Not All Heroes Wear Capes

Scripture: Mark 12:38-44

The year was 2003 and it was early June.   Less than three weeks ago I had graduated college.   Less than a week ago I had gotten married.   For a honeymoon Abigail and I spent a few days in the Smokey Mountains outside of Gatlinburg.  The trouble started as we began to head home.   I did not know a lot about cars, and I still do not know a lot about cars, but I knew the noise the car was making was really, really not right and I knew engines were not supposed to rev that high.   This was in the era before smart phones so it was not like we could just look up where the closest mechanic was.  In Maryville, TN we happen to spot a mechanics garage and we pulled in.   Now at the time I was twenty-two and so painfully inexperienced at life.   I did not really know any better then, but looking back I now know just how absolutely remarkable the series of events that took place were.   We showed up in the middle of a day with a busted car at a busy mechanics shop, and after explaining our situation they immediately looked at the car.   The transmission was shot and for the car to make the journey back to Indiana it would have to be replaced.   Even though we were not on the schedule for the day this shop made us a priority.  They called local junkyards, found a transmission, and sent someone to get it.   From the time they left to get the part to the time they were done was just over three hours.   They truly made our car the priority to get done.   The single most amazing part of the whole thing though is how much they charged us.   They replaced our car’s entire transmission for $700.  At the time that seemed like so much money, but in hindsight I now know they charged us for the part at cost and that is it.   We were 22, newly married, over 300 miles from home, the only directions we had was a printed piece of paper from MapQuest, and we were in a car that had something deeply wrong with it.    It is fair to say we were in trouble.   We happened upon a mechanic who took a lot of mercy on and showed a lot of grace to a couple of newlywed kids.   Not all heroes wear capes.  

            The phrase “not all heroes wear capes” has become an internet shorthand to celebrate people.  Sometimes the phrase is applied sentimentally other times it is applied with a dose of humor, but it is always to recognize an anonymous or little known person who took an action that somehow made the world a little better.   The phrase works because it plays against what we already know, that is heroes normally wear capes.   Comic books, especially iconic super heroes like Superman and Batman, have reinforced that heroes wear capes to the point that we do not question it.   Comic book super heroes wear capes because they look cool.   When drawn on the page they can make for dramatic poses.   It is more than an artistic design decision though.  In the contexts of the stories, the superheroes that wear capes do so because they want to stand out, they want to know be known and remembered.   Capes have a lot of flair, they call a lot of attention, and they make a grand impression.   The heroes that wear capes do so because they want to make an impression and be memorable.   In that regard I think that means Batman has more in common with the teachers of the law than with Jesus.   The teachers of the law tried to be the kind of heroes that wore capes, but Jesus challenges them and in this morning’s scripture Jesus reminds us that in the kingdom of God, heroes do not wear capes. 

            The NIV renders the Greek word “teachers of the law” but if you are using a different translation such as the KJV or the NRSV then verse 38 will read “watch out for the scribes.”   The scribes fulfilled an important role in Jewish culture of the era.   They were able to write and they had the responsibility of copying and transcribing the Jewish scriptures.  Estimates of literacy in ancient Israel range from 3% of the population to 20%, but in ancient times it was more common to be able to read but not write.  The scribes were one’s who had mastered writing, and as the copyists of the Old Testament law, they were understood to be well versed in the scripture.   In society they were respected and well regarded.   In this scripture Jesus mentions the perks of 1st century high society:  flowing robes, being greeted with respect, having the most important seats, and being given places of honor at a banquet.  Now the scribes did fulfill an important function.  The reality is that we would probably not have the Old Testament, which we consider to be the inspired word of God, if it were not for the work of the scribes.   The scribes of Jesus day surely saw their work as heroic, but they were types of heroes that wear capes.   They wanted to be recognized and rewarded for what they did.  They were fine with doing good work as long as it bought them a ticket to the good life.   Perhaps this why Jesus issued his warning. 

            You see the scribes had a dark side.   In the first century, it was not like there were Torah publishing houses.   For all intents and purposes the scribes were artists.   They worked on commission or tried to find buyers for their work.  Scribes were not day laborers, they did not get a daily wage.   Their work was time consuming and could take weeks or months to finish, this meant a long time between paydays.  This was problematic if the scribes wanted to eat, much less live the aristocratic lifestyle they wanted.   The solution for the scribes was patronage.   This is a system where artists are essentially sponsored by other people who support their work.    With a healthy base of patrons, an artist or a scribe in this case does not have to worry about day to day expenses.

            We get the impression from what Jesus said that widows, were popular targets of scribes.  Widows had almost no means of taking care of themselves.  If a widow did not have a son to support her, then the widow only had what she had.  Whatever she had left from her late husband’s estate would have been all she had and it would have needed to last her the rest of her life.   All funds that a widow gave to support a scribe was coming out of a limited fund.   The widow was literally impoverishing herself to support the scribe.   The scribes were doing important work but they were intentionally depriving some of the most vulnerable members of their society of resources so they could live posh and extravagant lifestyles.  

            Jesus finds this right out unacceptable and he plainly states “these men will be punished most severely.”   It is no wonder that Jesus warns to watch out for the scribes.   They liked to position themselves as teachers of the law and as experts on the Old Testament but they clearly missed the point.   They copied the scripture over and over but they clearly did not read with their hearts.   It is found throughout the law and it is unmistakable in the prophets, but there is a clear biblical mandate to protect the vulnerable, to provide for the poor, and to value people over position.   The sin of the scribes is they claimed to be teachers of the law yet they openly defiled it.   The scribes liked to view themselves as heroes wearing capes.  However, a quick look at comic book heroes reveals that super villains are just as likely as the heroes to don a cape.   Jesus warned against the scribes because it is the heart of a person not the exterior they present to the world that truly makes a hero. 

            From a literary standpoint, Mark did a great job in organizing his gospel as this morning’s scripture shows.   Right after giving a negative example of the scribes.  The very next thing offered up is a positive example worth following.   The widow, offers just a few cents, and is lifted up as a hero.   Remember, the widows had very little means of income.  Everything they gave up was a true sacrifice.  The rich people who were giving more money before the widow, were giving of their excess.   Yes, it was more but they would not feel it or miss it.   As Jesus says, they were giving out of their wealth.    They were giving their excess, what they have left over after they could ensure they had more than enough to live the high life.   The widow, as Jesus says, gave out of her poverty.   In other words, she would personally feel it.   Her offering was truly a sacrifice.    She did not have to give that much.   The whole concept of a tithe, which comes from the bible, and is still used today is proportional.  It is not a flat amount, it is a percentage.   The woman made a sacrificial offering above and beyond because she wanted to, she did it because the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength.  She gave as an expression of her love.   She did not do it to gain recognition or prestige.   She did it because her heart was focused on God, and she proved not all heroes wear capes.  

            This morning’s scripture challenges us to ask are we like the scribes or the widow?    What motivates us to worship God and serve other people?   Do we do it because we want to wear a cape?   Do we do it because we want the rewards?   The rewards people mistakenly seek in faith are varied.  There are people who do good deeds because they want to be recognized and patted on the back, and then there are others who do it because they have a faulty logic that the more good they do the better their chances are of getting into heaven.   The question that this scripture really challenges us with is do we seek to follow Jesus because of what we can get out of it or do we follow Jesus because Jesus is a savior worth following?

            If we follow Jesus because we love Jesus, then we are like the widow.  We seek to faithfully live in a way that sacrificially expresses our love for God.   One of the ways we can do that is to love God by loving others.  Instead of taking advantage of the most vulnerable like the scribes we provide extravagant care for them.   Instead of demonizing the outsider we invite them in and show radical hospitality and instead of judging the unloved we embrace them with unfailing love.   We do these things regularly, and we do not seek recognition for our good deeds.  We do it because it is the right thing to do, it is what Jesus would do and it is what Jesus calls us to do because not all heroes wear capes.  

            Earlier this year United Methodist Communications sought to show what it looks to be this kind of hero who follows Jesus.   Through social media they asked for people to nominate #AmazingUMCheroes, and over the summer they profiled ten United Methodists.  D None of these people are household names, but they are all making the world a better and more loving place.   Perhaps my favorite profile shared on umc.org was that of Kay Oursler, known as Bibi Kay in Tanzania.   Even though she lives there now, she retains her membership and connection with Christ of the Hills United Methodist Church in Arkansas.  At the age of 65, Kay sought to better follow Jesus by joining the Peace Corp.  There she was placed in a small village in Tanzania.  After her year was up, she stayed and she has continued to stay for thirteen years.  Now at the age of 79,  she runs an orphanage.   Through the orphanage she has raised and educated twenty one children.  She has helped the village make important connections to build a library and a health clinic.  In the article one of her friends from Tanzania described her as such: “Kay is living out her faith in the work she does.  She has a giving heart, and, in my opinion, Kay’s most admirable quality is that she respects everyone and loves people.”

            Not all heroes wear capes.  Some are grandmothers living in a foreign country giving of themselves to help others.   At her age Kay Oursler could be living a comfortable retirement, but instead she is loving the least of these in the world.    Her example is worth following because she is following the example of Jesus.    This morning’s scripture challenges us to consider the motivations of our faith.   May we do that, and may we find that we are here today because we love Jesus and we want to be more like him.   Out of that love may we be willing to follow Jesus and have compassion for the same kind of people that Jesus expressed compassion.   May we give ourselves sacrificially, and perhaps in doing so find that we are someone’s hero.

There will be a Day

Scripture: Revelation 21:1-6

The room was full of locked cabinets and containers.   Several items that were normal at first glance stuck out as odd, such as a checker board with numbers on certain pieces.   I was locked in this room with several people and a big digital clock was steadily counting down from sixty minutes.  This was one of the handful of times I have done an escape room.   I do not know if you have had a chance to do one of these, but they are quite the experience.    I have been able to do four different escape rooms.  One re-created a grandmother’s bed room, another one was a family room decorated for Christmas, and the most impressive actually had built and entire rustic cabin inside a building.    Getting out of these escape rooms requires searching, problem solving, and working together to complete puzzles and find various combinations.   By and large my experience with Escape Rooms has been a lot of fun, and I have greatly enjoyed doing them.   I am not the only one.  Escape Rooms have exploded in popularity.  At the end of 2014 there were less than fifty Escape Room facilities in the United States Today there are over 2,300.   All of these rooms have a wide variety of themes, puzzles, gimmicks, and tricks they employ.   However, across the board they share one commonality.   The goal is always the same:   Escape!   

            Escape is a good objective for an experience that blurs the lines between game and reality, but escape is a less than stellar objective for faith.   Unfortunately, it seems for a lot of people escape is the primary reason for faith.    Escapist or Escapism theology is a viewpoint that has a lot of adherents.   This viewpoint sees the primary point of faith to escape this world and make it to heaven.   It is the concept that the reason we follow God is so that we can escape this mess we call earth and go home to heaven.   The primary tenant of an escapist viewpoint is something along the lines of “My home is in heaven, I am just passing through this world.”   To be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, I do not think this is the right attitude.   After all, if we are just passing through then we do not have neighbors to love.   The point of faith, the point of being a Christian, is not to escape to heaven.   Christians are supposed to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ came to save the world.   The end goal of Christ was not to get to heaven, because he was already there.  The mission of Jesus, and by extension the mission of his followers is to redeem the whole world.   This morning’s scripture is a reminder to us that there will be a day of no more death, no more crying, or pain.   This morning’s scripture is a reminder that there will be a day when we all get to heaven, but today is (probably) not that day.   This morning’s scripture is ultimately a reminder that our goal is not to escape, but our goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  

            This morning’s scripture comes from the very end of Revelation.   In general Revelation is a tricky book to read and to understand.   There are multiple interpretations and very smart people have sacrificed whole forest of trees to print the books that express why their interpretation of the book is the right one.   However, when it comes to this morning’s scripture all interpretations are in agreement about the big picture of what this scripture is communicating.    This morning’s scripture is eschatological in nature, which is a really fancy way of saying it is dealing with the end.   This morning’s scripture is about the end of all things when God succeeds in redeeming all creation and God does this by making it new.   The sin, the death, and the suffering that characterizes the world we know will be no more.   All of creation will once again be as it was meant to be, in perfect unity and relationship with God the Creator.   One of the remarkable things is that this image of a new heaven and a new earth is not just another surreal image like others that appear in the book of Revelation.   The language found in this morning’s scripture is found other places in the Bible.   For instance the book of Isaiah written hundreds of years before Revelation contains passages that sound a lot like this mornings.  Isaiah 25:8 states, “He will swallow up death forever.  The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces.”  

Throughout the prophets we find language that speaks of God’s final restoration and redemption.    There is a biblical message that there will be a day when tears are only a distant memory, when pain is a relic of a past, and death will never cause sorrow again.    This is a future reality that as believers and followers of Jesus Christ, should feel us with hope.   Scriptures like this morning’s should serve as a reminders on dark days that light eventually wins.   However, escaping to this heavenly future should not be the chief concern of our faith.   We should not be so ready to “go home” that we turn a blind eye to all of the people around us who need our help, who need compassion, and who need to be told the good news of Jesus Christ.  

I greatly appreciate that the liturgy for the United Methodist Service of Death and Resurrection affirms this viewpoint.    One of the prayers from the liturgy that I often use at funerals begins: “Eternal God, we praise you for the great company of all those who have finished their course in faith and now rest from their labor.”   I greatly appreciate this prayer because as we remember and celebrate the life of a loved one, it reminds us that our lives are not just about escaping this world.   Life is meant to be lived not just endured.   I cannot speak for you, but when my time comes I hope those I leave behind can celebrate a life well lived instead of offering the platitude “at least he is home now.”   I had the privilege to be part of the celebration of life services for all four people we remember and honor today.  It brings me joy that with all four of them we were able to celebrate a life well lived.   For those who are baptized and clothed in Christ, a life well lived means following Jesus.  It means loving others, it means putting others first, and it means sharing the love of God with others in word and deed.   Again, I celebrate that as I think back to the services for Sharon, Judy, Bill and even Martin we were able to celebrate and bare testimony to how all four of them glorified God and put their faith into action throughout their lives. 

Another aspect of the Methodist funeral liturgy that I appreciate comes from one of the included dismals with blessings that is an option.    This dismissal ends the service of death and resurrection by addressing the assembled congregation as such: “Now may the God of peace who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus . . . make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be the glory forever and ever.” 

I like this benediction because it reminds us, those still living on this earth, that life is about more than just waiting for our turn.   We are not supposed to be waiting for our time to escape but instead we are to be equipped by the great Shepherd of the sheep and the blood of the eternal covenant to do God’s will,  to work among the people, and to glorify Christ through our actions.    This morning’s scripture tells us that there will be a day, with no more mourning or crying or pain.   This morning’s scripture also tells us that when this happens this will be the day when God’s dwelling place is now among the people and he will dwell them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 

There will be a day when that happens, but friends the good news of the cross is that we can begin to experience that reality on this day!  In our broken and fallen world we can not escape crying or pain, but we can experience God being our God and us being God’s people.    Because of the mighty acts of Jesus Christ the way to God’s throne has been made up and known.   We cannot experience the fullness of God wiping away every tear from our eyes, but we can experience the joy of being God’s people and God being our God.   The joy that will permeate the new heaven and the new earth can be experienced today.  We experience this joy when we claim the blessed assurance that we are forgiven for sins.   We experience this joy when we celebrate that our names are written and sealed in the book of lives, that we are new creations in Christ Jesus, and that transgressions have been erased.    We experience this joy when we celebrate that perpetual light of Christ shines on our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before us.  

This joy is part of the good news of the gospel, and while we still have breath it is our responsibility to share that joy with others.  It is our responsibility to share God’s love with others by seeing and meeting their needs.   It is our responsibility to be the hands and feet of Jesus by tending hurts and enabling dreams.   It is our reasonability to join God in the work of redeeming this world one soul at a time and transforming this world into a more loving place.  

For those who belong to Christ Jesus, we can look forward with hopeful anticipation for a day when the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End succeeds in making all things new.  However, may we not be so focused on escaping to that time that we lose sight of all the life we have to live.  The movie The Shawshank Redemption has a quote that has stuck with me.  In the movie the characters endure some pretty rough life circumstances, but it ends on a hopeful note with a statement, “you either busy living or you get busy dying.”   Every single day is a gift from God, so may we choose to get busy living.   May we get busy following Jesus, seeking God’s will, and sharing the good news of God’s love with others.   For every single one of us, there will be a day when we all get to heaven.   But until that day comes, may we, may you choose to live life well in a way that glorifies God, shines the light of Christ and transforms this world.  

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Psalm 34:1-8; 19-22

You have probably heard the same conventional wisdom I have heard on more than one occasion.   When it comes to what we fear the most the big two are, in order, public speaking and death.  In the mid-90’s, Comedian Jerry Seinfeld had a funny bit he did where he said, “'According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death.  This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”   The genesis of this ordering of fears comes from an over simplification of a study on fear that was published back in 1973.  Public speaking is something that many people are anxious of, but it is never what people are most afraid of.   Of course, death is not our greatest fear either.   For the past several years Chapman University has done a survey study to determine what Americans fear the most.   In the results of the 2017 study generic death rated 48th.   When it comes to our fears we are much, much more creative in fearing how we die.  Devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, nuclear wars, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and sharks all ranked well above generic death.  

            While I do not have a psychological study to back it up, I feel like people are more afraid than ever.   After all you probably also here these common thoughts expressed often: “You just can’t be too careful anymore” or “these days, you just don’t know who can be trusted” or “it isn’t safe for kids to play outside like it used to be.”   Maybe I have a bad take on this, but I get a sense that a lot, perhaps a majority, feel that there is more to be scared of in the world today than their used to be.   There is a foreboding sense that the world is not as safe as it once was.  The fascinating thing is that feeling is in complete contrast to reality.   In reality, in the United States, 2014 was the safest year ever in the country’s history.  Since then the violent crime rate has gone back up some, but it is still below 1999 levels and the murder rate for instance is still almost half what it was forty years ago.   The good old days, it seems, were statistically more dangerous.

            So if things are in general safer, why is there so much more fear?    Part of it is the nature of the crimes have changed.  Inner city muggings may be way down from the 80’s, but mass shootings are up as example.   Another issue is that social media, texts alerts, and 24 hour news media has saturated us with news of scary things happenings.   The world may be safer, but in news media “If it bleeds, it leads” is still a true reality.   So even though there is less scary stuff happening in the world, we are keenly more aware of it.   We may have this gut feeling that the world is less safe than it used to be, but the reality is that we have always felt that way.   Barry Glassner, president of Lewis & Clark College and author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things points out, “My research starts in the 1980s and goes more or less till now, and there have been very high fear levels in the U.S. continuously.”

            Fear is part of the human experience.  Today it might be terrorism, a decade from now it might be something different.   There is always a boogeyman lurking, there is always a specter of uncertainty that can keep us awake at night, and there seems to always be something wicked about to come over the horizon.   This morning’s scripture deals with fear, but it does not ask what are we afraid of, it ask us why are we, as people of faith, so afraid in the first place? 

            Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, seventy three of them are attributed to King David.   Of those seventy three, thirteen of them are related to specific events in his life.  This morning’s scripture is one of them.  If you look at the pre-text before verse one it states, “Of David.  When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek, who drove him away, and he left.”    The Bible refers to David as a man after God’s own heart.   David, while still a teenager, was anointed by God to someday be the king of Israel.    The process to get him there and his kingship, are documented in 1 and 2 Samuel.  He wrote this psalm during a particularly hazardous time of this journey.   To put it mildly, David was in trouble through no fault of his own. 

            At this point in his story, David had faithfully served Saul, the king of Israel.   1 Samuel 18:5 states, “Whatever mission Saul sent him on, David was so successful that Saul gave him a high rank in the army.”   However, Saul had not been faithful to God’s leading and Saul knew that God had chosen someone to replace him as king.  This made Saul petty, paranoid, and insanely jealous.   This escalated to a point where Saul had decided David was too great a threat and actively sought to use all of the power and authority he held as king to kill David.   David fled, and with nowhere to go he sought an audience with the king of Gath.   Gath was a city-state near Israelite territory.   While it was a radically different world and it is not quite the same, we can think of David as seeking political asylum from Gath.  

            David’s problem though is that Gath was a Philistine city.   All of the missions that David led the army on were against the Philistines, many of them no doubt were against the fighting forces of Gath.   Right after David surrenders himself to the servants of the king of Gath, does he realize his mistake.   He realized that instead of being given political asylum, he might just be executed as a war criminal.    In an act of novel, but pure desperation David acts mad as a hatter.   He goes pure crazy town, and it works.  He is let loose with his freedom and his life.  

At this point, David is cut off from family and friends, being innocent and hunted, barely escaping death, still fearing for his life, and completely uncertain what to do next.   He is clearly at a low point in his life.   While few of us have had to revert to acting insane to save our lives, we can all identify with having low points.   Many of us have gone through times where we felt cut off and isolated.    Few of us have had someone actively hunting us, but many have had times when a sickness or surgery loomed and there was fear for our lives.   Many of us have been in places where, like David, we were completely uncertain what to do next.   Our low places might be different, but like David, we have been in low places.   

            It was while in this low place that David wrote this morning’s scripture, and given that the tone is rather striking.   David had narrowly escaped a potentially deadly situation, but he was not out of the woods yet.    David still had a lot of reasons to be afraid, but the tone of this letter is not fearful.   It is joyous, confident, and hopeful.   The tone is not woe is me, the tone of this psalm is “taste and see that the Lord is good!”    Instead of seeking help for a multitude of scary things the psalm instead seeks to glorify God and exalt his name together.   David declares in this psalm that he is delivered from his fears.  It is worth noting that at the time he wrote this, it is not because they had gone away.    It is because they no longer scared him.    Instead of being characterized by fear David knew blessed is the one who takes refuge in the Lord.   David learned that fear is a matter of perspective, and when our focus is on God, then we truly have nothing to fear.  

            Even though we are separated from David by thousands of years and culture that is still true.   How fearful we are as an individual, how much space we allow fear to occupy in our lives, is a lot about perspective.   When we keep in mind what God has already saved us from, then much of what scares us pales in comparison.   Because of the mighty acts of Jesus Christ we have already been saved from sin and death.    Because of God’s love the grave has no victory over us and we will be forever united with God the Father through Jesus Christ.    We have spared a fate worse than death:  We no longer face an eternity of separation from God and now nothing can separate us from God’s love.   It is a matter of perspective because there is nothing we can fear that changes that.   As Paul eloquently writes in Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

            Nothing can separate us from God’s love, and that realization should change everything.   As I said Chapman University releases a list of our greatest fears every year, and if we look at the top of the list there is some pretty scary stuff.   “Not having enough money for the future” is a scary prospect, but it will not separate us from the love of God.    “Widespread civil unrest” is a terrifying possibility but it will not separate us from the love of God.   “A diagnosis of a serious illness” is a horror that might keep us up at night, but it will not separate us from the love of God.   Nothing can separate us from the love of God, nothing can make God un-forgive us, and for those who live in the Lord nothing can truly destroy us.   As the 34th Psalm promises, “The Lord will rescue his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.”  We have been rescued from sin and death, God is for us, so who then shall we fear?  

            This is not just a hypothetical but it is a reality we should live out.  There are many stories from dark places in the world where faithful disciples live out what means to follow Jesus without fear.  Once such example is a story that slipped out of North Korea in the 1950’s, where Christianity is illegal.   A community of Christians moved into underground caverns and tunnels to avoid the government, but they were found when new roads were being built.  Officials threatened and tortured the families to get them to recant their faith.   None of them did.   Finally, the North Korean officials made their final terrifying offer.   The Christians were made to lay down side by side in a line, and a steamroller was brought up next to them.  They were offered one final chance to deny Christ or die.  Instead, with one voice the Christians sung a hymn.   They glorified the Lord and exalted his name together as the terrible machine began to lurch forward.  

            We may not face fear of death at the hand of persecutors, but we all have fears, we all have things that keep us awake at night.   May we not be defined and controlled by the things that scare us.    May we be characterized by joy and hope as we glorify the Lord and exalt his name.   May we keep the proper perspective.   Even when darkness feels like it is closing in, God shines like a great light.  Even though something wicked this way may come, our God is greater, our God is stronger, and there is none other.   May you not be afraid, because God has already delivered us from the worse of the worst.   May you taste and see the Lord is good.  May you extol the lord at all times and may his praise always be on your lips.               

Inside Connections

Scripture: Hebrews 5:1-10

Marion Robert Morrison was accepted into Southern California University on a football scholarship in the mid 1920s.  That all came crashing down when he severely injured himself in a surfing accident.  Losing his scholarship led him to dropping out of college and seeking a job.  This was the golden age of Hollywood, and the young movie industry was booming.   With his strong athletic build Morrison was able to get a job for a studio on a “swing gang”, the crews that do the heavy lifting of moving props and equipment on set.   A director, John Ford, was in need of an actor for a very minor role and he thought Morrison’s big build would fill the role of Geese Herder perfectly.   Morrison and Ford became friends, and Ford who became known for directing low budget westerns, kept casting his friend Morrison in small parts.  Through Ford, Morrison was introduced to other directors including Rauol Wash who casted Morrison in his first leading role.  However, the director also decided that Marion Robert Morrsion was not a suitable name for a leading actor and suggested that Morrison adopt a stage name.  His initial choice was rejected, and a stage name was chosen for him.   Morrison’s first starring role was in the Western The Big Trail, and he was credited as the lead actor under the name John Wayne.  John Wayne became an actor and, by extension an American icon, kind of by accident.  He did not really set out to be a film star, he kind of found himself there because he was friends with the right people.

            The famed acting career of John Wayne is proof to the truthfulness of the modern day proverb: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”   In today’s job marketplace, where it is has become increasingly harder to get one’s foot in the door for professional careers, this saying is proving even truer than ever.   Today networking, intentionally meeting the right people, has become an important element of the job search.    The idea of knowing the right people has increased in importance recently, but the story of John Wayne shows it has always paid off to know the right people.   In fact, I think this is an element that is fundamental to the human experience.  Our relationships are more important than our skills.    In fact in biblical times, this was also true.  As this morning’s scripture eludes to, in that time one’s connection with the divine was all based on who you knew.   This might still be true, because this scripture makes the point that those who know Jesus have inside connections with God the Father.  

            As Americans with a Protestant Christian tradition, this morning’s scripture deal with a concept and viewpoint that is foreign to us.  It is our background and cultural ethos to put a lot of emphasis on the personal and individual experience of faith.  We can see this in the way that we worship.   Song lines like “amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like ME” and “My lighthouse, my lighthouse, I will trust the promise.  You will carry me safe to shore” tend to resonate with us.   These song lyrics, and countless other examples, speak about our individual faith in personal, direct terms.   This is radically different from the understanding in the first century.  In this morning’s scripture author of Hebrews attempts to use the first century viewpoint to argue for a more personal understanding of faith.  

            Hebrews, as the title implies, was written to Jewish converts to Christianity.   As a whole the letter makes the case for how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish faith, and one of the major arguments that it makes is that Jesus functions as a high priest.   This morning’s scripture is one segment of that detailed explanation.    For us to better understand this scripture requires us to better understand the concept of the priest.   We tend to think of priest as a synonym for preacher or pastor, but priest has an altogether different connotation.   The priest was the intercessor before the people and God.   The people could not go directly to God to make their sacrifices, they were too impure, rather the priests stood between the people and God and made the sacrifices on their behalf.  The priest was also to act as a sort of ambassador for God on earth.   In both ways, the priest is the conduit that connect people to God.  In other words, in this system the priest was the person you had to know if you wanted to know God. 

However, this morning’s scripture is quick to point out that this system was somewhat imperfect because even the high priest was imperfect and had to make sacrifices on his own behalf to stay right with God.    The author of Hebrews then goes on to cast Jesus as the perfect high priest, because Jesus does all of the same tasks for us that the priests performed.   Jesus is the one who connects us to God the Father.   Jesus, being fully human but also God’s very son is a person that we can relate to.  However, Jesus is not a flawed human like the high priest.   Jesus as the high priest does not need to offer up sacrifices on our behalf to pay the penalty of sin, because Jesus interceded for us by making himself the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf- he became the source of our salvation.  The argument that the author of Hebrews is making in no uncertain terms, is that there is no need for the ancient priesthood and sacrifice system because Jesus is the ultimate high priest that fully connects us to God once and for all.   We no longer would need to go to the temple to connect with God, because Jesus   forever provides those who accept and believe in him with inside connections to God the Father.

The author of Hebrews tries to really make this point in a highly technical way to connect with the Jewish audience.  That is what all of the business about being a priest in the order of Melchizedek is about.   Those who were Jewish priests were priests by their birthright.  As verse 4 states about the priests, “no one takes this honor on himself but he receives it when called by God as Aaron was.”   The Jewish priests, were Levites, descended from Aaron.   They were priest in his tradition, in the order of Aaron.   This was a tradition based in the Old Testament law, a tradition that required a priests to intercede and make sacrifices for the people. It is a priesthood based in the law, and the only way to God is through following the law.  The tradition of Melchizedek is older though.   Melchizedek is a priest found Genesis 14, and Melchizedek has a lot of unique and interesting things about him.   The upshot is that he is a priest of God before God makes a covenant with Abraham, centuries before Moses, and before God gave the Israelites the law to follow.   Melchizedek is a priest that is before the laws, before the regulations, and before the rules.   By declaring Jesus is a high priest in the order of Melchizedek what the author is declaring is that Jesus connects us to God the Father without the law being needed.  

From our viewpoint today, this is not a major declaration, but to a first century believer who grew up Jewish this was a paradigm shifting revelation.    Being in good standing with God no longer required following a list of rules, it no longer required someone else making the appropriate sacrifices on their behalf.   Now, being in good standing with God only required one thing:   relationship.   Relationship with Jesus is what connects with God and saves us eternally.   The primary point that Hebrews is making is simple.  When it comes to salvation and the forgiveness of sins, it does not matter what you have done, it matters who you know.   And who you need to know is Jesus.   Jesus is the single person who fully connects us to God the Father, or as Jesus himself put it “I am the way the truth and the life.  No one comes to the father except through me.” 

In John chapter 14 Jesus tried to explain exactly how Jesus gives his followers inside connections to God.  In John14:20-22 Jesus states, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me, and I am in you.  Whoever has my commands and keeps them is one who loves me.  The one who loves me will be loved by Father and I too will love them and show myself to them.”   I think we sometimes, a lot of time honestly, take for granted just what Jesus did for us on the cross.   Before the cross, people’s connection with God came from having someone else make sacrifices on their behalf.   After the cross, we are directly connected to the Creator and Sustainer of all things through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.   It used to be that connection with God was distant but now because of Jesus it is personal.   We can know and be known by God.   How amazing it is that through Jesus, God- the maker of stars and the author of all reality- loves us personally and is known to us.   

            In modern day networking, the hope is to get an inside connection with someone that will be professionally beneficially.   Spiritually speaking, Jesus is our inside connection with God the Father.    However, I think two other elements of modern networking apply.   First, networking is meant to go two ways.  The idea of building one’s personal network is not just about finding people who can help you, but also being available to help others.   Jesus connect us to God the Father, which means that Jesus also connects God the Father to us.   Our relationship with God should not be all about what we can get from God but also how we can be of help to God.   We do this by keeping the commands of Jesus, to love God with all of our being, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love one another.   When we do those things then our attitudes and actions serve God in this world and we join with God in transforming this world.  

            The other element of modern day networking we should consider is that a good personal network is always growing.  I have had the privilege to meet a couple of people are incredible at networking.   They seem to know everyone and be known by everyone.   One of the things these people are best at is introducing people to one another, or inviting others to tap into the network they have developed.    In our faith we should do the same thing.   For those who are Christians Jesus fulfills the ultimate function of a high priest and connects us to God once and for all.    There are a lot of people in this world who are looking for God.  There are a lot of people who want to know there is more to existence than this finite life.    It is our job to introduce those people to the way, the truth, and the life.  It is our job to invite them into our spiritual network and introduce them to Jesus, the one who connects us to God the Father.   The way we do this is the way the gospel has always spread, through relationship.   We are not going to introduce people to Jesus by leaving little tracts on tables or yelling from bullhorns on street corners.   We are going to do it by investing in the lives of others and through the course of living life together telling them what the source of our hope is, the source of eternal salvation.   Christianity is a faith based on relationship, it is based on our relationship with Jesus who connect us in relationship with God the Father, and we can only share that good news by being in relationship with others.  

            May you know Jesus.  May you know that he is the one who serves as our high priest, the one who connects us to God the Father.   May you be willing to be in perfect relationship with God, a relationship that goes two ways.  May you have a relationship with God where you trust God and God can trust you.    And may you not be afraid to invite others into the spiritual network of the family God.   Because it is in this way that we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

Faith that Works

Scripture: James 5:13-20

            Airports tend to be a place that we do not want to spend a lot of time.   If you have ever had the unfortunate experience of a long layover, having a flight delayed or (worse) cancelled then you know this is true.  Airports tend to be places that are full of bored, impatient people cramped into uncomfortable seats surrounded by overpriced food options just waiting for their chance to leave and escape.  Airport officials realize this and in some locations they have taken steps to try and make the location a little bit less drab and dreary.   There are some airports that use the space to create art displays.   Heathrow airport in London, tried something else.  They installed several public pianos with instructions in multiple languages printed on it to “play me”.    With just basic google skills, you can find famous musicians giving an impromptu concert at one of these pianos.   What I find more incredible though, is when two strangers, sit down at the piano together and create something beautiful like this: 



            There is something to be said for polished, flawless performances but I think improvisation like we just watched is the best.   It does not matter if it is music, acting, comedy, or dance.    I find well done improv to be amazing, because it shows more than just mastery of a skill.   In music circles improvisation is known as a notoriously hard skill to teach and practice because there is no tried and true magic formula for doing it.   One of the things that makes it hard is that being good at improvisation in any discipline requires a technical mastery of the skill, but it also requires internalization of the skill.  The best and most loved musicians who are masters of improv, are considered so good because the music just seems to flow out of them.   It is like they just know what to play because they know the music that well.   Getting to that level requires a lot of practice at the skill, but it also requires having a feel for the music that goes beyond practice.   It requires more than just knowing the song, it requires becoming the song.  I think there is a lesson here for our faith as well.    Faith is not about doing a right set of actions, it is not about knowing the right answers, it is about internalization.   It is about taking the information that “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” and believing that from the very core of our being.  Faith requires more than just knowing the gospel, it requires becoming the gospel.  

            For the entire month of September, we have been going through the book of James.      James, a letter attributed to the brother of Jesus, is a practical, down to earth primer on how to have a faith that works.   This work of scripture is all about having a faith that is seamlessly integrated into our lives.   It is about how to internalize our faith and get to a point where we do not have to think what we have to do to act like a Christian, it just flows out of us.  Throughout this month we have progressed throughout James, hitting the high points of how to develop a faith that works.  First, we are to let the seed of the gospel grow in our hearts as we give thanks to God the Father for every good and perfect gift.  Next we moved on to the second chapter of James, which challenges us to consider how favoritism still Infects the church, and the scripture pushes us to confess the ways we have practiced favoritism while moving to be more open to all.   Then we considered what a “Christian accent” would sound like and gave thought to how our faith should impact the very words we think and speak.    It was then last week we read from James chapters 3 and 4 to explore taking the high road of faith, a road where the goal of our faith is to become like Jesus.  

Today’s scripture is the conclusion of James and it wraps up the letter.   It draws a proper conclusion of what happens when we actually put into practice all of the practical advice that James wrote about in the rest of the letter.  This morning’s scripture is about what happens when we have a faith that works.  When we have a faith that works, we have a faith that goes to work.   As James wrote in verse 16, the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.   Prayer is not magic.   It is not like we can say the exact right words and instantly create the effect we want.   I would argue prayer is something more beautiful and powerful.  Prayer is like the piano video we watched.  It is a duet of sorts where we pray and God responds.   Prayer is the primary way that we join God in transforming this world.  When we pray we are not just doing a good luck ritual, we are interacting with the Creator of all that exists.   When we ask for something in prayer, we asking the single most powerful and creative being in the entire universe to intervene and possibly change the very fabric of reality to make a miracle happen.  In order for that work we need to have an idea of how to pray.    

 The prayers of the righteous are effective, because they are prayed by the righteous.   Righteousness is the word the bible uses time and time again to describe people who take following God seriously.  It is the word used to describe people who internalize their faith.  The righteous do not treat faith like a hobby, but it is a fundamental expression of who they are.  Expert jazz musicians can do incredible improvisation where no one is playing off sheet music but it sounds great because they have all internalized music, in the same the righteous know just what to pray because they have internalized loving God and following Jesus.   The apostle Paul also writes about this in Romans.   In Romans 12 Paul writes that when we submit ourselves to God then we can know and approve what God’s perfect will is.   Perhaps that is the best definition of what it means to be righteous: submission to God.   Having a faith that works is being able to truly say “not my will, but yours be done.”   When we believe that, and when we seek to truly embrace that way of thinking then we pray for God’s will, we join God in the duet, and the world is transformed.   

Learning to play music improvisationally is hard to teach, and in the same way praying righteous and effective prayers do not come from a formula or reciting a specific prayer.   Learning to do improvisational music requires a lot of experience and love for making music, in the same way learning to pray righteously takes a lot of experience in prayer and a lover for God.   While there is no three step formula for world changing prayer, in this morning’s scripture James does give us some broad guidelines to help us better learn how to ray in a way that is powerful and effective.  

I think there are three guidelines that James gives for better prayer.   The first is not explicitly stated, but is found in verses 13-14.  There it states if any among you are in trouble, if any among you are happy, if any among you is sick.  It does not say if you know someone, the scripture states if any among you.  Among you means together, and it shows that prayer is meant to be communal.   Prayer is not always meant to be a one on one chat, it can and should be a group discussion.   The scripture states when someone is sick then the elders of the church should pray over them, because again prayer is something we should do together.  

            The second guideline to powerful and effective prayer is found in verse 16 where James writes, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”   In general we tend to do fairly decent with the first guideline.   Every week we share our prayer concerns with one another, and we can trust that the community of faith will lift us up.   We tend to struggle a lot with this guideline don’t we?  We have no problem lifting up in prayer the aches, pains, and sniffles we have, but we do not often confess our sins to each other or pray for one another that the damage done to our hearts, minds, and souls by sins be healed.  

            If we are being honest, that kind of prayer is a little too real for most of us.   It is more comfortable to show up in church and pretend we have it all together as opposed to confess our sins and admit that we can be a bit of a mess.  What would happen if we took down the masks and showed each other our messes.   What if we were willing to confess to one another that we struggle with anger?    What if we confessed that we harbor bitterness and we have not been able to forgive someone who wronged us?   What if we sought healing by telling our brothers and sisters in Christ that we hate someone, and the person we hate is ourselves?    Can you imagine that kind if we found that kind of brutal honesty and humble vulnerability in churches?   Do you have any idea what would happen?   Because I do, as James wrote.  If we pray for another, if they have sinned they will be forgiven.  If we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another then we will be healed, because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.  

            The final guideline that James gives us is in verse 20 “remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”   How else could we have any part in helping someone leave a life of sin to follow Christ, if prayer is not involved.    The prayers of the righteous are effective, because they line up with the will of God.   This can leave us sometimes wondering if what we are praying for is in God’s will.  However, there are some things that we can know with absolute certainty are within God’s will, and praying that a heart will turn to Jesus and a soul will be saved is always, always within God’s will.   Praying that someone would come to know Jesus, to turn away from sin and accept the love that God has for them is always a good, worthwhile prayer.   There are over seven billion people on the planet today, and Jesus died to forgive the sins of every single one of them.   There are people who have done terrible things and are currently unrepentant.  There are people who are convinced they do not need or want God.   Through words and even our actions we may not be able to convince people in those categories about the errors of their ways.  However, with God all things are possible.    We can love the people who do not yet know Jesus and we can pray that they will accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.  We can pray with confidence, because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.  

            Prayer that is powerful and effective is the result of having a faith that works.   May that be the kind of faith that you possess.   May your faith not just be a hobby that you engage in on Sunday mornings, but may it be a deep, internal part of who you are.  May you live your faith out consistently and daily in your thoughts, your words, and your actions   May you be so in step with the Holy Spirit, so that you know exactly what to pray about.   Through the power of your prayers may miracles happen, and the world be transformed because the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective.    

The High Road

Scripture: James 3:13-4:3; 7-8

Elias Garcia Martinez was a Spanish painter who lived across the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.   He spent of his professional life as a professor of art, and while he was a skilled painter his work never achieved a level of great fame.  One of his later works in life was entitled Ecce Homo.  It was a fresco of Jesus painted in 1930 on the wall of a church in the small Spanish town of Borja.   Today, this fresco is easily Martinez’s best known work, but it has nothing to do with him.    Due to moisture in the church the fresco had begun to show some signs of deterioration, so one of the parishioners set out to do something about it. Celcilia Gimenez grabbed her paint brushes and set out to restore the painting herself.   You can judge for yourself, but I think it is clear to say mistakes were made.  

It is easy for us to look at the results and wonder, just what in the world was she thinking?  However, Mrs. Gimenez fell victim to one of the classic human blunders:  The Dunning-Kruger effect.   This effect is a cognitive bias, where people who are unskilled or novice at something mistakenly assess their ability as far greater than it is.  Multiple studies by psychologists have been done to confirm this is a real effect, and the studies consistently show the same thing.   People are asked to rate their ability to do a task.  People with no clue rate themselves low, people with actual ability at the task rate themselves as competent, but people with only marginal ability at the task tend to rate themselves equal to or higher than the people who really know what they are doing.  The more of an expert a person is the more they are aware of their own limitations and they are more aware of what they do not know.  Those who are novice and unskilled though do not know enough to know that they do not know.  This is what happened with the fresco restoration.  Celcilia Gimenez did not have any formal training or experience in the highly technical skill of art restoration, but she had painted before so she figured how hard could it be?    There is an irony to the Dunning-Kruger effect that one of the professors who originally researched it wrote about.  According to David Dunning, ““the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect is something that we are all susceptible at falling into, and usually when it comes to our core competencies it is a bump we get over quickly.   The problem with the Dunning-Kruger effect is that sometimes people can get stuck at a novice or unskilled level, but because they consistently over estimate their own ability, they never seek to improve or do better.   I think the Dunning-Kruger effect can impact our faith as well.  Our faith exist and is based in the saving work of Jesus the Christ, but when it comes to practically living out our faith in everyday life it takes practice.  Being a faithful disciple, having a faith that works, is something that we are supposed to get better at.  However, it seems too often being a Christian is viewed as something passive instead of an active skill that can be improved.    This morning’s scripture is a reminder of why and how we can get better at being disciples of Jesus.  

            It really seems this morning’s scripture begins with James calling out the Dunning-Kruger effect when he ask about wisdom and understanding.    James was writing to a pre-dominantly Jewish audience.   The book of Acts mentions that after Stephen was stoned, the Jerusalem church was scattered, and some biblical scholars suggest that James was writing to these Christians.   This is important because we have to remember that the Jews of this time were steeped in the tradition of the Pharisees.  A large part of the Pharisee approach to faith was knowing thing, the better someone knew the scripture the wiser they were, and as the gospels demonstrated the more likely the Pharisees were to lord their knowledge over others.  Perhaps, these early Jewish Christians were competing with another to establish who knew the most about what it meant to follow Jesus as messiah.   Perhaps they were engaged in a one upsmanship game to determine who had the most wisdom and understanding about The Way.  This kind of approach to faith would certainly qualify as harboring bitter envy and selfish ambition as James wrote about.

            James points out then, just how much they really do not know.   In the kingdom of God, wisdom is not about who has the most facts memorized, it is not about who can present the most impressive accolades, or even who has the best church attendance.   Godly wisdom is not a feat that can be boasted about, but rather it is a skill that is demonstrated through pure love, through peace-making, and through full mercy.   It really seems that these early followers of Jesus fell victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect.  They were new, unexperienced believers and they thought what it meant to be a disciple, only to find they had yet to fully experience the full measure of following Christ.  

            I think this is still a problem that people face today.   I remember a conversation from years ago I had in bible study that still resonates with me.    At that time one of the participants shared how they grew up in church and generally considered themselves a good person.   However, when they truly became more seriously about their faith they realized how much of their own behavior was not pure, peace loving considerate, submissive, or full of mercy.  Since that realization their faith has grown, their understanding of scripture had increased, and their love for Jesus had reached greater depths.  This person pointed out that they once thought they were good enough, but now the closer they get to Jesus the more and more they realize how much more they can change and grow to live and love like their savior.  

            This has been my personal experience as well, and I have observed it.   When I interact with relative strangers and they find out I work at a church, a funny thing happens sometimes.   There are some people who go out of their way to inform me that they are a good person.   What is interesting is the people who want to stress they are a good person the most, are the ones who (by their own admission) are not really involved with church, don’t really read the bible, and only occasionally pray.    I compare this to the most God-honoring, righteous, and humble people I have ever met.  Those people do not waste time telling others about how good they are because they are too busy doing good without seeking recognition.   Instead of talking about how good of a person they are, they talk about how great of a savior Jesus is.  

            I think there is a Dunning-Kruger effect when it comes to being a Christian.   On the novice and inexperienced side it can be easy to think that the whole point of all this is to be a good person, go to church semi-regularly, and if you do then God will bless you and give you the things you want.   Prayer becomes all about seeking blessing and stuff from God.  The belief that Christianity is about God helping you be nice while giving you nice things is a beginning point in faith where a lot of people get stuck.   In this scripture, James even encourages his original audience to get past this way of thinking and praying.  In verse three James writes, “When you ask, you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”  It truly can be easy to get stuck in a place where we think we know what it means to be a Christian, but that is only because we are not yet wise enough to know what it means to truly follow Christ.  

            Thankfully James lays out in to opposing approaches to life and faith.  One way is mundane, it is low, it is the way of the world infecting faith, and the other way is a more God honoring, Christ following, high road approach to discipleship.   The low road approach to faith is to care about appearances to be envious of those who seem to be doing it better and have selfish ambition to be viewed as a superstar Christian.   The low road approach to faith is to pursue material gain, financial security, and worldly comfort above all else.  It is coveting stuff and calling it being blessed.   The low road approach is treating God more like Santa Claus who will give you what is on your wishlist instead of treating God like the creator of the universe and the final judge full of unending grace.   This is the approach of a self-centered, novice Christianity that never matures and it is worlds different from the type of disciple we are called towards.  

The high road approach does not seek to compare how good of a person we are to other people, the only measure of righteousness is how much are we living and loving like Jesus.  The high road approach is one that seeks to put others first, and to sow peace in order to reap a harvest in righteousness.  The high road approach is one that seeks God in prayer and earnestly prays “your kingdom come, your will be done.”   The high road approach is one that submits ourselves fully and completely before God.   Our talents, our time, our dreams, our talents laid before God.   This is what it means when we sung this morning, “Take my life, and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.”  The high road seeks to come near to God so that God can come near to us.

In our Wesleyan tradition we have a word for this high road, and it is called sanctification.   Sanctification is the process, it is the journey, we take to reach Christian perfection.    Christian perfection is the term for when we become like Jesus, we are love God with all that we are, we have true empathy and compassion for other people, and we do not choose to do things we know are wrong.   One of the things that I admire most about our Methodist tradition, is that Methodists are eternal optimists, because we believe that this state of Christian perfection is obtainable, that if we journey along the high road of sanctification we can reach that point.

Sanctification is the name we give to the process of being more like Jesus, but I think this morning’s scripture give a simple definition.   The process of becoming more like Jesus is learning to submit ourselves, then to God.   Learning to do this is a lifelong task, and no doubt some of you who have been faithful disciples for decades can attest that the more you learn how to do that, you realize how much more there is to learn.   Learning to submit ourselves to God, and becoming more like Jesus is central to what it means to be a Christian.   Jesus out of great love has saved us from our sins, he has redeemed our eternal life from death,  the only way we can respond to that kind of love is to love in return.   Keeping Jesus commands to love God and love others is the single best way that we can do that.

   I am reminded of a quote that a lot of people have tried to adapt and use, but it is often attributed to actress Mia Farrow.  She said: “I’m going to take the high road because the low road is so crowded.”   When it comes to our faith, may we indeed take the high road.  May we be wise enough to not over-estimate our own righteousness, and may we humbly submit ourselves to God.  May we seek to be more like Jesus in our thoughts, in our words, and in actions.   May we seek to pray with right motives, and may we earnestly seek to come near to God because then God will come near to us.  

           

Salty Words

Scripture: James 3:1-12

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Worth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Scripture:  James 1:17-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suit Up

Scripture:  Ephesians 6:10-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can't Stop the Feeling

Scripture: Ephesians 5:15-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Bread

Scripture:  John 6:35; 41-51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

           

Big Heroes

Scripture:  Matthew 18:21-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You've Got a Friend in Me

Scripture:  Colossians 3:9-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Circle of Life

Scripture:  Luke 15:11-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Rain, Rain Go Away

Scripture:  4:35-41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Thumbs

Scripture:  Mark 4:26-34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Called Up

Scripture:  Isaiah 6:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Spirit Wear

Scripture:  Romans 8:12-17           

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

swiss-guard_590.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Easy Peasy

Scripture:  1 John 5:1-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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