot of the crowd traveled by land to go and find Jesus.    The gospel of John makes clear the people sought Jesus out because they wanted more bread.   They had been part of a miracle where Jesus multiplied food and they wanted more of that good stuff.   They sought Jesus out, not because they wanted to follow Jesus but because of what Jesus could do for them.    They wanted Jesus to give them something they wanted that was tangible, and that is when Jesus declares that what he offers is greater than physical bread.   Bread may be the food that keeps a body going, but Jesus is the food that keeps a soul going for eternity.    Following Jesus is not about meeting our wants or even are physical needs, following Jesus is about fulfilling a greater need we may not even be aware of at first, the need to be reunited to our Creator, the Father in heaven.  

            Today, there are still people who only seek out Jesus not because they have a longing in their soul but because of what Jesus could do for them.   The old saying has a lot of truth to it:  there are no atheists in foxholes.   When people want or need something they tend to become a lot more religious.   Sadly, there are no shortage of con artists who will take advantage of this impulse and will promise all kinds of physical blessings and wealth to those people who give them money so they can buy a fourth private jet.   The whole concept behind the prosperity gospel is that following Jesus is the key to getting what we want to be happy.   That is the same kind of attitude that the people who sought out Jesus and then later abandoned him had.  They were only into following Jesus because of what they could get out of it, not because they truly believed that Jesus was worth following.    One of the questions that this morning’s scripture really challenges us with is why do we follow Jesus?  Because if it is just for the “stuff” then we are not really following Jesus.  

            That idea leads directly to the second reason the people of the first century had such a hard time with this teaching.   Jesus was directly comparing himself to the manna from heaven.  In Exodus this is the bread that God gave the Israelites while they were in the desert.   Jesus is claiming, that like the manna, he too is from God but he provides a far greater function than fulfilling hunger.    The use of food metaphor is very intentional here and very literal.   When we eat bread, we consume, we bring it into us.   In the same way Jesus is the bread of life as he states in verse 51, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats this bread will live forever.  This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.”    For Jesus to be the bread of life that we are to make him part of us.   Just like eating provides us with literal life, making Jesus part of who we by believing in him and accepting him as the guiding Lord of our life, provides us with eternal life.  

            The first century hearers understand this, but they did not like it.  They wanted to experience Jesus on their own terms.   This is not uncommon.  In the days of John Wesley he sarcastically called these people almost Christians.  They went to church when it was convenient, paid attention to the parts of the faith they liked, but their belief had no true bearing or impact on their life.  We see the same pattern today.  Consistently research in religious attitudes today show that people try to envision Jesus as a divine butler who’s only occupation is to meet their needs and ensure they are content and feel #blessed.   This is the same attitude the crowd had in the first century.  When the first century crowed realized that Jesus was saying they had to make him, his devotion to God and his compassion for others, part of them that is when they jumped ship.   To accept Jesus as the bread of life, to rely on him, to meet the deep needs of our soul, then Jesus must be part of our mind, part of our heart, part of our soul.   This saves us eternally because we are united with God the father in Christ, because Christ is in us.  

            Jesus is the bread of life.  Jesus is the good bread.   In this morning’s scripture our Lord and Savior uses the analogy of bread that he is the one and only substance that provides eternal, un-ending life.   The point is further developed that the only way to get this soul sustaining substance is by making Jesus part of who we are.   This metaphor uses the physical item of bread to describe a spiritual and metaphysical reality.    With these kind of high ideals it can be hard for us to truly feel it, to truly interact with the idea.   Which is why from the beginning Christian tradition has held onto and emphasized the sacrament of communion.   In communion we remember the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, but communion is more than just a sacrament.   As This Holy Mystery summarizes, “We receive spiritual nourishment through Holy Communion.  The Christian life is a journey, one that is challenging and arduous.  To continue living faithfully and growing in holiness requires constant sustenance.   Furthermore, John Wesley wrote on communion “This is the food for our souls:  This gives strength to preform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.”     

            It is through communion that we are best to experience Christ as the living bread.     In the United Methodist church we believe the sacrament of communion is a means of grace.  It is a physical action through which we can tangibly experience the love of Christ.   The sacrament of communion is more than an act of remembrance.   We call communion a sacrament because that word has a special and specific meaning.  A sacrament is a ritual where our physical, outward actions reflect and inward change in our hearts and souls.   Communion is a holy mystery where we can and hopefully do experience Jesus as the living bread.   Communion is meant to be a holy moment where we join with the entire body of Christ and once again experience the love, the forgiveness, and the acceptance of Christ.   Communion is meant to be a point in time where we the good bread we eat becomes for us like the body of Christ, the living bread that came down from heaven. That whoever eats this bread, who makes Christ part of themselves, will live forever because Jesus gave his flesh for the life of the world.  

            One of the great ironies of this morning’s scripture is the result it had.  Jesus declared himself to be the bread of life, and the result is many people stopped following him.   It is ironic because Jesus offers an open invitation.  In this morning’s scripture when comparing himself to manna he states, “here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which ANYONE may eat and not die.”   Jesus is the living bread for everyone, and the gift of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life are for all.  Charles Wesley captured this perfectly in one of his communion hymns when he wrote, “Come sinners to the gospel feat, let every soul be Jesus’ guests.  Ye need not be one left behind, for God hath bid all humankind.”  Then he continues in the last verse: “Ye who believe his record true shall sup with him and he with you; come to the feat be saved from sin, for Jesus waits to take you in.” 

            The beauty of communion is that it is goes both ways.  Communion is not just us reaching up to God, but it is God reaching to us through Christ.   Jesus is waiting to take us in, as we take him in.  During that holy moment, during the sacramental means of grace, we commune with our savior.   Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.   You are invited.  May you come to the feast, after all we brought the good bread.  

           

Big Heroes

Scripture:  Matthew 18:21-35

            To date fifty-six Disney Animated Studio films have been released.   I think it would take an extremely dedicated fan to have seen all of them, because some of the older and more obscure ones like the Three Caballeros or Melody Time are hard to track down today without paying high collector prices.  So even though the group of elite people who have watched them all is small, a lot of people have seen a lot of them, and most people have their favorite.  I am sure if we did a poll of “What is your favorite Disney movie” we would up with well over a dozen picks, but a few would probably rise to the top.   This is a question that different websites have asked multiple times in reader polls.  What is interesting is that different websites get different answers.  Websites where the readership skews male, like College Humor, tend to pick the Lion King as the best.  Websites where the readership leans female, like Oh my Disney, voted for Beauty and the Beast as their favorite.  When children are asked the answers are more varied but currently it is a tossup between Frozen and Moana.  For what it’s worth my absolute favorite Disney animated movie is hands down Big Hero 6. 

            It is my favorite movie for a couple of reasons.  First it focuses on superheroes and not princesses.   More importantly though it tells a compelling and nuanced superhero origin story.  This movie handles deep themes like loss and forgiveness.   It does so in a way that is genuine, mature, but manages to also be relatable for children.  If you have not seen it Big Hero 6 is the story of Hiro and Baymax, a robot built by Hiro’s brother Tadashi.   Tadashi tragically dies in a fire, and Hiro begins a quest to find the one who is responsible.  However, his motivation is revenge and anger.  Hiro makes Baymax a warrior when he was created to be a healer.   Hiro’s anger and desire for revenge pushes him to consider doing evil and it all comes to a head in this climatic scene:

            From this point on, Hiro’s attitude changes.  He let’s go of his anger, his need for vengeance, and essentially he forgives the person responsible for his brother’s death.  It is only after he makes the choice to forgive that he truly becomes a Big Hero.   Perhaps this is why more than other reason why I like this movie the most of the all the Disney movies.  Its central theme is downright biblical.   Jesus talked a lot about forgiveness, and like Hiro one of the lessons we learn is that when we forgive we free ourselves.  

            This morning’s scripture of the parable of the unmerciful servant is one of Jesus’ greatest teachings on forgiveness and it is consistent with the gospel message.   One of the things we can miss with this morning’s scripture is how it begins.   Peter ask Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who has wronged him, and he offers seven times.    What we miss is that essentially Peter is attempting to humble brag here.  First century Jewish ethics did put an emphasis on being willing to forgive.   However, it was a known teaching of some prominent Jewish rabbis at the time that if someone willfully wrongs you in the same way three times then they should not be offered forgiveness a fourth time.  So Peter was trying to sound really righteous by more than doubling the standard number and picking the nice, holy biblical sounding number of 7.   Jesus though goes a bit further and tells him seventy seven times or depending on the translation your bible might say seventy times seven times.   Either translation could be valid, but most biblical scholars agree that Jesus is not giving a specific number.  The thought that the expression is an idiom that essentially means an unlimited number of times.  According to Jesus there is never a time when it is inappropriate to forgive.   Which when we think about the reality of what the means is a remarkable statement.  It does not matter how badly someone has wounded us, it does not matter how many times they have betrayed our trust, and it does not matter how wrong they are.   Jesus instructs us to forgive them time and time again.  That kind of radical forgiveness goes pretty hard against our natural impulses for justice (or vengeance) so to back this up Jesus does what he does best:  He tells a story. 

            The genius thing Jesus does is he frames forgiveness in economic terms.   This is good because it helps make the story relatable but it also offers a deeper point.  Due to the fact that currency is radically different now we do not fully grasp the scope of this parable.  The first servant owed the king 10,000 talents.   A talent was the big money unit of the ancient world.  Today when we talk about the cost of major projects of the wealth of the ultra-rich we talk in the sums of millions of billions of dollars.  In the ancient world they expressed that level of wealth in terms of talents.  A denarii was the wage of a day laborer, and it would have taken roughly twenty years of earning a denarii a day to get to one talent.   I cannot fathom what this man blew the money on, but he owed 10,000 talents.   If we do some rough math, using a minimum wage $7.50, we can calculate roughly how much this man owed in today’s money, and it is somewhere north of 3 billion dollars.   In contrast the second servant owed this man 100 Dennari, which again we can figure out roughly in today’s terms to be somewhere around $6,000.  

            Telling a financial parable to illustrate forgiveness frames the lesson for us in two important ways.   First it helps us really see the hypocrisy of the unmerciful servant. Now $6,000 is not an insignificant number but it pales in comparison to 3 billion dollars.  That is why Jesus chose those numbers.   One of the things that is rare about this parable is that Jesus partially explains it, verse 35 chillingly states “This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless your forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”   The meaning of this parable is clear.  God is the king in the parable, and we are the debtor who owes 3 billion dollars.    We are in this situation because of our sin, because of the ways that we have willfully done wrong, for the times we have done things that we knew would anger God, or for the times that we did not do the good we know we ought to do.   All of those slights, those wrongs, all of those trespasses add up to the point that the level of wrong we have done to God puts us in the hole as much as a three billion debt.   As Paul wrote in Romans “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, as well as “The wages of sin is death.”  Yet like the king in the parable, God has had mercy on us, God has canceled the debt of sin against us and freed from the death we so rightly deserve.    The message of this parable is clear God has forgiven us for so much more than we could ever have reason to forgive another person.   If God has shown that kind of mercy to us, then we should show that level of mercy to the ones who have wronged us.  

            Jesus is fairly blunt in this parable, we must forgive others from our heart.  This is consistent with what Jesus says because earlier in Matthew Jesus says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”   We must forgive those who trespass against us, just as God forgives our trespasses.   Of course for many of us forgiving is much easier said than done.   By making this parable about money Jesus also illustrates why it is so hard for us to forgive.   In a lot of ways, we treat being wronged like an economic exchange, we keep track of it, and we want the books balanced.   This is why it can be so hard to forgive.  We are like the forgiven servant who is owed $6,000.  It was not like it just a couple of dollars, that is a decent amount of money and it is hard to let that go.   In the same way when someone really wrongs us, we struggle to let it go.   We want retribution.  We want to be paid back in kind by getting revenge.   We do not want to forgive, because we want to take what we feel is ours.   We can justify it all we want.  We can say “fair is fair” or “they need to learn their lesson” or even “If I am not tough on them they will never learn”.    All of our justifications do not change the fact that if someone wrongs us and we hold it against them until we feel we have equaled things out then we are no better than the unmerciful servant. 

            I think the reality that is sometimes hard for us to see is that we do not really want to be that person who holds a grudge and refuses to forgive.  Just look at the behavior in the scripture.  Right after being forgiven verse 28 states, “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him  . . .He grabbed him and began to choke him, ‘Pay back what you owe me’ he demanded.”    That behavior is ugly, and even though we might want to get our revenge we also do not want to be that ugly, petty, spiteful person described by Jesus in this morning’s scripture.   We have to choose between being that ugly person and getting the vengeance we have due or we choose to be the hero that forgives. 

            That is the choice that Hiro has to make in the clip we watched.   With Baymax he had the power to get his revenge, to terminate the person who had killed his brother.   But that would not have changed anything, it would not have ended his pain.  It would have been ugly and it would not have honored the memory of his brother.   Hiro chooses to let go of his desire to get revenge, and instead he chooses to honor his brother by being a big hero that seeks to help people.   When someone wrongs us we are offered a similar choice.   We can refuse to forgive and we can seek vengeance, or we can remember that a man who did not deserve to die hung on a cross so that we do not have to.  He took the punishment we deserve to pay the debt we owed.   We can choose to be ugly or we can choose to forgive as God forgave us.  

            Big Hero 6 is a work of fiction, but the experience of families in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania is very real and it perfectly illustrates just what it means to forgive.   In 2006 for reasons only known to him, Charles Roberts burst into an Amish school house where he eventually killed five girls before shooting himself.   This was a senseless, inexplicable act of violence and the Amish community responded in the exact opposite way: with an inexplicable act of love and forgiveness.    The family of Charles Roberts, who had no idea this was coming, were horrified and confused.  Mere hours after shooting, the Roberts family found members of the Amish community-including parents of the murdered children- at their doorstep.  The Amish were not there for vengeance; they were there to comfort, to love, and to offer forgiveness.  In that dark hour the family of Charles Robert found the very people he had wronged the ones who were there to meet their needs.    The Amish community even set up a charitable fund to help the family of the shooter.   In the face of unspeakable evil, the Amish community of Nickel Mines offered nothing but forgiveness and love.   They put into practice what Jesus taught in this morning’s parable, and they were big heroes.  

            The unfortunate reality of living in a broken and fallen world is that some of us here today have been really hurt by some people.   People who we trusted violated that trust, people we cared for treated us with contempt, or people who should have known better treated us unkindly.   Many of us have been hurt, and perhaps several of you feel that temptation to hold onto that hurt until you can balance it out and they get their comeuppance.  I urge you not to.  There is a quote that has its origins in Alcoholic’s Anonymous in the mid 20th-century that states “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”   Not forgiving is ugly, it is a poison of the soul, that keeps us from doing good and ultimately gets between us and God. 

            May you be quick to forgive and slow to hold a grudge.   May you be willing to let go of the pain you have been holding onto and may you release your desire for revenge.   May you instead follow the example of Jesus Christ, who died to forgive you.  May you be quick to have compassion and love.   In following the example of Christ may you be a big hero that helps a lot of people out there. 

You've Got a Friend in Me

Scripture:  Colossians 3:9-16

It might be because my social media feeds are still populated with people in high school or have graduated in recent years, but there is a common meme I see shared regularly.  There are several variations, but the common ideas is that in high school there should be a class called adulting where young people are taught about things like how to do taxes, how to fill out loan applications, and generally how to function as an adult.   I do not think those commonly shared posts are wrong.   It would be extremely helpful if we taught young people those things.    However, a class cannot adequately prepare people for adulting.   Some of it just comes through experiences and struggles.  Again, because of years of youth ministry I currently know a lot of people in their twenties and I have seen several of them have the same struggle.  It is also a struggle that I see echoed by people who are older and in their mid-thirties.   It is a struggle that perhaps some of you can identify with as well:  Namely, it is hard to make friends as adults.  Remember when we were kids, and just both liking Batman was enough to become fast friends?  As we age something happens to that dynamic.  

This is such a common experience, that science has taken on the task to discover how adults can become friends.   A study done at the University of Kansas sought to determine the factors that facilitate adults becoming friends.   Unfortunately, the study found there is no tried and true formula to instantly create friendships.  However, it did find two things.  First a level of time is required.   The study found that it takes at least fifty hours before adults will consider each other casual friends.   It takes at least 200 hours of time together before adults will consider each other good friends.  However, this study also found that time alone is not all it takes.  It is possible for people to be co-workers for years, spend hours together, and barely be on a first name basis.  The study pointed out that for friendship to form the people need to have a connection and commonality that has them spending time together outside of work.  

This was a major study that’s results were released in the first quarter of this year, but honestly everything this study found we already knew.   We already knew it because the results of this study were visually played out for us back in 1995 with the release of Toy Story.   Toy Story is the tale of how two toys, Woody the Cowboy and Buzz the space ranger become friends.   They spend a lot of time together, but they do not become friends at first.  In fact for most of the movie they are bitter enemies.  Woody is full of jealousy and Buzz is full of pride, both of which get in the way of their friendship.   They only become friends when they realize they have a connection, a commonality that binds them together in this scene: 

The common connection they share is that they are Andy’s toys.  That more than any of their differences bound them together as friends.   In much the same way as followers of Christ, we share a commonality and a bound that should transcend any differences.  However, as this morning’s scripture points out, people of faith have often struggled with how we treat one another.    This morning’s scripture really points out that one of things we should be able to say to one another as followers in Christ is “You’ve got a friend in me.”

            This morning’s scripture is from the letter Paul wrote to the church in Colossae.   This is a church that had some problems.   While this morning’s scripture sounds generally positive, we have to remember he was not writing a self-help book.  This morning’s scripture is a letter written for a specific purpose, so the contents of this morning’s scripture are less helpful life tips and more a “guys, stop it” plea.   From this morning’s scripture we get the sense that the congregation at Colossae might have really been going at each other.  Verse nine begins with an admonishment not to lie, he asks them to be patient with one another, and then pleads that they be willing to forgive one another.    We also get a sense that there was some serious division in the church, and that people were quick to cast each other into factions.  In verse 11 Paul wrote “here there is no Gentile or Jew circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all.”   One of the things we can easily miss is that barbarian is a term for a non-Greek speaker and Scythian is an ancient term to refer to an area south East of Turkey and South of Russia.   It is worth nothing that for Greek speakers in the Greco-Roman culture calling someone a barbarian or Scythian would have been a racial slur and had those connotations.   The fact that Paul purposely calls those words out, shows that people in the Colossae church must have been using them in hateful and hurtful ways. 

            While the details of the all the turmoil and struggles of the first century Colossae church have been lost to time, it seems that they struggled to find a friend in one another.  Much of this morning’s scripture is reminding the Colossae church what it is they have in common with one another, and by extension it reminds us what we have in common with one another.  Paul reminds us that that we are God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.   Paul reminds us that the peace of Christ should rule in our hearts and that it is through Christ we are all in this together.   Paul urges us to let the message of Christ dwell among us.    That message of Christ, the message that God loves us, God saves us, and God forgives us is our sacred trust.   It is the common purpose we all have, and it is the reason why we should be able to look at one another and say “You’ve got a friend in me.” 

            That is how it should be, but the church in Colossae got it wrong, and 2,000 years later we still struggle to get it right.   Christians who are supposed to love one another can bicker, fight, and argue over the stupidest things.  A couple of years ago Thom Rainer, CEO of Lifeway Christian resources, did an informal survey and asked people to share times they have experienced conflict in the church.    These are real answers.  One person remembered a time there was a large dispute because the church budget was off by ten cents.  The argument ended when someone went to their car and got a dime to balance the budget.   A board meeting spent a lot of time discussing the appropriate length for the worship leader’s beard.   Another person reported a board meeting with a 45-minute heated argument over the type of filing cabinet to purchase: black or brown; 2, 3, or 4 drawers.  Finally one person tragically reported a meeting that was so contentious it led to a church split.   The church boldly decided to switch to a stronger brand of coffee and in response several people left the church for good.  

            At these examples (and too many more like them) I have to laugh because otherwise I would cry.   As people of faith we spend many hours together, and through Christ we should share an unshakeable common bond.  However, instead of being fast friends we are willing to abandon our brothers and sisters in Christ over something as trivial as coffee.   This should never happen, and the fact that it does shows something is wrong.   Our relationships with one another are often hampered by sin.   Just like Woody and Buzz we allow our own negative attitudes inhibit our relationships.    In Toy Story Woody was jealous and angry because he thought Buzz was taking “his spot” in Andy’s room.    Yet, a lot of church conflict has been caused because someone gets upset about what other people are doing to “my church.”  It is the same kind of possessive jealousy.  In the same way, Buzz was to proud and full of himself to be friendly to Woody.   Again, people in church can be quick to dismiss whole groups of a congregation as “not their people.”   In Toy Story their flawed, sinful attitudes kept Woody and Buzz apart.  It was only in the clip we watched where they realized what binds them is stronger than anything that can divide them.  

            What binds us to one another is Jesus Christ, and friends there is nothing stronger than that love.   In 1985 People Magazine reported on the story of Frank and Elizabeth Morris, and their story proves just how the love of Christ can make friends out of anyone.  In 1982 the life of Frank and Elizabeth changed forever when their only son, Ted, was killed by a drunk driver.  The driver, a 22 year old Tommy Pigage, was a first time offender and he ended up only getting sentenced to five years probation.    This infuriated Frank and Elizabeth.  Even though they were devout believers, and Frank was himself a part-time preacher, they both admitted that they allowed themselves to hate Tommy and wish him dead.  

            As part of his sentence, Tommy had to give talks about the dangers of drunk driving at MADD sponsored events.  Elizabeth Morris went to one of these intending to heckled and humiliate Tommy.  However, Tommy was truly sorry for what happened and was full of remorse for what had happened.  Seeing this caused a change in Elizabeth and she had compassion for Tommy.   Eventually Frank and Elizabeth Morris began transporting Tommy to MADD events to give his talk since he had a suspended license.   Often they had conversations about faith, and one of these conversations led to Tommy being baptized.  Frank was the minister who administered the sacraments, and he realized if Jesus could forgive Tommy Pigage then so could he.    When People Magazine ran the story, three years after the accident, the life of these three had changed forever.    Tommy was on his way to an early acholic’s grave.  Frank and Elizabeth Morris could have been weighed down by shackles of hate and wrath for the rest of the days.  Instead, the love of Christ overcame their differences and the Morrises became lifelong friends with the person who had killed their son. 

            Being able to forgive to that degree is truly what it means to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”   The common bond of being saved through faith should be enough to overcome any differences.   If that bond was enough to unite a drunk driver with the parents of his victim, then it is certainly enough to overcome whatever petty differences we might find we have with one another.  So let us bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you have a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  

            More than that though, let’s put in the time and do the work to be friends with one another.  It should not matter what divides us, may we be able to say to one another you have a friend in me.   Even if decades separate us in age, may we say you have a friend in me.   Even if we disagree about how to understand the bible, may we say you have a friend in me.   Even if we are on radically different sides of the political spectrum, may we say you have a friend in me.    Because that which we share, the love of God, is greater than any difference that comes between us.  

            We should be united as one in Christ because Christ is all and Christ is in all.    May that love more than anything else define our relationship with one another.   May we be able to look to those in the pews with us and from the depths of our hearts be able to say, “You’ve got a friend in me.  If you’ve got troubles, I’ve got’em too.   There isn’t anything I would do for you.  We stick together and can see it through, Cause you’ve got a friend in me.  You’ve got a friend in me.” 

The Circle of Life

Scripture:  Luke 15:11-32

            The opening of the Lion King is easily one of the most iconic opening scenes in cinematic history.   The imagery and sound is a perfect combination, and it really sets the stage for the movie that comes.   I do not know about you, but even though I first saw the Lion King 24 years ago, and since then I cannot see a sun rise without instantly hearing the opening lines of the song.  The opening of the song is written and sung in Zulu.  Unless you are one of the ten million people in the world that speak Zulu, exactly what is being said is a mystery.   That is a good thing, because the actual lyrics are under whelming.   When translated here is the entirety of what is being sung in Zulu at the beginning of A Circle of Life:  “Here Comes a Lion, Father-Oh yes it is a lion.  Here comes a lion, Father-oh yes it is a lion, a lion.  We are going to conquer a lion.  A lion and a leopard come to this open place.”   It should be pointed out this is not a translation error, that is more or less the accurate translation and more or less how a native Zulu speaker would understand it.  Disney made a good choice because if the lion king started with someone dramatically singing in English, “Here comes a lion” it would not be as memorable or as dramatic of an opening.   For a good story to be truly memorable, it has to have great presentation.    Opening in Zulu immediately grabs the audience attention, it communicates something exotic.  For English speaking audience the opening image of a savannah and the sound of the language we do not know immediately evokes a feeling of being very African.    It is all masterful presentation, but that should not a surprise.  Disney, after all, are experts at presentation.  

            It is Disney’s master-level presentation that has made the studio such great story-tellers, and it is why so many of their films have endured and found new audiences generation after generation.  Jesus was also a great story-teller.  Jesus drew crowds as a healer, but he must have also drawn crowds because he was so good at telling stories.   People came to hear Jesus speak, and when Jesus spoke he told stories.   Matthew 13:34 reminds us “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”  

            The Lion King is one of Disney’s best known and most highly regarded stories.  It happens to share common themes and a common message with one of Jesus’ best known stories, that of the Prodigal Son.   If we consider the well-known story of an ungrateful son with the soundtrack to the Lion King in the background, perhaps we can see that Jesus describes a different kind of circle of life.  

            It cannot be understated enough, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is truly masterful story-telling.   The story simultaneously embodies the radical love that God has for all people as well as create allegorical characters that the original audience could identify with.   Jesus told this story initially to first century Jews in Palestine, so there are some cultural details that would have been profound to them that either do not register to us or that we easily gloss over.  I think there are four such details that we miss.    

            First, I am not sure we fully register what the son is saying when he says “Father give me my share of the estate.”   This is not simply asking for money.  Typically the only way a family estate is passed own is upon the death of the patriarch.   Essentially the younger son is saying, “I am done with you, and I wish you dead, so for all intents and purposes can we just pretend you are.”  First century, Jewish culture was patriarchal with a large emphasis on respecting one’s elders.  The amount of disrespect shown by the son would have been angering to the first century audience, and it must have been down right shocking to them when Jesus continues to the story and says the father agrees and divides his property.   

            The second aspect we miss is just how far from grace the prodigal son fell.   Remember, Jesus was talking to a Jewish audience and they would have naturally assumed the prodigal son was himself Jewish.  Pigs are not kosher, and even to this day are considered unclean in the Jewish faith.  The prodigal son had gotten so close to rock bottom that he was doing the unthinkable for a first century Jew.  Not only was he regularly living with unclean animals, he was to the point where he was considering eating the food the pigs eat.  At this point, the first century audience probably thought this was going to a morality tale.   The son had disrespected his father and he was getting exactly what he deserved.   So they were probably shocked at what happened next.  

            As we know, the father did not disown the prodigal son, but instead he accepted him back with open arms.  However, he did much more than that.  Verse 20 states, “But while he was a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son.”   There are two important easy to miss details there.  First, the father saw the son while he was a long way off.  This implies, the father was looking for the son.   Even though the son had been completely disrespectful, had wished the father dead, the father never gave up his love.  Once his son left, the father not only had hope he would one day return.  He actively kept a look out to him.    The second detail  easy to miss is the father ran.   Remember, this is a patriarchal culture with a strong sense of honor and shame.   The honored patriarch does not run.   They wait for the other person to come to them.    This is especially true if the person the honored patriarch is being approached by someone beneath their station of honor.  The indignity of hiking up one’s robe and running to someone like the honor-less, disgraced son would have been considered utterly shameful. 

            The deeper meaning of this story would not have been lost on the original hearers, and it should not be lost on us either.   Jesus told the story of the prodigal son as the third story in a series to illustrate how much God loves it when a sinner repents.  Given that it is clear that the father of the story represents God.   This story perfectly illustrates just how great God’s love for us.   No matter how grievously we sin against God, no matter how much we rebel, no matter how long we have our back turned to our creator, God does not give up on us.  God actively looks out for us, and God runs to embrace us when we come back.   

            The prodigal son paints a powerful image on a God defined by an unrelenting love.  However, the story does not stop there, and that is the final piece that we should not overlook.  The story continues to the older son, who has been faithful and is now resentful.   Those who were following Jesus at this point would have caught on that the older son represented the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day.  Like the older brother the Pharisees elevated fairness not mercy.   Like the older brother the Pharisees wanted to heap judgement and condemnation upon those lost in sin instead of rejoicing in celebration because the dead are alive again, and the last are found.     

            Jesus is a masterful storyteller and this morning’s scripture is a shining example of that.  This brings us back to the Lion King though, because it to is a story of a prodigal son.   The main character, Simba, also turns his back on his father.  Now the circumstances are different, and the Lion King has a more tragic feel to it, but the results are the same.  The son has walked away from the father.   In Jesus’ story the prodigal son comes to his senses when he hits rock bottom, but in the Lion King the father has to intervene in this powerful scene:

 

            Remember who you are.   Simba, the prodigal son, and the older son are all guilty of the same failing.   All of them forgot who they were.   They are the son of their father.   None of them were living life to the best life had to offer.   Simba had settled for good enough, the prodigal son was lost in sin, and the older son blinded by bitterness.    The story of the prodigal son reminds us of God’s great love for us, but it also reveals something about us as well.   Because at different times in our lives you, me, we are the prodigals and then there are other times we are the bitter older children.

            Throughout our days it seems we tend to go in a circle in life, where we continually lose track of where we should be and need to be reminded of who we are.    We can be guilty of forgetting that we are children of God, meant to be in relationship with God.  There are times when we are like the prodigal son.   We are not obedient to God, we turn away from what we know is right, and we do what we know is wrong.   We are selfish, prideful, and unfaithful.   We might even delude ourselves that what we are doing is not bad or it is even virtuous as we “discover ourselves” or “live in the moment.”  However, if you remember the times you have been down that windy and wrong road you know those are empty lies we tell ourselves.   Many of us have been the prodigal son.

            Then there are times when we are like the older son.   We go through the motions of being obedient to the father, but it is just that motions.  It is an empty duty full of resentment not a loving relationship.   We are quick to see the slights done against us and we are long to hold a grudge.    We can fall into horrible ways of thinking where we pay lip-service to mercy, but we do not seem to actually think much of it.  Instead of offering love and forgiveness to those in need, we cross are arms and self-righteously declare “God only helps those who help themselves.”    We may play the role of the obedient child, but the reality is the fire has cooled and been replaced by far too much bitterness.  Many of us have been the older son.  

            If either of those are you today, then you are in the right place.  If you are like the prodigal child and you have been living in ways that you know are sinful and wrong, then you are in the right place.  If you are like the older child where your love for God has gone cold and your compassion for other has dried up, then you are in the right place.  You are in the right place because there is good news for you!    It does not matter what you have done, it does not matter who you have hated, or how bitter you have acted.   God still loves you, and if you turn back to God then God will RUN to meet you where you at.  

            May we all remember who we are.   We are God’s children.  No matter what we have done, God will always welcome us back in love.  I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.   If you know that is you today, then may you repent may you remember who you are and may you return to the God wo loves you even still.   Then there will be a celebration because the lost has once again been found. 

Rain, Rain Go Away

Scripture:  4:35-41

            For a couple of years in the mid-2000’s I led youth group trips to Mississippi to help with Hurricane Katrina recovery.  The first year we went was 2007.  This was almost two years after the hurricane hit, and it must have been truly remarkable just how much damage was  initially done.   Because two years later we spent the week helping repair houses that had been unlivable since the hurricane.  On the way to the house I spent the week working on we drove past an abandoned parking lot that still had people living in FEMA temporary trailers.  Most o the work on the house was almost finished so we spent most of the week doing the finishing touches like painting.  We worked on a house for an elderly woman and her middle aged son.  I still remember his story.   He chose to ignore the evacuation order.  He was concerned about looters, and he thought the strength of the storm was being over-reported and that it was not going to be as bad as was being stated.  He was wrong.   Their house was on the northern edge of Biloxi, MS but it did not completely escape the storm surge.   He ended up riding out the storm on the roof of the house while the rain pounded, the gale force winds blew and the water rose to over 10 feet all around him.   It was a frightening story, and one I cannot imagine living through.   In general we go out of our way to avoid mortal danger.    Fortunately, it is rare to find ourselves in those kind of situations.   It is hard to know what we would do in those kind of situations.  If we were in a house about to be flooded by one of the worse hurricanes in history would we freeze with a panic attack or would we do what had to be done and ride Hurricane Katrina on top of the roof of a small two bed room house?  

            In time of uncertainty, one of the catch phrases that gets thrown around is “What would Jesus do?”   So if Jesus was stranded in a hurricane, just what would he do?    Well, if we base our answer off of this morning’s scripture the answer appears to be that Jesus would take a nap.   When a terrible storm hits, our natural response is to panic or meet it with a stiff upper lip, yet Jesus seems to completely unbothered by the worst of mother nature.   If we follow Jesus’ example in this then we too should not let any storm-real or metaphorical bother us.  

            While some of us probably do enjoy a weekend out on the lake, the majority of us can not properly appreciate the situation that the disciples and Jesus found themselves in.   As a rule, we tend to go out on the water when we know it is going to be safe.   If it is not going to be safe, then we stay out of the boat.   We check the weather, we double check the weather, and if we see dark clouds forming we head back into the dock.   For most lakes in Indiana, the entire time we are never that far from land and we have access to a life jacket just in case.   These are all luxuries that the disciples did not have.   If their boat sunk or capsized they did not have life jackets.  The Sea of Galilee is 15 miles long and eight miles wide, so even if they could swim it would have probably been a 3-4 mile swim in bad weather, and they did not have access to satellite informed weather reports.  Even if they did have a weather report, it would not have done much good. 

Even today “a furious squall” can come up on the Sea of Galilee expectantly.  Our former Bishop in Indiana Mike Coyner has firsthand experience with this.  A couple of years ago I was on a boat in the sea of Galilee sitting next to the bishop, and he told me the last time he was on the water here, he was asked to lead a devotion and he did over this morning’s scripture.   He explained the unique geography The Sea of Galilee, lies in a valley with interesting weather patterns.  Several ravines, gorges and valleys function as a sort of weather funnel that allow weather from the Mediterranean sea to end up stuck over the sea of galilee fairly quickly.  When he began reading the scripture it was a bright and sunny day, by the time he finished explaining the weather heavy clouds had rolled in almost on que and it began to rain as if to illustrate his point. 

In this scripture the disciples found themselves in a similar predicament, only it was not a simple rain storm but a full blown thunder storm with winds strong enough to break waves over the simple fishing boat.   I imagine being in the middle of a lake that is taking on so much water that it is swamped or full is about as panic inducing as riding out a hurricane.   When the disciples were faced with this predicament, what did they do?  They did buckle down and try to get the water out before it was too late or did they panic.   Other than waking up Jesus, this morning’s scripture does not give us much insight into the way the disciples were acting, but I can only picture them in full out panic mode.   In verse 38, when it states the disciples woke Jesus and said “Teacher don’t you care if we drown?”  I can only picture that as a screamed shout of panic.   Fear, panic, anxiousness, that is often how we respond to storms but that was not Jesus’ response. 

And can we talk about Jesus response?  He slept!   The scripture states he was in the stern, which just means the back of the boat.  This would have been a simple fishing boat, not a cruise ship.  It is not like Jesus was safe and secure in some state room.  He was sleeping with a pillow in the middle of a thunder storm, in a boat that was rapidly filling up with water.  I am not sure I have ever been so tired in my life that I would sleep through that, but somehow Jesus managed it!   One of the reasons why Jesus did not sweat it is because he knew that he had the power to essentially say “rain, rain go away” and the clouds would listen to him. 

Hopefully, you have never been in mortal danger of drowning during a storm, but we all often face proverbial storms in our lives.   We face times when it feels like when the hardships of life are dumping on us like buckets of rain, when we are pushed back by winds of tribulation, and when we think we are standing on solid ground it is actually a boat quickly filling with water.   Calling these times of hardship the storms of life, is such an apt analogy because we all instinctively understand it.   Nearly all of us have experienced it.   When those proverbial storm clouds gather on the horizons of our life, I think we should take the words of Jesus from this scripture to heart, first “Quiet be still”  and “Why are you so afraid?”  

Jesus told the wind and the waves to quiet and be still, which is exactly what they did.  As followers of Jesus, I think we can do the same thing. . .kind of.   We may not be able to silence literal thunder clouds but we can quiet the storm inside of us.   Do you know what I mean?   Have you ever had that inner turmoil, the feeling of uncertainty, of dread, of worry that was strong that you could not sleep, you could not focus, and sometimes it may even feel hard to breathe?  Those times when your inner thoughts feel so chaotic, so unbalanced, it can only be properly described as a storm raging inside you?    That is the storm that we can be quiet, that is the storm that we can stay be still.  However, I think to properly do that we need to turn to the 46th Psalm to finish the thought.  Psalm 46:10 states: “Be still and know that I am God.”   When we center ourselves on God, when we realize that Jesus has the power to calm any storm, to silence any thunder, and still any waves then we can also be still.   We can claim the promise that God is bigger than the storms we face and feel.    We can have a confident assurance that no matter what comes our way God will be with and that God works for the good of those who love Him.   That is a powerful promise and I believe when we truly claim that promise and believe that promise in faith it can and will calm any storm in our heart.  

Which brings us to Jesus second words, “Why are you so afraid?”   If our trust is in God, what do we have to be afraid of?   Now, I know that some of you are pragmatic realists.   You are good at risk assessment, and you can generate quite the list of things we  have to be afraid.  Others of you might be prone to anxious thinking, and you also can jump straight to a laundry list of worst case scenarios.    Despite those lists, Jesus still ask, “why are you so afraid?”   Even if the worse case scenario happens, the eternal truths of the Christian message do not change.    We are still loved by God, we are still saved by Jesus through faith, God’s love will still never fail us, and Christ will be with us to the end of the age.  Nothing will ever, ever change that.   So why are we still so afraid?  

I think the answer is, of course, we are still afraid that the worse will happen; that despite believing that God is with us the worst possible scenario will still come to pass.   There is a story of a Christian man that illustrates what we should do in the worst possible scenario.  Father Thomas Byles was a well-loved Catholic priest serving the parish of Ongar, England.   His brother had moved to New York, where he met the love of his life, and was set to be married.  Father Byles was asked by his brother to do the ceremony and his brother even provided him passage aboard a state of the art ocean liner.   The year was 1912 and the ship Father Byles boarded was the Titanic.   When the ship met its fate and collided with the iceberg, Father Byles went to the steerage class where he was a non-anxious calming presence.   He helped provide organize the poorest passengers and he was instrumental in getting some of them to safety.  The priest continued to be a calming presence in the midst of a chaotic storm of fear and chaos.  A survivor of the crash stated later that when people began to get excited and panicked all Father Byles had to do was raise his hand and calm returned as people loaded the life boats.   Being a man of God, he was offered a seat on a life boat more than once.  Each time, he turned it down so that another soul might take the spot he would have occupied.  The priest continued to minister to the very end.  He made his way to the stern of the ship where several people were stranded without hope of rescue, and as the Titanic went down he offered prayers of absolution, last rites, and he brought peace and stilled many trouble hearts while ensuring them there was no reason to be afraid.

  In the midst of the worst possible case scenario Father Byles did not panic and he did not accept his fate with grim resolve.  Instead he glorified God, he loved others, he had no fear, and an abundance of faith.   When the storms of life come instead of giving into panic we should follow Father Byles example.   Even if the rain does not go away, we can praise God in the midst of the storm.    

If today your life feels like it is in turmoil, if you feel like the waves are coming over the side of the boat, then may you be still.  Be still and know that God is with you.   If the circumstances of life seems overwhelming may you not give into fear, but may you cling to a faith that is greater than whatever hardship you are facing.    May you be a non-anxious presence, may you praise God in the storm, and may you know that even if the rain does not go away God does not change.  God’s love does not fail, and the God that was with you in brighter days with you now, tomorrow, and forever more.  No matter what.    

Green Thumbs

Scripture:  Mark 4:26-34

            As many of you know, I and several others were at camp this week.   Each year the camp managers pick out a theme and they encourage each week to try and incorporate that theme.  For instance, last year the theme was social media.   This year the theme that was picked out (by other people, mind you, this was not me) was Star Wars.   So this past week was a week of church camp.   God was worshipped, the bible was taught, the gospel was proclaimed, and it was all set in the theme of Star Wars.   As you might imagine, we really ran with it.   Lightsabers were made, movies were watched, and every illustration I made was knee deep in Star Wars lore.  It was a great week of camp is what I am saying.   

            Perhaps you have noticed this, but preachers tend to talk about what they know.  The sports fan makes a lot of baseball analogies.   The veteran finds illustrations in war stories.   The geek connects the gospel with the force.    Using that principle, I think we actually can get some insight into Jesus based on the stories he told.  We usually assume that Jesus was trained as a carpenter because he was a carpenter’s son.   That is an extremely safe assumption, but it is worth noting that Jesus does not really tell carpentry stories.   However, there is a common theme that many parables touch on.   Jesus told a lot of farming stories.   This too should make sense.  Jesus grew up and lived in an agrarian society.   Those who were not craftsmen or shop keepers were likely farmers and laborers who worked the land.   The seasons of planting and harvest really set the pulse of life.   We do not know much about the early life of Jesus, but even if he did not actively work the fields he was immersed in that way of life, and so were the majority of the people he talked to.   It should be no surprised then that Jesus told so many farming based parables.  This morning’s scripture from Mark contains two of these small parables.  These two stories are different, they come at it from a different angle but in the end they reach the same overarching point, which is God is the one that makes things grow.   

            Both of these stories begin with a familiar opening of stating or asking “what is the kingdom of God like.”    This phrase appears throughout the parables of Jesus, and this phrase refers to the gospel message that Jesus preached.   His parables were often illustrations about what following the teachings of Jesus would be like, transform, or bring about.   Yet it goes a little bit deeper than that.  We have to remember that Jesus is more than just a wise teacher, he is more than just a good person full of profound insight.   Jesus is the messiah, he is the son of God.  His parables are not just platitudes or inspirational sayings.   The stories Jesus tells are to inform of us a deeper reality, a reality that is both here and not yet.   A reality where God’s kingdom is fully established and fully realized; A reality where we are God’s people and God is our God.   That reality comes about as the gospel message spread, as people open their hearts to forgiveness, and as they become part of the kingdom of God.   These parables use farming analogies to explain how that message, the gospel of God’s love grows and how God’s kingdom is going to continue to increase.  

            The first of these small parables, the one about the growing seed is found only in the gospel of Mark.  That alone makes it unique because there are only a handful of stories and details found in Mark’s gospel that are not replicated in the others.   In this story Jesus makes a simple but profound point.   The point is the farmer or the gardener cannot make a seed grow.  A farmer or gardener can provide for ideal conditions.   Steps can be taken to make sure the seeds are planted at the peak time, the soil can be properly prepared, water can be provided, but in the end it is impossible for any human being to will a seed to grow.  As Jesus stated in verse 27, “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain.”

            The second parable is also about seeds, specifically the mustard seed.  Mustard plants are really a whole family of plants that share common characteristics.  They are all bushy and they all have small seeds.   The mustard seeds are not the smallest seeds in the world, but they are absolutely the smallest seeds that would have been cultivated in first century Israel.   Jesus refers to it as a garden plant, so this means it was not grown en masse like grain, but people grew mustard seeds to use as a spice or seasoning.  The mustard plants in question, were squat bushes, but as Jesus points out the branches could support birds, and they were much bigger than other garden plants.   This parable take the contrast between the small size of the seed and the size of the plant to point out that the kingdom of God is bigger than we could possibly imagine.  

            This morning’s scripture states at the end that Jesus used parables like these two to explain to the people “as much as they could understand.”   The implication is that the people would really struggle with a more direct approach, so Jesus told relatable stories.  Or rather, he told stories that were relatable to first century, Jewish farmers and villagers.   There is an ocean of time and cultural difference between us as an audience of 21st century, American (mostly) not farmers.  Despite that, I think these parables are just as relevant to us today as they were to Jesus’ original audience back then. 

            The first parable is about how the kingdom of God is like a seed that is going to grow no matter what because that is what seeds do.  In today’s day and age, I think this is an incredibly encouraging message.   Today it is not hard to find pundits and nay-sayers quick to proclaim the death of the church.  They are quick to point out some fairly grim statistics about declining church membership, generational loss, and number of closing churches.   However, that only tells half the story.  We should be rightly concerned by those statistics and we should have a deep desire to see American Christianity revitalize.   However, the church-the kingdom of God-is not going anywhere.   For instance, between 2012-2016 the Central Congo conference of the United Methodist church added half a million people.   That is almost double the amount of Methodists in the entire state of Indiana.   Like a seed, the kingdom of God is going to grow because that is how God designed it.  Nothing is going to stop the message that God loves you, God forgives you, and God wants you from spreading and growing. 

            On a more local and personal level this is a great reminder that we cannot make the seeds of faith grow.   I probably do not mention this enough, but I am proud of you as a church.  I want to let you know that I like to brag about you.  A couple weeks ago at annual conference as I met and talked to people I got to talk about this church, and a common thing I like to say is that Edinburgh UMC punches above its weight class.  As a church you to take on ministry that most churches this size do not attempt.  I am proud of you that you are willing to do the work, give the time, and make the sacrifices to proclaim God’s love to this town.   This first parable is a reminder to us that when we serve the community through all of the various ways that we do, it is not our efforts that is going to make a love for God grow in the hearts of the people we interact with.  Seeds grow though we do not know how.  However, just like the farmers and gardeners we can provide the best possible growing conditions. Just like a gardener tills, sows, and waters we can reach out to the community and meet their needs, we can invite them to experience loving community.  We can show them understanding, compassion, and the love of Christ.  We cannot make the seeds of faith planted grow, but we can trust God to do that because God is the one that makes seeds grow.   God is the one who grows the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God cannot, will not be stopped. 

            The second parable about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed is also applicable today.   The same point made 2,000-ish odd years ago is still just as relevant:  The kingdom of God, the power of God, and the love of God will always surprise us.  It will always be bigger and more incredible than we can imagine.   The small seed will grow into something larger than we thought possible.   I have been able to see this play out neatly over the course of several years now.   It all started a decade ago, when one Christian mom planted a seed encouraging one of her friends to send her son to the youth group her children attended.   This mom did and her son started attending the youth group.  He had been doing that for about a year, when I came to the church to lead the youth.  That is when I met Mark.  Throughout high school, church and faith became an important part of Mark’s life.  The seed planted by another mom had begun to sprout and grow.    After graduating high school, Mark’s faith kind of stagnated in college as is often the case.   However, as he graduated I was desperate for camp counselors so I reached out to Mark.   Coming to camp was the watering that Mark’s faith needed.  When he moved to start his adult job, Mark committed to being serious about his faith.  It has been a joy connecting with him each year at camp as I have seen this teenager that I know grown into a committed, deeply rooted, man of God.   It was a joy this past week to watch Mark at camp plant seeds of his own as he told campers just how much God loves them.   For me Mark is a great example of this parable brought to life.  His faith journey started with the smallest seeds, an invitation to youth group, and it grew into a large and vibrant of faith. 

            In the same way we can plant small seeds, and this summer we have the opportunity to do just that.   Every Tuesday and Thursday we continue to be led by Abby Sweet in providing meals for children and families, that is place to plant small seeds.   In a couple of weeks we are going to hold a creative skills camp, and the whole point for that ministry is to plant seeds by building relationships and loving the children who come through our doors.  In July we get to do that again at VBS as we remind children that God’s promises will always be there for then, and then right before school starts we bless families again by giving out school supplies.  In all of these instances we can plant seeds, they will be small like a mustard seed.  However, that is what the kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds can grow to unbelievable sizes.   

            Jesus told stories about seeds because he was talking to people who knew a thing or two about growing seeds.  If you are a gardener you might relate to these parables a bit better than I do, because I do not really have a green thumb.  I have yet to meet a plant I can’t kill.   Yet, even I take heart in these parables because they remind me that I do not have to have a green thumb in faith to spread the gospel.   God is the one with the green thumbs, God is the one who makes the seeds grow, makes them grow bigger than we can imagine.   May we claim that promise, and may we be faithful.  May we be faithful in planting the seeds of the gospel.  May we be faithful in planting the seeds of God’s love.  May we be faithful in preparing the soil, and may we give God all the glory when the harvest has come. 

Called Up

Scripture:  Isaiah 6:1-8

            It is often reported that in the United States Football is the most popular sport, and the  reason for this is because of all the major leagues football generates the most revenue.   However, I think there is a case still to be made for America’s favorite pastime baseball.   Football may generate the most ad revenue and draw bigger crowds per game, but NFL teams only play 16 games a year, compared to the 162 games that make up the MLB season.   However, I think the biggest case for the popularity of baseball is the number of teams.   For instance there are only 32 teams in the NFL and currently that is the entirety of professional football teams in the United States. Baseball is a different story.   There are a total of 247 professional baseball teams in the United States.  Even though our state does not host a MLB team, we have four professional baseball teams in the state.    The support of that many teams across the country speaks a lot to the popularity of baseball.   One of the reasons why there are so many baseball teams is because of the extensive farm system that baseball has.  The origins of this system is now over 100 years old.  The way it works is that each major league baseball team has multiple teams associated with it.  This goes from the high level AAA teams like the Indianapolis Indians all the way down to rookie league teams.   In these leagues players can continue to develop skills until their affiliated major league team has need for them.  With rare exception, MLB draft picks start off in the farm teams.  Most start at the rookie level and they work their way up.   It is obviously the dream and the goal of these baseball players to make it out of the minor leagues and play in a major league ball game.  These players work hard to try and get their chance to get called up.    The reality is the majority will not.  Of all players drafted by a major league team, only 1/5th will actually play for that major league team.  The other 80% will spend their entire professional careers in the minor leagues.   Despite those slim odds, hundreds of young men pursue this dream year after year.   This morning’s scripture is the call story of the prophet Isaiah.  It is the story of what led him to become one of the most influential prophets of the old testament.   This is one of several different call stories we found scattered throughout the Bible.   These are stories of how seemingly regular people are called up to a higher, grander, world transforming purpose.   In baseball only 20% of the players get called up, so I wonder what is our percentage of people called up in the church? 

            Because the book of Isaiah is so expansive and because he is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament, Isaiah is sometimes today referred to as the prince of prophets.   Outside of what little details are revealed about his life within the book of Isaiah, very little is known about Isaiah-especially before he was called to be a prophet.   Isaiah was a prophet for somewhere between 35 and 50 years.  While not guaranteed, we can presume that he was a young man when this morning’s scripture took place.   By and large this morning’s scripture picks up in the middle, and we do not have any context.  The scripture tells us it was the year that King Uzziah died, but we know nothing about Isaiah.  The scripture does not tell us who he was until this point, what he was up to, or why he of all people was called by God. 

            And what a call story that Isaiah has.   In serving the Indiana conference of the United Methodist church on the district committee on ministries as well as the board of ordained ministries, I have been able to hear the call story of several clergy colleagues.  These stories are the personal experiences of pastors and how God worked through those experiences to bring them to serving in ministry.   I can say that I have never heard someone share a story like Isaiah’s!   This morning’s scripture is wild.   Isaiah had a vision of God sitting on his heavenly throne.   The imagery of the seraphim with all of their wings is akin to passages out of the book of Revelation.   It is quite the call story!   In most of the call stories I have heard a theme that emerges again and again is that the people were not sure if God were truly calling them or not.   I do not think Isaiah had that problem.   Seeing God on God’s heavenly throne surrounded by multi-winged angels seems like a pretty hard to deny affirmation.   You may have noticed that in the pew bible’s the sub-heading for this morning’s scripture is “Isaiah’s commission”.   This is the scripture about how Isaiah was called up to be a prophet.  However, we can get so distracted by the grandeur of the vision that we miss an important detail.  

            This scripture is when Isaiah was called up to be a prophet, but notice God did not initially tell Isaiah what to do.   This scripture is not God telling Isaiah that he has proven himself, and now God has a mission for him.   That’s not how it goes down at all.   Isaiah volunteers.   Verse 8 records, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?”     There is nothing to indicate that this was explicitly directed to Isaiah, but nevertheless he is the one who responded, “Here am I, send me!”

            Now typically we do refer to this as Isaiah’s call story, but for Isaiah his calling was more him volunteering.   Remember, Isaiah served as a prophet for three to five decades.  It was quite the commitment he signed himself up for.   That is not a decision that should be taken likely, so I wonder what motivated Isaiah to volunteer so quickly?   While we do not know all of the details of Isaiah’s backstory we do get a clue to his motivations in this scripture.  

            This morning’s scripture makes it known that Isaiah was terrified by what he saw as he exclaims in verse 5.  “Woe to me!  I cried, I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”    Several centuries later, Paul wrote about the source of Isaiah’s existential angst in the book of Romans when Paul wrote, “for the wages of sin is death.”  Isaiah knew that he was a sinner from a sinful people, and he knew that out of God’s rightful and swift justice the meant he deserved to be doomed.   Yet that is not what happened.   Isaiah was redeemed.   He was set right with God, in verse 7 the angel tells Isaiah, “your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.”   It is after this happens, it is after Isaiah is informed that he is forgiven, that he then responds “here am I send me.”   God had provided for Isaiah in a way that he could never provide for himself and God had given Isaiah a gift he could never properly return.   Perhaps, for Isaiah, the only right feeling response to God was to respond when God asked for volunteers.  

            If that is true, if part of what motivated Isaiah was responding for God taking away his guilt and forgiving him of his sin, then that has incredible implications for us.    Because if you consider yourself a Christian, if you consider Jesus your savior and the Lord of your life, then your guilt has been taken away and your sin atoned for.    Because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross you are no longer a person with unclean lips and you are no longer belong to a people of unclean lips- you belong to God.   I feel obligated to remind you that this forgiveness, this salvation we profess is a gift offered to us without price.   We do not deserve it, we are not entitled to it, and we certainly do nothing to earn it.   We are offered reconciliation with God as a gift, and we are only saved because we have received that gift.  What then should our response be?   If we take this gift of eternal life and keep it to ourselves that would be the height of selfishness.  God has offered the gift of his son to the whole world, and after we have received the gift the only right, good, and proper response is to seek to share and invite others to open that gift.   Like Isaiah, our response to God’s grace should be to volunteer. 

            When it comes to being called by God, I think this is something that we sometimes get wrong.   I think a lot of good church folk who are sitting on the sidelines, are open to the idea of serving God’s kingdom in some way.  However, they are waiting to be called up.   They are waiting for their own grand vision with smoke, lights, and six winged angels where God delivers unto them their calling.   What if is not meant to work quite like that?   What if God has already called us. . .because he has.  If you are a Christian, then you have already responded to God’s call out of the world to be one of his children.   What if now God is actually waiting on you to call yourself out, to step into the game, and volunteer?   If that is true, then it means you are already called up to serve in God’s kingdom.  The question is what are you going to volunteer to do about it?  

            With that question in mind, there are  some points for you to consider.  First, while God is waiting for us to volunteer, God still has created and us gifted us with unique gifts and abilities.  This means that not everyone is called or equipped to be a preacher, not everyone is called or equipped to be a missionary, and not everyone is equipped or called to be a children Sunday school teacher.   This naturally leads us to wonder then how do we know what we are supposed to volunteer to do for God?    Honestly, that is a question we have to answer for ourselves but thankfully it is often not a hard question to answer.  Again, in hearing the call story of many clergy there is a common theme.   Even if they ran from their calling for years, they could not deny it.   It is as if their calling was written on their hearts.   Again, Paul touches on this in Romans where he writes, “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.”   Whatever it is you feel God has best equipped you to do, then just do it.   Whatever it is, if God has truly gifted you to do it, then you can fulfill that role in a way that no one else can.  In whatever way you feel equipped, God is asking “Whom shall I send?”   God is waiting for you to volunteer.  

            There are many ways that we can volunteer to serve God’s kingdom.   Being a missionary, a Sunday school teacher, or a preacher are perhaps the most visible upfront ways but they are not the only ways.   Perhaps you are equipped to make the difference in people’s lives one person at a time by visiting with the sick and home bound or even by tutoring students.  Perhaps you are equipped to put the physical needs of others first through doing things like volunteering for a food pantry or delivering meals on wheels.   Perhaps you have been equipped to partner with others to take on major systemic problems like inadequate low-income housing or drug addiction.   Or perhaps you are called to teach and preach, and that is a calling you have been running from for awhile.  

I realize some of you know all of this because you are already doing what God would have you to do.  If you have already answered that call if you have already said “Here I am, send me” to God, and you already doing what God has equipped you to do, then may God’s blessing be upon your service, may it be fruitful, may you make disciples, and man you transform the world.    If have not responded to God’s question of “whom shall I send?”  Why not?   Let’s work together to remove those barriers.  If really are not sure what steps you need to take to be faithful to God in your faith journey, then I would love to come along aside you and help figure that out together.  If you feel like that is where you are, then let’s sit down and talk about it sometime.  

All of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ are called up.   The question is are we going to step up and volunteer to serve God’s kingdom.   If you are already doing so, then may you continue to fulfill God’s specific calling in your life.   If you are still on the sidelines, then may you hear the voice of God in the depths of your being asking “Whom shall I send?”   And it is my prayer you can respond “Here I am Lord, send me.” 

 

 

Spirit Wear

Scripture:  Romans 8:12-17           

Relatively speaking we are a fairly young country.    There are plenty of younger countries politically speaking, but when compared to places like Europe and Asia we are a young culture.    Our cultural traditions do not have deep roots as a lot of other places, and this can be seen in a variety of ways.   In general we tend to be a little bit more utilitarian and practical compared to the ceremonial ways of much older cultures.   For instance the most lavish, ceremonial uniform we have is probably the military dress uniform.   While the uniform is impressive and makes quite the statement, it is still fairly basic, constrained, and conservative.  It does not for instance hold a candle on something like the Swiss guard.

swiss-guard_590.jpg

  That is not a costume, but an actual uniform, breastplate and all, of a fully functional military unit.   The Swiss Guard uniform dates back to the 1500’s.   In that time of human history warfare was fought in pitched battles, and it was important to be able to tell who was on your side and who was not.   This led to bright colors and ceremonial flourishes to differentiate different units from one another.   It was not until World War I that these bright colors fully disappeared from military uniforms.   Yet, militaries still place a high value on uniforms because they still serve the important function of identifying who is on your side. 

Uniforms in general are an interesting thing to think about from a design perspective.   It does not matter if the uniform is for a military, a sports team, or a specific place of employment all uniforms have a balance to strike.  First uniforms have to be functional for whatever purpose they are serving.   Second, uniforms have a communicative function.   Uniforms communicate something about the organization, institution, or brand they are representing.   Uniforms are also often mired in history and trying to honor traditions (like the Swiss Guard).   Most of all though, the point of a uniform is to give a sense of an identity, and this sense of identity is twofold.  The uniform identifies to those not wearing the uniform just who the uniformed are, but the uniform also communicates to those wearing it that there is a bond that connects them.   This is lifted up often as one of the benefits of school uniforms.   While they are not completely unbiased, a maker of school uniforms on their FAQ page list this unity as one of the primary benefits.  Their webpage argues: “Helping to build a sense of community within the school, uniforms create an atmosphere of belonging. This essence of unity can positively effect a child's attitude toward school.”

As I read this morning’s scripture, I wondered what does a Christian uniform look like.   Now I am not saying we should all wear matching clothes every Sunday, because even if we had an incredible uniform I think everyone wearing the same thing would creep visitors out.   I wonder though as disciples of Christ, what do we have that provides the same function as a uniform.   What is it exactly that identifies who we are to the outside world as well as provides a sense of unity and belonging within?   I believe this morning’s scripture does have the answer for just what Christian Spirit wear is like? 

This morning’s scripture reading kind of picks up in the middle, and that is sort of by necessity.   Starting with verse 12 this morning’s scripture is the conclusion of a point that Paul has been developing throughout his letter to the Romans.  Going all the way back to chapter one of Romans Paul begins laying out the temptations we face, what he calls living “according to the flesh.”   For chapter after chapter Paul makes the point that the Jewish law has merit because it points out to us these sinful ways, but we fall short of the glory of God, we can not follow those laws perfectly so they are not our salvation.   Paul makes the case that it is only through Jesus Christ that we are saved, that our sins are forgiven, and that we are reconciled with God.    Being justified by Jesus mighty acts of salvation is referred to by Paul as “living according to the Spirit.”   Starting in verse 7:7, Paul bears his soul a bit and acknowledges that even those who are saved by Christ continue to have this pull between the ways of the flesh and living according to the Spirit.   This morning’s scripture is the conclusion of all that.  

In this final summary of living according to the flesh vs. living according to the Spirit, Paul brings out an unusual but powerful word when he writes, “Therefor, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation.”  An obligation?   That is word with some baggage attached to it isn’t?   We do not like obligations.   Obligations feel constraining, they feel like something we are forced into.    We often talk about grace and forgiveness as a free gift, but if that is true then what is this talk of an obligation?  

This is when Paul lays out his final point, the reason why we have an obligation.   We have an obligation to God because God has adopted us.   Today, it is not uncommon to hold sentiments like “we are all God’s children.”   From a strictly biblical point of view, this is not right.  In multiple places Paul writes about this, what makes people children of God is that they are adopted into God’s family.   In this morning’s scripture and elsewhere, this is presented less as an allegory and more as the best representation of the reality of grace.  

When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior who died for our sins, then we are reconciled with God.  This reconciliation is not just getting back on God’s good’s side.   That is more or less what following the law is portrayed as.    That is also an infectious form of pop-Christianity.  There are people who claim to believe in God, but it seems their idea of God is more like Karma:  they just need to do more good than bad to stay in the black and be on God’s good side.  That way of thinking though has more to do with living according the flesh than it does being led by the Spirit.  As this morning’s scripture states, “the Spirit himself testifies that we are God’s children.”  

This is the good news of grace.  Grace is not just about getting God not mad at us, it is being so radically accepted by God that God says, “you are now one of us.”   In this morning’s scripture Paul makes this point strongly, almost scandalously.  He did this by writing, “The spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship, and by him we cry Abba, Father.” The word Abba is Aramaic.   This is the language that was spoken by first century Jews.   Now if you are looking in the pew bibles or likely your own bible there will be a little note that says Abba is Aramaic for father.   That is technically true, but it does not give the whole picture.  Abba is the informal word for father.  Perhaps the better translation for abba would be daddy or even da-da.  Abba is the word that children use to refer to their father.   This was scandalous, because Paul was taking this informal term and applying it to God.   In the Hebrew scriptures the name of God is so holy they do not write it.  That is why in our English translation the Hebrew word for God is written as LORD.   God was the holiest being in existence and to be treated with the utmost solemnity and respect.   It would have been shocking for Paul then to use such an informal word as daddy to refer to the Great I AM.   Yet is the best way to get across just how radical God’s love for us is.   Because we followed the ways of the flesh we were cut off from God our creator, but out of God’s great love, the acts of Jesus, and the receiving of the Holy Spirit we have been adopted in to God’s family.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and that is our uniform, that is our Sprit wear.   Members of the household of God is what the world should know us as, and it should be what creates unity and acceptance inside the church.  

            This brings up the question though, how do we show  the world that we are adopted in to God’s family, because it is not like we got a church letter jacket when we joined to show where we belong.    There is not an official uniform that clearly communicates to the world that we are part of God’s family.   When we accept God’s love and we are justified through faith, there is a change but it is not an external change.   The change is in our heart.  It’s like I got this feeling, inside my bones.  And you can’t stop the feeling, but I can’t exactly wear it on my sleeve either.  

            I am having a hard time putting what I want to say into words, but maybe I can illustrate it better.    No doubt many of you have probably heard this song before:

 

            However, when you remove the music from the video the images things change.   Things actually get weird and seeing people dancing to a tune that you can not hear is odd as this supercut shows:

 

            As believers in Christ, we are like the people in the first video.  We hear the song, and dance accordingly.   We have received the spirit, and we move when the spirit says move.    We recognize the spirit in each other, we know we are brothers and sisters in Christ because we can hear the music.    However, the unbelieving world around us is like the second video.   They can not hear the song.    Our spirit wear is not a uniform we wear but it is a rhythm of God’s love we move to, but the world does not hear that beat and so to the world around us we look like the people in the second video, they can see us moving but do not see the connection.   

            So how do we fix that?   We teach the world the beat we hear.   The love of God that has called to us, that won us over, that gave us the spirit of adoption, we take that love and we share it with the world.   We live as God’s children in the world, loving others the way that God love us.   This after all is our obligation as God’s children, to our honor our Father in heaven by following God’s example.   

            This is not a one and done strategy.   We cannot just do a single good deed or one event and check loving others off our to do list.   We have to consistently time and time again demonstrate that we love people because God loves them.   We wear a uniform as God’s children that other people cannot see, so we have to help them hear truth that God loves them too.   We have to show them what God’s love looks like put into practice, and we have to help them feel it deep inside their bones that they too can be part of God’s family. 

            If you consider yourself a Christian, if you believe that Christ is your Lord and Savior, then “the Spirit himself testifies that you are a child of God.”   May you proudly proclaim that and may you garb yourself in that Spirit wear.   May you live as one of God’s children, and may you seek to help others hear the truth that God loves them and God wants to adopt them too.   May you share that message with enthusiasm until the whole word joins us in the dance of God’s love. 

Easy Peasy

Scripture:  1 John 5:1-6

            I have a healthy appreciation for rules.   I am not sure if one of the reasons I enjoy playing games is because I appreciate rules or if I appreciate rules because I play a lot of games.  Either way there is a connection there, because games require rules.   Rules are the framework that make a game a game. I have read hundreds of rulebooks, and I feel like I have a decent understanding for why certain rules exist, when rules are really good, and when rules are not so hot.   Because again, I have a healthy appreciation for rules so it makes me kind of twitchy when people intentionally do not follow the rules in games.   Perhaps the single worst game for this is Monopoly.    Monopoly is a game that it seems most people have memories of playing, and for a lot of people one of the things they remember is that the game takes forever to play   The reason it takes forever, is because a lot of people do not actually play by the rules.   By the rules, when someone lands on an unbought property and they choose not to buy it, the property immediately goes up for auction.   This ensures that all of the properties are bought up quickly, yet a lot of people are clueless that auctions are part of the rules of Monopoly.   Then there is a rule that people add to the game, which all money paid to the game through fines and cards goes into the center of the board.  Whenever someone lands on free parking they get all of that money.   That free parking rule, is not in the rulebook.   Yet, a lot of people have always played it that way.  These issues with Monopoly happened due to its popularity.   Since the game was released in 1933, a lot of people have played Monopoly, but very few have read the rulebook.   Most people learned how to play Monopoly from someone else who may or may not have even looked at the rulebook, and as this has happened over five generations, the rules have not been followed like they are supposed to, and the game of most   

 I wonder if something similar has happened with scripture.   People seek to faithfully live as disciples of Christ, but just like people who play Monopoly by the wrong rules they never went to consult the source material   This morning’s scripture tells us, “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.”   How many even know what commands, are being referenced here?   We will get to them in a couple of minutes, but spoiler alert, there are only three.   This morning’s scripture states these commands are not burdensome, but the reality is we struggle with them.  But perhaps, if we knew them better then we might not struggle with them, we might not find them burdensome, and maybe we might even find them easy peasy. 

            This morning’s scripture once again comes from 1 John, and one of the things I appreciate so much about this letter is just how grounded it is in the teachings of Jesus.   It make sense because the author of 1 John is the author of the gospel of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.   By the writing of this morning’s scripture, John was older and he had dedicated a lifetime to following and teaching the things that Jesus had taught him.   It is clear that John had taken being a disciple of Jesus to heart, had internalized the example of Jesus, and sought to be live that out.   We can see the way the letter of 1 John echoes the gospels in this morning’s scripture.   John writes God’s commands are not burdensome, which calls back to when Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

            The reason why being a disciple of Jesus is not burdensome is because of the commands.   During Jesus’s time there were several rabbis, these were wise teachers who had an interpretation and understanding of the law that could withstand scrutiny and question.   The disciples of the rabbis were expected to know their teacher’s interpretation and unique emphasis backwards and forwards.  That was referred to as the rabbi’s yoke.  These could be detailed and burdensome, but not Jesus.   The way he taught the commands of God was not burdensome.   He made it simple, and in the gospels he only lifts up three commands.   The greatest is love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.    Jesus stated that all of the law and the prophets hung on these two commands.  Then in the gospel of John, on the night of the last supper, Jesus adds a new command:  love one another.  

            John was a lifelong disciple of Jesus, so when he John writes about the commands of God in this morning’s scripture he is writing about the commands that Jesus gave to follow:  Love God with all your being, love your neighbor as yourself, and love one another.   You may notice there is a common theme here.    As disciples of Jesus we only have three commands to follow, and these three commands are thematically similar.  Once you have one down, the other two should be easier to follow.   John is right these commands are not burdensome.  They are easy to know and easy to remember.   Following them should be easy peasy but we know that is not always the case.   When it comes to playing monopoly, people get it wrong because they either do not know key rules or they use wrong rules.   They way to address these issues in teaching the game is to point out what is the right way as well as what ways have been the wrong way.   Clarity goes a long way in helping to understand a game’s rules, and perhaps that is true for following God’s commands as well. 

            In this morning’s scripture John wrote, “for everyone born of God overcomes the world.”   We should read this as both an encouragement but also we should see it as prophetic, because often the reasons why we struggle with following these commands is because we get distracted or misled by voices from the world.   We can see this clear as day when it comes to the greatest commandment love God.   To love God with all of heart, all of soul, all of our mind, and all of strength does not leave much wiggle room.  It means we love God with our entire being, and that means God is the first and greatest love of our life.   Jesus himself said that a person cannot serve two masters, that we cannot love both God and money.  Yet there are many people who in chasing the American dream and the promise of financial security have fallen in love with money.    When it comes to loving God we have to also avoid following the false rules of the Pharisees.  The great sin of the biblical Pharisees is that they loved their idea of God more than they actually loved God.    The hard truth is that this is way to get the command wrong that persist to this very day.   Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller called this out well when he wrote, “If your God never disagrees with you, you might just be worshipping an idealized version of yourself.”

            Money, power, security, fame, political ideology can all at worse be false idols and are at best petty distractions.   At either level, they can get between us and loving God.   They distract us from how non-burdensome loving God is, because God is so worth loving.     As 1 John 4:19 states we love because he first loved us, and God has never stopped loving us.   When we begin to even get the faintest glimpse of how much God love us, then loving God is the most natural and pure response.   It is a good, right and proper thing for us to love God with all of being for who God and for what God has done for us.   

            The second command to love our neighbor as ourselves is also not burdensome.  Often this command brings up a qualifying question, just as it did in Jesus day, of well then, who is my neighbor?   The fact that we are prone to even ponder that questions though shows just how much we need to overcome the world.   When we seek to qualify who is our neighbor, we are seeking to divide, to put people in groups, to get a free pass for who we can devalue and not pay attention to.   That is the perverse way of the world.   It is the way of the world to divide.   It is the way of the world to paint people with a broad brush, to dismiss others as a snowflake so that you do not have to pay attention to their point of view.   That is the way of the world, but brothers and sisters in Christ that is not supposed to be our way. 

 As disciples of Jesus we are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves.    Let’s not worry about qualifying who our neighbor is, because our neighbors are the people we take the time to notice and take time to love.   Trying to always figure out who is an who is out of our little group, that is the way of the world and that kind of vain gatekeeping is exhaustingly burdensome.   Let us simply love others without condition, and we let God worry about sorting them out later.  

The final command, to love one another is also not burdensome.  However, it may actually be the hardest one to follow.   I have two children, and I have no doubt they love each other very much.  Yet, if you have more than one child or siblings of your own, then you know that any given moment the way they treat each other is not always the most loving.  It seems to be that the people we are closest to are the ones that we sometimes have the least patience with, argue the most with, and are the least forgiving with.   That can be true in the body of Christ as well, which is why the new command that Jesus gave was to love one another.  Again, we have to overcome the way of the world.   Often our personal conflicts resolve from the fact that at least one of us involved (often both) are being more selfish than they should be.  Love though, is self-less and others focused.    It is the way of the world to put ourselves first, but when we overcome that we put each other first and we love one another.   In loving one another as the body of Christ the church becomes the incubator for God’s love.   We gain a better understanding of God’s love through how we experience and we are better able to love our neighbor through how we model love to one another.  This morning’s scripture makes it clear that these commands are all interconnected.   John expressed this interconnectedness in the first couple of verses: “everyone who loves the father, loves his child as well.  This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.”

            The commands of God are simple:  Love God, love others, love each other.   It truly can all be summed up by love.   These commands are not burdensome, but they can start off feeling that way because the only way we get better at love is by practicing.   If you want to be more serious about following the commands of God in your every day life, then I do have a simple suggestion.   Before you act and before you speak, ask yourself “is this loving?  Does this express love to God or love for another person?” and then only continue if the answer is yes.   It is true that evaluating all of our words and actions will feel burdensome, but only at first.   As I mentioned, I have read the rules for hundreds of games.   At first, the rule book (especially the thick rulebooks) feel burdensome.  I have to consult them and re-read them regularly.  Yet, the more experience I get at the game, the more practice I have with the rules, the more natural following them becomes.   Eventually, I can get to the place where I know the rules.  I do not have them memorized nor can I cite page numbers, but I internally know the game, I can follow all of the rules perfectly, and I can then share those rules with others.    In much the same way, if we seek to practice being more loving regularly, it will get easier.   The rules will become second nature to us. 

So may you know the commands of God as given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.    May you seek to follow them instead of following the ways of the world.   May you love.   May you love God with all your being.  May you notice others and love your neighbor as yourself, and may you perfect that love in how you love one another.  In doing so may you claim the victory that has overcome the world.   May you indeed overcome the world through your belief in Jesus as the son of God so that loving others becomes easy peasy.  

Ante Up

Scripture:  1 John 3:16-24

I remember being at a clergy gathering a few years ago.  It is common at these things to put people together and attempt to get people to know one another better.   So in telling about myself, I mentioned how much I enjoy gaming.   This immediately caused a raised eyebrow, because this person associated the word gaming with gambling and immediately thought I was talking about card games like poker.   Many of you know, that is not what I was referring to, but instead I was talking about the growing hobby of designer board and card games.  I personally have no interest whatsoever in gambling, so poker is not a game I play.  However, I do like games and I have a fairly big interest in ludology, or the study of games.   So even though there is zero chance I will ever sit down with a pile of chips at a poker table, there are elements of the game that I appreciate.   I find it fascinating how poker is a game of probability and observation.   The best poker players know the math of the game and the probability of a winning hand backwards and forwards.  This is combined with the meta-game of being able to observe and analyze the patterns and habits to use those to their advantage.   One of the fascinating things at the game is how tied gambling is to it, because when the wager is removed the game breaks down.

  In the mid 2000’s, when televised Texas Hold’em was at its height  of popularity I did get a poker video game that could be played online against other people.   I thought this would be a way to play the game but avoid the actual gambling part.   However, it did not work.   Since there was no real money, there was no real risk, which means on pretty much every hand someone would go all in.   If they lost, they just left to rejoin a different game with another pile of fake chips.  It took all of the strategy, skill, and tension out of the game.   I find it interesting that what makes poker work as a game, is that you have to pay to play.   A lot of the skill to playing poker is knowing when to ante up, and be invested in the hand.   In the end, I think this is why poker has endured as a game.  It goes deeper than just the appeal of winning money.  Poker is a game that requires the players to be literally invested in.   It is being invested in the game that keeps people at the table, and I think there is a faith lesson in that for us.  I think it is the message that we find in this morning’s scripture.  Faith is not meant to be a passive activity, it is meant to be actively invested in.   This morning’s scripture is a challenge, it is our turn and we have to answer the question:  Are you going to ante up? 

I really appreciate the letter that we call 1 John.   It is full of so much profound encouragement and wisdom.   One of the elements that really makes this letter especially profound is the source.   1 John is not written by an armchair theologian or a consultant with very little field experience.    Church tradition holds that 1 John was written by John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus and the author of the gospel of John.  When we remember that when reading 1 John becomes fascinating because we get to see the way that the apostle John took the teachings of Jesus to heart, lived them out, and passed on what he had learned.  For instance in the gospel of John, Jesus is recorded saying “Greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”   Then in this morning’s scripture that lesson is passed on in verse 16: “This is how we know what love is:  Jesus Christ laid down his lie for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”   Biblical scholars believe that 1 John and this morning’s scripture was written as a circular letter.  The idea is that the letter would be passed around to multiple churches and shared with many.  This letter was also written late in John’s life, so in an era before mass communication, a letter of this nature would have been the most effective way for John to pass on the wisdom he gained from a life time of following Jesus.  

So what is it that John felt was most important to pass on?  We see it plainly stated in this morning’s scripture.   Verse 23 defines what he understands to be God’s primary command: “and this is his command:  to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and to love one another as he commanded us.”   One of the interesting points that the entirety of 1 John makes, and that we see reinforced by this morning’s scripture is how connected these two concepts are.    The major case that the entire letter of 1 John is trying to make is that one of the key ways that our belief in Jesus Christ can be seen in how we love one another.   We see that case being made in this morning’s scripture.   Right after John states that Jesus laid down his life for us, so we should lay down our lives for one another he backs this up by pointing out this is not a rhetorical statement.   He puts out there in practical terms in verse 17:  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them how can the love of God be in that person?”   

We see John’s point here.   The sacrificial love that Jesus showed in laying down his life on the cross, is the same love we can show by sacrificially giving to meet the needs of one another.   John does not mince words, if someone is not willing to do that, then they cannot say God’s love is in them, which means they do not truly believe in the son.    We cannot simply say we love God, for that to be more than empty words we have to be able to show it.   One of the primary ways we show a love for God is how we love on another.  Or as John puts it in verse 18, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

 Our faith, to be a faith that holds and does not fold, has to be one that we back up with and in truth.   This means our faith cannot just be one of theory and hypotheticals, it cannot be one that exist mostly on paper.   Faith requires us to ante up.    It requires us to be actively invested in it.    Faith is not an activity where we contently sit on the sidelines, it requires us to have some skin in the game.   Faith is not meant to be something we do cautiously and just stick our toe into.    Faith is something we go all in on.    This means we have to be willing to take a risk.   We have to risk our time, our resources, and especially our comfort zones.   While faith will always feel like a risk, the good news of this morning’s scripture friends is that faith is also a sure bet.   Because we have an unmistakable assurance.   It is an assurance backed up by the collective experience of Christian tradition, it is an assurance found throughout the scripture and plainly stated here in verse 24: “The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him and he in them.”

            So if God’s command is to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and to love one another- for it is by our love for one another we display our belief in the Son, the question that leaves us with is how do we do that?  In pondering that question, there are two considerations that rise to the top.  First, when John writes about our brothers and sisters and loving one another, we have to define who exactly he is referring to here.   John is being a lot more specific than all of humanity here.   God is indeed the creator of all, but only those who belief in Jesus the Son are part of the family of God and are therefore brothers and sisters in Christ.   The one another that we are supposed to love is the church.   John is consistent with the message found in much of the New Testament that the church is to be the incubator of God’s love.   All who have been saved by grace have radically experienced the love of God, and we are to share that love with one another as a testimony to the world of God’s love truly looks like.   The sacrificial, Jesus like love that John writes about that we are supposed to show our brothers and sisters in Christ is how we are supposed to love one another- those of us gathered here and now.  

            In order for us to love one another as Christ commanded, then two things have to happen.   First, we have to ante up and be invested in one another.   For us to truly love one another we have to take the time to get to know one another.   That is something that most of us are good at, to a point.   In the book Get Their Name, Bob Farr, Doug Anderson, and Kay Kotan write that people have an average of eight close relationships in the church.  The analogy they use is a lego block with eight spots that can connect to other blocks and once those spots are full people tend to stick close to just those eight.  The command recited in this morning’s scripture is not to love eight other people, it is to love one another.  We can do better at expanding who we care for to more than eight.   Our goal should be to grow in the love of God and our love for one another, so that we always have one more open spot so that we always have space to include someone else in who we love.  

            Again the love we are to have for one another is more than just words we are to love in action and in truth.  When our brothers and sisters in Christ are in need, we meet that need.  When they are hurt, we tend to it.   When the world falls apart and breaks on them, we help pick up the pieces.   We care for one another with the same kind of “I will be there for you, no matter what” love that Jesus showed us.  

            So the first thing that needs to happen for us to love one another is that we have to take time to know others, but the second thing that has to happen is that we have to allow ourselves to be known.   The truth of it is, for some of us that is actually the harder of the two things to do.  In the book Lifestories Mark Hall, lead singer of Casting Crowns, writes about the meaning of origins of the band’s songs.  Here is what he wrote about the song “Stain Glassed Masquerade, “I often tell my students we are happy plastic people, so I wrote a song about it.  Stained Glass Masquerade describes my struggle with image manufacturing. . . I sketched a mental picture of a strong Christian. . . and at church I strived to be that person.  If there was anything in my life that didn’t fit the mental picture, I had to bury it.”   He goes on to explain that this struggle is what led him to write the chorus of the song which states “So I tuck it all away, like everything is OK; if I make them all believe it, Maybe I’ll believe it too.  So with a painted grin, I play the part again; So maybe they will see me the way that I see them.”

            In order to allow others to love us, we have to allow them to see us for who we are, imperfections and all.   If all we ever show our brothers and sisters in Christ is a shallow representation of who we really are, then they will never be able to truly love us because we do not let them.   Love goes both ways.  We have to ante up and give the time and effort to invest in one another, but we have to also ante up and put ourselves on the table and allow other people to care for and nurture us.  

            As followers of Jesus Christ, we know what love is because Jesus gave us the ultimate example of love when he laid down his life for us.   That is a depth of love that honestly takes us a lifetime to explore, but scriptures like this morning make it clear that as we learn just how deep the Father’s love for us, we are to put that love into practice.   We are to let the love of God flow out of us and perfect in how we love one another.   Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us love one another.   Let us not love with words or speech but in actions and in truth.   May we, may this congregation and this church, be a living example to the world around us how marvelous and joyful is the love of God made known through Jesus Christ his son. 

             

Second Chances

Scripture:  Acts 3:12-19           

Connor was about three and I took him to the park on a beautiful spring day.  He played on the playground, enjoyed the fresh air, the sunshine, and had a great time.  At one point he wanted to race down a hill, so we did.  In the process.  He lost control of his little body, fell and tumbled a bit.   Now I watched him fall, it was not that bad, and he was not truly hurt.  However, he was a little whiny and wanted to be picked up.  Instead, I got down on his level, looked him in the eyes and asked, “Do you know why we fall Connor?”  Wiping the tears from his eyes he shook his head no.  “So we can learn how to pick ourselves up.”  Which is exactly what he did.  It was one of my greatest moments in parenting.   It also was not really mine, because I was quoting a scene from Batman Begins.  So even though I might get my parenting tips from super hero movies, the wisdom in that scene was worth passing on.  Falling down, failing, is important because it is only through that experience we learn how to get back up again. 

   Our culture does not have a kind opinion of failure and honestly stigmatizes it.   We are taught this in subtle ways from an early age.   It is probably not intentional, but a lot of kids are taught they are not allowed to fail in school.   Working in youth ministry, I have had conversations with many students for who grades were a constant source of anxiety in life.   They felt a constant pressure to be perfect, because grades are often based off of a cumulative percentage.  This meant that one bad test, might mathematically make it impossible  to get the grade the feel they need to even have a chance for the college or scholarships they had set as goals.  These highly motivated students felt like failure was not an option, and this caused a lot of stress in their life.   I have also interacted with students on the flip side who did not even try.   They routinely put forth zero effort in classes.   This is also a learned behavior.  These students were often a lot more laid back than their high strung peers, after all you cannot fear failure if you never even try. 

            Clearly a middle ground approach might be the best option, and part of reaching that middle ground is creating space where students are allowed to fail, and have it not be impossible to recover from.   After all, failure is one of the best teachers, and this has always been the case.   Famed CEO of IBM Thomas Watson Sr. in the mid-20th century once famously said, “The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”  For much of the 20th century though, the business world had a “success at any cost” mentality.  It is only recently that major companies like Google and Apple have re-found the wisdom in the idea of “failing upwards.”   The “failure tolerant leader” is a growing trend in the business world and there is a lot of wisdom in that, because as much as we do not like it failure is part of life.  Failure is part of faith too.   No matter who we are, no matter how pious and righteous we seek to be, at some point we are going to fall.  And why do we fall?  So we can learn how to get back up, which in faith terms means being up to the grace of Christ all over again. 

            In this morning’s scripture, Peter forced a whole lot of people to face their spiritual failure.  This story from Acts comes from the very beginning of the church.   It takes place mere weeks after Pentecost, and only a few months after the death and resurrection of Jesus.   During this time Peter and the other apostles were gathering daily in the temple courts, and as Acts 2:47 states, “And the Lord added to their number daily.”   It was in this exciting time of early church growth that this morning’s scripture took place.  This morning’s scripture picks up in the middle a little bit.   Right before our morning reading, Peter and John entered the temple and saw a man who was born crippled begging for charity.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth they healed this man.   The healed man, was probably something of a fixture at the temple.  He probably positioned himself at the same spot daily.   He would have been known and familiar sight to many of the people gathered there.  The fact that he was no walking is why all of the people were astonished, it is why a crowd gathered.   Peter, being a good preacher, could not pass up the opportunity to address the group.  

            Yet, I am fairly confident Peter never read “How to win friends and influence people”, because he is really blunt in the sermon he gives in this morning’s scripture.    He lays the facts bare and does not allow the audience to hide behind excuses.  Remember, this was just months after Jesus was crucified.  It may not have been the talk of town anymore, but it was still fresh in the collective memory.   There was probably more than one person in this crowd who gawked at Jesus being paraded through the town, bloody and struggling to carry the cross.  There was probably more than one person who rubbernecked at Golgotha to read the sign of Jesus head that read “King of the Jews”, there was probably more than one person in the crowd who waived a palm branch on palm Sunday, but was suspiciously quiet on Good Friday.   Peter addresses them directly:  You handed him over to be killed, You disowned the holy and righteous one, you killed the author of life.”

            Peter could have stopped right there.  The people had done messed up, and he could have just let them have it.   The good news of this scripture though is he did not.   Instead of naming their failure and heaping condemnation upon them, he shows empathy and acknowledges they did not understand what they were doing.   He goes on to urge them to repent and turn back to God.   The message Peter delivers in this scripture is not one of condemnation for failing, it is about acknowledging failure and being given a second chance.   If we skip ahead in the book of Acts to chapter 4, in verse 4:4 we joyfully read that somewhere over 1,000 people responded to this good news.  

            As we consider this scripture of facing spiritual failure and second chances, I believe that there are two things we can take away from this.   First, we all need second chances.   Heck, if you are anything like me.  You need third, fourth, a score of chances.  As Christians it is our life goal to be like Jesus.  To reach a place where we love God with all of our being, we love our neighbor as ourselves, and we do not willfully sin.   And again, if you are like me-we fail spectacularly at doing that.  We all mess up, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.   We do not do the good we know we should do, we do harm that we know we should not do, and we wonder from the fold of God.   The good news, is that we too are called to “repent, turn to God so that [our] sins might be wiped out, that times of refreshing might come from the Lord.”   The beautiful, almost uncomprehend able truth of God’s love, is that God will forgive us.  It does not matter what we have done, God will forgive us.  It does not matter how many times we have done the same stupid thing that we just cannot seem to get away from, God will forgive us.  

            Now a word of caution, God’s love for us is unconditional but that does not mean we should take it for granted.  That does not mean we have a blank check to act in whatever selfish prideful way we want, because we know that God will eventually forgive us.   God’s love, grace, is free but grace is not cheap.   On the cross, God paid a very high price to prove God’s love and make forgiveness available to us.  We ca not just glibly ask God to forgive us, because for us to truly repent and seek forgiveness requires us to be reminded of that fact that Jesus suffered on a cross because of our sins.  When we fail in life and have to pick ourselves up, it is ultimately a good experience in the end but the process is not always the most comfortable because it changes us for the better.  In the same way, truly experiencing God’s grace for the first time or again is not always comfortable but it should change us for the better. 

              Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about what it is like to experience grace in her book Accidental Saints.   In that book she relays a time that she really messed up.   A couple of members of her church were going to get married to one another.  They wanted her to do the service, and scheduled it over 18 months in advance.    Due to a calendar issue of not getting various calendars synced she also ended up scheduling a speaking engagement in Australia.  It was an honest mistake, but it was compounded by the fact that it took a couple of months to catch.   By that point she was in a bind.   The event in Australia was a big deal with a locked in venue and thousands of dollars in promotional materials printed.  They wanted her, because it was a Lutheran women’s group event and it was very important to have a woman Lutheran minister.   The wedding could also not be moved, because deposits had already been paid, and it was the only time family members could make it.   Nadia Bolz-Weber was in a bind and no matter what angle she approached it from, she could not make it right.  Finally the couple wrote her a letter releasing her from her commitment to do the wedding.  Even though they were disappointed they ended the letter with “we love you.  And we forgive you.”    Love you and forgive you, is the message of the cross.  It is the message, the very essence of grace.  In her reflection on this memory, Bolz-Weber writes, “and the thing about grace, real grace, is that it stings.  It stings because if it’s real it means we don’t ‘deserve’ it.  . . and basically receiving grace is the best [terrible] feeling in the world.”

            Grace is a reminder that if God were truly fair we would not be forgiven this time.   Grace is a reminder that it was because of us making terrible decisions, like the ones we need to be for forgiven for, that Jesus had to die in the first place.   To be justified and found forgiven by God should humble us.  Because the thing about grace, about real grace, is not only doses it sting but it must change us.    When we fail, we learn from how we pick ourselves up.  In the same way, when we sin, and we truly seek forgiveness again, we must repent and be changed again.  

            The second take away is who is preaching this message of second chances in the first place.  It is Peter, and he knows a things or two about second chances.  When he states, “I know you acted in ignorance” in verse 17, he is talking to himself as much to the crowd.  It is Peter you remember who failed hard on the night Jesus was arrested.  It was Peter who denied knowing Jesus three times before dawn.   And it was Peter who Jesus Christ forgave.   It makes sense why Peter did not condemn the people for their failure to accept Christ, because he, before repenting, was one of their number.   If you have faith, then you know because of God’s great love you have been given more than once second chance already.  You have been allowed to fail and forgiven by God more than a few times.   So let us follow the example of Peter.  May we be willing to grant other people second chances.   If someone fails hard in faith, if they mis-step, if the “backslide”, if they live in a way that you do think is not worthy of one who calls themselves a Christian, then may we not condemn, may we not judge, may we not ghost them and cut them off completely.   Instead, may we treat them with grace and offer them a second chance.  May we come alongside them, and may help pick them up, so that through the example of radical grace, forgiveness, and acceptance that we show they can see God’s love in us. 

            In this morning’s scripture Peter shared the gospel with Jews in Jerusalem who were present when Jesus was killed.  Instead of condemning them, he offers them grace and forgiveness.   May you remember that because of the mighty acts of Jesus Christ, you too are offered this forgiveness and grace.   To  search out grace is to acknowledge that we have failed and fallen short, may you not be too proud to do that, but may you return to the foot of the cross seeking a second chance.   May you know that when you do, no matter what, God will forgive you again, and again.   That brothers and sisters in Christ, is what makes grace so amazing. 

My Favorite Scripture Ever

Scripture: 1 John 1:1-2:1

            After almost fifteen years of marriage, I have learned that the way my wife and I interact with the world around us is fundamentally different.  Occasionally, when she really loves something, like the Sound of Music, she will promote it as her favorite.   By and large though she does not naturally rank things against other things of the same category.   Using pie as an example, she will take any given pie and either like it, think it is ok, or not like it.  It is possible to really like, really dislike it, or if she is not sure then “it’s different.”   This is not how I work at all, because I naturally evaluate and rank everything.  So using pie as an example, I can easily give you a top ten list of what I consider to be the best kind of pie (Since you are now curious it is Strawberry-Rhubarb as number one, followed closely by blueberry and pecan.  Apple, chocolate chip, sugar cream, pumpkin, blackberry, Boston Cream, and Cherry- in that order- round out the top ten).  I do not just arbitrarily rank things.  I tend to know what I like, and why I like it.  I feel like this would be a weird personality quirk, except for I am clearly not the only person who does this.  David Letterman made the top ten list into an art form, and since then a lot of people have found organizing our likes into list a helpful practice.  In our digital age this has become even more popular.  For instance, popular click-bait website buzzfeed’s whole business model is organizing things into lists.  I am clearly not the only person who ranks and rates everything.  Film critic James Poniewozik even did a great job at defining why I do this.  During the introduction to the list “The 100 Best TV shows of all time” he said “Lists are incredibly important. They are how we define what matters to us.”  I think there is a lot of truth to that, the things we consider our favorites communicate quite a bit about us.  Even in my little pie example, putting strawberry-rhubarb as my number one communicates that I think that sweet and tart is a great flavor combination.   I naturally rank and put everything into list.  Over the years, you may have noticed that because I have shared a lot of my favorite things with you.   However, I realized that I have never shared my favorite scripture with you.   

A lot of people have favorite scriptures, sometimes you hear people refer to their favorite as their “life verse.”   Thanks to the prevalence of smart phones, we now have data about what scriptures many people consider their favorites based on how often they look them up using the bible app.  Since they have been releasing the data the results do not change much.  In 2017 the most popular scripture was Joshua 1:9, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”   That is a good one, but it is not my favorite.  I looked as far down as the lists would go, and my favorite was not on the most popular list.  It seems my favorite scripture, like my favorite pie, is a bit off the beaten path.   My favorite scripture which we heard this morning is 1 John 2:1, “My dear children, I urge you not to sin, but if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the father- Jesus Christ the righteous one.”   While this is my favorite scripture, it is also one that is powerful, encouraging, and can drive us to action.  

1 John 2:1 is not on many favorite scripture lists, but that is not a huge surprise because when it comes to books of the New Testament 1 John is a bit more of an obscure one.   On more than one occasion, teenagers at youth group have been surprised to discover that the gospel of John and the Epistle of 1 John are not the same thing.  Church tradition holds that the author is the same, but the setting is separated by decades.   John’s gospel records the events of Jesus life when John was a young man.  The letter of 1 John was written between fifty and sixty years later, putting John somewhere in his mid-70’s to early 90’s.   1 John is a letter written by an old man, and it kind of reads that way-in a good way of course.   The entire tone of 1 John has a grandfatherly quality to it.  We see that in this morning’s scripture when he refers to the original audience as “my dear children.”  In this letter John is passing down the wisdom gained from a life of faith well lived.   The tone of the letter is generally encouraging and it holds Christ in high esteem as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.   This morning’s scripture reading, and especially 1 John 2:1, do a good job at giving us a snapshot of the overall feel and message of the epistle.   While I appreciate the entire book of 1 John, that is not why this is my  favorite scripture.  No, the reason why 1 John 2:1 is my favorite is more personal than that.  Remember, we make lists, we pick favorites, because they define what matters to us; and this scripture matters to me a great deal.  It was this specific scripture that convinced me that I needed a savior, that I am lost without Christ.  

            As I have shared with you before, even though I grew up in a Christian household, I did not become a Christian until I was in college.   To come to faith I had a lot of apathy, a lot of doubt, and a lot of anger to work through.   We can save the details for another time, but throughout those years of a wondering faith, I can now see that God’s love, God’s prevenient grace, was a constant presence wooing me back to my creator.   The road to this point are stories for another day, but I did get to a point that the seeds of faith that many faithful disciples had planted with me over the year finally began to take root.   I got to a place where I did believe that God was very real.   The beginnings of a faith had begun to grow and I knew that God create me and God loved me.  However, at that time I did not know what to do with Jesus.  I did not understand why God could just not forgive me and call it even.  I did not understand why I needed a savior.   1 John 2:1 used the language that finally made it all click.

            The language of Jesus as an advocate, who comes to our defense, painted a vivid image in my mind.    I could see myself standing before God awaiting judgment.   I knew what Paul had written in Romans:  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and “the wages of sin are death.”   I imagined myself speechless in that moment.  After all, what could I say in my defense?  I knew that I was guilty, I knew that I had sinned, that time and time again I had willfully done things I knew wrong, done things I knew were against God’s wishes, and done things that I knew would cause others pain.   I had no excuse, I could offer no reason why I should be forgiven of all the sins I committed.    I knew that I deserved the just and right punishment for my multitude of sins, but then I had an advocate in Jesus Christ.   Out of a great compassion and unfailing love, Jesus says I am worth forgiving.  Even if I do not deserve mercy, I am too valuable to Jesus to lose.   And for Jesus these are not empty words, because he was willing to put his love into action, and take the punishment that I, that we deserve, on the cross. 

            Now I know that image was and is a little too simplistic.   God the Father and God the Son are perfectly unified.  It is not accurate to cast one as a non-lenient judge and the other as a compassionate defender.   God is God, and the love displayed on the cross is the love of God no matter how you look at it.   However, this scripture made me realize that I could offer nothing to save my self.  This scripture connected the dots for me that Jesus being fully human understands us, but by being fully God he has the power to intercede on our behalf and reconcile us to God.   Jesus is the advocate who according to our articles of religion is the “eternal savior and mediator who intercedes for us.”   This scripture made me fully realize that I could not save myself, but thanks to Jesus I did not have to.   He already did the work, he already save me.   I simply needed to accept him as my savior and my advocate.   1 John 2:1 is my favorite scripture of all time because it was the final piece of the puzzle that turned my heart to God and surrendered it to the Lordship of Christ.

            This scripture is a powerful reminder of who Jesus is and what Jesus does for us, but if we are serious about following Jesus then this also gives us an example to follow.   Out of a great love and compassion for us, Jesus is our advocate.   Even though we do nothing to deserve it and we cannot earn it, Jesus stuck up for us.   As it says in Romans, while we were still sinners Christ died for us.   Jesus is our advocate who personally sacrificed on our behalf.   The example given and the question that we are asked is who are we advocating for?  

            There are no shortage of people in this world who need advocates.  There are people who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed who need someone to notice them.   There are people who are powerless and silenced who are waiting for someone with more power and privilege to speak on their behalf.  There are people who feel condemned, unwanted, and unloved who need someone desperately to have compassion on them instead of heaping more judgment on them.  The poor, the weak, the addicted, the cast out, these unwanted the all need an advocate.

              How are you being that advocate?   We can and we should pray for them.  That is a good start, but we can and we should do more than that.  After all, on the cross Jesus gave us far more than his thoughts and prayers.   Some of you go a step further and do things like support children through missions’ organizations.   That is wonderful work, and that is a great next step to being an advocate for others.  Those of you who do this practice, you are truly being a blessing to others.   How much further can we go though?  How can we follow being an advocate like Jesus?   We go bigger, we dream bigger, and we take serious putting others before ourselves.   

            There are many ways we can do this, and there are many ways that faithful disciples are doing this.  One specific example of how some followers of Christ are doing this is through foster care.  This is a serious “Jesus sized” way of being an advocate for some of the least advantaged in our society.   A lifeway study found that there is at least one person involved in foster care in 40% of churches, but collectively as the body of Christ we can do better.   As a state, Indiana is one of the places facing a real foster care shortage, which has been made worse by the recent opioid crisis.  A few of years ago a survey of Indiana’s foster care data found that there are 2,731 children in need of a permanent adoptive family.  In this state there are 9,204 churches.   If one family in only 1/3 of the churches in this state advocated for these children by adopting them then the crisis would be solved overnight.  

 Now clearly, not everyone is in the position to adopt these foster children and not everyone is called to do so, but we are all called to follow the example of Jesus and be an advocate for someone else the way that Jesus advocates for us.   If you already involved in advocacy or supporting those most in need then may God continue to bless you in your service.   If you are not though, or if you feel God is tugging at you to take the next step then may you prayerfully consider how you can be an advocate.  May you prayerfully consider how you can follow the example of Jesus.  May you “walk in the light as he is in the light.”   May you know that Jesus is your advocate, may you know he is the righteous one, and may you know he is the sacrifice for sins, not only ours but also the sins of the whole world.   May Jesus Christ, God’s only son, the Risen one, continue to be your absolute favorite savior ever. 

Basic Faith, Extraordinary Savior

Scripture:  Mark 16:1-8

            Have you ever sat and watched the credits for a movie?  Some movies, have started hiding extra scenes at the very end so I have.  Those credits go on for a while.  It does not matter if a movie is bad or good it takes hundreds of people to make it happen.  Given how many people are involved, how many moving parts there are, and how much money it takes to make a movie it is surprising how fluid the process apparently is.   Several major, well known movies had significant changes occur after production started.  For instance, the script for Return of the Jedi had Han Solo dying.  However, George Lucas was afraid the character’s death would negatively impact toy sales so he forced the issue to get it changed.  Pretty Woman, one of the standards for romantic comedies, did not start off as a rom-com at all.  It was supposed to be a gritty, dark movie about two deeply flawed and horrible people, but after it was cast the movie started to take on a different shape.    Perhaps the most dramatic change is in The Shining.   The original ending of the movie was in a hospital and showed that the mother and child characters had survived and were going to be OK.  However, Stanley Kubrick decided this scene was unnecessary, and he decided at literally the last second because he had movie theater projectionists actually cut the scene out by hand and mail it back to the studio.   Tinkering with the ending is nothing new.  In 1686 Nahum Tate created a re-working of William Shakespeare’s King Lear to give it a happy ending, and for 150 years, Tate’s version was the only version performed on the stages of London.  We even find that kind of tinkering here, in the gospel of Mark. 

 If you followed along with the scripture reading in the pew bibles then you might have noticed that we actually did not go to the end of the chapter.  You might also have noticed that before verse nine there was a statement that “the earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20.”   This is because the oldest copies that have been uncovered of the gospel of Mark stop at verse eight.   Somewhere in the first couple of hundred years after Mark was written the ending got expanded.   It needs to be stated that does not mean that verses 9-20 were made up.  Likely these were part of the oral tradition of Jesus that was being passed down in the church.  To keep these stories of Jesus from being lost to the sands of time, and to “improve” the ending some unknown early church leader included verses 9-20.   By 325 and the council of Nicea, there were not any objections to Mark and these verses, so by and large the church has always considered these additions to be inspired scripture.

This means though that as Mark wrote it, his gospel ends at verse 8.   It ends with “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”   I find this ending fascinating, because Mark could have gone on.  He did not have to end there.  He easily could have included stories of Peter running to the tomb, of Jesus appearing to the disciples, and generally ended on a much more positive note.   But as originally written, Mark did not.  Mark made an intentional choice to end on a down note, and I think that we can learn from that choice. 

            From the gospels about Jesus we get the impression that the first Easter must have been an extremely chaotic day.  A lot happened in a short time period, and there was not an assigned historian to record everything in meticulous detail for the record.   Because of that the four accounts of that early Easter morning are all slightly different from one another in the details they record.  The different gospel writers remember different details, but in broad strokes the story is the same.  For instance they all have Mary Magdalene going to the tomb early in the morning.   Mary was accompanied by several other women, but it seems not a single writer manages to name the whole group.  Salome for instance is only recorded in this morning’s scripture.  In all of the gospels the women find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty and speak with angels.  In the other three gospels, Mary Magdalene rushes to tell the eleven what she had seen.   But Mark implies that not all of the women did this.  Some of them at least, fled, and said nothing because they were afraid.   I think there are two things we can learn from the reaction of these women. 

            The first thing we can learn from this is related to why Mark chose to end the gospel in this fashion.   We have to remember that the gospels were not written in a vacuum, they were written to a specific audience and they are works of literature that use literary devices.   The ending of Mark is a fantastic display of this because it is asking the reader of the gospel a question.   Reading the gospel of Mark lays out the story of Jesus, his ministry, his teachings, and his claims about who he is.  After encountering the gospel, and being shown the truth of Jesus the end of this gospel challenges the readers to ask themselves, what about you?   Now that you know about the mighty acts of Christ, will you too be silent?    That is the question that should still challenge us today. 

            It should challenge us because the numbers bear out that as a whole we still seem to be afraid to testify the miracle of the resurrection.  LifeWay Research published the results of a five year study on church growth in 2017.   They found that the vast majority of church growth was not true growth.  The majority of it was transfer growth, where people just move from one to church to another.   The lowest type of church growth is conversion growth.  Conversion growth comes from some experiencing and accepting the life changing love, forgiveness, and salvation made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection.   TheLifeWay study found that only 6-7.5% of church growth is through conversion growth.   The only way that someone is introduced to the gospel is if someone shares it with them.  The numbers do not lie, like most of the women who visited the empty tomb, the majority of American Christians are silent and too afraid to say anything. 

            The question is why are we so silent?   Perhaps part of it is that many of us were raised to believe that good mannered, polite people never talked about religion or politics.   That’s garbage though.    There is wisdom in not arguing for the sake of arguing, but why is the truth of amazing grace relegated to the same category of debating the merits of taxes?   On the surface our silence does not make much sense.   If you consider yourself a Christian then that means you have experienced the forgiveness made available on the cross, you have rested in the assurance the empty tomb gives, and you known the depths of God’s love.   Brothers and sisters in Christ, those things are exciting!  They are life changing!  They are almost too good to comprehend.   Why then are we so silent about it?    If we watch a good movie, we tell everyone we know.  If we go to a great restaurant, we put pictures of what we are going to eat all over facebook.   If something is exciting, we usually are super quick to share that excitement with others.  We can test this fairly easily.  Baseball’s opening day was this past week, so find a Cubs or Reds fan and ask them how the team looks this year.  They will be full of hope, excitement and anticipation as they talk about their beloved team and the sport they enjoy.  We find it easy to get excited about a sport but that same level of excitement does not seem to apply to our faith.   That just does not compute, after all encountering Jesus and experiencing forgiveness of sins should be one of the most profound experiences of our lives.  There has to be a reason why we are so hesitant to share that experience with others.   The most likely explanation is that we are afraid. 

            What are we afraid of?   Perhaps we are afraid of other people judging us.  Perhaps we are afraid of messing it up or being asked a question that we do not know the answer of.  Perhaps we are afraid that someone will be confrontational.   The reason is almost irrelevant, if the result is the same.  That result is that we did not learn the lesson from the end of Mark we are like the women who are afraid and say nothing.   The first thing we can learn from this morning’s scripture is not to be afraid.   The message that Jesus is alive and that sins are forgiven is too important, too incredible, and too world-changing for us to keep it to ourselves.  

We cannot let fear quench that message.   We should be willing and able to proclaim that He Lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today.   If someone wants proof, if they ask us how we know he lives, then we tell them he lives within my heart.  We do not need to have all the answers, we just need to share our experience with the resurrected savior.  On the first Easter the failure of the women who were afraid was to share the good news.  They did not have to explain the “why and how” of an empty tomb, they just needed to share what they experienced.   In the same way, may we be willing to share our testimony, or experience with the love of God made known through Jesus Christ, and may stop keeping our story quiet out of fear.   

Second I find the original ending of Mark fascinating because it captures human imperfection so well.   We do not know the story of these women, but they were part of Jesus’ disciples.  We do not know their stories, but we know just like the apostles they had to give up a lot to follow Jesus.  These women were not just groupies either, they were disciples.  We know that Jesus broke with Rabbinic tradition and he was willing to allow women to sit with and learn with his male disciples.   These women would have had a basic faith, but when push came to shove they gave in to fear.   Again, I think we can all relate to this.   We probably all have times in our lives when the going got tough, and we ran and hid under a blanket.   I imagine that even years later, the memory of this day, of being afraid, is one that the women would rather forget.   Again, we probably can all relate.  We have regrets that we probably still look back with shame and guilt wishing we did things differently.   We all have times where we were caught slightly embarrassed, because our imperfection was showing.

            The reaction of bewilderment, fear, and silence from the women reminds us of our own imperfections.   Which means, it should remind us of the greater truth in this morning’s scripture:  The tomb was empty!   This means that Jesus is who he claimed to be throughout the gospels:  the messiah, the son of God.   It means that Jesus defeated sin and death forever, that he offers eternal forgiveness, and that he has opened a way of reconciliation to God the Father.   The second thing that we can learn from this morning’s scripture is a constant reminder.  We may have a basic faith, but we have an extraordinary savior.   We may be imperfect, but our risen Lord is perfect.   On that first Easter, some of the women were bewildered, afraid, and silent.   The reminder though is that their failure, even then, is forgiven.  That because Jesus rose from the grave our sins are forgiven, our shame is erased, and our guilt can be released.   This morning’s scripture is a profound reminder that even when we are at our worst, God is still at God’s best.  And that my friends is good news!  

            It is the good news that we celebrate today!   The good news of an empty tomb, a risen savior, and an all-surpassing love is at the heart of our faith.   May we take the lessons of this morning’s scripture to heart.   May we remember that the stories of Jesus-its true, all of it.   May the assurance of that good news fill us with joy, excitement, passion, enthusiasm, and a deep-burning desire to share the good news with others.    May we stop being afraid to share the good news, but may we proclaim the truth that has for all eternity changed us:  Up from the grave he arose!   He arose a victor from the dark domain and he lives forever with his saint to reign.  He arose!  He arose!  Hallelujah!  Christ arose!”          

                 

           

Passion of the Radical

Scripture:  Mark 11:1-11

            If you spend any time around me, then one of the things that becomes known very quickly is that I really like Star Wars.  That may not be strong enough, I love Star Wars.  My family might use the word obsessed, but that is a little strong.  In general Star Wars is known for it’s super fans, and the biggest of those put my little displays of fandom to shame.   For instance, Ian Martin makes his own replicas of props and set pieces found in Star Wars from scratch.   Some fans go to ocean-crossing lengths.  The original set used for Luke Skywalker’s home was actually built in the deserts of Tunisia, and it has been largely left to the elements for forty years.   So Mark Dermul took it upon himself to raise funds to go to Tunisia to repair and restore the set so people could continue to make pilgrimages to it.   One of the best known Star Wars super fans is Steve Sansweet, who is recognized as having the biggest collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the world.  His collection of Star Wars things has over 300,000 unique items.  It is not just Star Wars that has people who take being a fan to that degree.   There are Disney fans, Harry Potter fans, and sports fans who take their love of something and turn it up to eleven.   While, I do not reach their level-I get it.  To take being a fan to the lengths that many people do requires that they truly love it, that they are deeply passionate about it, and they are excited about it over the long haul.  It is easy for us to roll our eyes at the people who love their football team so much that they attend games in below freezing weather without a shirt and covered in purple body paint or who take the time to become fluent in a fictional language like Klingon.  However, I think as Christians we can learn from these super fans.   Their love of their thing is evident, their passion is contagious, and their devotion is radical.   We can learn from the super fans, because those descriptions should also be how we are able to describe our relationship with Christ. 

             Throughout Lent we are going back to basics.  We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God do and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of worship.   In the most basic terms worship is our response to who God is and what God has done.   A sentimental way to put it is that worship is how we tell God “I love you.”    Worship is and should be based in love.  As Richard Foster writes in Celebration of Discipline, “Worship is our responding to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father.”   Through our worship our love of God should be evident.   This morning’s scripture demonstrates though that love is not the only characteristic that should define our worship.   Just like the super fans our worship should have a contagious passion and a radical devotion.  

            Palm Sunday kicks off the beginning of Holy Week and it is a day that we mark annually.   For many the story of Jesus entering the temple to the acclimation and palm branches of the crowd is a familiar one.  However, there are some oddities to this story we sometimes overlook, and I am not even talking about the fact that the story begins with what is essentially grand theft donkey.   The crowd that waived the palm branches and praised Jesus were not as innocent as we like to think.   The two most popular Palm Sunday hymns (which we are singing today) help paint an inaccurate picture.  Both of them focus on children praising Jesus on Palm Sunday creating a sweet, and innocent scene in our heads.  However, that is because both Tell Me the Stories of Jesus and Hosanna, Loud Hosanna were written for Sunday school and they were songs written to help teach children the stories of Jesus.  It makes sense they would include a child-centric focus.  The primary group that ushered Jesus through the temple gates was not a children’s band.  It was a rag-tag collection of radicals. 

            There were two primary groups that waved the branches and escorted Jesus into the temple on that fateful day.  The first were the disciples of Jesus, and as far as the good religious people of the day were concerned they were upstarts.   They were radicals who challenged and disrespected the traditions and the way things have always been.   They followed the teachings of a rabbi who broke with the way the Pharisees did things.   The second group that was there that day were the zealots. 

Jesus chose to ride a donkey to fulfill a specific scripture about the messiah.   It was thought in the first century that near one of the high holy days like Passover, the messiah might come riding a donkey and entering a specific gate into the temple.   Many people had gathered by the gate, just in case this was the year when the Messiah might actually come.   These people were zealots, Jews who actively wanted to see the Roman Empire overthrown and Israel become independent again.  This is why people were waving branches.   Palm branches were a symbol adopted by the zealots that represented Jewish sovereignty.  This is also why they shouted Hosanna, roughly translated means “Please save us”, and finds its roots in Psalm 18.   Like the palm branch, this is a phrase that was adapted by the zealots.   It was their rallying cry, it was their political marketing slogan.   

The disciples of Jesus and the zealots both worshipped that day.  Both the disciples and the zealots believed Jesus to be God’s chosen one, the messiah.  Waving the branches and shouting “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” was their genuine, passionate response to what God had done.   In the crowd at Palm Sunday we see the same behavior we see in today’s super fans.   Their actions were both radical and passionate.   Again, when it comes to how we worship I think we can learn from that.  

What make something radical is that it goes above and beyond normal expectations.  That is what makes the super-fans radical in their fandom.  Not every Star Wars fan would finance an international trip just to restore a dilapidated movie set like Mark Dermul did.    The disciples of Jesus were radicals because they followed what the establishment considered a fringe rabbi.  The crowd on Palm Sunday were radical because they were the ones waiting to welcome Jesus.  There were a lot of people in first century Israel awaiting the Messiah, but only the most radical gathered at the gate in hopeful anticipation.   If worship is our response to who God is and what God has done; and if radical actions are those that go above and beyond normal expectations, then what would radical worship look like today?    

In considering what might be considered radical worship, I do not want us to get stuck on context.   For instance, in the context of a traditional worship service hootin’, hollarin’ and dancing in the aisle would be considered radical.  Yet, in the context of a charismatic church that would be normal and bowing in quiet reverence would be considered radical.   Worship can be radical in any context.  There are lots of ways that the way we personally worship can be radical, that is above and beyond expectations.  I do want to offer up one idea for what radical worship could look like today.   The way we can worship radically is to show up and worship together.    When polling is done and people are asked how often they attend a Sunday morning worship service, somewhere around 40% of respondents say they attend regularly.  However, a study that tracked actual attendance numbers at thousands of churches, used a statistical model to show that on any given Sunday less than 18% of the American population is at a church worship service.   The idea of regular church attendance has changed dramatically, and Church leadership author Carey Nieuwhof points out that even engaged and committed church members attend less Sunday’s a year than they used to.   Today, attending just monthly is considered by many to be a regular attender.   That is the standard for “regular”, which means gathering with the community of faith to praise and worship God more often is now radical.  

            Now please hear me on this, my intention in sharing this is not to make you feel guilty.  I get it.  Health issues can make getting out difficult, work schedules can be inflexible, life is busy and there are a lot of balls to juggle.  Just because you are unable to worship with us 50 out of 52 Sundays a year does not mean you are less of a Christian than someone who can.   The testimony of scripture is clear that worship is best experienced as a communal event.  One of the ways that we can worship radically, that we can go above and beyond is that we gather with other Christians to worship the living God and Jesus, the light of the world as often as we can.  How often we can, is different for each person.  For some of us as often as we can is every single week, and for others as often as we can is only monthly.  The point is not how many times in a given year we gather for worship, the point is that we do it as often as we can.   When we can, we do not make excuses, we do not treat worshipping God as just one options among many that we will do if it is convenient for us in the moment.  In a culture of unlimited choice where only 17% show up weekly, worshipping as often as we can is radical worship. 

            More importantly than being radical the way that we worship God should be passionate.   Passionate worship is somewhat hard to define, and it is easier to define by what it is not.  In his book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Bishop Robert Schnase writes, “Without passion worship becomes dry, routine, boring, and predictable, keeping the form while lacking the spirit.  Insufficient planning by leaders, apathy of worshipers . ..contribute to an experience that people approach with a sense of obligation rather than joy.”  Passionate worship is worship that is full of joy.  When it comes to the super fans, the way they show their passion is through their investment and excitement.  The super fans have fully bought into what they love, and they are always excited about it.   These same two elements of investment and excitement are seen in this morning’s scripture.  The people spread their own clothes on the ground for Jesus to ride over, and the excitement in the shouts of Hosanna is so tangible it practically jumps off the page.

            We are invested in worship when we show up, not just physically but when we are fully present.  We are invested when we put our phones or mental to-do list away and engage in the act of responding to who God is and what God has done.  Even if we are unfamiliar with a song, or it is not our preferred style we still sing, as John Wesley instructed, “with a great courage. [Do not sing] as if you were half dead or half asleep.”   We worship with excitement when we are excited to worship God.   That challenges us to ask ourselves, are you excited to worship God?  My follow up question is how could you not be?   It is through worship we get to respond to God’s goodness and faithfulness.   It is through worship that we explore the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.   It is through worship we get to celebrate that our sins are forgiven, and it is through worship that we get to proclaim the miraculous truth:   Our God is greater than all, yet still knows us each by name.   Friends, again I ask, how do you not find that exciting?   When we are invested in the act of worshipping and we are excited to be doing it then our worship will always be passionate.  

            Worship is our response to who God is and What God has done.   I cannot speak for you, but when I consider all that God has done for me and all that I understand God to be, I have a whole lot of reasons to worship.   Super fans take their love for whatever they are fans are to the next level.   In the same way we take our worship to the next level.   Through how we worship may our love of God be evident, may passion be contagious, and may our devotion be radical.  May we be as invested and excited as those worshippers who greeted Jesus with shouts of Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”    

             

More Than Thoughts and Prayers

Scripture:  James 2:14-26

            German is a fun language, because if there is a concept that does not have a word to describe it, then Germans will create one by mashing other words together.   An example of this is zeitgeist.  This word is made by combining the German word for time and spirit.   The definition of zeitgeist is “the defining spirit of mood of a particular time as defined by the ideals and beliefs of that time.”   A couple of weeks ago there was an interaction that gave a fascinating glimpse into the zeitgeist of our current time.  At the very end of February director and writer Kevin Smith suffered an almost life ending heart attack.  I realize that you may not know who Kevin Smith is, but he is known for making niche movies that feature a lot of geek culture references and 80’s nostalgia.  Because we live in the Internet age, he announced he had a heart attack by posting a picture himself in a hospital bed on twitter.   In response to this Chris Pratt, an actor known for his roles in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, tweeted that he was praying for Kevin Smith.  Because it is the Internet, anyone can comment and give their unsolicited two cents.  The initial response to Pratt’s comments was overwhelmingly negative.  This backlash mocked the power of prayer, considered it a waste, and ineffective.  If you are like me, then your knee jerk reaction is to fight against that notion.  First, do not worry the Internet has you covered and the responses quickly devolved into a back and forth mud-slinging contest.  Second, I think this is an ideal opportunity as Christians to listen to the zeitgeist of the culture. 

            One of the early negative responses does a good job at summing up the growing cultural mood of the era.   A twitter user by the name of Joey Yeung responded by posting: “If you wanna help, actually help. Praying is just a way to feign helping so you don’t have to go out of your way.”   Now for the record, I believe Joey is wrong.  I believe strongly in the power of prayer, and I believe that when we pray God can and does change the fabric of reality to answer those prayers.   However, even though I disagree with Joey Yeung it is important to hear him, because his viewpoint is one that is growing in the world.    It has become a terrible cliché that whenever ever a tragedy of any type happens in the world, our political leaders (of both parties) respond by expressing their “thoughts and prayers.”   The criticism often leveled against these political leaders is that thoughts and prayers are meaningless if we are not ready to back them up with action.   Over the past several years, this discontent has grown, and it manifest itself has disdain for prayer that was seen in reaction to Chris Pratt’s tweet.  Again, as Christians I think it is important we hear this.   Right now what the world wants from the church is more than just our thoughts and prayers, they want us to act.   The world is not interested in hearing about our displays of faith, they want to see us back it up with our deeds.   As this morning scripture shows James, the brother of Jesus, would agree with that. 

            Throughout Lent we are going back to basics.  We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God do and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of acts of mercy.  For much of Christian history the church has divided things we do as Christians into acts of piety and acts of mercy.  The acts of piety, are largely what we have focused on the last few weeks.   The acts of piety are the things we do that connect us with God and strengthen our relationship with God.   The acts of mercy are the ways that we live our faith out with other people.   They are the deeds we do as the people of God.   The message of church tradition is the same as this morning’s scripture from James.  Authentic Christianity requires both faith and deeds.  

            This morning’s scripture has always been somewhat contentious, because it requires a bit more thought and insight than just taking it at face value.  On the surface level this scripture seems to be a direct contradiction of one of Paul’s writings.  In Ephesians Paul wrote “It is by grace you have been saved through faith . . . it is a gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.”  Yet here James matter-of-factly states “faith without deeds is dead.”  Despite potentially seeming at odds with one another there is not a contradiction, because both ideas are true.   Salvation absolutely is by grace.  It is a gift of God offered to us without price.   We accept it by faith and it is not something that we can earn.    However, when we claim this free gift of grace it will change us, it will mold us, and it will absolutely drive us to action.  That is what James is getting to in this morning’s scripture.  He is not saying that we earn faith, through our actions.  Rather deeds is the natural result of faith.   A proper faith grounded in the grace of Christ will produce the fruit of deeds that serve and love others.   This is the one of the core beliefs of the United Methodist tradition.  Article X of our articles of faith state, “We believe good works, pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, spring from a true and living faith, for through and by them faith is made evident.”   Faith without deeds that naturally grow out of it, is not true faith.   Faith without the fruit of deeds is all talk with no game to back it up.   Faith without deeds is thoughts and prayers without any power behind it. It is just a façade, it is a veneer that might use church-y sounding words but has no true substance to it. 

            I think the negative reaction to thoughts and prayers is related to the fact, that too many non-believers have had too much negative experience with that kind of hollow, fake news faith.   The type of faith that the world is waiting to see from us is a faith that is more than thoughts and prayers.  As James states in this morning’s scripture. “Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”   It seems today, that if non-believers are going to welcome and accept our prayers then they need to be dirty prayers.   By that I mean our thoughts and prayers need to be about things that we are willing to get our hands dirty in and do the work to bring about real justice, real restoration, and real reconciliation.  It seems that the zeitgeist of our current age seems to understand faith without deeds is dead.  So if we are going to make disciples of Jesus Christ, then we have turn our thoughts into actions and offer ourselves as living sacrifices that God can use to do good deeds that fulfill our prayers and transform this world.  

            In the Catholic tradition there are seven corporeal acts of mercy that Christians are to undertake in service to others.   Our Methodist tradition inspired by John Wesley, was inspired by this catholic tradition but it is a bit more open ended in how we define acts of mercy.   Methodist pastor, professor, and theologian Randy Maddox summarizes this viewpoint in his book Responsible Grace.   About works of mercy he wrote, “This designation covers the range of possible contributions to the welfare of others-from clothing and shelter, to healthcare and education to basic friendship.”   Works of mercy are the deeds we do because we are Christians.   These could be formalized and regular events such as visiting the sick and imprisoned, or they could be informal acts like taking care of lawn for a sick neighbor.   From our Methodist perspective it is less about what we do more, and more about why we do them.   We do these acts of mercy not out of obligation and we do not do them because we are trying to prove ourselves before God.  The reason why we should take on these acts of mercy is because of God’s all surpassing love.   Even though we do not deserve it and we cannot earn it, God still loves us.  That love should fill us to the very top, so that it spills out of our life.  Acts of mercy are the way we love our neighbor as ourselves because God first loved us. 

            There is saying that is often misquoted to John Wesley.  He did not say it, but his preaching inspired it and this quote evolved organically out of the Methodist Tradition.  So even though John Wesley did not say it, this quote and the ethos behind it belongs to us.  It goes like this: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”   This is one of the reasons why United Methodist is the expression of Christianity I resonate the most with.   Historically, United Methodist are doers.   It is embedded in our doctrine and church practice not to sit on the sidelines, but to be the church through actions we do.   Acts of Mercy should be one of the most prominent ways we display our faith.    In other words, they should know we are Christians, not because of our thoughts and prayers, but because of our love. 

            The message of this morning’s scripture is that acts of mercy must be part of our faith expression.   I suspect many of us know this, and we have a desire to show the love of God to others through our actions.  However, we sometimes need some help with inspiration, intentionality, and direction on doing this.   With that in mind here are a couple of challenges with how we can engage in acts of mercy.   We can do this through intentional acts and random acts.  

            Intentional acts are when we are involved with ministries, organizations, or missions that meet the needs of others.  These are planned times that we build into our lives to help people.   These acts of mercy are doing things like feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, giving to the poor, and sheltering the homeless.  These acts of mercy we do by volunteering such as serving at the food pantry, volunteering at a school, working with habitat for humanity, or providing fellowship and care to shut-ins.   My challenge to you, is how are you doing this?  I know for some of you, this is an easy answer.   You re setting a great example for the rest of us to follow.    However, if you struggle thinking of an answer, then I urge you to find a spot you can serve others and do it.   It should not be hard.  There is not a shortage of need in this world, so if you see need-meet the need.  If there is currently not a process in place to meet that need, then let’s sit down, talk about, and create a new way to serve our community together. 

            The random acts of mercy are not so much random, as they are unstructured.   These are acts we undertake in our daily life to be a blessing to others.  This is where we do good of every possible sort in small ways.   Again this is not hard, we simply need to take time to notice people around us.  When we truly notice them, then the ways we can bless them and show God’s love through our actions becomes incredibly apparent.  The second challenge is this:  I challenge you for the rest of lent to do at least one thing a day that brightens someone else’s day.  Do a small action, a small act of mercy, where you bring joy and show God’s love to another person through your actions. 

            May you get in the habit of doing that, so then you will show people your faith by your deeds.    Prayers are incredibly important and world changing, but may we be more than a church of thoughts and prayers.  May we be a church that embraces acts of mercy.   Being full of the love of God, may we love our neighbors through our actions.   May we show this world what a living faith looks like as we back up our beliefs of a loving God with loving actions.   May they know we are Christians by our love.