Jesus Freaks

Scripture: John 13:31-35

            In 2017, two former google employees, Paul MacDonald and Ashwath Rajan, announced their new start-up venture.   This announcement was made with a lot of hype, as they unveiled their brand new idea called Bodega.   Their concept was to do for shopping what Redbox did for video rental.   The Bodega (now called a Stockwell) is a box full of goods such as drinks, Tylenol, and even toilet paper.   People use an app on their smartphone to make purchases and then the box unlocks and delivers the ordered goods.   The two promised it would revolutionize the way that we approach and do shopping.   Despite all of their P.R. statements and hype, the announcement quickly fell flat, because a lot of people realized this was not a shopping revolution.  All they had managed to do was build a more cumbersome and complicated vending machine.   Despite the initial ridicule, the company has chugged along, but rollout has been somewhat slow.  It seems people are not all that interested in getting toilet paper from a vending machine.  

            In an attempt to create something brand new these two entrepreneurs essentially reinvented the wheel.   They created something that already existed.   This is something that has happened in Christian history on more than one occasion.    An example of this are the Jesus people or as they were sometimes called the Jesus Freaks.    The Jesus people was a counter cultural movement that arose out of the hippies of the late 1960s.   Like other counter-cultural movements of the era, they rejected the modern culture and sought to emphasize “peace, love, and happiness.”  However, unlike some other movements that relied on illicit substances, the Jesus freaks emphasized Christ as their focus and source of peace and love.   This movement sought to return to a simpler time of the first century church, and as such many of the most devoted members of this movement lived in communes.  In these places they could be removed from worldly influence, live in a connected Christian community, and be devoted to living Godly lives together. 

            This idea was not new though.   Just like Stockwell created a high-tech version of the vending machine, the Jesus People created a hippie version of the Amish.  The Amish originally came to the United States because of religious persecution and once here they sought to establish places where they could be removed from worldly influence, live in connected Christian community, and be devoted to living Godly lives together.  While the Amish do include whole families, their basic concept was essentially a reinvention of monasteries.  Monastic life originally grew around the desert fathers, hermits who had removed themselves from the world to avoid its influence.   Monasteries, which hold to a monastic rule of life, were safe places where likeminded people could be removed from worldly influence, live in a connected Christian community, and be devoted to living Godly lives together. 

            This idea has been re-invented throughout Christian history because the core aspect is a good one that people find appealing.   We realize that one of the most effective ways to living Godly lives is to do it together, and to live in a connected community.  I find it interesting though, that time and time again when disciples of Christ attempt to do this, they do so by removing themselves from the world.   In this morning’s scripture, Jesus gave a new command, and throughout history Christians have wrestled with the best way to live it out.  This morning’s scripture brings up the challenges to us of what does it mean to love one another and how do we do it in this day and age?  

            Throughout church history, one of the reasons why there has been such a draw to communal living is because it is biblical.   The first community of Christians devoted themselves to the apostle’s teachings, to prayer, and to fellowship with one another.  The early church described in the book of Acts lived communally, they shared everything, and they were of one accord.   The reason for this lifestyle is that they took following Jesus seriously, and that included the commands of Jesus.   One of the last commands that Jesus gave his disciples was this morning’s scripture to love one another.   Jesus was very specifically here.  This is not just a general command to love others.   Jesus was telling his disciples to love one another.   The intent of this command is that those who follow Jesus are to have a deep love for each other.   Jesus is very clear about this, this is not a suggestion.   This is a command with a capital “C”, this is a proper biblical “Thou Shalt Love One Another” type of command.   Jesus himself makes this emphasis.   This morning’s scripture comes from chapter 13, which is part of the last supper discourse found in John’s gospel.   In chapter 14, which is part of the same thought as this morning’s scripture we find Jesus saying, “If you love me, keep my commands” and then “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.  My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  Jesus specifically said a new command I give you, because Jesus wanted to show how much importance was to be placed on loving one another.   Loving other followers of Christ is a requirement to loving and following Jesus.   

Jesus gave his followers the new command to love one another.   More specifically, Jesus told his disciples to love another as Jesus loved them.   Followers of Jesus are to love each other with the same sort of unconditional love that Jesus showed us.  Jesus was willing to lay down his life for us, he was willing to pour out all he had and that he was on the behalf of others.   That is the kind of love that followers of Christ are to have for one another.   Given that level of devotion, it makes sense that the early Christians chose to live such a communal lifestyle.    In sharing all things and providing for one another, these early Christians found a way to fulfil the command to love one another.   Throughout history from the church of Acts up to the Jesus freaks of the 1970’s, communal living has stuck out as a way to fulfill the command “love one another.”  

However, in the communal examples we lift up there is another similarity.  They remove themselves from society and the world’s influence.   The monasteries literally erected walls to create the separation.  The Amish hold to an older, technology free way of life to create this separation, and the Jesus people communes tended to be in rural places to be separated.  I understand the desire to remove one’s self from worldly influence to focus strictly on following God as a community, and I do not fault them for adapting that way of life.   However, as I read this morning’s scripture I cannot help but wonder if there is something to be gained by keeping our Christian community not separated from the world around us.  In this morning’s scripture Jesus said “As I have loved you, so you should love one another”, but then he added “By this everyone will now that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”    The way that we love one another is supposed to part of our Christian witness.   One of the ways that we are supposed to share the love of God of others and make disciples, is by being a living example of that love in the way that we treat one another.  If we separate ourselves from the world, then it becomes impossible for our behavior to one another to be a shining light, to be an example of God’s great love and illustrate to everyone who’s disciples we are.

Of course, given how we tend to treat one another, keeping it hidden may not be the worst of ideas.  Unfortunately, churches in general do not have the best reputation when it comes to being places that are defined by their loving atmosphere.  A few years ago, president and CEO of Lifeway Christian resources at the time, wrote a blog post about this.  In this post, he shared an antidote he had come across in research for a book.  The young man, named Kevin, that he interviewed said, “I went to a business meeting at the church.  I am never going back.”   This young man, who was not a Christian, had been exploring faith and visiting a church for several weeks.  To get a better feel for the place, he attended a board meeting as an observer.  This was a mistake.  Kevin stated that he was “blown away” by the petty disagreements and harsh words that were used.  He was especially shocked to hear one man speak in loud angry tones to another person.  The person doing the shouting was the leader of the small group he had been attending.    At the conclusion of the interview Kevin said, ““I felt like I was at a playground fight with six-year olds.  Boy did I make a mistake visiting a church.”

Sadly, there are too many people who have stories like this.  There are too many people who have been hurt by others who did a poor job at following Jesus’ command to love one another.   It does not have to be this way.  We can do better and we should do better.   Jesus commanded us to love one another, but Jesus did not say this would be easy.   Love always takes work.  It is a choice, and it is a choice that we must invest in.   This can be hard, because life is messy, people make mistakes, and we all have our moments where we can act a little unlovable.   It is during those moments, when we are interacting with another follower of Christ who is not acting at their best, that we need to be the most loving.   It is during those times that we need to make the choice to love and not condemn, to accept and not judge, to love and not cast out.   We love one another in this way when we choose to value our brothers and sisters in Christ over our personal preferences, wants, and petty concerns.   We love one another in this way when we realize that when we were at worst, Christ gave us his best.   When we love one another in this way, we are following the example of our Lord and Savior and we are following his command. 

When we make the choice to love one another, to treat one another, with grace, mercy, and forgiveness then an incredible thing happens.   By our love everyone will know we are Jesus’ disciples, because we are modeling the very love of God.   This is a love that this world desperately needs, it is a love that everyone is desperately looking for.   When we love one another, it is like a flashing billboard that loudly proclaims “Love is found here.”    When people hear that message and see it is true, then they will not stay away and cram the pews to be part of it.  

I am not just making this up, there is research backing it up.   The story I shared about Kevin, that came from research that Thom Rainer and his son Jesse did for a book called The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation.    One of the data points their a research showed is that for the people of this generation, who are between 38-22 years old, one of their highest values is mutual respect.   About this Thom Rainer wrote, “It seems, therefore, that Christians and churches will win the right to be heard by Millennials when those Christians and churches demonstrate love and unity among themselves.”   What a generation is looking for is a community where they can be respected, accepted, and loved.    Christian churches are ideally suited to be these places, if we take seriously the command of Jesus and we love one another.  

The Jesus freaks of the late 60’s- and late 70’s began as a counter-culture movement centered around Jesus.   I think it’s time to time bring that back.  Our culture of today is so divisive.   Our culture today is one that draws lines in the sand and says if you are not with me you are against me.  Our culture today is one where our mistakes and failures are recorded digitally to be remembered and used against us forever.   We can be different. The church be a place that says there is room for you here.   The church can be a place that says even if we do not agree on everything, God still loves you, so I can too.   The church can be a place that proclaims you are forgiven, and you are loved no matter what you have done.   This is how it should be, a bunch of Jesus freaks who love each other because he first loved us.   May we prove love for Jesus by following his commands, and may we follow his commands by loving one another.  Then everyone will know that we are Christians by our love. 

Little Lambs

Scripture: John 10:22-30

            Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have reinvented the way we watch TV and engage with media.    Decades ago, Cable TV gave us hundreds of channels to browse, but now that seems archaic when we can summon exactly what we want to watch from thousands of different options.  When given complete control and essentially unlimited options, a curious thing happens.   There are a number of people who just keep re-watching the same thing over and over again.  While I am sure there are all kinds of shows with devoted fans, the one that might have the best known following is The Office.    The Office has gained a reputation as being a show that is worth binging again and again.   There is a lot of social and biological science to show why The Office is so rewatchable to its fans.   Essentially the show is highly relatable, it is funny, and in general the more familiar we are with something the more we enjoy it.   This is what has some Office fans essentially watching The Office non-stop.  

            However, I do not have much room to be critical of Office fans who constantly binge-watch it.  Because I have the same unlimited options available to me on demand, and I tend to not stray too far from certain type of shows:  specifically nature documentaries.   I am fairly certain at this point I have watched every BBC Nature show available on Netflix, and over the years I am not sure how many times I have watched Planet Earth.   If I actually get to pick what we watch as a family, there is a good chance that at least one of my two children is going to say “not animals again.”  

            But, yes animals again.   I am consistently spellbound by the beauty, variety, and design of the world that God has created.   I am endlessly fascinated by how dramatic and (honestly) miraculous all of life truly is.  In watching these animal shows certain patterns emerge.   For instance all herding animals share some similar characteristics.   One of these characteristics is the way that newborn calves just weeks old are able to identify their mothers.   Every mother has a unique call, and in a herd of thousands the calf is able to pick out the distinct call of their mother through the noise and find them.  One of the very first things that new born calves are taught are the call of their mother.   Sheep, being herding animals, are very similar.   In this morning’s scripture Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice:  I know them and they follow me.”   I think this brings up a couple of questions for us to consider:   How do people come to hear the voice of Jesus and more specifically do you hear that voice?  

            In general the society of first century Judea was much more agrarian than we are today.   This is why we find Jesus using a lot of analogies that involve farming and livestock.   Even the people who did not work actively work in vineyards or own herds, would have had a familiarity with it.  When Jesus said “My sheep listen to me”, he was referring to the way that sheep listen to shepherds.   Long ago our ancient ancestors learned that herding animals are very good at learning and responding to calls.   The calf instinctively learns the call of the mother when they are born, and that same instinct can be exploited to teach the calf the shepherd’s voice. 

 Again, we do not have the cultural context to truly understand what that looks like.  There are still shepherds today, and they still use some of the same time-proven techniques.  In this video three different people attempt to call the sheep, before the shepherd does.   I think this video gives us a much better visual understanding of what Jesus is saying here: 

            The first three people did their best to imitate the call of the shepherd, but the voice was not right.   When the shepherd calls though, there is instant recognition and response.   That is what Jesus is referring to in this scripture.  Responding in that way to Jesus is the analogy for how his followers, those who eternal life, because of him are supposed to act.   We hear his voice and come running to him.   However, that is not quite how it works all the time is it?  

            People, it seems, are not herding animals.   We tend to be a bit more curious and a bit more strong-willed.    The Old Testament tended to put it in more blunt terms, we can be a “stiff necked people.”   Knowing the voice of Jesus and responding to it are two different things.   I am convinced that every single parent in the world has encountered this trick.  It does not matter if the parent says, “get your shoes on”, “clean your room” or “It is time to leave the playground.”   The response the parent gets is to be completely ignored, and then when they call the kids on this, the parent is told the infamous line: “I didn’t hear you.” 

            We tend to do the same thing in our faith.  Nineteenth century philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard accurately diagnosed this when he wrote, “The Bible is very easy to understand.  But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers.  We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”   Responding to the voice of our savior will often lead us to loving people different from us.   It will require us to sacrificially serve people, who we might feel do not deserve it, and it will always require us to make the table a little wider so someone else can join us.    Responding to the voice of the good shepherd will require us to put loving God above ourselves, it will require us to forgive as we have been forgiven, and it will require us to be willing to say not my but your be done on earth as it is in heaven.   The reality is that when we choose not to reach out and invite in, when we choose not to make the table wider, and when we choose to pursue the vanities of this world over God then we are ignoring the voice of the shepherd.   We are not listening to his voice.  

            In a different parable Jesus spoke of a lost sheep.    In general sheep to follow the herd and respond to the voice calling them, but not always.  Sometimes a particularly stubborn one would wonder off and not come back with the herd.   When we do not respond to the voice of Jesus, when we do not follow his leading, his examples, and his command then we too can wander off.  There are a lot of voices calling out to us, enticing us, and trying to lead us a certain way.  As much as we may not like to admit, no person is an island unto themselves.   If we are not responding to the voice of Jesus, then we are following someone or something else.   There are a lot of voices that can lead us astray.  There are ideological voices that can seek to convince us not to love others.  These voices tell us that some of the people different than us are enemies that should be hated instead of precious people with sacred worth that God wants to redeem.   These misleading voices can convince us that we are not good enough, we are not rich enough, or we are not beautiful enough.   These voices lead us to seek false idols of a perceived perfection that is always just out of reach.   Then sometimes the misleading voice comes from within.  We listen to our insecurities and self-doubt, which can lead us into a depressive spiral where we internalize a whole host of toxic negative feelings about ourselves.  

            What can be problematic is that the more we listen to these other voices the easier it gets to follow them.   The reason people keep re-watching the office is because our brains are wired to enjoy familiarity so the more we follow voices that do not belong to Jesus, the easier it gets to follow those voices.  As we follow those voices, they lead us away from the compassionate, God honoring heart of Christ.   That is a tragedy, but this morning’s scripture also some contains some good news.  Verse 29 states, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”  

            Even though we can go through season in our lives where we wander from God, where we are stubborn, and we pollute our heart by listening to ungodly voices we can still be found again.  For those who ever accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, then they know his voice.   Even if they have stopped following it, we never forget the grace, love, forgiveness, and acceptance that can only come from Christ.  I do not know how well you know it, but the other parable I mentioned, the one with the lost sheep.  In that one, the shepherd leaves ninety-nine listening sheep to go find the one lost one.   Jesus still knows us by name, and no matter how many bad decisions we may have made as of late the voice of truth is still calling out to us.   We can always turn back to Jesus, we can listen to his voice, and we can follow him.  

            We are not herding animals like sheep, responding as a big pack to a call.  However, we are social animals.   We were created for community, and we are at our best when we are part of a mutually supportive community.  As followers of Jesus we should hear his voice, and follow him.   We do that best in community, and our community is the local church.   When it comes to following the voice of Christ over all of the other competing voices, we do this by modeling what that voice sounds like.   We do that by faithfully seeking to follow the voice of Christ.   We are all strong in some areas of faith and we all struggle in others.   All of us have areas where we are called and we hear the good shepherd’s voice loud and clear.   May we all lean into those strengths.  Every single one of us has the ability to teach others how to better follow Jesus.   We should embrace that, and teach one another what Jesus’ voice sounds like when we hear it.

All of us can teach one another how to better follow Jesus, and we should all take that responsibility seriously.  While people can come to faith at any age, the best and most effective way to do this is teach children.   Just like how new born calves learn how to respond to the call of their mother or the voice of the shepherd, we can absolutely teach children how to follow Jesus.   All across the bible teaching children and raising them up to know faith is emphasized.  It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a church to raise a disciple.  I sincerely believe a church that puts a high value on teaching children and letting children know they are loved, is a church that puts a high value on following the voice of Jesus. 

One of the things I value most about this congregation is your heart for children.  Any suggestion or idea I have ever had to serve or teach children you have fully supported.   I am thankful for that.   It is my prayer and hope that you all continue in that trajectory and you even more fully embrace the holy work of teaching children that Jesus loves them, and this they can know because the bible tells them so.  

            May we all, young and old alike hear the voice of Jesus.   May we listen to that voice and may we follow him.   If you know in your heart that you have been following other voices, voices that have led you away from loving God and loving neighbor then you may listen for the Good Shepherd’s voice.  I promise no matter where you are, the voice of truth is still calling out your name.   May we all follow that voice, because it is the voice of Jesus.  It is the voice of God.  

Something, Something Dark Side

Scripture: Psalm 30

            King Gustavus Adolphus had a grand vision for Sweden.  For over a decade he had been a fairly successful king.  Starting with his predecessor, Sweden had begun to move from being an obscure European backwater to a major continental power in the 17th century.  While Britain, Spain, and France bickered for control of the New World, Sweden had quietly carved out an empire in the old one conquering what is now modern day Finland, Estonia, and other Baltic regions.  The king’s vision was for a grand navy to continue the military might of Sweden.  King Adolphus had said “Second to God, the welfare of a kingdom depended on its navy.”   The Vasa was built to be the flagship and crown jewel of that navy.   At the time it was built it was among the most heavily armed ships in the world.  It was designed to hold seventy two cannons. Not only was the Vasa a formidable warship it was designed to look the part of a national flagship.   The king personally over saw this part of the construction and the Vasa was covered with 500 unique sculptures that adorned the hull.  An example of these sculptures, all carved in wood, were twenty little statues representing twenty different Roman Emperors that lined the beakhead of the ship.   A team of six expert sculptors with a legion of assistants and apprentices spent six years working on all of this adoration.  

With much fanfare on August 10th, 1628 the Vasa began its maiden voyage. It was a beautiful day with light winds and hundreds, possibly thousands of people came out to watch the new national flagship of Sweden unfurl its sails and disembark in all of her glory.   It turned out this crowd would be the only people to see the Vasa at sail, because the boat sunk: On its maiden voyage, hundreds of yards from shore.   The cause of this disaster was the wind.  The Vasa was a sailboat that apparently could not handle strong gusts of wind.  It turns out the Vasa was built with a center of gravity that was too high and gun ports that were too low.   This meant that a wind gust rocked the boat a bit too much to one side, and when it did sea water rushed into the lower gun ports.   This caused the boat to list, ride lower, and take in more water.   It did not take long for the Vasa to sink.

The Vasa was designed to be the most advanced and deadly warship in existence.  It was armed with more guns than any ship its size at that point in history.   It was a national flagship and it was absolutely decorated to look the part.    However, as soon as this ship of the line encountered something stronger than a light breeze it was foundered and lost to the depths.   I cannot think of a more fitting cautionary metaphor for our faith.    There are people who a Vasa-like faith.   Their faith practice certainly looks impressive.  Like the Vasa it has exactly the right look, but as soon as a person with a Vasa-like faith encounters hardship their faith sinks.   Their faith, which looks so good on the outside, cannot withstand the stronger winds of life.   Their faith crumbles like a castle made of sand and gives way to despair, grief, and guilt.   

The Vasa serves as a cautionary tale for the kind of faith we should avoid settling for.  This morning’s scripture offers up a much better path to follow.   The example that David gives is one that is the sign of a healthy faith and it is an example worth following.   This morning’s scripture is a reminder that life can be hard and strong winds can blow.  There can be times when life comes at us fast and it feels like getting caught outside in a bad thunder storm.  The painful reality is that our lives can even have tragedy.   This morning’s scripture also reminds us though that when we experience the dark side of life, God is still there and we can call on God to be our help.  

In 1 and 2 Samuel, the bible documents the life of David from when he was a teenager all the way to his death.    This Psalm almost certainly comes towards the end of his life.   It has a subtitle “for the dedication of the temple.”  By God’s command, David did not actually build the first temple in Jerusalem.   His son Solomon did that, but David laid the groundwork.  He bought the land and he also dedicated a lot of the building supplies that were to be used.  It is likely that it was during the dedication of that land and of those supplies that David composed this song.  In this morning’s scripture David wrote about being lifted out of the depths, he wrote about being brought from the realm of the dead, and he wrote about wailing.   For David these were not hypotheticals.    He was drawing on the hardships and tragedy that he had experienced during his lifetime.  

In his younger days David’s relationship with Saul, the king were complicated.   David not only faithfully served Saul, but he was married to Saul’s daughter and he was best friends with Saul’s son Jonathan.  However, Saul fueled by insecurity and jealousy saw David as a threat.   By his own hand, Saul tried to kill David and then he ordered him killed.   David had to run for his life.  He was hunted and had to live as a fugitive in exile.    David knew the dread that comes from uncertainty.   I am sure David knew the restlessness that comes from tossing and turning with the worst case scenarios.   Perhaps better than most of us, David knew the emotional toll of having people out to get you.  

Years later, after David was established as the king of Israel, he suffered an even greater tragedy.  King David’s family was struck by a lot of darkness.   Poor decisions, revenge, and plotting had caused a lot of heartache for David.   This eventually reached a boiling point when David’s own son betrayed and led a rebellion against David.   Eventually, David’s forces were victorious and David’s son Absalom was killed.   Despite the betrayal, despite all of the turmoil that his son had caused, this was still David’s son and the death put him in a great depression.   2 Samuel 18:33 records, “The king was shaken.  He went up to the room over the gateway and wept.  As he went he said, ‘O my son Abaslom!  My son, my son Abaslom!  If only I had died instead of you- O Abaslom My son, my son.”  Those are the words of a grieving man.   David knew what was to experience great loss. 

David did not have a faith like the Vasa.  It did not tip over when a strong wind hit.   Throughout all of that tragedy, heartache, and darkness that David experienced in his life his faith did not waiver.   David is described as a person after God’s own heart.   We see that faith displayed in this evening’s scripture.   Even though he went through hardships, even though he endured great tribulations, even though he had times of drowning in sorrow, and even when seasons of life felt especially dark David was able to keep a focus on God.  When David wrote this song towards the end of his life, despite all he had gone through, he was able to praise the Lord.  He was able to recognize and give thanks for God’s help.   Despite all of his reasons for wailing and sorrow he was able to dance with joy and sing God’s praises. 

Our life experiences are vastly different than those of David’s separated by millennia of time and cultural context.   David experienced being hunted by a king, being exiled under penalty of death, and having his son lead an armed rebellion against him.   We do not experience those things but we experience car accidents when the money is not there to replace it, we experience pink slips of paper because cuts had to be made, and we experience the clinical words of doctors delivering results of a test that did not come out well.  Our life experiences are different than David’s.   However the experiences we have today that create uncertainty, anxiety, grief and loss create the same feelings that David experienced.  Our response to them should be similar to that of David’s.   When a person of faith is faced with crisis, turmoil, or tragedy our options are to either decide to walk away from faith because out faith did not protect us from hurt or we stay faithful as verse 4 of the psalm states: “Sing the praise of the Lord, you his faithful people; praise his holy name. . . weeping may stay the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”  

            The cause of a Vasa faith that sink as soon as it hits hardship is us buying into a lie that faith is supposed to be a shield against bad stuff happening.   We treat faith as it if is meant to be an easy button that we can press whenever storm clouds gather on the horizon.   A Vasa faith is one that is created when we foolishly treat faith like it is some sort of zero sum game where we are either blessed or we are not.  And if we are not then clearly this faith thing just is not working.   That’s the kind of faith that is going to tip over and sink in a strong breeze.   That is not the kind of faith that David displayed, and it is not the kind of faith that we should have.  

            King David’s life does give an example of the kind of faith we should have but the band Casting Crowns gives us a different modern example.   In the book Lifestories lead singer Mark Hall writes about the events that influence and led to their songs being written.   In sharing about the song Praise You in the Storm, Mark Hall shared the story of Erin Browning.   In 2001 at the age seven, Erin was diagnosed with an aggressive form of bone cancer.   Through four prayerful months this little girl underwent treatment and the family received miraculous news.  The cancer was gone. 

            It was later in 2004 that Casting Crowns met Erin because she was a little dancer and she performed a dance to one of their songs.   One month after this, the cancer returned and it was far worse than before.   Mark Hall and the rest of the band became part of the team of prayer warriors lifting this child up in prayer, they became spiritually invested in the life of Erin and her family.   They prayed for healing, but that was not meant to be.  On November 1st, 2004 Erin Browning passed beyond this mortal realm into eternity with Jesus.   Erin’s mother, Laurie was clearly sad perhaps even angry, but in the book Mark records her biggest feeling was one of peace.   In response to her reaction and his own feelings he wrote the song Praise You in the Storm.   In the chorus of that song he sings: “I’ll praise you in this storm And I will lift my hands, That you are who you are No matter where I am.  And every tear I've cried, you hold in your hand.  You never left my side and though my heart is torn, I will praise you in this storm.”

            That is a song of faith that will not sink.   We can and we will experience loss, we will experience setbacks, and we will experience the dark side of life.   That does not mean God does not hear us when we call or cry for mercy.   That does not mean that God has stopped being God.    I so appreciate the line of the song: You are who you are no matter where I am.”   Even when are experiencing the dark side of life, God is still the same God of love who never abandons us.   Even when we are in the darkest of nights, the light of God’s eternal son will shine and rejoicing will come again.  

            Faith is not a zero sum, either/or proposition.  I think knowing and feeling that truth in our heart is key to a mature faith.    We can mourn our loss and still praise the Lord.   We can be anxious at a future we do not know, but still dance with joy before the God who does know.  We can cry and be clothed in joy while God hold our tears in the palm of our hands.   We can go through the storms of life, we can be rocked around, and stay afloat because our faith is grounded in something deeper than our momentary happiness.  Our faith is built upon a rock, it is built upon an empty tomb, and savior that not even death could stop.   Because of that friends, no matter what storms of life we endure, may our hearts sing God’s praises.   No matter what may be able to say “Lord my God, I will praise you forever.”     

The First Church Fish Fry

John 21:1-19

Now that we have come to know each other over the course of five years, I have a confession to make to you all.   In my past I have committed a felony.  Well, if we are being honest, it was Abigail who did the crime in my name-because if I am going down she is coming with me.   This was all the way back in 2007, and the crime was identity theft. Kind of.   Here’s what happened.   We found out about a startup discount airline, that in order to fill their initial slate of flights was doing ridiculously cheap plane tickets.  We jumped on it and got tickets to Washington State, because it was the furthest destination and we had never been there.  It was a great trip, but about two weeks after we got back I got a call from a police detective in upstate New York.   It turns out that we had committed identity theft and charged the plane tickets to someone else.   The way this happened was an amazing coincidence.   When we entered the credit card number, we accidently entered the last two digits wrong and flipped them around.   The transaction still went through.  This means it charged a different Sean Johnson, who had the same kind of credit card, whose card had the same expiration date, and was the exact same number as mine (with the exception of the last two numbers being flipped).  So technically we committed identity theft, and we did it 100% on accident.   Even though a crime had been committed we did so without criminal intent.   The detective had already been in contact with the credit card company and confirmed this is likely what happened.  Everything was set right, and no criminal charges were filed.  

            Even though it was a simple accident and a misunderstanding, while talking on the phone with that police detective I had the very real thought of “Oh no. Mistakes were made and now I am going to jail.”   Even though it was not on purpose, for a brief moment I thought I was in serious, serious trouble for something I did wrong.   I tell this story, because in some small way I can understand the panic that Peter must have felt in this moment.    He has a literal come to Jesus moment, where he is called to the carpet for the mistakes he made.   Like Peter, I can also in some small way understand the sense of relief he felt when he learned that despite his mistakes everything was going to be OK.   A lot of churches have the venerable tradition of the church fish fry, and it could be argued this morning’s scripture is the church’s first fish fry.  However, this scripture is more significant to us than just a starting point for a tradition.   This scripture is a reminder to us that it does not matter what we have done, we are always able to repent and seek forgiveness.   This scripture even shows that Jesus will meet us where we are at. 

            I think it is helpful to put this scripture into context, and to really try to put ourselves in the shoes of Peter.    Verse 21:1 states that “Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples.”   In John, Jesus had previously appeared to his disciples twice.   The first time was the evening of the day of resurrection.   However, during that time Thomas was not present.  A week later, the disciples were still holed up in Jerusalem and Jesus appeared second time, and this time Thomas was present.   According to the gospel of John, this morning’s events on the seashore are the third time that Jesus appeared to his disciples.   In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives the message to his disciples to meet him in Galilee, and that is presumably what Peter and the rest of them went to do.  We do not know exactly when this was.  We know they waited at least a week in Jerusalem, and it is about a four day journey to Galilee.   So it is likely this event takes place roughly two weeks after the resurrection.  I imagine for Peter this was a rough two weeks, filled with anxiety.  

            On the one hand he had to be filled with joy, hope, and expectation.   He had taken a huge risk three years prior to follow Jesus.   He had given up everything to follow something he believed was greater than himself.   Along the way, he had come to believe.  He was the first disciple after all to profess that Jesus was the Messiah.   He had to be elated that the grave was empty.   He had to have a lot of joy from when Jesus appeared to all of the disciples and showed his wounded hands, to prove that it was him resurrected from the dead.   The impossible had happened, and it have to left him with wonder and awe.  

            However, Peter had to also have a sense of dread and a gnawing anxiety.   When Jesus was in the most need, Peter had completely ghosted him.  Worse, just like Jesus said he would Peter denied Jesus three times.   Not only did Peter deny following Jesus, he denied knowing even knowing Jesus.   Peter went as far as swearing to God, “I don’t know the man” before the rooster crowed the third time.   As Jesus went to the cross this is where Peter stood in his relationship with Jesus.   Even after his grief gave way to hope, Peter had to be absolutely wracked with guilt.  

            As this scripture opens this is the complex sea of emotions that Peter is sorting through.  He is filled with joy and hope, but he is weighed down by guilt and regret.  Peter chooses to process all of this intense emotional turmoil in the most stereotypical masculine way possible:   He goes fishing.   Now, I understand the desire to roll one’s eyes at that, but honestly Peter’s choice is not a terrible one.   Fishing is presumably something he enjoyed, it is something that was familiar and comfortable to him.  It is an activity with a lot of muscle memory and quiet.   It kind of would have been a perfect activity to give him space to think and process but also keep him occupied enough not to tailspin into despair. 

            Then Jesus shows up and tells them to try the other side of the boat, which of course brings in a bountiful blessing of fish.   Verse 12 later states “None of the disciples dared ask him ‘who are you?’ they knew it was the lord.’   They knew it was Jesus because of the miracle.  Several of them had already experienced the exact same kind of miraculous catch when Jesus called them to be disciples and promised to make them fishermen of people.  Jesus identified himself to them in the most undeniable way possible, and I just love Peter’s reaction.   All of the emotion he is carrying inside of him, erupts out of the boat and he jumps into the water.   Perhaps he was trying a bit too hard to prove himself or perhaps he was so overwhelmed by the joy and hope that jumping out of the boat and swimming to Jesus was an undeniable impulse.  Whatever his motivation was, Peter jumped into the water and swam to Jesus not knowing what was going to happen.   Because they had some unresolved stuff to work out between them. 

            This finally happens, and I cannot help but wonder what Peter felt.  I imagine he had the feeling of nervous energy, that tight ball in the pit of your stomach.  I imagine Peter’s breaths were shallow, too on edge to even take a deeper breath.   Peter was human just like us, so I am sure the worst case scenarios were playing through his head all while he was trying to convince himself the best case scenario was possible.  It does not take much to imagine how Peter felt, because we have all been there haven’t we?   We have had moments of reckoning where we had to face the music for our failures, shortcomings, or mistakes.  All of us have been in the spot where Peter is and we were unsure if the hammer was going to dropped.  Jesus and Peter have their long coming heart to heart, and Jesus does not cast Peter out.   He does not yell out Peter, and he does not treat Peter to some sort of putative measures.   Jesus offers Peter a re-do.   Three times, Peter denied Jesus so three times Peter is offered the chance to affirm his love of Jesus, and that is it.   There is no warning to not do it again, there is no demotion, and there is no letter placed in his permanent file.  Jesus simply ends with the same request, that started this all for Peter:  follow me.  

            There are two things I so appreciate about this story.   First, it is a reminder that Jesus will forgive everything.   Not only can it happen it needs to happen.   The average person spends five hours a week feeling guilty.   We all have our own reasons for guilt.   We all have the things we are not proud of, the words we want to take back, and the mistakes we wish were never made.   We can feel guilty for the way we have treated other people, but often we do end up with a lot of guilt directed to God.  We know that we have not loved our neighbor with our whole heart, we know we have not done what is right, and we know that we have failed to be obedient to what God wants from us.   We often find ourselves in the same position as Peter. 

Peter certainly felt guilty, but can you imagine what would have happened if he and Jesus never had their talk in this morning’s scripture.  Peter would have been controlled by this guilt for the rest of his life.  It would have been a wedge that kept him separated from Jesus.  Our guilt does the same thing.   One of the things that  leaves me wanting to pull my hair out in frustration while simultaneously breaking my heart is when someone stays away form church and a faith life, because of the things they have done.   It saddens me deeply when someone makes a joking comment about the church walls falling down if they step in, because often that joke comes from a place of deep hurt.   There are too many people who believe the absurd lie that their sin is unforgiveable.   That they have messed up, and God is done with them.   These people have allowed guilt to form a wedge between them and God.  

To be as clear as possible, the idea that someone has messed up so much that they are beyond forgiveness is a pile of hot garbage, it is a lie from the deepest pit of hell.   No one is outside of God’s grace and there is nothing we can do that will make God love any of us any less.     Remember, Peter in the strongest of terms possible denied even denying Jesus, when Jesus needed him the most.   Peter drove that dagger of betrayal deep.   However, even that was a sin and transgression that Jesus forgave on the cross.   If Jesus could personally forgive Peter for this then, then that is a stark reminder that we too can be forgiven for anything.   There is no sin, there is no wrongdoing, there is no failure, that is not forgiven.   On the cross Jesus already made things right, we can be forgiven, and like Peter we can be reinstated by acknowledging our love for Jesus and be committed to following him.

The second thing that greatly appreciate about this story is that Jesus meets Peter where he is at.  He meets him on the shore while Peter is fishing.   Jesus did not summon Peter, he went to Peter.   Jesus did not have Peter come before him groveling, but instead Jesus served him and made him breakfast.   Jesus still meets people where they are at, and by the power of the Holy Spirit it is our job to help our Lord and Savior with that.   We are to be the hand and feet of Christ that meet people where they are at.   All of us probably know places or circles of people where people who do not yet know Jesus congregate.   If you do not know any non-Christians, then go meet some!  We can be the presence of Christ in the lives of others.  We can be the person that represents Christ in their life, and illustrates to them that God’s love truly is for everyone.  

If like Peter’s was in this morning’s scripture and is full of guilt then may you come back to Jesus on this morning.   May you know that no matter what you have done, it will not separate you from the love of God.   If on this day you already know the love and joy that comes from being right with God and following Jesus, then may you take care of his sheep.   In the way that you love and serve others may you emulate Jesus so that as a Christian you are a little Christ.   No matter where we are in our own lives, no matter what we are personally dealing with, may all of us be able to fulfill Jesus final request to Peter:  “Follow me.”  May we indeed follow Him. 

Grace x3

Scripture: John 20:1-18

            In 2016 I had the amazing opportunity to go on a trip to the Holy Land.  It was a truly remarkable experience.   Even though this trip was now over three years ago, the sights I saw and the places I journeyed to continue to illuminate my understanding of the scripture.  In Jerusalem, one of the places we went was the site of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus.  Rather, I should say we visited both sites because today there are two different sites that claim to be the right location.   The first is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the tradition for this site dates back to the 300s AD, and for over 1,500 years was the undisputed location understood to be the place.  However, starting in the 1800s a group of Englishmen, began to propose an alternate site.  One of the most influential people to champion this cause was a British military officer General Charles Gordon.  His enthusiasm was great, that the location became known as Gordon’s Calvary.  This location, is a rock bluff that from the right angle can kind of look like a skull, fitting the biblical description of Golgotha.  On the other side of this hill there was a vineyard that had the remains of an ancient tomb.  The imagery of a skull shaped rock face and an actual garden tomb gained a lot of traction in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

            For a lot of historical and archeological reasons that are probably only interesting if you nerd out about this kind of stuff, Gordon’s Calvary and the garden tomb are probably not the actual location of Jesus’ burial.   The Church of Holy Speulchre, while not perfect, has a much stronger historical and archeological claim to being the right location.  Despite that, Holy Land tours and pilgrims still visit both proposed sites.   Now, before I went I knew this and I found it kind of odd.  Why would people go to a site that historically, probably is not the site?  However, after having been there I get it.  It is all about the experience.   

            The Church of Holy Sepulchre is an old, magnificent, and absolutely beautiful church.   This sprawling and remarkable building was created over several centuries.   It is a breath-taking place to explore and take in, but in the end of the day it still feels like a church.   The hill of Calvary, is encased under the bricks that were built on top of it.  The tomb of Jesus is located deep in the structure built over top of it.  Gordon’s Calvary though is different.   If you look at the rock face from the right angle, you do see the skull.  It does not take much from there to imagine three crosses on top of it.  The garden tomb, is well preserved, and has a well-manicured garden surrounding it.  It is easy to walk into that tomb and imagine Peter and John finding empty clothes, and it is easy to walk around the garden and imagine Mary stumbling in to Jesus.  Even though the history, archeological record, and church tradition do not support Gordon’s Calvary as a valid site the biggest reason it persist is because of the feel of the place.  The church of Holy Sepulchre is indeed a holy place, but the garden tomb offers a more hands on experience.   Even if the site is not historically accurate, it does give the experience of being there.   This hands on experiential nature is why the site persists, and why groups will continue to visit it.  

            This makes sense, Christianity after all, is a faith based on experience.   Our faith in Christ is not (or at least should not) be an academic pursuit.   Our faith is more than just going through the motions of worship in a fancy building.   Our faith is more than just history and tradition.   I know this is true for me, and I hope it is true for you, the reason why I am a Christian, is because I have had an experience with the living Christ.   As we sang earlier this morning at the sunrise service, “You ask me how I know he lives?   He lives within my heart.”   I am a Christian because I have experienced the love, forgiveness, and new life offered by a risen Savior.   I cannot deny the truth of that experience, any more than I can deny the reality that I am standing here in front of you.   The site of the garden tomb persists because it is a tangible experience, and that appeals to us because Christianity is an experiential faith.  

            For the past several weeks, all through the season of Lent, our focus on Sunday mornings, has been on some of the core beliefs of the Christian faith.  We have focused on a wide variety of beliefs and doctrinal statements, pointing out the unique way that the Methodist tradition emphasizes these beliefs.   Today, is the last Sunday that we will have this focus on core beliefs.   Core to the Christian faith is the experience we have with Christ.   The belief and doctrines around how we explain that experience is all wrapped up on one glorious word.  Today our focus is grace.  

            Grace is a loaded word, and it is one that is not simply defined.   We can attempt to boil it down to God’s love.   However, that takes away a lot of the nuance.   Grace is the perfect balance of kindness and strength, forgiveness and conviction.   Grace is both the mercy we do not deserve and the open arms that proclaim “welcome home.”    Grace is at the same time the warm embrace of belonging and the gentle hand that wipes away our tears.   Grace is more than just God’s love, grace is the word for our experience of God’s love.   

            This morning’s scripture from the gospel of John, on the Easter morning, illustrates this.   That first Easter morning had to be one of intense confusion for the disciples.   Despite that there was grace, despite all of the uncertainty, all of the doubt they undeniably experienced the wonder of God’s love.   Throughout this entire scripture we see the expression of grace, and how the disciples experienced that grace in different ways.  One of the unique aspects of the Wesleyan traditions, and one of the elements that I most appreciate about our beliefs is our understanding of grace.   We believe that God’s grace can be experienced in three wholly unique ways.  I think this morning’s scripture from the Easter story helps illuminate the different ways we experience grace.  

            In the Wesleyan tradition the name we give for the first way we experience grace is prevenient grace.  That might be a mouth full, but it simply means the way we experience God’s love before we respond to that love.   We see that in this scripture.   Verse 9 records, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”   In the same way, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener.  Peter, John, and Mary were experiencing and receiving God’s love, God’s grace in those moments, even though they had not responded to them. 

            I think parents, better than most, can instinctively understand prevenient grace because children receive the parents love before they can ever respond to that love.  It is hard to explain, but when my children were born I was instantly filled with an intense love for them.   As an infant, there is nothing they could do to respond or return that love.  However, that did not change one bit how much I love them.   Even though the baby is not aware of it, a loving parent goes to great lengths to ensure that a child is surrounded by a safe and loving environment.   This is how prevenient grace works.   Before we are even aware of it, God’s love is present in our life.  We experience God’s provision and care long before we ever acknowledge that God is with us.

            The second way we experience grace is called justifying grace.   Justifying grace is the way we experience God’s love in the form of forgiveness and salvation.   Justifying grace is the way Mary experience God’s love in the instant when we she recognized Jesus.   The same is true for us.   The moment when we recognize Jesus for who Jesus is, is the moment that we experience God’s love as justifying grace.   

            Again, our Methodist tradition uniquely emphasizes this and we do not have to look much further than John Wesley.   Wesley grew up in the church, and he was committed to holiness.  He was absolute methodical in living with right actions.  He had an incredible head knowledge of Jesus and the scriptures, but it did not go further.  He could explain why Jesus was the savior of the world, but he had never experienced what that meant.   This all changed for Wesley on one fateful day on Aldersgate Street in London.  He reluctantly attended a religious meeting there, and John Wesley records next what happens in his journal:  “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

            Justifying grace is when we say yes to God’s yes.  Just like Mary in this morning’s scripture it is when we become aware that Jesus was standing there the whole time.   Justifying grace is the expression of God’s love that gets the most attention.   When we think of an altar call and sinners prayers where we invite people to receive Jesus into their heart we are inviting them to respond to God’s love in a specific way that the Methodist tradition calls justifying grace. However, this is not the last way we experience God’s love in our lives.  

            In this morning’s scripture I have always found Jesus’ response to Mary to be fascinating.   After recognizing Jesus, after having her eyes opened to the glorious truth of resurrection, after embracing her Lord and Savior, Jesus  tells her  “don’t hold on to me.”  He then instruct her to “go”.    This illustrates the final unique way we experience grace.  In the Methodist tradition we call this sanctifying grace.   If Mary had held onto Jesus in that garden, she would have been stuck, she never would have moved on, she never would have been able to fulfill Jesus’ wishes and live out his commands.    Sanctifying grace is the way we experience God’s love that says don’t just hold on to me, but rather go.   Perhaps one of the best ways to think about it is God love us to much to leave us where we are at.  Sanctifying grace is the way that God pushes us, molds us, and re-creates us to be more like Jesus.  Sanctifying grace is the love of God that empowers us to go, just like Mary Magdalene did, to tell the world that the tomb is empty, the savior is risen, and Jesus lives! 

            Grace is the word that expresses our experiences with the love of God.  What I most appreciate about the Wesleyan understanding of grace in three unique forms, is that it recognizes that all people experience grace.  I do not know where you are in your spiritual journey, but all of us interact with the love of God in our lives.   God’s love is present in all of our lives, that prevenient grace.  Acknowledged or unacknowledged, there are ways that God has been present at work in all of our lives.    When we are ready to respond to that love, when we are ready to believe with our whole hearts that the tomb is empty, and that Jesus died for sins, yes even ours, then we can receive and experience grace in the justifying form.  The type of grace that strangely warms our hearts, and give us an assurance that we are  saved and our sins our forgiven because Jesus has forever defeated the grave.   And if you already believe that, if you have experienced Christ in your life and are a Christian, then we still experience grace.  It is sanctifying grace that moves us, shapes us, and leads to increase in faith, increase in love for God, and increase in love for others.   

            Easter is a day of grace, it is a day that we celebrate that God’s great love for all of humanity could not be defeated.  It is the day that God showed that death and sin were not strong enough to contain grace.   It is the day that the tomb was empty and the sting of death was erased for those found in Christ Jesus.   On this most holy of days, may you respond to God’s love.   In whatever form you recognize today, may you experience God’s love as grace.   All who are Christians are Christians because we have personally experienced the living Christ, so may you respond to that experience today.    Like Mary, may you be able to leave this place with the glorious news:   I have seen the Lord!”  

The Chosen One

Scripture: Luke 19:28-44

            I could be wrong about this, but I think there is a good chance that the majority of you have heard the name Tony Hawk at some point in your life.  For about twenty years now, he has been something of a household name.   There is also a good chance that the majority of you who have heard his name, probably know that what he is best known for is skateboarding.   The funny thing is his name and being good with a skateboard is all that Tony Hawk is known for.   A lot of people have a passing familiarity with him, but it does not go any further.   This has led to multiple encounters where Tony Hawk goes completely unrecognized.   For instance, he had has TSA agents check his ID, recognized his last name is Hawk.  They then mention it is neat he has the same last name “as that famous skater”, and then wander out loud just what is he up to now.   There was another time when Tony Hawk tweeted this:  Met a dude at a gas station in Iowa. He said “Anyone ever tell you that you look like a young Tony Hawk?”   He is my new favorite person.”   There was also a time when he was in line at the grocery store and the guy in front of him asked, “Do you ever get mistaken for Tony Hawk?”

            A lot of people love the idea of meeting someone famous.  This past week I was at Star Wars celebration, and there were a lot of people who paid between $50-100 so they could “meet”, and pose for a picture.  Often these were not the headlining actors, but people who had secondary roles.  In a few instance, their screen time is best measured in seconds.  Despite that, people happily paid for the privilege to meet someone famous.   Yet, as Tony Hawk’s ongoing experiences show when someone with fame just naturally crosses our paths, we are not prepared for it.   We completely overlook and fail to realize what is right in front of us.   I feel like Jesus could have related to this.     

            In first century Israel, the people were looking for a Messiah.  The faithful held at hope that the messiah would come, and they were always looking expectantly for signs and clues as to who that person might be.   For three years of ministry, Jesus was not exactly subtle in presenting himself as the Messiah.   On more than one occasion in the gospels he more or less proclaims he is.  Yet, all the way to the end some people completely overlooked him and failed to realize that the Messiah they were waiting was standing right in front of them.  Failing to recognize Jesus is not an issue that is unique to first century Israel. 

              Lent is meant to be a time when we commit as both individuals and as a community to take our faith more seriously.   If we are going to be serious about our faith, then we have to know our faith.    To those ends, throughout Lent on Sunday mornings we have been focusing on the core beliefs of faith.   We are going to focus on the core beliefs shared by Christians, as well as those ways the Methodist tradition uniquely emphasizes those beliefs.  Today we are going to focus on what just might be the most central, core, and important belief for Christians.  This is the belief more than any other that sets us apart from every other faith in the world.  In fact I will go as far as saying, in order to be a Christian you MUST believe this.  You must profess that Jesus is the messiah. 

            When Jesus emerged from the wilderness one of his first acts was to go to the synagogue in Nazareth and declare that he was the messiah.  During three years of traveling, preaching, and performing miracles he made this claim in various ways, but he never went as far as to publicly declaring it in an irrefutable way.   The changed at the beginning of the last Passover on the day we now remember as Palm Sunday. 

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey and in doing so he timed it just perfectly to make an amazing statement.    First, Jesus was in no uncertain terms declaring himself the messiah.    It was more than a coincidence that Jesus chose a donkey as his mode of transportation.   In the Old Testament  book of Zechariah there is a prophecy in Zechariah 9:4, that reads: “Rejoice greatly daughter Zion!  Shout Daughter Jerusalem!  See your king comes to you righteous and victorious lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”.  Remember, this was a time of messianic expectation. The people were expecting the messiah to come, and these expectations reached a fever pitch around the Passover.  This is because   many thought that the Messiah would come during one of the high holy days like Passover, and tradition had come to believe that when the Messiah rode into Jerusalem on a donkey they would come in to the temple through a specific gate.  Jesus rode into the temple through this gate, while riding a donkey.   The optics being presented and the message being declared were undeniably clear.  

When Jesus rode into the temple, making a loud declaration, the people responded.   They waved branches and they shouted.   The certainly saw Jesus, but it is questionable how many recognized him.  The Pharisees certainly saw Jesus, but they saw him less of a savior and more of an annoyance.   The religious leaders in power had come to something of an understanding with the Romans.  They may not like Roman rule, but they had learned how to prosper under it.   Jesus threatened that.  When Jesus came to Jerusalem as a messiah, they only saw trouble.   They saw a wild card that would upset the balance.  This is why they wanted Jesus to silence his disciples.   The Pharisees saw Jesus, but they could care less if he was the messiah or not.   To them, he was an inconvenience to their own plans, designs, and power. 

 Some of the other people saw Jesus for he was, the messiah, the son of the living God.  He had disciples, including the twelve, who had followed him from Galilee.  They may not have fully realized what being the Messiah entailed, but perhaps those disciples were on the right path.  The majority though, were looking for something else.   Many were hoping the messiah would be a political savior.   Their idea of a messiah was someone who would lead a rebellion to restore Israel to the world stage.   Even though the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament are about restoring relationship with God, they took them to mean a restoration of power and prestige.   When Jesus declared that he was he messiah, instead of trying to recognize what that truly meant, the people instead focused on what they wanted Jesus to be, not on who he truly is.  They were quick to wave palm branches and declare “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, but when Jesus did not immediately give what they wanted, their silence became deafening.   None of the people who shouted Hosanna were present to drown out the crowd on Friday who shouted crucify him.  

The gospel of John records that Jesus came to his own, but his own did not receive him.  The vast majority of the Jews, God’s chosen people, did not realize that the messiah was right in front of them.   They did not realize that God was moving ,and God was seeking to restore not just them, but all of the world as God’s people.   This is why as Jesus approached Jerusalem he wept.   He knew what he had come to do, and he knew that the vast majority of the people in that city were not going to recognize the messiah had been among them.  

Today, there are still people who do not recognize Jesus for the messiah he is.   This week several cable stations will re-air some of their old Jesus specials, and a lot of these focus on the “historical Jesus.”   The vain academic quest for the historical Jesus seeks to view Jesus only as a person in 1st century Israel.  It focuses entirely on human concerns and human variables.   These attempts to isolate the historical Jesus do not recognize Jesus.   Jesus was a historical person, who lived in first century Israel and died on a cross.   The historical Jesus and the eternal Jesus are on in the same.   The Jesus that walked dusty roads to Jerusalem is the same Jesus who sits at the right hand of the father.  The historical Jesus that hung on the cross is the same eternal Jesus that rules as a holy king.  To try to separate the Jesus of history from the Jesus of faith denies that Jesus is the messiah sent to redeem the world.  

            There are other long standing positions used today that show people might see Jesus but do not recognize the messiah.   One such argument has been around for close to a century now, and that is Jesus is one of many great moral teachers.  Like Buddha or Confucius, Jesus is just one of many enlightened people throughout history who give us wisdom for the ages.  All the way back in the 1940’s, C.S. Lewis refuted this.  In Mere Christianity Lewis states:  “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”  

            Throughout his ministry Jesus eluded to and sometimes made more direct statements that he is the messiah.   On Palm Sunday, Jesus publicly and undeniably declared that to be so.  Jesus cannot just be a great human teacher, because Jesus claimed to be far more than that.  Jesus claimed to be the messiah, the very son of God.  

            Again this is a fundamental belief of Christianity.  You cannot be a Christian without Christ.   From the very beginning of the church, disciples have had a good idea of what it means to have Jesus be the Messiah.  Paul wrote the letter of the Philippians to the first generation of Christians.  This was before disciples started doing things like writing creeds or doctrinal statement.  Yet in that letter Paul includes what many biblical scholars believe is an early hymn.  That hymn defines what it means for Jesus to be the messiah just as well as any of our modern creeds and doctrinal statements.   Philippians Chapter 2 records about Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

            Jesus was and is the chosen one.   He is the person, the only person, who has the ability to set us right with God, erase our transgressions, and free our hearts from slavery to sin and death.  Jesus, being fully God and fully man, was obedient to death on a cross that we might be reconciled to God.    Jesus is the messiah.   On Palm Sunday Jesus declared this eternal truth, and he set in motion the events that would lead to the cross.  He died to save the world of its sins, which means he died to save each and every one of us of our sins as well.  May you know, may you believe, and may you be willing to confess that Jesus is your savior.   May you know that God has exalted him to the highest place, and at the name of Jesus, ma your knee be willing to bow, and may you always acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord!


Social Justice Warriors

Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-11

There is a common statistic that is shared regularly in articles and blog posts about the United Methodist church. In 1968 when the United Methodist church was formed by the merging of the Methodist Episcopal Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church, the combined membership in the United States was over 10 million. Today that number has dipped below 7 million. That is over a 30% decline in fifty years. This is not a uniquely United Methodist problem. Some individual churches or pockets of Christianity might be expressing numeric growth, but across the board there is a smaller percentage of the U.S. population who identify as Christian or attend church than there used to be. Now, it is easy to get pessimistic about this reality, and trust me people do. There is a lot of shaming, blaming, and accusations about who or what is responsible for this decline that fly back and forth. However, instead of dwelling on the negative, I would like you to use your imagination with me. Let’s imagine a different reality where instead of decline churches across the board are growing. Churches do not have to have high production values or fancy advertising campaigns to lure people in because people are intentionally seeking out the church. Every year, every church has new professions of faith and new baptisms- often by the dozens. Imagine that world.

Once upon a time, that used to be the reality. In the first couple of centuries of its existence, Christianity had explosive growth. Before the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost there were around 150 Christians, a number so small that it was a statistical zero in terms of percentage of the Roman Empire that was Christian. About three hundred years later there were over 33 million Christians and the Christians accounted for 56% of the empire’s population. One of the pagan emperors of this time period, Julian, wrote about Christians and gave a hint as to what might have driven this growth. Julian wrote “[Christians] support not only their poor but our as well.” One of Jesus’s best known teachings is “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.” The first few generations of Christians took this seriously. They shared their resources in order to care for the poor, they risked their own lives to minister to the sick, and when persecution struck they gambled their own freedom to provide for those who were imprisoned. Having compassion on others, seeing the needs, and meeting the needs around us have long been Christian values and a core part of who we are supposed to be. The world of the first generations of Christians was broken, fallen and unjust. The ways of the world have not changed much, and the ways of those who follow Jesus should also be the same. We should still spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.

Lent is meant to be a time when we commit as both individuals and as a community to take our faith more seriously. If we are going to be serious about our faith, then we have to know our faith. To those ends, throughout Lent on Sunday mornings we have been focusing on the core beliefs of faith. We are going to focus on the core beliefs shared by Christians, as well as those ways the Methodist tradition uniquely emphasizes those beliefs. Today we are going to focus on a belief that is found throughout scripture, was essential to the ministry of Jesus, and has always been part of the practice of Christianity. Our focus is social holiness or as it is more commonly referred to today, social justice.

Personal holiness are the acts of personal piety, the way we live, to love God more. Acts of piety such as prayer and bible study help us fulfill the command to Love God with all of our being. Social holiness emphasizes the other great command Jesus gave to love our neighbors as ourselves. Social holiness is when we work together as a community of faith to meet the needs in the world around us. We do this through what John Wesley called acts of mercy. Acts of mercy are the same acts that made the early church explode in growth: Clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick. For Wesley acts of personal holiness and acts of social holiness were deeply connected. In his book Responsible Grace Wesley historian and theologian points out that for Wesley “works of piety like worship-which express responsive love for God- would deepen our love for others, while works of mercy would deepen our love for God.” In other words to fulfill the great commandments of love God and love others our faith practice must have both works of piety and works or mercy; both personal holiness and social holiness.

Social holiness has long been a Christian practice and it deeply embedded into the DNA of the United Methodist church. When communities of faith seek to practice works of mercy together it often leads them to seeking to address systemic wrongs or injustices in the world. Pursuing social holiness out of a love for God, often leads to pursuing social justice out of a love for others. This is true for the people called Methodists. Our Book of Discipline records, “The United Methodist church has a long history of concern for social justice.”

Since the very beginning social justice, as we just defined it, has long been a part of Christian tradition. So I find it very puzzling that in some sectors of today’s society the idea of social justice has a very negative connotation. Given the long Christian history with the subject, it is odd to me that this negative connotation is found even in some aspects of Christianity. Last year well known Baptist minister John MacArthur headed up authorship for a statement that took a negative stance on social holiness and social justice. This statement has a lot of problems. One of the key issues for me revolves around how little concern it has for social justice. I am not going to go over the whole thing. However, I did want to address one part of the statement that I found especially erroneous:

WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.

I fundamentally disagree with this. The statement’s denial follows their affirmation that the “primary role of the church is to worship God.” I suppose I fundamentally disagree with this as well. Instead I affirm the United Methodist Book of Discipline which states the purpose of the church as such: “The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The church’s purpose, its reason for existence, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ through proclaiming the good news and simultaneously through being the fulfillment of the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Social holiness and social justice are simply the means through which this command is fulfilled. Seeking social justice, resisting oppression in whatever form it presents self, and speaking truth to power is at the heart of the church’s work in the world.

I struggle to come to grips with how someone who seeks to follow Jesus could have a stance that is against social justice. I think there is a key quote from the Lord of the Rings that helps define what social justice is and why it is important. Frodo and Sam are carrying the one ring to Mount Doom, and they are beginning to realize how hard their task is and how much opposition that is ahead of them. Things seem bleak and nearly impossible, but Sam offers a glimpse of hope when he says, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

Activism for social justice is simply fighting for the good in this world. The world is fallen and broken by sin. Yet through Christ, the light of God has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it. That light is redeeming the world, the whole world, one soul at a time. The reason why I struggle to understand why a disciple can be against social justice is because the bible has a consistent message of joining God’s work in Christ to redeem and transform the world. The message of God’s redemption in the world, and care for the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalized is all over the bible.

This morning’s scripture from Isaiah is just one of these and it makes it clear that God loves justice. In this morning’s scripture God addressed the people of Israel about the kind of behavior he wants out of them. The people want to get God’s attention and God’s blessing through a ritual act. Their hope is that if they go through the motions of a fast, if they fulfill the letter of the law, and use proper procedure then they will earn God’s attention. However, this morning’s scripture makes it clear that what matters to God has less to do with pomp and circumstance and more to do with a changed heart.

As Wesley made the connection a love for God and a love for people are connected. In this passage from Isaiah God is making clear that the way God wanted the Israelites to express their love for God was not through religious ceremony but through the compassion they displayed. They were to love God by loving others. And how were they to do this: “Loose the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free and break every yolk. Share food with the hungry, provide the poor wander with shelter, clothe the naked, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.” This morning’s scripture from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah is call to social holiness and a demand for social justice.

We find a similar emphasis in the New Testament as well, and we especially find this emphasis in the life and teaching of Jesus. The gospel of Luke records that when Jesus started his ministry he visited Nazareth’s synagogue. He read from a different part of Isaiah and proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free to proclaim the year of the Lords favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Jesus came from heaven to earth to save us from our sins and to provide us with forgiveness and redemption. This redemption is not just spiritual, it has a real world component. While Jesus did deliver people from the spiritual bondage of sin and he proclaimed the good news of forgiveness of sin, Jesus also met real human needs. He healed the sick, cured the disabled, and provided food for the hungry. Jesus did not just tell others about the love of God he showed them it through his actions. The ministry of Jesus was based just as much in meeting the needs of the poor and oppressed as it was saving souls. The disciples of Jesus are supposed to follow in this pattern.

Perhaps the book of James makes this most clear when it states in James 2:18, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”

The deeds and good works we take part in do not earn us salvation and forgiveness of sins, but rather they are the manifestation of a vibrant and active faith. Jesus met the real needs of the least advantaged and marginalized. Anyone who takes following him seriously must do the same.

Social holiness and social justice are essential to the gospel and it is part of the primary purpose of the church. Seeking greater justice in society for all peoples is how we have deeds of faith, meet the needs around us, and transform this world. There are hungry people, there are sick people, there are marginalized and forgotten people in this world who need Jesus and need to know God loves them. The simple reality is that a bumper sticker that says “Jesus loves you” is not going to do it. We need to show them that God loves through how we love them. As the body of Christ we need to be the hands and feet of Jesus that spend ourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.

There is a quote often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt that states, “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is so true when it comes to the good news of salvation and forgiveness that the church holds. The unsaved souls in a broken and fallen world are not going to care for that message until they know we care for them. And we should care for them, because God cares for them. As we come to love God more our love for others should increase, and as our love for others increases we should come to love God more. So may you love God through how you love others. May we join together to see the needs and meet the needs in the community around us. God is at work redeeming the world, so may we join God in that work. There is good in this world, and it is worth fighting for. Therefore, what this word needs are Christ minded, social justice warriors who will fight for the good. May that be us.

Fruit Trees

Scripture: Luke 13:6-9

            One of the things that amazes me most about people is that we will make anything a competition.   Seriously, anything.  If there is some way to do the thing bigger, faster, or better than someone else then it will be a competition somehow.   And if it is a competition, then there will be a group of people who take that thing very, very seriously. For confirmation that we will make anything a competition, we do not need to look any further than the world of competitive vegetable growing.   This is absolutely a thing, and there are people who take it incredibly seriously.  The United Kingdom for instance has a National Giant Vegetable championship.  There gardeners compete in thirty-three different categories of vegetables.  This includes cucumbers that can approach three feet.  You can also find radishes the size of small children as well as cabbage that requires team lifting.  Of course, this is not just some sort of British oddity.  Across the pond we Americans get in on this too.  Giant pumpkins tend to do particularly well in American climates and soil.   The Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers (which is not something I made up), has an annual competition and last year two gentlemen won with a pumpkin that weighs more than a ton.  That pumpkin, incidentally,  at 2,283lbs is still 359 pounds smaller than the world record holder. 

            The people who grow giant vegetables take it seriously because they have to.   To make a vegetable a monster requires a lot of work.   Obviously it starts with the right seeds, but award winning giant vegetables requires more than just planting the right seeds in the ground.  These vegetables require ideal soil conditions, a lot of pruning, hyper-vigilance from pests, and near constant watering.   The level of maintenance and care required to grow giant vegetables goes far beyond even how much normal gardening requires.  The results of this effort though are literally enormous.  

            Growing giant vegetables requires a lot of extra effort, but all gardening requires some amount of maintenance and effort.   There are a lot of people who find gardening to be an enriching and satisfying experience.  I think one of the reason why growing vegetables brings joy is because it is a task where the effort we invest has visible and tangible results.  We, quite literally, can enjoy the fruit of our labor.   This connection is probably why Jesus was very fond of using produce related metaphors.   The short, and often overlooked parable, we read this morning is just one of the many such metaphors we find throughout the scripture.   All of these parables about fruit and vegetables touch on a couple of fundamental questions such as how should following Jesus impact life?  

            Lent is meant to be a time when we commit as both individuals and as a community to take our faith more seriously.   If we are going to be serious about our faith, then we have to know our faith.    To those ends, throughout Lent on Sunday mornings we are going to focus on the core beliefs of faith.   We are going to focus on the core beliefs shared by Christians, as well as those ways the Methodist tradition uniquely emphasizes those beliefs.  Today we are going to focus on a belief that is found throughout scripture, and it is one that John Wesley put a lot of emphasis on. Today, we are going to focus on spiritual fruit.  

            Again, the concept of spiritual fruit is one that runs deep through the bible.  In Christianity today, and in Methodism in particular, this idea of spiritual fruit has taken on a deep meaning.   It has moved from a simple metaphor to one of deep religious significance.   Given that, it is vitally important that we define what is meant by “fruit of the Spirit.” This metaphor of spiritual fruit can be understood in two ways.  

            The first way that we can understand the Fruit of the Spirit is in the type of fruit the spirit produces.  I do not know about you, but I learned all about this at elementary school church camp, where those counselors taught the song: “The fruit of the spirit is not a cheery, no the fruit of the spirit is not a cherry, if you want to be a cherry you might as well hear it, you can’t be a fruit of the spirit.  Because the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.”

            This list of the fruit of the Spirit is found in the fifth chapter of Galatians.  The idea presented there by Paul is that if we are living as faithful followers of Jesus then through the Holy Spirit then these fruit will be made manifest in our lives.   Our hearts and souls will be fertile soil where these fruit can grow.   Again, this is more than metaphor.   Following Jesus as Lord and Savior should fill us with the Holy Spirit, and being full of the Spirit our lives should be transformed.  Essentially, through the work of the Spirit in our lives we should become more loving people, more joyful people, more patient people, kinder people, and more faithful people than we were before we met Jesus.   Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control are the seeds that grow to create a vibrant and fruitful faith. 

            If the list of attributes are the seeds for various types of spiritual fruit that can grow in our lives, then good works are the tangible fruit that those seeds grow into.   This is the second way to understand the concept of spiritual fruit, and it is a way of understanding confirmed by Methodist doctrine.  Article X of the United Methodist articles of religion states, “We believe good works are the necessary fruits of faith . . .We believe good works, pleasing, and acceptable to God in Christ, spring from a true and living faith, for through them and by them faith is made evident.”    

            When it comes to spiritual fruit as a core belief there are three things to really unpack and highlight from that doctrinal statement.   First, it states good works, the fruit of faith, spring from a true and living faith.   The basis for this belief is also found in scripture, in yet another gardening metaphor.  In the gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples: “I am the vine and you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit apart from me you can do nothing.”    Our ability to do good in a meaningful, lasting way is completely dependent upon our faith which is a belief if in the saving grace made known by Jesus Christ.   I should clarify what I mean here.   Clearly, there are people who do not profess a belief in Christ that are capable of doing good and meeting the needs of those around them.  However, when believers in Jesus, who are filled, with the holy spirit do good then it has potential to be meaningful and lasting in an eternal way.   When we serve others, when we have compassion for others, and when we provide care for others from a place that is based in our faith then we connect people to Jesus.  

This all comes together to create a beautiful image full of truth.  Jesus is the vine, we are the branches connected to him.    Through Christ, we are filled with the Holy Spirit which cultivates the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control to grow in our lives.  These fruits of the spirit into the good works we do.   A good tree produces good fruit, and when the fruit of our lives are good works that come as a result of our connection to Jesus then that is the best fruit.  Those who are the recipients of our actions should get a taste of God’s goodness, grace, and love through interacting with us.  Just like the analogy used in this morning’s scripture, all Christians should be fruit trees that produce a good fruit that reflects the goodness of our Lord and Savior. 

The second element to highlight from the doctrinal statement is that through and by this spiritual fruit our faith is made evident.    In other words they will know we our Christians by our love-but also by our joy, our patience, our kindness, our self-control, and the good works that are the natural result of those attributes.   Spiritual fruit is the evidence that God is at work in us and through us.   Recognizing the evidence of spiritual fruit as a confirmation of God’s work in and through a person’s life has deeply Methodist roots.   John Wesley, being a product, of 18th century English culture was resistant to the idea of women preaching.   However, as the Methodist movement grew he found that women were some of the best leaders of the classes and bands.   Some of these women, full of the Holy Spirit, began preaching.   The fruit was evident, hearts were changed, souls were saved, and disciples were made because of their words.   Wesley wrested with his traditional understanding, but in the end he could deny the fruitfulness of their preaching ministry.   He reasoned, it could only be fruitful if the Spirit were part of it.   Recognizing this fruit as “an extraordinary call” and as “permission from God”, Wesley licensed Sara Crosby and Mary Bosanquet to be Methodist preachers in 1771.    They were the first of many godly women, upon whom God had a special calling, to be ordained as preachers in the Methodist tradition.   This continues today and we are blessed with many pastors who are women where the fruit of their work is evident.  

The final element of the doctrinal statement to highlight is the beginning: “We believe good works are the necessary fruits of faith.”   Notice it does not say the potential fruits of faith, it says the necessary fruits of faith.   We are saved by faith and not by works, but as we explored last week our faith is meant to change us.  Following Jesus as Lord and Savior is to transform us and as we are transformed, we then transform the world.   If we are following Jesus then we are going to have compassion for others the way Jesus did, we are going to serve others the way Jesus did, and we are going to put others before ourselves.   Again, the desire to do this should grow out of connection with Christ, it should grow by the power of the Holy Spirit through the spiritual fruit attributes, and it should reach fruition in our good deeds.  If we are connected to Jesus then  our spiritual fruit should be making disciples and transforming the world to be a more loving, kinder, and forgiving place.  This cannot be understated, if we are not doing that, then we are not fully connected to our savior.

In the particular gardening analogy that we read this morning, that is the warning.  The fig tree is not producing fruit, and it is in danger of being removed.   However, this scripture also shows the patience that Jesus has with us by giving the tree one more year.   This morning’s scripture has a bit of a sharp edge to it as it really causes us to ask ourselves tough questions.   It causes us to ask ourselves what kind of fruit tree are we?   Are we one that bears fruit or not?  

 The good news is that if we have an earnest and heart felt faith in Christ, then we can easily be fruitful.   Much like the monster plants that win competitions, we can even bear truly enormous fruit.  However, we are not going to do that by accident.  Our lives will not bear fruit if we spend most of our lives watching a TV or scrolling down a phone screen.   Just like gardeners are intentional about growing plants, and take purposeful steps to get the harvest they want, the same is true for spiritual fruit in our lives.  United Methodist Bishop and author Robert Schnase writes in his book “Five practices of Fruitful living” that “The fruitful, God related life develops with intentional and repeated attention.” 

So if you want to bear fruit, then bear fruit.   Love others the way that God has loved you.   Be patient with others the way that God is patient with you.   Be gentle to others the way the man was in this morning’s scripture was by giving the fig tree one more year.  If you consider yourself a Christian, if Jesus is your Lord and Savior, then not only can you bare fruit that makes disciples and transforms this world, you should be.   May you do so, may you commit to intentionally doing good based in a charitable heart and Christian love for the benefit of others.   May your faith bear much fruit, and because of you may others taste and see just how much God loves them.  




The Method of Methodists

Scripture: Philippians 3:17-4:1

            In 1982 the novel Running Man was released.   This book about a dystopian future was a moderate success, and five years later Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in a movie adaption of the book.  Running Man was only the third novel from a little known author named Richard Bachmann.   Of course, those of you who may be big readers know the author was not so little known.   Richard Bachman was the pseudonym for Stephen King.  This was discovered in the mid 80’s, but at the time Running Man was written this was not a known thing.  Stephen King is easily one of the most prolific, successful, and well-known authors of the modern era.  However, he created Richard Bachman because of an insecurity.   When King first created Bachman he had already been wildly successful.   However, he was not sure if his success was because of his writing or his luck.   He was not sure if people were reading his stories because they worth reading or because he had name recognition.   Writing under a pseudonym was a way to test and see.   The Richard Bachman works proved to King that he had merit as a writer.  

            Thirty years after Running Man, released a very different book called On Writing.  On Writing is a book about what he has learned on the craft of writing and the art of being a writer.  This includes the lessons he learned from his experiment of writing as Bachman.  It is generally considered to be one of the absolute best and most informative books on the subject.   One of the points that can be drawn out of the books is what makes people a writer.   What makes people a writer compared to a non-writer is simple.   Writers write.    To be a writer does not require a Shakespearean eloquence in the English language, it does not require a book deal, and does not even require inspiration.   To be a writer requires writing.   Writers write and non-writers do not.  The biggest emphasis that King makes is this, and one of the things that is stressed the most is the best way to be the best possible writer is to write every day.    No one becomes a writer by accident.  They become a writer because they write, and the more they write the better writer they become. 

I think the same thing is true of our faith and being a Christian as well.   The difference between a non-Christian and a Christian is Christ.   To be a Christian requires nothing else but Christ, and no one becomes a Christian by accident.  We become a Christian by accepting the grace and forgiveness Jesus made known on the cross and submitting our lives to the lordship of Christ.  Just like writers become better at writing the more they write, we become more like Jesus the more we seek to follow his commands and examples.  

Lent is meant to be a time when we commit as both individuals and as a community of faith to take our faith more seriously.   If we are going to be serious about our faith, then we have to know our faith.    To those ends, throughout Lent on Sunday mornings we are going to focus on the core beliefs of faith.   We are going to focus on the core beliefs shared by Christians, as well as those ways the Methodist tradition uniquely emphasizes those beliefs.  Today we are going to focus on a core belief that has a distinctly Methodist emphasis.  In fact, as we will see these beliefs drive the method that made Methodists in the first place.  These beliefs are holiness and sanctification. 

            I realize these are both extremely churchy words.   They are heavy words packed with a lot of meaning, and they are not words that tend to come up in our everyday language.  Unfortunately, the way we talk these words do not always do the best job at providing great clarity.  For instance the United Methodist articles of religion does have an official definition of sanctification.   Sanctification is defined as such:  “It is the renewal of our fallen nature by the Holy Ghost, received through faith in Jesus Christ, whose blood of atonement clenseth from all sin; whereby we are not only delivered from its pollution, saved from its power and are enabled, through grace, to love God with all our hearts and to walk in his holy commandments blameless.”   (and yes, that is all one sentence!)

            So the official definition is still pretty heavy and it might be a little wordy.  To attempt to simplify that detailed explanation:  sanctification is the process to become more like Jesus in thought and action.  Holiness is the way we live day to day in order to bring that process about.   These are the topics that Paul was writing about in this morning’s scripture, and these topics are at the heart of Methodism.  

            In this morning’s scripture Paul was writing to the church in Philippi.  There are a couple of things that are helpful to know about the ancient city of Philippi.   First, it was a very Roman city.  The people of Philippi were known for the Roman patriotism.  They were proud of their status as a Roman colony and they sought to be like a little Rome.  The culture of Philippi found a lot of identity in their Roman citizenship.   The second thing to be aware of is that Roman culture of the first century was famously hedonistic in its outlook.  One of the chief schools of Roman philosophy was Epicureanism.  The primary tenant of epicurean thought is the greatest good is to seek pleasures as a way to find fulfillment and tranquility.   Paul wrote this morning’s scripture to a church in a pro-Roman culture that held seeking pleasure as one of the highest ideals.  

            This morning’s scripture pushes back against that culture.  It urged the church to holiness by telling them to follow the example of holy living Paul has given them.   Paul’s letter urged these early Christians to set their mind on heavenly things instead of pursuing their pleasure above all else.   Paul urged them to find their identity by being a citizen of heaven, not a citizen of Rome.  Paul is urging the Philippians to define themselves by how much their actions and attitudes are like those of Jesus instead of like those of Caesar.   Paul gives the example of holiness to follow all for the goal of sanctification, to be more like Jesus. Verse 21 of this morning’s scripture makes this clear.  Paul writes that seeking to live as a citizen in heaven will enable Jesus to transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.  

            This desire to be so transformed, to be like Jesus, is why we have a Methodist church in the first place.   Paul wrote Philippians to a culture that did not give a lot of thought to living like Jesus, and John Wesley found himself in a similar situation.  England of Wesley’s day was nominally Christian, but it was a country of what Wesley observed to be baptized heathens.  Faith was not much of a driving force in the day to day lives of people.   The majority of people did not seem to take being a citizen of heaven seriously, and there was little real effort to follow Jesus in daily living.    Everyone was theoretically Christian, but that distinction had little real impact on the life of most people.   This bothered John and his brother Charles.   While John was in seminary and Charles in college they began a group with like-minded individuals.  They met regularly with the goal of being intentional about their faith.  They met together for prayer, for bible study, for worship, and to serve those most in need.  They sought to take their faith seriously, and they were highly disciplined in this approach.  They met at regular times without fail and to stay on task they kept a strict schedule.  They did this because they wanted to take the steps necessary (personal holiness) to have their lives transformed to be more like Jesus (sanctification).  They called themselves the Holy Club, but others found names to mock their devotion.  They were derided as bible moths and because they were so methodical they were called Methodists. . .as an insult.

            However, Methodists stuck with Wesley because he was a methodical individual.  Years later, when Wesley and others began a movement based around the idea of holiness and sanctification, he retained the name Methodists.   The early Methodists were indeed methodical.   In this morning’s scripture Paul wrote about how the Philippians should look to him as a model, and the first Methodists sought to look to each other as a model.  They took holiness seriously and they sought to model it for one another.  They simultaneously sought to serve as an example for one another and hold each other more accountable so they would all become more Christ like.  

Part of this Method for holiness and sanctification were the general rules.  Wesley was very specific in these rules about what kind of behavior he was talking about.  In summary though these general rules are do no harm, do good, and third attending the ordinances of God.  The basic idea between personal holiness is how we live our lives matters.  Just like writing daily makes the writer better, personal holiness is the daily practice of being more like Christ.   The general rules give us a fantastic framework for how to do actually make choices that matter and make us more like Jesus.  

First, we do not harm.   We are intentional in our choices not to hurt other people.   Not doing harm is training ourselves to always ask the question.  Will these words or will these actions lower the wellbeing of another person in any way.   Second we do good.  In the general rules Wesley wrote this about doing good, “being in every [way] merciful . . .as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and as far as possible, to all.”   Doing good is not about occasionally doing something nice.   It is about regularly and intentionally giving food to the hungry, visiting the lonely, and helping the sick.   Doing good is about seeing needs and then meeting those needs.  Finally, attending to the ordinances of God is doing the things that keep us in love with God.   The ordinances of God are corporate worship, prayer, bible study, and partaking the sacraments.   Again, attending to these ordinances is not something that we do when we feel like it.  It is something that we are intentional and methodical about.

These general rules are a great framework for holiness but they also reveal how hard holiness can be.  We can get caught up in the moment and do harm, we can get distracted and fail to do good, and we can get busy and to attend to the ordinances of God.   But this is where the brilliance of the Methodist movement came in helping people attain personal holiness and move onto sanctification.   The first Methodist met together regularly, they shared life together.  They asked one another “how is it with your soul?”   Just like Paul wrote about in this morning’s scripture they were examples for one another on how to keep the general rules.  Just as important though, when they failed they confessed to one another, were held accountable, and were shown grace.  They lived, I believe, like citizens of heaven. Week by week, in community, they sought to live holy lives and through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit they became more like Jesus. 

It’s my opinion that perhaps the Methodists of today could use a bit more method to our holiness.  This morning’s scripture is just as true today as it was when Paul wrote it and as it was in Wesley’s day.   Our citizenship is in heaven, and daily we should live as citizens of heaven who seek to become more like Jesus in our words and actions.   Just like the Philippians and the first Methodists we still need models to follow and encourage us in holiness and sanctification.  We should reclaim our Methodist heritage and be willing to model for one another what it means to live Christ honoring, holy lives. 

In that Spirit, I challenge you to set one small goal.  Maybe it is volunteering weekly somewhere, maybe it is praying for someone that is a challenge for you, or maybe it is reading the bible more.    Set that goal for the next five weeks and be absolutely methodical in pursuing that goal.  If you are comfortable doing so, I challenge you to go the next step.  Share this goal with one of your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pray for one another to meet your goal and hold one another accountable.   I challenge you to engage in this holiness experiment.  My hypothesis, is that if you do then come Easter you will find your faith has grown and you feel like you have grown to becoming more Christ like. 

We become better Christians by practicing being like Jesus.  That is what personal holiness is.    Becoming more like Jesus is sanctification, it is claiming and living into our citizenship in heaven.  Holiness and sanctification are core doctrines and beliefs that especially central to our Methodist tradition.  May we reclaim those doctrines more fully.   May we be downright methodical in how we seek to do no harm, how we seek to do good, and how we engage in the ordinances of God.   May we grow in holiness may we sanctified by being transformed to be more like Jesus Christ.   When I think of you all, I fully echo Paul’s sentiment, “Therefore my brothers and sisters, you whom I love. . . stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” 

The Art of Grace

Scripture: Luke 6:27-38

            If you’ve spent any amount of time in the workforce, then at some point you have heard the pithy employment proverb, “work smarter, not harder.”  The idea behind this is to find the most efficient way to get the job the done.   However, some people twist this a little bit and they see working smarter and not harder as figuring out how to do the least amount of work and not get paid.   This has long been a problem which constant Internet access has only made worse.  A sociologist named Roland Paulsen determined that on average, American workers, waste two hours of the work day between doing activities such as smoke breaks, taking a long time to get back to work with coffee, or scrolling endlessly through social media.   There are some people who have taken not working to the next level.  One example is a Verizon employee whose termination agreement protects his anonymity and is referred to as Bob.   Bob outsourced his job to China for 20% of his salary.   This means while a programmer in China was doing the work, Bob was pretending to look busy while he watched cat videos and looked for good deal on Ebay.  His job was getting done, so no one questioned him.  In fact, Bob was considered one of the best programmers on the team.   Bob took the next step and started applying for other similar jobs that allowed him to work remotely and he outsourced those as well.  By time he was caught he was making around $200,000 a month and paying $50,000 to a Chinese firm actually doing the work.  

            Another example is Joaquin Garcia, a low level bureaucrat from Spain.  His job could be done from one of two locations a water treatment plant or a central office.   He told the treatment plant he would be at the central office and he told the central office he was at the water treatment plant.  In fact, he was at home doing whatever he wanted.   He pulled this lie for an amazing fourteen years, and he only got caught when he was to be recognized for twenty years of loyal service and no one could find him.   Being able to do the minimum amount of work and still get paid is a balancing act that actually requires an odd level of skill, this is why when sociologist Roland Paulsen wrote his article about the subject for the Atlantic Magazine he entitled it “The Art of Not Working.”  

            The art of not working is not a new phenomenon.   I can remember twenty years ago, well before social media and smart phones, when I worked at Pizza Hut.  I got really annoyed every time there was even a minor lull because literally everyone else rushed outside for 15-20 minutes for a “smoke break” leaving me by myself to do everything.   In his research Paulsen found that there has long been more people who report underworking than overworking.   Our technology might make it easier to slack off at work today, but I imagine as long as humanity has had a division of labor there have been people perfecting the art of not working.   The art of not working is all about getting the most you can while giving the least.  In this morning’s scripture, Jesus describes a different way to live.  Jesus describes the art of grace, which honestly is the opposite.  The art of grace is all about giving the most and being at peace with receiving the least.   The art of not working is all about finding ways to not work harder for personal benefit, but the art of grace is all about working harder to be more like God. 

            When it comes to the actual things that Jesus taught, perhaps this morning’s scripture is one of the best known.   This morning’s scripture has a parallel passage in Matthew’s gospel.   However, as we saw last week Matthew emphasizes more spiritual language while Luke gets down in the nitty, gritty practical details of life.   The best known part of this morning’s scripture is one of those details that does not appear in the same place in Matthew’s gospel, and that is verse 31:  Do to others as you would have them do to you.   We refer to this as the Golden Rule.   We recognize it is important, but we do not always do the best at following it.   In fact so much of conventional wisdom seems to go against this teaching of Jesus.

            For years I have seen social media memes that could best be described as “tough love” memes.  I imagine the people who post these like to think they are “Just telling it like it is.”   These posts meant to be shared and re-shared over and over again will have matter of the fact statements such as “Respect is not given, it is earned”, “facts do not care about your feelings”, or “act right if you want to be treated right.”   These could be seen as hardy salt of the earth proverbs, but the problem is they all go against the golden rule.   Because if respect is earned not given  then that means we do not need to treat someone with respect until they meet the standard we set as right.   If facts are always more important than feelings, then that gives us permission to ignore the feelings of those we disagree with.   Being held to and measured by someone else’s subjective standard or only having our viewpoint validated if someone agrees with it, is not how most of us want to be treated.   

            In fact the popular idea that respect is earned not given is an idea that Jesus seems to be explicitly teaching against in verses 32-33:  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners do that.”   There is nothing particular good or godly about being respecting the people who you think have earned it.  It is not much of a virtue to claim we are kind to those who have proven they are worth our kindness.   In fact the beauty of the art of grace we do not need to prove ourselves to receive it.   Thanks be to God for that amazing truth, because we would all be in a sorry state if we had to earn grace.   

            Treating others the way that we want to be treated, means we let go of our standards of behavior and measurements we try to hold people to.  It means we give them the benefit of the doubt and we treat people with a basic level of dignity and respect even if they have nothing to earn that basic level of dignity and respect.   We should be willing to do that for others, because God was willing to treat us mercifully even when we did not deserve it.   In Romans Paul writes about this.   All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We have all done what we know is wrong, we have all made the willful choice to put ourselves first, we have all acted in ways that cause harm and deny God’s goodness.  By God’s standard we are all ungrateful and wicked.   If God used the standard of “respect is earned, not given” we would all be toast.  Thankfully, that is not God’s standard.   God is a God of Holy Perfection, God is a God of justice, but God is also a God of extravagant mercy.  It can be seen consistently throughout the entirety of scripture that God always ends up on the side of mercy.   After stating we all fall short of the glory of God, Paul makes this clear in Romans when he writes this beautiful truth: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

            Do to others as you would have them to do, is all about treating other people the way that we want to treated.   Ultimately the way we want to be treated is with grace and mercy.   Treating other people that way is the art of grace, and when it comes to doing that in our lives I think there are two things we should keep in mind as we learn how to be more grace-full people. 

            Before considering those two points though, there is a very quick and small caveat that has to be mentioned here.  Unfortunately, there are incidences where this morning’s scripture has been twisted to convince people (women usually) to stay in abusive relationships.   The idea is they should literally turn the other check to the person who is abusing them.   That is not what this scripture is advocating.  If you ever find yourself in a situation with people who are abusive or harmfully toxic, then get out.   We can and should forgive those who wrong us, but that does not mean we should forget.   We can forgive and still remove ourselves from the situation.  It is possible to be kind while still creating and respecting healthy boundaries for our safety.    


            That being said, I think my children are a great example of how this scripture points us in the right direction.  I cannot help but brag on my kids a little bit.  You see, we have learned that whenever we go to downtown Indianapolis, we have to bring some spare change with us.  This is because on a lot of corners downtown there are homeless people panhandling for money, and my children want to help every single one of them.  Now, I have heard the same cynical reports that you have.  That those panhandlers are not actually homeless, but they have made a career off of the charity of others or they are going to just take that money and use it all for illicit substances even though the sign said they were hungry.   In their mind they see someone in need, so they want to be able to help them.   I pray they never lose that innocent and godly desire to want to meet the needs they see around them.    

            I understand there are bad apples out there and there is a need for wisdom and discernment, but we should not let jaded cynicism or assuming the worst stop us from helping people.  That is not doing for others as we would have them do for us.  If we were truly in need, we would want people to help us out.  That is what we should do for them.  We should show mercy to others.  If it turns out they are trying to scam us out of a few bucks, then come the day of judgement that is on them.   May we be faithful in being merciful, doing good for all, giving without expecting anything back, and being kind to everyone even the ungrateful and wicked.   For that is the way that God treat us.  

            The second thing we should keep in mind is how we divide people.   This morning’s scripture even hints at how easily it can be for us to divide people into groups.  This scripture after all refers to our enemies.  Our enemies are those who we are crossways with, who we tend to assume the worst of, or we view as fundamentally different from ourselves.   It is frightfully easy to take those who we disagree with or who we do not line up with brand them our enemies, consider them “those people.”   When we label others as “those people”, we instantly create an “us vs. them” scenario.  When we do that, it becomes very natural to say things like “respect is earned not given” to those who we consider those people.

            However, it becomes easier to love our enemies when we tear down those “us vs. them” walls that create enemies in the first place.  We should realize that all people belong to the same group, specifically all people need Jesus.   Saints and sinners, friends and enemies, us and them- we all need Jesus.    There is only one category of people we should put people in and that is the category of people who need Jesus.   I need Jesus, you need Jesus, and thanks be to God because we need such a great savior God has provided.   Our Father in heaven has been merciful to us, and when we realize that we are in the same category of people who need Jesus it is easier for us to be merciful to others.  

May you be willing to do to others as you would have them do to you, and may you look to God for the best example of how to do that.  May you be merciful just as your Father is merciful.  Using mercy, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness as your colors of choice may your life be a beautiful masterpiece that illustrates the art of grace. 

Truth Bomb

Scripture: Luke 6:17-26

            For most of us the word pirate conjures up images of age of sail ships, Caribbean seas, and Jolly Roger flags.  Perhaps it brings up “Disneyfied” images of Captain Jack Sparrow or animatronic men singings “yo-ho, ho, a Pirate’s life for me.”   However, for millions of Americans now the idea of pirates do not conjure up such flippant images.  Millions of people now feel like powerless victims who have been looted in this most recent wave of piracy.    I am, of course talking about the rise of porch pirates.   Online shopping, especially through mega-retailers, has become more and more common.  Often these packages are delivered during daytime hours and just left in front of doors.   Porch pirates are nefarious thieves who walk from door to door claiming these packages as their own.   This is more common in warmer climates, but a survey of online shoppers found 30%, almost one third, have fallen victim to having something stolen by porch pirates. 

            This is what makes Mark Roper such a hero.  He was a victim himself and he decided to do something about it.   Mark Roper, a NASA engineer, so he spent months crafting the perfect instant karma package.    In December of last year, during the height of porch pirate season, Mark posted a video detailing his revenge on thieves.    He created something that looks like some sort of home tech device, but when opened it sprays a full pound of fine glitter everywhere.  On top of that it shoots out five blasts of a foul-smelling fart spray.   Even better, the package has four cameras to ensure the thieves’ reaction is caught as well as GPS tracking so he can reclaim the trap after it is discarded.  I cannot show the video because even bleeped out the language used by thieves is not really church appropriate when the glitter bomb goes off. However, the reactions are absolutely glorious.  I think nearly everyone, especially those who have been victims, will agree that Mark Roper is doing the Lord’s work. 

            We like it when people get what is coming to them.  It is really satisfying to us when the wrong-doers get caught, when the liars trip up over their own words, and when the people full of themselves get knocked down a peg or two.  We really like to see when someone drops a truth bomb right in the lap of someone and they have no choice but to take that hard to swallow pill.   However, we like it a lot less when we are at that person.   For that reason several of us may not like this morning’s scripture.   Just like Mark Roper delivered a glitter bomb that unpleasantly surprised would be thieves, Jesus delivers a truth bomb in this morning’s scripture that unpleasantly surprises the comfortable, which honestly includes most of us.  

            This morning’s scripture probably sounds somewhat familiar to us because it is Luke’s version of the beatitudes.   The beatitudes are a well-known teaching of Jesus, which in Matthew, begin the Sermon on the Mount.  However, we tend to be a lot more comfortable with the Matthew version.   See if you can hear the difference from the first couple.  Matthew 5:3 and 6 state: “blessed are poor in sprit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.”   Contrast that to what this morning scripture records, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” 

            Did you hear the difference?  Matthew uses spiritual language where Luke emphasizes real, physical conditions.   Luke though goes a little bit further than Matthew does though, and includes a list of woes.  These woes are directly opposite of the blessings.  The poor are blessed, the rich are cursed, those who are persecuted are blessed and those who are well regarded are curses.   As people who live in the most prosperous nation to ever exist, have access to plentiful food, and generally live good lives these woes can be especially hard for us to hear.   This is a truth bomb that is an instant surprise that leaves us feeling uncomfortable and get us feeling a bit defensive.   Quite honestly this morning’s scripture should make us feel uncomfortable.   However, may we keep our walls down and may we be willing to assume that this scripture might be calling us out a little bit.   Because if we are willing to have toes get stepped on a little bit, I sincerely believe this scripture can call us into deeper discipleship. 

            I think there are three truths we can discern from this scripture that will make us better followers of Jesus.  The first we have to come to terms with the beatitudes in Luke.  When Jesus says blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, and blessed are you who weep, that is exactly what he is saying.   This is not to say that Jesus is glorifying or idealizing poverty, but rather Jesus is reinforcing a theme found throughout scripture.   Consistently throughout scripture God is on the side of the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the marginalized.   In the Old Testament God is the protector, defender, and ultimate advocate for the poor.  The poor, the hungry, the oppressed are blessed because God’s favor and protection is upon them.   This is a reality in the kingdom of God.   In their book Deep Justice in a Broken World Chap Clark and Kara Powell put it this way, “Any biblically rooted understanding of the kingdom of God cannot be separated from God’s commitment to uphold justice by providing for the needy. . .God who reigns over all of creation looks upon the brokenness of his children, and in his mercy takes special favor of behalf of those most affected by humanity’s sin and rebellion.”

            The second truth we should really pay attention to is just who Jesus was addressing in this morning’s scripture.  The scripture begins with a great number of people coming to see Jesus.  Jesus heals and helps many in the crowd.  It is only after helping those who had no one else to turn to, that Jesus begins teaching.  However, if we look at verse 20 we can see that it is not the large crowds Jesus is addressing.  Verse 20 begins, “looking at his disciples, he said: . . .”

            Jesus’ message in this morning’s scripture was meant not for the multitudes, but it was meant for his closest followers.   If you consider yourself a disciple or if you consider Jesus to be your Lord and Savior that means the truth of this scripture is that it was intended for you to hear.   This means the first aspect of this scripture, that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed, is for us to hear.   It is for us to hear because if that is the side that God is on, it means that it is the side we are supposed to be on.   If God is the protector and defender of the poor and marginalized, then it means those are the people we should be seeking to help and shelter as well.

Unfortunately, American Christians do not always do the best job at this.  We do not seek to bless the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed with the same intensity that God does.  A good example of this is the church coffee bar.  Every church in the United States has coffee, but the bigger once have fully functioning setups that rival Starbucks with their fancy, complex menus and their extensive use of track lighting.  Creating a welcoming and hospitable atmosphere is important in a church, but for a church to plan on setting up one of these sophisticated cafes with a cute name like He Brews, requires a set up cost of $18-34,000 on average.   I understand the reasoning for building these is to appeal to the greater culture.  I understand that those kind of facilities in a church are meant to be part of an atmosphere of radical hospitality, and it is about putting the best foot forward.  But when building a church coffee bar often means thousands of dollars just for special lighting, I have to wonder what would Jesus spend $34,000 on?    

 There are real needs, real injustices, and real systemic hurts in the world.  We can easily put our focus on things that are just not as important in the big picture like coffee.   For the cost of a good church coffee bar, how many wells could that money dig to provide for a place with water insecurity?  I actually looked it up, and the question is about eight.  In the developing world twenty one children under the age of five die every minute from preventable causes.  One of the leading causes of preventable deaths are diseases such as measles that can be vaccinated against.   The cost to fully vaccinate a child in the developing world is $39US.   For $34,000 over 870 children could be spared from death.  Those causes are more in line with where God is, then a church-y Starbucks.  God is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.  We should be as well. 

            The final truth of this scripture is that if Jesus is addressing his disciples here that means the woes are also directed to us.   These woes are the inverse of the four blessed are you statements.   They point us to where are focus in life should not be.  We cannot be sharing the love of God and being a living example of Christian witness if our focus is on the things that Jesus pronounced woe upon.   If our focus is on accumulating more and more wealth then we are not going to be very apt to generously provide for others the way that God generally provides for us.  In the same way if all of our time, energy and effort goes to make ourselves comfortable and create an environment where we never weep, then we cannot see the great hurts in the world that we can join God in healing.   There is a lot of injustice and pain in the world, and if the magnitude never brings us to tears then it’s because we are intentionally ignoring it.   Again, UNICEF estimates 21 children die a minute from preventable causes.  In the past half hour that is over 600 babies under the age of five who died and did not have to.  That SHOULD cause us to weep.   If our focus is on acquiring wealth, getting the finest food in life, and ensuring we are always happy and comfortable then our focus cannot on God.

            Perhaps this is the greatest area where the truth of this morning’s scripture hits us like an exploding glitter bomb and steps on our toes.  A lot of American Christianity has really missed the mark on this.   For instance, over the years I have led several youth mission trips over the years.   Often these week long experiences have the teens working in impoverished areas around our country.   Every time the take away of at least one teen was essentially, “Thank God that I am blessed not to be like them.”   That’s kind of missing the point, or rather it is stopping short of the whole the point.   We should be thankful to God for the absurdly generous way that God has provided for each and every one of us.   However, we also need to realize that with that privilege comes great responsibility.  I am thankful that several of you have stepped up to meet this responsibility.  A good example of this, is that I know many of you sponsor children through various organizations and your sponsorship is a literal lifeline that has ensured the child you are supporting does not become a UNICEF statistic.  That is a fantastic start, but there is so many more ways we can join in furthering the kingdom of God by how we care for the poor and marginalized. 

            May we realize that being blessed is not about what we have but by how we can be a blessing to others.  The truth bomb of this scripture is that God loves the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized and God is saddened by hoarding wealth at the expense of others or thinking only of our own comfort   May we choose to be on God’s side.   May we love what God loves and be saddened by what saddens God.   May we have generosity for the poor, compassion for the hungry, and weep for those who weep.    Blessed are those who do that for theirs is the kingdom of God.  


The C-Team

Scripture: Luke 5:1-11

            It does not happen often, but every now and then life plays out like a movie.  There are rare instances where the real moments of life play out so perfectly that a screen writer could not have planned it any better.   I remember one time where this happened a few years ago at a youth ministry event.  It was a dodgeball tournament, and for whatever reason there was a lot of traction behind this event.  A lot of teens came and brought their best teams.   These youth were really, really into it. Several teams came in matching outfits, others had cheers all worked out, and when not competing most of the people there were very interested in the matches going on.    It was a double elimination tournament, and one of the teams relegated to the losers’ bracket early on was a young man in the youth group, two of his friends, and his girlfriend.   When it comes to dodgeball skill and general athleticism it was clear to all that one of the people on that team was not like the others.  This team though, managed to climb out of their position and not get eliminated.   They made it all the way to finals, because of how a double elimination tournament works in order to win it all they had to win twice.   They managed to win the first match.  Which meant the winner of the second match would be the tournament winner. 

            At this point the atmosphere in the room was full of energy and anticipation.  With every ball thrown, dodge made, or hit scored there was cheering.   In this final match it got down to only one person per team, and they managed a double elimination!   It was fine, because in this unlikely event we had prepared a sudden death match off.   We had two designated triangles, one person from each team had to stand in the triangle.  Both people got one ball.  Whoever hit the other first would get a point or if a person stepped out of the triangle then that counted as getting hit.  The first team to two points won.   This particular team we had been following was going up against a team of literal football players.  Naturally the team we have been following put their lone girl last.  The first pairing went, and the both missed.  The next two pairings went and the both scored one point.  It came down to the last pairing.  If either team could score here, they would win.   The whistle blew, the big football player threw high, she ducked threw low and hit him.  Winning the tournament for her team.   No joke, everyone who was there rushed the floor, and hoisted her up:  like something straight out of a movie.  

            This event sticks out because it is honestly the anomaly.  Normally the kids picked last get relegated to being present and that is about it.  They never get passed the ball, they get put at the end of the batting order, and if they do ever take a shot they are only met with derision.   The reality is that the people who tend to be picked last, just stop playing the game.  However, those who stick with a sport because they love it, even if they are not the best of the best, get to play on the C-Team.  I know this because it is was in the C-team leagues that I spent my entire college (intermural) sports career.  The level of skill and the intensity of competition may not be at the same level as more competitive teams, but the common denominator for everyone on the c-teams is they are there because they enjoy playing the game and they are willing to do it.     

            One of the most encouraging elements of this morning’s scripture is that Jesus’ first picks tend to be the people who are picked last.   When Jesus chose his disciples, his A-team looked more like what would be considered the C-team.   There is good reason for this because, as the dodgeball story illustrates even the most unlikely person has the ability to be the one who makes the biggest difference. 

            I think we have a bit of misconceptions about the disciples.   We kind of get this image that they were a bunch of oblivious country bumpkins that Jesus sort of uplifted out of their clueless state.   We do have a lot of the stories where the disciples just do not get it, but that does not mean they were ignorant of the scriptures or religious thought.   In truth, it is likely that Peter, James, John, and Andrew were all knowledgeable on the Hebrew Scriptures.  In fact, there is a decent chance that they knew the bible better than most American church goers today.  In Jesus’ day the galilee religion was highly religious, and they placed a high emphasis on learning and knowing the scriptures.   There is a lot of evidence to this, and one compelling piece of evidence is the Synagogue in Capernaum- Peter’s home town.   The remains of it still stand today, and it is an impressive structure.  It truly would have dominated the small fishing town in its day, and the synagogue was much larger than could be expected in such a small town.  Faithful Jews then and now take seriously the command in Deuteronomy to pass on the faith to their children, and so Peter along with the other disciples would have been raised being taught the scriptures.   

            The Mishnah, one of the first works of Rabbinic literature, does a great job of relating to us the realities of being Jewish around the same time that Jesus lived.  This document describes the educational training of Jewish boys.  By the age of five they began learning to read and memorize the scriptures.   At the age of ten,  they were to begin having an understanding of what the scripture meant, by thirteen they were to begin being intentional in following the law, and by fifteen they should be able to begin making their own interpretations and applications of scripture.   It is at this point, that there began to be a division.  The majority of young men would then spend the next few years learning and perfecting a vocation.   However, the best and the brightest at learning and knowing the scripture would be recommended as a talmid. The Talmid would leave home and travel with a recognized rabbi.   The word Talmid translates to disciple.   

            Only the best of the best would earn the right to study as a Talmid of a respected rabbi.   For Peter and the rest of those that Jesus called, their time had passed.   Only the best of the best got the honor to be a disciple of a rabbi.  Since they were now carrying on the family tradition of fishing for a living, it did not need to be said that they knew they were not the top tier.  Yet these were the people that Jesus chose.   Typically rabbis had to the best of the best students begging to be their disciples, but Jesus hand-picked his disciples, even if they were the C-team.  

            Just like the girl who was the dodgeball hero, Jesus chose disciples that were capable of doing so much more than what others assumed of them.   Jesus saw the true potential of the people who did not get picked first.  Because Peter was passed over initially to be a Talmid, he did not know the bible as well as other people, he did not have as much scripture memorized as other student, and he could not articulate an interpretation of the scripture as well as the top studiers.   Despite that Jesus chose him to be a disciple, Jesus chose him to be the person who would learn the good news that Jesus taught, and then be expected to share that good news with others.   I think in this morning’s scriptures we see three qualities that Peter displays that made him exactly the kind of disciple Jesus was looking for.  

            First, Peter was willing to trust.  Notice verse five of this morning’s scripture.   Peter had been out fishing, and he did not have much luck.  Yet, when Jesus asked him to do it again, Peter replied, “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.”   

            We have to remember that Peter was a professional fishermen.  This was his day job.  Unlike Jesus who grew up on the hills, Peter grew up on the lake.  He probably knew a thing or two about fishing, and he probably had a feeling how successful following Jesus request was going to be.  Despite his likely misgivings, Peter trusted Jesus.   Even though his reply seems to imply he did not think going back out in deep water was going to do anything he did it anyway.  Peter trusted Jesus and he was faithful in the small things.  

            That is an example that we should follow.  Often we think of ministry and mission has big things that are only done by the truly dedicated and special.   We do not have to be a chaplain sitting at the bed of the dying or missionary in a foreign country to share God’s love.   All of us can and should be intentional about sharing the love of God through our words and actions.  We may not all be able to board planes and serve in foreign countries, but we can all practice the kind of intentional generosity and kindness week in and week out.   For instance, we can make a point at least once a week to go out of our way to help someone else.  This might mean we cut an elderly neighbor’s grass, bring a casserole to the family who is always busy going from one practice to another, or tipping with incredible generosity when we go to a restaurant.   These small micro-acts of kindness can be viewed as mini-mission trips at home, and they follow the examples of Jesus to put others first and think of others before ourselves. These kind of mini-mission trips at home are a perfect way to be a faithful disciple in the small things.  

            The second quality that Peter display that made him good discipleship material is that he was humble and willing to confess.  In response to being faithful in the small things, and going back out to fish with Jesus he pulled in a miraculous haul.   Peter recognized it as such and his response is worth emulating.    Peter experienced the miraculous provision of God, and his first reaction was not to pose for a selfie and hashtag it #blessed.  His reaction was to fall on his knees and said “get away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!”  

            Humble realization of sin and true confession is so rare today.   When people in the public eye get caught of wrong doing, very rarely do they confess and when they do apologize we often roll our eyes at the lack of sincerity.   Worse it seems more and more the reaction wrong doing is to double down and justify away the wrong doing, to claim that they are the victim and not the transgressor.   False humility and self-righteousness is not godly behavior and it is the opposite of Peter’s example.   One of the reasons why Peter was such great Disciple material is that he confessed his sin.   He did not rationalize it away by saying at least I am not like those people.   He did not justify it and proudly try to explain it away either.   He owned that he is an imperfect person in desperate need of a perfect savior.  All disciples of Christ should strive to be so honest with themselves.  As followers of Christ we should follow Peter’s example, we should be willing to confess our sins and we should be willing to express grace, forgiveness, and acceptance to one another

            The final quality of a good disciple that Peter demonstrates is that he follows.   Despite not being the best of the best, despite being a sinner, Jesus still sought Peter to follow and that is what he did.  As the scripture records, “They pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”  They followed Jesus, seemingly without reservation.   They did not say, “I am a little busy right now” or “I just need to wait until I get my things in order.”  They simply followed.   In our era where people somehow manage to be busier than ever before while somehow being less willing to commit, the ability to follow sometimes seems in short supply.  This quality that Peter shows is really about prioritization.  Jesus told him he could be a fisher of people.   Peter knew that Jesus was a rabbi, he knew that Jesus had a potentially life changing understanding of the scripture, and Peter knew being a fisher of people knew coming to know that life changing understanding well enough that he could share it with others.   Peter followed Jesus, because he decided then and there that following the gospel of Jesus Christ was going to be the most important thing to him.  We give our time, energy, and focus to thing we value the most and Peter clearly shows that he is willing to follow?  

            In his own day, Peter would have been considered a C-team level disciple, but Jesus called him because Jesus saw that Peter was faithful in the small things, humble in confession, and willing to follow.   What about you?   Can you say you exhibit some of those same qualities, because if this morning’s scripture is any indication this is the kind of material that Jesus is looking for in disciples.   We do not have to be the best and brightest to be a disciple of Jesus.   We do not have to have the entire bible memorized or be able to talk eloquently about theology.  We need to be willing trust, willing to confess, and willing to follow.   So may you trust that God does not call the equipped, but God equips the called.   May you be willing to let go of your pride and humbly confess that you are a great sinner but Christ is a greater savior.  And may you be willing to follow without reservation or excuse where ever God is leading.   Brothers and sisters in Christ, welcome to the C-team, let’s go make disciple and transform the world. 

Hard Knock Life

Scripture: Luke 4:14-30           

In the early 90’s, I loved playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I really liked the deduction based game play mixed with real investigating.   The game came with a world atlas and looking up information in the book was required for success.  Over a couple of years I caught a lot of agents of V.I.L.E.  At the same time I would watch the game show, and have the theme song performed by the Rockapellas stuck in my head for most of the week.   Eventually, the show was canceled and I moved on to other games.  However, Carmen Sandiego was very much in the “nostalgic favorites” category me.  

For this reason I was excited when I learned that the character was getting a Netflix reboot.   I watched the first episode with my kid’s and I hated it.   In my knee jerk reaction I thought Carmen Sandiego is supposed to be the bad guy.  She is meant to be the arch-villain that the noble investigators seek to foil.   Yet, in this show she is the main character and protagonist of the story.  Not only is she the main character, but they switched the character from being a villain to being a Robin Hood style good guy.  This ran completely counter to my expectations, and I wanted nothing to do with it.  My kids however, loved the show.   My kids really liked the espionage/spy vibe the show has, and my daughter especially loved the portrayal of the Carmen Sandiego character. 

They watched the whole series, and they told me all about it.  However, I am somewhat ashamed to say that I missed out on watching it with them because I was being stubborn.  The show changed what I expected, and instead of being willing to give this new take a fair chance I sat it out completely.   It was while reflecting on why that was not the best reaction that I read this morning’s scripture and realized that I potentially could have fit in quite well with the crowd in Nazareth.   We tend to approach situations with our own expectations and generalizations, and when those expectations are subverted or not met we can react negatively.   The uncomfortable truth is that likely most of us could have fit in with the crowd in Nazareth on that day.   This morning’s scripture shows us that whenever God does something big, there will be opposition, and this morning’s scripture challenges us with the fact that we might be the one’s doing the opposing. 

At first glance this scripture seems to escalate quickly.  Jesus reads from Isaiah, someone heckles him, Jesus claps back, and then they are running him out of town and trying to throw him off a cliff!   A little bit of a deeper read gives us a fuller picture of the story.  It was common for traveling rabbis or Pharisees to be invited to the synagogue to read scripture and share their understanding of it.   It seems that Jesus was afforded this honor when he visited his hometown.   This is near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  He had established himself in Capernaum and had apparently begun doing some miracles.  Nazareth and Capernaum are around 28 miles apart, and the journey could be made in one day if necessary.  So it is likely that the people of Jesus’ hometown had heard a lot of stories.  Perhaps they wanted to see just what all of the rumors they were hearing were really about. 

As we consider the response that the people of Nazareth had to Jesus we have to consider why they reacted so viscerally.  First, we have to consider what Jesus read.  He read from Isaiah 58, and this scripture was understood to be referring to the work of the Messiah.   When the people in Nazareth heard this scripture read they would have understood it to be a description of the work that the coming Messiah would do on behalf of the people of Israel.   It is fair to say that they did not expect Jesus read this, calmly sit down, and then drop the mic by declaring “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

There is no mistaking it, Jesus was claiming to be the messiah.  In response to that they ask “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  Ancient Nazareth at most had just over a thousand people, and it could have been populated by just a few hundred.  It was not a big city.   We do not know how long Jesus was away from his hometown before he came back, but it has to be emphasized that these people knew him.  They watched him grow up.   They brought in their own ideas of who Jesus should be based on his family, their memories of a kid running in the streets, and what they thought someone from Nazareth should be like.   When they ask “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” we need to hear the subtext.   They are saying, “just who does he think is”, “someone’s a little full of themselves, or “I think Jesus is getting a little too big for his britches.”   They asked the rhetorical question because they were attempting to knock Jesus down a peg or two and put him in his place.  

What really sets them off though is what Jesus states next.  Not only does he claim to be the Messiah, but he claims the messianic promises of bringing good news, freedom, sight, and the year of the Lord’s favor is not just for the chosen people of Israel.  When talking about his messianic work, Jesus refers to two stories the people would have known well from the Old Testament.  In both of these stories, God chooses to use the non-Jewish gentiles for God’s greater glory.   Jesus proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, a phrase with deep biblical roots, that means God is renewing and restoring.   Yet, Jesus had the audacity to proclaim this good news was for all people.  

Even more so than stating he was the messiah, this is what made the people of Nazareth furious.  This is what made them want to throw Jesus off a cliff.   They viewed themselves as special and unique as God’s chosen people and being told that God’s grace and mercy would extend to everyone was a step too far for them.   Jesus challenged the people of Nazareth with a new take that challenged their preconceived idea of how things are supposed to be, and they reacted badly.   They rejected Jesus and his message completely.    Much like I was guilty of rejecting a new version of Carmen Sandiego completely.  Much like many of us have been guilty of not giving a new idea a fair chance because it was not what we were expecting or it did not fit with how we thought things ought to work.   I think if we are being honest with ourselves, this morning’s scripture should humble us and it should bring us to confession.   We could probably all confess that we have had the same attitudes of the crowd at Nazareth.  

As Christians though it should be our desire to follow Jesus and not the crowd.   Following Jesus means that we should consistently grow as a disciple, it means we should seek to make and nurture new disciples, and it means we should work to transform the world into a more loving a caring place.   Essentially this means in our own lives, in our relationships with others, and in our work in the world around us we are meant to be agents of positive, godly change.   The simple fact is that transformation on any level requires change.  If we are serious about following God and the example of Jesus we are going to find ourselves in new situations, trying new things, to bring about a new transformation.   We can be faithful to God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, follow in Christ’s example to share God’s love in a new way, and be guaranteed that someone is going to hate it.  Whenever we do something truly significant that can make a real difference, then there is going to be opposition to it.  Jesus experienced that in this morning’s scripture, and Christians faithfully following God have had that same experience throughout history. 

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement experienced it.   During his day churches were not doing so hot at evangelism, so Wesley declared the world is my parish and began preaching in fields and in places outside of sanctuaries where workers gathered.  In response the Anglican priests would actually pay people to throw rotten vegetables or manure at Wesley in an attempt to silence him.  

Another example is Frances Willard a powerhouse of a woman in the 19th century.  Concerned by the negative effects that alcohol had on families she began the temperance movement, and the latter part of the 19th century the temperance league was the largest women’s organization in the country.   She sought to systemically deal with this issue and campaigned not just for temperance but also for women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and the eight hour work day.   Willard was a dedicated Methodist, and she stated that women as well as men could be called by God to preach.   Throughout her life in all of these holy task that she advocated for, Willard met stiff resistance, jeering, and outrage-often from other Christians. 

            The consistent reality is that for those who seek to live out the church’s mission to make disciples and transform the world, it will be a hard knock life, because there will be constant opposition, resistance, and roadblocks thrown up.   This was historically true and it is true unfortunately true today.   God’s love is transformative and transformation always means change.   The sad truth is that churches tend to be famously resistant to change.   Take any grouping of clergy across theological and denominational lines.  Take them from any size church and from any age bracket.  If you got the most diverse gathering of pastors and preachers you could find and ask them how many have heard some sort of variation of “we’ve not done it that way before” in response to a new idea, I am confident 100% of the hand would go up. 

In hindsight we can look back and see that John Wesley was making a real difference for the kingdom, and that the changes that Frances Willard advocated for were the just and right ones.   Yet, even people who sought to follow Jesus opposed them the same way Jesus was opposed in this morning’s scripture.    If God is behind something, why would the people of God be against it?    In their leadership book Leadership on the Line, I think the authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy get to the heart of why this might be.  The wrote: “People do not resist change, per se.  People resist loss.  You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime.  You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.” 

            This is where the scripture really should convict us.   If God is moving and we are resisting, if we are responding to God’s grace with fury, then that means we are the one’s standing in the way of God.  We are the one’s attempting to block the good news, and we are the ones opposing the positive transformation of the world.   God’s love is transformative, and transformation means change.  Change means that we will experience loss.   The ultimate question we have to ask ourselves is what is important to us: to holding on to what we are comfortable with and resisting change  or trusting God to do something new?

            I realize that change is not always the right move and that change for change sake is not always helpful.  However, I affirm that we are imperfect people in a fallen world and for God to renew us and transform this world will require change.   When we are confronted with something new or a possible change that goes against our pre-conceived notions, our knee jerk reaction will be to resist it.  With God’s help, may we suppress that urge and instead may we be open to God’s leading.  Instead of having our response shaped by a fear of loss may we seek God’s wisdom and humbly follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.  

            In this morning’s scripture, Jesus declared the good news of God’s transformative love and it made the people furious.  This persisted throughout Jesus’ life to the point it eventually got people made enough they plotted and successfully had him killed.  Despite that, Jesus still proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.  If we are going to faithfully follow Jesus, then it might be a hard knock life.  If we are going to seek to make disciples and transform the world, then we can expect to also meet opposition.   May we do it anyway because Jesus is inviting us to still join in his work of transforming the world by proclaiming the good news.    

Book it!

Scripture: Nehemiah 8:1-10

            I have a very complicated love/hate relationship with Legos.  I love that they are a building toy that inspires both artistic creativity and imaginative play.  However, as a parent I get frustrated with the cost.  Lego sets, especially the specialized licensed, sets are not cheap.  My frustration is that after the fun of putting it together, the sets are played with, it does not take long from the course of play for bricks to get misplaced, new creations get made, and sooner than later it becomes nearly impossible and completely impractical to rebuild the set as originally created.   The other aspect of Legos that, as a parent I get frustrated with, is that they have sharp corners.  Words do not express the pain that comes from stepping on a Lego in the dark during the middle of night.  Yet, on the other hand, I like Legos because they are just so cool. 

            I am not the only one who thinks this because people have made some truly impressive creations just out of Lego Bricks.  A good example of this is this replica of Buckingham Palace that took over 50,000 pieces and 230+ hours over five months.   Another remarkable piece of craftsmanship is this eight foot by six foot copy of the Mona Lisa.  Some people have even been able to find a way to make money off of their love of Lego, such as Mike Doyle.  He raised close to $10,000 on Kickstarter to bring his 200,000 piece fantasy cityscape into reality.  Artist Nathan Sawaya has made building with Legos his profession.  He creates incredible art exhibits made entirely of Lego, such as the Art of the Brick that was recently on display at the Indiana State Museum.   

            There are multiple Lego conventions such as BrickWorld and BrickUniverse where Lego super-fans can get together and share their amazing creation with one another.  Making those amazing creations require a lot of time, practice, commitment, and (since Legos are not cheap) resources.   The drive for doing it all is a passion and a love for building with Legos.   In general as people we tend to invest a lot into the things we love and that we are passionate about.   Lego fans will easily spend hundreds of hours making intricate creations, quilters will spend just as long on their quilts, and a Western enthusiast has no problem re-watching all 635 episodes of Gunsmoke. 

            We do not think twice about investing in the things we love and we deeply moved by the things we are passionate about.   Given that, this morning’s scripture can be very convicting of American Christianity.  Roughly 75% of Americans claim to be Christian, but only around 20% are in church on any given Sunday.   In the same way a 2017 survey found that almost 80% of Americans believe the Bible is inspired by God, but only 48% actually opened a Bible at least once in the past year.  In this morning’s scripture we see evidence of how passionate the Israelites were about the scriptures, and it challenges us to ask can we say the same?  

            The bible covers a dizzying large scope of history, so I think it is important to put this morning’s scripture in the right context.   Nehemiah and its partner book Ezra, tell the story of the return from the exile.   As a consequence of generations of disobedience, the Jewish people were exiled from the promise land and forced to live as strangers in a strange land.  For a couple of generations, the Jewish people languished in exile.  However, God promised deliverance and once the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians, King Cyrus began the process of return.   The people returned to the ruined and desolate Jerusalem.  Under Ezra the temple was rebuilt and then under Nehemiah’s leadership the walls and gates around the city were restored. 

This morning’s scripture comes from a celebration of when the wall is being completed.   This was seen as the completion of God’s deliverance and it was understood as the promised restoration finally being fulfilled.   To mark this joyous occasion and to celebrate all of the people gathered together.  They all gathered back together in the holy city for a grand festival.  And how did they celebrate?   They read the scripture.   They read the books of law found in the Torah such as Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.   If we were to keep reading in Nehemiah 8 we see that the celebration goes on for seven days.   Because people never change, they of course make a big pitch in part of this celebration, but the main event of the celebration is the scripture.  Nehemiah 8:18 records, “Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God.”   This section of Nehemiah also records, “From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this.  And their joy was very great.”    The heart of this joyous celebration was worship centered around the readings of divinely inspired scripture.   As we consider how the scripture was celebrated and why it brought joy, I think there are two big take-aways for us today. 

The biggest element of this scripture that sticks out to me as how moved the people were by the scripture.  I am reminded of a story I read once that came from Romania behind the Iron Curtain during the height of the cold war.  The story comes from Romanian pastor Richard Wurmbrand who suffered persecution under the communists and eventually founded the persecution advocacy group Voice of the Martyrs.  Pastor Wurmbrand tells of a Russian captain he met, who had a great curiosity and desire to know God, but he knew nothing of the Bible.  He had never seen or heard the scripture read.  Pastor Wurmbrand shared with this man the sermon on the mount and the parables of Jesus.  Upon hearing these truths the captain “danced around the room in rapturous joy, proclaiming ‘What a wonderful beauty! How could I live without knowing this Christ’ “ 

The pastor continued the story and shared with this Russian captain about Jesus’ arrest, passion, and death.  At this the man collapsed in a chair and wept bitterly.   He had dared to believe in the beauty of Christ only to see that beauty crushed without mercy.   The best part of this story though, is that the story is not over.   Pastor Wurmbrand continued and revealed that after the crucifixion came an empty tomb, a resurrection, and an risen savior.  At this revelation, the captain jumped around the room full of joy proclaiming “he is alive!  He is alive!” 

This Russian officer experienced the same love of the scripture and the love of God’s redemptive story as the people in this morning’s scripture.  As mentioned in this morning’s scriputre, their joy was very great, but it also moved the people to tears.  Verse 9 states “For all of the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.”   We tend to be passionate and moved by the things that we love and care the most about.   When is the last time hearing the scripture read moved you to tears because it filled you with joy, convicted you deploy or the truth of the scripture was just that beautiful?  

There are often several reasons given why people do not read the bible more.  One of the top reasons is some variation of “it’s confusing.”  I can be sympathetic of that to a point.  The bible is a product of another culture and language so it does always flow the way our thought process flows.  The bible does have a lot of hard to pronounce names and places that can make it hard to keep the details straight, and often cultural and historical context are needed to get a full understanding.   However, if a people who had been in exile and not heard the scripture for generations can be moved and if a Russian captain with zero scriptural experience can get it, then I think we can as well.   Sure, we may miss some of the details at first glance, but the if we read the Bible then I think we can get it.  The story will come through.   I am confident if we took the time to read the scripture then we would hear the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.  We would believe the story in the depths of our hearts because it is true, and I think we would find it satisfies our longings as nothing else can do. 

In this scripture it is notable how moved the people were by the reading, but it is also worth noting how long they were moved by the reading.  If you notice verse 3, it states from daybreak until noon Ezra read as every man, woman, and child attentively listened.   For close to six hours, they stood and listened to the scripture being read!   Imagine that, six hours of hearing the Bible read.   We tend to get jittery if a church service sneaks past an hour on Sunday morning. In fact several years ago an Anglican Bishop suggested that the services in his dioceses be limited to 50 minutes, and in 2010 a Vatican official advised Catholic clergy to keep sermons under eight minutes. The rationale behind these suggestions that is people just do not have the time or attention span to commit anymore time.  Yet, a lot of people have no problem settling in for three hours of football on Sunday afternoon.       

The single biggest reason people give for not reading the bible more is that they do not have time, but we all know that is not entirely true.  None of us that busy that we do not have a few minutes a day to read.  We tend to always make space for those things we value the most.   This gets back to the Legos.  People spend lots of time, energy, and resources to make incredible Lego structure because it is important to them and it brings them joy.  When we consider the response and the actions the people took in this morning’s scripture it really challenges us to self-reflect and ask ourselves.  Does our engagement with the bible reflect that it is important to us and bring us joy?

Obviously, that is a question we have to answer for ourselves.   Personally, all I can do is share with you why the bible is important to me and why it brings me so much joy.   The bible feels me with joy, because it reveals who God is.  I affirm the witness of the church throughout the ages that the bible is divinely inspired and as such it is our primary source on God.   The bible contains God’s love story with humanity, where the God of all creation fights to win back the hearts and minds of a beloved creation.  The Bible is full of an imperfect people being courted by a perfect God.  For that reason it can be messy and sometimes uncomfortable.  However, the bible also has a depth that never seems to run out.  No matter how much I read it again and again I continue to discover new things about God and new things about myself.  I affirm and believe the Methodist doctrine which states the Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation.   This means that when comes to being restored to relationship with God, forgiven our sins, and fully reconciled with our creator the Bible is the only source in the entire universe that tells us how to do that.  This is why the bible is the foundation of all Christian belief and practice.   Likewise, the bible forms the solid ground upon which my own beliefs, dreams, and understanding of life is built.  It is the lens through which I try to make sense of the world around me.   In our chaotic and ever shifting culture, the bible provides a firm foundation to stand.  In other words, the bible brings me joy because in the crashing waves and shifting sands of life, it is a solid rock upon which I stand.   

That is why I love the scriptures and why they feel me with joy.  I hope you have similar feelings.  We make the time for the stuff we love and are most passionate about.   So may you make time for Holy Scriptures.   If it has been a while since you have really engaged with the Bible, then may you not let guilt keep you away.  May you read the scriptures and may it feel you with joy.   May you read about the great, unfailing love that God has for us.  A love so perfect and so intense that God proved that through Jesus Christ on the cross; A love so powerful that death could not contain it.  May you read the scripture and weep tears of happiness, because as this morning’s scripture reminds us the joy of the LORD is our strength. 


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.