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.   

Squad Goals

Scripture:  Ephesians 4:1-7

            There is an institution that is found all across this country.   It does not seem to matter what part of the county you are in, or what time of the year it is, you are sure to encounter this group wherever you are.   I am, of course, talking about the old men’s table at McDonalds.   If you do not know what I am talking about, then pick any McDonalds.   Seriously any of them, and I guaranteed if you arrive between 6:00AM and 8:00AM then you will find a table of gentlemen, usually older, who are drinking coffee and solving all of the world’s problems.  Throughout my life I have been in a lot of McDonald’s in a lot of different places, and it is uncanny how universal this is.   Presumably, these little groups arose organically.   Retired men were looking for cheap, hot coffee and that brought them to McDonalds.  Eventually they kept seeing each other, conversations began, and it did not take long before they had “their table” and others started joining them.   I imagine by and large that is how these little groups began, but it really is fascinating how common this occurrence is and how it naturally replicated itself in so many places.  I think one of the things that this really points to as that people are intentionally designed for relationship and community.   On the surface level, the biggest thing these guys who started gathering every morning was the fact they wanted to get inexpensive coffee daily.   That simple commonality is enough of a basis to build a community that gathers daily in thousands of locations. 

            A single commonality is all that is needed for community to form.  As many of you know, I love board games and many media of outlets have noticed I am not alone in this.  Several articles have been written about the exponential growth in the tabletop gaming market.   In all of the articles that have been written the number one reason stated for the growth of the hobby is that games are inherently social activities.  They involve gathering around a table and interacting with one another.   Games can serve as the common denominator that community builds around.   I have found this to be true, and it is more than anything why I enjoy gaming so much.   According to all of the articles that were written, it seems that a lot of other people are wanting to find common ground to build a community on and they are finding it gaming. 

            Humans, by nature, are inherently social creatures.   It is by God’s divine design we are created with relationship with one another.   We are made to live in life-giving community with one another.   It is for this reason that we gather for church.   Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”   From the very beginning our faith experience was not meant to be a solo-experience.   Faith is not meant to be between you and God, it is meant to be between us and God.   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 and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of community.   I believe it is important for us to get this right.   The greatest gift the church has to offer the world is the invitation to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior BUT the second greatest gift have to offer the world is the invitation to be part of Christian community- the body of Christ, the family of God. 

            In general today, people are less connected with one another than they used to be.   This is where, to back up my point, I could quote statistic after statistic at you to show how this is the case, but I am not sure I need to.  I think this is something that many of us feel.   People do not hang out in the front porch anymore conversing with their neighbors, instead if we are outside at all it is in a backyard surrounded by a privacy fence.   People do not gather in public spaces like they used to, but instead they stay home and watch Netflix.   When people are out and about they are less likely to interact with people around them and more likely to hide in the screen of their phones.   Of course one of the reasons for this is because we live in a disturbingly polarized culture.  It is hard to strike up a conversation with someone about something deeper than the weather, because today seemingly everything has a political connotation and most people have dead-set opinions about who is us and who is them.  I am not going to point fingers about why this, or even bemoan how things used to be better back in the day.  Any given time frame of human existence has its positives and negatives.  All of this to say that we live in a culture that increasingly polarized and isolating, which is why the message of this morning’s scripture is so relevant to us.

            Even though we may be created to be social and build community together, this morning’s scripture shows it is something that always requires some effort to make happen.  This morning’s scripture from Ephesians was written by Paul to the church in Ephesus.   The New Testament as several letters written by Paul to various churches, and many of them have sections like this one; sections where Paul encourages the church to live in community with one another.  There are a couple of very important strategies this morning’s scripture gives us to do that.  

            First, if in order to build a commonality, then this morning’s scripture gives us the ultimate commonality: “One Lord, One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  The commonality that Christian community is built on is Christ himself.   It is through Christ that we are united to God and therefore, united by God to one another.   If you consider yourself a Christian then we are brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.   It is that one faith in the One God with one Lord and one baptism that initiates us into one holy church that is the basis for our connection that is the foundation for Christian community.   Christian community should be the strongest, most loving, and most nurturing community there is because what unites us is so, so much greater than anything that could possibly divide us. 

            This is the gift of hope that we bring to this divided, polarized, and bickering world.  If the love and grace we experience as Christians was enough to overcome hell and death, then is certainly great enough to overcome our differences.  It does not matter what those differences are:   different culture heritages, Christ is greater.   Purdue or IU Fan, Christ is greater.  Orthodox or progressive, Christ is greater.   Democrat or Republican, Christ is greater. It does not matter our differences are, the ground at the foot of the cross is level.  We all stand together in the need of grace, and we should be united in that grace.  In a world that is so divided, it is only in the community of the church that two people who might disagree about every single political issue can stand next to one another and sing with one voice, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.   The tear-inducing beauty of the church is that despite our differences we can love one another because he first loved us.   May we never forget that truth, and may we strive to live into that reality. 

            The second strategy this scripture gives us, is the nuts and bolts in how we live into that reality.   This morning’s scripture beings by telling us how we can live in community as the people of God.   Paul wrote, “be completely humble and gentle; be patient bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  To do this requires a conscious choices because being humble and patient, do not come easily or naturally to most of us.   To be humble means we choose to focus on ourselves less.  It means that we check our egos at the door, and realize that this community of faith, this church does not belong just to you.  Because again, we all stand on level ground here.  Just because I am up here, does not mean this is more my church than it is your church.   If you have been a member here for thirty years, then this church does not belong more to you than it does to someone who has been attending for only three years.   It does not matter if you are eighty-five or five, we are all equally valuable members of this community and we all possess sacred worth because of who created us and who saved us.   As this morning’s scripture concludes in verse 7, we all bring unique graces to the community of faith in a way that no one else can provide.  We all belong.    When we make the choice to recognize this, then it becomes easier to be patient and bear with one another in love.   We choose to value the person valued by God more than we value whatever it is that is making us impatient.    When we make the choices as followers of Christ to value the people of God, then we are well on our way to being a Christian community.   I sincerely believe that belonging to this kind of loving community is something the world desperately craves.  

            While it is not explicitly stated in this morning’s scripture, there is a final piece to how we do community as Christians.   It must be an open community.  The common bond we share is Christ, and Christ died for the sins of the whole world.   This means we much be willing to let the whole world in.   Every church in the world believes they are friendly, but that is because they are friendly with one another.   They are friendly with the people who look like them, and act like them.    That is a good first step, but we need to do better.   Christian community should be an open table, a table where we are always willing to set a place for one more.   Christian community needs to be a bigger table.   Pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz writes about this by relaying a story from his childhood:

“When gatherings were especially large, actual construction would be required.   My father would retrieve two massive rectangular pieces of wood for the garage.  . . we would all pull the table from either end and it would magically slide open and we’d drop those slabs in and add more chairs.  We quite literally expanded the table so that we could fit everyone. . . This was a regular incarnation of the love of God right in the center of our home, though we never knew to name it such.  This is the heart of the gospel:  the ever expanding hospitality of god.  Jesus, after all, was a carpenter.  Building bigger tables was right in his wheelhouse.” 

            As it has already been stated, we have to choose to live in community with one another, but the biblical message is clear.  As Christians we are supposed to be in community with one another and it is in the Christian community that we best experience, both the giving and receiving, of grace.   With that in mind, I do want to offer up two practical tips about how we can better live in community with one another.  First, we have to be willing to commit the time.   Being in community with one another is a shared relationship, and like all relationships that requires and investment of time.  Often, that requires more than just the shared experience of an hour together every Sunday morning.  That is why we offer additional times to gather together.   That is why we have Sunday school, weekly bible study, youth group, United Methodist women, United Methodist men, game nights, and euchre nights.   One of the functions that all of these things serve is to provide opportunity to be the people of God together, to spend time with one another, and to invest with one another.   I know we all lead busy lives, so if we currently do not offer anything during a time you can participate then let me know, and let’s work together to find a new way for us all to live in community together.  

            Second, we do need to always be mindful about making the table bigger.   This means that we never settle for how it is, but we are always willing to invite just one more to join us.  I celebrate this about Edinburgh UMC, in general you all are good about this.  I have seen the numbers, and the amount of people you invite is well above average for a church our size.  However, let us be mindful of this and let us always be willing to make the table a little bigger.  

            Look around, look behind you.   These people, the people here in this room with you, we are your squad, your tribe, your family, your community.   We are united by the one Lord and one faith.   We are part of the one body.   May we live like it.   May we be humble and gentle, treating one another with patience and love.   May we show the world, what true and authentic community looks like as we love each other the way that God loves us.  More importantly though, may we invite the world to come and join us at the bigger table of God’s unending grace.  

Give It Up

Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12

            It is amazing how fast a story can take on a life all its own.   For instance there is a well-known story about Gandhi, which is not actually true.   The story is actually an old proverb from India that somehow got morphed into a Gandhi story over the past forty years.  So even though this story is not an actual event that happened, it is one worth telling.  The story goes like this:   There was a boy who ate too much sugar.   He was absolutely addicted to the stuff.   He snuck, gorged, and hoarded candy all the time.   It was a real problem and no matter what the mother tried she could not get the boy to stop over-indulging his sweet tooth.   Out of options, she decided to take the boy to see Gandhi.   At this point he was revered for his wisdom, and she thought perhaps he could talk some sense into her son.  They walked for miles over the course of many hours in the hot Indian sun.   When they finally made it to Gandhi, the mother explained her predicament in detail and asked “Gandhi, my son consumes too much sugar- will you please tell him it is bad for his health?”   After listening to the mother, the only thing he says is “come back in two weeks.”   Perplexed the two leave, but two weeks later they dutifully make the same long journey under the sun to come back to see Gandhi.   When they come back Gandhi gets down on the boy’s level, looks him in the eye, and says “boy, you eat too much sugar.  It is not healthy.  You need to stop.”   The boy, who has great respect for Gandhi, takes his words to heart.   The mother is confused and ask, “Why could you not tell him that two weeks ago?”   Gandhi replied, “Because two weeks ago, I was eating too much sugar.”  

            I tell this story because of the subject we are exploring this morning.   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 and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of fasting.  Despite that, and I am being bluntly honest with you, I am terrible at fasting.  It is one of the spiritual disciplines I am the weakest in.   Every time, I try to fast and not eat, all I do is think about food.   Often it is taught that while fasting, and you feel hungry that is a reminder to focus on God, but all I end up focusing my thoughts on are donuts and pizza.   Once in college, I took part in a 72 hour fast that was meant to get over that hump.  The thought was that after 48 hours, the body begins to adjust and it becomes easier not to focus on being hungry.   Yeah, I spent three days with my thoughts focused more on pancakes than God.

            However, much like the fictional account of Gandhi, I could not in good conscious talk about fasting without doing it myself which is why this past Friday I followed John Wesley’s traditional Friday fast and why I have fasted from playing video games for the past two weeks.   Often when we think of fasting, we only think about food.   This morning’s scripture makes it clear though that fasting is more than just not eating, and it is more than just giving something up as a token of piety.   Fasting is not an optional spiritual discipline.   In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus gave instructions on fasting and he said “when you fast. . .” not “if you fast.”    If this is something that our Lord and Savior expects of us then we should know what fasting is and why we should do it.  

            Fasting is an ancient biblical tradition.   We can find it all of the way back in the Torah, the first five books of the bible that is regarded as Jewish law.   In Leviticus where this practice is first commanded it is phrased as “you must deny yourself.”   In essence this is what fasting is.  Fasting is self-denial.    The opposite of self-denial is indulgence, and let’s be honest we live in a culture that is full of indulgence.  Fasting is the conscious choice to deny ourselves instead of indulge ourselves.   Biblically, this focus is exclusively in food.    However, today we indulge more than our physical appetites.   Proof of this is not hard to find.   We indulge our desire to be entertained.   The average American watches five hours of TV a day, and that says nothing about binge watching on streaming services.    We indulge our appetite to just have more stuff, which the number bear out.   The average American family carrying a credit card debt has a balance of $15,654.   There is value and spiritual reasons to fast from food, but we clearly can benefit from practicing self-denial in other areas of our lives as well.    This is why I know a few people whose annual Lenten discipline is to fast from social media for the duration of Lent.  This is why when I knew that I would need to be more intentional about fasting myself, I chose to spend a couple of weeks away from video games.   It was an area in my life that I was being too indulgent in.  

            Establishing what fasting is, the question is why should we do it?   In the bible there was a deep cultural reason for fasting.   For instance the mention of fasting in Leviticus is in the stipulations on how to mark the Day of Atonement, the Israelite community was to deny themselves and fast.  Throughout the Bible we see fasting applied elsewhere and in different ways.  Often when people seek God’s attention in the midst of suffering and tragedy the bible mentions fasting.  This is because ancient Jewish theology and practice put a strong emphasis on connecting the body and soul.   If there was an inward change or feeling, then it was to be expressed outwardly.   This is why there is an emphasis in the bible and ritual washing.  An outward act is done to signify an inward change.  Fasting was much the same way.  If one was to focus on God, then they literally denied themselves   Fasting is meant to be a physical expression of heart and spiritual desire.  Fasting also has several other deep spiritual benefits as well and they are reasons for why we should do it.  

            First, fasting as a way to provide clarity, focus, and put things in perspective.  For instance, fasting has a way to make us more grateful.  I grew up being taught that you pray before you eat, but until I truly fasted I did not understand why.   On multiple occasions now, I have participated in and led youth groups through an annual event called Planned Famine.  This event raises funds and awareness to combat world hunger, and it involves a thirty hour fast.  Often the teens emerge on the other end much more appreciative for the fact we have food.   I can honestly say that because of fasting when I pray before eating, I pray with great sincerity because I am truly thankful that we have food.  

            Because fasting is self-denial, the spiritual discipline also has a way to convict us of the ways we over-indulge.   When we are being about denying ourselves we are more attuned to the ways that we are not.   John Wesley noticed this  and he preached about in discourse 7 of Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.  Wesley preached bluntly, “Fasting will wean us more and more from all those indulgences of the lower appetites that naturally tend to the chain the soul to earth polluting and debasing.”   Wesley believed that regularly practicing self-deinal helps strengthen us in general to saying “no” when we are tempted to be indulgent in sinful ways.  

            A second benefit of fasting is an undeniable spiritual one.  Church tradition maintains that many God-fearing people have found that the act of regular fasting increases the depth and impact of one’s prayer life and relationship with God.    In his book Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster compiled a list of several great Christian thinkers and writers who advocated the spiritual benefits of fasting.  This list includes Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and of course John Wesley.  Again in his sermon on fasting Wesley preached that through fasting, “We also grow in earnestness, sincerity, discernment, tenderness of conscience, and deadness to the world.  Consequently we grow in love for God and in every holy and heavenly affection.”

            These first two benefits combine for the third undeniable benefit of fasting.   Fasting changes us for the better.   Methodist Pastor, professor, and theologian Randy Maddox points out that “Self-denial was indispensable for the Christian life.”    Maddox goes on to point out that in Wesley’s viewpoint the core of self-denial is “a willingness to embrace God’s will when it is contrary to our own.”   It is through fasting we learn to do this.   In fasting we practice small acts of self-denial and when we seek God in prayer while denying ourselves the Christian tradition maintains it is easier to discern and understand the difference between our will and God’s will.  In essence this moves fasting from being a spiritual discipline of piety to one act that is a catalyst to put our faith into motion and to “spend ourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.”  

            That is what this morning’s scripture in Isaiah is all about.   This scripture begins by mentioning people who are fasting because it is an expectation.   They are going through the motions of fasting, of giving something up, because it is how things are supposed to be done.  Fasting is not a magical cause and effect, where we deny ourselves to get some sort of benefit on the back end, but that is how it is being treated in this scripture.  Fasting is not about doing the action for the sake of the action.   Fasting is an outward expression of an inward desire to deny ourselves, take up our savior, and follow Christ. 

            Fasting is meant to change our hearts and motivate our actions..   As this morning’s scripture says, “Is not this the kind of fast I have chosen:  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wander with shelter- when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away your own flesh and blood.” 

 Practicing fasting can change our hearts in a couple of ways.   When we go without we are in a better position to have solidarity with those less fortunate than us.   This was always why the youth planned famine events were successful, it allowed teens to experience real hunger in a very small way for the first time and it made them much more sympathetic to those who are hungry.   Fasting helps change our hearts to see the needs of others.  Also, since fasting is self-denial when we do it regularly we become better at focusing on our self less, which naturally makes us better at focusing on others more.  Fasting motivates us to put others first, not in theory but in our everyday actions.   

In our indulgent-filled culture, fasting is hard, but it can be the vibrant soil that nourishes a flowering faith.   Here are some thoughts about how we can fast.   First, for fasting to be effective, for it to change our hearts, and motivate our actions, it is something we should practice regularly.  John Wesley fasted every Friday, not eating that day until the evening meal.  He urged all Methodists to do something similar.   In the interest of full disclosure, I am talking to myself in this regard as much as to anyone else.  We, I, should find a fasting pattern that works regularly for us.   If for medical reasons, fasting is not feasible then you can honor fasting through abstinence.   You can be intentional about denying yourself certain foods like sweets.   Finally, self-denial does not have to just be food.  If there is something like TV, social media, your phone that you know that you have been overly indulgent in then take a fast from that.  Offer it up for a period of time as a sacrifice before the Lord and practice self-denial.

For most of us fasting is a hard spiritual practice.  It is one that requires us to be intentional about.  However, the rewards of doing so are immense.   Through self-denial we become more attuned to the cry of the needy and the will of God.   As the people of God, may we humble ourselves, may we pray, and may we deny ourselves in fasting.   Then as this morning’s scripture says, “your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  The Lord will guide you always.”         

By the Book

Scripture:  2 Timothy 3:14-17

            Nathaniel Greene was born into a well to-do Rhode Island family.  Though taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic Greene did not have much formal schooling because his father thought industrious work was the best teacher.   Nathaniel was indeed industrious, and upon the death of his father in 1774 he successfully took over and led a growing business empire.  However, war with England was on the horizon.  Nathaniel, an American patriot, turned his mind to military matters.  However, he did not set his eyes on being a solider but on command.   Which is what indeed happened.  By 1775, Nathaniel Greene was a Brigadier General in the Continental army.   He had only been a solider for six months, he had never been part of a military campaign, and he had never even set foot on the battlefield.    What qualified him for his high rank was his extensive knowledge of the military arts that he acquired almost entirely from reading books.   Before enlisting, Greene had used his considerable wealth to buy every book, treatise, and pamphlet on military theory that he could get a hold of.   As historian David McCullough writes, “It was a day and age that saw no reason why one could not learn whatever was required- learn virtually anything- by the close study of books, and he was a prime example of such faith.”   Despite the fact that his experience initially came from books, he was successful in his military career.  When America achieved victory in the war for independence he was second in command only under George Washington.  

            I find the idea fascinating that someone can learn virtually anything by studying books.  We believe books are important, but we do not believe they are the key to doing everything.  Imagine if I read hundreds of business leadership books and then applied to be the CEO of a fortune 500 company, claiming that being well read qualified to helm the company.   I probably would not be taken seriously at all, but that is more or less what Nathaniel Greene did in his era and no one questioned it!   Even more crazy, it worked!  Believing in and then proving the power of books to that degree is amazing and almost unbelievable. 

            Of course as Christians, perhaps we should not find the power of a book to change lives to be that unbelievable.   John Wesley once wrote, “I want to know one thing the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!  . . . Let me be [a man of one book].”   We believe that one book, the bible, does have the power to change lives.    However, we have to confess that by and large that belief is academic and not always based in experience.   Study after study has shown that biblical literacy in this country is decreasing.  Statistically speaking, even the majority of regular church goers do not have a deep understanding of the Holy Scriptures.   In 2014 the Barna research group reached a sad conclusion:  “Americans love the Bible, but they do not read it.”   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 and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of the bible.    

            The most basic question we can ask about the Bible is “What is it?”  There is a cutes-y answer to this question that has gained some traction.  I could not track down the origins of this so I do not know how old it is, but it turns the word Bible into an acronym that means Basic Instructions before Leaving Earth.   At first glance that seems clever, but it also could not be more wrong.   The bible is not an instruction book.   An instruction book is linear, dry, and efficient.   The bible is much more nuanced than that.  An instruction book is what we use to build a Lego set not live a changed life.   It is not right to call the Bible basic.  It is full of poetry, of wisdom, and of truth.  It is so much more than just a list of steps.   We do the scripture a profound disservice when we treat it like simple instructions that we only look at when we need an answer.  We do the scripture wrong when we proof text a scripture out of context and try to shoe-horn it into a situation in our life where the scripture does not honestly apply.  An instruction book is something we only use when we need it to fix a problem, and the Bible should not be used that way.  The bible is not meant to just tell us what to do, it is meant to transform us.  

            If the Bible is not an instruction book, then what is it?   As far as the United Methodist church is concerned, there is an official answer.   Our official doctrine states, “We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation.  It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for our faith practice.”   The Bible is not an instruction book but it is an authority.  The bible is the ultimate authority on the essentials of salvation, and in doing so reveals God to us.  This morning’s scripture puts it simply:   All scripture is God-breathed.   The simple and deep truth of the Holy scriptures is that from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 is that they are divinely inspired.   The scripture was written in three different languages, it was written over a period of hundreds of years.  Some of it existed as oral tradition to be compiled by editors, other portion have been preserved by the church since it was first written.    The context the scripture was written to ranges from an apostate nation of stiff-necked people, to Greeks needing to be convinced of their need for Jesus, to start-up churches struggling with doing life together.   Church tradition, our own experience, and scripture itself confirms that the one thing tying all of scripture together is the divine inspiration of God.   This means that for “what the bible is”, it is our primary source of knowledge for knowing God.   It is only through the scripture that God has revealed Godself.  It is because and through the scripture we know of God’s everlasting mercy and love.   It is because of the Bible we know the story of God’s grace.  It is because of the Bible that we know Jesus Christ is the source of salvation that reconnects us with our heavenly Creator.   What is the Bible?   Brothers and Sisters in Christ, it is the fount of truth that reveals how our souls are saved and it is one of the key ways that God transforms our hearts.  

            This is why the Bible is so important.  Not only does it contain everything necessary for salvation and reveal that to us, but the Bible transforms us.  This morning’s scripture goes on to state that  scripture is useful teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped of every good work.  If we break this down we get a glimpse as to what makes the Bible so transformative.

  First we are to use the scripture to train in righteousness.   The concept of training implies an ongoing work.   I do not know about you but we have watched a lot of Winter Olympics over the past couple of weeks, and training for those games is as intense as you can imagine.  Olympic athletes tend to train six to seven days a week, and their training regiments often take up between three and six hours of their day.   That is the kind of dedication it takes for an Olympic level athlete.   We may not be able to immerse ourselves in the scriptures six hours a day, but that kind of regular, intentional, and daily training is what is being talked about here.  That kind of training makes Olympic athletes the best in the world, and a similar type of dedication to the scripture can transform us.  

This morning’s scripture also points out that scripture is useful for correcting and rebuking.   Now this is a harder pill to swallow.  To be corrected means we are doing something wrong, and to be rebuked means we are doing it wrong enough that we need to be called out.   However, if we never fix our mistakes, errors, and short comings then we never grow, improve, or change.   Being corrected and rebuked is hard, sometimes ugly work but it is necessary for us to become the people of love, compassion and purpose God made us to be.   The bible is indeed very good at rebuking and correcting us.  One of the things that makes the Bible unique compared to other ancient literature is that the people contained within are not perfect.  From Abraham to Moses to David to Peter to Paul all of these people are portrayed as deeply flawed and imperfect.  When we read and immerse ourselves in their stories, our own flaws and shortcomings become apparent.   When Paul writes in his letters of the ways the churches fail to love one another or live a Christian lifestyle it can sometimes hit to close to home.   The Bible is good at pointing out what we need to correct, and it often points us in how to do it.   The Bible transforms us when we study it, and allow its eternal truth and wisdom to rebuke our pride and change our behavior.   Doing this is a lot easier than we tend to let on.   19th century Philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard accurately diagnosed this when he wrote, “The Bible is very easy to understand.  But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers.  We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”  

Nathaniel Greene became an army general because he read books.   These books were not just instruction books, but they were knowledge that he internalized and claimed.  He allowed the books to mold and shape him.  He made what they contained part of who he was.   This is what we should do as Christians, this is what it means to train in righteousness and this is how the Bible corrects and rebukes us.    The scriptures are God-breathed and as such they do transform us.   When we internalize and claim the eternal truth of scriptures, when we allow the one book to mold and shape us, it becomes part of who we are.   And who we become is more like our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whom the Holy Bible has revealed and made known to us.  

The final basic question to briefly consider is how we go about reading the Bible.   Quite simply we read it.  That has to be a starting point.  We have to stop being a nation that loves the Bible but does not read it.   When it comes to reading it I do have four tips to help you with that.  First, get a Bible you enjoy reading.  If your Bible is a translation that you do not like then find a different one.  We are so spoiled in that regard, and if you need help finding one we have a lot of second hand bibles we have collected here to share so just let me know.    Second, be strategic in how you read the Bible.  Do not start at Genesis and try to read cover to cover.   That tends not to be a great way to approach the Bible.  If it has honestly been awhile since you have read the Bible on your own then start with a gospel like Matthew or John.   If you want more structured guidance there are a lot of read the bible in a year plans.  I know it is the end of February but if you start now you will still get through most of it.    Third, read with paper nearby.   The Bible is inspired by God, and I sincerely believe God speaks through it.  If something sticks out or a thought is triggered write it down.  If there is a question you have write it down, look it up, or if you prefer ask your pastor to look it up for you (we seriously LOVE it when people do that).  Finally and most importantly, whenever you read the bible pray first.  Ask God to reveal the truth of the scripture to you, ask God to transform you through the scripture.  It is my experience that God is faithful in answering that prayer. 

Whether you are a longtime student of the scriptures, a relapsed student, or a new student may you continue on in what you have learned and have become convinced of.  May you love the Holy Scriptures and may you allow God to speak to you through them.  May you realize that the Bible is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.  May we all be a people of One Book, thoroughly equipped for good work to the greater glory of God and to his son Jesus the Christ.  

Living on a Prayer

Scripture:  1 John 5:1-20

It is one of my mom’s favorite stories to tell.   I was somewhere around the age of five, and we were at my grandmother’s house.   While doing some cleaning they found a picture of my dad from his senior year of high school.   They showed it to me and asked if I recognized the person, which I did not.   They told me who it was and then said “someday you may look just like that.”   Upon gazing at the picture again, my response was an exasperated prayer, “Oh God, I hope not!”   Kids, it seem pray the darndest things.  If you are having a bad day and want a way to lighten your heart then use google to look up funny kid prayers.   The prayers of children tend to be innocent, sweet, and honest.  For instance one I ran across was Dear God please change the taste of asparagus.  It’s gross. “   Another food related prayer that a mother reported was every day their son would pray, “Dear God, please make this taste good.”  However, my favorite story of kids’ prayers that I ran across was relayed by a mother and it happened after giving birth to their third child a boy.   The two older children came to the hospital to meet their new baby brother.  The oldest, a six year old girl was disappointed and whined “but I prayed for a girl.”  The now middle child, a four year old boy, a matter of factly replied, “I prayed harder.”  

            In churches we tend to do a decent job at teaching children about prayer.  I know this because it is one of the default answers.  I have taught teens in youth ministry for almost fifteen years now, and I know that it does not matter what the scripture we are studying is or the topic we are discussing if I ask a question that involves some form of how we can put our faith into action someone will always say “pray”.   Now technically, they are right.  It is very rarely not appropriate to pray, but I have to wonder how much thought most of us have put into prayer.   We know we are supposed to pray but how much do we know about why we pray, how to pray, and what to pray?   Once someone accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior, we tend to assume people just know how to be Christians.   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 and why we do them.   Today, we are getting back to the basics of prayer.  

            The most basic and perhaps the most important question to answer about prayer is why we pray.  This is such a fundamental question that some of the best Christian thinkers in history have weighed in on it.   The great reformer Martin Luther wrote, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”   We pray because it is one of the most basic expression of our faith.  The reason for this is reminded to us by the great preacher Charles Spurgeon who preached, “True prayer is neither a mere mental exercise nor a vocal performance. It is far deeper than that - it is spiritual transaction with the Creator of Heaven and Earth.”   He reminds us that prayer is more than inspiring words and it is much more than thinking good thoughts or sending positive vibes.  A “spiritual transaction” is a 19th century way of saying encounter.   When we pray we are encountering God.   As this morning’s scripture puts it, we approach God.   Catholic saint Mother Teresa explained the encounter with God that we have in prayer in very intimate terms when she stated, “Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.”   When we pray in this way, we truly put ourselves in the hands of God and listen to for God’s voice in the depths of hearts something truly remarkable happens.   The hugely influential 19th century theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard plainly stated, “Prayer does not change God but it changes [the one] who prays.”  

The collective wisdom of the voices out of Christian tradition paint a consistent picture of why we pray that aligns with scripture.    The reason why we pray is to build and continue a relationship with God because it is in prayer we directly interact with God.   Now I know for those of you who are routine church attenders, that is a standard statement, you know that already.  However, I do not think we truly appreciate the epic scope of that statement.   We are saying the creator of the known and unknown universe, the God who sees and knows all things at all times,  and the God who is infinitely power gives us the time of day whenever we seek it.   For that reason prayer absolutely should change us and that is also one of the reason why we pray.    In this morning’s scripture John wrote in verse 18, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe and the evil one cannot harm them.”   John is writing about the ideal, to reach a place in life where we do not willfully sin and fully love God with all of our being.    Why we pray is because reaching that state of Christian perfection is only possible by God changing us as we interact and changed by God in prayer.  

             The next basic question, which is the primary focus, of this morning’s scripture is what we pray about.   In some ways understanding what we should pray about is just as important as understanding why we should pray in the first place.    Perhaps, collectively as the American church this might be one of the most areas we need some guidance and help.   I do not know if you have noticed but our prayers can be kind of selfish.   Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton noticed this and wrote about it in their influential and prophetic book Soul Searching.  They identified that by the approach many take to prayer they treat God “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he's always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”   In other words, what we pray about is ourselves and how God can make our lives better in the most comfortable way possible.  

            That way of praying is not really supported by scripture including this mornings.   At first glance it does seem that this morning’s scripture might support the idea that God is always at our beck and call ready to bless us.  Verses 14 and 1 do state: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God:  that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know he hears us-whatever we ask we know that we have what we asked of him.”   Again, at first glance it does seem this scripture supports a “name it and claim it” idea.   But there is a huge qualifier in verse 14.   It says if we ask anything according to God’s will.  We can confidence that God will hear and answer our prayers if our prayers are in accordance with God’s will.  

            In this morning’s scripture John is very helpful because he gives us example of the kind of prayer that would be in God’s will.   In verse 16 John writes about seeing a fellow Christian sin and praying that God will give them life and lead them to repentance.   That is the kind of prayer that is in accordance with the will of God.   This is why the TV preachers who peddle prosperity and treat prayer like an unscratched lottery ticket are so odious.   Prayer is not about taking our wish list to God and demanding we be given what we want or think we deserve.  Prayer is not about what we want or our will.   What we pray should always be rooted in God’s will.   This is why every single Sunday we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.”   Ultimately what we pray should be informed by why we pray. 

            Again, the reason why we pray is to maintain and grow our relationship with God, and doing so should and will change us.   In Romans the apostle Paul wrote about this change. Paul wrote “be transformed by the renewing of your mind then you will able to test and approve God’s will is- his good, pleasing and perfect will.     Prayer is more than just asking God for things, it is a communication with God that aligns our will with God’s will.   We can get to a place in our faith where pray “your will be done” and have a good idea what that will be.   For when we are not to that point, I do have a suggestion then for a good starting point about what we should pray.   To modify a quote from President John F. Kennedy, in prayer we should not ask what God can do for us, but ask what we can do for God.   Part of what we pray should not just be us asking from God, but we should ask what God wants from us.  Then, the most important part is we then go and do it.    That is how prayer transforms us and how we in turn transform the world.   

            The final basic question about prayer is how we pray.   Now as a lifelong United Methodist, I have gathered that the answer is as silently as possible.  Nothing mortifies a room of Methodists like asking someone who is not a pastor to pray out loud.   Jesting aside, if the reason why we pray  is for the right reason and what we pray for is what we should be praying for then the  how is a matter of personal preference.   Again, there is no shortage of advice here on how to pray, and the answer is to pray in the way that feels most authentic for you.   It is commonly said to pray to God like you are talking to a friend, if that works for you then pray that way.  There are others who feel like they need a little more structure and they follow a prayer model such as the five finger prayer.  Because you are going to ask, this is a model of praying for the needs of others that uses your hand as a reminder: 1.  Pray for those we love (family and friends)  2.  Pray for those who teach us.   3.  Pray for those who govern and hold authority.   4.   Pray for the sick and the weakest   5.  Finally pray for yourself. 

            Then there are those who prefer a lot of structure and enjoy guidance by following along with prayers from a devotional book or a daily prayer ritual.   As long as our prayers are authentic and driven by a deep desire to connect with our heavenly father and pray according to his will then the how of how we do it is not that important.  The substance of our prayers is vastly more important than the form.   You pray how you pray, because you can have confidence in approaching God.   The one piece of advice that I would offer up in how you pray, is allow space for God.   Prayer should not be a one way conversation but we should pause, breathe, sit in silence, and give space for the Spirit of God to move, lead, mold, and guide us.  

            The song is probably dated now, but several years ago one of the debut hits of the band Casting Crowns was “What if his people prayed?”   The chorus of the song ask the rhetorical questions “What is his people prayed?  And those who bear his name would humbly seek his face and turn from their own way?”    What is clever about the song is that they do not actually give an answer to their question.   They leave it up to their listeners to determine what the outcome would be if the people of God prayed to seek the face of Christ, sought the will of God, and prayed to be used by God for God’s purposes?   Just what would happen if Christians prayed in that way?   Edinburgh UMC, let’s find out.   


Scripture:  2 Corinthians 4:3-10

            I was young at nineteen, and I was the oldest one there in the collection of 17-19 year olds.   It was the summer around the 4th of July.  This means fireworks were involved.  Given the young age of all present and the presence of explosives our decision making skills were not at our best.  So after close that evening, we were setting off fireworks in the parking lot of Pizza Hut.   Today, the Mortar tube fireworks that shoot a ball high in the air to explode in a shower of sparks are common but back then they were new, and we launched one up.   Back in 2000 when this happened, Indiana had some weird firework laws.   It was legal to buy explosive fireworks in the state but it was against the law to actually use said fireworks.   This is something we all knew, and it became keenly relevant.  It was right about the time the third one was going to be launched that the police officer showed up.    The owner of the fireworks snatched the mortar tube and very un-smoothly hid it behind his back.  The officer rolled down his window and asked “were you boys launching fireworks?”   Me and another person said yes.  At the same time, the two other people said no.   That led to a very awkward moment of silence.   Knowing we were busted, the two fibbers changed their answer to yes and waited for the officer’s next move.   He continued, “I just wanted to know what they were called and where you bought them at?  I need them for a party in a couple of days.” 

            Fireworks have a way of attracting our attention don’t they?   In some ways if you have seen one firework show, you have seen them all.   Yet, every time they start they just grab our attention.   Chinese folklore claims that fireworks were invented by accident.   The story goes that roughly 2,000 years ago a Chinese chef was experimenting with new spices in doing so he mixed charcoal, Sulphur, and saltpeter.  The mixture burned well, and it was discovered that when compressed the mixture became explosive.   The firecracker was born, and the Chinese would go on to develop true fireworks.   It is impossible to verify the accuracy of the story, but I really like it because the legend is the kind of story that touches on deeper truths.   The story involves common elements that on their own are not special.  However, when combined they become something explosive that can capture everyone’s attention.   We find a similar message in this morning’s scripture. 

            It is easy for us to forget when reading Paul’s writings in the New Testament just what is we are reading.  We are so used to reading them as scripture, that we can forget that Paul originally wrote them as letter to specific churches to address specific problems.   From what we have recorded in the scriptures, the church in Corinth was one of the more problematic churches that Paul worked with.   However, it is sometimes hard to tell exactly what Paul is addressing and this morning’s scripture is a good example of that.   This morning’s scripture comes from a section of 2 Corinthians that biblical scholars call the “great digression” because it seems that Paul rambles on a bit.  The fancy term we might use today to explain the section this morning’s scripture is “narrative theology.”   This morning’s scripture has a lot of theological truth in it, but like all of the “great digression” it is in the context of Paul’s ministry.   We kind of get a sense that this section gives a glimpse to how Paul’s experience as a minister of Christ has informed his beliefs.   This is a concept that might be comfortable for us, because this is a very Methodist concept.  One of the unique hallmarks of Methodism, is the emphasis we place on our faith being experiential.   Faith is not a passive activity but something we experience and live out in our lives.  In turn are experience then becomes a lens through which to better understand our faith.   There is a strong sense that Paul is doing something similar in this section of scripture, and perhaps many of us can relate to the experiences that Paul has seemed to have. 

            There seem to be two experiences that really informed Paul’s writing of this morning’s scripture.   The first, is that there are some people who just do not get it.   As Paul writes, the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing.  Paul was writing in a context that is over nineteen centuries old, but verse 4 of this morning’s scripture is as relevant in 2018 as it was in 55: “the god of this age (the devil) has blinded the minds of unbeleivers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel.”  

            That rings true today, and I realize that for some of you it may ring true because it hits too close to home.   I realize that for some of you, a person you care for is one of those people who’s mind is blinded to the light of Christ.   You have no doubt shared your faith with them, you have testified to the miracles in your life, and you have pointed the works of God happening all around them.   Perhaps you are at your wit’s end because it does not seem to matter what you do or say, there heart is hard and their mind is blind to the Truth that is easy for you to see and that is staring them in the face.  

            If that is your experience then I think there are two take aways from this scripture.   First, if the people you care about have not yet turned their hearts to God.   It is not your fault.   This morning’s scripture states, “for what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.”   Hear those words, it is not on you.    If you have shared the gospel, if you have proclaimed the salvation offered by Jesus Christ to those you care about that do not believe, then you have “let your light shine out in the darkness.”  It is not your job to save them, that is Jesus job.   Which is the second take away to remind ourselves.   Jesus works miracles, including giving sight to the blind.   If our Lord Jesus Christ can rub some mud on a guy to allow someone who has been blind from birth to see, then Jesus has the power to open up any mind to his love.  

            The second experience of Paul’s that seemed to inform his writing in this morning’s scripture is the hardship that he experienced.  When Paul wrote about being hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and stuck down he was speaking from a place of deep experience.  The book of Acts records time after time when he was threatened, beaten, and imprisoned.   His letters record times he was betrayed and disappointed.   The life of a traveling missionary was not an easy one in the first century.  There were times of being hungry, exposed to the elements, and left uncertain what is happening next.    

            Again, many of us can relate to Paul’s experiences.   You too have hardship and suffering in your life.  While you may not have experienced true persecution many of us have had experiences where we feel hard pressed by too many things pushing on us all at once, we have had experiences where we feel perpelexed between a bad choice and a worse choice, and many of us have felt like where have been struck down.   Something happens that leaves us feeling gutted and collapsed on our knees unable to breathe by the shock, the pain, and the enormity of it all.   Yet in the midst of Paul’s experiences that were that way, he never despaired, he never felt crushed, and he knew that he was never abandoned.   No matter how bad life got, his hope never faltered because he know the all-surpassing power of God was with him.   His hope was in the death and resurrection of Jesus, for that reason he did not lose heart because he knew his hope was secure and that no amount of hardship could ever diminish or strip that hope away.  Those who have faith in God through Jesus Christ have that same hope.   No matter what happens in life, no matter how uncertain things seem, or how much our heart hurts we can have the assurance that we are forgiven, we are loved, and we children of eternity.   

            Paul’s experiences helped give validation and focus to his faith, they were a lens that better helped understand his beliefs.   In the same way we can see God through the lens of our own experiences.  Doing so will help strengthen our understanding of faith, but it can also bring separate elements together and make connections.   For instance,  I think this morning’s scripture gives us the recipes for spiritual fireworks.   

            Remember, according the legend fireworks were first created by mixing separate ingredients and applying a little pressure and heat.   We find the separate ingredients in this scripture, and again you own experience might validate these ingredients in your life.   First we have a desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who are blinded by it.   The second ingredient we have is a hope found in Christ, a hope that causes us not to lose heart no matter what.   These treasures, are found in as Paul writes jars of clay.  A clay jar is an ordinary, everyday vessel and he uses that expression to mean us, ordinary everyday people.    However, when we mix those two elements and then add the all surpassing power of God found in the fire of the Holy Spirit, fireworks happen!   

Shane Claiborne is a Christian advocate and community leader.   In his book The Irresistible Revolution, he tells a story of an encounter he had that shows what these kind of spiritual fireworks look like .   He lived in a fairly run down part of Philadelphia.   Shortly after moving into this neighborhood he and a friend needed to go to the grocery store and walking there took them under a bridge where many of the cities more undesirable residences gathered.  They specifically noticed a woman who looked to be specifically down on her luck.  On their way back, she was still there, and they invited her to come eat with them.   At their house, after the meal, the woman asked “You are Christians aren’t you?”   When they replied they were, she said could tell, because they were shining.    Fortunately, the story does not end there.  A couple of years later, Shane Caliborne was talking about his ministry at a Christian conference, and a woman came up to her.   Shane did not recognize her at first, but it was the same woman  from under the bridge.   She told him, “I know you do not recognize me now, because I am different.  Now, I am shining too.”   Shane concludes this story by affirming that she indeed was. 

We truly do shine out like a light in the darkness.    Our desire to share Jesus with those who do not see, moves beyond our wishes and words.   We become living testimonies.    When our world should be falling apart, but we are not crushed, in despair or destroyed we are powerful and undeniable testament to the power of God.   Just like a firework cannot help but draw the attention of everyone who sees it, that kind of faith garners attention.  As Paul wrote, the “life of Jesus is revealed in our body.”    When our lives are defined by the hope we have in Christ, then we shine.  

May you remember that God “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”   May that knowledge be a source of unending hope in you.   May you live that hope out, and be a living testimony.   May that hope, which can only be found in Christ Jesus, shine out in your life.   May the testimony of your faith light up the sky like a firework, that brings sight to blind minds, hope to the hopeless, and glory to God. 



Can't Even

Scripture:  Mark 1:29-39

            Americans are always in a hurry.   French Political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the hurried pace of Americans all the way back in the 1840s.   It seems being hurried and busy is a constant in our American way of life, and most people feel busier now than ever before.   However, this is odd because the numbers do not back it up.   While it is true that full time workers in America spend more time working than in any other developed country, the average amount of time spent working has only up ticked slightly in the past 30 years.  In the same way, the majority of parents today believe that being too busy has made it so they cannot spend as much time with their children as the want, but statistically parents today spend more time with their kids than previous generations.   Apparently we have always been in a hurry but we have not always felt this busy.   The reality is that there are some people who are busier, but as a whole we are not any busier than were in the 70’s and 80’s.   This has led several social scientists and psychologists to do studies and publish theories on why we feel this way, and there are two leading schools of thought.

 Without getting into the nitty-gritty details as to how this happened, one of the leading thoughts is that we monetize time.  It has become engrained into our cultural ethos that we treat time as money.  An experiment was done to show this.  They had people listen to a piece of classical music.  However, one group was asked to calculate how much they make an hour.  That group was much less likely to enjoy the song and thought it lasted far too long.   The theory is when we end up thinking of time as something with a financial figure attached to it, we are more likely to force ourselves to make our time financially productive.   This creates a constant feeling of being busy because to not be busy is to waste time and thus loose financial wellbeing.    The second major theory as to why the feeling of busyness has increased is related to this.  At some point in the past fifty years or so, the idea of being busy became a status symbol.   We tend to view people who are busy as being more successful, so this means that people tend to chase down being busy and actually make themselves busier so that they can feel and be viewed as more successful.   Yet these feelings of busyness also bring feelings of stress and being overwhelmed.    The ways to overcome our feelings of busyness, slow down, and enjoy life have less to do with what we are doing (because remember we are not much more busy now than we used to be) it has to do with our attitudes.   When we are feeling overwhelmed and so busy that we can’t even the best thing we can do is actually step away for a moment and refocus ourselves on what is important.  That is what the research and psychologists of today tell us, and that is also the message of this morning’s scripture.   

This morning’s scripture picks off right where last weeks left off.  After recruiting his first disciples, Jesus goes to Peter’s hometown of Capernaum and teaches in the synagogue.   He teaches with authority and drives out an impure spirit.   As Jesus goes to the house of Peter and Andrew, I like how casually he heals Peter’s mother in law.   He just helps her up and like that the fever leaves her and she is good to go.   From there though, things escalated quickly and Jesus gets very busy.   I imagine the story of what he did earlier that day in the synagogue with casting out the impure spirit spread quickly.   In the same way, I wonder if the story of healing Peter’s mother in law spread.   Capernaum was not a very big town, did Peter’s mother law or even Peter himself happen to step outside for a moment and mention the miraculous healing that has just happened to a neighbor?   In either event, people seemed to get the message of Jesus fairly quickly and by the evening the whole town was crowded around a small house to see what incredible thing Jesus would do next.  

            We have to put this scripture in perspective.   This is more or less the official start of Jesus’ ministry.   Capernaum was the launching point for Jesus, and he found instant success and an audience eager to hear him.   One of our core beliefs as Christians is that Jesus is fully God but he is also fully human.   Being human Jesus experienced much of the human experience that we go through.  I cannot help but wonder here, if Jesus got overwhelmed.   If seeing all of these people eager to be healed by him was more than he was expecting.    This was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and it seemed that it could not have gone any better.

            After this first day Jesus was busy.  He probably could have stayed busy.   He could have spent the whole day healing every minor ailment.   As the news spread, he could have established himself in Capernaum.   Set up a process to schedule healing appointments, while establishing regular teaching times.    He could have kept busy and transformed the synagogue in Capernaum into a Mega-synagogue.   Doing so would have made Jesus a huge success by both our ancient standards and our modern standards.    Jesus could have double downed and committed himself to a lifestyle of busyness and success, but instead he did the opposite.  He withdrew.   When Jesus was overwhelmed he left all of the busyness behind to see out God in prayer.   We get an impression from the disciples that this was not a popular move.  We get the impression that the assumption is that Jesus would commit to being busy because everyone was looking for him for that very purpose.  

            However, that is what Jesus did.   When things picked up steam, he put on the breaks.  When he was busy, he dropped everything.   When he felt overwhelmed he did not frantically work out of it, he sat still.   In other words, Jesus did the exact opposite of what we (or at least what I) probably would have done.   Jesus sought out God in prayer, and doing so gave Jesus focus and direction.   It reminded him that he was not sent to earth to be a successful healer, he was sent to preach the good news.  

            I think we can learn from Jesus example, because from time to time we all get overwhelmed.  Even if it is true that much of our perceived busyness is by our own design and perspective that does not mean it cannot be overwhelming.   There is always something else that needs to be done, something that must be tended to, and the entire time the dishes pile up in the sink.   We live in a culture that for better or worse values busyness, and it is our cultural expectation that successful people thrive the busier they are.   That is a lie.  It is OK if there ae times you feel like you can’t even.     If just the pace of life feels overwhelming to you right now, that does not mean you are a failure.   Even Jesus, who had the power of God, felt overwhelmed at times.   When the pace of life feels to fast and when the grind of daily life feels like it is going to reduce us to dust, we should follow the example of Jesus.  We should retreat.   Jesus went out into the countryside, and if that is not an option then we can close ourselves in a room without our phones and make our own solitary place.  Jesus sought God in prayer and it made a real difference.   It can still make a difference for us today.  Often when we overwhelmed by the pace of daily life it is because we feel tired, we feel weak, and we feel there is to much to handle.    Psalm 46:10 puts it this way, “Be still and know that I am God.”  When we are still then all of our worries and stress is left behind.     When we take time to seek God in prayer, when we connect with God then we are reminded that we are in God’s hands.   We are reminded that the Creator of the universe, the one who created trillions of stars as well as every grain of sand, knows us by name and cares for us    We are reminded that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.   We are reminded that even though we can’t even God most certainly can.   We are reminded that with God all things are possible.  Brothers and sister in Christ, there is strength and there is real power in those reminders.   The great reformer Martin Luther once said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”   While the thought of praying for three straight hours might be a bit much for most of us now, I think we can take his point to heart.   Prayer centers us with God, and when we are centered with God we lift our cares, our schedules, our busyness up to God.   It is remarkable how when we do that the things that seemed overwhelming are now manageable, and the thought “I can’t even” is replaced by I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  

            Sometimes though we are overwhelmed by life, not because the grind of it gets to us but because sometimes life is honestly overwhelming.    All of us have had times in our lives where it seems like when it rains in pours and no good deed goes unpunished.   We all have or will go through times when the job fell through, when the diagnosis came back not good, or when the one unexpected event we never thought we had to plan for is exactly what happens.   During those times, we feel overwhelmed.  We feel overwhelmed not because we are busy but because we are lost.   We are disoriented, we do not where to turn and we do not know what to do.   In those times, then we can still follow Jesus’ example and find God in a solitary place.   This scripture does not record exactly what words Jesus prayed, but it seems to indicate he was seeking direction from God, and he got it.   When his disciples finally found them, he knew what he had to do.    In the same way, I am a firm believer that God guides us and directs us.   It may not always be on the time table we want and God may not provide guidance the way we are expecting, but in those times when we are unsure what to do we can let God be our guide.   We can trust that God will lead us.   

            Life can be busy, it can be tiring, and it can be just down right hard.    Far too often in those times we either make ourselves sick with worry or we seek to just set all aside while we binge on some sort of TV marathon.   May I suggest a third option?   When life is hard, when we are tired of being busy, when we can’t even, may we turn to God.    May we find a solitary, quiet place and seek the presence of the Lord.  Sometimes we do not need to even say anything.  If you are anything like me, then we should probably say less in prayer and listen more.  We can rest in the Lord.  We can find a peace, a contentment, and a strength that is not possible to attain in any other way.   

            I urge you to truly consider doing this.  We are ten days away from lent starting.   One of the focuses in lent are spiritual disciplines, the actions we do regularly to strengthen and deepen our faith.   This lent please consider taking time each day to find your solitary place and seek God in prayer.  I challenge you to do this, and see if spending time in prayer in this way makes the busyness and trials of life more bearable.   There is an old hymn that describes what happens when we do this.  It goes like this, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” 

Ban Hammer

Scripture:  Mark 1:21-28

            In general, I am fascinated by sociology, the social sciences that explores what motivates us as a society and what kind of social pressures influence our behavior.   I am especially fascinated by the way this plays out in the new frontier of social media.   For instance there was a Facebook post that made the rounds last month that stuck out to me.  It has a Christmas card picture of the Nativity with the caption, “Facebook is trying to get people to remove this picture from their profiles because it is offensive. Let’s band together and prove them otherwise.”  This is, of course, not true.  Facebook has never intentionally removed or banned a user for posting any kind of traditional religious imagery.   However, similar shareable post can be found claiming that facebook is trying to block military logos, protest signs, or oddly enough bacon sandwiches.   The reality is major social media sites do not ban people for their normal opinions and preferences.   These sites have clearly defined terms of usage and in order to be banned behavior needs to be excessively vulgar, obscene, hateful, or dangerous.   Given how monolithic social media web sites are, it is odd to think a harmless and regular image that one feels someone else might not like is worthy of being banned.  I think the source of these posts that keeps popping up harkens back to an earlier era on the Internet.  Fifteen plus years ago, social media was not a thing.   So social interaction via the Internet came through chatrooms and forums.   In those days, Admins ran the forums and they had the ability to ban people.   All of these forums had rules of usages and theoretically only breaking those rules should lead to a ban.  In that era of the Internet it was not uncommon to be banned for a minor offense.  The liberal use of banning even created a phrase:  The Ban Hammer.   The admins had the ability to wield the ban hammer, and it is what established them as the ones with authority.   These admins had absolute authority over their domains and some ruled their corner of the Internet like tyrants.   Power it seems, even minor digital power that only existed on a small forum, can still be a corrupting influence.    As a whole, people tend to be obsessed with authority.  Often we keep subconscious tabs on who is in charge, who has the most seniority, and what the chain of command might be in any situation.   There are also many people who desire authority, but as anyone who has ever had a terrible boss can attest a lot of people do not know how to use authority well.  This morning’s scripture is all about authority, specifically the authority that Jesus wielded.   The scripture can teach us what kind of authority Jesus had, how he used that authority and what we can learn from it. 

            This morning’s scripture begins in the synagogue of Capernaum.   Now often we read synagogue as Jewish church, but that is not entirely accurate.   The synagogue of Jesus day was a place of worship and prayer, but it was also the community forum.  In Jesus day synagogues did not have a rabbi assigned to them that functioned as a pastor.  There were synagogue leaders and they would regularly open up the synagogue to traveling teachers or to the Pharisees who had something to say.   It was under the banner of a traveling teacher that Jesus taught in the synagogue.  I love how Mark puts it in this morning’s scripture and it is a smart way to phrase it “the people were amazed at his teachings because he taught them as one who had authority not as the teachers of the law.” 


            This is really some master level snark that the gospel author is throwing here, because when it came to the Hebrew scriptures, the teachers of the law were supposed to be the ones with authority!   The Pharisees had devoted themselves completely to studying and knowing the scriptures.   They would memorize the scripture, they would familiarize themselves with the traditional interpretations, and they built a hedge around the law.  This meant the created additional rules to follow to ensure that God’s law was never broken.  If 24-hour news was a thing in Jesus day, then the Pharisees would have been the pundits brought into as the “authority” on any religious matters.   Yet, compared to the teachings of Jesus these religious authorities looked like amateurs.  

            Now unfortunately, we do not have transcripts to compare the words that Jesus said on this day in Capernaum against the typical teachings of the Pharisees to see the difference.   We cannot know for sure why the teachings of the Pharisees lacked authority compared to the words of Jesus, but when we consider the entirety of the gospels we can begin to form a good guess.   Jesus talked about loving God and the Pharisees talked about following rules.   We get the impression that the Pharisees loved the idea of following God more than they loved God.  They elevated the rules above knowing God, but Jesus did not.   Jesus spoke of God as his Father, he spoke with the authority of a son.   Hearing the Pharisees teach may have been as exciting as some reading the tax code, but Jesus would have spoken with conviction and experience because he spoke from a place of deep relationship.   The Pharisees tended to treat people who did not meet their strict standards with judgement and condemnation.  The Pharisees said it was important to love your neighbor as yourself, but their actions did not back up what they taught.    Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, and he backed it up by having compassion and showing care for everyone, including those that others ignored or forgot about.   Perhaps this more than anything is why people were able to pick up on Jesus’ authority.   It was obvious to them that he believed what he preached, and practiced what he taught.  

            This morning’s scripture goes on though that Jesus did more than just teach with authority, but it established that he had real power.  It establishes that Jesus wields a spiritual ban hammer as he cast out an impure spirit.   In Jesus’s day traveling teachers were not uncommon.   Traveling healers were rare, but not unheard of.  One of the things that made Jesus unique in the time he walked the earth was his ability to drive out demons.   Now today there is a lot of debate.   Some people read scriptures like this morning and take it at face value, that Jesus drove demons and impure spirits out of people.   Other modern day readers are quick to associate the demonic activity reported in the bible with mental illness such as schizophrenia.  On one level though it does not matter which interpretation we go with.  It does not matter if what torments these people is a demonic influence or a chemical imbalance, the result is still the same.  A miracle is still performed.   Jesus heals and restores the afflicted person back to their normal selves. 

            This morning’s scripture clearly establishes that Jesus is a person of authority, and this a common theme throughout the gospels.  Even though the people of Jesus day did not always acknowledge the authority Jesus held, we do today.   When we gather in church we sing proclamations about how majestic the name of Jesus is.   We declare him the king of kings and the Lord of lords.   To tell you all that Jesus has authority is a pretty much preaching to the choir.  So given that, what do we do with scriptures like this morning, scripture that’s main point seem to be establishing the authority that Jesus has?  

            To properly answer that question we have to turn to a different scripture.  In John 14 when Jesus is giving his final words to his disciples he says this in John 14:12,”Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father.”   Let the full weight of that scripture sink in.  Jesus taught and acted as one with authority, and he said that people who believe in him will do the work that he has been doing.  That means that this morning’s scripture is less a display of power for us to be in awe at, and it is more of an example for us to follow.  

            The Pharisees knew their stuff, but they did not teach with authority because they did not put their knowledge into practice.   Jesus taught from a place of authority because he knew God and he lived out what he said.   We can absolutely follow that example.   Because of the salvation offered by Jesus we can know God as our heavenly Father.   We also can practice what we say we believe.   We do ourselves a dis-service when the way we live and the way we believe do not line up.   Brennan Manning once 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.”   In other words, they will see us like the teachers of the law who are all talk but whose words have no real authority.  If we say that everyone is created by and loved by God, then we treat everyone as if they have sacred worth.   If we say to love our neighbor as ourselves, then we show as much care and concern for their wellbeing as we show for our own.   If we say Jesus is Lord, then we treat him like the number one priority in our life.   When our actions, words, and beliefs are aligned then we have a faith that radiates authority.   Even if someone disagrees with our beliefs they will listen and respect our viewpoint because they know it is authentic and comes from a place of deep conviction.  

            Of course, Jesus in this scripture Jesus then goes on to heal the man with impure spirit as a further display of authority.   If Jesus, stated we will do the works he has been doing, does that mean we will do that?   I imagine most of us have a hard time picturing ourselves doing exorcisms.   However, if we dial it back a degree, then we can state what Jesus does in this morning’s scripture is a miracle where he restored health, he returned dignity, and he gifted a new lease on life.     I do not know about you, but I absolutely believe that miracles still happen today, and I believe that through the indwelling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit God can absolutely work through us to make those happen.   When we faithfully seek to follow and serve God, when we make it our life mission to join in God’s mission to transform this world, then the miraculous can happen.   Just like in this scripture people can be renewed and restored.   Dignity can be restored to those who have been stripped of it, and we can gift people who feel doomed and condemned to a second chance and new life.  

            Back in the heyday of internet forums, the admins who wielded the ban hammers were often volunteers.  They were users that the site’s webmaster invested with authority.    In the same way as followers of Jesus we have been given authority by God through the empowerment and workings of the Holy Spirit.   May we claim that authority, and may we live authentic lives of real faith; lives where our beliefs, our words, and our actions are in sync.   In doing so may we live out our lives, trusting that God can and will use them.   May we believe that miracles are possible, and that God can use us to bring those miracles about.   May we follow the example set forth in this morning’s scripture.  The example of Jesus, our ultimate authority.

Going on an Adventure

Scripture:  Mark 1:14-20

“This is the story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.”   That is the way that J.R.R. Tolkien’s book the Hobbit begins.  If you are not familiar with it, the Hobbit is a short novel that tells the story of how the unassuming Bilbo Baggins joined the company of Thorrin to journey to the lonely mountain in order to reclaim the treasure and Dwarven stronghold from the dragon Smaug.   The story is whimsically narrated which fits the character of Bilbo as the sheepish hero.   A few years ago The Hobbit was adapted into movies.  Overall, the lasting reception of these movies has not been great because they took a small book and stretched it out over three movies.  Doing so involved a lot of filler and slow pacing.   When it comes to the Hobbit I am in the “book did it better” camp.  However, there are some scenes and images that the magic of movies can capture and convey better than words on a page.   I think the moment that Bilbo decides to join the company is one such moment:

  Bilbo is a character that a lot of us could relate to.   When Biblo was first approached in the book about going on an adventure he said they were nasty business because they tended to interfere with dinner.   He had a nice house, which he had decorated just perfectly with family heirlooms.  Bilbo was content with life, and he was comfortable.   A lot of people can identify with this.  We tend to expend a whole lot of energy to ensure that we are content and comfortable.  Yet like many people who are comfortable, there is a part of us, a part of our heart that longs adventure.   We want to explore the great wide somewhere, and we want more meaning and purpose than what a comfortable life can offer.   We want to go on an adventure.   In the Hobbit, Biblo is invited by Gandalf to go on an adventure.   This morning’s scripture is our invitation to adventure, because the time has still come, the kingdom of God has come near, and someone still needs to proclaim “believe the good news!” 

 In the gospel of Mark this scripture kicks off the public ministry of Jesus.   So Mark begins by essentially stating Jesus’ thesis statement.  Verse 15 summarizes the primary message that Jesus taught and proclaimed:  “The time has come.  The kingdom of God has  come near.  Repent and believe the good news.”  There is a lot in these three sentences.  For instance, the first sentence “the time has come” is one that is loaded with meaning.    Many of the prophets write about the day of the Lord.   They write of a time of reconciliation and restoration.   They write of a time of when a messiah will come, and they write of a time when sin will no longer reign.   Jesus is proclaiming that time has come.   That through him the words of the prophets will be fulfilled. 

  The next part is extremely interesting.   The old King James translation renders this “The kingdom of God is at hand.”    However, all of the more recent translations have it as “The kingdom of God has come near.”   This is an important distinction, because the more modern and accurate translation, makes it clear that Jesus is referencing himself.   The kingdom of God is the new reality that Jesus brings about.   The kingdom of God is the defeat of sin and death forever, it is the offering of forgiveness for all, and it is reconciliation with our Creator.  The kingdom of God is the establishment of God’s rule in the hearts and lives of his people.   The kingdom of God is the start of a renewed creation, where those who have received God’s grace are made new creations.   The kingdom of God has come near, because Jesus was present.  It is only through his mighty acts of salvation that this was opened up.   Jesus himself never shied away from this fact either.  He boldly proclaimed that he is the way, the truth, and the life. 

            The final part of Jesus’ message was repent and believe the good news.   To repent is to turn away from, it is to do a 180.   When Jesus says repent he is saying to turn away from the old way of life and instead turn to the kingdom God, which is good news!   The gospels are full of parables, miracles, and teachings of Jesus.   However, if all of that was to be summed up into only three sentences about what the core message of Jesus is, it would be hard to do a better job than is presented in this morning’s scripture. 

            Right after we are given this mission statement of what Jesus is all about it is followed up by an invitation.   Jesus invites Andrew and Peter to follow him.   He tells them he will make them fishers of people, or in other words they will join Jesus in sharing the good news so that people can find new life in the kingdom of God.   As a child I always found this story kind of confusing.  This scripture (or the version found in Matthew) was a popular one in children’s church and vacation bible school.   However, the way I pictured it as a child did not make much sense to me.  I envisioned this as a sort of cold call, where Jesus out of the blue shows up and simply says follow me.  With little to no explanation as to who they are following or what they are doing they just leave their whole life behind.   The whole thing struck me as if something was missing.  

It turns out something was missing, Jesus had met Andrew and Peter before he fatefully called them out of the boat.  In the gospel of John we are told that Andrew spent a good part of a day with Jesus, and afterwards he immediately introduced his brother to Jesus.  This means Jesus was not just calling his disciples at random.   He must have had a good idea that Andrew, Peter, James, and John were good disciple material.   Perhaps Jesus knew that even though they had content and comfortable lives, they were willing to go on an adventure.   In the same way, when Jesus called his first disciples in this morning’s scripture, they had some idea of what they were committing to.   They knew there was something that about Jesus that was worth following.  However, it is probably fair to say that they had no idea just how much of an adventure they were in for when they left their nets and stepped out of their boats. 

The difference between Christians and non-Christians is simple.   Christians acknowledge that the kingdom of God has come near, we repent, we believe the good news, and we have responded “yes” to when Jesus said follow me.  Following Jesus, should always lead to an adventure.   The byproduct of following Jesus is that we should go to unexpected places and do unexpected things.   It is not hard to find to stories and biographies of regular Christians doing extraordinary things and having the most amazing adventures.   From Mother Teresa to Billy Gram to John Wesley to the countless missionaries who have traveled the world in the name of Christ, they all have one thing in common.   They cared more about sharing the good news than being content and comfortable.    If we want our faith to be an epic adventure worth re-telling, one of the first things we have to do is sacrifice being comfortable.  

 Many believers do not enter into faith looking to be comfortable.   Often when someone first has an encounter with the living Christ they full of passion to follow God, full of urgency for the lost souls of others, and compassionate on the downtrodden.   Yet, far too often the flames of a burning hot faith cool to embers.   I have heard numerous call stories of fellow clergy members, and a lot of second career pastors have similar stories.   The details are, of course, different but there is a similar thread.   When they were young, when they first accepted Christ or they claimed the faith as their own they felt called to ministry.  They were invited on an adventure, but they said no.   They lived a different life, one that was comfortable but they were never truly content.   No matter how many years they ran, there was a restlessness in their spirit because Jesus kept saying “follow me.”  

 Far too often we have been invited on a faith adventure, but we have chosen to pursue being comfortable instead.   There is a scene in the Hobbit movie that draws a lot of inspiration from some of Tolkien’s words in the book.    Bilbo Baggins is very comfortable in Bag’s End, and Gandalf challenges him.  In the scene he says to Biblo: “You've been sitting quietly for far too long. Tell me. When did doilies and your mother's dishes become so important to you? I remember a young hobbit who was always running off in search of Elves in the woods. He'd stay out late, come home after dark, trailing mud and twigs and fireflies. A young hobbit who would've liked nothing better than to find out what was beyond the borders of the Shire. The world is not in your books and maps. It's out there.”

 I feel like for some of us Jesus could say the same thing to us: “You’ve been sitting quietly for far too long.”    In the same way, I greatly value corporate worship and bible study, but a life changing faith will not be found just in our hymnals and bibles.   It’s out there.   It is not enough for us to know about God’s love, we have to practice that love.   We are to be conduits of that love, so that through us other people know and experience God’s love.   We are to share the love of God by being the hands of Christ that serve a needy world, and we share the love of God by being the feet of Christ that bring the good news to a lost world that the Kingdom of God has come near.  It is only when we do that we get to truly experience and grasp, even in a small detail just how deep God’s love for all creation truly is.   When we stop sitting quietly, when we get out of our proverbial boats, and follow Jesus wherever he is leading, then we will be going on quite an adventure. 

 Of course it has to be said that going on an adventure is an exciting idea it can also be an anxious one.   The scene where Gandalf continues urges Biblo to stop sitting quietly continues with Bilbo asking “And you promise I will come back?”   Gandalf replies “no, and if you do you will not be the same.”  

 Often the reason we end up pursing comfort is because it is comfortable, it is a safe quantity.   An adventure is anything but safe.  It is risky, and it will always leave us as different people than when we started.   While I have nothing against Christian music, I think far too often we settle for a “Christian radio” faith.   Every Christian radio station makes the same claims about themselves, usually in a jingle.  They all claim to be safe, positive, and encouraging.   Which is fine for music I suppose, but we have bought the lie that safe, positive, and encouraging should be the only words that describe our faith.   Faith in Christ is not about feeling safe and being told how good you are, faith in Christ is about knowing that no matter good you are not, God still loves you.  Faith is about repenting and turning to that love, and then going on a great adventure to tell others through our words and deeds the good news, the Kingdom of God has come near, and the savior is here. 

 Faith is meant to be an adventure.  Adventures, by their nature, are stories that worth telling.   If you have been setting quietly and comfortable for too long, then may you go find your story.   Jesus still calls out to the people who will make great disciples, “follow me”.   May you follow him.   It will be risky, you will do unexpected things, but it will be the adventure of a lifetime.   May you go on an adventure!

The Cure

Scripture:  John 1:43-51

            For as long as there has been commercialism and advertising the holy grail of marketing has been word of mouth.  The best way to sell a product is to get people to talk about it.   In the digital age this has become both easier and harder.   On the one hand it is easier because it is so much easier to connect with customers than ever before.  Even fairly small brands and   companies have professional social media manages or community managers whose job it is to interact with potential customers on the internet directly.   However, it is harder because we are bombarded by more information now than at any point of the human experience, and we have all developed great filters at weeding out the stuff that does not appeal to us or seems like blatant marketing.   In order to generate word of mouth in the digital age, there are a few strategies that companies have turned to.   The first is to get people to advertise for you.   Netflix has been one of the best at this.   For instance, they purposely premiered their original show “How to make a murderer” in December of 2015 right before a lot of people would have time have to binge watch it.   Many of the people who did this then posted about the show on social media.   In the same way, even if you do not have Netflix there is a decent chance you have heard of Stranger Things at this point.  Creating content that inspires people to make social media posts about it, has worked really well for Netflix in just three years between 2014 and 2017 they saw their number of subscribers nearly double.    Another strategy is to make your brand something that people want to follow on social media.  Wendy’s is a shining example of this. The Wendy’s social media manager is a mastermind at throwing shade on their competition.  In one exchange that gained 15 seconds of internet fame, The Wendy’s twitter account posted a typical advertising post showing a picture of their 4 for $4 meal.  In response Burger King posted a picture of their food with the caption 5 for $5 because five is better than four.   When a twitter user then asked for Wendy’s response the Wendy’s twitter account simply replied “edible food.”   There are countless marketing strategies but they all have the same goal which is to convince us that we want their product in their life.   Most marketing strategies tend to do this by creating brand awareness and they seek to make their product something we will share with others.  

            One of the phrases that I understand the necessity for but really do not like is “church marketing.”  I get it and it is a necessity to create presence and awareness, but it is problematic as well because marketing implies that we are selling something and that is not true.    The goal of marketing is to get money.  It is to convince people they want something, make that want seem like a need, and then get them to buy the product.   That is not what we are about, or at least it absolutely should not be.  We are not selling anything, we should be giving the gospel away.   We should not be manipulating people to close a deal, but we should be inviting people into a loving community bound by grace.   We should not be trying to manufacture a need, because everyone already desperately needs Jesus.   Despite those differences there are some similarities between traditional marketing and sharing the gospel.  Namely, word of mouth is the most effective way to succeed.   The only way the gospel spreads is if we are willing to say “come and see.”  

            The word we use to describe for sharing our faith is evangelism, and this morning’s scripture contains what might be the first example of that in the Christian faith.  This morning’s scripture takes place fairly early on in the ministry of Jesus.  He is just getting started, and according to the gospel of John, Jesus has not gone public yet.  He had yet to do any major miracles or do anything to start garnering a crowd.   Yet, in the interactions Jesus was having, he was making quite the impression.   We do not know Philip’s backstory.  Given that Bethsaida was a small town, he probably knew Andrew and Peter.  Some scholars think the original Greek even implies that it was Andrew or Peter who brought Jesus to find Philip.  It feels like we only get a part of the story in this scripture.  We are not getting the blow by blow account, but rather the little news ticker summary.   Something must of occurred that made Philip a believer, there was a reason why he said yes when Jesus said “follow me”, and there was a reason why   he then sought out Nathaniel to tell his friend that they had found the Messiah!  

            Now Nathaniel is a disciple that I think many of us can relate to.  If at least not personally, then we all know a person like Nathaniel.   He is a skeptic.   His very first instinct upon hearing about Jesus is to sarcastically ask how anything possibly good could from Nazareth.   I like to imagine that Nathaniel was just getting warmed up.  The scripture does not record it, but I imagine that Nathaniel was getting ready to tell his “you might be from Nazareth if.. .” joke when Philip does not back down.   I love the way that Philip responds to Nathaniel’s skepticism.   He invites.  Philip does not argue with Nathaniel, he does not belittle him for being so close minded, and he does not give up on him.   He simply says “come and see.”  

            I think it is for easy for us to undervalue the word of mouth buzz that Jesus was generating.   Philip said he was the messiah from one meeting with Jesus Philip believed that he was the one that Moses wrote about, that the prophets promised.   Philip believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of proclamations that were over a millennium old.  It is no wonder that Nathaniel was skeptical, that was quite the claim.   However, Philip believed this with such conviction and assurance that he could say “come and see” knowing that Jesus would not disappoint.   That is exactly what happened!   Jesus did not disappoint.  Again, it feels like we only get the briefest summary.  There has to be more to the interaction between Jesus and Nathaniel.   It ends though with Nathaniel declaring that Jesus is the messiah and becoming his disciple.  

            From this point in the gospels, the reach, influence, and touched lives of Jesus spreads.   He does it all without social media accounts, an advertising budget, or a marketing team.   In the gospels, people were attracted to Jesus by word of mouth.   They came to Jesus because someone else invited them and said “come and see.”    The early church grew by the exact same model of “come and see.   As churches we are not into marketing, we are into inviting.  We are about telling people to come and see.    As David Crowder sings, we are inviting people to come and see Jesus.  “He is the One who has saved us.  He is the one who embraced us.  He is the one who has come and is coming again.   He is the remedy.”    Yes, Jesus is truly the cure for what ails us.  

            When we think of it in those terms, it becomes bewildering why everyone is not a believer in Christ.   Jesus is the cure for what ails us.   All people at some point experience feelings of insecurity,  feeling unlovable, and of wanting to know are we worth anything.   Jesus assures that we are so valuable and so loved, that we, you and me are worth dying for.   With maybe the exception of the most evil people who have ever lived, we all struggle with our own darkness, we run from the guilt of knowing we have done wrong, and we regret the times we have hurt others.   Jesus forgives us, reconciles us, and lets us know that our ledger is clean, our sins have been erased.   At some point in life we all face loss, loneliness, and uncertainty.   Yet Jesus promises, that I will be with you always.   For Nathaniel, Jesus did not disappoint, and today Jesus still does not disappoint.  For every person who is hurt, broken, and lost Jesus does not disappoint.   For every person who simply is, Jesus is exactly what is needed.   Jesus is the cure for what ails us all. 

            Moreover Jesus is free.  This is why marketing does not quite work in the church, our greatest “product” if you can call it that is the good news of Jesus Christ and we literally giving it away.  Salvation and the forgiveness of sins is a free gift given to all.  There is nothing we can do to earn it, and there is nothing so wrong that it will ever be rescinded.  The price has already been paid, the gift has already been given.   Given all of this, it raises the question why are there still people who do not know Jesus as their Lord and savior? 

            Now Jesus himself addressed this.  He said the gate is narrow, and he pointed out there will always be those opposed to him and his followers.   However, I do think it is far too easy for us to say that those who do not yet know Jesus are just “those people” and wash our hands of them.   To follow Jesus we are to make disciples of the nations and care for the least of these, so he did not really give us that option.    Nathaniel came to be a disciple all because Philip said, “come and see.”   This morning’s scripture really challenges us with the question, “Are we telling other people to come and see?”  

            “Come and see” is the word of mouth that has caused the church to grow and the gospel of Jesus to change lives from the very beginning.   It can not be over stated, this is still the most effective way to spread the gospel.  Of course, in Jesus day it was very easy to say come and see and then show them Jesus in the flesh.    Today when we say “come and see” what should we be showing people?   We should be showing them that Jesus is the cure, and the way we do that is that we live like people who have been cured.   If you consider yourself a Christian then you have encountered the risen Christ, and you have experienced Jesus as the cure for what ails you.    All disciples of Jesus Christ should have a story of how our Lord and Savior has been a cure for the great sorrows, pains, and heartaches of life.  We should have a story of when we were low Jesus lifted us up, when we were lost he found us, when we were tortured by guild he absolved us, or how when we were in despair he brought us great hope.   For four years I have stood up here and told you parts of my story, and there is no need to repeat it all today.  However, if that is a story you want to hear, then I would love to sit down and share it with you someday.   In the same way, I am very interested in hearing each and every one of your stories of how Jesus has changed you.    However, we are not the ones who need to hear each other’s story.   It is the people that are not inside these walls that need to hear our stories, because they too need a savior, they too need a cure for what ails them, and our lives should be a testimony that say “come and see what the Lord has done for me.”  

            Having our hearts transformed by Jesus is not a onetime thing.  As the old hymn says, “morning by morning new mercies I see.”   Part of discipleship and faithful Christian living is learning just how sick we truly are and just the depth to which Jesus is the remedy.   This means that when we say “come and see” not only do we have a story about how Jesus has changed us, but our lives are living testimonies.   People should be able to literally see us as changed people, who are living differently because of the grace of Jesus Christ.   Which is the final question this scripture asks us.  Nathaniel declared Jesus the messiah, and it changed his life.  This scripture convicts us to answer the question “How has following Jesus changed your life?”

            May you be able to find the answer to that question.   If you struggle to find that answer, then I urge to come to Jesus because he is the cure for that which truly ails you.  He is the remedy that your heart and soul long for, and when you accept him as Lord and Savior I promise it will change everything.   If you do find the answer to how Jesus has changed your life, and how Jesus has been the cure in your life, then may you be willing to say “come and see.”  May you share your story and in doing so share your savior, the Son of God, with others.   Because in the end it is only through that kind of word of mouth evangelism that minds, hearts, and souls are going to be transformed for the kingdom of God. 


New Year, NewYear

Scripture:  Mark 1:4-11

Several years ago now we belonged to the Hendricks County YMCA.   I was not the most faithful of exercisers, but we utilized the facility just barely enough to justify a membership.   One of the services they offered was free child care, and I did use that.   It was January 2nd, 2013.   Connor’s day care was still closed, Abigail had meetings, and I had work to get done.  So I took my computer to the Y, and worked in the lobby while he was in the child care area.    The place was extremely busy, and at first I did not realize why.  I eventually put two and two together, and realized it was January 2nd, and a lot of people were trying to make good on their resolutions.  At one point, I guess the child watch area had reached capacity, and a little girl did not understand why she could not play.  I overheard the mother tell her daughter, “A lot of people want to be healthy right now which is why it is so busy, but in couple of weeks they will not want to be healthy anymore and it will be back to normal.”   That mom was not wrong.   Every year thousands of people make New Year’s resolutions and the most common ones involve exercise in some form.    However, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February.  While some people are able to make it past the second month of the year, when it is all said in done the estimate is that only 8% of New Year resolutions are kept and succeed.   That sounds really low, but consider what it is stating.   Often the greatest reason New Year’s resolutions fail is because they are too big and sweeping.  People resolve to completely change how they live their life.   When we consider that then for 8 out of every 100 people to make the conscious choice to completely change their life and then actually do it is kind of amazing.   So many people start off a new year with the manta “new year, new you.”  However, the gap between saying that and doing it is large.    In an article about making resolutions stick nutrition professor Dr. Roberta Anding was quoted, “January 1st, is a new beginning.  However, each day allows for a new beginning, and hence is a reset.”    Her idea is that instead of declarative life changes that we will fail out, we make change by making each day its own goal to achieve.  If one day is a fail, then there is always tomorrow to reset and succeed again.   This sort of approach is helpful for lifestyle change but it is also a smart approach to faith.  There is a lot of emphasis at this time on a “ new year, a new you”, but for those baptized and following Jesus Christ we have already been made new, and we have the daily choice to follow it or not.  

            From the very beginning baptism has been a part of the Christian faith.  All four gospels have, in their way, John the Baptist baptizing Jesus.   Baptism is embedded deep in the Christian tradition, but it has Jewish roots.   In the ancient Jewish tradition immersion in water was common place. Immersion was a physical act to symbolically show cleanliness.   In ancient Judaism this was done through a ritual bath called a mikveh.  In Jerusalem, outside of the ancient temple steps, there are the remains of several of these mikvehs.  When the Israelites would go to the temple, they would first bathe in one of these as an act of worship to present themselves clean and unblemished before God.  A mikveh has steps that lead down into the bath, and there is a clear division on the steps indicating two sides.   A person would walk down on one side, unclean, immerse themselves in the waters and come up the other side clean.   The water was a symbol that was meant to mark a spiritual change within a person.    It is out of this tradition, that John the Baptist did his ministry.   John preached a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.   The people that John baptized were essentially making a new year’s resolution.   They were starting over, they were essentially saying “new year, new you.”   John’s baptism was a physical act that represented a spiritual reset button, the start of something new.     

            This is why Jesus sought out being baptized by John.   It was not that Jesus needed to repent or be forgiven of sins.  Jesus was not baptized because he needed to repent and turn back towards God, but Jesus was baptized as a way to symbolically show that he was beginning something new.  Baptism symbolically shows a change in a person.  Up until this point of his life, Jesus had lived as the son of a carpenter in the small and obscure village of Nazareth.  Yet, when Jesus emerged from the water he embraced his identity as the Messiah, the son of God.  This is fully confirmed as the Holy Spirit descends and God the father declares “this is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”   Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, it marks the beginning of Jesus fulfilling all righteousness by starting the path that enables us all to live righteously in right relationship with God.  

            In the Christian tradition, the sacrament of baptism is a complex one.    It is immersed in deep symbolism and shrouded by denominational differences.   It does not matter though if one was baptized as an infant and then confirmed later in life or if one was dedicated as infant and baptized as a believer, in either event one the great emphasis found in baptism is living a new life.  To be baptized is a declaration of God’s love, acceptance, and provision over the person.  It is the acknowledgement of living a different life, a new life clothed in Christ.   This is true for infant baptism as well.  When a child is baptized the parents and the whole church community make a sacred promise and take a holy oath to provide an environment where so that the child will be raised in a place where they know and experience God’s love for them, an environment where grace is more than just a word, and an environment where they can know Jesus as savior and friend.    When we baptize an infant we are promising that we will provide a place and a community that shows them through our lives what it means to live differently from the ways of the world.  We will provide a place and a community that is a living example of what it means to follow Christ and love God with all of our mind, heart, and soul.   That way when the child reaches an age to confirm the faith as their own they have a good idea of what that means.   Even though they may not literally remember their baptism, they can remember they are baptized and be thankful because the community of believers has proven just what it means to be baptized. 

            As the baptized we are supposed to live differently.   We are to live as the ones who know that Jesus is the beloved son of God.  Baptism is an outward symbol that marks an inward change.  We are to live as people who have been changed; people who have been changed by the love of God, the forgiveness of Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  This is not a theoretical.   As the baptized we are supposed to more willing to love, quicker to forgive, kinder, gentler, and more patient than those who have not been baptized.   We are meant to be this way because through baptism we are new creations in Christ Jesus.   We put off the old robes of sin and death and we are now clothed in Christ.   It does not matter how long ago you were baptized, we all can joyfully claim life as a new creation, remember our baptism and be thankful.  

            That is the ideal, that as the baptized we are set apart, we are different, we are new creations.   We do not always reach that ideal.    We often have to confess that our actions are often not much different than the non-believers around us.   We often are not more loving, not more kind, not more giving, not more forgiving, and not more patient than those who have never been baptized.  Much like the people who do not hold to New Year’s resolutions, we struggle with true life change.   We struggle with truly being more Christ like in our everyday interactions.   This is why I think the advice about keeping resolutions by making every day a new beginning is so helpful.   Because there will be days where we lose our temper, where we say unkind words, where we think hateful thoughts, where we fail to be an obedient church and we do not hear the cries of the needy.   Those days do not define us.    What defines us are we are the baptized, we are the ones redeemed by God, clothed in Christ, and full of the Holy Spirit.   When we have a day, a week, a month or even a year where we fall short of that, we remember that today is a new day.  It is a reset, that today is as a good of day as any to resolve to be more kind, more patient, more loving and more Christ like. 

            Sometimes though it is important to re-state our intentions.   Sometimes it is not enough to just reset for a new day.    Sometimes it is important to remind ourselves that we are new creations in Christ Jesus.   There is an old Methodist tradition that affirms this.   It came to be known as a watch night service, but it was a tradition instituted by John Wesley himself in 1755 in Spitalfields, England.   Wesley, relying on an older written work he cherished, shared with the Methodist society there a covenant renewal prayer.   According to Wesley’s account, upon reading the line “I will be no longer mine own but give up myself to thy will in all things” 1,800 gathered Methodists, moved by the Holy Spirit stood up in a “testimony of assent.”   Wesley soon formalized the covenant renewal service in a pamphlet and he considered it best practice for the people called Methodists to renew their covenant with God once a year.  After Wesley’s time it became tradition to do this covenant renewal on New Year ’s Day right at midnight and that became watch night.  

            There is wisdom to doing this annually.   Renewing our covenant with God is an active to remind ourselves that we are the baptized and that we are to live differently as we seek to follow the example of Jesus.   A version of the covenant renewal prayer is still in our hymnals.   It is page 607 and I invite you to turn and look at it now.  

            It is a powerful prayer that reminds us that we are God’s people and God is our God.  It is a powerful prayer that reminds us that as the baptized, as the people redeemed by God’s love through Christ Jesus, we are called to live differently.   This prayer is a promise that each and every day we will humbly submit each day before God as a new opportunity.   Whether we are to be full or empty, have all things or have nothing, this prayer is a pledge that we have been changed and because of God’s unending grace we are being made new.  

            If you are willing to make that promise, then I invite you to pray the prayer found on 607 in the hymnal with me:

I am no longer my own but thine.  Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.  Put me to doing, put me to suffering.  Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.  Let me be full, let me be empty.  Let me have all things, let me have nothing.  I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.  And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.  So be it.  And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen. 

It Is Your Destiny

Scripture:  Luke 2:22-40

My son Connor holds, what is generally considered a minority opinion.   He loves snow.  By late August he tends to start asking when the leaves are going to start changing colors because he knows that means winter is coming.   He usually celebrates the first frost of the season because that means the temperature is getting low enough that snow is possible.   If you ask him why he like snow, he will tell you it is because he was born during a snow storm.   It is true.  On December 22nd, 2009 when he was born central Indiana did get a healthy amount of snow.   In his mind, he was destined to love snow because of those circumstances that surrounded his birth.   Perhaps his love of snow is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  From when he was very young we would tell him when it snowed about how we was born during a snow storm.   Doing so could have created an increased expectation that he likes snow, and so thus he likes snow because he knows he was born while it was snowing.   This kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is an actual psychological phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect.  This effect has been well studied and the results duplicated in multiple experiments.  The most common experiment for this involves telling a teacher that a small number of students are especially gifted or have a higher IQ than the rest of the students.   A competency test will be given to the class at the beginning of the experiment and then at the end.  The students that were highlighted as being gifted of smarter always preform at a much better rate of improvement than the rest of the class.   The things is though, is the highlighted students were not really more gifted or intelligent than the group.   They were, in fact, chosen at random.   The difference in performance was less based in the ability of the students but rather based in how the teacher treated them.  This is the Pygmalion effect.  Higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.  The teacher believed the highlighted students were better and treated them as such.  The result was a self-fulfilling prophecy where they really did become the highest achieving students in the class.   If high expectations lead to increased performance, then it would be hard to get higher expectations than Jesus has placed on him in this morning’s scripture.  The Pygmalion effect may help describe our behavior, but I do not think it can be applied to Jesus.  It was not high expectations that led Jesus to be God’s salvation, it was his destiny.  

             This morning’s scripture is a fascinating one.   We are told in the gospels that Mary and Joseph were righteous people, so they would have taken seriously the Jewish laws.   This morning’s scripture starts off very mundane with them observing these laws flawlessly but then it gets incredibly more interesting.  We are introduced to two fascinating people in this morning scripture.   Simeon and Anna only appear in this single story, but it feels like each of them have an amazing back story of their own.   I am left with so many questions about who these two people are.  For instance, what were the circumstances that led Simeon to getting a promise from God that he would live long enough to see the Messiah?   In the same way, Anna must have an amazing story to tell.   She must have been something of a local celebrity.   Unless she married late in life, she would have been widowed somewhere in her twenties.  This means she could have spent up to 60 years around the temple non-stop.  She would have been a fixture that people know and came to expect.   While prophetesses occurred in the Old Testament they were rare.  Yet, Anna appeared to earn that title.  In this morning’s scripture she starts preaching about Jesus then and there.   We have to remember that this was a patriarchal culture.  The fact that people apparently listened to Anna, shows how powerful, convicting, and full of truth her words had to be.   Simeon declares to Mary and Joseph how special their son is, and then Anna declares to all who will listen that the baby Jesus has a special destiny. 

            This story of the visit to the temple occurs only in the gospel of Luke.  It is easy to step back and from a bird’s eye view examine this scripture from a literary perspective.   From that perspective, this story serves as an epilogue of sorts to the birth narrative.   It reinforces that Jesus was not just another messianic pretender, but from the very beginning he was marked for a special destiny.   It is easy to make that proclamation from a distanced view, but when we attempt to step inside the story we can see just how troubling these prophetic pronunciations might have been. 

            This morning’s scripture would have taken place roughly 40 days after the birth of Jesus because that is when the purification sacrifices of doves and pigeons would have been made.   Mary and Joseph knew Jesus was not just another normal baby.  From the miraculous conception, to angelic visions, to shepherds showing up when he was born there had been nothing normal about the birth of Jesus.   However, Jesus was still a human baby with all of the ups and downs that come with that.   At the point of this scripture Mary was probably bleary eyed and really wanting sleep.   They knew Jesus was special, but I wonder if it was hard to keep that in mind when a baby was crying at three in the morning. . .again.   If they had forgotten at all just how special their child was, then Simeon and Anna did a great job reminding them.   They tell Mary and Joseph that their baby boy is the messiah, God’s salvation, a light for the gentiles, and the one who will bring redemption to Jerusalem.   That is all well and good, but Simeon drops this bombshell on Mary as well.  In verses 34-35 it records he said this to Mary: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.  And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

            Not only was Mary told about Jesus’ great destiny but she was given a glimpse of hers as well.   I have to wonder how this impacted Mary.   If first century mothers were anything like modern mothers, they worry about their children all the time.  How much worse would that e, knowing that something is going to someday happen that will pierce your soul?    Again, from a literary standpoint Luke highlights this as expert foreshadowing of what is to happen on the cross.   But from a personal standpoint, how much would this have weighed on Mary’s heart?   Did she push it aside to focus on being a mother or was this pronouncement of her destiny always in the back of her mind? 

            This morning’s scripture deals with pronouncements of destiny.  As followers of Christ, destiny is a bit of an uneasy topic for us.   On the one hand we do believe that God has a plan for our lives.  We believe that God leads and guides us certain ways.   On the other hand though talk of destiny and the future calls up all kinds of troublesome images of portents, palm readings, and other mystical mumbo-jumbo that is really not godly .    Talk of destiny and God’s will is also problematic.    For instance, in the last presidential election more than presidential hopeful either declared or accepted someone else’s declaration that it was God’s will and their destiny to be president.    Yet that did not come to pass for them.   However, at the same time it is not hard to find people with amazing testimonies of feeling that God was leading them a certain way, everything worked out providentially, and it seems taking a God-led risk was indeed their destiny.  It seems it can be hard for us to put our own wishes and ambitions aside, a lot of people fall into the trap of confusing their will with God’s will.  It is worth noting that in this morning’s scripture it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that Simeon was able to know who the messiah was.   When God leads us in a direction, it will always be by the Spirit.   Part of discipleship is humbly seeking to follow God day in and day out so we can learn to discern between our own will and the Spirit’s leading.  

            While that is true, it is not terribly helpful to us here and now.   We are on the cusp of a new year.   A new year is full of expectation, of possibilities, of unknown days waiting to be written.   This is the time of the year the year when we turn to thinking about destiny as we are curious and full of anticipation about what is in store for us.   We may not know our destiny, but I do think a faith based Pygmalion effect is possible.   Remember this effect states that higher expectations leads to an increase in performance.    We may not what God’s specific plans for 2018 are, but we do know some standing commands we have been given.   Jesus told us to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He also commissioned us to make disciples of all the nations.   Through the prophet Micah God gives us a directive in Micah 6:8 to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.    What if we held ourselves to those higher standards.   What if we did not treat those scripture like mere suggestion, but we treated them like expectations?   What if we committed to live out the commands of Christ each and every day?  

            If we truly did that, then like the Pygmalion effect it would become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If this new year, you committed yourself to love God with all of your being then it would be your destiny to walk humbly with God as you blossomed the fruit of spirit of faith, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and goodness.    If in this new year, you committed to love your neighbor as yourself then it would be your destiny to see a great need, an injustice that needed fixing.  With great mercy it would be your destiny to put others before yourself, serve them in love, meet that need, and transform the world.    If in this new year, you committed to making disciples, then it would be your destiny to share the gospel with other and be used by God to lead a soul to know the saving power of Christ for the first time.   

            This morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus had a special destiny.   However, because they were righteous and faithful to following God, Mary and Joseph had a special destiny as well.  If we are faithful to following God then we to can live out our faith into a special destiny.  However, we do not need to wait for some wise old prophet to come and reveal that destiny to us.    We are starting a new year, and this is as good of a time as ever to commit yourself to a more faithful and righteous Christian life.    May you hold yourself to higher expectations in faith.   May you not settle for good enough but may the deepest desire of your heart and soul be to love God, love other, and make disciples.   This morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus is the messiah, the light, and God’s holy salvation.   May you seek to faithfully follow Jesus.   In doing so, may you find in 2018 that you become closer to God and more Christ like than you ever thought possible.  Because as disciples of Jesus, that is our destiny. 

You Do You

Scripture: John 1:6-8; 19-28

            Back in 2013 one of the groups that I led was called IGGY.  No one actually knew why it was called that, but it was the youth group for 5th and 6th graders.   I distinctly remember during one of the devotions for this group I asked the kids to share what they wanted to be when they grow up.   There were some of the expected answers like doctor, teacher, or solider.  However, the overwhelmingly popular answer, the job that half the group wanted, was YouTube star.  It is not hard to see why, there is serious money to be made in YouTube videos.   It was revealed just this past week that the host of “Ryan’s Toy Reviews” made 11 million dollars this year for making videos of him opening and reviewing toys.   What makes this impressive is that Ryan is six.   In 2013 when I asked that question to those kids, Minecraft was at peak popularity and it is easy to see why they found being a YouTube star so appealing.   In 2014 Adam Dahlburg made 2.92 million for posting videos of himself playing Minecraft.  He was not alone in that same year there were five other people who made over a million dollars for posting Minecraft videos.   As you can imagine the idea of getting millions of dollars to play video games sounds like a dream come true to 11 and 12 year olds.   I thought being rich and famous for playing video games was the main reason why they wanted to be YouTube stars.  These kids though, put me in my place, because I wrong in my assumptions.  According to them, the primary motivation for wanting to be a YouTube star was not to be an internet famous millionaire.  The primary motivation was to carry out the proverb they had been taught since elementary school:  “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

            Now I completely understand the sentiment behind that, and there are enough people who strongly dislike their job to prove there is some truth to it.  However, I think the idea is flawed because it seems to imply that the key to happiness and purpose in life is based on how one makes a living.   Our life should be defined by more than how we get a paycheck.   When it comes to helping people discern their purpose in life I think a better proverb is from Harold Whitman.  He said, “Do not ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive.  And then go and do that, because what the world needs is people who are alive.”   What makes us feel alive may or may not have a paycheck associated with it, but it fills us with a sense of purpose.   Advent, the season of the church we find ourselves in is a season of expectation.  People who have found what makes them come alive are some of the most expectant people in the world.  Seriously, find someone who has invested themselves in something they are passionate about and is truly worthwhile.   If you give them the space to do so, they can go on and on about how excited they are about what is coming up.   The season of Advent has many gifts to offer our souls, and one of those gifts is purpose. 

            John the Baptist gives us an image of someone who lives out his purpose.   In this morning’s scripture we are told exactly what John’s purpose is: “He came as a witness to testify concerning the light.”   Last week from the gospel of Mark, we heard that he was a voice crying out from the wilderness.   While this was a fulfillment of scripture, we are told that John literally did this as he lived in the Judean wilderness.  John is mentioned in all four gospels, it is clear that in first century Judea he was an important figure.   He had a purposes in life to set the stage for Jesus, even though doing this faithfully led to his execution.   As we consider John and this morning’s scripture we can learn a bit about what it means to live out purpose.  

            Despite being an important figure in the gospels, there is so little we know about John.   We know that he is a second cousin to Jesus and the son of a Jewish Priest.  This means it should have been John’s destiny to also be a priest.  How did he go from being groomed for the priesthood to living off of honey and locusts in the wilderness?   We have no clue how God revealed or called John to his special purpose of being the one would as the voice of one calling in the wilderness.   Various biblical scholars have floated theories about him being orphaned at a young age and learning to live on his own in the wilderness, but that is all speculation and conjecture.   I have to wonder it went down though, if his parents were alive how did that conversation go? 

“Sorry, mom and dad, I am going to break with hundreds of years of tradition and not be a priest like my father before me.  I think God is calling me to live in the wilderness, baptize people, and point towards the coming messiah.”   If first century parents were anything like 21st century parents, that conversation probably did not go terribly well. 

            Even though we have no idea the path that John took to be John the Baptist who baptized at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, thinking about how he got there can give some insight to what happens when we pursue purpose.   God knew the plan that he had for John, but I imagine getting there did not go the way John thought it would.  Pursuing a purpose in our life will always lead to some unexpected places.  We will end up where we are supposed to be, which is often different from where we thought we would be.   Advent is a wonderful time to reflect on our purpose in life, because to live life with purpose requires us to be constantly aware of our present while always being expectant about what is to come.   

            The other less about living a purpose-driven life that John can teach us is found in this morning’s scripture.  The bulk of this morning’s scripture is him dealing with skeptics and critics.   This scripture tells us that the Jewish leaders sent the priest and Levites to be their investigators, or perhaps their spies.   They wanted to assess what kind of threat John might be.    If you notice, the immediately try to put his ministry in a pre-arranged box.  They first want to know if he believes he is the messiah.   Then they ask if he is Elijah.  Now, this one does require some deeper biblical knowledge.  In the Old Testament one of the greatest prophets is Elijah.  The bible also specifies that Elijah never actually died, but instead he was assumed into heaven.    Several hundred years later through the prophet Malachi it was declared in Malachi 4:5 that God would send the prophet Elijah before the messiah.   So these investigators wanted to make sure that John did not think he was Elijah.   

            Next they ask about the Prophet, and this too requires some background.  In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are on the border of the promise land, and Moses is giving them his farewell speech.  In this speech he promises that a prophet like him will come.  A prophet who will connect the people to God and lead them like no one else.   Again, the Pharisees were making sure John did not prescribe this title to himself.  After going through all of the categories of who they thought John might be, they exasperatingly asked him, “What do you say about yourself.”   Then John tells them who he is, and that his mission, his purpose is to call people to repentance because the messiah, the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie, is coming.   This reveals that when we are pursuing purpose in our lives there are going to always be skeptics, critics, and haters.  There are going to be people who try to squeeze us into their pre-defined box, there will be people who constantly tear down instead of buildup, and there will be haters who will hate for no good reason.  Doing something significant will always invite opposition.

            From John we can learn that seeking to live with purpose will lead us to unexpected places, and we will inevitably meet resistance like John did.  We can take courage because John stays the course.  No matter what resistance he met, he was true to the purpose that God called him to.   John can be a shining example for us to look towards, but the bigger question is how we discover purpose in the first place.   It is more than just finding what makes you happy, going back to the quote from Harold Whitman finding purpose in life is about what finding makes us feel alive.   As Christians though, this has special theological significance.   The ministry of John the Baptist, the purpose he found in life was to point to Jesus Christ.   If you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, then you seek the same thing.    Jesus himself said I am the way, the truth, and the life.   Therefore, that which makes us feel truly alive will orient us towards Christ.   That which makes us feel truly alive will point others towards Jesus.   For disciples of Jesus Christ we will find purpose in Christ.  

            She is not a YouTube star, and not very well known but a great example of what living out one’s purpose is found in Amy Carmichael.  Amy, an Irish woman born in 1867, felt called by God at the age of 20 to be a missionary.   She initially met resistance, but eventually found herself with a missionary organization stationed in India.   Amy discovered that the way to reach Indian people was not through preaching but through sacrifice.   She made herself a living sacrifice, to better reach the local population she assimilated to their diet, dress, and way of life.   This, of course, drew a lot of criticism.    She specifically reached out to the poorest, youngest, and most oppressed population.    This too, drew a lot of criticism.   In India during this time it was common practice to give unwanted children over to Hindu temples, where they essentially had to serve a lifetime of forced servitude, of slavery.   Amy found her purposes and began rescuing these children.   Despite threat of death, she built a home to protect these children that became known as the Dohnavur Fellowship.  Those who benefited from these enslavement practices tried to tear her down.  They tried to give her a tarnished reputation and call her  the “white woman who steals children.”   Despite that, Amy held to her God given purpose.  She would often travel for days just to rescue a single child.   Every day she sought to live with purpose by following God’s will and loving the least of these.   Like John the Baptist, the purpose of Amy’s life never wavered.   She sought to save and care for children for fifty-five straight years.   She never took a break, she never went home.   Amy’s lifetime resulted in over 1,000 abused, abandoned, and enslaved children being loved, provided for, and free.

            Not all of us are called to a grand calling like John the Baptist and not all of us are called to dedicate five decades of life to a singular cause like Amy Carmichael.   However, we can all live our life with an intentional purpose.   We can all live life in a way that makes a difference.   What motivations orient you to Christ?   What actions can you take that you feel best point others towards Christ?    For you it might be serving the hungry, visiting the sick, tutoring children, preaching and teaching the gospel, or advocating for the oppressed.

            What makes you feel alive?   This advent, may you be intentional in figuring that out, because when you do you will find a purpose to strive for.   You will find a God-given purpose that will transform the world.   Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and do that, because what the world needs are people who are alive.  


Scripture:  Mark 1:1-8  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's in the Box

Scripture:  1 Corinthians 1:3-9

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Difference

Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risky Buisness

 Scripture:  Matthew 25:14-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Marathon Binge

Scripture:  Matthew 25:1-13         

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Without End

Scripture: 1 John 2:28-3:3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fundamentals

Scripture:  Matthew 22:34-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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