Scripture: Isaiah 62:1-5

            Jimmy Stewart is one of the best known actors from Hollywood’s golden age.  He had long an influential career that spanned decades and throughout his life he racked up 92 credits to his name.   With that many acting credits, it is inevitable that he would have a few films that did not perform well.   Stewart served in WWII, and his biggest acting career flop turned out to be his first role after the war.   The film got a mostly negative critical reception, it lost $525,000 which translates to over five million dollars today, and it caused the producing studio to close.   The failure of this film set off the low point in Stewart’s career that took a few years to recover from.  This under-performing movie that caused all of this is a sentimental story called “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

            Today “It’s a Wonderful Life” has found new life.   The movie was not held in high esteem for decades, and this led to an oversight where the copyright was not renewed and the movie fell into the public domain.   Local TV affiliates all over the country began broadcasting the movie on Christmas because it cost them so little to do so compared to other programming.  This caused the movie to re-enter the public consciousness in the 70’s-80’s.   By the 1990’s the movie had cemented itself as a Christmas classic, and in 2007 when the American Film Institute released their list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, It’s a Wonderful Life was ranked #20.   This movie was panned when it was released and it languished in obscurity for decades before people began to recognize the beauty of it.  In a lot of ways that is similar to the message of this morning’s scripture:   Even in our lowest times God still recognizes our sacred worth and inherent beauty.   This morning’s scripture was a message that the ancient Israelites needed to hear and it is one we still need to hear today. 

            Isaiah is a large book with 66 chapters, and it is commonly accepted today that Isaiah was not written all at one time, but rather it is a compilation.  It is likely that disciples of Isaiah compiled the book and recorded it after his lifetime.  The last several chapters, sometimes called 3 Isaiah, are something of an appendix.   These chapters are hard to date because they seemingly come from different times of Isaiah’s life.   These are prophecies, events, and writings of Isaiah that did not seem to fit anywhere else, and instead of leaving them on the cutting room floor, the editors of Isaiah, jammed it all onto the end.   This means that dating the writings from the end of Isaiah can be tricky.   The composition, origin, and dates for the writings of the end of Isaiah is an area where biblical scholarship is all over the place and there are a lot of competing thoughts.   While the details of how they get to this conclusion differ, nearly all scholarship agrees that the subject of this morning’s scripture are the Jewish people in exile.  

            The exile is one of the biggest events of the Old Testament.   The Israelites spent generations in rebellion against God.   The simple covenant was that they would be God’s people and God would be there God.  However, king after king led the Israelites further into idolatry.  After David, there were a handful of good ones who tried to steer the ship straight, but it was never enough.  Many of the Old Testament prophets are full of dire warnings.  They urge the Israelites to turn from the idolatry they were committing and stop the injustices they were perpetuating.  The prophets warned that if the Israelites did not stop then there would be a judgement.  The prophets were universally clear that this judgement would be an invading force ravaging the land, destroying the cities, and taking the people into captivity.   The people did not heed the warnings, and in 597 BCE, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king.   While not every man, woman, and child was removed from the land a sizable portion was hauled off into exile.    The book of Lamentations contains the Jewish sorrow they experienced, and the story of Esther shows the dire straits the Jews often found themselves in during this time. 

            However, even with the warning of destruction and the prophecies of exile, the prophets often included promises of restoration.   That is exactly what this morning’s scripture from Isaiah is.  It is a promise that God does not give up on us.   We can see that message played out in this morning’s scripture.   That is why it begins with the declaration, “for Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet.”  In exile the nation of Israel was defeated and shamed.   We get a sense of how the people felt from the book of Lamentations.   Lamentations 5:15-16 soberly records, “Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned into mourning.  The crown has fallen from our head.  Woe to us, for we have sinned.”  

            This morning’s scripture though offers what the restoration will look like and says the people “will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”   The scripture then continues with a beautiful analogy of marriage to illustrate what this restoration will look like.   This is what the part of the scripture that had those odd names is all about:  “But you will be called Hephzibah and your land Beaulah.”   The word Hephzibah means “My delight is in her.”  One of the reasons why the word was transliterated instead of translated is because elsewhere in the Bible the word Hephzibah is used as a proper name.   the implication here, is that the renewal is going be so complete that is not just a retribution but it is a resurrection.  It will be a recreation, a new life.  The word Beaulah means marriage, and this restoration will be the renewal of the covenant.   God will be there God and they will be God’s people.   By and large this is what happened, the Jews returned from exile and they never returned to the sin of idolatry.   They committed to trying to follow the law found in the Torah, and it was out of this post-exile tradition that Jesus emerged to be the ultimate fulfillment of resurrection and reconciliation with God.  

             The Old Testament rarely deals with people on an individual level, but rather it addresses the entire people group because the covenant was with the people collectively.   This morning’s scripture is very much in that vein, and it is clearly addressing the Jews in exile as a collective group.   However, the truths contained in this morning’s scripture are just as relevant to us today as they were to the Israelites when it was written. 

            When I think of those truths, I cannot help but think of my children.   I am sure this has been true in different ways for every generation, but being a parent is hard.  Being a parent today is hard, because it seems it is impossible to do it right.  One parenting expert says that “so and so is the right way to raise a child” but then another says “No that way is wrong, you need to do it that way”, then a third one says, “This is the only right way to do it if you do not want to mess your child up for life.”   On some days this makes it seem that being a good parent is nearly impossible to get right.  A good example of this is complementing a child is incredibly hard.  I am not so supposed to tell my daughter she is beautiful, even though she is, because research has shown doing so can make herself conscious about her physical identity.   In the same way, I am not supposed to tell my son how smart he is, because again research shows that doing so can create unrealistic performance pressure.  Despite what the research says, I still do reassure my daughter that I think she is beautiful and I do let my son known from time to time how smart I think he is.   However, my go to and favorite compliment to bestow upon my children is to look them right in the eye and tell them in all truthfulness, “You are one of my favorite people.”  

            That is the same truth of this morning’s scripture.  Verse four states, “For the LORD will take delight in you.”    Think about the depth of what that means.   What is it that makes God happy and brings God joy?   According to this scripture, it is you, it is me, it is us “for the LORD will take delight in you.   Again, this morning’s scripture was written in reference to a whole people group, but the cross is more than proof that this truth applies to us individually as well.  On the cross Jesus died for the forgiveness of sins for the whole world, but also for each of us individually.   I sincerely believe that if the only person that Jesus could save by dying was me, then he still would have done it.   I believe that is true for each of us, we are not just a sea of faces to God, but we are individuals, deeply loved, and with sacred worth.   We are people that the Lord takes delight in.  In short, we are one of God’s favorite people.  

            That is a simple, but powerful truth that we should not forget, and that we should keep on the forefront of our minds.   Fortunately, none of us have gone through the trauma of national exile but we all have times of darkness and hopelessness in our lives.   Some of us have been like the Israelites where we have broken faith with God.  Despite God’s ongoing goodness and faithfulness to us, we coldly and defiantly turned our backs on our Creator.  Many of us have also gone through rough patches where it seems the only news is bad news, and it feels like the story of our life becomes “and then it got worse.”   Some of us have even reached places where just getting out of bed in the morning feels like a triumph because of how much energy it takes.   We may never have experienced exile but we have experienced loss; we have experienced uncertainty, anxiety, and depression.  We have experienced what it means to be empty and devoid of hope.  

            It is in those times that scriptures like this morning’s speak most powerfully.   For when we feel lost, alone, and hopeless God says “For your sake I will not keep silent, for your sake I will not remain quiet.”    This morning’s scripture is all about the restoration of hope and it is about the hope of deliverance.   God delivered the Israelites from their sin and exile.   God still delivers us from our sin and God still delivers us from the times we feel lost and hopeless.   The truth of this morning’s scripture is that God will not be silent, and the message God gives us is “I am not giving up on you.”   

            It does not matter how far we get from God, God does not give up on us.   It does not matter how much we view yourselves as a failure, a waste, or any other hateful words we use to describe ourselves during low and dark times.   Because that is not how God views us.  In this world of uncertainty, there are very few things that I am not 100% sure about, but I am absolutely certain in the love that God has for us.  I am absolutely certain that no matter who we are, what we have done, what flaws we might have that to God we are beautiful.   I am certain that the LORD delights in us, because we are some of God’s favorite people.  

            No matter what you are going through in life right now, may you claim that truth in your life.   In the center of your uncertainty, heartache, or anxiety may you cling to the unforgettable truth that God loves you, God does not give up on you, and you are one of God’s favorites.   May you turn to the God of love, the God of forgiveness, and the God to whom you can be reconciled.   May you know that as this morning’s scripture states, God will rejoice of you. 

By Water and Spirit

Scripture: Acts 8:14-17

            In 1919 shortly after the end of World War I the army commissioned the Cross Country Motor Transport Train.  The mission was to take a convoy of military vehicles across the country from New York City to San Francisco.   The mission was two-fold.  First it was an endurance stress test for the army vehicles.  Second, the route wove through many small towns so the mission was something of an extended military parade.   The route utilized the Lincoln Highway, the only Network of roads that spanned the country.   Calling this a highway was a lose term, it was a cobbled together path that utilized connecting roads to get across the country, many of these roads were not paved and were in fact poorly kept dirt roads.  On more than one occasion, the convoy had to stop and the engineers had to actually build a bridge because the rickety wooden one in place would not hold the army’s trucks.  All told in 1919 this cross country journey took right at two months to go coast to coast by road. 

            The journey was longer and harder than anyone had anticipated.  The trials and difficulties of this long trek made a lasting impression on one of the officers assigned to the mission.   He was a captain at the time, but forty some years later he had achieved the rank of Commander in Chief.   Because of his cross country trek, Dwight D. Eisenhower strongly championed the creation of a national Interstate system.  This started to become a reality in 1956 with the passing of the Federal Aid Highway Act.  Over the next several decades, the country undertook a truly impressive engineering feat and managed to build a cross country, interconnected, interstate highway system.   The cross country journey that took Eisenhower two months to complete can now be done in five days.  

            An act of congress created the Interstate system in 1956, but the system was not declared complete until 1992.   Of course, we know the truth:  It is never really finished.  I am fairly confident that for my entire life some section of Interstate in Indiana has been under construction.  Seriously, it sometimes like they start projects because it is easier to move those orange cones than it is just to put them away.   There seems to always be road construction.     I also feel like that will not change.  

The Interstate system was created in1956 but as long as it is exist it will never have a true ending point.   In a lot of ways this parallels the life of a Christian.  Our journey with God begins with our baptism, but baptism was never meant to be the end goal.   Once a life of faith has begun, then like the Interstate system it is constantly under construction and renovation as that life becomes more Christ like.   This morning’s scripture reveals a key aspect of how that happens. 

By and large baptism is an area that is somewhat misunderstood.   Nearly all branches of Christianity baptize and consider it a sacrament.   We see it as important because Jesus himself was baptized, under his direction his disciples baptized during the ministry of Jesus, and as this morning’s scripture shows baptism is an important part of reception into the church.  We tend to recognize it as important, but the whys about why baptism is done and how it is done tends to be murky.  Unfortunately, baptism is contentious and causes division among denominations today.  One of the best ways to clear up the murkiness around baptism is to properly explain the reasoning and the whys behind baptism.  To do so, let us consider two areas of baptism that cause the most confusion and contention. 

The first of these areas of confusion and contention is how to baptize.   There are some branches of Christianity that insist a baptism only counts if it is by full immersion into water.   In the Methodist tradition we recognize immersion but also sprinkling or pouring as proper ways to administer the sacrament of baptism.  The reasoning for doing baptism by immersion is because it is the only method of baptism recorded in scripture.   The practice of doing baptism by other means emerged out of practical means.   Christianity started in Israel and first spread around the Middle East, which has a temperate Mediterranean climate.  Even in the height of winter, cold is not really that cold and full immersion baptisms are doable.  As Christianity spread to cooler European climates this is not true anymore.  A Baptism by immersion in northern England or Norway in the middle of January in the 1200s for instance, would not have been possible.  It was too cold outside and running water was not a thing.   Thus, new methods emerged.  

Again from the Methodist perspective, we do not have issues with using methods other than immersion because the how of baptism is not as important as the why of baptism.  The water used and the way it is administered is not magic.  It is not like doing a baptism the wrong way messes it up.  We believe that baptism is a means of grace that means that while the water is not magical it is a powerful and special symbol.  That through God’s blessing, the physical act of the element can and does convey God’s grace and love.  A document called By Water and the Spirit details the Methodist perspective of baptism, and it explains it this way: “The sacraments do not convey grace either magically or irrevocably, but they are powerful channels through which God has chosen to make grace available to us.”  Full immersion may feel more meaningful to an individual, and that is perfectly fine.  However, it is our stance that God is present in baptisms done through other means.  

The second area of confusion and the biggest area of contention is who should be baptized.   There are branches of Christianity that strongly believe in believer’s baptism.  This means that only people of a certain age should be allowed to be baptism.  However, in the Methodist articles of religion, the document that contains our core beliefs, one of the things John Wesley wrote on baptism is “the baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.”

The reasons for this reveal a lot of the reason of why we baptize in the first place.  First, baptism from the very beginning has been about initiation into the church.   That is clearly shown in this morning’s scripture.  Peter and John journey to Samaria because it had accepted the word of God and many Samaritans had committed to following Jesus, and as the scripture shows this was initiated by being baptized in the name of Christ.  Baptizing children is an incredible statement, then that the child is part of the church.   The child is not outside of the community of God, but is valued enough to fully include from the beginning.   The baptism of an infant especially is a beautiful theological statement.  Infants are helpless and completely dependent, yet the love of God and the grace of God is still available to them and that love is manifest and made known to the child by how the community of faith embraces the child as one of their own.  

The second reason for baptizing infants is that baptism is a starting point.   It is not the culmination of a faith journey, it is where it begins.   Just like the Interstate system began in 1956, baptism is meant to be the beginning of our Christian life.   For a child born into a Christian home with faithful parents who earnestly desire to share the life giving message and faith of Christ Jesus, then the starting point for experiencing and being made aware of God’s infinite love truly does start as an infant.  

The idea that baptism is the starting point of our faith journey is the main message of this morning’s scripture, and that is true no matter what your faith tradition.   In this scripture the people of Samaria had been baptized.  They believed that Jesus had died for their sins, been resurrected, and freed them into the family of God.  However, baptism was only the first step.  For the people of Samaria, it was only when Peter and John laid their hands on them and prayed that they received the Holy Spirit.  The people of Samaria came to learn that baptism was not a one and done magic ritual that saved them for all time.  It was a starting point to a large world of following God.   This is true for us as well.

The sacrament of baptism has a lot incorporated into it, but as this morning’s scripture shows one of the elements that is part of baptism is recognizing the role the Holy Spirit plays.  This is demonstrated in our Baptism liturgy.  Right after the water is administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the pastor then prays over the newly baptized saying, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. “  Baptism is the starting point in our faith journey, and it is the Holy Spirit that continues to guide us along the path.

 As much as we dislike it, I think the constant construction of the highway system is a very apt analogy for our faith journey.    Just like the highway system got started by an act of congress and then will never be truly finished, our faith journey with God begins with baptism but it is never truly finished.   We are in constant need of repair and improvement.  Baptism is the starting point where we are declared to belong to God and we recognize the work of God to make us new creations in Christ.  The formal theological word for this is regeneration.  However, being baptized does not prevent us from choosing sin, so just like a road needs to be repaired so does our soul.   The UMC articles of religion put it this way, “We believe, although we have experienced regeneration, it is possible to depart from grace and fall into sin; and we may even then, by the grace of God, be renewed in righteousness.” 

 Also just like road construction regularly switches the layout or adds new lanes in our faith we can constantly improve.   The Holy Spirit can work in our lives to improve upon the work begun in our baptism.   Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we can become more patient, more kind, more generous, or more loving people.  Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we can take steps of faith we never thought possible, we can do more than we thought possible, we can meet real needs, and we absolutely can make a real and lasting transformation in the world today.   As baptized believers we do not need to settle for “that’s just how it is”, because as this scripture shows the baptized have the Holy Spirit of God and with God all things are possible.  

The beginning of our baptism liturgy truly sums it all up, “Brothers and sisters in Christ:  Through the sacrament of Baptism we are initiated in to Christ’s holy church.  We are incorporated in to God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.  All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price. “   If you have received that gift, and are interested in saying yes to God’s yes and being baptized, then let’s please not delay and talk about it soon.   If you are among the baptized though, may you claim it as the starting point.   May you continually renew the covenant declared at your baptism, readily acknowledge what God is doing for you, and re-affirm your commitment to Christ’s holy church.   May you be filled with the Holy Spirit and may you allow the spirit to work in your life.   Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the places may the potholes and rough patches in your thoughts and actions be made smooth.  Through the Holy Spirit may you continue to become more like Jesus that being born of water and spirit, God will use you to make a real difference in the world. 

Searching High and Low

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

            In the grand history, tragedy, and drama that is World War II the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program is very much on the obscure fringes.   The unit often engaged the war on the operational level, and only a handful of its officers saw frontline combat.   However, its mission was vital and unique in the history of warfare.   The 400 plus members of the MFAA were also known as Monument Men and it was their job to protect, save, and recover Europe’s cultural history.  One of the elements that makes their story so compelling is that because like all good stories the Monument Men had a natural enemy.   The German organization known as the ERR was responsible for looting the cultural treasures of Europe.  It’s original yet still dubious mission was to collect Jewish and Free Mason documents, books, and artifacts for destruction or further study in Germany.  However, under the leadership of Hermann Goring, the mission of the ERR effectively became the seizure and looting of Jewish art collection and other objects.   Adolf Hitler’s vision was to make a giant museum that showcased what he considered to be the best of conquered art, while destroying all that was inferior.  In practice the stolen possessions enriched the Nazi occupiers.   Historians have called this looting the greatest theft in history. 

            It was the job of the monument men to undo that theft, and they ended up being incredibly successful in that.  It was more than just finding the stolen objects, but the Monument men sought to return them.  The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was officially dissolved in 1946 after the end of the war.  However, some of the monument men continued their work up through 1951.   At that point they had successfully returned over 4 million cultural objects that had been stolen.   Unfortunately, there are still thousands of pieces of treasures stolen by the Nazi that have not been recovered and returned.   That number though would be a lot higher if it were not for the heroic and mostly unsung efforts of the Monuments Men. 

            I find the contrast between the ERR and the monument men to be fascinating.   Both organizations sought the exact same thing.  They were both organized and tasked with the collection of art.   Even though their tasks were similar, their missions and motivations could not be more different.  The Nazi ERR existed to pillage, to loot, and to treat cultural objects as conquered loot.   The Monument Men on the other hand was dedicated to preserving, to restoring, and they treated cultural objects as enriching art that deserved to be treated as precious.  

            This is not that different from this morning’s scripture.   Both the Magi and Herod sought Jesus, but their reasons for doing so could not be more different.  Herod was a lot like the ERR is motivations were self-serving, greedy, and evil.   The Magi though sought Jesus for a different and nobler reason.   Today people still seek Jesus and people still do so for different reasons.  This morning’s scripture challenges us to consider why do we seek Jesus? 

            It is worth considering Herod and the Magi to better understand who they might have been and what their motivations were for seeking Jesus. One of the things that can come as a bit of a surprise when visiting the Holy Land is how Herod is portrayed.  Because of scriptures like this morning, we tend to think of Herod as a villainous tyrant.   However, most tours of the Holy Land include visits to the temple mount, the ruins of Masada, and the stadium in Caesarea Philippi.  All of which were built under the supervision of Herod the Great.  History remembers Herod as great because of the great many public works and building projects he undertook.  One of the reasons for doing this, especially the expansion of the Jewish temple, was to win the favor of the people.   Herod was not a true Jewish king, but he was a foreign conqueror propped up by the Roman Empire.  He ruled Israel as a buffer state on the frontier of the Roman Empire, and as long as he paid tribute and instituted pro-Roman policies he was allowed to rule as he see fit. 

            This morning’s scripture claims that Herod was disturbed by the new of the Magi, and for good reason.  Herod knew that this was not just a political rival, but anyone being honored as a Jewish king would be the promised Messiah.   Herod held a contentious rule over a people that were not his own and who did not particularly want him.   Foreign wise men claiming the ancient prophecies had been fulfilled was enough to cause Herod with enough panic to take drastic actions.    

            Herod indeed sought Jesus, but his motivations were completely selfish.   He only wanted to find Jesus because of what finding Jesus could get do for him.  In his specific case, what Jesus could do was get out of the way.  Herod sought Jesus mainly to eliminate any influence he could possibly have.  

            The Magi, on the other hand, sought Jesus for other reasons.   The concept of Magi is hard for us to wrap out heads around.  Wise men is an ok translation of the word, and despite what our Christmas carols says, kings is not the right word at all.   The word magi appears one other place in the Bible and there the word is interpreted as “sorcerer”.  The magi were the scientists of their day, but they also read omens and did divination.  They were brilliant astronomers and mystical astrologers all wrapped up into one.  They saw a strange, supernatural star appear in the sky, and they clearly had enough knowledge of Jewish culture and tradition to interpret the star as meaning the Messiah had been born.  Being gentile star-gazers, the magi may not have understood the true significance of that event but they knew enough to know it was a big deal.   I think the question the Magi ask is interesting.  They ask “where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”   They knew Jesus was king by birthright, not because a foreign power said so.  Even though they were not part of God’s chosen people, the magi sought Jesus because the recognized him, at least in part for who he is:  The king of kings and the lord of lords.  

            Today people still seek Jesus.   Some seek Jesus the way that Herod did and some seek Jesus in the way of the magi.    Placeholder for possible paragraph on historical Jesus folly.  

            King Herod’s reason for seeking Jesus was selfishly motivated.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of way that people seek Jesus for selfish reasons.   We thank God every week for all that God has provided us with and blessed with.   We should be cautious though, and guard our hearts to ensure God’s blessings is not our main reason for seeking Jesus.   In our modern day culture, it seems a lot of people seek Jesus because they want stuff.  A disturbing number of tv preachers and more proclaim horrendous theology that states God will give us what we want all we have to do is name it and claim it or believe it and receive it.   Methodist Pastor and author Mike Slaughter writes about this bluntly in his book Christmas is Not Your Birthday.   He writes: “We have created this Santa Claus Jesus in our own image, a golden-calf messiah who promises to fulfill all our earthly wants and wishes, an idol of consumption who supports the human quest for meaning and purposes in material things outside of a relationship with God.”     

            I really like the power and truth behind Mike Slaughter’s phrase a “golden-calf messiah”.  When people seek Jesus selfishly, with their interest and their desires first then they tend to create Jesus in their own image.   There is fortunately a good test to see if we have done this or not.  If your idea of Jesus approves of all your life style choices, agrees with everything you agree with, and dislikes all of the people you dislike then you are not really worshipping Jesus.  You are worshipping yourself in Jesus cosplay.   Following Jesus should always lead to be more a more loving, more compassionate, and more sacrificial version of ourselves.  If we are taking that seriously it should be a life long journey to be more Christ like.   If our understanding of Jesus only affirms us and never challenges us, then we have sought Jesus selfishly and completely failed to find him. 

            Instead we should seek Jesus as the wise men did, they sought to honor Jesus because Jesus is worth honoring.   They recognized that Jesus is king at birth.  They did not to see if Jesus was going to prove himself.  Instead these magi entered the home of a humble carpenter and in a worshipful reverence typically reserved for royalty they presented gifts.   Our motivation for seeking Jesus should not be about what we can get.  We should seek Jesus because he is worth finding.   We should seek Jesus because Jesus, by his very nature, deserves our respect and honor.  We should seek Jesus because Jesus was faithful to God, is faithful to us, and proved that faith by going to bat for us on a cross.   We should seek Jesus because as Philippians 2 states, “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.” 

            The Magi were not seeking Jesus selfishly, because instead of coming to see what they could get from the young king, they brought gifts.   The valuable gifts they brought were exactly the kind of gifts that one would bestow upon royalty in the first century.   In the same way we should seek Jesus with gifts, but we do not need to bring myrrh with us.   It tends to be green now a days, but we still can offer Jesus our gold.   We can give of our resources to help others in the name of Jesus.  Another gift we can offer Jesus is our time.  In fact, for a lot of us that might be the greatest gift we have to give.   For a wide variety of reasons more people today feel busier than ever before.   From long work hours, to kids needing to be three places at once, to never ending doctor appointments, many of us feel a greater demand on our time than we want.  On top of that, there is always something that needs to be done, dishes that needs to be washed, and laundry that is waiting to be folded.  Most of us probably feel that constant demand on our time, so really what better way can we honor Jesus in our lives by giving our time to him.  We can do this by being more intentional of seeking Jesus’ examples through reading the scripture, we can do this conversing in prayer, and we can do this by going out and serving other people in the name of Christ.   Time is a precious resource that all of us have available to us, and it can make a great gift to give to him was born as king of the Jews and the savior of the world.  

            The beginning of the year is a time that a lot of people like to make changes, and adopt new habits so I challenge you to make one of your goals in 2019 to give Jesus the gift of your time.   If you already spend time regularly in prayer and bible study or if you already spend time serving others in an attitude of Christ following love, then I challenge you to consider upping that commitment a little.   If you do not yet regularly do those things, then I challenge you to set that as a goal for this year.  If that is something you want to do, then may I recommend a tangible goal to achieve?  There are 105 days between now and Easter this year.  In the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John there are 89 total chapters.  At less than a chapter a day, you could read all four gospels this year.  That is one small way that you could honor Jesus with the gift of your time in 2019.  

            It is my sincere prayer and hope for everyone here today, that we would all seek Jesus.   May we not seek Jesus as Herod did though.  May we not be selfish in our motivations to find Jesus.  Instead may we be like the Magi.  This morning’s scripture records how wise men sought out the king.   Today, the wise still seek that same king.   In this new year may you find him and follow the Lord Jesus better than you ever have before.     Like those wise people of the scripture, may you find Jesus, bow down and worship him.  Because he is worthy of all worship, all honor, all glory, and all praise because he continues to be the king of kings and the Lord of Lords. 

Going Home

Scripture: Luke 2:41-52

            It was the Spring in 2014, just a few months, after we had come to Edinburgh.  Since it had gotten warm, we were finishing the last remnants of unpacking and taking care of the boxes that had been thrown into the garage back in January.  Connor, who was four at the time, was playing in the backyard.   I had to take something or another to the front of the house, and when I came back he was gone.  The panic started fairly mildly, and I went inside the house looking for him.   My wife quickly confirmed he was not inside.   The sense of panic and urgency started to increase.  Quickly, I checked the garage.  Not there either.  My heart started to beat faster.  I ran around the alley, looking to see if he wandered that way, I even called his name.  Nothing.   At this point the worst case scenarios started playing out in my mind.  With no place else to check, I came into the church.  There I found him, in the kitchen.  I do not remember what exactly was going on over here, but Miss Rae Jean had come out the pantry door for some reason and Connor followed her back inside.  All told, he was probably “missing” for less than two minutes.  However, those 120 seconds were some of the scariest of my life.  I tell this story, because I can in some small measure begin to appreciate how Mary and Joseph must have felt.  Their child was missing for way more than 120 seconds, and they had miles of area and an entire city to search for him.  

            One of the doctrinal things that not just us, but all branches of Christianity believe, is that Jesus was perfect.  This means he never, once in his life sinned.   Now I affirm and sincerely believe that to be true.  At the same time though, having a small idea of how many grey hairs Jesus must have caused in this scripture, I have to wonder how doing something that causes that much panic is not somehow sinful.   Of course it was not, as Jesus chose to honor his Father in heaven.  Jesus scared his parents by choosing to put his Father in heaven first in all things.  As we journey into a new year, this morning’s scripture challenges us to ask ourselves can we make a similar commitment? 

            This morning’s scripture covers the one story in the gospels we have of Jesus as a boy.  On the surface level this story is a little odd, and it raises some questions.   This is one of those scriptures that really requires us to put ourselves into it, so that we get a better understanding of just what is going on.

 The first question, is just how on earth did Mary and Joseph lose Jesus?   It seems like having your kid with you would be a must before traveling, and when they started they probably did.   This event happened at the end of the Passover festival.   In Jewish law there are three major festivals that all Jewish males are to attend, and during the first century the way this was attended was by journeying to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.   The Passover was the big one, and it is likely that many of the towns and villages of Galilee emptied out as those who were able made the journey to Jerusalem.  If everyone is going to the same place by the same way, it makes a lot of sense to travel together.  There is safety in numbers, there is immediate help if needed, and resources can be pooled and shared.  It is likely that every year Mary, Joseph, and Jesus made the same trip, with the same people.   They were not journeying with strangers, they were traveling with a dozens strong caravan of family, friends, and close acquaintances.   Given that, it begins to make more sense how they lost track of Jesus.  They were with people they felt safe with, and they had made this journey for several years.  They were probably used to a young Jesus running being with friends as they walked the journey.  There had probably been other years where they made the journey and from the time they started in the morning, to the time they made camp, never saw Jesus as he was somewhere else within the group.   I can imagine that first night, probably somewhere around Jericho, when everything began to settle and Jesus did not come and find Mary and Joseph.  I can imagine how the initial uneasiness, turned into panic, which blossomed into full hysteria as they began to imagine the worst case scenarios.  

            The other head scratching thing about this story, is how Jesus spent three days without parents in the temple courts.  After all, that is the same amount of time that Kevin Mcallister is Home Alone and apparently everyone is cool with Jesus hanging out in the temple courts.  Again, in the context this begins to make a bit more sense.  First, Jerusalem still would have had excess people.  Passover was the biggest of the three annual Jewish celebrations, and it is likely that those who had to travel far may have planned a longer stay in the city.   Second, the temple courts was the “third place” of the city.  It was the place people congregated and went to.   There were always traveling rabbis, teachers of the law, and other people present to engage with, learn from, or debate with.   Given all of that activity, a single boy would not have garnered that much attention initially.   It was not even that odd for a twelve year old boy to engage with the teachers of the law.   The book of Jewish tradition, the Talmud, records oral traditions that date back to before the first century.  One of the things it contains is the “age of majority”, at what age a boy is to fully engage in Jewish religious life.  If you are familiar with the idea of a Jewish bar mitzvah, that is what it is about.   The Talmud sets the age of majority at 13, but does state if a child is ready before then, they should be included before then.  At twelve, the teachers of the law would have seen Jesus as a boy moving into the age of majority.  Jesus was at an age where he was supposed to begin carrying and engaging fully with the Jewish religious practices, and likely the Jewish religious teachers were thrilled when the young Jesus first showed so much interest.   That initial impression likely developed into absolute awe as Jesus began to show how much he knew and he understood.

            Jesus is our Lord and Savior, which means we learn from him and we follow his example.  That is true even if it is the example he gave when he was just twelve years old.  I believe there are two things that we can learn from the example gives us in this scripture.   First, when Mary and Joseph find Jesus his response is “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”   Jesus was compelled to be where God was.    In first century Jewish thought, they did believe that God was sovereign over the whole earth, but they also believed the temple was an especially sacred spot.  Inside the temple there was the “holy of holies”.  This was understood to be the single spot on earth where the presence of God was greatest.   It was the understanding of the time that it was only in the temple that one could truly encounter the actual presence of God.   From the first century Jewish perspective, Jesus was saying that he would naturally be as close to God as possible, that he would be where God was going to be.  

            Today from our modern, Christian perspective, we believe that the presence of God is more than just in the temple.  We believe that because of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God is with us.   We believe that we can encounter God anywhere in the world, but in the gospels we can find at least two specific instances of where we can encounter Christ.   First, Jesus said “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am among them.”   When followers of Christ gather together, we can and we should encounter the divine.  If we take Jesus at his word, then that means whenever we gather together it should be possible to experience and know the grace, love, and peace that can only come from God.  Quite simply, if that’s not happening then we are doing something wrong as a church because whenever two or more gathered in his name, then God is with us.  

            However, we go to where God is by doing more than just gathering with other believers.  If we could only encounter God inside church walls, then that would not be much different than the temple system.  Jesus also made it clear that we encounter him outside our buildings because Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me.”  We encounter God when we go to where God is, and the whole witness of the bible is that God is where the lost, the hurting, the marginalized, and those in need of hope are.   When we give of ourselves and have compassion for those who have gone astray, when we make ourselves present to those who no one else, and when we risk loving those who are unloved then we follow Jesus’ example today and we are going to be where God is. 

            The second example of Jesus we can follow is to put God first in all things.   In this scripture Jesus might have been young but he was not stupid.   He had to know that staying behind at the temple complex would have end up scaring Mary and Joseph half to death.   When they find him, Mary says as much.  Yet this is not a sin because Jesus put God first.   Putting God first is honestly harder than we think it is.   On the one side, it is easy to let other stuff get in the way.   After all, there are good tee times on Sunday mornings and what starts off as an every now and then thing become the norm.  Along the same lines in youth ministry I have seen dozen of families drift away because of sports.  The traveling youth team that played tournaments on Sundays was supposed to be a temporary thing, but one success led to another and it became a year round lifestyle.   

            On the other side though, being in ministry I have heard the horror stories of earnest pastors who were so committed to their position that they completely ignored their families, even as they fell apart.   Often in those cases, what started off as a desire to put God first, became all about doing the work of the position.  They got so busy in all of the church stuff they lost sight of the fact that God was also calling them to be a loving spouse and a parent bringing up their children to fear and love the Lord.  

            We can avoid either extreme by making the first things, the first thing.  This can be done every day by spending a couple of moments in the morning and asking ourselves, “How can I love the Lord my God with my all heart, all my soul, and all my mind this day?”   Then in the evening we again take a couple of moments to reflect and ask ourselves, ‘How did I love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my mind this day?”   I think this simple habit can do a lot to keep ourselves focused on how we are putting God first in all things.  

            We are on the brink of a new year, and it is common for people to look at the blank pages of a new calendar with the best of intentions and goals.   Let me ask you, as you think of 2019 and what you hope to accomplish or change in your life how has God factored into that?  How do your goals for the new year put you in the places where God is?   How does your vision for 2019 put God first in all things?   If you have already thought about, then you probably have some big, God sized dreams and aspirations for this coming year.  I would love to sit down with you and hear about those sometimes. 

If you have not fully factored God into your 2019 goals, then I challenge you to do that.   I challenge you to consider how this New Year will be a year that God is at the center of all you hope to do and accomplish.  May we all seek in 2019 to be where God is in the world and in everything we think, everything we say, and everything we do may we seek to put God first, for his kingdom and glory. Amen and amen.  

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Scripture: Luke 1:39-45

As anyone who has ever been unfortunate enough to stand near me while singing could testify, I have no musical ability.  I have noticed though that not being able to carry a tune has an interesting side effect.   It has been my experience that I tend to pay more attention to what the lyrics of songs are saying.   I get that song writing must be hard, because sometimes the lyrics that are thrown into a song can come across as odd when they are not being sung.   A good example of this is the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?”   Christian comedian Tim Hawkins does a great job at pointing these oddities out:

            The song makes more sense when it is placed in its proper context, and I think we miss the context more often than not.  Despite having a hymn like structure, the song Do You Hear What I Hear was written in 1962.  The song writer, Noel Regney, was known for a poetic, avant-garde style.   The song was written during the height of the Cuban Missile crisis, and the song is a plea for peace during that time.   Given the context some of the lines become chilling.  Consider the verse: Said the night wind to the little lamb, Do you see what I see? Way up in the sky little lamb, Do you see what I see?  A star, a star dancing in the night With a tail as big as a kite.  

            That is not a reference to the star of Bethlehem but it is about a nuclear missile.   In the last verse the song does reference Jesus as the child who brings goodness and light.  However, the song is not some artistic rendition of the Christmas story it is a plea for peace in the light of potential nuclear holocaust.  This is not just me reading into the song, Regney, as explicitly stated this as well.   It is a bit ironic that the song is called “Do You Hear what I Hear?” because most people when they listen to it do not actually hear what the song’s author intended them to hear.   I think there is a faith lesson for us as well.   I think sometimes God is asking us, “Do you see what I see?   Do you hear what I hear?”  Much like we miss the meaning of the song, we can miss the work and wonders of God all around us.    This morning’s scripture from Luke gives a great example of not missing God at work.  

            The relationship between Elizabeth and Mary is not clear.   It is likely that Elizabeth was Mary’s cousin or Aunt.   When Mary came to visit Elizabeth, Elizabeth was six months pregnant.  It is not uncommon in the sixth month of pregnancy for the baby to be kicking and moving quite a bit.   So it is one hot take to feel the baby kick really hard and jump straight to “My relative is the mother of God.”  Now the scripture does give us a bit of a clue as to what is happening here.  Verse 41 states “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Upon the greeting of Mary, the baby kicked as if to ask “Do you hear what I hear?” and thanks to the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth did indeed.  So the Holy Spirit was involved, but still Elizabeth had to be in tune enough with the movements of God to not ignore the Spirit’s movement and understand what it all meant.   Elizabeth was able to recognize Mary and the child that she was carrying for what they were because she was in a place where she could hear the leading of the Holy Spirit. 

            Like a lot of the people we meet in the Bible, we do not get a full snapshot of Elizabeth.  We have to read between the lines to get a fuller picture of who Elizabeth is.   From the gospel of Luke, other than a relation to Mary, we know Elizabeth was married to a man named Zechariah.  Zechariah was a Levite, which means he spent part of the year serving at the temple.   We also know that before the birth of John the Baptist, Elizabeth was childless.  We do not know how old Elizabeth was, but Luke 1:36 references Elizabeth’s old age.  It was likely she and Zechariah had been unable to conceive for quite some time.  It needs to be mentioned in the culture of this time period, when a couple had difficulty conceiving it was always viewed as the woman’s fault.  It was seen as a divine judgement against her and it would have been a source of great shame.   

            The fact that Elizabeth was with child was a miracle.  It was so unlikely that even Zechariah did not believe it was possible.  In the gospel of Luke it is recorded that while Zechariah was at the temple serving the Angel Gabriel came to tell him that Elizabeth would conceive the boy who would grow to be John the Baptist.  In response to this angelic message, Zechariah questions how this is even possible because of his and Elizabeth’s age.   Elizabeth’s response was much different though in Luke 1:25 it is recorded, “The Lord has done this for me,” she said.  “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” 

            Elizabeth had experienced the miraculous nature of God, she had experienced God’s favor.  I get a sense that this had a profound impact on Elizabeth, it tuned her into the works of God.   She knew God was willing and capable of doing good things, so on a fateful day when Mary came to visit and called out to greet her, the baby she was carrying leapt with joy.   Elizabeth had ears to hear and eyes to see enough to know this was not just an ordinary kick.   She was receptive to the possibility of God being at work in the world, and she was open to the leading of the Holy Spirit which brought her to the truth:   The messiah was coming, God was moving ,and soon it come to pass that God is with us.   In light of God’s goodness, Elizabeth responded in the most appropriate way:  with uncontainable joy!

            I think there are three things we can learn from Elizabeth this morning about how we can better hear and see the movements of God, and we can better find joy in our own lives.  First, Elizabeth waited on God’s timing.   I imagine for Elizabeth it felt deeply unfair as others began to have children but she could not.  As the years went on, she could have gotten bitter and blamed God.   Being childless was a mark of shame and hurt in the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah, but all indication is despite that they remained faithful to God.  Elizabeth is living testimony that life may not be fair, but God is more than fair.  God provides, and in God’s timing God provides extravagantly. 

   Second, we can follow Elizabeth’s example and recognize God’s provision in our lives.   I suppose Elizabeth had it easier.  She had spent years feeling like she was cursed, only to have God show that God had a special plan.   Our personal testimonies of God’s working in our lives may not be as dramatic as Elizabeth’s but we all have them.

  We all have them because God provides.   One of the things I appreciate about our United Methodist tradition is that we believe God’s grace is previenent in our lives.   This is a fancy way of saying that God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s provision is always present in our lives.   We believe it does not matter how far someone is away from God, God’s love does not give up on them and God continues to provide.   This means that when that unexpected blessing comes, that means when a series of seemingly coincidences aligns just so, that means when exactly what we need seems to fall right in our lap, it is God.   It is not Karma, it is not fate, it is not the result of good vibes, or a reward for doing good work.   The book of James states “Don’t be deceived my dear brothers and sisters, every good and perfect gift is from above.”   God provides, and we are the proof.  We could probably sit here all afternoons sharing stories of how God has answered prayers, how God worked in our lives, and how God gave us exactly what we needed when we needed it.

            It is probably a good idea for our spiritual health to consider just how God has provided for us.  In this season of gift giving, I urge you to take a few moments to consider (maybe even write out) the ways that God has provided for you over the past year.  I feel very confident we will be amazed when we do this.  I would not be surprised as you begin to consider the ways God has been there for you, you will begin realize the ways God was there for you and you were not previously aware of it.  Being aware of God’s provision makes us more likely to hear, to see, and to notice just how truly God is.   When we become more aware of how God provides when we catch glimpses of God’s goodness, then like Elizabeth our reaction should be one of pure joy. 

            In this morning’s scripture, Elizabeth makes joyous proclamations in a loud voice.   What I think is so great about this, is that she is not celebrating what God has done for her.  She is celebrating what God has done for Mary.  I think this is the second thing we can learn from Elizabeth.   If we want to have more joy in our lives, then we have to be more joyous.   An easy way to be joyous is to celebrate with others.  God provides for all and all of God’s provision is worth celebrating and finding joy in.  

            Unfortunately, sharing in others joy seems to be in short supply.   Instead of celebrating God’s goodness and provision with others, there is a pull that some feel to do the opposite.   We live in the age of the troll.   If you do not spend much time on the Internet, the trolls are the reasons why you do not read the comments.    There are people who give into the temptation to tear down instead of buildup.   When God provides a glass that is half full, a troll will insist you dwell on why it is half empty.   Children portray this behavior in the most undiluted way.  If one child works to build up a tower of blocks, you can bet there is another one waiting in the wings to knock it all down.   Kids know that it is easier to tear down than it is to build up.  Sadly, there are some adults who never grow out of this phase.  Instead of finding joy in rejoicing in the accomplishments and the gifts God gives to others they try to steal joy by tearing down others.   

It is easy to be a pessimist and a cynic.  It is easy to poke holes and point out what is wrong.  It is easy to “play devil’s advocate.”  Let’s not do that, because honestly the devil has enough advocates.   Let’s be God’s advocate instead.   Even if we are not the recipient of God’s provision let’s celebrate with others.   Let’s build others up and praise God for the great things that God has done.  Let’s leap with joy because the Lord fulfills his promises.  

            May you have ears to hear and eyes to see how good our Great God is.  May you know that God has and God will continue to provide for you.   May you remember that every good and perfect gift comes from God.   May that you feel with joy.    May you be able to exclaim in a loud voice, God is good, all the time.   And all the time, God is good. 

Blue Christmas

Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-7

                It stared on October 27th this year.   While most of the culture was focused on haunted houses, horror movies, costumes, and candy, the Hallmark channel was getting an early jump on strands of lights, hot cocoa, snowmen, and Christmas miracles.   On October 27th this year the Hallmark channel premiered “Christmas at Pemberly Manor”.  Between October 27th and December 29th there will be a total of twenty-two Hallmark Christmas movies that premier.   I know statistically there is a good chance at least a couple of you have some tentative plans to watch one of those movies, A Gingerbread Christmas, when it premiers on the Hallmark channel tonight.   I know this because the Hallmark Christmas movies get huge ratings for cable TV.   Thanks in large part to its holiday  movies the Hallmark channel’s ratings is often in the top three or four right behind powerhouse channels like FOX news and ESPN. 

            From a strictly critical point, it can be a head scratcher as to why these Christmas movies are so popular.   They tend to be almost the same movie remade.  Sure, one is about an architect clashing with the owner of an old theater and another is about two bakers competing to build a gingerbread house, but the plot is all the same.  The couple, that are both fairly likeable, start off at odds at each other.  They interact with each other against Christmas-y set pieces, romantic comedy hijinks ensue, and the movie ends with the two kissing.   Seriously it does not matter if you watching Homegrown Christmas or Pride, Prejudice, and Mistletoe they all follow the same formula.  

            Despite that, these movies are crazy popular.   Bill Abbott, an executive for the channel, sums up why perfectly in an interview where he stated, “We branded ourselves the happy place.  We are a place you can go and feel good.”   Last year Netflix tried to cash in on Hallmark’s game and released the very Hallmark like “A Christmas Prince.”  This movie also found an audience with people looking for a place to be happy and feel good.  While it was meant to be a funny tweet, Netflix hit this nail a little too directly on the head.   Last December 10th, Netflix tweeted out: “ To the 53 people who've watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?”

            The likely reality for some of those 53 people is someone did hurt them.   The reality is that there was pain and loss in their lives, and one of the ways they chose to cope with it is get lost in a sugary sweet story of a prince and Christmas romance.   For a lot of people, this is a time of the year that is highlighted by festivities, family, and cheer.   The reality is that for others that is not the case.   For some people Christmas time is here, and it hurts.   In the Elvis Presley classic Blue Christmas he crooned, “I'll have a Blue Christmas without you.  I'll be so blue just thinking about you.”   The reality is that some people feel that in their souls.   The reality is that life circumstances will work out that at some time or another, all of us will go through a holiday season that feels a little blue.   During those seasons of our lives this morning’s scripture reminds us why reminds us why our joy should be greater than our sorrow.

            The time period that Isaiah lived in was a dark one.  For nearly two hundred years the Israelites had been mostly in rebellion against God, and there had been a lot more evil kings who led the people in idolatry than there were kings who honored God.  One of the kings who ruled during the time of Isaiah’s ministry, Ahzaz, is even recorded in the book of kings of sacrificing his own child to a detestable pagan deity.   The kings and the people had largely ignored the prophets and the consequences the prophets had warned about were now being reaped.   This morning’s scripture mentions that God humbled Zebulun in the land Naphtali.  This region had been conquered by the Assyrians, and it’s people were taken off into exile.   The handwriting was on the wall, the rest of the northern Kingdom was next, and the Southern kingdom was also under threat.  

It was a time of spiritual darkness, it was a time when the future seemed uncertain and bleak.  It was a time of gloom and dread.  However, in the midst of that time, sandwiched between prophecies of warnings and God’s anger, Isaiah offers up hope.  Isaiah writes of a future when the desecrated and ravaged land of Galilee in Northern Israel will be given redemption.  Out of the desolate and forsaken land, a savior will rise and “he will be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  

One of the common themes found throughout Isaiah as well as the rest of the prophets is that even it gets worse, it will get better.   In the midst of dire warnings and destructive announcements of what will happen if the people persist in unbelief the prophets include promises of restoration.   They include reminders that God is faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to God.   When we are confronted with pain and loss, the prophets include messages of hope and joy.   During this holiday season, a time for some that is a Blue Christmas, this prophecy from Isaiah can be a comfort in two ways.  

The first comfort from this morning’s scripture is found in verse 2, The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”   This is reminder that with God, the light will always break through.   No matter how dark things can seem in our lives, the light will come again and the sun will rise.   It does not matter if the darkness we experience is sudden and chaotic or a long aching hurt, this scripture reminds us that God’s light has come into the world and the darkness cannot overcome it.   This scripture is a reminder that there is no darkness that the light of God cannot break through and there is always, always a reason to have hope and joy. 

There is an old story that illustrates this.   Betty was a woman of faith, but the past few years had not been easy on her. Things really got bad after her husband of many year passed away, because while she was still recovering from that loss she was diagnosed with cancer.  It had been a long and painful road of hospital visits, failed treatment, and constant tests that seemed to only give worse news.   It came to the point that Betty was admitted to hospice care, and one day her minister came to visit her.   Betty was very frank with the preacher and told him, “Pastor, I know it will not be long until you are doing my funeral.   I want you to know, I have one request.  I want to be buried with a fork.”   Completely taken back and flabbergasted the minister tried to keep his professional demeanor and asked “why?” 

Betty continued, “Growing up, my mother would always tell to hold on to my fork because dessert was still coming.  I want you to bury me with a fork, so that at that funeral when everyone ask about the fork, you can tell them she is saving her fork because the best is still to come.”  

This prophecy in Isaiah about a child being born was made hundreds of years before an angel came to visit Mary in Nazareth, so from Isaiah’s perspective the best was still to come.   This is true for us as well, no matter how dark life feels, no matter how deep loss is, and no matter how sharp the pain is the light has dawned and the best is still to come.   

The second comfort this scripture can give us, is that God does not give up on us.   The Israelites, especially of the northern kingdom, had been mostly faithless to God for generations.   They had broken their covenant and they had not followed or honored God, but God did give up on them.  This morning’s scripture shows that God had a greater plan.   God had a greater plan, not just to restore and redeem Israel, but to restore and redeem all people back to God.    This morning’s scripture contains the prophetic announcement of a child to be born who will be called Wonderful counselor and the prince of peace.   When the angels appeared to Joseph, another title was added to these, the child to be born should be called Immanuel, which means God with us.   This morning’s scripture which foretold the birth of Jesus, and the birth of the Christ child itself, is a reminder that God is with us, and God does not abandon us.  

This is a point that Isiah makes repeatedly.   This morning’s scripture comes from the beginning of Isaiah, but later on in Isaiah 43 we find these verses, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.  For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”  These words of assurance were true for the people of ancient Israel, for God was not going to forsake them, and they are true for us as well.   No matter what we are going through in life, God has and will not give up on us.   God will see us through, because God is with us.  

It needs to be openly acknowledged and stated that this can be a hard time of the year for some people.   We often think that this time of year has to be as it is portrayed in the Hallmark movies, everything is perfect, sugary sweet, and happy.   Because of that when someone feels less than holly, jolly this time of the year there is a temptation to suppress that instead of taking the time to grieve.   When we suppress are sadness and do not deal with, then it tends to just grow in the darkness.   So I acknowledge that for some of you this tough time.  For some this is part of the year of firsts, and you especially miss that loved one now.  For others that feeling has never really gone away, and no matter how many Christmases pass they still can feel a bit blue from time to time.   We need to openly acknowledge that life, real life is not a Hallmark movie, and that in real life pain and loss are present.  

We can and we should acknowledge those feelings but, we cannot and we should not let those feelings overcome us.  The Holiday season can be hard for people because it is a reminder of loss, but it should also remind us that our reasons for joy are greater than our reasons for sorrow.   This season is a reminder that even though we all have darkness in life, because of God’s great love we can also have the light of Christ that will never be extinguished.   This season is a reminder that Prince of Peace came into this world as baby in Bethlehem, hung on a cross as a man in Jerusalem, and now reigns over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on forever and ever.   This season should remind us that the best is still to come because best of all God is with us.

            The holiday season can sometimes be tough, but may we not lose sight of the prince of peace.   May we remember that Jesus is the reason for the season because God is with us.   No matter what  you are going through may that be a source in your life of great joy.   May it be a light in heart and soul that nothing can put out.   May the goodness of God’s love for you made known by Christ uphold you and sustain you.   Even if this is an especially hard time for you this year, may you hold onto your fork.  Because brother and sisters in Christ, I promise you the best is still to come. 

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Scripture: Luke 3:1-16

            I do not remember how old I was, but I was in the basement of Milan United Methodist Church so it had to be while I was in elementary school.  Since it was close to Christmas the children’s church plans that day was to sing Christmas songs.  We had just sung “We Three Kings”, which at the time was my favorite Christmas song.   The next song was Jingle Bells, and after we all sang about dashing through the snow and yelling “Hey!” as loud as we could, I asked the teacher “How is that a Christmas song?”  

            I do not remember the teacher’s exact response, but I think it was some variations of “Just because it is.”  In Jingle Bells, there is no mention of Jesus, shepherds, or angels.   There is not even a reference to Santa Claus or Christmas trees.   It stuck out to me then that while fun to sing, really has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.  In that regard, Jingle Bells is in good company when it comes to things we associate with Christmas. 

            It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go.   But when you really look at it a lot of the trappings that make us think of Christmas have very little to do with the birth of a baby in Bethlehem.   For instance, snowmen are an extremely common Christmas decoration, which honestly is a little odd.   It is not like there was a snowman at the manger for the birth of Jesus.  In fact, we can say with near absolute certainty that there was not any snow anywhere around Bethlehem when Jesus was born.  Snowmen are popular today, because in 1950 the song Frosty the Snowman was released as a character driven song to follow up on the success of 1949’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.   Another example is it is not uncommon to see nutcracker soldiers as Christmas decorations.  That has mostly endured because of the Nutcracker, a ballet that’s only connection with Christmas is that its odd story starts on Christmas Eve.  The ballet and nutcrackers in general have very little to do with Christmas.  

            There are so many songs, images, and traditions that we associate with Christmas that have no real connection with the birth of Jesus.   The reality is that when it comes to this holiday, there are really two things going on.  There is Christian Christmas and there is a cultural Christmas season.    To this point, if you asked a random person down at the outlet mall to tell you about the Christmas story the person is just as likely to tell you about Ralphie and a BB Gun as they are to tell you about Mary, Joseph, and a baby.  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but a lot of those decorations we see in stores and songs we hear on the radio have more to do with the cultural Christmas season than it does with the real Christmas.   We like to say Jesus is the reason for the season, but what does that look like?   What would it look like if it began to look a lot like the real, biblical, and true Christmas?   I think this morning’s scripture gives us a glimpse of that.  

            When it comes to the cultural Christmas season, much of it is based on anticipation.  It is a month plus long build up to the big day when Santa comes and the presents wished for all revealed.  It is all about the celebration of anticipation turning into dreams and hopes realized.   This morning’s scripture also describes a time of great anticipation.   The people of Israel were desperate for a messiah.   The Old Testament prophets often contained dual prophecies for a hopeful.   The first is that the people would be restored to their land from exile, and the second is that a messiah, a savior would come, to establish a righteous kingdom forever and ever.   From the first century Jewish perspective, the first of these redemptive prophecies had happened.   Four hundred years before the time of Jesus the Promised Land had been restored to the Israelites.   The walls of the holy city and the temple had been rebuilt, but by the time of Jesus the restoration to the promise land was not like the Jewish people had envisioned it.  They lived in their ancestral land and they worshipped God at the temple, but their land was occupied territory.   The Jews lived in their land but the Romans ruled and taxed them.  They were not free.   The Jews were free to worship God, but they faced immense political and cultural pressure to relent their traditional beliefs and become more like the greater Greco-Roman culture. 

            This led to a surge in messianic expectation.  The people anticipated that surely God, would send the Messiah.   Their savior who would free them from Roman rule, and restore God’s people to a more glorious time.    This is one of the reasons why John the Baptist attracted such crowds.   He talked and carried himself like a prophet of old and this morning’s scripture tells us “the people were waiting expectantly and were wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the messiah.”  

            Of course, John himself openly acknowledged that he was not.   He was quick to point out that the Messiah was coming.   John’s role was to be the “voice of one calling in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.”   He fully claimed that role.   He sought to get people off the crooked paths they walked in their life and onto the straight and narrow so that they would be able to see and recognize God’s salvation.  He did this through the baptism he offered.   The baptism John offered was a symbolic turning from sin.   They entered the water sinful and re-emerged cleansed of their sin to theoretically live differently.

  In this morning’s scripture John offered up what that would like.   He explicitly told the people how they should turn from sin.  What is interesting in this scripture is that he did not just say “stop it” but he told the people what they should do instead.   The people were full of expectation awaiting a savior, and John pointed them in the right direction as to how to live that expectation out.   I think John’s advice applies to us as well.   Moreover, if we want to keep Christ in Christmas, if we want to remember Jesus is the reason for the season, and if we want to make it look a lot like the real Christmas then following John’s advice is EXACTLY how we do it. 

In verse 11 of this morning’s scripture “John answered ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’”   John emphasized that the best way to anticipate the coming of the messiah is to focus not on what we can get, but on what we can give away.  This theme is reiterated when John tells the tax collectors not to collect more than they were required to.   Roman tax collectors set their own rates.  As long as they were in reason, they were able to charge what they wanted and they grew wealthy off the excess.   This theme is again reiterated by John when address the soldiers.  The poorly paid soldiers had a lot of unethical ways to make money on the side, and John encourages them to not do that do that.  He encourages them to be happy with what they have instead of always seeking to want more.  

            I believe that John captures the true spirit of Christmas in this morning’s scripture.  This kind of generosity is the true Christmas spirit, but it is also sometimes in short supply.  When it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes that provide aid and help to others, the percentage dropped to only 55% of American households donated in 2017.   At the same time in 2017, the average Christmas spending per household increased to $906, a record setting number.  An example of how that money was spent is that last year on cyber Monday consumers spent over two billion dollars just on cell phones!  This cultural Christmas holiday is full of anticipation about what we can get, but the real Christmas celebration should be all about what we can give away.   The uncomfortable truth that we often seek to ignore is that commercialism and the gluttonous desire to get more stuff drives a lot of the cultural Christmas holiday.  We might bury it under cheer and merriment but consumerism and the desire to acquire is at the heart of the cultural Christmas holiday. 

True Christmas though, the celebration of Jesus birth, is the exact opposite.   Christmas is about remembering that God the Father’s love for us is so great, that God willingly gave up that which was most precious.  When we get right down to it, the fundamental difference between the cultural holiday and true Christmas is that the cultural holiday’s emphasis is on getting but the celebration of Jesus birth has an emphasis on giving.  A true Christmas celebration emphasizes putting others first.   Because Christmas is about celebrating Jesus.   It is about celebrating the fact that God loved the world so much that he sent his son in the world.    When God sent Jesus as a baby we were given the greatest gift.  We were given a messiah who would grow to become the man who would offer us forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with our creator, and freedom from shame and guilt.   All of this was offered to us as a gift without price, not because we deserved it, earned it, or were entitled to it.   God gave the greatest gift of all because God’s love for us is so great, that God was willing to give anything so that we would realize that.  This example of extravagant generosity is the true spirit of Christmas, this spirit that puts others first is what John was talking about, and it is absolutely the example we should follow. 

            The good news is that around here it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, like true Christmas.  As a faith community, I think we can celebrate the ways that we do emphasize giving as a way that we honor the birth of Jesus.   Last month, we packed up boxes for Operation Christmas Child.  Those boxes are given to children who participate in programs that provide food, education, and introduce them to the story of Jesus.    Last month we also gave for the Bishop’s Christmas offering.  The money that you contributed will be used to provide vital funding for ministries around Indiana that exist to meet the physical, emotional, or spiritual needs of children.   This month,  I know many of you have contributed or are planning on contributing to our Heifer International Christmas project.  Every $120 we raise will buy a goat for a family, and those goats will made sustainable, ongoing, and life giving change for those families.   Yes, friends.  It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here, thanks be to God.  

            All of those examples are wonderful ways that we can emphasize giving as a way to honor and celebrate the birth of Christ.   However, I challenge you to go a step further.  Giving our money and resources is a great way to give, but it still connects back to the cultural holiday that emphasizes getting stuff.  I challenge you to give of yourselves and invest your time.   It is one thing to give money to a food pantry, but it is quite another to volunteer.  On Christmas we celebrate that God loved the world so much that God reached down to meet us where we are at.   So let us do the same.   We probably know an elderly acquaintance who is lonely and could use a visit.  Many of us probably have that one odd neighbor we avoid or the co-worker we mostly ignore.   If we took the time to look around all of us could find on the periphery of our lives the lonely, the lost, the broken, and the forgotten.   I challenge you to find those people and reach out to them, like God reached out to us.  Through your actions and the way you give yourself may you communicate to them you are not alone, you are not forgotten, and are seen, and there is nothing so broken that God cannot fix it.   This year may you celebrate Christmas by loving others the way that God loves us.  

            If we are intentional in doing that then we will live out the prophecy from Isaiah that John proclaimed.  We will prepare the way for the Lord, making straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.  The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.  And all the people will see God’s salvation.”  In other words, It will begin to look a lot like Christmas, the true Christmas, everywhere you go. 

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 3:6-13

            A little over five years ago, I led a retreat for Jr. High students.   As part of that retreat one of the activities was for the youth to write a letter to themselves.  The intention is they write about something they were struggling with in their life at that moment.  They were then supposed to be intentional about praying about that struggle.  Then after six months, I would mail their letter to them so they could see just how things had changed and how God might have responded to their prayers.  However, I was shocked by what I learned at the end of that activity.  Not a single one of those teenagers knew how to address a letter.   To a person they all did it wrong, and more than one did not even know their zip code.   Of course, why would they?   Even five years ago, something as archaic as a letter was completely irrelevant to the life of a young teenager.  Letter writing was replaced by email, and for personal correspondence email has been replaced by text messages and snapchat.   Letter writing used to be one of the primary ways we connected and maintained relationships.    Letter writing took time.  When someone wrote a letter, it was an investment in the relationship.  The letter communicated information, but a personal correspondence also communicated that I care enough about you to take the time to write this.     Social media may keep us more connected than ever before, but it is a much more superficial connection.  Liking someone’s picture and commenting “good pic” is not quite the same thing.  Today though, letter writing is a dying art and I think we are all the poorer for it.   In fact, this is backed up by some research.   In 1985 a study was done that found on average people had three people they considered confidants or close friends.  When the study was repeated in 2011, this number had dropped to two.   Another study, this one from 2016, found that we have the most friends in our early twenties, and from that point on the number of people we consider our friends drops throughout our lives.   

            The reason for this is friendship requires work and investment.  One of the researchers for this study, Robin Dunbar, stated “"Particularly with friendships, if you don't invest in them or see those friends, they will decay and quite rapidly drop."   I like the idea that a friendship is really just an investment in a person.  It is caring enough about them to intentionally spend time with them and on them.  It is deeply ironic that we live in the most connected time in human history.   Seriously, on my phone there are nine different ways to communicate with me.  Despite that though, people truly do struggle more to make and maintain friendships now more than ever before.  I think this is because we have traded true investment for convenient, superficial connection. 

            We are the beginning of Advent and the beginning of the cultural Christmas season.  So much of this time is wrapped up in the idea of family, friends, and being merry together.  For some there is a lot of comfort in the thought “I’ll be home for Christmas” but for others it is a thought of melancholy because their thoughts finish the line “if only in my dreams.”   One of the things this causes a lot of people to confront this time of the year is that there are relationships with longtime friends that have faded and there are family relationships that are strained.  If we are being honest many of us are in that boat.   On the other side, some of you are incredible at taking the time to invest and maintain friendships and other relationships.    In the very least we all have a relationship in our lives that we know, deep down, we have not been investing in like we probably should.   This morning’s scripture from Thessalonians points us in the right direction to get those relationships back on track.  

            This morning’s scripture comes from 1 Thessalonians.   While Paul may have written earlier letters to churches, this is chronologically the first of the epistles that Paul wrote in the Bible.  Like all good letters, this one was an investment in the relationship Paul had built with the church.   Writing this letter was also a necessity if Paul wanted to keep that relationship alive.   In some of the places Paul visited, such as Ephesus, he stayed for a long time and he was able to really establish himself and build relationships.  However, that was not the case in Thessalonica.  We know from Acts, that because some agitators told the city officials that Paul was leading people to follow a figure other than Caesar, he was forced to leave.  However, the budding church in the city was still important to him so he took the time to communicate that by writing this letter.   Towards the end of 1 Thessalonians, Paul does address a theological question they had but for the most the letter is meant to encourage the Thessalonians.  It shows he is invested in their success.  However, since a relationship goes two ways, there are also parts in 1 Thessalonians where Paul informs the recipients about what he has been up to and doing since he left.   This morning’s scripture and the entirety of 1Thessalonians is part of Paul’s attempt to intentionally strengthen and maintain his relationship with the Thessalonian church.  

            Again, this is something that I think we can probably all do a better job at, and Paul gives us two examples in this morning’s scripture.   The first is that he invested the time.  This morning’s scripture states that Timothy, Paul’s protégé, had checked in with the Thessalonians.  They were getting some missionary support and leadership, Paul did not have to write them, but he took the time to do so.   Not only did he invest the time, he invested the resources.   While they were not quite to the level of luxury goods, writing materials, were not as cheap and readily available as they are today.   To maintain a relationship with the Thessalonians, Paul had to be willing to take the time to do so.  

            This is true for us as well.    It is so easy for us to justify not taking the time, by saying we are too busy.  But we know that is not entirely true don’t we?   Friendships, family relationships, if we are serious about it then we have to invest in it.   This was visually demonstrated to me last year when I attended The Orange Conference.  One of the resources the curriculum group offers for parents is called Phase.  One of the concepts of this curriculum is from the time a child is born, to the time they graduate high school a parent has 936 weeks with them.  One of the major points of this curriculum is that even though the days of parenthood are long, the years are short.   The time to invest in children and build relationships with them will pass us by, if we are not intentional about it.   To illustrate this point they had large jars of marbles, with each marble representing a week.  These jars showed how full the jar was at various ages.   As my son approaches nine, that means the jar of time is half empty, and I think about that a lot.  

            This concept does not apply just to parent-child relationships.   Every week is another marble of our time gone.   How many marbles do we go by and let our relationships with our friends, our neighbors, and our families lapse because we claim we are too busy?   Maintaining relationships is important, and to do that we have to be willing to take the time to communicate to others, you are important to me. 

            There are times though when a lot of time has passed, there are times when a friendship that use to mean the world to us as faded to almost non-existence, and there are times where family relationships are strained and it’s complicated.   The second example Paul gives us, is especially helpful for those times.  In this morning’s scripture Paul prays for the Thessalonians.  He thanks God for them, he expresses his desire to invest more time into their relationship, and he prays God’s blessing be upon them.   For the relationships we have that are faded or strained, one of the best ways to rekindle and repair them is through prayer.   The reality is that if we are regularly praying for something, then we are invested in it.  If we regularly pray for other people, then we naturally become invested in their wellbeing.  It is not much of a step to go from being invested in the wellbeing of a person to being willing to invest our time and energy in our relationship with them.    If there is someone we know we have let fall through the cracks in our lives then the perfect starting point for repairing and reviving that relationship is by praying for them.  

            Prayer can do more than change our hearts, it can have a direct impact on the people we are praying for.   Prayer truly can heal, repair, and even restore broken relationships.  A year ago on their official blog page, the organization Compassion International shared a story that shows this.   Compassion International is a charity dedicated to providing for children in the developing world, and this story comes from one of the children being sponsored through Compassion.   Hurley’s father Joey was not a nice man.  In the area of the Philippines where they lived Joey was known as the “king of bad news”.  If someone wanted drugs or felt they needed someone roughed up they came to Joey to get it done.   Through the support of Compassion, Hurley and his siblings got the support they needed.  They were also taught about Jesus and God’s love.   At home though, things did not improve.  In addition to not being nice, Joey was an abusive husband.  Eventually he hit too hard, and fearing for her life his wife, and the mother of Hurley fled.   At just eight years old Hurley was left to care and fend for his siblings.  During this time he prayed.   He especially prayed for his parents.  Finally, he decided that there was only place he felt truly safe:  church.   When his dad came home, Hurley took Joey by the hand and began leading him to church.  Despite threats of punishment, the young boy was insistent and he continued to pull his dad long along.  When they entered the church, God answered the prayers of Hurley.  The Holy Spirit broke through, and the king of pain broke down in tears, desperate to change from his evil ways.  He accepted Christ as Lord and Savior that day.   A couple of months later his wife, Ritchelle, returned home, and she reported, “I came home to a changed man.  My husband was a different person completely.  Our son led us to the Lord.”  

            We do not write letters much anymore, but maybe that should change.   If your hand writing is practically unreadable like mine, then find another way to reach out and express that you care. Friendships and other relationships take investment and they take work.   During Advent we prepare ourselves to accept and celebrate the reality that God was willing to invest in us.   God’s desire to say “I’m not giving up on you” to us was so great that he sent his own son into our world.   May we be willing to communicate to others something similar.  Through our prayers and the way we spend our time may we communicate to others “I’m not giving up on you”, I care for you, and I am still here for you.   This Advent, I challenge you to reach out to that old friend who you have not talked to for in a while, or take steps to repair that strained family relationship.   If we do then I think we will find our faded friendships have a bit more color again, our strained relationships are calmer, and “it’s complicated” will be a lot less so.   I think, we will find that perhaps that is the best Christmas present we can give to ourselves. 

Once and Future King

Scripture: Revelation 1:4-8

Earlier this year the British royal family had the joy of celebrating another royal wedding when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle.  As expected the ceremony had all of the pomp and circumstance that comes with a royal wedding.  An odd thing happened this time though.   We Americans cared more about the British royal family getting married than the British people did.  An estimated 29 million Americans watched the royal wedding on TV, compared to only 18 million citizens of the United Kingdom.   This could just be chalked up to a population difference, but it appears to be more than that because in 2011 when Prince William wed more British people watched it than Americans.  It seems that this time the rebellious colonies cared more about the royal wedding than the loyal subjects of the crown.  Many commentators were quick to point out the reason for this discrepancy is because the now Duchess of Sussex was herself an American actress.   The appeal of the royal wedding to Americans is that she was one of us who got to experience an honest to goodness fairy tale wedding where she married the prince.  

            In American culture we have a really complicated relationship with the idea of royalty.  On the one hand, we are kind of obsessed with it, as the viewership of the royal wedding shows.  When you check out at the grocery store this week, there is a fairly decent chance that one of the tabloid magazines will be advertising some kind of article about the royal family on the cover.   Also, as the father of a five year old girl I can attest that princess culture for little girls is a very real thing.  

            Yet on the other hand, we have a deep cultural repulsion to the idea of a king.   We hate the idea of royalty, that someone is more special or worthy just because of who their parents are.  We value the idea that with enough hard work, grit, and determination anyone can achieve their dreams, so the idea of “noble blood” is ridiculous to us.  We dislike the idea of a royal ruler who is the rule of law.  We prefer the idea of an accountable leader that we chose by votes and who is bound by the rules of law.  It is baked deep into American culture that we do not like the idea or want a king.   That is why we had a revolution in the first place after all.    The American culture both loves the idea of royalty and hates it.   This same contradictory attitude towards kingship exist in Christianity as well.   We have no problems declaring Jesus is Lord of all, but yet we struggle to truly give him lordship over our lives.  

            This morning’s scripture is a reminder to just what it means to regards Jesus as Lord.  This morning’s scripture comes from the very beginning of Revelation.   This book of the Bible is often attributed to John, the disciple of Jesus and author of the gospel.  It is traditionally stated that he wrote the Revelation while exiled on the island of Patmos, and that the contents of the book came through a divinely inspired vision.   One of the things that we can easily lose sight of is that John did not record his Revelation in a vacuum.  He wrote this while in exile at a possible Roman penal colony as punishment for his beliefs, the Revelation is addressed to seven churches in the province of Asia (modern day Turkey).  The Christians of these churches were under cultural pressure for their beliefs and they were beginning to experience persecution for proclaiming Jesus as Lord.     

   Referring to Jesus as Lord or even king is so common in our flowery religious language, that we lose sight of the fact that declaring the Lordship of Jesus was (and is) a deeply political statement.   In the Roman Empire there was supposed to be only one lord, and that was Caesar.  Caesar was the Emperor.  The Senate, the representatives of the people, answered to him.  The military, the greatest fighting force the world had seen, obeyed his commands.  The governors, the local rulers who held the authority over the lives of the Christians, were appointed by Caesar himself.   Caesar was the sovereign ruler of the civilized world.    Caesar may have ruled the empire, but the Christians were bold enough to declare that Jesus ruled a far greater kingdom that had no end.   Caesar may have had the adoration of the empire’s loyal subjects, but the Christians fearlessly sang “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”   The good news the first century Christians offered is that there is a higher authority in the world than Caesar and that was quite simply treason. 

Given that background the language of this morning’s scripture begins to make sense.   It was written to a group of threatened, marginalized, and vulnerable people who had dared to defy the Emperor and declare that Jesus is king of their lives.   This introduction, then was meant to be of incredible encouragement to them, because it is full of reminders of Jesus’ majesty, his power, and his absolute sovereignty.   Just in this short scripture this morning we are reminded that Jesus is the one who can approach the throne of God, that Jesus has sovereignty over all the earth, that Jesus is the one who freed us from our sins by his blood, and that Jesus is a king of a holy kingdom.  This morning’s scripture reminded the original recipients and us that Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the begging and the end.  It reminds us that Jesus is the Lord who was, who is, and who is to come.  In other words, Jesus is the once and future king! 

This morning’s scripture was meant to remind the original recipients that Jesus is their savior and their king.   I think this is a reminder that we still need today.  Actually, I think we need more than a reminder we need to better learn what it means to have a king in the first place.   The first century Christians had a one up on us in this regard.  They understood what it meant to have a sovereign over them.   Being full of grace and truth they denied Caesar and proclaimed Jesus as their king.   They understood what that meant, so much more than we do.   Because if you recall, as Americans we have a complicated relationship with monarchy.   We do not like the idea of someone else telling us what to do, and we like to think that no one is the boss of me.   The very fact that those attitudes are so prevalent show we have a lot to learn about what it means to follow Jesus as king. 

John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist movement, probably has a much better understanding of what it means to have a king.   They were after British subjects under King George.  Their understanding of Jesus as king can be helpful for us to gain a better understanding.  This is clear because if you flip through the hymnal you will find that almost every Charles Wesley hymn in there refers to the royalty and kingship of Jesus.  In one of his sermons John Wesley preached about Jesus “And in his office of king, forever he gives laws to all those whom he has bought with his blood. . . He reigns in all believing hearts until he ‘makes all things subject to himself,’ utterly casts out all sin, and ‘brings in everlasting righteousness.’  In other words, as king Jesus leads us.   Jesus is not some despot sitting on a throne giving capricious degrees, Jesus is a leader who comes along besides us and then says follow me.   Jesus is a king, who if we are willing to follow, will lead us along the paths of righteousness.  A king, which if we follow his laws of love, will transform us into the best possible, sin-free versions of ourselves.   Jesus is a king who invites us to follow and to join him in his kingdom.  Randy Maddox, Methodist theologian, summarizes Wesley’s position as such: “as King, Christ is the one who guides Christians in the process of renewal, thereby delivering them from the power of sin.  And Christ will eventually deliver the whole creation from the very presence of sin, returning it to God.” 

Jesus is king, but he is a different kind of king.  Usually those who are subject to a king in this world have little say so in that matter, but the kingdom of Christ is not of this world.  Those who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven are there because they have made the choice to accept Jesus as Lord and savior.  They have said yes to God’s yes and acceptance.  They have opened the gift of forgiveness that has already been given.   Jesus is the king of those who follow him, which raises two questions.   The first question is, what does that mean if you are not following him?   That is fairly is simple.  If you are not following him Jesus is not your king.   There are no almost Christians, either you are following the king and kings and the Lord of lords, or you are following something else.   Even it if is our own pride and hubris.  Everyone follows and serves something and if you follow Jesus then he is your king.

The second question is how do you know if you are following Jesus?  Remember, what makes Jesus a king is that he is a leader, so you know you are following Jesus if you are following his commands and examples.   Jesus commanded to love God with all of our being.  The examples Jesus gave us to follow in that regard is to seek time alone with God, to rely on God to provide, and to truly pray not my will but your will be done.    Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  The example Jesus gave us to follow is to have compassion for the vulnerable, to pay attention to the outcast, to serve the poor, to forgive the hard hearted, and to love those who are different than us.   Jesus is a king, but instead of being first he made himself last.  He was a servant to all and that is the example we should follow.   Those are the directions Jesus led us in and if we are not seeking to actively follow the lead of Jesus then we are not really following Jesus.   Because again we are following Jesus or we are not. 

 When it comes from our American perspective, perhaps this is the biggest change in thinking we need to make in regarding Jesus as king.   We tend to think of leaders as a bit more temporary.  The leaders we follow change a lot.   The average tenure of a CEO of a company is only five years.  Professional sport coaches lead for even less time as they average only four and a half seasons.   Even the leader of our country, the president, is up for a possible change every four years and is guaranteed a change every eight.  That is not how a monarchy works though.  Queen Elizabeth for instance has worn the crown long enough to see twelve different men be president of the United States.   If Jesus is our king, that means we are following him for the long haul.   This means that Jesus is not just another wise teacher, Jesus is supposed to be our king. That means that Jesus is not the “man upstairs” we go to only when we need help, Jesus is supposed to be our king.   That means Jesus is not our co-pilot, Jesus is supposed to be our king.   Jesus is not just our king for an hour on Sunday morning.   If Jesus is our king then he is the leader of our life every day and he is the Lord of all. 

In medieval times there was a ceremony that I think still teaches us about what it means to follow Jesus as our king.   When someone, usually called a vassal, swore to serve a king they did so through a ritual called homage.  In Homage the king would promise the vassal that he would care for them, always look out and act in the vassal’s best interest, and consider the life of the vassal equal to his own.  In return the vassal would bend the knee, put his hands between the king’s and promise that the will of the king would be greater than his own, and that his life was entrusted into the hands of the King.   In homage, the vassal was willing to follow the will of the king over his own desires.    Through his death and resurrection Jesus has proven that he cares for us to the point that he is willing to go up on a cross for us.   Jesus has proven himself as a king worth following, so may we be willing to bend the knee, and may we be willing to follow Jesus our savior and king. 

Over the next few weeks we will almost certainly be singing likes like “Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king” and “Joy to the world the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!” and “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel born is the king of Israel.”   May those not just be songs that we sing because we like the tunes, but may you realize them for the declarations they are.   May he be the leader that you follow in your life.  May you follow his examples and keep his commands.   All praise, honor, and glory be to the king of kings and the lord of lords!  Jesus is the king who was and is, and will come again.   Long live the king! 

Doom and Gloom

Scripture: Mark 13:1-11

            For as long as there has been human history, there have been conspiracy theories.   These are ideas that the world is not as we perceive it, that what seems observably true is a myth, and this hoax is all being manipulated by power players hidden in the shadows.   In our internet age where information can be shared at high speed and anyone can put suggestive text over a picture, conspiracy theories have flourished.  A good example of this is the belief that the world is flat has made a resurgence.   In fact this past spring over 200 people gathered in England for a flat earth conference.      Another example is 4% of the US population is sympathetic to the conspiracy theory that the world is secretly ran by a race of lizard people.  Four percent does not sound like a lot, but that equates to over twelve million people who believe that.   There are dozens and dozens of conspiracy theories that are just as crazy.  Nearly always these conspiracy theories have zero real evidence to back it up, mountains of real physical and eye witness evidence to deny it, but the believers are persistent in their conspiracy theory beliefs.   The mindset that leads to the belief in conspiracy theories can also infect and impact our faith.  

            I have experienced this first hand, and I remember attending a church once that essentially peddled a religious version of a conspiracy theory.   I mostly attended this church my sophomore year of college because it is where my roommate went and he had a car.   There was one particular Sunday where the pastor announced he was not going to do his prepared message and instead bring an important end times update.   You see, this church had a very specific understanding of the book of Revelation and how the imagery in that book would play out.   This was in 2002,  and there was violence between Israelis-and Palestinians.   Egypt had done some sort of posturing, and this had convinced this particular pastor that his understanding of the end times was beginning to play out before him.   He explained this in detail for forty five minutes and he seemed fairly convicted that the end times were kicking off in the next few months.   Now I am not an expert on his timeline or viewpoints, but sixteen years later I think it safe to say that he was wrong about his understandings of current events.   He heard of wars and rumors of war and got alarmed, which is exactly what Jesus said not to do.   It is easy to look at the state of the world, and feel like we are in uncertain times.  It is easy to look at the state of the world and resign ourselves to doom and gloom.   This morning’s scripture comes from uncertain times, Jesus warned his disciples and those warnings still apply today. 

             Jesus begins in this morning’s scripture by publicly declaring the destruction of the temple.   This clearly did not sit well with the disciples because as soon as they get a chance privately they ask for more details.  I have to wonder if part of their unease is because Jesus’ proclamation lined up with some of the conspiracy theories of the time.  Their nervousness was understandable, because these were uncertain times indeed for the Jews.   Their homeland was occupied territory by the far more powerful Roman Empire.  The Romans believed they had achieved the greatest culture the world had ever known, and they were not shy about pushing their culture values on everyone.   The pluralistic, pagan culture clashed sharply with the monotheistic Jewish faith and the traditional Jewish culture that was dedicated to protecting their religious beliefs.   In the past this has led to conflict, and there were plenty of Jewish zealots ready to fight again.   Ancient Israel during this time must have felt a bit like a powder keg, everyone knew just one spark and the whole thing would blow.   The greatest symbol of the Jewish culture and religious belief was the temple.  There was likely a lot of anxiety and concern that in an effort to bring the Jewish people in line, the Romans might just be done with it and destroy the whole thing.  The fact that the Roman Empire build the garrison, the Antonia Fortress, right next to the temple probably did not help matters.   Jesus disciples were anxious about an uncertain future which is why they asked Jesus for more details.  

            This morning’s scripture is just a section of chapter 13 from Mark, Jesus continues for the entirety of the chapter describing a future time that can best be described as “the end times.”   The language and imagery Jesus describes here does draw similarities to Revelation and it draws similarities to ancient apocalyptic literature.   However, the words of Jesus are markedly different.   If we look at the description of tribulation and judgement in Revelation for instance it is grim dark stuff.   However, in this morning’s scripture even though Jesus is talking about times that will be uncertain and bumpy, he does so with hope.   When the world will seem lost to chaos, Jesus urges do not be alarmed.   When Jesus talks about the possibility of persecution, his message is “do not worry, the Holy Spirit will guide you.”    

            In this morning’s scripture Jesus described wars and rumors of war.   That is largely true of our times as well.   Just this week violence flared up again on the Gaza strip.   Jesus also mentioned natural disasters that are the beginning of birthing pains.   Last year the most devastating hurricanes in modern history devastated the Caribbean, and California is being engulfed by one of its worst wildfires right now.   Jesus talked about persecution, and while we are fortunate enough to live in a place where we are not threatened in that way, persecution is a very real occurrence in the world today.   We may not be living in the exact times that Jesus described in this scripture, but the reality is the calamities, the potential fear, and the uncertainty that is implied in these scriptures is something we are all familiar with.

 At the end of the 13th chapter of Mark, Jesus stresses that only the Father knows the time and the place when this all goes down.  However, it is clear that in describing these future event he was working with some divine, inside information.   Jesus shared with his disciples some glimpses of some grim times.   Yet he did not do it in a way that can be fully characterized as doom and gloom.   Jesus described this time in a way that was calm, and non-anxious.  He did it in a way that sought to reinforce inner peace and in a way that ultimately was full of hope.   This is an example of Jesus that I think we can learn from.  

In fact, I think there are three lessons we can learn here and apply into our lives.   One of the reasons why Jesus is able to talk about some potentially depressing stuff in a way that remains peaceful and hopeful is because Jesus has an eternal perspective.   Often in the midst of crisis we tend to get caught up in the now.  We become myopic in our thought process and we cannot rationally think beyond the immediate pressure.   We worry, which is a conversation with ourselves about things we cannot change.   Instead, let us learn to follow the example of Jesus.  Instead of worry, let us pray-which is conversation with God about things that God can change.   Let us be heaven focused in our thought process and hopefully look to God’s future provision.   No matter how grim, no matter how dark, no matter how much doom and gloom we feel in our lives, the end of the story does not change.   Friends, I read the end last chapter already.   Spoiler alert:  God wins, evil is defeated, and love prevails.   No amount of war, disaster, persecution, or loss can ever change the unrelenting love God has for us.  This perspective does not change the potential pain of going through low times, but this perspective ensures that our hope for a future and our assurance that God is with us never diminishes. 

The second lesson we should consider taking to heart in this morning’s scripture is the warning Jesus gives in verse 5 when “Jesus said to them: Watch out that no on deceives you.”  Again, this warning is just as relevant today.  In fact I wonder if it is even more relevant today.   Advertisers are masters are manipulation and deception.   We live in an era of 24 hour spin, alternative facts, and fake news.   There are so many voices that have an agenda in this world today that seek to deceive us.   Many of these voices are harbingers of doom and gloom.  I know that my entire life, there has been an ongoing cultural message that things are getting worse, that the world is not like it used to be.   If that was truly, true then after three decades of things getting that much worse we should be living in some sort of Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland by this point.    We have to be cautious no one deceives us, because if we are not careful then we can become focused on the doom and gloom.    Our attention can be consumed by one crisis, only to be followed by the next.   Our hope gets misplaced in science, in policy, in party, or in political figures.   If we do not watch out then we can be deceived into taking our eyes of God and stare in anxiousness at the fallen world around us.  If we do not watch out then we can be deceived so that we stop following Jesus and instead follow whoever is getting the most media exposure at the time.   If we do not watch out then we can lose our footing and plant ourselves in a chaotic world and an ever changing culture.  Instead, may we not be deceived.  May we keep our eyes fastened upon our savior, and may we claim as the old hymn says, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is shrinking sand.” 

The final lesson we can take from this scripture is that we should model the example of Jesus in the world.   Remember, the disciples had a lot of anxiety.   While Jesus did not sugar coat what was to come, he also did not whip the disciples into a full nervous panic.   He spoke hard truth but did it in a way that was full of hope and free of anxiety.   That is the example we can model.   We can be a non-anxious presence in the world, and right now that is something the world needs.    When we turn on the TV, look in the paper, or browse the Internet we tend to see bad news followed by more bad news.   Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have the good news!  The world may obsess over the bad news of the day, but we should be proclaiming with our words and our actions the good news of unending love and eternal salvation.   As the people around us get wound up tighter and tighter about who said what, about who did what we can be calm people who proclaim peace and hope through all of the noise.   As the world is consumed by wars and rumors of war, fear of disaster, and anxiety of the unknown we can be a holy people who declare through our words and actions “best of all, God is with us.”

            In this scripture Jesus talked about a future time of troubles and tribulations.    This future end times may be soon or it may not, only God the Father knows the time and place.  The reality is that there will always be troubles, tribulations, and potential signs.  It can be easy to get caught up in the details and lose track of the main directive:  “Watch out that no on deceives you.”   May we not get caught up in the doom and gloom.   May we not be deceived, but instead may we keep our eyes fixed on God, may follow Jesus, and may we be filled with a hope that cannot be diminished.   In a world of bad news may we share the good news of God the Father and Jesus Christ his son.  

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 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.