First Presbyterian Church USA 
Riverside Presbyterian Church USA

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July 16, 2017

How Well Do You Listen?

Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Bob Woolf in his book Friendly Persuasion tells a hilarious story that former talk show host Larry King once told him.  It seems that Larry was a guest on a morning show in Dallas, TX.  The woman who interviewed him was the classic host who asks you a question and then looks off in another direction, not paying any attention to what you say in reply.

This host had five questions written out by someone else and she checked off each question as she asked it.  Larry noticed she wasn’t listening at all.  She was looking at the camera, at the monitor—anywhere but at him.  Her third question was, “What do you think is the secret to being a successful talk show host?”

As King started to answer, he saw she was looking at the monitor again, not paying him the slightest bit of attention.  So he decided to have a little fun at her expense.  He said, “In my case, it’s the fact that I’m an agent for the CIA.  They get me good guests and I [broadcast on my show signal words or coded messages] every night for their agents.”

“Without missing a beat,” said King, “she fired off her next question.  ‘Can you tell us some of the outstanding guests you’ve had?”

Larry King says that he whole crew started breaking up in the studio.

According to Woolf, the inspiration for Larry’s put-on was a classic routine by an old radio comedy team whom some of you may remember named “Bob and Ray.”

This skit featured a character on their radio program named Wally Ballou.  Wally would be on the street, saying, “This is Wally Ballou, world –famous interviewer.  Here comes a gentleman.  What’s your name, sir?”

“My name is Jim Frizzell,” said the interviewee.

“Hello, Jim, said Wally.  “Where do you live?”

“Long Island,” Jim answered.

“What do you do for a living?”  Wally asked.

Seeing that Wally wasn’t actually listening, Jim answered, “I’m an agent for the KGB.”

“What brings you to New York?” asked Wally without acknowledging Jim’s answer.

“I’m going to blow up the U.N. building,” Jim answered seriously.

The oblivious Wally asks, “Have you seen [the Broadway show] My Fair Lady?”  Obviously, Wally wasn’t a good listener.

Our question for the day is, how well do you listen?  If I asked your spouse how well you listen, what would he or she say?  If I asked your employees or your co-workers the same question, how would they answer?  If I asked God, “How well does [Joe] or [Sally] listen, how would God answer?

Let’s talk about listening for a few moments.  In our lesson for the day, Jesus tells a parable:  A sower went forth to sow, he said.  Some of the seed fell by the wayside and the birds devoured it.  Some fell on hard ground and withered because the young plants couldn’t put down deep roots.  Some fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them.  But some of the seed fell on good ground and they brought forth fruit—in some cases a hundred-fold.

Now I believe that you will agree with me that Jesus wasn’t interested in teaching them or us about agricultural practices.  He’s talking about people who are exposed to his teachings—those who hear the message of the Gospel.  He knew that some of those who hear the word will leave having heard nothing.  Others after hearing him will make a half-hearted commitment and then fall away.  A few will be sincere, but when they get out in the world they will waver, then wither.  Only a handful will experience the joy, the new meaning and purpose that walking in his footsteps can give.

And the question is why more people won’t pay attention to his words?  The truthfulness of the Gospel message is so obvious to those of us who have trusted our lives to him.  The destructiveness of less worthy styles of living also is evident.  Why won’t people listen to what Jesus says?

Of course it’s easy to talk about the disinterest of the outside world, but an even more pressing question today is why those of us who are supposedly committed to Jesus don’t listen as well?  Why are we not more ardent, more adventurous, more assertive in our commitment to him?  What’s holding us back?  Why does the seed of the Gospel sometimes fall on infertile soil even within the walls of the church?  And so I’m asking you as I’m asking myself:  How well do you listen?  How well do you listen to others, particularly those closest to you, and how well do you listen to God?

Statistics show that most people don’t really listen very well even in the best of circumstances.  Even worse, we don’t remember much of what we do hear…even if we do listen.

For example, if I were to ask you how much you remember from my message last week…  You don’t remember very much, do you?  Actually, if the truth be known, I’m not sure that I remember that much of what I said either.  That’s why I tell so many stories in my messages.

Studies show that people remember stories, and I want to help you remember the things we talk about.  I’m sure that’s one reason Jesus used so many parables.  People remember parables…which, of course, are a particular kind of story.  Note this:  The Scriptures say that Jesus had much more to say than what’s recorded in the Gospels.  That’s understandable.  Jesus never wrote anything down that we know of—except when he wrote in the dirt as he counseled the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus handed out no lesson plans.  He spoke and he expected his listeners to remember what he said.  I’m certain the reason the writers of the Gospel included so many of his parables is that’s what THEY could remember from his teachings.  Stories stick with us.

Listening is difficult business.  The problem could be on the part of the listener or it could be simply the nature of the situation.

In Texas they tell the humorous story of an immigrant from the Middle East named Ahmed who managed a repair service there in the Lone Star state.

One day a man called the repair service and asked to speak to the manager, Ahmed.  “Hello, Ed speaking.  How can I help you?”

“Sorry,” said the man on the other end.  “I was calling for Ahmed.”

“This is Ahmed,” came the reply.  “How can I help you?”

“I thought you just said your name was Ed?”  asked the potential client.

“I did,” said Ed with a genuine Texas accent.  “However, whenever I answer the phone and say ‘Ahmed,’ people think I’m  saying, ‘Ah’m Ed.”  So I figured it’s just easier to be Ed.”

I could see that happening in Texas, can’t you?  “Ah’m Ed.”

Communication is a difficult business.  Listening is difficult.

But notice:  Jesus’ emphasis in this parable isn’t upon the sower or the seed but upon the soil.  Is the condition of the soil receptive to the seed?  God is the sower, the Gospel is the seed, and the soil is our hearts.  The most eloquent preacher or teacher in the world can’t reach the heart that’s hardened to the Gospel or the life that’s choked with the weeds of worldly concern.

Rodney L. Cooper tells about a woman who was frantic when she discovered he daughter was missing in the Rocky Mountains.  This woman thrashed through the woods, screaming her daughter’s name.  She went back to the campsite and called for help.  Within half an hour, a search team had assembled.  It began sweeping the area, calling out at regular intervals for the little girl.

The woman sat down on a rock for a moment to rest.  How would she ever find her little girl?  She was listening for her daughter’s voice, but all she could hear was the volunteer search team pounding through the woods, calling to her daughter and to one another.

Suddenly she decided that she and the other searchers were making so much noise that they couldn’t hear the girl if she was yelling or crying.  She relayed this information to the team and in moments everyone was silent, standing quietly.

The woman listened.  Nothing.  She listened harder.  Every pore of her body, every fiber, every muscle strained to hear the one voice she would recognize above all others.

Then she heard her little girl calling for her.  By carefully listening and following the sound of her voice, the woman was reunited with her daughter.

Sometimes we need to simply get to a quiet place and listen.  Of course, that’s a major part of what prayer is all about—listening.  We need a time when we can simply spend time in God’s presence.  Some people call this centering prayer.

Author, sociologist and outstanding preacher Tony Campolo practices centering prayer.  He says it’s hard to describe just what happens in this time spent exclusively in God’s presence.

He cites Mother Teresa who once explained to an interviewer that when she prayed, she often said nothing to God.  She just listened.  When asked what God said to her as she prayed, she answered, “Nothing!  God Listens!”  Then she added, “If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I can’t explain it to you.”

Campolo says he knows what she was talking about.  The Psalmist described it poetically by saying, “it is the deep speaking to the deep.”  In another place, the Bible says that such prayers are “groanings that cannot be uttered.”

Campolo says that when he rises after engaging in this centering kind of prayer, he senses a fullness in his soul.  With that fullness there’s awareness that God is a living and guiding presence within him.  He feels like he will be led into encounters with others in which he will have opportunities to share something of what God has given him

One rather dramatic example of this took place one day as he stood on a street corner on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, where he once taught.  As he was waiting for the traffic light to change, he heard the Duck Lady come up behind him.  They called this homeless woman the Duck Lady because she made an incessant quacking sound wherever she went.  She seemed to be omnipresent on campus, so it was no surprise when he heard her.  “Quack!  Quack!  Quack!”  There she was, standing beside him.

Then, he says, something that was on the verge of the supernatural happened.  He turned to her, and she turned to him.  Their eyes met and they connected.  With all the spiritual energy that had flowed into him during his morning prayers, he focused on her.  He didn’t just look at her.  He says he looked into her.  Somehow he felt empowered to reach down into the depths of her being, and he had an eerie sensation that he had touched her soul.  What surprised him even more was that she was doing the same thing to him.  He could feel her spiritually pouring herself into him.

She stopped her quacking.  He says he’d never heard of her doing that—but in that moment, she stopped quacking.  Then she lifted her eyes and looked around at the sky and the trees and the people nearby, and she said, “It’s  wonderful, really is wonderful, isn’t it?  It’s really wonderful!”

Before he could answer, the traffic light changed, several people rushed by them.  As one of them brushed the Duck Lady, he watched her head jerk ever so slightly.  Then she fell back into her schizophrenic state.  As she wandered across the street and disappeared into a crowd, he once again heard the quacking sound.  Standing motionless on that street corner, Campolo wondered to himself what might have happened if he could’ve held on to her just a little longer—perhaps a minute or two more.  Then, maybe, the deliverance wouldn’t have been temporary.  Just maybe, something more might have happened.

Campolo says that he understands the Duck Lady needs the help of a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist.  But, he writes, when the psychotherapists and psychiatrists have done all that they can to no avail, he believes there’s still “a balm in Gilead” that can heal the troubled soul.  That balm becomes available to him when, in prayer, the Holy Spirit saturates his soul.  He writes, “In centering prayer, something happens to me that’s strange and blessed.  I feel the Spirit expanding within me ‘like a fountain of living water,’ as Jesus said, and I begin to experience a transforming presence and a sense of empowerment from God.”

You and I may never experience what Tony Campolo experiences in prayer that is that intense.  It takes a real commitment to set aside the time to truly listen to God.

It’s ironic, isn’t it?  We will resolve to spend an hour each day exercising our bodies at the gym, but we won’t spend half that time each day getting our soul in condition spending time in God’s presence.

Jesus told a parable:  A sower went forth to sow.  Some of the seed fell by the wayside and the birds devoured it.  Some fell on hard ground and withered because the young plants couldn’t put down deep roots.  Some fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them.  But some seed fell on good ground and they brought forth fruit—in some cases a hundred-fold.  The seed falling on good soil, he later explained “refers to someone who hears the word and understands it.  This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

In what condition is the soil which is your heart?  It’s a matter of listening.

Let us pray.  O God of mercy, in Jesus Christ you freed us from sin and death, and by your Holy Spirit you nourish our mortal bodies with life.  Plant us now in good soil that our lives may flower in righteousness and peace.  Amen.

July 9, 2017

Like Fighting a Giant Tuna

Matthew 11:25-30; Romans 7:14-25a

Pastor Spencer Homan tells an exciting true story about the Great Tuna run of 1998.  The story begins with tuna running only 30 miles off Cape Cod.  What made that exciting was that such a run hadn’t happened in 47 years.  The tuna were not only running, but they were also biting!  It was a fisherman’s dream.  All you needed was a sharp hook and some bait and you could haul in a bountiful catch.

You could even make some money.  Rumor had it that Japanese buyers would pay up to $50,000 for a nice blue fin tuna.  Here’s the catch:  Atlantic blue fin tuna can exceed 900 lbs in weight which can be a problem if you’re not an expert fisherman.  And not every fisherman is an expert at it, believe it or not.  And some of these non-experts got themselves in trouble in the Great Tuna run of 1998.  Tuna are quite powerful fish.  It’s easier to hook one than to reel it into your boat, especially if you hook a large one.

So it was a problem on September 23rd, 1998 when so many inexperienced fishermen ignored Coast Guard warnings and headed out to sea in small boats.  One such boat, the Christi Anne, a 19-footer capsized while doing battle with a tuna.  Another boat, the Basic Instinct suffered the same fate.  And still another boat, a 28-footer named Official Business, was totally swamped after it hooked onto a 600-pound tuna.  The tuna pulled it under water.

Says Pastor Homan, “These fishermen underestimated the power of the fish they were trying to catch.”  Then Pastor Homan adds this warning, “That is what temptation does to us.  It takes us by surprise.  It looks manageable on the surface.  Only after we hook into it do we discover its strength, and by then it’s too late.  We find ourselves being pulled underwater.”

Pastor Homan is right of course.  Through the ages millions of people have been pulled under by the power of temptation.  For a light-hearted example, who hasn’t succumbed to the power of a delicious, moist, rich piece of chocolate cake—regardless of how hard we tried to resist it?  [Maybe I shouldn’t use that as an example this close to lunch time, but it’s an example to which all most all of us can relate.]

One lady I heard about was scowling at a friend as they sat in a small café.  “I thought you said you were counting calories,” she remarked.

Her friend, who was enjoying her second slice of chocolate cake, said, “I am… So far today, this makes 7,750.”

Of course, chocolate lovers aren’t the only ones where dieting is a constant battle.

A woman noticed her husband standing on the bathroom scale, sucking in his stomach. “Ha!” she said, “That’s not going to help.”

“Sure, it does,” her husband said.  “It’s the only way I can see the numbers.”

Of course, I’m making light of a problem that’s a very serious one for many people.  But I want us to be able to relate to these words from the pen of the Apostle Paul, beginning with the 20th verse:  “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that’s subject to death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:19-25a).

Is there anybody today who’s ever done battle with temptation?  Some of us fight that battle every day.  And sometimes it’s like fighting a giant tuna.  We get pulled under and we worry that we’re going to drown.  It’s almost demonic how temptation works.

To use just one more illustration from the world of dieting, a man named Justin joined a Weight-Watchers group six years ago to lose forty pounds.  He succeeded.  He lost the weight and got down to a slender and healthy 170 pounds on the scales.  Almost as he reached his goal, however, Justin stopped watching what he was eating.  Pound by pound the scales sneaked back up until today he weighs twenty pounds more than he did when he began his diet!  Some of you know what that’s like, don’t you?

It’s a battle that many of us wage all our lives, not just with dieting but with life in general.  There are things we know we ought to do, but it’s a battle to motivate ourselves to do them, and there are other things we know we shouldn’t do—they’re destructive for us—yet we go ahead and do them anyway.  St. Paul cries out, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that’s subject to death?”

Can there be a more relevant passage of Scripture for many of us?  Doing good and avoiding evil is the primary battle of the human condition.  It means taking control of our lives and ruling our passions.  Have you ever had that struggle?

Someone once said there are only two pains in life—the pain of discipline and the pain of regret.  And then he adds:  Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”

That’s true.  If we could only discipline ourselves in all ways, we could have a remarkable life.  The question is, how is it done?  How do we win the battle over our own desires and actions?

Legendary management guru Tom Peters understands this problem.  Most of us have a to-do-list, but Peters also has what he calls a “to-don’t” list—an inventory of behaviors and practices that sap his energy, divert his focus, and ought to be avoided.  As Peters puts it, “What you decide not to do is probably more important that what you decide to do.”  That’s an interesting perspective from a business guru, don’t you think?

Do you have a “to-don’t” list?  I’ll bet you do in your mind.  These are part of your value system.  There are some things you’ve already made up your mind that you will never do—cheat on your taxes, cheat on your spouse, commit murder.  Most of us could improve our lives if we expanded that list of “to-don’ts” and put them on paper.

Sometimes we call it willpower—or in this case “won’t-power.”  Did you know that psychological studies agree with Tom Peters?  They show that willpower is the single most important habit for individual success.  These studies show that self-discipline, or will power, is more important than IQ in how well students do in college

That shouldn’t surprise us.  Self-disciplined young people spend less time watching television.  They have fewer absences from classes.  They’re more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools.

Think about that for a moment.  So, you want to help your student get scholarships so they can avoid accumulating massive student loans?  Help your children to discipline themselves and you will set them on the path of lasting success.

But it’s not just true of students.  In all of life, willpower is more important to success than talent.

We all know it’s true, at all stages of life.  If you could make yourself do everything on your ‘to-do” list and eliminate everything that’s on your “to-don’t” list you could probably be a super-star in the office… or in your home… or in school… or any endeavor in life.  Plato once said, “For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all virtues.”  The writer John Milton put it like this:  “He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires and fears, is more than a king.”

But how do you do it?  How do you rule your passions and desires?  How do you develop good discipline?  It’s like fighting a giant tuna.  How do you pull it into your boat?  No one can do it for us.  It’s a battle each of us faces each day.  St. Paul writes, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will recue me…?”

Experts tell us that establishing good habits is the key to strengthening either our will power, or our won’t power.  If you establish the right kind of habits, you won’t have to wonder what the right thing to do in a given situation is.  Doing the right thing will just come naturally.  Studies by psychologists tell us that developing good habits can become our “default” behaviors so that, regardless of the situation, we will act in an appropriate way.

Those of you who have computers understand about “default” settings.  For example, the font on your Microsoft Word document may be Arial.  If so, anytime you begin a document, the Arial font will show up on your computer screen.  If you want to begin your document in Times Roman, you will have to reset the font.

A default behavior is your natural way of acting—particularly when you’re under stress.  For example, some people when they are under stress almost always get angry.  Others get depressed.  That’s their default behavior.  That can change, of course, depending on who is around.  If the pastor’s visiting that day, you might use different language when you get frustrated than you normally would use.  You delay your default behavior until (he or she) is gone.  Every pastor has seen that happen.

According to these studies, we have only limited reservoirs of self-control.  So when we get stressed, tired, or otherwise emotionally or mentally preoccupied, our ability to will ourselves to eat properly, be polite, or any other positive behavior wanes and we resort to ingrained or habitual behaviors.  Some of these behaviors aren’t in our best interest.  We’ll overeat or go on shopping sprees, for example.

But there are other behaviors that we can default to under stress that are in our best good, if we have established the right habits.  The researchers surveyed college students and found that when the students were tired or stressed, such as during final exams, they would default to good behaviors or bad behaviors, depending on their habits.

For example, students who habitually ate a healthy breakfast every morning continued to do so through exam week, while students who routinely ate junk food ate even larger quantities of junk food through exam week.  Do you see, whatever you have established as a habit is the behavior you will resort to in times of stress.  If we want to guard against giving in to our “to-don’ts,” the secret is to set up new healthy habits.

This was part of the secret of the success of NFL coach Tony Dungy, one of the most respected figures in professional athletics.  He was famous for helping the players on his teams to form the right habits.  “Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy explained.  “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react.  They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

That’s true in athletics and it’s true in life.  Create healthy habits and you will create a healthy life.  It will be easier if you start when you’re young—and that’s why it’s important for parents to help their children establish positive habits, but it’s never too late.  Even if it’s a simple matter of substituting an hour each day with a long walk rather than sitting in front of the TV, the more good habits you establish the easier it will be to substitute “to-dos” for “to-don’ts.”  But still it won’t be easy.  St. Paul writes, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me…?”

But then he writes, “Thank be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  This is to say there’s help for us in the battle.  We’re not alone, just as St. Paul wasn’t alone.  We have someone who will come along side us and help us with our struggle in our battle with temptation.  This is where prayer is all-important.  Prayer isn’t simply a matter of spending a few moments every day making your requests to God.  Prayer is also a matter of spending time each day listening for God to speak to us about our lives.

There’s a story told of a pastor named Carter Jones.  Jones had a small room in the attic that he used as a place of prayer.  When he was especially burdened, he would make his way up the winding staircase to that room to spend quiet moments with God.  The members of his family knew that when he went to the attic room, they weren’t to bother him.

One day he climbed the stairs and knelt beside a chair to pray.  He had hardly started when the door swung open.  There stood his little girl.  The moment his eyes met hers, she knew she had done wrong.  She said, “Daddy, you’ve been so busy lately I haven’t seen you much.  And I just wanted to tell you that I love you.”  And with that she threw her arms around her father’s neck, gave him a big hug, wheeled around, and was gone as quickly as she had come.

When she was gone, Carter Jones continued in prayer.  “Father,” he said, “I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had much time for you.  I just want to tell you again that I love you.”

It’s amazing how much strength we gain for our battle with temptation when we spend time every day simply basking in the light of God’s love.

Life doesn’t have to be like a constant battle to land a giant tuna.  We have a Friend who wants to help us in the battle.  Developing strong willpower or won’t-power will help.  Developing good habits would be even better.  But spending time in God’s presence and asking for His help in the battle is the best help of all.

Let us pray.  We rejoice, O Christ, for in your tender compassion you shoulder our burdens and ease our heavy hearts.  Give us the strength to carry each other as you have carried us.  Amen.

June 25, 2017

How Much Are You Worth?

Genesis 21:14-21; Matthew 10:29-31

A large train pulled by two engines was making its way across America.  While crossing the Western mountains, one of the engines broke down.

“No problem, we can make it to Denver and get a replacement engine there,” the engineer thought, and carried on at half power.

Farther on down the line, the other engine broke down, and the train came to a standstill in the middle of nowhere.

The engineer needed to inform the passengers about why the train had stopped.  He didn’t want the passengers to get too upset and so he tried to look on the bright side of things.  He made the following announcement:  “Ladies and gentlemen, I have some good news and some bad news.  The bad news is that both engines have failed, and we will be stuck here for some time until the additional engines arrive.  The good news is that you didn’t make this trip in an airplane!”

Well, that would be good news under the circumstances.  If you’re going to lose your engines, better to do it on a train and not on a plane.  But I have some even better news for you today.  God’s love for you and me is intimate and it’s unimaginable.

In our lesson from Matthew this morning we have one of the most important Scriptural reminders of the love of our Heavenly Father for His children.  It tells us how far reaching God’s love is:  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” asked Jesus.  “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  What a moving testimony to the very intimate love that God has for each of us.

A second grader once asked his teacher how much the earth weighed.  The teacher looked up the answer on the Internet.  “One thousand trillion metric tons,” she answered.

The little boy thought for a minute and then asked, “Is that with or without people?”

Viewed from one perspective, it might very well seem that people don’t really matter very much in the grand scheme of things.  After all, we’re but microscopic inhabitants of a somewhat miniscule planet orbiting a relatively obscure star in a small galaxy among the billions and billions of stars and galaxies that make up creation.

Yet the God of creation has counted the very hairs of our heads.  Wow!  What a magnificent picture of the love of our Heavenly Father.

But wait.  There’s a troubling side to Jesus’ teaching about the sparrows, and it has to do with those two engines that failed on that train:  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” asked Jesus.  “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

This text acknowledges that sparrows do fall from the sky.  It happens all the time.  Jets suck them up in their engines.  Predators prey upon their young.  Sudden storms or droughts can deprive them of their food.

God’s love doesn’t protect those tiny sparrows from life’s tragedies.  Neither does it protect us.  Engines have been known to fail on trains as well as planes, and it makes no difference in the world how many Christians were on those vehicles of transportation.

Mature Christians realize this truth, but there are many preachers who speak of Christianity as the path to ease and prosperity in our society that the point needs to be made.  It’s a troubling truth but its truth.  Sparrows, innocent sparrows, do fall.

Thornton Wilder dealt with this hard truth in a story titled, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.  A village has been hard hit by pestilence.  A priest, Brother Juniper, tries to understand the meaning, if any, of this tragedy.  He draws up a chart of the characteristics of fifteen victims of this pestilence and fifteen survivors, rating them for such qualities as goodness, piety, and usefulness.

When he adds up the total for the victims and compares them with that for the survivors, his figures show that the tragically dead were five times more worth saving than those who lived through the pestilence.  This unexpected result causes Brother Juniper great distress of mind.

And it causes us much distress as well.  God’s love doesn’t protect us from life’s problems.  It’s the most difficult dilemma that Christians face.  Why do the righteous suffer?  There’s a common phrase:  only the good die young.  Scoundrels seem to go on forever.  That’s not always true, of course, but that’s sometimes how it seems.  Why in Heaven’s name, should that be so?

One answer may come from ordinary family life.  Those of you who are parents, let me ask you a question.  Would you protect your young from all of life’s problems if you could?  Without thinking many of us might answer yes.  And it would be tempting.  Deep in our hearts we would like to build a protective bubble around our children.  After all when they hurt, we hurt.  When someone abuses them, it’s we who are angry.  When they’re confronting a crisis, it’s we who toss and turn in our beds with sleeplessness.  We would like to protect our young from any and every hurt.

But what would happen if we did?  They would never grow into responsible, competent, mature adults.  Overcoming obstacles produces character and competence.

God has placed us in a world that’s designed to bring out the best within us if we deal with life in an attitude of faith and love.  That doesn’t mean that God has forsaken us or forgotten us.  It simply means this world is a training school designed to produce souls fit to share eternity with Him.  Sparrows do fall from the sky.

There’s a second truth related to this one.  God’s love doesn’t protect us from life’s problems, but neither are life’s problems God’s punishment for our sins.

This truth is made obvious in the book of Job.  Job was a wealthy man living in a land called Uz with his large family and extensive flocks.  He was “blameless” and “upright.”  Yet God allowed Satan to torment Job to test his faith.  You know how the story goes.  Job’s livestock, servants, and ten children all die due either to marauding invaders or natural catastrophes.  When all this happens to Job he tears his clothes and shaves his head in mourning, but he still blesses God in his prayers.

Then, on top of all this, he’s afflicted with horrible skin sores.  His wife encourages him to curse God and to give up and die.  Job refuses.  Job curses the day he was born, but he refuses to curse God.  Three of Job’s friends come to visit him.  A big help they are.  They accuse him of deserving his wretched condition.  But Job knows he has been a righteous man and he believes that his redeemer lives.  He refuses to give up, and the result is that Job’s faith is finally vindicated and God blesses him more than before.

The book of Job still leaves many questions unanswered, but it’s a mighty affirmation that adversity doesn’t come as a punishment from God for our sins.

Jesus’ disciples were undoubtedly familiar with the book of Job, yet when they saw a blind man begging on the street, they asked Jesus, “Who sinned that he should be in this condition?”

How often people blame themselves, and ultimately blame God, when life deals them a difficult blow.  “God must be using my child’s sickness to punish me for some sin,” we hear someone say.  What a petty God they must have—to injure a helpless child in order to punish that child’s parent.  No, a thousand times no!  Grief is tragic enough without adding to it the crushing burden of guilt.

Here’s where our theology of the cross of Christ becomes critical.  You and I live under the rule of Grace.  That is, we believe that something happened on the cross of Calvary that has forever changed the relationship between God and humanity.  Because of what happened there, the believer in Christ has all his or her sins forgiven.

Now to be sure, as free moral agents living in a lawful world we have to live with the consequences of our misdoings.  If I abuse my body, sooner or later it will catch up with me.  If I cheat on my income taxes, Uncle Sam may punish me.  In terms of my relationship with God, however, those sins are buried at the bottom of the deepest sea never to surface again.  They’re gone forever.  If you believe that Christ has atoned for your sins, you can’t believe that God is using some adverse circumstance to punish you.  The two are mutually exclusive.

There’s a story about actor Henry Fonda that can help us here.  Fonda’s father disagreed with his son’s decision to become an actor.  Only grudgingly did he attend his son’s debut performance with the rest of the family.

After the performance, Fonda’s mother and sisters glowed with pride and were bubbling over in their praise.  His father, however, said nothing—until one of his sisters made a tiny criticism of Henry’s performance.

“Shut up,” said the elder Fonda, “he was perfect!”

Now of course Fonda wasn’t perfect either, but that’s the way God sees us.  That’s what it means to live under grace.  God’s love doesn’t protect us from problems.  Neither are our problems God’s punishment for our sins.  As the Gospel of Matthew puts it, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”.

Sparrows do fall from the sky.  That’s not because they have been good sparrows or bad—if sparrows can be good or bad.  They fall because they’re part of a lawful universe in which unfortunate tragedies do occur.  But listen, here’s the good news.

The little sparrow never falls beyond God’s watchful eye.  The child of God who knows that he or she is under the watchful eye of the Father can, by His grace, bear any burden, triumph over any tragedy, get on top of any circumstance because he knows that he’s not alone.

Remember St. Paul’s litany of misfortunes?  “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.  I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have of gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”  (2 Corinthians 11:24-27)

Yet, in all that, Paul heard the Lord’s voice saying, “My grace is sufficient for you….”

For many of us the injustice of this world, combined with the love of the Father, is the best assurance we have of a world beyond this one.  Someday, somehow, somewhere accounts must be settled.

In Marjorie Rawling’s beautiful novel, The Yearling, set in rural Florida, there’s a scene in which friends and family gather around the grave of a little disabled boy named Fodderwing.  Fodderwing couldn’t do the things other boys could do, but he had a wonderful way with animals.

There was no minister present at Fodderwing’s burial, so one of the men of the community offered up this simple but moving prayer:  “Almighty God, it ain’t right for us to say what is right.  But if we had been making this boy, we would never have made him with his back bent and his legs crooked.  We would have made him straight and tall like his brothers.  But somehow you made it up to him.  You gave him a way with critters.

“It comforts us to know that he is in a place where his being bent doesn’t matter no more.  We would like to think that you have taken thatbent back and those crooked legs and straightened them.  And Almighty God, if it ain’t asking too much, we pray that you will give him some critters to play with—maybe a few redbirds and a squirrel or two.  Thy will be done.  Amen.”

I don’t know what heaven will be like.  But I know what God is like.  He’s a God who cares for a child likeFodderwing.  He’s a God who notices a little sparrow fall from the sky… and He cares for us much, much more than He cares for sparrows.  That means even though we still must face obstacles and crises, we don’t face them alone, and someday, somehow all that which is hurtful will be turned into that which is helpful, and we shall live with joy in God’s house forever.

Let us pray.  God of power, you uphold us in times of persecution and strengthen us to meet the trials of faithful witness.  As you delivered us from death through our baptism in Christ and the victory of his resurrection send us forth to proclaim that glorious redemption, so that world may claim the freedom of forgiveness and new life in you.  Amen.

June 18, 2017

Are We Offering the Right Cup?

Psalm 116:12-19; Matthew 9:35-10:8

Carl A. Boyle, a sales representative, was driving home when he saw a group of young children selling Kool-Aid on a corner in his neighborhood.  They had posted the typical hand-scrawled sign over their stand:  “Kool-Aid, 25 cents.”

Carl was intrigued.  He pulled over to the curb.  A young man approached and asked if he would like strawberry or grape Kool-Aid.

Carl placed his order and handed the boy a dollar.  After much deliberation, the children determined he had some change coming and rifled through the cigar box until they finally came up with the correct amount.  The boy returned with the change, then stood by the side of the car.  He asked if Carl was finished drinking.

“Just about,” said Carl.  “Why?”

“That’s the only cup we have,” answered the boy, “and we need it to stay in business.”

It’s difficult to operate a Kool-Aid business if you only have one cup.  I want to suggest to you this morning that we sometimes make that mistake in the church.

This morning we’re focusing our attention on the evangelistic task of the church.  For many persons the word “evangelism” brings to mind a few prominent “cups” from the past.  Such cups include, perhaps, a televangelist with slick hair bringing in big bucks via electronic media.  Or, if you’re old enough to remember such things, it might be a tent revival on the edge of town where sinners were invited to walk the sawdust trail and offer their lives to Jesus.  For those whose memories don’t go back to tent revivals, how about a Billy Graham crusade… or a preacher on a street corner… or the person handing out tracts in the airport?

In some churches evangelism has traditionally meant a once a year special event or a particular strategy for incorporating newcomers into the life of the church.  I want to suggest that, perhaps, by limiting our vision of the evangelistic enterprise to some of these rapidly disappearing cups, we may be stifling Jesus’ work on earth and cheating ourselves out of one of the most rewarding endeavors Jesus offers us.

The one commandment that Jesus gave to his church besides “love one another” was the commandment to go out and make disciples of all people (Matthew 28:19).  Our failure to take that commandment seriously has resulted in a church that’s no longer reaching people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In fact, a case could be made that we’re an enterprise that’s rapidly going out of business.

Even worse is the fact that helping a friend or neighbor find new life in Jesus gives our own life a huge spiritual lift.  There are few things we can do in life that will make us feel better than having someone say to us, “My life is so much better because of you.”  That’s what happens when you invite somebody to be a part of the family of Christ.  So I would like to focus for a few moments on Christ’s call to be evangelists—those who introduce their family and friends as well as strangers to Jesus Christ.

Let’s begin by anchoring our concern for evangelism in Christ’s compassion for the world.  This compassion is the only reason he sends us out to make new disciples.  We read in Matthew 9:36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Can you think of a better description of many people today than this:  “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”?

It’s a striking smile.  Can you not see a flock of sheep milling around in a pen?  Frightened and confused, they stumble blindly, bumping helplessly into one another, because they don’t know which way to turn.  Just like so many of us.

There’s a story by Guy de Maupassant titled “The Necklace.”  The Necklace is a tale of a young woman named Mathilde who wishes she was rich and also wishes she was accepted higher in social circles.  However, her husband is an ordinary French citizen without the resources to fulfill her dreams (high maintenance).

Finally this young woman gets the chance to advance her dreams when her husband gets the two of them invited to an elegant ball.  She spends a huge sum of money and buys a beautiful dress.  She also borrows a beautiful diamond necklace from a friend, Madame Jeanne Forestier.  The stunning necklace draws many compliments from the aristocratic guests at the ball.  However, somehow, the worst possible thing happens.  Mathilde loses the beautiful necklace.

What is she to do?  It was so expensive.  Panic stricken, she and her husband borrow thirty-six thousand francs to buy a new necklace so her friend won’t find out what she’s done.  In order to pay back this vast amount of money they’re forced to go to such extremes as selling their home, dismissing their servants, working at two jobs, even moving into a slum.  After ten years of intense sacrifice, the debt is finally paid off.

One day after the debt is paid Mathilde happens to run into Madame Forestier, the friend from whom she borrowed the necklace.  Forestier is shocked by how quickly Mathilde has aged.  And Mathilde confesses what had happened-that fateful night she lost the necklace—and what they had been through because of it.  Quite shaken, her friend reveals to Mathilde the diamonds which she had replaced at such great cost had been imitation and the necklace she had lost cost less than 500 francs, a fraction of the cost of the replacement necklace.  All those sacrifices had been a tragic mistake.

What a parable of contemporary life!  People frantically slaving for values that turn out only to be paste.People chasing after dreams that only end in heartaches.People worshipping idols that can never bring them real happiness.

Jesus had compassion on the crowds.  We need to see that when we try to reach out to people in Jesus’ name it’s not because we’re merely seeking to build up our church rolls.  It’s because we believe Jesus can help them put their lives in order.  It’s because we believe that Jesus can help them with their family lives, that he can bring them joy and peace and salvation.  Evangelism is always anchored in Jesus’ compassion for people.  It hurts Jesus to watch people make a mess of their lives because they have the wrong values.  He wants them to know there’s a better way.

Many people today feel unloved and undervalued.  They feel estranged from other people and from God.  For example, you’re probably aware that more people are living alone today than ever before.  For some that’s by choice.  But for many others that’s because of divorce or the death of their spouse.  Loneliness is a major problem in today’s world.

Many young people feel that somehow they don’t fit in.  We’re made conscious of this every time there’s a mass shooting, but it’s also reflected in the numbers of people young and old who are becoming drug and alcohol dependent.  Many young people are taking their own lives.  People today are hurting.  Does anyone care?  Yes, Jesus cares.

There’s a beautiful scene in the movie Dr. Zhivago.  The Comrade General is talking with Tanya, who, unbeknownst to her, is Zhivago’s daughter.  He’s asking her about one of the traumatic experiences in her childhood, a time when she became separated from her adoptive father, a lawyer named Komarov.  He asks her, “How did you come to be lost?”

She replies, “Well, I was just lost.”

He asks again, “No, how did you come to be lost?”

Tanya doesn’t want to say.  She says simply, “I was lost.  My father and I were running through the city and it was on fire.  The revolution had come and we were trying to escape and I was lost.”

The Comrade General asked more emphatically, “How did you come to be lost?”

She still didn’t want to say.  Finally, though, she did say.  “We were running through the city and my father let go of my hand and I was lost.”  Then she added plaintively, “He let go.”  This is what she didn’t want to say.

The Comrade General said, “This is what I’ve been trying to tell you, Tanya.  Komarov was not your real father.  Zhivago is your real father and I can promise you, Tanya, that if this man had been there, your real father, he would never have let go of your hand.”

That’s the difference between a real father and a false father, is it not?  A real father would never let go of his daughter’s hand.  That’s also the difference between a real god and a false one.

Many people link themselves to false gods—power, wealth, physical appearance, the approval of their peers, etc.  Sooner or later each of these gods betrays us.  They can take us only so far and no farther.  Then they, too, let go of our hand.  Only one god is sufficient in every circumstance in life and beyond.  It’s the eternal God—the God who made Himself known in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus had compassion on the crowds.  He, alone, understood the real tragedy of a life of empty values, a life with no direction, a life linked to false gods.  He “had compassion for them,” Matthew tells us, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

And this brings us to why evangelism, seeking to help people know Jesus, is so important.  Notice what our lesson says.  Matthew writes that he “had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  Then he tells us that Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

He’s talking about the work of evangelism.  He’s talking about reaching out to people and bringing them into his family.  “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”  That’s who we’re called to be—workers in the harvest field.

Can you see the only motivation for what we call evangelism is Christ’s compassion for the world?  We’re not a business enterprise.  Our motive isn’t a more impressive bottom line.  Our goal isn’t to enhance institutional pride.  Our aim isn’t to be the biggest and the best.

There are people outside the walls of this church who are confused, angry, hurting, and dying.  There are families that are disintegrating, young minds being destroyed by drugs, old folks feeling forgotten.  The need is almost overwhelming.  Truly the harvest is plentiful.

The question, then, is:  where are the workers?  Where are those committed to being the body of Christ in ministry to the world?  Where are those who will point their family, their friends and their business associates to the One who can satisfy their needs in all circumstances for now and eternity?

I’m not talking about button-holing people on the street.  I’m not talking about an offensive holier-than-thou kind of sanctimonious salesmanship.  I’m talking about caring enough about people that you try to help them out of their confusion, loneliness and fear.

Jesus had compassion on the crowds.  Harassed and helpless, they were like sheep without a shepherd.  And there were so many of them.  Just like today.  “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”  Where are the workers?  Where are those who care enough to become involved in the lives of others?  Where are those willing to take their time to show love to young people and old folks, to the substance abuser and the victims of broken families, to the down and out as well as the up and in?  Where are the workers?  Christ asks even today.  Can he count on you?

Let us pray.  God of compassion, you have opened the way for us and brought us to yourself.  Pour your love into our hearts, that, overflowing with joy, we may freely share the blessings of your realm and faithfully proclaim the good news of Jesus.  Amen.

June 11, 2107

No Time For a Knapsack Faith

2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

A ridiculous story made the rounds years ago.  Most of you have heard the story, but I wonder if you have caught its religious significance.

It’s about a pilot and three passengers—a boy scout, a priest, and an atomic scientist—and a plane that develops engine trouble in mid-flight.

The pilot rushes back to the passenger’s cabin and exclaims, “the plane is going down!  The plane is going down!  We only have three parachutes, and there are four of us!”  Then the pilot adds, “I have a family waiting for me at home.  I must survive!”  With that, he grabs one of the parachutes and jumps out of the plane.

At this point, the atomic scientist jumps to his feet and declares, “I am the smartest man in the world.  It would be a great tragedy if my life was snuffed out!”  With that, he also grabs a parachute and exits the plane.

With an alarmed look on his face, the priest says to the Boy Scout, “My son, I have no family.  I’m ready to meet my Maker.  You’re still young with much ahead of you.  You take the last parachute.”

With this, the Boy Scout interrupts the priest, “Relax, Father.  Don’t say any more.  We’re all right.”

The priest asks, “How in the world can you say that we’re all right?”

The Boy Scout replies, “The reason we’re all right is that the world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane wearing my knapsack!”

A silly joke but there is an important lesson to be derived from it.  Metaphorically, there are many smart people today, successful people, affluent people who are jumping out of airplanes wearing knapsacks instead of parachutes.  That is, they’re reaching for ideas and philosophies that are very appealing, but those ideas and philosophies won’t save them.  They’re knapsacks, not parachutes.  In other words, people today need something they can believe in, and many are looking in the wrong places.

Buckminster Fuller once said:  “The universe is a locked safe with the combination on the inside.”

Buckminster Fuller was an amazing man, but for once in his life, this brilliant Englishman was dead wrong.  The universe isn’t a locked safe with the combination on the inside.  There IS meaning and purpose to this world we live in and that meaning and purpose is available to all those who seek it.  There’s available to us and to everyone on this planet a body of truth that’s knowable, understandable, and eternal.

The early church summed up this truth in the doctrine we know as the Trinity:  God, the Father; God, the Son; God, the Holy Spirit.

Now it’s sometimes difficult to get people excited about Christian doctrines—especially that of the Trinity.  It sounds so deep and so mysterious.  But bear with me, if you will.  There’s an important truth in this ancient doctrine that you and I need to see.

You won’t find the word “Trinity” in the Bible.  In fact, you won’t find it in the writings of the early church father’s until the third century after Christ’s resurrection.

The concept of the Trinity is a product of the third century church, but it’s based upon sound Biblical faith.  This doctrine… God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit… properly understood… meets the deepest needs that we have in terms of understanding who God is and what our relationship to Him is all about.  Let’s explore this great truth together.

You’re familiar with the basic structure of the Trinity.

We begin with God as the creator and sustainer of life.  God the Father:  omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, everlasting.  This is the God who spoke and the world was created.  This is the God who guides the stars, who rules the heavens, who orders the planets in their orbits.  This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—as well as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  This is God in His transcendent authority, Lawgiver and Judge, the God whose ways are not our ways, the God whose glory is told by the heavens.

This is the God in whom all of us believe, as do most of the world’s people.  For many of us, however, this God of transcendence seems far removed from us, out of touch with our needs, our concerns—unapproachable, and unyielding.

It’s like a somewhat humorous true story that’s told about Sir David Edgeworth, an Australian geologist and explorer.  Edgeworth accompanied Ernest Shackleton on his expedition to the South Pole at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the most famous adventures ever made.

During this South Pole expedition, Edgeworth’s assistant, Douglas Mawson, was working in his tent one day.  Suddenly the quietness was broken by a muffed cry from outside.  “Are you very busy?” called this voice.  Mawson recognized the voice as that of Sir Edgeworth.

“Yes I am,” Mawson replied.  “What’s the matter?”

“Are you really very busy?” asked the voice once again.

“Yes,” snapped Mawson, losing his patience.  “What is it you want?”

After a moment’s silence, Sir David Edgeworth replied apologetically, “Well, I’m down a crevasse, and I don’t think I can hang on much longer.”

Mawson found and rescued Edgeworth from near death in this crevasse in the South Pole ice.

Here’s what interests me.  Can you imagine a well-known geologist and explorer who had fallen into a large crack in the Antarctic ice and whose life was in peril being so shy that he was reluctant to let his colleagues know of his situation?  “Are you really very busy?” he asked as he dangled there in mortal danger.  Sir David Edgeworth was obviously quite a timid man.

In the same way, if all we knew about God was this transcendent Lawgiver and Judge that we have described thus far we might also be timid about seeking Him out.  How do you approach a Being who’s omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, everlasting?  How can you even imagine a Being who’s beyond space and time, the Creator of everything that exists?  Our tiny brains can’t begin to cope with such a One.  Such a God may seem far off, out of touch with our situation.

And this is why God the Father revealed His true nature in a gentle, compassionate man, Jesus of Nazareth.  In Jesus we see God the Son cradling young children in His arms, and treating all persons with dignity and respect.  In Jesus, the Son, we’re exposed to the approachable side of God, the God who would lay down his own life in behalf of the creatures He had formed out of the clay of the earth.  Without Jesus we would never have known what God was really like.  Jesus told us to hall Him, “Daddy” (Abba).  He taught us about God’s love and showed us His grace.

In the mid-1950s, the Christian world was shocked when five missionaries were slaughtered in South America by a tribe of Auca Indians.  Incredibly, sometime later this same Auca tribe welcomed the wife of one of the martyred missionaries and the sister of another missionary into their community.  It was an amazing reversal of attitude on the part of the Aucas.  It allowed missionaries to begin translating the New Testament into the language of the Aucas.

But there were difficulties.  For example, the translators had difficulty putting the word “reconciled” into the Auca language.  One of the most important verses in the New Testament is 2 Corinthians 5:18, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”  Reconciliation is a critical word in understanding the Christian faith.  The missionaries searched diligently for an equivalent word in the Auca language for the word “reconciled” but found none.

Then one day a translator was traveling through the jungle with some of the Aucas.  They came to a narrow, deep ravine, and the missionary thought they could go no farther.  The Aucas, however, took out their machetes and cut down a large tree so that if fell over the ravine, permitting them all to cross safely.

The translator, listening intently to the Aucas, discovered they had a word for “a tree across the ravine” and the translator decided this was the word for the meaning of reconciliation that he was looking for.  Jesus was the tree laid across the chasm that separated humanity from God.

Jesus is our bridge to God and to salvation.  We’re grateful for God the Father in all His power and glory.  But we are also grateful for God the Son in all his gentleness and grace, for he allows us to approach God with confidence.  Because of Jesus, we know that God is our Daddy, or, if you will, our Mommy.  God the Father loves us more than our own parents love us.  We know that because of Jesus the Son.

But, of course, there’s a third person in the Trinity just as important as the first two.  That is God the Holy Spirit.The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in our daily lives.  The Holy Spirit is the inner witness of the reality of God.  It’s the confirming testimony that He who created us is with us.

According to 1 John 4, our life in the world is actually Christ’s life lived within us.  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is that presence in our lives that allows us to get our lives together, to achieve spiritual discipline and direction, to take charge of our lives and channel them in ways that glorify God and enrich the world.

The word “organize” has a Latin root word that suggests something akin to playing an organ, especially a pipe organ.  To play a pipe organ one must get all fifteen hundred pipes to sound in harmony.  For many of us, it’s all too apparent that we’re restrained and restricted from being effective and successful in our living because of inner conflicts that are tearing us apart.  A war is going on inside of us.  We’re being pushed and pulled from within.  We desperately need the Spirit of God to come into our lives and take those warring thoughts and feelings and bring them together.

To achieve such a unity of mind and heart requires a surrender of all we are and all we hope to be to the presence and power of God.  The sad truth is that many of us want only a partial experience of God’s Spirit without total surrender.

A letter was once received by General Electric from a little girl in the third grade who had chosen to investigate electricity for a class project.

I’m trying to get all the information on electricity that I can,” her letter said, “so please send me any booklets and papers you have.  Also would it be asking too much for you to send me a little sample of electricity?”

In like fashion, many of us want just a little sample of the Spirit.  We don’t want the Spirit to come in all its fullness.  We tremble at the idea of God coming into our lives and taking total possession of our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, our ambitions.  Thus, because we want only a sample of God’s Spirit, we never achieve that oneness of mind and purpose so necessary for effective living.

The Holy Spirit is the inward evidence, the indwelling presence, that which allows us to organize and prioritize our lives.  It’s the Holy Spirit that gives us the peace and assurance to cope daily with life’s varied demands.

There’s a story in the Old Testament that illustrates this truth.  God had chosen King Saul to rule over Israel, but Saul was a disappointment to God.  And so we read in 1 Samuel 16:25 the Spirit of the Lord left King Saul.  And when that happened, Saul was filled with depression and fear.

I know a lot of people who are filled with depression and fear.  Here’s the reason why.  Somehow the Holy Spirit has slipped out of their lives.  It’s the Holy Spirit that gives a lift to our lives and helps us stand on higher ground.  Without that Spirit our lives are like a barren desert.

A mother and child once stood looking at the beautiful picture of Jesus standing at the door knocking.  After a moment of thought, the mother said, “I wonder why they don’t let him in?”

The child considered this and then replied, “The reason they don’t let him in is they are down in the cellar and they can’t hear him knocking.”

It’s the Holy Spirit that lifts us out of the cellars of life by giving us inner evidence of the power and purpose of God.

Do you see now why this doctrine of the Trinity is so important to us?   God the Father—our creator, sustainer, the Source of all that is or was or will ever be.God the Son—our Savior, Redeemer, the one who gave his life for us that we might know how much God loves us.  And God the Holy Spirit—the evidence of the indwelling Christ and our enabler in life’s daily crises.  This is the meaning of the Trinity.  This is the truth that allows us to live our lives as a follower of Jesus.  God has come down; Jesus has died for us on the third day was resurrected; the Holy Spirit is waiting to come into the lives of all who seek to follow Jesus, as evidence of God’s presence.

Why settle for a knapsack instead of a parachute?  Indeed, why settle for a parachute when there’s a Paraclete?  A parachute gently lowers us to the ground; a Paraclete, which is the Biblical word for the Spirit, lifts us to the heavens.  I pray that you will allow that same Spirit into your life today.  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

May 28, 2917

How Have We Made it This Far?

John 17:1-11; Acts 1:6-14

Charles Killian, a Professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky has described a mythical modern worship service like this:  Pastor:  “Praise the Lord!”

Congregation:  “Hallelujah!”

Pastor:  “Will everyone please turn on their tablet, PC, iPad, smart phone, and Kindle Bibles to First Corinthians 13:13.  And please switch on your Bluetooth to download the sermon.”  [There’s a pause.]

“Now, let us pray committing this week into God’s hands.  Open your Apps, BBM, Twitter and Facebook, and chat with God.”  [This is followed by silence.]

“As we take our Sunday tithes and offerings, please have your credit cards and debit cards ready.  You can log on to the church Wi-Fi using the password ‘Lord909887.’  The ushers will circulate mobile card swipe machines among the worshipers.”

“Those who prefer to make electronic fund transfers are directed to computers and laptops at the rear of the church.  Those who prefer to use iPads can open them.  Those who prefer telephone banking, take out your cell phones to transfer your contribution to the church.”

“The holy atmosphere of the Church becomes electrified as ALL the smart phones, iPads, PCs and laptops beep and flicker.”

And here’s how Professor Killian visualizes the Final Benediction:  “This week’s ministry cell meetings will be held at the various Facebook group pages where the usual group chatting takes place.  Please login and don’t miss out.  Thursday’s Bible Study will be held live on Skype at 1900 hrs MT… You can follow your Pastor on Twitter this weekend for counseling and prayers.  God bless and have a nice day.”

That’s one man’s playful description of where the church is headed.  Well, we’re not there yet… but who knows what the future holds?  The amazing thing is the church has survived as long as it has—especially since it depends on people like me and like you.

Dr. Donald Strobe tells about a man who woke up with a hangover.  “Your eyes look terrible!” a friend said.

The suffering fellow said, “Oh, my!  You should be looking out from this side!”

Strobe adds, “To those who would point out the Church’s imperfections, I can only say:  ‘You should try looking out from this side.’”

It reminds me of a silly story about a pastor who was a good man, but a terrible driver.  He was a little vain.  His eyes were failing, but he wouldn’t wear glasses.

One day he was driving on a curvy road, missed a turn and went off into a ditch.  A parishioner came along as this is happening.  Recognizing his pastor, he stopped and approached the car.  “Are you hurt?” he asked.

His pastor answered, “No, I have the Lord riding with me.”

The parishioner chuckled and said, “Well, you better let him ride with me.  You’ll kill him the way you drive.”

The wonder is that after 2,100 years the Gospel is still alive, considering the group of people to whom God has entrusted it.  Wouldn’t you agree?  The church isn’t perfect.  We have our flaws.  Still, I have to admit being in love with this grand enterprise called the church.

There’s a story about General William Westmoreland who led our troops during the tragic Vietnam conflict.  The General was reviewing a platoon of paratroopers in Vietnam.  As he went down the line, he asked each of them a question:  “How do you like jumping, son?”

“Love it, sir!” was the first answer.

“How do you like jumping?” he asked the next paratrooper.

“The greatest experience in my life, sir!”exclaimed the young soldier.

“How do you like jumping?” he asked the third.

“I hate it, sir,” this paratrooper replied.

“Then why do you do it?” asked Westmoreland.

The young man thought for a moment, then said, “Because I want to be around guys who love to jump.”

There are many reasons why people join a church, but I suspect the main reason is because they want to be around the people who love Jesus.  I know that’s true for me.  Some of the finest people I know are right here in this room.

Still, we’re not all we ought to be.  We’re certainly not all God means for us to be.  The amazing thing about the church is that it hasn’t only survived, but that it claims hundreds of millions around the world in its membership.  How did it happen?  How can it be that with its many frailties the church continues to survive?

One place we can find an explanation is Acts 1:14.  In this brief verse we read these important words describing the early Christian church:  “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”

There it is in a nutshell—the secret of a vital church—fellowship and prayer.“They all joined together constantly in prayer…”

The church does many good things, but these two are where the church gets its vitality and staying power.  These activities combine the vertical and horizontal dimensions in life.  We could strip away everything else that characterizes the church, but as long as these two remain, the church will be a force to be reckoned with.

Let’s begin with fellowship.  Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts says, “They all joined together…”

A Sunday school teacher asked the boys in his class to define fellowship.  One bright youngster blurted out, “Its two fellows in a ship!”

Actually, that’s not bad.  The church has often been likened to a ship sailing through the waters of time and space.  Fellowship refers to more than the fact that we are all passengers, though.  It refers to a quality of interaction, of caring, of looking out for one another.

In the earliest days of the church, a Roman named Aristides described Christians to the Emperor Hadrian like this:  “They love one another.  They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them.  If they have something, they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother.  They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”

It was that quality of caring, so unique in that pagan empire, that most impressed those who encountered early Christians.  That quality is still the church’s greatest earthly asset.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that every Christian contributes a caring spirit.

Pastor Chuck Swindoll tells about a disconcerting experience he had years ago at a banquet attended by almost two thousand Christian people.  The spirit was electric with excitement in that meeting, reports Swindoll.  They had enjoyed a delicious meal and some superb music.  They were experiencing a rare blend of unity and love… It was wonderful!

Suddenly, the meeting was disrupted by a young man who pushed his way into the room.  He began to shout his disapproval of what was happening there and proclaim some particular conviction which he held.  He was asked to leave as people stared in disbelief.  He refused, continuing his tirade at high volume.  His face was stern and his voice shrill.

Finally, after he was forcibly removed from the meeting, they were able to continue and complete the evening, though the spirit of unity and mutual enthusiasm was never fully recovered.

Swindoll found out later this man—a fellow believer—regularly does such things.  This man believes it’s his calling.  He’s convinced he has what he called “the gift of rebuking” (try to find that in Scripture), so he travels around disrupting religious meetings.

Now I know why disagreeable people sometimes find their way into the body of Christ.  They have the gift of rebuking—a new gift I wasn’t familiar with.  All along, I thought they were just obnoxious and miserable.  Fortunately such folks are a tiny minority.

Most of us would agree with missionary/evangelist E. Stanley Jones who never tired of saying:  “Everyone who belongs to Christ belongs to everyone who belongs to Christ.”  We’re a family.  We belong to one another.  The quality of our fellowship determines to a great extent the power of our witness.

Jesus prayed in his prayer for the church recorded in John 17 that his followers would all be one.  Fellowship is essential to the life of the body of Christ.

The second thing that motivates the church is prayer.  With fellowship we draw power from one another.  With prayer we tap into the very power of God.

Many of you know that some of the fastest growing churches in the world are in South Korea.  Richard Wilke, in his study of churches, tried to discuss with a Korean pastor about the marvelous growth of the Christian churches in Korea.  He asked about such things as class meetings and the establishment of fledgling congregations.

The Korean pastor finally replied in frustration.  He threw up his hands and said, “You Americans are all alike; you want to know about our programs, you never ask about our prayers.”

Prayer is the other indispensable element of a church making a difference in the world.  Prayer not only opens up the storehouses of heaven, it also causes us to take heart the causes for which we pray.

Pastor Eric Ritz has noted that some of the greatest moments of history have occurred when Christians prayed so intently that God was able to use them as answers to their own prayers.

Albert Schweitzer prayed for God to save the natives of Africa and God said:  “I want you to help me.”

Mother Teresa prayed for God to redeem the needy of India and God said:  “I want you to help me.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed for God to free his people in America and God said:  “I want you to help me.”

Every time Christians pray, God looks for someone to answer their prayer, and in one way or another, it always involves the one who offers the prayers.  Maybe that’s why some of us are afraid to pray.  Prayer is engaging ourselves in the purposes of God.

Somewhere I read a story about Archbishop Desmond Tutu that sums up the matter well.  During the darkest days of the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa Archbishop Tutu visited America.  He was to speak in a large church in a major city.  The church was packed.  The media was there in abundance.

The Archbishop stepped into the pulpit, looked over the crowd, and spoke only one word, “pray.”  Then he stepped out of the pulpit.  The sermon was over.  Tutu knew what had to be done.  God’s people needed to pray.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Fellowship and prayer.The horizontal and the vertical.  Whenever both are present in the life of the church miracles are likely to occur.  Where one or the other is absent, there’s a poverty of authentic joy and power.  Fellowship and prayer—these are the marks of an authentic church.  Such a church is a church of joy and power.

Let us pray.  O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand.  Unite us with Christ and each other, in suffering and in joy, that all your children may be drawn into your bountiful dwelling.  Amen.

May 14, 2107

A Man Who Walked the Talk

John 14:1-14; Acts 7:55-60

There’s an old story about a rabbi who, while in Persia, found a great ruby.  This was not just any ruby.  It was a ruby that belonged in the emperor’s crown.  An official crier was sent out who went about the capital with this message:  “Whoever returns the emperor’s jewel within thirty days will be rewarded.”  But then he added an ominous warning:  “If it be found on him after thirty days his head will be cut off.”

On the thirty-first day—a day after the deadline—the rabbi brought the ruby to the palace.  The emperor asked, “Did you not hear the proclamation that the ruby must be returned within thirty days or the possessor of it will be beheaded?”

The humble rabbi responded, “I did not return it within the thirty days so that you could not say I returned it because I feared you.  I returned it because I believe in God.”

The emperor was impressed by the rabbi’s witness to his faith and he exclaimed, “Blessed be the God of these Jews.”

It’s impressive when someone who believes in God bears witness to his faith—particularly if such a witness could cost him his life.

Our lesson for the day from the book of Acts tells about one of the most beautiful and important acts of witness in Christian history.  The Apostle Stephen had been so effective in telling people about Jesus that he was brought on false charges before a council to be tried.

Standing if front of the council, Stephen’s face shown like the face of an angel.  Here was a radiant, wonderful witness for the power of Christ working in human lives.  But Stephen’s words fell on deaf ears.  As he described in depth how God had worked both in the life of Israel and in the life of Jesus Christ, those who listened to him were enraged.  “They ground their teeth against him,” says the writer of Acts.

At the climax of his testimony, Stephen lifted up his gaze toward the heavens and saw there the glory of God.  He also saw Jesus Standing at the right hand of God.  He testified to this company, “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this, those who heard him speak covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.  While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  When he had said this, he fell asleep.

An important element in this story concerns a prominent witness to the stoning of Stephen.  His name was Saul of Tarsus who, of course, became the Apostle Paul.

Let’s look prayerfully at the witness of Stephen.  As we do, let’s ask about the quality of our own witness.  Do we have what Stephen had?

We should begin by noting the integrity of Stephen’s witness.  He lived what he professed.  He talked the talk and he walked the walk.  Obviously this is critical.  The world despises a hypocrite.  If a person is going to witness for Christ, he or she must be a person of integrity.

Bishop ElvindBerggrav was an important figure in the Norwegian Lutheran church during World War II.  He was such an outspoken witness to his faith that he was kept prisoner under heavy Nazi guard.  We’re told that his witness to his faith was so effective and his deeds and words of love so compelling the eleven guards responsible for him were constantly rotated in and out to keep them from coming under his strong spiritual leadership.  That’s a witness to our Lord!

Leighton Ford tells about another man who walked the talk and talked the talk.  His name was Gottfried Osei-Mensah.  He was a leader of a church in Africa.  Osei-Mensah was brought to Christ by an English missionary.  The missionary was the headmaster at the mission school Gottfried attended as a young man.

The first thing that impressed Gottfried about this headmaster was that he called him by name.  He said most of the English men and women never bother to learn his or her name.  It made an impression on young Gottfried that the headmaster cared that much for him.

One day Gottfried went to a Bible class the headmaster was conducting.  Gottfried was a shy boy.  Entering the room he found it full.  There was no place to sit.  Gottfried started to turn and slip out, but the headmaster saw him and called out, “Gottfried come here, there’s a chair for you.”  The headmaster presented him a chair to sit in.  It was the headmaster’s own chair.  Gottfried says, “To my utter mortification the headmaster sat on the floor.”

Those two simple acts of Christian love—bothering to know his name and sitting on the floor so Gottfried could have a chair—impressed Osei-Mensah so much that he was led to Christ.

Years later he saw the headmaster in England and told him what his actions meant to him.  Interestingly enough the headmaster didn’t remember those actions at all.  They were so simple, so unconscious, so natural for one who was an earnest disciple of Jesus Christ, the headmaster didn’t even realize the impact they had.

My friends, could another person be influenced by the quality of your love, your kindness, your life?  Is there integrity in your witness to Christ?  Do you really try to show care and concern for all people in the way that Christ showed his care and concern for you?

Many of us who are believers need to begin in our own home with our own spouses and our own children.

I was amused to read a little story by the noted pastor and writer Dr. M. R. DeHaan once told on himself.  He said that one morning he and his wife had a disagreement.  The disagreement was so sharp that, as they ate breakfast, he didn’t say anything at all to her.  In effect, he was giving her the silent treatment.

Each morning they had the ritual of reading a devotional from the little magazine, Our Daily Bread of which DeHaan was the editor.  His wife read the day’s devotional silently to herself for a moment, then taking it and shoving it under DeHaan’s nose, she asked, “Are you the man who wrote this?”

He says he read the article and felt about an inch tall.  It was indeed a devotional that he had written which had to do with kindness and forbearance.  He said, “That did it, we had to make up right there.”

It’s so easy to preach, but so much more difficult to practice.  And yet we can’t know the deep fulfillment of Christian living unless it’s real and unless it’s every day.  This is the first thing we need to see—the integrity of Stephen’s witness.

The second thing we need to note is Stephen’s willingness to pay any price for his faith.  This may be one of the most troubling aspects of Christian discipleship today—our willingness to pay a difficult price.

Thirty-five years ago M. Scott Peck wrote a very popular and influential book titled The Road Less Travelled.  In that book he put great emphasis on the willingness to make hard choices.  That’s one secret of an effective life.  Of course, we’re all familiar with Jesus’ words about the wide and narrow roads.  The wide road is the road with few challenges.  It’s the easy road that requires little out of us.

We’re a generation of people committed to the wide road—to comfort at any cost.

Clyde Reed, in his book, Celebrate the Temporary, writes, “One of the most common obstacles to celebrating life fully is our avoidance of pain.  We dread pain… We would do anything to escape pain.  Our culture reinforces our avoidance of pain by assuring us we can be pain free.  But to live without pain is a myth… This is an unmistakable, clear, unalterable fact.  Many of us do not realize that pain and joy run together.  When we cut ourselves off from pain, we have unwittingly cut ourselves off from joy as well.”

How can we even speak about taking up a cross and following Jesus to a generation that has been raised up to believe that life can be pain-free?  Taking up a cross means doing whatever it takes even if it’s far outside our comfort zone to make it obvious to others that we’re a follower of Jesus.

Of course, we must be careful at this point.  Christianity has been accused in the past of fostering martyr complexes—people who seek out painful situations to satisfy some deeper need.

It’s interesting that a few years ago manufacturers were able to produce iodine that didn’t sting.  They thought this was the most wonderful product that could possibly be offered on the market—antiseptic iodine that had no sting.  They began imagining the millions their innovation would bring them.

Unfortunately stingless iodine bombed in the marketplace no matter how effective it was an antiseptic.  Many people seemed to feel that without the sting the iodine must not be working.  They refused to buy it.  The company had to add an ingredient to their iodine to put the sting back in so that people would have confidence in their product.

We don’t want to harbor the illusion that in order to be an effective Christian witness you must suffer.  That’s not Biblical truth at all.  However, a generation ago a wise pastor named Ralph Sockman wrote a book titled The Meaning of Suffering.  In it he said there are three kinds of trouble:  There’s trouble we can avoid.  There’s trouble we can’t avoid and there’s trouble we must not avoid.

If standing fast for our faith means that we’re criticized—if being faithful in our service means we have to go to some inconvenience—if in being co-workers with God, we’re required to sacrifice—then those things fall under the heading of trouble we must not avoid.  If we can only be sunshine Christians in the same way that Thomas Paine described sunshine patriots, our level of commitment is inadequate.

Stephen was willing to suffer.  He didn’t seek it out.  He merely sought to be faithful.  Nevertheless, when he was confronted with the need to suffer for his faith, he didn’t betray Christ’s trust in him.  Are you willing to pay a price for your faith—to suffer some inconvenience and some sacrifice because you’re a soldier of Jesus Christ?

This brings us to the final thing we need to see about Stephen’s witness.  Stephen was willing to forgive those who had wronged him.  As he was dying, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord do not hold this sin against them.”  Those were his final words.

There’s something within most of us that cherishes the idea of revenge.  Forgiveness is for wimps.  That’s the attitude many of us have especially those living in a culture of fighting.

An old Scottish story tells of a man who feared he was on his death bed.  He sent for an acquaintance with whom he had had a bitter quarrel and asked that they put away their feelings of enmity.  The acquaintance agreed and started to leave the room.  The old man rose up on his elbow and spoke one final word, “But remember, if I get well our old quarrel still stands.”

We can understand his attitude.  The need for revenge is a powerful emotion.  However, compare his attitude with a woman in Florida who was raped, shot in the head, and brutally mutilated and left to die.  Astoundingly, she survived the ordeal—though she was permanently blind.  In a television interview the host of the show was reflecting on the bitterness she must feel because of the many scars she had from this experience that she would have to deal with the rest of her life.  Her astonishing reply was something to this effect:  “Oh, no!  That man took one night of my life, I refuse to give him one additional second!”

Most of us aren’t as wise as that woman.  She realized that forgiveness is more beneficial to the person who offers it than the person who receives it.  Bitterness and resentment eat at the soul.  Forgiveness is healing and a key to lasting joy.

It’s very difficult for us to identify with Jesus praying on the cross in behalf of those who had put him there.  Of course, he was the Son of God.  We might expect that out of him.  But what about Stephen?  He was a frail human being like you and me and yet as the stones ravaged his body, he lifted up his gaze and prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  What a powerful act of witness for the redeeming power of Jesus Christ.  Could you do that?

We’ve already noted that Stephen’s garments fell at the feet of one Saul of Tarsus as the mob stoned him to death.  The Scriptures testify that Saul gave his assent to that act of brutality.  Most of us feel the integrity of Stephen’s witness—the way he lived and the way he died—his willingness to pay the ultimate price for his faith and his ability to forgive those who persecuted him—probably had a dramatic effect on Saul of Tarsus.  They surely prepared him for his experience with Jesus on the Damascus Road.  It would be most surprising if such if such were not the case.  Very few conversions occur in a vacuum.  Usually there are a host of experiences and a multitude of people whose influence and encouragement play a part.

Could somebody find Jesus because they stood by and observed a significant moment in your life?  Thankfully it does happen and it happened to Stephen.  He was faithful to Christ, and we suspect his influence helped shape the greatest missionary that Christendom has produced—the Apostle Paul.

Stephen was a witness for his Lord.  How about us?

Let us pray.  Risen Christ, you prepare a place for us, in the home of the Mother-and-Father of us all.  Draw us more deeply into yourself, through Scripture read, water splashed, bread broken, and wine poured, so that when our hearts are troubled, we will know you more completely as the way, the truth and the life.  Amen.

April 30, 2017

A Most Successful Sermon

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Every pastor would like to have the kind of response to a sermon that Peter had on the Day of Pentecost.  Three thousand people were added to the church after Peter had finished.  Even more importantly, three thousand people had their lives profoundly changed.  For most of them it was a change that would make them a pariah in their community and even in their own family.  Some would go on to die for their faith.  Their faith was no surface affair.  It involved a complete commitment to the work of God.

There’s a tombstone in Scotland on which are carved these words about a man named Angus McDonald:  “He wasn’t a particularly religious man, but in all other respects he was an ideal churchman.”

How do you do that—be an ideal churchman without being particularly religious?  I’m not sure exactly, but I suspect that could be said of many who fill the pews of Chirstendom.

You’re familiar with the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.  It leans almost twenty feet out of perpendicular.  Somehow, when the architect was planning that tower he designed a tower that reached a height of 179 feet but had only a ten foot foundation.  No wonder it leans!

To me, the tower of Pisa is like a person who’s “not particularly religious, but in all other respects an ideal churchman.”  He or she has an inadequate foundation.

Notice how the three thousand who heard Simon Peter that day responded to his preaching.  They came to Peter and the rest of the apostles and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

This is a critical point in their lives.  Will they be “ideal churchmen, but not particularly religious?”  Will they have a tiny foundation under a tall structure?  “Brothers,” they ask.  What shall we do?”

Notice what Peter tells them to do, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Did you catch the sequence?  “Repent… Be baptized… Receive the spirit.”  These concrete steps constitute a proper response to the good news of Jesus Christ.  These are the essentials of a vital faith.

Let’s begin with repentance.  This is a word that will fall on many deaf ears.  Not many people nowadays want to hear about repentance.

I appreciate what former San Francisco Giants manager Dave Bristol once said.  His team was in the middle of a terrible losing streak.  Bristol said to them, “There will be two buses leaving the hotel for the ball park tomorrow.  The 2:00 o’clock bus will be for those of you who need a little extra work.  The empty bus will be leaving at 5:00 o’clock.”  In other words he was saying, everybody needs a little extra work.

That’s true of us as well.  There are many of us who feel that repentance is for others.  We’re like the six-year-old girl who said to her mother, “The number one problem in the United States is climate change.  I read that in my Weekly Reader.  Everybody,” she continued, “knows that the number one problem in the United States is climate change—everybody but our preacher.  He thinks that it is sin.  I feel that is just because he’s a preacher.”

Could I say that if there’s a man-made component to a heating earth, sin is definitely a part of that?  God has made us stewards of this earth, but we haven’t taken care of our environment.  So it is with nearly every problem on earth.  Sin is involved… and the sad thing is that most of us don’t want to acknowledge our need of repentance.

Even more disturbing are the many people who flaunt their lack of moral discipline.  They advertise their flaws on bumper stickers and provide a daily fodder for Hollywood gossip columnists.

I believe it was Tallulah Bankhead who once said, “My heart is as pure as the driven slush.”  I don’t know about Miss Bankhead’s personal life, but there are many people who smirk at the idea of repentance.

Every pastor knows that in counseling very few people express regret for their sins.  Many are sorry that they were caught, but few are willing to admit they have done something wrong.  And yet, as we look at the torment in our society today, the wreckage of home and family life, the destruction of persons by alcohol and drugs, the scandals that have come from our highest echelons of business and government, we’re led to believe that repentance is indeed a universal need.

I read recently about the death of an enormous tree in Colorado.  It was such a large, old tree that some experts believe it was probably a seedling when Columbus discovered America.  It was only half-grown when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.  Close study reveals the tree was struck by lightning some fourteen times.

However, lightning didn’t destroy that tree.  Cold Colorado winters didn’t destroy it.  Age didn’t destroy it.  Avalanches didn’t cause it to budge.  Fire didn’t bring its final demise.  No, according to the news report, this enormous tree was finally overcome by beetles.  Little bugs so small that anyone could crush them between finger and thumb.And yet these little unobserved beetles brought down this mighty Colorado tree.

That’s a parable of our lives.  As Solomon once noted, it is the little foxes that eat the vines (Song of Solomon 2:15).

The late Norman Vincent Peale wasn’t a judgmental pastor.  He was known, of course, for his “power of positive thinking.”

I was interested to read about an interview which he had with a very prominent New York City businessman.  The businessman came into Dr. Peale’s office and laid out a tragic tale of confusion, frustration, and misplaced values.  He painted a dark picture indeed.  When he finished describing his misspent life, he asked Dr. Peale, “What do you think I should do?”

Dr. Peale said, “Well, I have a solution for you.  It is simple and you are a very sophisticated and intelligent man.  I doubt that you would want to hear it.”

The man said, “I think I would like to hear it.”

Then Dr. Peale said, “No, I don’t believe you would.  It is too simple.”

Again the man responded, “I want you to tell me.”

Dr. Peale said one more time, “I really don’t think you want to hear it.”

After a while the man became angry.  “Look,” he said, “tell me what your answer is.”

Dr. Peale answered like this, “What I really think you need to do is to get down on your knees and tell God that you are a sinner and ask God to forgive you and change you.”

That wasn’t what that man wanted to hear, but it is what many of us need to hear about our lives.

There’s a universal need for repentance.  Perhaps that’s your need this morning.  The people who heard Simon Peter’s sermon asked, “What shall we do?”  Peter responded, “Repent.”  That’s always the first step in Christian faith.

The second step in Christian faith is to be baptized in the name of Jesus.  For those of us who have already been baptized, Peter might say to us that our great need is to reaffirm our baptism daily.  We’ve already had the water applied at some time in our lives, but we continually need to be re-baptized within.  We continually need to take that step of faith daily that says, “I come with my sinfulness and shame and I yield myself to Christ.  I ask him to cleanse me and to help me to be born anew in faith.”

A great tragedy for many of us who have been baptized and who are pretty good church people, is that we have been only partially baptized.  We haven’t allowed Christ to rule supreme over all of our lives.  That’s why we’re continually in need of this reaffirmation.

Robert Lobert once wrote a little booklet titled “My Heart, Christ’s Home.”  In this booklet he describes a disbeliever as someone for whom Christ is on the outside knocking, and waiting to enter.

He also tells about one kind of believer who has allowed Christ into his house, but who has offered him only the chair in the hallway.  There the Lord sits dressed in his overcoat, holding his hat in his hand.  He sits waiting minutes, then hours, days and even years to have access to the rest of the house.  Meanwhile the host carries on business as usual while Christ sits out in the hallway.

You get the picture.  The baptism that you and I need is a baptism of the whole person—all of our attitudes, all of our actions, all of our dreams and all of our desires.  Christian faith is more than a “just inside the hallway experience.”

You may know the story of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who became a Christian.  Having taken this step, he wanted everybody else to become a Christian as well.  He took his soldiers out into the river to have them baptized.

As they were baptized, however, he had them hold their right arms out of the water.  He wanted them to become Christians, but he didn’t want them to become so Christian they would quit killing people with their swords.

Is that the kind of baptism that characterizes your life?  Has something been held out?  Do you need to make a reaffirmation of your faith?  Do you need to allow Christ access to more of your life than you’ve been permitting him in the past?  Repent of your sins.  Reaffirm your faith.

Finally, Peter says to the new believers, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

There was a young lady who worked in an enormous factory, one of the largest factories of its kind in the world.  One day she confided to her pastor that she would have to quit.

“What’s the matter?” he asked her.  “Doesn’t the factory have enough orders to keep you going?”

“No,” she replied, “It’s not that.  They have more orders than they can fill, but they haven’t got enough electricity to keep all of the machines going at once, and my machine has to lay idle part of the week.  I lose so much time and pay.  The trouble is they have more machinery than power.”

That can happen to us—more machinery than power.  We need power if we are to deal with our lives so that we’re kept in the way that leads to life.  We need power—power to make the changes necessary for us to be all God created us to be.

Tom Harris, the famous psychiatrist, who wrote that enormously successful book, I’m O.K., You’re O.K. says there are three reasons why people change.  First, people change when it’s more painful to remain as they are than to change.

Perhaps you’re in a job that’s very painful to you.  You can’t imagine being in that job for the rest of your life.  So, you make a change.  Why?  Because it’s more painful to stay where you are than to change.

A second reason for change, according to Harris, is when we find ourselves at the point of despair.  Perhaps we suddenly come to the realization that we’re about to lose our marriage, our job, our health.  At that point we may change.  You’ve heard people say, “I had to reach rock bottom before I could take hold of my life.”

Harris believes there’s a third motive for change, however.  He calls it the “Eureka Stage.”  That is, some people change because they discover—much to their surprise—there’s something better they’ve been missing.  Of course, this is the message of the Gospel.  There’s a richer, fuller life that’s available to all who will receive it.

Those who heard Peter preach his great sermon knew they had found something that would make their lives more joyous, more purposeful, and more livable.  “Eureka!”  This is it.  “What shall we do?” they asked.

“Repent,” Peter answered.  “Be baptized.  Receive the Holy Spirit.”  You and I need to take each of those steps daily in our Christian walk.  They’re the key to a life that is full, rich and eternal.

Let us pray.  Elusive God, companion on the way, you walk behind, beside, beyond; you catch us unawares.  Break through the disillusionment and despair clouding our vision, that with wide-eyed wonder, we may find our way and journey on as messengers of your good news.  Amen.

April 23, 2017

Learning to Doubt Our Doubts

Acts 2:22-32; John 20:19-31

A tourist, for the first time in his life, had carefully planned a vacation trip to the Grand Canyon.  Finally the time arrived, they packed the car, and the family took off.  It was the culmination of a dream vacation they had wished for, and now it was reality.  On the way they discussed what they would do, the sights they would see, and the fun they would have at the Grand Canyon.  This was the father’s dream.  He told his family about how he would like nothing more than to walk some of the rim and take pictures looking right into the canyon itself.

Finally they arrived and checked in to a motel, and rushed out to the canyon to begin their vacation.  The first thing the father did was to make his way along the rim, but he lost his footing and plunged over the side, clawing and clutching frantically to save himself.

After he fell out of sight and just before he fell into space, he encountered a shrubby type of bush which he desperately grabbed with both hands.  Now he was hanging in mid-air, feet and body dangling over the edge, with nothing beneath him.  He looked down to see the canyon floor hundreds of feet below.  He was filled with terror!  What would he do now?  His family had been left behind at the lookout and were too far away to hear his cry for help.  Talk about a tough situation!

Filled with fear, he looked up and called out towards the empty heavens, “Is there anyone up there?”

A calm, powerful voice came out of the sky, “Yes, there is.”

The tourist, feeling just a bit better since he’d received an answer, pleaded, “Can you help me?  Please, can you help me?”

The calm voice replied, “Yes, I probably can.  What’s your problem?”

“I fell over this cliff and I’m dangling in space holding on to a bush that’s about to let go.  Please help me,” he again pleaded.

The voice from above said, “I’ll try.  Do you believe?”

“Yes, yes, I believe!”

“Do you have faith?”

Yes, YES.  I have a very strong faith!”

The calm voice said, “Well, in that case, simply let loose of the bush and everything will turn out fine.”

There was a pause then he yelled, “Is there anyone else up there?”

Certainty is very difficult to attain in this world.  There always seems to be room for doubt.  However, doubt can be disheartening.  So some wise people have taken doubt to its logical conclusion and begun to doubt their doubts.  And they’ve found their way to a most satisfying life.

Such a man was the author Robert Louis Stevenson.  Like many young people in his early years Stevenson rebelled against his upbringing.  He was raised in Scotland in a very strict Calvinist home.  As a college student he quickly shed his rigid upbringing, which he called “the deadliest gag and wet blanket that can be laid on a man,” and adopted a thoroughly bohemian lifestyle.  He called himself a “youthful atheist.”

As he became older, however, Robert Louis Stevenson began to have “doubts about his doubts.”  He came to see that for all its claim to wisdom, the world had no satisfying answers to the deepest questions of life.  Later Stevenson would write, “There is a God who is manifest for those who care to look for him.”

In the later years of his life Stevenson was a man of deep and profound faith.  Toward the end of his life he described his religious outlook as a “Cast iron faith.”

Our Scripture lesson from John’s Gospel is about the world’s most famous doubter.  You already know his name.

The news of Jesus’ resurrection spread quickly among his disciples.  You can imagine the quickened pulse and the rapid, excited speech of those who had encountered the risen Christ as they shared their experience with others.  You can also imagine the difficulty those who heard their story had in believing them.

The first recipients of the good news of Easter were his male disciples and, typically, they considered it the idle nonsense of distraught and hysterical women and didn’t believe it.  But as more and more of the disciples and followers of Jesus encounter the risen Christ the stories gained credibility.

The most famous holdout was a disciple named Thomas, also called the Twin.  “Unless I see the print of the nails in his hands,” said Thomas, “and place my fingers in the prints of the nails, and unless I can put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Many of us have had times in our lives when we could identify with Thomas.  We too have rebelled.  We too have doubted.  Here’s something you need to know:  Doubt is one of the most important tools that God uses to produce mighty men and women of faith.

I worry about someone who says to me, “I have never doubted for one moment my faith in God.”  My friend, are you alive?  Do you have a brain?  Do you ever use it?  I’m convinced that God has deliberately placed many obstacles to faith in our world.  If He meant for us to walk with utter certainty, why does He not reveal Himself more clearly?

Woody Allen once said that he would have no difficulty believing in God.  All God would have to do would be to deposit $1 million in a secret Swiss bank account in Woody’s name.

We might not go that far, but it’s a good question why God doesn’t give us an understandable answer to such questions as why bad things happen to good people?  It would be so much easier to believe then.  And why didn’t God give us a guidebook that’s not open to as many diverse interpretations as the Bible?  Why doesn’t He just speak to us in a clear voice at the close of the service and reveal Himself so that, like those early disciples, we could leave here and tell our friends, “I have seen the Lord.”

It seems clear to me that God intends for us to struggle with the great questions of life.  It may be that such a struggle is essential to a strong, mature faith.  Never to have doubted is never to have taken the walk of faith seriously.

Let me use an analogy from the world of commercial fishing.

Years ago seafood companies had a perplexing problem with the shipment of codfish to consumers who lived inland.

Shippers discovered that frozen codfish loses its flavor in the shipping process.  Shipping live codfish is no better.  In the holding tanks they become soft and mushy and later tasteless.

So somebody came up with the idea of throwing in some catfish into each of the tanks of live cod.  Catfish and codfish are natural enemies.  In a quest for survival, the codfish are kept in constant motion as they seek to escape the catfish.  Thereby these cod are kept in peak condition from the ocean to your dinner table.

In a sense, doubt and frustration and other such obstacles are the catfish that God has placed in our tank to keep us swimming, to keep us at our best.  There’s far more hope for the honest doubter than for the person who says, “Of course, I believe,” and never really struggles with the meaning and the misery of life.

That wonderful writer Frederick Buechner, put it this way, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith; they keep faith alive and moving.”  Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for producing mighty men and women of faith.

However, in order to experience the true joy that God intends for each of His children, there must come a time when we begin to doubt our doubts.  Doubting our faith is easy, but doubting our doubts is far more profitable.

In Pilgrim’s Progress there’s a character named Mr. Ready-to-Halt.  Mr. Ready-to-Halt was so hung up on his doubts that he went all the way to the Celestial City on crutches.  He got there but it was a torturous journey with very little joy.

Much of the doubt that we experience in young adulthood is a need to rebel against our upbringing.  Again, I suspect this is part of the plan of God.  If parents and children didn’t disagree on something, offspring would never leave home.

Jesus didn’t condemn the prodigal for leaving.  All of us must do it sometime.  That’s part of the maturation process.  However, one lesson that we learn from the prodigal is that we don’t want to spend a lifetime in a pigpen either.  Spiritual maturity comes when we’re ready to doubt our doubts.

J.Wallace Hamilton once told a story about a Russian girl who was brought up as an atheist.  She had taken a government examination and, like all students, was worried about some of the answers she had given.

One particular question on the exam had bothered her.  The question was this:  “What is the inscription on the Samarian Wall?”

She had written the prescribed answer:  “Religion is the opiate of the people.”

This, of course, was the famous anti-religion declaration of the author of Communism, Karl Marx.  But the girl wasn’t sure of her answer, so she walked seven miles to the Samarian Wall to check it out and, sure enough, there it was:  “Religion is the opiate of the people.”

Greatly relieved, she forgot for a moment her upbringing, and exclaimed, “Thank God!  I had it right.”

Well, there are times when even an atheist must thank somebody!

Communist governments, whether in Russia or China or Cuba or anywhere else on earth, have discovered after generations of propaganda that it’s very difficult to purge people of their belief in God.  There’s something within the human heart that’s ever reaching outward and upward.  There’s something within our very nature that senses an incompleteness to life.

We see through the glass darkly, but somehow we sense the room into which we’re seeking to peer isn’t empty.  This world is far too wonderful to have occurred by chance.  There’s within us a hunger that only a relationship with the Divine can satisfy.  It’s very difficult for most of us not to “doubt our doubts.”

But there’s a final thing to be said.  Christian faith can only be analyzed from the inside.  Here’s where those who have made a god of the scientific method are going to have a problem.  You can’t find God with the most powerful telescope ever built.  You can’t find God with a slide rule, or a test tube or an enormous computer.  There’s only one way to find God and that’s to take a step of faith, entrust your life to Him, and enter into a daily walk with Him as Savior and Lord of your life.  I can’t prove to you the existence of God, but you can prove Him to yourself.

Let’s use an analogy.  Could I prove to you that love exists?  A scientist could attach electrodes to the skin of a person in love and measure the pulse, the respiration and the blood pressure of a person in the presence of their beloved.  But that wouldn’t prove love.  Too much caffeine that morning at breakfast might cause the same bodily reactions.

The only way you and I can ever prove love is to have experienced what it is to love and to be loved.

So it is with faith.  There are only two ways the existence of a loving God can be proved.  The first is by the testimony of others.  We can say with utter certainty there have been millions of persons who have experienced God as a reality in their lives.  That’s one proof—though it won’t satisfy the skeptic.

The most conclusive evidence of the existence of God is to experience Him yourself.  As the Old song says, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.”

The richest man in the world, Croesus, once asked the wisest man in the world, Thales, “What is God?”

The philosopher asked for a day in which to deliberate, and then for another, and then for another, and another, and another—and at length confessed that he was not able to answer, that the longer he deliberated, the more difficult it was for him to frame an answer.

Tertullian, the early Church Father, eagerly seized upon this incident and said it was an example of the world’s ignorance of God outside of Christ.  “There,” he exclaimed, “is the wisest man in the world, and he cannot tell you who God is.  But the most ignorant [workman] among the Christians knows God, and is able to make him known unto others.”

Tertullian was making this very point.  Christian faith must be experienced from the inside.  Faith grows as you walk daily with the Master.  It’s unlikely that Thomas the doubter would ever have experienced the faith if he hadn’t remained among the other believers.  And his sense of loss would’ve been profound.  He would never have experienced the joy and the relief he experienced when he fell to his knees at the feet of Jesus and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

What happened to Thomas after his experience with the risen Christ?  His later career is wrapped in mystery and legend.  An apocryphal book, called The Legend of Thomas, claims to give his history.  It says that when the disciples divided up the world to conquer it for Jesus, Thomas received India.  And there in India Thomas died for the faith that he once had doubted.

Indeed, in South India today you will find a church called the Thomist Church of South India which claims that Thomas was its founder.  Thomas dropped his doubts at the pierced feet of Jesus and became one of those by whose testimony we have the faith today.

Thomas was a doubter.  He had to see for himself.  Jesus didn’t condemn him for that.  However, Jesus did say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  Doubt is an obstacle that, when overcome, can cause us to have a deeper, richer, more meaningful faith.  In the struggle for meaning the wise person learns to doubt their doubts.  The way to prove faith is to surrender yourself to the Lordship of Christ, walk in his way and experience his love for yourself.

Let us pray.  Blessed are you, O God of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we receive the legacy of a living hope, born again not only from his death but also from his resurrection.  May we who have received forgiveness of sins through the Holy Spirit live to set others free, until, at length, we enter the inheritance that’s imperishable and unfading, where Christ lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Where Is Your Galilee?

Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 28:1-10 CEB

Let’s pause for a moment – before we get to earthquakes and the angel and, yes, even the very-much-alive-Jesus, and consider Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.

I want to give them some attention, in part, because they’re the characters in this Gospel story that are relatable.  I can’t imagine too readily the heavenly being in dazzling white.  I don’t know how to picture the Risen Christ.  But I know the Marys.  I know the faithful men and women who are inevitably around before the crack of dawn or available in the dead of night, no matter how dire the circumstances.  I know the ones who perform like clockwork the rituals surrounding death even when they’re deeply grieving the one for whom those rituals are performed.

They’re the ones who cook the meals and make the fellowship hall look lovely for the reception that follows the service.  They’re the ones who usher the family into the parlor as they gather at the church, making sure boxes of tissues are strategically placed and bottled water is available.  They’re the ones who sit by the bedside, visit in the hospital, place phone calls, write notes and pray without ceasing.  I know Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, don’t you?

What’s it about them that keeps them showing up, even in the most heartbreaking of seasons, even when their own hearts are broken?  Like the Marys in this morning’s Matthew text, it’s surely this:  They love Jesus.  They love Jesus and their love for him compels them to face death head-on, even when most of the rest of us are so consumed with hopelessness that we can’t get up as the day dawns.  We simply can’t face what the light of the morning reveals, so we don’t go to the tomb or the hospital, the refugee camp or the prison.  But the Marys do – even though their hearts are broken at the magnitude of the suffering and loss they’ve witnessed.

Jesus is dead and buried.  They saw him on the cross.  Matthew tells us, “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; They followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.  Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”  They knew where he was buried.  Matthew tells us, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.”  They keep showing up, despite the pain and loss, because they love Jesus.

On this Easter of 2017, remembering the Marys and their relentless showing up for the love of Jesus is no small thing.  I can’t relate too much to angels and earthquakes – or even, at times, to the Risen Jesus – but I know many, many Marys and I can relate to them.  On good days, I may even be able to emulate them and show up in those graveyards of despair, if only for the love of Jesus.  That, it would seem, is the first step to encountering our Risen Lord.

Odd isn’t it?  How those places we least want to go are often the ones where we encounter not only heavenly beings, but our Risen Lord?  Odd isn’t it?  That it’s often in places of pain where Jesus undeniably meets us?  Maybe even when we visit the prisoner, give food to the hungry, clothe the naked… sounds familiar, no?

I appreciate Matthew’s version of the resurrection for including the Marys, ordinary people of faith who love Jesus, and for also having a showy angel who seems to throw down an earthquake in order to roll away the stone.  Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory in this account.  Even stones can’t help but obey the God of all creation.  But really, the angel and the earthquake are a warm-up act to the Risen Christ who meets the Marys on the road to Galilee.  The timing of this is  important.  The Marys have already believed and obeyed.  They took the angel's message to heart and are on their way in joy and fear to tell the disciples, and suddenly Jesus meets them.  Maybe there’s an Easter Word in that, too.  Sometimes it’s in acting out of the hope of the resurrection, before we’ve even seen the Risen Christ, that our Lord suddenly meets us.

Don’t be afraid.  For the love of Jesus, keep showing up, even in grief, even in places of pervasive pain.  Act out of the hope of resurrection and, lo and behold, all of the sudden, the Risen Christ Jesus will meet you, confirming that death doesn’t have the last word, life does.  In the truth of that promise we keep showing up before dawn, in the middle of the night, and even when everyone else has given up.

Could that be our Easter message this year?  Because of the resurrection we live bravely, persistently – and, many would say, foolishly – out of love for and loyalty to Jesus, going to Galilee because he told us he would meet us there.

As Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church often admonishes his flock:  “Go to Galilee.”  He asks, “Where is your Galilee?”  He says:


Which is a way of talking about the world.


In the streets of the city.


In our rural communities.

Galilee in our hospitals.

Galilee in our office places.

Galilee where God’s children live and dwell there.

In Galilee you will meet the living Christ for He has already gone ahead of       


I think we sometimes want a more complicated Easter message that that.  The angel in dazzling white, the earth shaking, the stone rolling away – all of that’s appealing in its other-worldly extraordinariness.  When we don’t have that kind of epiphany we can fake the ignorance of God’s will and calling on our life.  But the most amazing part of this story is the Risen Christ, the one through whom death and sin has been vanquished, and his message is the same as that of the angel:  “Go to Galilee.”  It’s pretty straightforward.  Will we be like the Marys and heed it?  Will we show up in the painful, chaotic, all-to-earthly Galilee for the love of Jesus and in hope of the resurrection?  Fear not.  Our Risen, life-filled, life-giving, Lord will meet us there.

Let us pray.  Resurrecting God, you conquered death and opened the gates of life everlasting.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, raise us with Christ that we, too, may proclaim healing and peace to the nations.  Amen.

April 9, 2017

Which Parade Are You In?

Isaiah 50:4-9; Matthew 21:1-11

A pastor was asked to speak for a certain charitable organization.  After the meeting the program chairman handed the pastor a check.

“Oh, I couldn’t take this,” the pastor said with some embarrassment.  “I appreciate the honor of being asked to speak.  You have better uses for this money.  You apply it to one of those uses.”

The program chairman asked, “Well, do you mind if we put it into our special fund?”

The pastor replied, “Of course not.  What is the special fund for?”

The chairman answered, “It’s so we can get a better speaker next year.”

Have you noticed?  Life is full of humbling experiences.

A humbler man never lived than Jesus of Nazareth.  That’s the essence of the Good News for the day.  On the one hand, we see that no greater man ever lived than Jesus.  He was the very Word of God come down from the Father.  He was the Life, the Light, the Truth, and the Way.  And yet no one ever emptied himself more completely of pride and arrogance than did Jesus Christ.

Consider the donkey on which he rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.  You or I would’ve chosen a handsome stallion on which to ride into the city.  After all, we’re careful about the kind of car we drive.  Right?  The world won’t respect an old beat-up Chevrolet Malibu like it will a new BMW or an Audi.  At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.  Jesus chose a battered up 1957 Studebaker to drive into Jerusalem.  That’s how I like to imagine that lowly donkey.  Certainly that humble beast wasn’t a symbol of pride and prestige.

Jesus’ entrance into the Holy City was consistent with everything he lived and taught.  Remember how offended Simon Peter was when Jesus sought to wash his feet?  That was a job for a servant—not for a distinguished rabbi.  The idea that greatness is related to servanthood was a principle that Jesus’ disciples had a difficult time grasping.

The washing of the disciples’ feet took place at the Last Supper.  Luke tells us that on the way to that sacred meal the disciples had been arguing over which of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom.  The disciples thought of greatness in terms of worldly success.  To achieve success was to have others serve you.  They weren’t prepared, then, to handle Jesus’ teaching that “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:44-45)  That was a radical teaching for them, and it’s a radical teaching for many of us.  Yet there’s an important truth here for our lives.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week.  It’s interesting to watch the strong Son of God acknowledge his dependence on God during those final hours.  In the garden he prays, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me…”  On the cross, at the height of his despair, he cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

You and I have prayed that prayer even when we knew that God hadn’t forsaken us.  “Father, into thy hands do I commit my spirit!” Jesus prayed at the end.  My friends, if Jesus found it necessary to utterly and completely depend on God, how can you and I live our lives without depending on God as well?

I read somewhere that ninety-seven percent of all people offered a new pen to try, write their own name.  Now that’s understandable.  After all, the only time many of us use a pen is when we sign our names.  Nevertheless, such a statistic does seem symbolic.

It’s very difficult for many of us to see beyond our own needs and our own circumstances.  It’s so essential this morning that we see that humble Galilean riding into Jerusalem on that donkey.  His concern wasn’t for his welfare but for ours.

In the Nicene Creed, Christians affirm that Jesus was “very God of very God.”  Yet here he was humbling himself to be sacrificed like a farm animal on the cross of Calvary.  Indeed, he’s referred to in the book of Revelation as “the Lamb that was slain”.  No crown—no throne—no comfortable palace—Jesus gave it all up for sinful humanity.

This has always endeared Jesus to people at the bottom of society.

John W. Gardner, in his book, Excellence, includes a letter by Sarah Gooder, a young girl working in the coal mines of England in 1842.  Here is what Sarah wrote:  

“I am Sarah Gooder, I am eight years old.  I’m a coal carrier in the Gawber Mine.  It does not tire me but I have to [work] without a light and I’m scared.  I go at four and sometimes half past three in the morning, and come out at five and half past in the evening.  I never go to sleep.  Sometimes I sing when I’ve light, but not in the dark; I dare not sing then.  I don’t like being in the [coal] pit.  I am very sleepy when I go in, in the morning.  I go to Sunday school and learn to read.  They teach me to pray.  I have heard tell of Jesus many a time.  I don’t know why he came to earth.  I don’t know why he died, but he had stones for his head to rest on.”

Yes, my friends, that’s how people in civilized England lived around the time of our Civil War—an eight year old girl working 14 hours a day in coal mines.

Did you notice what impressed Sarah about Jesus, though?  “He had stones for his head to rest on.”  No soft pillow in a luxurious mansion for Jesus.  He cared enough to come down where Sarah was!  Do you have that much greatness within you—to see the needs of the least and the lowly?  Or are you one of these petty, little people who can see only his or her own needs?

Humility is the key to greatness.  That’s an important thing for us to see.  Servanthood is the path to true success.  Some of the greatest people who ever lived have viewed themselves as servants, and they have blessed our world.

There was an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer sometime back about a 14-year old Jewish girl at the end of World War II who was discovered lost, alone, and barely alive lying on the platform of an abandoned railroad station.  It was the day the Russian army liberated the Nazi controlled labor camp where she was held captive.

Though she was free, she was half-starved and too exhausted to pick herself up off the ground.  She thought she would die there.  But then a young priest came beside her.  He offered her tea, two slices of bread, and some cheese.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked her.

“Krakow,” she managed to reply.

“I’m going there too,” he said.  “Let me help you up.”  He tried to lift Edith to her feet but she collapsed.  So he picked her up and literally carried her two miles to the train to Krakow.

“What is your name?”  He asked.

“Edith Zirer,” she replied.

“My name is Karol,” replied her rescuer.  When they arrived at Krakow, they were separated and they never saw each other again.  Until the year 2000.

In Jerusalem, at the Holocaust memorial, Edith Zirer, with tears in her eyes, clasped the hands of a Polish priest named Karol, whom the world grew to know as Pope John Paul II.  The Pope had performed that quiet act of service of lifting up and carrying this poor Holocaust survivor and had forgotten it.  But Edith didn’t.  Before the whole world she declared, “He came like an angel out of nowhere and gave me life.  He saved me.  There’s no other word for it.  It’s thanks to him I’m here today.”

Then Edith Zirer quoted a verse from the Talmud which says, “To save one life is to save the world.”

Sometimes when we think of the pope we associate him with the pomp and circumstance of his lofty office.  We forget that many of the modern popes, including the current one, have had the heart of a servant.  All greatness grows out of humility and service.

Jesus came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  Part of this was undoubtedly to fulfill an ancient prophecy.  When Solomon was anointed king, he rode into the city on a mule, to the shouts and praises of the people.  Zechariah prophesied the Messiah would arrive the same way “gentle and riding on a donkey”.  Jesus knew about this prophecy when he chose a donkey for his ride.

But this act was also completely in his character.  “He humbled himself,” writes St. Paul “and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”  (Philippians 2:8)

You see, according to theologian Marcus Borg, there were two parades in Jerusalem that Palm Sunday.  We see Jesus riding on a small donkey, accompanied by his followers coming from the north into Jerusalem.  But that parade wasn’t the largest or most spectacular parade in town during that particular Passover season.  Also entering Jerusalem at Passover from the west was the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

Like the Roman governors of Judea before him, Pontius Pilate lived in Caesarea by the sea.  In other words, Pilate spent most of his time at his beach house.  But with crowds of devout Jews flowing into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, Pilate put on a display of force.  After all, Passover commemorates the Jews’ deliverance from the rule of Pharaoh.  Pilate didn’t want them to get any ideas about a similar liberation from Rome.

When Pilate entered Jerusalem with his army, his aim was to prevent any possibility of violent rebellion against Roman rule.  No one likes the foot of a foreign power on their necks and, to make matters worse, Rome imposed high taxes on subject nations.  So there was always the threat that zealots would stir up the Jewish population to try to throw off the yoke of Rome.

The Roman army that accompanied Pilate included, “cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.”

There was also the sound of “marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, and the beating of drums.”  All this would have a sobering effect on all those who saw this parade.

No one shouted “Hosanna!” as Pilate rode his imposing steed into Jerusalem leading a regiment of his most trusted soldiers hoping to strike fear into the resentful onlookers.  And if things did get out of hand Pilate had several battalions of Rome’s finest garrisoned on the west side of Jerusalem ready to flood into the city to crush any hint of rebellion.

So, there was Pilate—willing, without exception, to take the life of anyone who dared question his authority, and there was Jesus—willing, without exception, to lay down his life for the least and lowest.  No contrast could be starker.  And we are left to choose.  Will we go with Pilate the merciless who would crush others to gain his own way, or will we go with Jesus, who mercifully lay down his life for others?  It’s a choice we make more often than we think in the way we treat those we come into contact with each day.

I hope we’ll choose Jesus.  I hope that we’ll choose him by opening our own hearts and praying, “Lord, give me the ability to love others as much as Christ loved me.  Help me to live a life of service as he lived a life of humble service even though he was Lord of all creation.  Help me to make whatever changes that you would have take place in my life that I may also be a man or woman committed to the service of others.”  Amen.

April 2, 2017
Fix It, Daddy
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:17-45
In his book Father Care Charles Paul Conn tells about his two-year-old daughter, Vanessa, who was given a helium-filled balloon at Sunday school.  It was bright blue and seemed almost alive as it danced and floated on the end of her string as she ran through the halls of the church pulling it along behind her.  But the inevitable happened.  The balloon bumped into the sharp edge of a metal railing and popped.  With a single, loud “bang,” it burst and fell to her feet.
She looked down and saw what had happened to her beautiful balloon, now a forlorn wad of wet blue rubber.  It took her only a moment to regain her buoyant mood, however, as she picked up the remains of that balloon, marched cheerfully to where her father was standing and thrust it up to him.  “Here, Daddy,” she said cheerfully, “fix it.”
Sometimes our lives resemble that wad of wet blue rubber lying there on the church hall floor.  “Here, Daddy,” we say to God, “fix it.”
Mary and Martha were two of Jesus’ closest friends.  Their brother Lazarus had been seriously ill.  Concerned about his welfare, and lacking the medical conveniences that you and I take for granted, they sent for the one man they knew could help them.  Mary and Martha had been witnesses to Jesus’ healing power.  They felt their brother would be in no danger if Jesus would come and minister to him.
We can appreciate their feelings.  How many times have we thought, “If we can just get him to the hospital, he will be all right…”  or “if the doctor just gets here in time, she will recover?”
Jesus didn’t return in time, however.  Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days by the time Jesus arrived in their village.  “Lord,” said the sharp-tongued Martha, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Friends, we need to pause here and add a word of caution.  Sometimes, like the little girl with the balloon that had burst, we have unrealistic expectations of God.  Sooner or later, by some means, everybody dies.  Even though Jesus raised Lazarus on this one occasion, Lazarus would one day die.  It’s difficult to let go of someone we love, but sooner or later we all have to accept the inevitable.
We’re grateful for this story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave.  It demonstrates Jesus’ love and his power over death.  But the mature Christian understands that death is part of God’s plan, as is life.  We pray to hold on to our loved ones, but we trust a loving God to care for those we love whether in life or in death.
Nevertheless, it’s a thrilling story.  First of all, we have a picture of Jesus weeping over the tomb of Lazarus.  “See how he loved him,” say the Jews who see him.
Then we have Jesus saying in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.”  Lazarus does indeed come forth from the tomb, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth.  Then Jesus says to those who are witnesses to this startling event, “Unbind him and let him go.”  That will make your heart beat faster, won’t it?  “Unbind him and let him go!”  It tells us that Jesus is control.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is a drama of love, new life and freedom.  It’s representative of the sort of thing that Jesus is continually doing in people’s lives.
There are three ingredients in the story of Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus that are always present at those times in our lives when our balloons are a forlorn wad of rubber and we’re pleading with God, “Daddy, fix it.”
We are heartened in a time of crisis, first of all, by the presence of the Master.  Mary and Martha called for Jesus and he came.  He didn’t come according to their schedule, but he came.  He always does when we have a need.
You may be familiar with the remarkable story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his journey to the Antarctic in the first part of the twentieth century.  It was Shackleton’s dream to cross the 2,100 miles of this wasteland of ice and snow by foot and by dogsled.  He didn’t make it that far, however.  His ship was stopped by an ice pack and finally sank.  He and his men started out trudging over drifting ice-floes trying to reach the nearest land—nearly 200 miles away and the nearest human outpost—nearly 1,200 miles away.  They towed behind a lifeboat weighing nearly one ton.  When they finally reached waters clear enough of ice to navigate they faced waves as high as 90 feet.
Finally—yea, miraculously—they reached South Georgia Island only to discover they were on the wrong side of the island.  They had to cross a 10,000 foot high mountain range that had never been crossed before.  The story of that crossing as related in the book, Endurance, is an amazing story.
When they finally reached their destination almost seven months after beginning their journey, they were so bedraggled their friends didn’t recognize them.  But here’s what is particularly significant:  To a man those who completed the journey,  reported they felt the presence of One unseen accompanying them on their perilous trek.  Somehow they knew they weren’t alone, God was with them.
Jesus promised his disciples they would never be alone.  He would provide them a counselor, or a comforter.  The word Paracleteis the Greek word for the presence that Jesus promised.  It’s an interesting word.  It comes from the courts of law in that time.  The Paracletewas a person of unblemished character.  When the evidence had been presented and a verdict was eminent in a court trial, this person of unblemished character, this Paraclete, would simply come and stand with the accused.  The power of the Paraclete’scharacter gave the accused not only comfort but also moral support in the pursuit of a favorable verdict.
Is this not what the presence of the risen Christ does for us in life’s most difficult trials?  We may not see a loved one raised from the dead as Mary and Martha did, but it helps when we’re carrying a terrible burden to know that we don’t carry it alone.  We see here, first of all, the comfort of his presence.
In the second place, we’re heartened in a time of crisis by Christ’s power.  Every follower of Jesus Christ needs to understand that Christ has power over both life and death—otherwise we have no news that’s ultimately Good News.
John Huffman in his book Who’s In Charge Here? tells about Robert Dick Wilson, a great professor at Princeton Theological Seminary.  One of Dr. Wilson’s students had been invited back to preach in Miller Chapel twelve years after his graduation.
Old Dr. Wilson came in and sat down near the front.  At the close of the service the old professor came up to his former student, cocked his head to one side in his characteristic way, extended his hand, and said, “If you come back again, I will not come to hear you preach.  I only come once.  I’m glad you’re a big-godder.  When my boys come back, I come to see if they’re big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.”
His former student asked him to explain, and he replied:  “Well, some men have a little god, and they’re always in trouble with him. He can’t do any miracles.  He can’t take care of the inspiration and transmission of the Scripture to us.  He doesn’t intervene on behalf of his people.  They have a little god and I call them little-godders.  Then there are those who have a great God.  He speaks and it’s done.  He commands and it stands fast.  He knows to show Himself strong on behalf of them that fear him.  You have a great God; and He will bless your ministry.”  He paused a moment and smiled, and said, “God bless you,” and turned, and walked out.
You might want to ask yourself whether you have a big God or a little God.
A little girl listened attentively as her father read the family devotions.  She seemed awed by her parents’ talk of God’s limitless power and mercy.  “Daddy,” she asked, placing he little hands on his knees, “How big is God?”
Her father thought for a moment and answered, “Darling, he’s always just a little bigger than you need.”
Her father gave a wise answer.  God’s always a little bigger than our need.
Finally, we’re heartened in a time of crisis by his eternal purpose.  Our Old Testament lesson is from the book of Ezekiel.  The Spirit of the Lord showed Ezekiel a valley filled with dry bones.  The Spirit said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  The answer was that, of course, they can live again.  God can take which is dead, that which is but dust and ashes, that which seems utterlywithout hope and reconstruct, rebuild, re-animate, rekindle, and revive.  Nothing is impossible to an omnipotent God. 
Then God revealed to Ezekiel the dry bones represented Israel.  It was God’s purpose to make a new covenant with his people, to rebuild and rekindle their hopes as a people.  You see, Ezekiel knew about God’s power.  What he needed to understand was God’s loving and faithful purpose.  When we come to a time of crisis, we too know God’s power.  We know He can fix any problem.  The question that often comes to us is whether He is concerned about our particular situation.  And the answer is that He is.
Carl Michaelson, a brilliant young theologian who died in a plane crash many years ago, told about playing with his young son one day, tussling playfully on their front lawn.  In the course of their play Michaelson accidentally hit the small boy with his elbow.  The young fellow was just about to burst into tears when he looked into his father’s eyes.  Instead of anger, his young son saw there his father’s sorrow and sympathy.  Instead of bursting into tears, said Michaelson, the young boy suddenly burst into laughter.  It made all the difference in the world what he saw in his father’s eyes.
The picture of Jesus weeping beside the tomb of Lazarus is such an important and unforgettable portrait.  It allows us a look into the eyes of our Father.  St. Paul tells us in Romans 8 this is the eternal purpose of God, that nothing can ever separate us from his love.  That’s what we need to know.  That’s comfort to the breaking heart.  The Father cares when his children are in pain.
This, then, is the Good News from the story of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus to all those whose lives are a forlorn wad of wet rubber lying on a church hall floor.  God is a Father who can fix any situation.  He’s aware of our needs and will always do that which is to our good.
Whatever our need is, God can fix it.  Christ is alive and we can experience his presence, his power and his eternal purpose.
Let us pray.  God of all consolation and compassion, your Son comforted the grieving sisters, Martha and Mary; your breath alone brings life to dry bones and weary souls.  Pour out your Spirit upon us, that we may face despair and death with the hope of resurrection and faith in the One who called Lazarus forth from the grave.  Amen.

March 26, 2017

I Once Was Blind…And Maybe I Still Am

1 Samuel 16:1-13; John 9:1-41 (CEB)

An English missionary named Roland Allen once told about an older missionary who came up and introduced himself to him one day after he had delivered a sermon.

The older man said that he’d been a medical missionary for many years in India.  He served in a region where there was an environmental condition that was causing progressive blindness in many of the people of that region.  People were born with healthy vision, but there was something that caused people to lose their sight as they grew older.

As time went on this medical missionary developed a treatment which would stop this progressive blindness.  So people came to him and he performed his treatment and people were no longer going blind.  Because of him their sight had been saved.

The old missionary noted they never said, “Thank you,” because that phrase wasn’t in their dialect.  Instead, they spoke a word that meant, “I will tell your name.”

Wherever they went, they would tell the name of the person who had cured their blindness.  They had received something so wonderful that they eagerly told others.

Our story today from John’s Gospel is about a man who was also healed of blindness and who also eagerly told others what had happened to him.

Jesus and his disciples came upon a man who had been blind from birth.  The disciples asked the Master who had sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind.  As abhorrent as this theology may seem to us, it was the accepted way of looking at things in Jesus’ time.  Physical defects were seen as being the direct result of somebody’s sin.  If not you, maybe your parents were at fault if you had a disabling condition.

Jesus immediately put this idea to rest.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he said, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Then Jesus spits on the ground, makes some mud with the saliva, and puts it on the man’s eyes.  Then Jesus tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam.  The man does what Jesus tells him and when he returns from Siloam his vision is restored.

The neighbors of this formerly blind man are astounded at what has happened to him.  They take him to show him to the Pharisees.  Instead of marveling at what has happened to this man, the Pharisees are offended that Jesus has healed him on the Sabbath.  “This man is not from God,” they say with righteous indignation concerning Jesus, “for he doesn’t keep the Sabbath.”

Then they try to discredit Jesus’ miraculous act.  At first they dispute the man was ever blind in the first place.  When the man’s parents testify that he had indeed been born blind and could now see, the Pharisees had a dilemma.  In their eyes Jesus was a sinner because he didn’t keep the Sabbath.  God certainly wouldn’t honor the prayers of a sinner.  And yet, here this man stood in front of them who had been given his sight.

The man who had been healed says to the Pharisees, “Whether he’s a sinner or not, I don’t know.  One thing I do know, I was blind but now I see!”

Have you ever noticed that when people get on the defensive, they become all huffy?  That’s how the Pharisees become when confronted with this man.  Like good lawyers, they began to cast doubt on the testimony of the witness.  They accuse him of being a disciple of Jesus and begin to revile him.  It’s interesting that this formerly blind man recognizes that he sees a reality the Pharisees can’t.  He begins to taunt them:  Why do you want to hear [me testify again about my healing?]  Do you want to become disciples too?”

The Pharisees respond the way people always respond when they’re losing an argument.  They toss him out with a final putdown.  “You were steeped in sin at birth,” they say, “how dare you, lecture us!”  This poor man was God’s object lesson to the Pharisees, but they couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

Jesus heard about the man being tossed out by the Pharisees.  He found him and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of man?”

“Who is he, sir?”  The man asked.  “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

The man said, “Lord, I believe.”  And the man worshipped Christ.

Then Jesus spoke some most interesting words, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were nearby heard him say this and asked, “What?  Are we blind too?”  And, of course, that’s the meaning of this entire story.  The Pharisees were just as blind in their own way as the blind man had been whom Jesus had healed.

Our story, then, isn’t really about physical blindness but about spiritual blindness—a disease that afflicted many of these Pharisees and afflicts many sincere people even today.

It’s easy for Christians to vilify the Pharisees but that would be a mistake.  Contrary to popular belief, the Pharisees were the progressive party among Orthodox Jews.  Their teachings were closer to many of the teachings of Jesus than were those of the Sadducees.

The Pharisees derived their name from the Hebrew word perushim which means “separated.”  They were brave and patriotic men who were determined to maintain their distinctiveness as Jews when foreign conquerors attempted to compromise the Jewish faith and wreck it by introducing their own customs and worship.  The Pharisees lived in strict accord with the sacred writings as well as the oral tradition of their faith.

For the most part they were good, solid, respectable people trying to live out their faith in a culture that was continually being corrupted by pagan thought and culture.  They sought to counteract this corruption by living according to the law with extraordinary zeal.  Their religion determined how they dressed, washed, ate, fasted, observed the Sabbath, as well as kept themselves clean from all manner of defilement.

Unfortunately, their all-out commitment to the law produced a kind of spiritual blindness.  Myopia is the popular word nowadays.  They saw only what agreed with their faith.  To everything else, they were blind.  I can think of many Christians today who suffer from spiritual myopia.  They think they’re living according to the will and way of Christ.  And yet they’re blind in so many ways to authentic discipleship.  Let’s consider some of the ways the Pharisees were blind and see if any of them relate to us.

Let’s begin here:  The Pharisees lived by the letter of the law, but were blind to the spirit of the law.  A good example was their attitude toward the Sabbath.  They were so afraid of working on the Sabbath there was a law stating that if a person fractured a bone, they couldn’t have it attended to on the Sabbath.  Imagine having to suffer needlessly for up to 24 hours because of a silly religious rule.  If anyone sprained their ankle or foot, they couldn’t even pour cold water on it to make it feel better.

Then there was that famous law that a woman dare not look into a mirror on the Sabbath for she might behold a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it out.  That would be working on the Sabbath.  Ladies, how would you like being under such a law?

Now please understand.  Jesus wasn’t an enemy of the Law.  He said on one occasion that he had come to fulfill the Law, not to destroy it.  In their zeal to honor the Sabbath, however, the Pharisees had forgotten one thing.  The Sabbath was created for man’s benefit.  The Pharisees had turned it into a crushing burden.

Here’s the point you and I need to see.  Many people in our community see our church as a burden—not as a benefit.  We need to be very careful within the body of Christ to let people see the joy, the love and the fellowship that are part of Christian community.  We need to get the message out that we’re not looking for persons to share the burden.  We’re here to share their burden.  The fellowship of the church is a wondrous thing.  We have a good time when we’re together.  Being part of the church should brighten people’s lives, not subtract from their joy.

People who serve Christ together tend to have a great time doing it.  We need to let the world know that their load can be lightened not increased when they become part of this fellowship.  The first mistake the Pharisees made was they honored the letter of the Law, but forgot the spirit.

Here’s the second mistake they made.  They used religion to divide people rather than to draw them together.  We can appreciate their dilemma.  It’s always difficult to be a minority faith in a culture.  We can appreciate the discomfort that parents of Jewish, Hindu and Moslem children feel in our culture at Christmas time.  Christmas is hard for anybody to resist, especially a five year old child.  It’s a problem being a minority faith in any culture.

We can sympathize with the Pharisees, but, again, they went too far.  On coming from any public assembly, the law required the Pharisee to wash his whole body before eating.  This wasn’t for sanitation.  The reason they washed was they couldn’t know what kind of people they might have passed on the street.  Even the shadow of a Gentile could defile them.  Their faith bred in them a terrible prejudice against outsiders.  Can you see how difficult it was for the Pharisees to accept the idea that Jesus could be a good Jew and actually sit at the same table with sinners and tax-collectors?

Here again, we have to be very careful that we don’t make the same mistake.  There are many people in our community who somehow have the idea they aren’t good enough to come inside these walls.

One little girl said her favorite hymn was, “Just as I am without one flea….”

We need to get the word out that we take people, “fleas” and all.  We dare not have the world see us as an exclusive community reserved only for saints.  The very word “religion” means “to bind together”.  We’re outside the will of God when we allow our faith to erect a wall to others.  Christian faith doesn’t erect walls, but bridges.

In the early days of Christianity, many Christians were buried in the catacombs of Rome.  In the earliest graves the inscriptions are without a single reference to the position in society of those buried there.  The deceased might have been a high government official or a slave, an army officer or a common soldier, a member of the ruling class or a common worker.  It made no difference.  All that mattered was they had been a believer in Christ.  We’re blind if our faith divides us from others.

This brings us to a final mark of blindness on the part of the Pharisees.  They cared more about their principles than they did about people.  [People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.]  That was why it was easy for them to let an innocent man die on a cross.

Again, we have to be very careful at this point.  Jesus wasn’t the only victim of excessive religious zeal.  Many have been put to death in the name of religion.  At the risk of offending extremists of many religions, including some of our own ancestors, let it be forever established that it can never be right to kill in the name of God.  Are we so blind that we can’t see God’s love is for all His children whether they be black or white, Christian or Moslem, first world or third world?

Stan Mooneyham, former president of World Vision, in his book Travelling Hopefully gives one of the best illustrations I know of how a person can use religion as a means to keep from caring about people.  A pious clergyman once wrote Mooneyham a letter in which he posed the following question.  He said that it’s an established fact among Bible-believing Christians that children automatically go to heaven whether they believe in Christ or not—up until the so called age of accountability when they’re able to decide for themselves whether to commit their lives to Christ.

Our humanitarian concern for humanity, this clergyman continued, motivates us to raise money to feed the starving children of the impoverished countries of the world so they can grow up and cross the age of accountability.  This carries the risk, he contended, that these children might die and go to hell because they don’t believe.

Have we really helped them, this completely serious clergyman was asking, if we keep a hungry child alive and thereby increase the risk they will go to hell?

Mooneyman asks whether the man’s attitude would be the same if these were his own children.  Of course, the answer wouldn’t be the same.

Satan often masquerades as an angel of light and sometimes Christians can act very holy and yet still be agents of Satan.  Christian faith can be prostituted to excuse all kinds of indifference to human need.  It’s impossible to exaggerate the distance between this man’s views and the mind and heart of Jesus.  But it’s true that it’s possible to be fanatically devoted to the Christian religion and be totally blind to the will of God as made manifest in Jesus Christ!  That’s the message for the day.  Christ came into the world to save people!  Everything else in our religious beliefs is secondary to that one truth.

Christ came into the world that we may see the greatness of God’s love—for you, for me, and for every person on this globe.  The Pharisees asked, “And we, are we blind, too?”  The answer is, yes, absolutely, if they can’t see the whole purpose of religion is to connect people with one another and with God.

The Pharisees were as blind as the beggar beside the road had been before Jesus healed him.  How about you?  Are you among the vision impaired particularly when it comes to God’s love for all people?  If so, why not allow Christ to heal your eyes today?

Let us pray. Discerner of hearts, you look beneath our outward appearance and see your image in each of us.  Banish in us the blindness that prevents us from recognizing truth, so we may see the world through your eyes and with the compassion of Jesus Christ who redeems us.  Amen.

March 19, 2017
Accept His Peace
Exodus 17:3-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-26
It was the deciding round of play of the 1983 U.S. Open golf tournament.  A player named Larry Nelson was tied for first place.  But then he hit a difficult situation.  His approach shot to the sixteenth green left him sixty-two feet from the hole. His fans groaned.  In the world of golf, sinking a sixty-two foot putt is about as likely as a hole-in-one.
Nelson paused for a long moment.  Then he raised his head, sized up the terrain, and stroked his ball.  It rolled downhill for a spell, then up an incline, then down another slope, and up another, and finally it curved, and then Ker plunk! Into the hole it went.  Some called it the shot of the year.
Bolstered by this magnificent putt, Larry Nelson went on to win the tournament, his first victory following a two-year slump.
One of the reporters who flocked to get his comments after the tournament asked him if he had been praying during the match, especially before that fateful putt.
“Yes,” Nelson answered.
“Were you praying you’d make the shot?”  the reporter asked.
“No,” Nelson said.
“Well, then, what were you praying for?”  asked the reporter.
Larry’s answer should help all of us.  He replied simply, “Peace.”
Is there anyone here this morning who is not, one way or another, seeking peace—peace in our hearts, peace in our marriages, peace in our relationships with other family members, peace in our work?
Of course, some of us seek peace from some unusual sources.  One woman said her therapist told her the way to achieve true inner peace was to finish what she started.
She took the advice to heart.  She said, “So far today, I’ve finished 2 bags of chips and a chocolate cake…I feel better already.
Well, they don’t call it “comfort food” for nothing.  However, there are better ways to find peace.
The good news for the third Sunday in Lent comes from St. Paul.  He writes in Romans 5:  “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”  Paul goes on to write to us that even in the midst of suffering and misfortune we can have this peace.  Even though we’re undeserving of it, we can have this peace because of what Jesus has done on the cross of Calvary.
Now a word of caution should be spoken at this point.  The peace that Christ gives isn’t a passive peace.  That is, some people are at peace because they ignore the needs of those around them, as well as the needs of their community and world.  “What, me worry?” is their mantra.  That’s not the peace that Christ is talking about.
There’s a story that comes out of World War II.  Japanese war planes were headed toward Pearl Harbor where they would make a devastating attack.  Before these two planes made it to Pearl Harbor, though, two American soldiers stationed on an island in the Pacific spotted them on their radar and reported this fact to their commanding officer, a young lieutenant.  The young lieutenant gave the report a few minutes thought and concluded what these soldiers had seen on their radar screens must have been American planes from California.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it.”  Well, they should’ve worried about it.  We don’t know how many lives might have been saved if they had worried about it enough to go into action.  “Don’t worry about it,” turned out to be a terrible bit of advice.
There are some things that we should worry about.  Jesus saw the money changers in the temple taking advantage of worshippers, and he worried about it to the point of driving them out into the streets.
Jesus worried about people who were lost in their sins and he gave his life in our behalf.
On another occasion he said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”
There are some things that Christians ought to worry about.  For example, if you’re not worried about the plight of immigrants today who are fleeing persecution and, in some cases starvation, then shame on you!
If the increasing number of violent deaths from acts of violence in our town and land doesn’t bother you, then may God have mercy on you.
If the disintegration of the family in our nation doesn’t bother you, then something is missing in your spiritual life.
There are problems over which every Christian ought to have a deep and heavy burden.  There’s time for moral indignation and strong remedial action.  There’s a difference between having God’s peace and being an insensitive clod caring only about yourself!  In the words of Patrick Henry, “Gentlemen cry, ‘Peace, Peace’ and there’s no peace.”  In a self-centered generation we must continually be on guard that our desire for peace doesn’t cause us to ignore our responsibilities as soldiers of the cross.
Still the desire for peace is one that God has planted in our hearts.  Jesus said on one occasion, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you, I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). 
Peace is one of Christ’s great gifts to us.  In fact, a strong sense of inner peace is what allows us to make a positive difference in the world.  Sure, we’re called to rid the world of wrong-doing and there are tragic things happening in our world that should trouble us deeply and that we should do something about.
The ironic thing, however, is that these aren’t the things that generally rob us of our peace.  The things that rob us of our peace are often superficial things.  Things like our appearance or whether we’re keeping up with our neighbors.
In our lesson from Exodus, the children of Israel are wandering in the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.  They’re without water.  They’re thirsty and complain to Moses, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?
That’s a legitimate complaint, don’t you think?  If you’re faced with a problem that severe it’s perfectly all right to complain to the Lord.  If you’re dying of thirst.If your children are in danger of starving.  If you have a terminal illness, you have a right to ask, “Where are you, God?”
The children of Israel after an extended in the desert stay are thirsty and quite naturally they complain to Moses.  Moses cries to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people?  They are almost ready to stone me.”
Now it’s Moses who’s worried.  No leader wants his people to turn against him.  The Lord tells Moses to go to a place called Horeb and strike a rock and water would come forth and the people would be able to have all they want to drink.  Afterwards Moses names the place Massah and Meribah because of the faultfinding of the people, and because they put the Lord to a test by asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Obviously the children of Israel aren’t the only persons who have asked that question.  “Is the Lord among us or not?”  It’s so difficult to trust in God sometimes.  It’s so difficult to heed Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:  “Don’t be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear…your heavenly Father knows you need them all.”
Jesus is answering that question posed to Moses:  “Is the Lord with us or not?”  And the answer is a resounding “Yes, God is with us.  God will provide for us just as He provided for the children of Israel.”
Moses struck a rock and water came forth, enough to provide for this large community of Hebrews there in the wilderness.  I don’t know how striking a rock produces water.  I’ve never seen such a rock.  I suspect that’s the point, however.  It wasn’t the rock that met Israel’s needs, it was God.  God provides for those who love Him.
Some of our anxiety comes from concern about our daily needs.
Ben Franklin, as you will remember, listed his major faults and resolved to battle one fault each week.  One of the faults he knew he must defeat was wasting time and energy worrying.  Have you ever done that—wasted time and energy worrying?
A Peanuts cartoon once showed Linus dragging his blanket and saying to Charlie Brown, “Charlie Brown, you look kind of depressed.”
Charlie Brown replies, “I worry about school a lot.”  Then he adds, “I worry about my worrying about school.”  Then he concludes, “Even my anxieties have anxieties.”
Many of us can sympathize with Charlie Brown.  Even our anxieties have anxieties.  Weall know that needless worry is destructive.  We know that God loves us and will provide for us.  But it’s so hard to cultivate a peaceful heart and mind.
I’ve read somewhere that when Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, was first performed, it was booed off of the stage.  The audience was vigorous in its displeasure.  Afterwards the cast was nearly hysterical.  There’s much pain in being in a theatrical production that has just bombed.  The cast was commiserating with one another, when they noticed that Rossini wasn’t among them.  Fearing that he might have done something desperate, they rushed to his house.  They found him asleep.
“Maestro, are you all right?”  they asked.
“I was until I was awakened,” he responded.
“But what about the opera?”they asked in obvious despair.
Quietly Rossini answered, “So it is not good enough.  I will have to compose something better…that’s all.  But please, let us discuss that in the morning.  I would like to go to sleep now.”
Many of us need to pray for such an attitude as that.  Many of us aren’t as effective in our service to God because we’re not trusting that God will meet our needs.
Others of us have troubled minds because of guilt over some past deed or even an involvement in an unhealthy situation right now.
In our lesson from John’s Gospel a Samaritan woman comes to the well at Sychar to draw water.  She had come in the heat of the day.  Why then?  She will be carrying back a heavy jug to her home.  Heat makes carrying a heavy vessel that much more tiresome.  Why come in the heat of the day?  Probably it was because she was seeking to avoid the other women in her village, worried about what they thought of her.  After all, her life was a mess. She had been married five times and now she was living with a man without the benefit of wedlock—a common practice today, perhaps, but not 2,000 years ago.
Today we would say this woman had a serious problem with her relationships, particularly men.  Maybe she had a poor relationship with her father.  We don’t know her situation, of course, but we do know that in order to give love you must have experienced love.  Chances are this woman had such a low opinion of herself that she couldn’t relate to a man as an equal but only as an object which he might use and cast away at his pleasure.  Now she was looked down on by her community because, in their eyes, she was living in sin.
What a startling thing it was that this pious Jewish Rabbi would show some interest in such a woman.  She couldn’t know there would come a time when he would show such interest that he would die on a cruel cross in order to bring her and others like her into a right relationship with God.  “Why, will one hardly die for a righteous man,”  St. Paul writes incredulously in our lesson for today, “though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
My friends, have you let your life get out of control because you’ve never truly accepted God’s forgiveness and grace?  Do you somehow feel that you don’t measure up, you’re unacceptable, unworthy, or unloved?  There’s a man on a cross who says something quite remarkable.  He says that you are worth dying for.  All you have to do is accept his amazing grace.
I invite you to go to the foot of the cross and see there just how much God loves you.  Accept that love for yourself.  St. Paul writes, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Accept His peace today.
Let us pray.  Enduring Presence, goal and guide, you go before and await our coming.  Only our thirst compels us beyond complaint to conversation, beyond rejection to relationship.  Pour your love into our hearts, that, refreshed and renewed, we may invite others to the living water given to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

March 12, 2017
God Has No Grandchildren
Genesis 12:1-4; John 3:1-17
On a children’s TV program, the announcer asked a little boy what he wanted to  do when he grew up.
“I want to be an animal trainer,” said the child, loudly and clearly into the mic.  “And I’ll have lots of wild lions and tigers and leopards,” he continued boldly.  “And then I’ll walk into the cage…”  Here he hesitated for a second, and then added softly, “but, of course, I’ll have my granddaddy with me.”
Granddaddies and Grandmoms are special.  Ask any boy or girl.  Grandsons and granddaughters are special.  Ask any grandparent.
Grandparents and grandchildren are special.  God is special too, but God has no grandchildren.  God only has children.  Every generation and every individual must embrace the faith for themselves.  “You must be born again, or you will never see the Kingdom of God.”
William Gibson, in his autobiographical book, Mass for the Dead, relates how after his mother’s death, he yearned for the faith that had strengthened her during her remarkable life—the faith that had upheld her during her courageous dying.  So he took his mother’s gold-rimmed glasses, her faded and well-worn prayer book and sat in her favorite chair.  He opened the prayer book and sat in her favorite chair.  He opened the prayer book because he wanted to hear what she heard.  He put on her glasses because he wanted to see what she had seen.  He sat in her place of prayer and devotion because he wanted to feel what she had felt, to experience what had so deeply centered and empowered her.  But nothing happened.  It didn’t work.
It never does!  We can’t claim another person’s faith for our own.  The example and contagion of commitment in other persons may inspire and nurture us, but we can’t substitute their commitment for our own.  We can pattern our faith journey after someone else’s, but no one can make that journey for us.
I doubt if anything Jesus ever said was more important than this, “You must be born again.”  This is the hinge pin of the Christian faith.  Let’s look at it by asking three simple questions.
One, what is the new birth?
Two, who needs the new birth?
And three, how are we born again?
First, what is the new birth?  We all need to know who we are and where we came from.
A little boy came in from school one day and asked his mother, “Where did I come from?”  The startled mother drew her thoughts together and decided that it was time to face the issue squarely:  “Ask your father when he comes home from work.”  When Dad arrived, he faced a questioning son:  “I’ve been talking with my school friends, and I wonder if you could tell me where I came from?”
The father took a deep breath, and proceeded to tell him about the birds and the bees.  The boy’s eager eyes got larger and larger.  When his dad finished, the lad jumped up and said, “Thanks, Dad.  That was great!”  My friend, Johnny, he’s just from New Jersey.”
We all need to know where we came from.  So in response to the question “What is the new birth?”  Let’s begin with an obvious assertion:  If you’re going to grow up, you must first be born.  Jesus made it clear to Nicodemus there are two kinds of life:  biological and spiritual.  For either life, for the physical and the spiritual, there must be a beginning.  There can be no life without birth.
So Jesus is saying that what’s true of the physical is also true of the spiritual—you must be born into the spiritual life.  Jesus uses the words flesh and spirit to talk about this:  “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”
Now whatever else that means, it means far more than we can fathom, much less explain in one point of a sermon, it means that we’re brought into a father-child relationship with God.
Our relationship with God has been broken by our sin, broken beyond the possibility of human repair.  The Gospel is that God, through Jesus Christ, repairs what we’ve destroyed.  And what we’ve destroyed by our sin is our relationship with God. 
The universal picture of it is Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Their relationship with God was intimate and unbroken.  But by deliberate choice, by their sinful disobedience, they broke that relationship.  One of the saddest pictures in all the Bible is that which is presented at the close of chapter 3 of the Genesis story, where God expelled them from the Garden.  The Revised Standard Version says:  “He drove them out.”  John Steinbeck picked up that image in the title of his book, East of Eden.  Instead of being a resident in the Garden, in ongoing intimate relationship with God in that paradise which God had prepared for them, the dwelling place Adam and Eve was now “East of Eden”—outside the Garden, outside the relationship.
And that’s our story because of our sin.  So the new birth is a birth to God.  It’s having the relationship with God—which was broken by sin, restored by grace—by the loving acceptance of God through Jesus Christ.
In his gospel, Matthew reports Jesus saying in another setting with other words, the same thing he said to Nicodemus:  “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  (Matthew 18:3)
The image is that of becoming a child in relation to our Father God.  And notice, too, that Matthew ties the word converted to the image of becoming a child.  That’s what the new birth means.  It means being converted.  The Old Testament word is shubh, and it occurs almost 1,200 times.  It means basically to turn or return.  If you’re going in one direction, it means to turn around.  It means turning from sin and self, turning toward God and faith.  The New Testament Greek word is metanoia.
“We have an English word, metamorphosis, which comes from the Greek word meta, meaning “to change” and morphe, meaning “form.”  We’re familiar with that process.  A little caterpillar will crawl along in the dirt and the leaves and finally the great forces of nature—the warm weather, flowers and all—begin to work changes and he climbs up on a stem and gets real still and then something great begins to happen.  He begins to split open his skin and out of that little caterpillar emerges a fragile, beautiful monarch butterfly.”
Jesus says that’s what must happen to us in order to live in the Kingdom.  “That little caterpillar can’t reach down and get the nectar out of the flower.  He can’t even get up to the flower.  He’s got to have wings.  He’s got to have a different nose.  He’s got to have a different form.”  And Jesus is saying, so it must be with you…you must meta-morph.  That’s what the new birth means. 
Now the second question:  Who needs the new birth?
I think we can find our answer rather easily by looking at Nicodemus.  Do you know who Nicodemus was?  He was an aristocrat, an educated man, a scholar.  We can assume that he was an older man, old in honor and old in years.  In a sentence, he was cultured, refined, decent, and religious.  Let’s look at him, in our imagination, as he goes through the night and knocks on the door where Jesus is staying.  Jesus answers that knock and Nicodemus stands face-to-face with the Savior of the world.
Here’s one who knows the mind and heart of God, and before Nicodemus can tell Him what the matter is, Jesus has answered his question—not the question of his lips, but the question of his heart.
“What did He say to this man who had dared to come to Him through the night?  He didn’t say to him, “Nicodemus, I know what the trouble is with you; you’re not honest.  Nicodemus, you must quit swearing.  Nicodemus, you must quit Sabbath-breaking.  You must quit breaking your marriage vows.  You must stop yielding to the lusts of the flesh.”  No, He didn’t say that to this master in Israel.  Had he done so Nicodemus would’ve blazed upon Him, for he was guilty of none of these things.  He was a clean man, a moral man, and a religious man.
“but what Jesus did say was this:  “You must be born again.”  He said.  I know what is the matter.  You have been trying to find peace and rest and joy and salvation by doctoring the outside life.  You have found that that your well is poisonous and you have tried to remedy it by painting the curb.  You have found the clock of life doesn’t keep good time and you have spent endless care polishing the hands.  You have found the fountain of the heart sending forth a bitter stream and you tried to remedy it by pulling up a few weeds that grew around it.  Nicodemus, you must be put right at heart.  That is just.  That is fundamental.”
“So Jesus declared to this pious and earnest and honest man the one supreme and universal necessity, and that is the necessity of a new birth.”
So that’s the bottom line, isn’t it—who needs the new birth?  Every one of us.  You see, Jesus didn’t say this to an outcast.  He didn’t say it to one who had wasted his substance with riotous living.  He said it to one of the most cultured and refined and decent men of his day.
I need the new birth.  You need the new birth.  Anyone of us who hasn’t yet come back from our “East of Eden” sojourn away from God, we need the new birth, and we can be “East of Eden” in a lot of different ways.
A character in one of Flannery O’ Connor’s short stories asked the question, “Have you ever looked inside yourself and seen what you’re not?”  Well, have you?  Have you ever looked inside yourself and seen what you’re not?  That’s sin—denying or neglecting who God’s calling us to be.  Sin is falling short of the glory of God.  Sin is searching for self-glory and security in ourselves.  Sin is living the unexamined life to the point that we convince ourselves we have no sin.  Sin is ordering our lives as though we’re not dependent upon God.  Sin is convincing ourselves that we’re good when the only goodness we know is our pride-producing performance that receives the acclaim of the world.
Who needs the new birth?  Anyone who’s still trying to save himself or herself by good works—anyone who hasn’t yet accepted forgiveness of sin by God’s grace.
Now the third question.  How are we born again?  Even as I share with you some specific responses that we must make to receive the gospel, I’m aware of what Jesus said to Nicodemus when he asked the same question:
“The wind blows where it wills, and you may hear the sound of it, but you don’t know from whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is of everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
So let us acknowledge right off that no set formula is the answer to our new birth in Christ—the Spirit gives that birth.  Even so, there’s a response that we can make in order for the Spirit to work.
First, we must repent—that is, be genuinely sorry for our sin, for our sojourn “East of Eden” away from God, and genuinely desire to turn from our sins and our own efforts at saving ourselves.
Second, we must admit our need for Christ, and accept his forgiveness.  His forgiveness is offered—we must accept it.
Third, we invite Jesus to come into our life, and we make the willful decision that we will accept him as our Savior and we will follow him as our Lord.
In all of this, we must remember who Jesus is, what Jesus has come to do for everyone—to save us, to give us the new birth.  It helps us sometimes to remember that dramatic work in others.  We don’t think much of people perishing, but go to some of the forgotten corners of the world.  While on a tour of mission stations around the world, the late Bishop William F. McDowell, of the Methodist Church, came to a village of India.  There one night he met with forty believing men.  Knowing they all had been outcasts he decided to test their understanding of the faith.
“Brothers, who is Jesus Christ?”
Instantly forty hands went up.  Then the bishop singled out a man who didn’t look very bright.  At once the native Christian arose, bowed, and testified:
“Sir, I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world because he loved me and gave himself for me, and for all of us here, when no one else would touch the hem of our garments.  If he looked on us in mercy, and then died to make us free, he must love everybody.  He must be the Son of God.  Only the good God would do what Christ has done for us outcasts.”
When the bishop came home and spoke of what he’d heard, there shone from his eyes the glint of unshed tears.  After his recital of the facts, he concluded:  “It was worth going around the world more than once to hear those humble native Christians bearing witness to the grace of Jesus Christ.”  Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
That’s what we have to keep in mind—that this is who Christ is—the one who wants to give new birth.
Nothing pictured this more clearly than the parable of the Prodigal son.  The central truth of the parable of the Prodigal son is this:  When the prodigal returned home, his father accepted him as though he’d never been away.  It will be so with any one of us.
“You must be born again.”  That’s what Jesus said.  In response to His Word, we simply turn to Him and accept his grace and let the Spirit blow where it will to refresh our spirits, to give us life.
Let us pray.  God of amazing compassion, lover of our wayward race, you bring to birth a pilgrim people, and call us to be a blessing for ourselves and all the world.  We pray for grace to take your generous gift and step with courage on this holy path, confident in the radiant life that’s your plan for us, made known and given in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

March 5, 2017

Be Reconciled With God

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 CEB

There’s a 1973 motion picture titled “Ash Wednesday”.  It stars Liz Taylor.  Taylor plays an aging woman who wants to return to the heights of her beauty.  In pursuit of this obsession, she boards a plane to Switzerland, where she undergoes extensive plastic surgery.  The doctors promise her that afterwards she will look twenty years younger.

Following the surgery, with her bruised face wrapped in bandages, Taylor dons dark sun glasses and decides to go for a walk.  Slowly, in great pain, she strolls the streets of Geneva.  Seeking a place to stop for rest, she enters an old stone church.

“Hidden in the back row of the sanctuary, she’s like a new woman waiting to emerge from a gauze cocoon…until she is approached by an elderly priest making his way through the congregation.  It’s Ash Wednesday.  And carrying his bowl of cinders he pauses in front of Taylor and intones the ancient litany…’Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.’”

Talk about a reality check.  Seeking to look a few years younger, and the ancient liturgy reminds you that any improvement, no matter how striking, is but temporary.

This is how Lent begins with a reminder of our mortality “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes…”  For forty days leading up to Easter we assess our lives 40 days because that’s how long Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.  During this time we ask ourselves what’s really important in our lives.  Religious people are often accused of indulging in escapism.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We’re the only people who deal with the really important things in life.  That’s what Lent is all about.  And it begins with Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality.

In the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God says to them, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return.”

That’s part of the symbolism of the ashes which we place on our foreheads tonight.  It’s a reminder of our mortality.  We like to fancy that we shall live forever.  Some day we shall.  But not in this world.  This world is but a fleeting image of the world that’s yet to come.  Ash Wednesday puts it all into perspective.

Of course, the subject of our mortality isn’t a popular one.  One man named John knew it was a difficult subject to bring before his elderly mother, but he felt that he must:

“Mom,” he said, “you’re not a spring chicken and you need to think ahead of what’ll happen in the future.  Why don’t we make arrangements about when…you know…when…you pass on?”

The mother didn’t speak a word.  She just sat there staring ahead.

“I mean, Mom,” he continued, “like… how do you want to finally go?  Do you want to be buried?  Cremated?”

There was yet another long, awkward pause.  Then the mother looked up and said, “Son, why don’t you surprise me?”

Death is a difficult subject.  We would prefer to disguise it, ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist.  And never do we want to admit that it can happen to us.

Most of us prefer the attitude of comedian Woody Allen:  “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen,” he once said, “I want to live on in my apartment.”

Ash Wednesday is a reminder that this isn’t possible.  It’s a reminder of our mortality.  “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return.”

It’s also a reminder that we’re flawed creatures.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” writes St. Paul in Romans 3:23.

Pastor Don Schultz tells about a man who had been in an accident.  “There’s nothing wrong with me,” the man says.

“But sir, you’ve just been in a terrific car accident,” a bystander says.  “You’re bleeding and have some deep bruises.  There may be internal injuries!”

“There’s nothing wrong with me!” the man argues.

Then the man walks away from the car accident.  His wife picks him up and drives him home.  Later he dies from internal bleeding.

‘”There’s nothing wrong with me,’ can be a dangerous thing to say,” comments Pastor Schultz.  “Spiritually, it’s probably the worst thing a person could possibly say.  For a person to stand before God and say, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me’ that’s incompatible with Christianity, and unacceptable to God.”

We’re flawed creatures.  Every one of us and the amazing thing is that even when we’re aware of our flaws, we often refuse to let go of them.

A boy was playing in the yard when he decided to hitch a ride on the bumper of his Dad’s truck.  His Dad didn’t see him.  

The truck hit a bump and the boy accidently slipped down the bumper and was being dragged for several yards before his Dad heard him screaming.

The Dad ran around the behind the truck where his son was still holding on to the bumper.  He could see that he wasn’t seriously hurt.  Still, the boy’s knees and legs were scraped up pretty badly.  His Dad asked the obvious question, “Why didn’t you let go?”

That’s a question which God our Father will probably ask us one day.  Why didn’t you let go of your bad habits?  Let go of your pride?  Let go of your fear?  We place the ashes on our forehead as a reminder that we’re mortal creatures and that we’re flawed creatures.  However, the news isn’t all bad.  There’s another side to Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we’re creatures who have been redeemed.  That’s why St. Paul writes in our Epistle for tonight, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf:  Be reconciled to God.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  This is the greatest need that a flawed, mortal creature has:  to be reconciled to God.

One pastor put it like this:  If you were telling someone how to make a cross, you might say, “Draw an ‘I’ and then cross it out.”

As we make the sign of the cross, we first draw a vertical stroke, as if to say to God, “Lord, here am I.”

Then we cancel it with a horizontal stroke, as if to say, “Help me, Lord, to abandon my self-centeredness and self-will; make Yourself the center of my life instead.  Fix all my attention and all my desire on You, Lord, that I may forget myself, cancel myself, abandon myself completely to Your love and service.”

As our sins are canceled by the death of Christ on the cross, then we’re reconciled with God.  Nothing stands between us and our Loving Father.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that each of us constructed the cross on which Christ died.  We’re mortal creatures, we’re flawed creatures, but by the cross of Jesus Christ we’ve been redeemed.  We’ve been reconciled to God.

Many of you are familiar with the name John Wooden.  John Wooden was known as the “Wizard of Westwood” and this legendary coach led UCLA to national prominence in college basketball.  It is said that Wooden always maintained his composure no matter what happened on the court.

A reporter once asked him how he managed to keep his cool under the great pressure of coaching college basketball.  Wooden reached into his pocket and took out a wooden cross.

“When the pressure is on I hold that cross in my hand,” he explained.  “Not as a good luck charm.  I just hold it there to remind me there’s something more important than basketball.”

That’s what Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about.  To remind us what is really important in our lives and in our faith.  As we place the ashen cross upon your forehead this evening, let it be a reminder to you that you have been redeemed.  “We implore you on Christ’s behalf:  Be reconciled to God.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Let us pray.  O God, you delight not in pomp and show, but in a humble and contrite heart.  Overturn our love of worldly possessions and fix our hearts more firmly on you, that, having nothing, we may yet possess everything, a treasure stored up for us in heaven.  Amen.

February 26, 2017

The Ultimate Evidence of God

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-20

A Hungarian writer once wrote an amusing, but also very thoughtful dialogue which he imagined between two babies in their mother’s womb.  Obviously they were twins.  One twin asked the other:  “Do you believe in life after delivery?”

The other replied, “Why of course.  There has to be something after delivery.  Maybe we’re here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”

“Nonsense” said the first twin.  “There’s no life after delivery.  What kind of life would that be?”

The second twin said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here.  Maybe we’ll walk with our legs and eat from our mouths.  Maybe we’ll have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first twin replied, “That’s absurd.  Walking is impossible.  And eating with our mouths?  Ridiculous!  The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need… Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there’s something and maybe it’s different that it is here.  Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense.  And moreover if there’s life, then why has no one ever come back from there?  Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there’s nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion.  It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother?  You actually believe in Mother?  That’s laughable.  If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She’s all around us.  We’re surrounded by her.  We are of Her.  It is in Her that we live.  Without Her this world wouldn’t and couldn’t exist.”

Said the first:  “Well I don’t see Her, so it’s only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

Interesting approach to a discussion of the life of faith, don’t you think?  Is there a God?  Is there life beyond this world?  How can we know?  Who can we trust to give us the answers?  There are some things you need to know about the Christian faith.

First of all, no one sat down and thought up our faith.  It’s not the work of philosophers or holy seers, but of preachers, prophets, teachers, housewives, fishermen, and a host of common folk who were witnesses to events they couldn’t understand but cherished in their hearts.  Christian faith isn’t reason, but revelation.  God revealed Himself through encounters with ordinary people like Moses, David, Ruth, Daniel, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptizer, St. Paul and many other saints.  They were imperfect vessels of God’s truth.  Like unseeing people describing an elephant, their testimonies differed.  How does one describe the indescribable?  If God could be expressed in a formula, a test tube or a trite expression, He couldn’t be God.

Even when God revealed himself most perfectly of all in Jesus of Nazareth, it was left to ordinary people to describe what his coming meant.  That’s why the Gospels vary in describing the same events.  These were eyewitness reports, not some well thought-out theology of religion.

Notice what Peter writes in his Epistle concerning an amazing incident which he experienced along with James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration:  “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when he told you about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.  And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Can you imagine Peter’s feelings as he stood there on the Mount of Transfiguration with James and John as witnesses to one of the most dramatic scenes in history?  When Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, he left behind his closest advisors.  But when Jesus came into the presence of God, he took with him these three humble fishermen.  Can you put yourself into Simon Peter’s sandals for a moment?  In a vicarious way, can you stand where he stood?

Simon Peter discovered what it was to stand on holy ground.  This is important for us to understand.  We live in a so-called “secular” society.  There’s very little in life that’s sacred to us.  There’s very little that’s mysterious.

Alexander Pope once wrote satirically, “Lo, the poor Indian! Whose untutor’d mind sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind.”  As Pope is saying, we sophisticated secular people no longer see God in clouds or hear him in the wind.  We no longer see the movement of water in a pool as the special visitation of an angel as did the people beside the pool of Bethesda.  We look to science, not religion, to answer most of our questions about physical reality.

And it’s quite natural that we should.  There have been benefits from the process of secularization.  The quest for scientific truth has brought us a host of technological wonders.  But as Alexander Pope is saying, something has also been lost.  God has become an abstract concept for many of us rather than a present reality.  Intellectually we believe in God, but His existence doesn’t seem to have much relevance to our everyday lives.  Few of us know what it means to stand on holy ground.

This isn’t to say that such experiences don’t occur.  Christian scholar J. B. Phillips lay in a hospital bed after a severe and prolonged operation “unable,” as he says, “to move a finger nor blink an eye-lid.”  Yet he was fully conscious.  Late one night he overheard a doctor murmur to the night-nurse, “I’m afraid he won’t live till the morning.”

Phillips fell asleep.  In his sleep he dreamed that he was alone, depressed and miserable, trudging wearily down a dusty slope.  Around him were the wrecks and refuse of human living.  There were ruined houses, pools of stagnant water, cast-off shoes, rusty tin cans, worn-out tires and rubbish of every kind.

Suddenly, as he picked his way through this dreary mess, he looked up.  Not far away on the other side of a little valley was a vista of indescribable beauty.  He ran toward this glorious world.  He noticed that only a tiny stream separated him from all that glory and loveliness.  He ran toward a shining white bridge that had been built across the stream and was about to set foot on it, when a figure in white appeared before him.

This figure, whom Dr. Phillips  described as supremely gentle but absolutely authoritative, looked at him smiling, gently shook his head, and pointed him back to the miserable slope down which he had to run.  Phillips own words best conclude the story:

“I have never known such bitter disappointment, and although I turned obediently, I couldn’t help bursting into tears.  This passionate weeping must’ve awakened me, for the next thing that I remember was the figure of the night-nurse bending over me and saying, rather reproachfully:  ‘What are you crying for?  You’ve come through tonight—now you’re going to live!’

“But my heart was too full of the vision for me to make any reply.

“What could I say to someone who hadn’t seen what I had seen?

“It’s nearly forty years since the night of that dream, but I can only say that it remains as true and as clear to me today as it was then.

“Words are almost useless as a means to describe what I saw and felt, even though I’ve attempted to use them.

“I can only record my conviction that I saw reality that night, the bright sparkling fringe of the world that’s eternal.

“The vision has never faded.”

Each of us will interpret Dr. Phillips’ “vision” in a different way.  For some, it will be simply an easily explainable dream.  For others, it will be a profound religious experience sent directly from God.  Like the two babies in the womb, we have no way of measuring such things—no way of answering such questions absolutely.  For Phillips it was of life-changing significance.  It was no mere dream to him.

You should know that scholars debate the historicity of the scene on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Was it a dream or was it reality?  You and I can’t know.  We weren’t there.  We have only Simon Peter’s testimony.  He reports that he and his two fellow disciples beheld the majesty of Christ.  They saw the Master in the company of Moses and Elijah.  They heard a voice from Heaven saying, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.  Hear him.”  Simon Peter knew what it was to stand on holy ground.

The experience on the Mount of Transfiguration confirmed for Simon Peter what he already believed about Jesus.  It was Simon Peter who, in answer to Jesus’ question at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do men say that I am?” affirmed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Simon Peter knew in his bones this affirmation was true.  Still, like us, there were some moments when it seemed truer than it did at others.  After all, it was an astounding leap of faith to say this humble Nazarene was the Son of the living God.

There’s a story told about Robert Browning when he first met the poet, Shelley.  People wanted to know what else happened on that particular occasion when the two met.  Browning is said to have answered:  “What else?  I tell you I saw Shelley, and, of course, in view of that, everything else just faded from my mind.”

That was the kind of feeling Simon Peter had in the presence of Jesus.  Still, to claim him as the long awaited Messiah required a very demanding leap of faith.  So many had come declaring to be the Christ there were others who healed and performed great wonders.  How could he know who was authentic and who wasn’t?

Don’t forget that the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration wasn’t enough to keep Simon Peter from denying Christ when the time of testing came.  It didn’t keep Peter from going back to his fishing nets after Christ’s crucifixion.  You and I shouldn’t feel guilty if at times we find our faith wavering.  There’s a veil over eternity that no human eye can penetrate.

It took the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to change Simon Peter from a reed to a rock.  His life was a study in uneven growth.  There were mountaintops and there were valleys.  We shouldn’t expect to move from sinners to saints in one fell swoop.  Neither should we wait until we know and understand everything about Christ before we commit ourselves to his kingdom.  That day will never come.

On the Mount of Transfiguration Peter discovered what it was to stand on holy ground.  He also had affirmed what he already believed about Jesus of Nazareth—that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

And finally Simon Peter discovered on that mountain what real ministry is all about.  Peter wanted to stay on the mountain.  “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will pitch three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Everyone loves a mountaintop experience, don’t we?  Why can’t we just keep this moment forever?  Simon Peter couldn’t know that Christ’s mission has far more to do with valleys than mountaintops.  It has more to do with hanging on a cross between two thieves on a hill called Calvary than it does consulting with the venerable Moses and Elijah on a mountain.  That’s a truth you and I need to learn.

This sanctuary is a sacred place to most of us.  We meet God here.  For some of us this is the most beautiful and meaningful hour in our week.  We could pitch our tents and stay here all week long.  Some of us are thinking to ourselves, “I might as well, as much time as I spend here.”

But we need to remember the time-honored story of the lady who happened in on a small Quaker congregation.  They were sitting in silence.  “When does the service begin?” she asked a man sitting near her.

His answer:  “As soon as the meeting is over.”

Jesus’ ministry was to the world of hurting humanity.  Matthew tells us that as soon as he came off the mountain, Christ was confronted by a man who had an epileptic son.  The boy’s seizures were so sudden and severe that his family was afraid they might be fatal to him.  Could Jesus please help them?

Who among us likes to be confronted with such demands on our time and energy?  “Let’s pitch tents on the mountaintop and stay there.  The valley is too demanding and too draining.”  But, my friends the valley is what real ministry is all about.

Simon Peter stood with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  He knew what it was to stand for a moment on Holy Ground.  He had affirmed there what he already believed about Jesus of Nazareth—that he was the Christ.  And he discovered what real ministry was all about—not the mountaintop, but the valley was where real ministry took place.

Jesus Christ has walked among us.  And he’s still with us, still revealing himself to us.  Would you open your mind and your heart and allow him to reveal himself to you?

Let us pray.  O God of the covenant, the cloud of your splendor and the fire of your love revealed your Son on the mountain heights.  Transform our lives in his image, write your law of love on our hearts, and make us prophets of your glory, that we may lead others into your presence.  Amen.

February 12, 2017

Choose Life!

1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (CEB)

The ability to make concise and accurate decisions is one of the great secrets of successful living.  Those of you who are sports fans will appreciate the story of a college football team whose starting quarterback was injured.  The number two quarterback hadn’t even dressed for the game due to an illness.  This left only a freshman quarterback who also did their punting but had absolutely no game experience as a college quarterback.  The coach had to throw him into the fray, however.  It was first down, but the ball was resting on their own three yard line.  The coach’s main thought was to get them away from the goal line so they could have room to punt out of danger.

The coach said, “Son, I want you to hand-off to Jones, our big fullback for the next two plays, let him run into the middle of the line and get us a few yards.  Then I want you to punt.”

The young quarterback did as he was instructed.  On the first play he handed off to Jones, but almost miraculously Jones found a hole off tackle and ran fifty yards.  The young quarterback called the same play again and once more, miracle of miracles, the hole was there again.  This time Jones ran forty five yards.  The fans were going crazy.  The ball was on the opponent’s two yard line—six short feet from the goal line.

Confidently the team lined up quickly and the young quarterback received the snap, stepped back and punted the football into the stands.  As the team came off the field, the coach angrily grabbed the young quarterback and asked, “What in the world were you thinking about when you called that last play?”

The quarterback answered blankly, “I was thinking what a dumb coach we have.”  Well, at least that young quarterback was good at taking orders.

The truth of the matter is that many coaches today don’t want their quarterbacks making play calling decisions.  Even in the NFL few quarterbacks call their own plays.  The plays are sent in from the bench.

Now obviously we’re not here this morning to talk football.  But there’s an important point here we need to see about our relationship with God.  God has paid us the ultimate compliment.  God allows us to call our own plays.  God allows us to make our own decisions.  When God created us in God’s own image, this was primary among the characteristics with which God endowed us—the ability to choose.

In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed to sustain their life.  But in the middle of the garden God planted a tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The moment God did that, God provided them with an opportunity to make a choice.  They could heed God’s instructions and live forever in Paradise or they could eat of the forbidden fruit and die.

What an absurd choice, you say.  Who would ever choose death over life?  Yet people make that choice all the time.  It was 50 years ago when the following notice first appeared on cigarette packs—Warning:  The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous To Your Health.  It marked a turning point in our society.  Suddenly we had to face the fact that the link between tobacco and lung cancer as well as heart disease, high blood pressure and a host of other diseases was scientifically established.

Did people quit smoking tobacco when that warning appeared?  Millions did, but for many others the habit was too well established.  Why would anyone ever choose to begin to smoke?  Why choose death when you can choose life?  Yet there are teenagers this year who will still choose to take up this deadly habit, though, fortunately, not nearly as many as when most of us were young.  In that respect, teenagers are a lot smarter today than we were.

There’s not a person in this room who’s not aware of the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, yet there are people within the sound of my voice, who would rather listen to the serpent saying, “Why, that won’t happen to you” then to listen to the voice of reason or of God.

Unfortunately, it’s not only ourselves whom we sometimes hurt through the misuse of our freedom to choose.  There are people who treasure their marriages.  But they’re morally weak.  They wouldn’t want to hurt their spouses for anything in the world, yet they’re playing with fire—choosing, perhaps, the death of a very precious marriage relationship because of a moral weakness.

Many more examples could be used.  Some of us face a choice every day with a variety of unhealthy habits.  Who in the world would choose death over life?  Millions of people do it every day.

That was as true three thousand years ago as it is today.  So it was with great urgency that Moses called the people of Israel together and issued this earnest plea:  “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.  For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

One of the keys to successful Christian living is the realization that God has given us the freedom to choose our own destinies.

A social worker in San Jose, CA tells of knocking at the door of a decrepit house.  A woman opened the door a crack, put her foot against it and said through the opening:  “You needn’t come in here.  Me and my husband don’t take no interest in nothin’.”  What a pitiful description of persons who have given up control of their lives.  “We don’t take no interest in nothin’.”

William Willimon tells of seeing a movie years ago in which one of the leading players lived a tragic life, careening from one disaster to the next, never able to hold a job or support a family or keep friends.  He finally dies in a tavern brawl.

At his death, one of the men who had tried in vain to befriend him and help get his life in order says, “Joe died almost like he was born.  He came into this world kicking and screaming and fighting and understanding nothin’!  And he went out of this world fighting without the slightest notion of what he was put here for or where he was goin’.”  A pitiful record of another life out of control.

God has given us the ability to take control of our own lives.  We can choose our own destinies.  Every study of great leaders has emphasized their decisiveness.  They knew where they were going, and they made the decisions necessary to get there.

A cartoon in the newspaper called Berry’s World says it well.  It shows a picture a down-and-out vagrant sitting on a sidewalk.  Beside him is a large sign that reads like this, “Keeping my options open, Thank you.”

It would be nice to go through life always with our options open, but somewhere along the way we have to make some hard choices.

Some of you may remember one of Uncle Remus’ delightful stories about Brer Rabbit.  [I know the stories of Brer Rabbit are considered racist by many today—which is a shame because they contain much folk wisdom growing out of early African-American culture.]

In this story Brer Rabbit is invited to dinner on the same evening at the same hour at Brer Terrapin’s and Brer Possum’s.  There he stands hungrily at the crossroads… “Do I eat with Brer Terrapin or do I eat with Brer Possum?”

First he runs down the road toward Brer Possum’s.  Then, changing his mind, he reverses himself and starts towards Brer Terrapin’s.  Then he changes his mind again and starts towards Brer Possum’s.  With the thought of two meals awaiting him, he runs back and forth, unable to make a decision until finally he misses dinner at both places.

There are many persons who live their lives like Brer Rabbit.  There’s no firm destination for their lives, no vital commitment, no beckoning call.  In the words of Elijah, “How long will you limp between two opinions?” (1Kings 18:21) Or the words of Joshua:  But if you are unwilling to obey the Lord, then decide today whom you will obey…” (Joshua 24:15, Living Bible).

One of the keys to successful living is the realization that God has given us the freedom to choose our own destinies.

This brings us to the second point and it’s a hard one.  While we’re free to make our own choices, we do have to live with the consequences of those choices.  If we abuse the freedom we have, we pay the price.

You may know the story of a man who had been caught driving 40 miles per hour in a school zone.  He was fined $100.  The court clerk offered him a receipt when he paid his fine.  “Why would I want a receipt for a traffic violation?” the man growled.

“Oh,” the clerk replied, “with four of these you get a bicycle to ride.”

That’s a sad truth about life.  You do the crime, you do the time.

So many of the trials and tribulations of life are the result of bad decisions, unworthy actions, dishonest motives and means and there’s a price to be paid.

God forgives us for our misdeeds, but God doesn’t suspend the law of consequences.  What we sow, we reap.  We have the freedom to choose, but with that freedom goes the responsibility to choose life and not death.

This brings us to the final point.  There’s one choice that surpasses all others in importance.  That, of course, is the decision to choose Christ.

When Moses instructed the children of Israel to choose life, he was impressing upon them they should obey the commandments of God.  To obey the commandments was life in Moses’ teachings.  Of course, you and I have discovered something even more vital than the commandments.  We’ve discovered Jesus himself.  “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life…” said Jesus. (John 14:6) To choose Jesus is to choose life!  Millions of people through the ages have made that discovery and it’s the most important discovery that anyone can make.

In the 1960s there was a player in the NFL named John Bramlett.  Bramlett was once known as the “Meanest Man in the NFL.”  A free agent who became a starting linebacker for the Denver Broncos in 1965, Bramlett was runner-up to Joe Namath for rookie of the year honors.  He played in two Pro Bowls and in 1970 was voted Most Valuable Player for the New England Patriots.

Off the field, however, his life was a mess.  His family never knew when he left home whether he would come home drunk, or call from jail, or not even come home at all, because he was often involved in bar fights.

One day some visitors came by the Bramlett home.  They wanted to talk to John Bramlett about Christ.  The impact of that visit changed John Bramlett’s life forever.  Suddenly he turned from pursuing death to pursuing life.  That’s what repentance is.  It’s the exercise of our freedom to decide, by God’s grace, for those things that are of eternal value.  John Bramlett made that choice.  He even became a Christian minister.  Today his life is a living testimony to the change Jesus can make in a person’s life.

Perhaps Bramlett’s greatest testimony, however, is his son Don.  Don played in the NFL, as well.  Don still has a Christmas letter that he penned in an elementary school classroom many years ago.  The subject was “All I Want for Christmas Is…”  Here’s what young Don Bramlett wrote:

“All I want for Christmas is for my family and me to have a very Merry Christmas like the other two Christmases we’ve had.  My dad was out drinking and fighting three years ago and we were all worrying about him and wondering when he would come back.

“While opening our presents, we were so miserable through those years.  Now we have a happy and merry Christmas after my daddy accepted Jesus in his heart and we have a lot to be thankful for.  This is all I want for Christmas and I’ve got it.”

“I have set before you life and death,” said Moses.  “Oh, but that you would choose life.”  Don Bramlett isn’t the only person to ever offer a fervent prayer on behalf of a father, or a spouse, or a young person.  It’s an urgent plea that comes straight from the heart of God.  It’s directed to every one of us.  God has given us the gift of choice.  Bad choices, however, lead to negative consequences.  Choose Christ and let Jesus help you with all the rest of your choices.  For Heaven’s sake!  Choose life!  Choose Christ!

Let us pray.  Divine Gardener, you give growth to our seeds and to the towering forest trees; you raise to abundant life that which seems dead.  Teach us to choose blessing and life rather than death, so that we may walk blamelessly, seeking you through reconciliation with all of your children.  Amen.

February 5, 2017

We Haven’t Seen Anything Yet!

Isaiah 58:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12

When some future scholar tries to understand the spirit of our times, he or she might run across a collection of the many derivatives of Murphy’s Law and declare they constitute our national spirit.  We have become such a pessimistic people.  Murphy’s Law, of course, goes like this:  “If anything can go wrong it will.  If nothing can go wrong, it will anyway.”  But there were many derivatives of that Law…

Like “The other line always moves faster.”

Or “When one wishes to unlock a door but has only one hand free, the keys are in the opposite pocket.”

Or “The probability of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich falling on the carpet face side up is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.”

Or “Anytime you have a 50 50 chance of getting something right, there’s a 90% probability you’ll get it wrong.”

And that real clincher, “Murphy was an optimist.”

Murphy’s Law is amply illustrated in a joke about a man who was crawling through the desert on his hands and knees, desperate for a drink of water.  He encounters a man selling neckties.  “Would you like to buy a nice tie?” the salesman asks.

“What would I want with a necktie?”  the man growls.  “All I want is a drink of water.”

The salesman has no water, so the poor man keeps crawling across the sand.

Miraculously, out in the middle of that vast desert, he comes upon a beautiful restaurant.  At first he thinks it’s a mirage, but as he moves closer he sees that it’s real.  With his last ounce of energy he struggles up to the entrance of that beautiful restaurant and says to the doorman.  “Please, I must have a drink of water.”

To which the doorman replies, “Sorry, gentlemen aren’t admitted without ties.”

Poor guy!  I’ve had days like that.  You have too.  How refreshing it is to come to God’s Word and read this positive and uplifting message from St. Paul, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him…”

In other words, if your faith is in God, you haven’t seen anything yet!  We can’t even imagine all the good things that await us as followers of Jesus Christ.  Isn’t that refreshing news for your soul?  I know it is for mine.

It tells me first of all, the wondrous things of this world are but a foretaste of greater things to come.  One reason we have difficulty imagining what the next world will be like is that it’s impossible for us to imagine anything more beautiful than the world we already inhabit.  A drive in the mountains or a visit to an ocean or gazing upon a lovely dew-covered flower as it lifts its colorful face toward the sun—how much more majestic can Heaven be?

There’s a little church in Ireland with beautiful stained-glass windows.  The richness of the reds and blues in those windows is breathtaking.  However, there’s one window that has been left in clear glass.  It’s the most beautiful window of them all for it looks out over a panorama that includes a clear-blue lake and green rolling hills.  Under the window is this inscription:  “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.”

No creation of human hands will ever compare to the majestic creation in which God has placed us.

Walter D. Cavett tells about a boy who was taken by his father on a camping trip to the Adirondacks.  They hired a guide, left the beaten trails, and spent a week in the heart of the woods.  The boy was greatly impressed by the ability of the guide to see all sorts of things invisible to the ordinary eye.  One day, after the guide had been pointing out some of the hidden secrets of nature, the boy asked with an awed voice, “Mister, can you see God?”

The old man replied, “My boy, it’s getting so I can hardly see anything else.”  Anyone who’s a lover of nature knows what he was talking about

The beauty and glory of this world are but a foretaste of the wondrous things that await us.  Even more important, the love of our family and friends is but a pale shadow of the love God has for us.  Can you get your mind around that?  The most beautiful music of this world wouldn’t hold a candle to the music of Heaven’s choir.  Everything we count in this world as good is but an inferior imitation of that which we will one day experience in God’s kingdom.

We’re told the artist John Linnell was very sensitive about friends wanting to see a masterpiece he was working on before it was finished.  He feared that someone might come into his studio in his absence and sneak a look, so whenever he was out of the room he covered the easel with a veil.  Across the veil he threw a streamer bearing the inscription:  “Wait and see.”

That’s St. Paul’s word for us, “Wait and see.”  The magnificence of that which surrounds us gives us only a foretaste of that which awaits us.

That’s why followers of Christ anticipate the future with such eagerness.  Whether it be the anticipation of Christ’s return or the prospect of Heaven, to be a Christian is by definitionto anticipate the future with a joyful heart.  St. Paul is saying to us that no matter how good things are in this world, we haven’t seen anything yet.

We modern, intellectually sophisticated believers don’t have to apologize for that anticipation.  The Christian faith doesn’t make sense, nor does life in general make sense, nor does our belief in a loving God make sense without belief in a world beyond this one.

Much beloved Episcopal Bishop Warren Chandler lay dying.  A close friend sat by his bedside.  “Please tell me frankly,” said his friend, “do you dread crossing the river of death?”

The old bishop smiled weakly and said with conviction, “My father owns the land on both sides of the river.  Why should I be afraid?”

For some people such faith sounds much like “Pie in the sky by and by.”  My heart goes out to them.  They have missed the most joyous good news of our faith.  Belief in a loving God demands a completion to an incomplete universe.  As St. Paul writes, “If for this life only have we hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

We enjoy a foretaste.  We anticipate the future.  And we cling to our faith.  The Greek philosopher Plato taught that we live in a world that’s but a shadow of a better world.  For Plato the physical world is the best evidence there is of the existence of a spiritual world.  That’s an appealing argument, but it was not sufficient for St. Paul.  Paul knew that reason alone, evidence alone, argument alone couldn’t bring a person to God.  Therefore he didn’t say that this world is evidence for a better one.  He said faith is the best evidence we have for a better world.  He said, “… Faith is the assurance (or evidence) of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…  By faith, we understand the world was created by God…”  He makes that clear in our text when he says that it’s only by the spirit of God that we can come to know God.

In other words, our anticipation grows out of our faith and not visa versa.  Because we have met the One who holds the future in His mighty hand, we can live in joy and anticipation.  “Because he lives, we can live.”  That’s true in this world and the world to come.  If we hang in there with our faith intact, we shall see the salvation of our God.

Patt Barnes discovered this truth through an old flower lady.  She relates that one Easter Sunday morning she noticed the old lady sitting in her usual place inside a small archway.

At her feet corsages and boutonnieres were displayed on top of a spread-open newspaper.  The flower lady was smiling her wrinkled old face alive with some inner joy and on impulse Patt said to her, “My, you look happy this morning!”

“Why not?” the flower lady answered.  “Everything is good.”

The flower lady was dressed so shabbily and seemed so very old that Pattcouldnd’t help asking, “Don’t you have any troubles?”

“You can’t reach my age and not have troubles,” she replied.  “Only it’s like Jesus and Good Friday.  When Jesus was crucified on Good Friday that was the worst day for the whole world.  When I get troubles, I remember that, and then I think of what happened only three days later—Easter and our Lord arising.  So when things go wrong, I’ve learned to wait three days… and somehow everything gets much better.”

Patt Barnes goes on to write, “[The old flower lady] smiled good-by.  But her words still follow me whenever I think I have troubles… Give God a chance to help… wait three days.”

That sounds like good advice to me.  Doesn’t it to you?  Each moment spent in the love and care of God is a moment of eternity.  We don’t have to wait until we cross the river of death to experience God’s love and God’s beauty.

The wondrous things of this world are but a foretaste of greater things to come.  Thus we anticipate the future with eagerness.  In the meantime, we cling to our faith.

Someone has imagined that once an enormous computer was built by all the world’s greatest scientists.  Into that computer was fed all the world’s knowledge.  Then the computer was asked this question, “How did the world really come into existence?”

The computer ground for hours on that question as all the great scientists hovered around it.  Finally it printed out a short, succinct answer:  “See Genesis 1.”

In case you’ve forgotten, Genesis 1 begins like this:  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

I believe if we’re to ask the same computer the question, “What does the future hold?” the giant computer would print out 1 Corinthians 2, verse 9:  “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him…”

In other words, friends, for those of us who love Jesus, “We haven’t seen anything yet.”

Let us pray.  O God of light, your searching Spirit reveals and illumines your presence in creation.  Shine your radiant holiness into our lives, that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work:  to heal and shelter, to feed and clothe, to break every yoke and silence evil tongues.  Amen.

January 29, 2017

What in The World Are We Doing Here?

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12 (CEB)

The story is told about a concert held in Philadelphia.  One of the pieces played by the orchestra featured a flute solo.  This solo was to be played offstage so that it would sound as if coming from a great distance.  The conductor had instructed the flutist to count the measures precisely in order to come in at the exact time.  After all, with the flutist offstage, there could be no visual contact between the two of them.

On the night of the performance, when the time came for the flute solo, the flutist counted perfectly and came in precisely at the right time.  The light, lilting notes floated out beautifully across the theater.  Suddenly, however, there was a terrible shrieking noise and then the soloist went silent.  The conductor was outraged.  At the end of the piece he rushed off stage to find the poor flutist.  The flutist was ready for him.

“Maestro,” he said, “Before you say anything let me tell you exactly what happened.  You’re not going to believe it.  As you are aware I came in precisely on time and everything was going beautifully.  Then suddenly—this enormous stage hand ran up and grabbed away my flute.  Then he pushed me back and snapped at me.  “Shut up, you idiot!”  He said, “Don’t you know there’s a concert going on out there?”

The poor flutist.  He was only doing what he had been told by playing off-stage.

I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life when I thought I was doing all the right things and then suddenly life has taken a sharp turn and I have been as startled as that flutist.  At such times I’ve been tempted to ask, “What in the world am I doing here?  What does it all mean?  What’s expected out of me?”

Sometimes it even bleeds over into my religious life.  “Things aren’t going the way I expected,” I think to myself.  “How far do I take this religion business?  How much does God really demand out of me?”

Well, of course, there’s an answer to that question in Scripture.  I suppose that few verses in the Old Testament or the New are better known than Micah 6:8, particularly in the Revised Standard Version translation:  “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I suspect this text is well known for two reasons.  One, it has three easily discerned sections which make it easy to deal with—do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.  What a nice outline for a sermon.  But secondly, it deals in a simple way with that age-old question, “What does God expect?”  One of the reasons I like this text is that it’s as relevant to our world as it was to the world in which Micah lived.

Micah is considered one of the Minor Prophets.  We don’t know a whole lot about him except that he was a prophet in the 8th century, a contemporary of three better known prophets—Isaiah, Amos and Hosea.  Micah was a prophet who spoke for the downtrodden and exploited people of Judean society, particularly for the poor farm workers who were suffering at the hands of powerful landlords.  Imagine him as an 8th century version of Bernie Sanders calling for income equality.  This may help you as you seek to understand the three Biblical demands he places upon our lives:  “He has showed you, Oman, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Let’s begin with the call to love kindness.  Here’s the most basic, the most minimal requirement of all religion—that we should treat other people as we would like to be treated.  A great Quaker gentleman expressed it well over two centuries ago when he wrote:  I expect to pass through life but once.  If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”

All good religion begins here.  We may not be able to agree on everything.  Indeed, we may have some areas of our lives in which we’re in sharp conflict with one another, but we can at least treat each other with civility, with simple human kindness.

There was an article in Reader’s Digest not too long ago about a man named Patrick Connelly.  Connelly is a fan of country music star and TV celebrity Blake Shelton.  In fact, Connelly was fortunate enough to attend a Blake Shelton concert in Overland Park, Kansas.  Unfortunately, Connelly is in a wheelchair.  All he could see at the concert was a sea of people.  Then the most amazing thing happened.  Without being asked, two strangers hoisted Connelly aloft on their shoulders and they held him there for over 20 minutes in grueling 100-degree heat, long enough for the disabled man to watch his hero perform.  That’s kindness.  To be kind is the least we can do in this unkind world.

Of course, the Bible places no limits on our kindness.  We’re even to be kind to those who are unkind to us.  Exodus 23:5 requires the children of Israel not to oppress strangers—with the reminder they were once strangers themselves.  Jesus, of course, went even farther than that:  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” (Matt. 5:44)  There are to be no limits placed upon our kindness.  We’re to pour out acts of love and generosity even toward persons that we may deem undeserving.  For Christians this is particularly significant because we believe that God poured out his love on us when we were undeserving.

Kindness is among the most basic requirements for the believer.  Sometimes our acts of kindness meet with only cold ingratitude from recipients of those acts.  That’s all right.  That’s on them.  We obey Jesus.  Kindness is the first business of a follower of Jesus.

Someone once asked, if you were given a dollar for every kind word or deed which you said or did, and then had to give back fifty cents for every unkind word or deed, would you be rich or poor?  Think about it.  We’re to love kindness.

We’re also to do justice.  Justice is a much larger and more complicated concept than kindness.  Kindness is an individual act.  I see a person in need and, like the Good Samaritan, I try to help.  That’s kindness.  Justice, on the other hand, is the passion that followers of Jesus have for making certain that every person on earth has a decent opportunity for a healthy, wholesome, rewarding life.

Abraham Lincoln once saw a slave girl being sold on an auction block like cattle.  She was being sold away from her family and friends.  Lincoln saw the fright and terror in her eyes.  “This thing must go,” Lincoln said.  He was referring to the institution of slavery.  And he dedicated his life to the destruction of that barbaric institution.  That’s doing justice.

No concept is more Christian or more American than is the demand for justice.  Wherever there are people who are oppressed—whether it’s political oppression, economic oppression, racial oppression, or whatever form that oppression may take, we must raise our voices.

Pastor Ed Markquart gives one of the best examples of the difference between kindness and justice that I know of.  He reminds us of a story from Charles Dicken’s England some two hundred years ago.  At that time, many twelve year old boys were working in coal mines, down in the dangerous mine shafts.  Their life was miserable but that was what was expected of twelve year old boys in poor families in England at that time:  a lifetime of hard work in the coal mines beginning when they were only children.

The church tried to be kind to these poor boys.  They would offer presents at Christmas time.  Their families would receive charity and holiday turkeys.  The church would offer prayers for the little boys working away in those coal mines.

However, one day some determined leaders in that island nation passed a much-needed law.  The law said that little boys could no longer work in coal mines.  The law also insisted these boys go to school instead of going to the coal mines to work.

There, my friends, is the difference between acts of kindness and doing justice.  Kindness is giving Christmas gifts to disadvantaged boys who work in coal mines; kindness is giving their families turkeys during the holiday season, and kindness is praying for them.  Doing justice is working to change the laws so that it’s illegal for little boys to work in the coal mines in the first place.

I fear that we in the church are content to be kind.  Kindness is great.  It’s the first step in following Jesus, but it’s only the beginning of that journey.  It’s the bare minimum.  We’re to love kindness, but we’re also to do justice.

Whether it’s in Syria or the Sudan or here at home where there are people who are being treated cruelly, we have a mission.  Doing justice is much more complicated than loving kindness—but it’s equally a part of Christian witness.

That’s not a popular theme in our present world as you know.  “Let them fend for themselves,” some would say.  “Charity begins at home.”  For people, however, who recognize their lives have been bought with the blood of the cross, such an attitude is repulsive.  We’re here today because God so loved the world that he gave His only Son.  We’re here today because a Man from Galilee cared more about us than he did himself.  If our response to that is only to shut ourselves off behind a wall in our little designer cocoon with our luxury automobiles, expensive high-tech toys, and big screen TVs while the rest of the world goes to hell, we’re in deep spiritual trouble.

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  Few characteristics are as appealing in a person as is genuine humility.  However, here Micah is talking about a special kind of humility.  It’s like unto the meekness Jesus praised when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).  Jesus wasn’t talking about the shy, timid mouse of a person who’s content to serve as the world’s doormat.  Rather he was talking about people who are so committed to serving God and serving other people they have an astounding impact on our world.

The meekness or humility that Jesus and Micah were talking about is the person witha fierce determination and persistence in seeing God’s kingdom be realized.  That kind of humility or meekness leads to tremendous power and effectiveness in life.

Pastor Tony Bland once described such a humble person.  Bland begins by telling about a statue, the largest cast iron statue in the world that sits atop Red Mountain overlooking the city of Birmingham, Alabama.  What you may not know about Birmingham is that, like Pittsburgh, PA, it once was a major center for the production of iron and steel.  The 56-foot tall statue that sits on Red Mountain depicts the Roman god Vulcan, god of the fire and forge.  It’s a symbol of Birmingham’s past, reflecting its roots in the iron and steel industry.

But there’s another statue in Birmingham.  Down from atop Red Mountain, in the heart of this industrial city is a park in front of a church.  In that park is a statue that portrays a little man on his knees with his hands raised to heaven.  This man was known simply as Brother Bryan.  Bryan had been the pastor of a small Presbyterian Church.

Brother Bryan was a humble pastor who was often seen kneeling hand in hand on a street corner praying with someone.  He pastored in Birmingham for more than a quarter of a century.  He was a servant to all.  He was a meek and humble man.  But when he died, businesses closed, flags were hung at half mast, and the whole city wept in sorrow at his departure.  They built a statue to serve as a memorial to this humble pastor.

Tony Bland writes, “When the statue of Vulcan has tumbled to dust, and Red Mountain is worn flat, the witness and work of Pastor Bryan will remain.”  Brother Bryan was a humble man, but he moved an entire city through his devotion to serving God and others.  That’s the kind of humility or meekness that God seeks in us.

So, what in the world are you doing here?  Whatever else you’re involved in, I hope you’re engaged in these three simple but courageous activities:  doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Let us pray.  God our deliverer, you walk with the meek and the poor, the compassionate and those who mourn, and you call us to walk humbly with you.  When we’re foolish, be our wisdom; when we’re weak, be our strength; that, as we learn to do justice and to love mercy, your rule may come as blessing.  Amen.

January 22, 2017

Fans or Followers

Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23 CEB

Kyle Idleman has written a very thoughtful essay titled “Why I’m Not a ‘Fan’ of Jesus.”

He begins by noting that, according to a recent survey, the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian is somewhere north of 75 percent.

“Really?” he asks, “three out of four people are followers of Christ?

“Let’s see, if the population of the United States is about 311 million and 75 percent are Christians that brings the number of Christians to somewhere in the neighborhood of 233 million.  That’s a lot of Christians.”

In his estimation, something about that percentage is off.  “Because if there really are that many Christians, then why will some 35 million people in America go to bed hungry tonight, including 13 million children?  If 75 percent of Americans are Christians…then why are there more than 120, 000 children waiting to be adopted?... The numbers don’t add up.  Jesus said the evidence that someone is one of his followers is love.  So, 233 million?”Says Idleman, “the evidence just isn’t there.

“What’s the explanation for such a discrepancy?”  He asks.  He tells about an article he read a number of years ago about a group the article called, the “new vegetarians.”

“These new vegetarians don’t eat meat—most of the time.  One of them explained that she was a vegetarian, but she really liked bacon.”  [And so she ate it.]  “A vegetarian, by definition, is someone who doesn’t eat meat,” says Idleman.  “Umm, yeah, but isn’t bacon a meat?  Is it really accurate for her to identify herself as a vegetarian?...”  Then he adds the discrepancy was solved by coming up with a new term to describe vegetarians who aren’t committed to abstaining from meat.  They now identify themselves as “Flexitarians.”

“A Christian,” continues Idleman, “by definition, is a follower of Christ.  So, I’m thinking that what might help make sense of the 233 million number is a new word to describe people who identify themselves as Christians but have little interest in actually following the teachings of Jesus.  Perhaps instead of ‘followers,’ it would be more accurate to call them ‘fans.’

“The word fan is most simply defined as, an enthusiastic admirer.  And I think Jesus has a lot of fans these days.  Some fans may even get dressed up for church on Sunday and make their ringtone a worship song.  They like be associated with Jesus.  Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them.  They want a no-strings-attached relationship with Jesus.  So a fan says, I like Jesus but don’t ask me to serve the poor.  I like Jesus, but I’m not going to give my money to people who’re in need.  I like Jesus, but don’t ask me to forgive the person who hurt me.  I like Jesus, but don’t talk to me about money or sex—that’s off limits.

“Fans like Jesus just fine, but they don’t want to give up the bacon…”

Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel is about four men who were called by Jesus to be disciples.  They weren’t called to be fans of Jesus, but followers.  Their names were Peter, Andrew, James and John, four fishermen.  But this reading is also about you and me, because we’ve been called to be disciples as well.  We also have been called to be followers and not fans.  I’ll let you decide to which group you belong.  But first let’s ask, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

Notice, first of all, how ordinary these four men were.  They had no formal education that we know of.  Neither did they possess any particular personal attractiveness or extraordinary talent of which we are aware.  They were just ordinary fishermen.  We often make the mistake of assuming that God calls only the most impressive, the most gifted, the most talented people.  Indeed, that seems to be the exact opposite of what God does.

God comes to Moses with the summons to go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go.”

Moses responds, “Who am I that I should go to the Pharaoh?”  Later Moses protests that he is too “slow of speech” to carry out such a mission (Exodus 3 and 4).

God comes to Gideon who would later be a great leader of God’s people, but Gideon responds:  “My clan is the weakest in Mannaseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15).

Even that most successful of all Israel’s kings, David, was flabbergasted by God’s call.  “I’m only a poor man and little known,” replies David (1 Samuel 18:23).

St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1, that God has deliberately chosen what the world considers foolish.

My friends, he’s talking about you and me.  God chooses ordinary people to do his work so they will depend on His power and not their own.  For this reason, Paul says, no one will ever be able “to boast in the presence of God.”

The late John McKay, was for many years the coach of the University of Southern California Trojans.  Later he was the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL.  He was known as a superb football coach.

McKay once said that it’s not the superstars who win most football games but average players giving their best.

I’m certain that a Hall of Fame coach like McKay understood the value of having players of a certain level of talent, but he also understood that many talented players never fulfill their potential because of a lack of desire and dedication.

In the play, “Green Pastures”, God asks Gabriel to recruit a leader and Gabriel asks in return, “Do you want the brainiest or do you want the holiest?”

God answers, “Get me the holiest.  I’ll make him the brainiest.”

And that’s the way God works.  Some of His most effective servants have been people with very modest resume`s.

Beginning with the crude manger of Bethlehem no message is clearer in the New Testament than this one—Christian faith is the celebration of ordinary people who come to possess a very extraordinary power.

When you’re asked to serve God in some capacity, don’t talk yourself out of a great opportunity by saying, “I’m too old,” or “I don’t have enough education,” or some other personal putdown.  God can give you the ability.  What he can’t give you is the commitment, the dedication, the faithfulness.  That must come from within.  That’s why God always prefers the holiest to the brainiest.  That’s why Christ prefers followers to mere fans.  The first disciples that Jesus called were ordinary individuals.

And notice what these ordinary individuals were called to do.  They were called to spend three years of their lives in the presence of Jesus.

A disciple is one who studies with a great teacher.  This implies that those who follow Jesus need to grow.  We don’t blossom overnight into mature spiritual giants.

Dr. Dwayne Dyer asked in one of his books, “How do you distinguish between a flower that’s alive and one that’s dead?”  Then he answers his own question:  “The one that’s growing is alive.”  He adds, “The only evidence of life is growth.”  So it is with the life of the spirit.

One prominent evangelist complained during the 1950s when churches were bursting at the seams that the church really wasn’t growing; it was merely getting fat.  That is, persons were coming into the church but they were remaining spiritual infants.  They weren’t growing in understanding and faith.  “We’re simply multiplying spiritual babies,” this evangelist charged.  The past half-century have borne that out.  Many have fallen by the wayside.  Many have proved to be people of shallow convictions.  They have proven to be fans and not followers.

To be alive is to grow.  In his second epistle Peter encourages us “to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Growth is why we come to church.  The place most of us encounter Christ and learn about him and grow in our spiritual walk is within these walls.  The cry of a few years ago, “Jesus, yes; the church, no” simply is an illusion.  Follow-up studies on persons involved in Christian groups not related to a local church over the past several decades back that up.  It simply doesn’t last.  The ember removed from the fire soon grows cold.  As the song says, “it only takes a spark to get a fire going…”

Like every pastor I’m astounded at times by the casual attitude many people have about their responsibilities to the church.

I sometimes feel like the orchestra conductor who was quite upset over the fact that at every rehearsal at least one member of the orchestra was absent.  At the final rehearsal before a big concert he announced, “I would like to thank our first trumpet player.  He was the only member of this orchestra who didn’t miss a rehearsal.”

The first trumpet player stood and bowed as the other members of the orchestra applauded.  Then he said quietly, “It was the least I could do, considering I won’t be able to be at the concert tonight.”

I know how that orchestra conductor felt at that moment.  Every pastor does.

The work of the church is so important.  Our ministry to children and to youth and to adults is so vital to the Kingdom of God.  This is a place where disciples grow.  This is where we’re equipped for the work Christ has given us.  The church deserves our best loyalty and service.

I’m reminded of a story about another orchestra that was giving a concert in a large church hall in England.  The place was filled to capacity.

Afterwards a casual member of that church where the concert was held flippantly asked the pastor of the church when the hall would be filled like that for a Sunday morning worship service.  The pastor answered solemnly, “It will be filled when like that conductor I have eighty well-trained, committed and disciplined men and women to work with me.”

How the church needs that today.  Eighty well-trained, committed and disciplined men and women could change a community, maybe even a nation.

I heard recently about a man who was given the nickname, “Honest John.”  It embarrassed him and he protested that he didn’t deserve it.  “Couldn’t you call me, ‘Fairly Honest John?’”  He asked.

That sounds like many of us, doesn’t it?  We want to be ‘fairly committed’ in our service to Christ, ‘fairly committed’ to Sunday school, study, and worship, ‘fairly committed’ to making our church what God has called it to be.  Jesus called those original followers to spend three years in his presence as disciples, learners, students.  It wasn’t enough for them to be “fairly committed.”  Christ was calling them to be completely committed.  They needed to grow.  So do we.  

This brings us to the last thing to be said.  These disciples were ordinary people just as we are.  They were called not only to go with Jesus but also to grow with him—just as we are as well.  Here’s the final thought.

There would come a time when they would no longer be called disciples, but apostles—those who are sent out to proclaim the Good News.  Disciples are those called to come.  Apostles are those called to go.  There needs to come a time when we move from being followers to being leaders.

Our church should never have any difficulty finding persons to serve in the nursery.  To teach in children’s church, or take on leadership positions, or serve on committees, or make contacts in our community.  There comes a time when mature Christian believers realize that it’s time to move from being ‘ministered to’ to the work of ministry itself.

Perhaps that was part of why Jesus chose not to remain with his disciples physically.  He wanted them to understand that now they had the privilege and responsibility of carrying on the work of God.

Remember that scene where Jesus asks Simon Peter three times, “Simon, do you love me?”  Each time when Simon professes his love for Christ the Lord instructs Simon to “feed my sheep.”  That’s the final step in following Christ.  It’s to feed Christ’s sheep.  We need to appreciate that in the church today.  We need to move beyond caring for ourselves to caring for others.

One of the most monumental works in all the world is the Great Wall of China.  The mammoth man-made structure stretches eighteen hundred miles over mountains, plains and deserts.  The Chinese built it to keep out barbarians, but for the Chinese themselves it became a barrier to progress.  Isolated behind that wall from others, they quit progressing as a people.

That can happen to us as individuals or as a church.  Great things happen within the walls of this church.  But if we never see ourselves as the apostles, those sent out in ministry to the world, we will stagnate and die in our own spiritual pilgrimage.

At the beginning of his ministry Jesus called four men—Peter and his brother Andrew and two other brothers, James and John—to leave their nets and follow him.  He called them not to be fans, but to be followers.  These were four ordinary men but God did extraordinary things through them.  The first part of their pilgrimage was spent in the fellowship of Christ and other believers in order that they might grow to spiritual maturity as Christ’s disciples.  But there came a time when in order to continue their growth.   They discovered they must become teachers, missionaries, leaders of local churches, and servants both of the Word and the world.  That’s our calling as well, to move beyond being a fan to being a follower of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray.  God of Blazing light, through the power of the cross you shattered our darkness, scattering the fears that bind us and setting us free to live as your children.  Give us courage and conviction that we may joyfully turn and follow you into new adventures of faithful service, led by the light that shines through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

January 1, 2017

Today Can Be the First Day of Your New Life!

Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23 (CEB)

It’s said that in Rome, on New Year’s Eve, there’s a tradition of literally throwing old things right out the window, to start the New Year free from the past.

I guess the moral of that is if you’re fortunate enough to be in Rome, Italy some New Year’s Eve, you best keep an eye on the sky.  Somebody might be throwing out a heavy piece of furniture just as you’re passing by.  That’s their tradition.

A pastor named Patricia Farris tells about being in Mexico one year with her husband on New Year’s Eve.  They found themselves in the middle of something they didn’t understand at the time, but they discovered it’s similar to the tradition in Rome.

It was late in the evening not yet midnight and the central square was full of people, lights, music, kids, old people, families… Stands were set up and people were selling, in addition to all the usual souvenirs and food and so forth, an array of very inexpensive pottery, mostly simple clay plates.  What was interesting was that people were buying these simple clay plates and then standing back and throwing them with full force against one wall of the great cathedral in the community square, smashing the plates into smithereens.

It was loud and raucous and exciting, according to Ms. Farris.  Only later did she learn that this tradition grew out of a deep human need to throw out the old, to start the New Year free of old resentments, old fears, old prejudices, old sins.  “Throw them out!” says Pastor Farris, “Let them smash against the strong fortress of faith and be done with it.  God is ready to offer healing and new life.”

Our theme for our service today, this first Sunday of a New Year is “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!”  You’ve heard that expression before.  It’s a positive expression about life and I want to reinforce it today.  Today really can be the first day in your new life.

Velma Seawell Daniels in her book “Celebrate Joy!” tells of interviewing a man who had made a trip to Alaska to visit some people who lived above the Arctic Circle.

“Never ask an Eskimo how old he is,” the man said.  “If you do, [the Eskimo] will say, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’  And,” the man added, “he doesn’t.”

He said an Eskimo told him that one time and he pressed the Eskimo a bit further.  He asked him a second time how old he was and the Eskimo said, “Almost   that’s all.”

So he asked, “Almost what?”  And the Eskimo said, “Almost one day.”

The man didn’t have a clue what the Eskimo meant by that until he talked to another man who had lived in the Arctic Circle for about twenty years.  “He was a newspaperman who had written a book about the Eskimos and their customs and beliefs.  He said the Eskimos believe that when they go to sleep at night they die, that they’re literally dead to the world.  Then, when they wake up in the morning, they have been resurrected and are living a new life.  Therefore, no Eskimo is more than one day old.  So, that’s what the Eskimo meant when he said he was ‘almost’ a day old.  The day wasn’t over yet.”

“Life above the Arctic Circle is harsh and cruel, and mere survival becomes a major accomplishment,” he explained further.  “But, you never see an Eskimo who seems worried or anxious.  They’ve learned to face life one day at a time.”

Have you learned how to put worry and anxiety aside and live one day at a time?  It gives new meaning to that familiar admonition that “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” doesn’t it?

Our Scripture lesson for the day deals with people who also lived in a harsh and cruel world.  It’s the concluding portion of the Christmas story.  After the shepherds and the wise men have gone, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says to him, “Herod will be looking for the child in order to kill him.  So get up, take the child and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.”

It’s a scene of darkness and dread, of fear and flight.  The humble couple gathers their few belongings and their precious newborn babe, and in the darkness of night they silently make their way toward Egypt.

Life’s often like that.  Even in the most beautiful story in all of literature the story of the gift of God’s Son being delivered to humankind in the manger of Bethlehem there is the specter of fear and death.

This is an acknowledgement on this first Sunday of the New Year, that there’s much in life to dread.  The Bible doesn’t gloss over the very real problems of living in this imperfect world.  From the very first family, with its envy and strife; through the daily battles of God’s own people, the people of Israel, with neighboring tribes, with feast, famine, slavery and wandering through the wilderness… through tears and tribulations… we see in their travails that life isn’t easy.  The Bible portrays no Pollyanna view of life.  Life is harsh, demanding, and sometimes cruel.  There’s much to dread.

So Joseph and Mary and their newborn son must flee for their lives into Egypt.  It’s a very human drama that’s been repeated often through the ages.  Even today, around the world and within our own borders, families are packing up their belongings, setting off in the hopes of finding jobs, food, or freedom.  Some in places like Syria and even Central America are actually fleeing for their lives.  They have to leave family and friends behind.  With a sense of dread and uncertainty they move to new homes in search of a better, more secure life.

Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, but the story doesn’t end there.  Even when Herod dies and they feel free to return to Israel, they dare not return to their former home in the province of Judea.  Herod’s son Archeleus has succeeded him and there’s still much to fear.  Thus they settle in the province of Galilee in a little town called Nazareth.

The Biblical testimony is realistic that there’s much in life to fear.  The problem begins when we allow our fears to overwhelm us.  Fear can do amazing things with our minds.

The most basic of all human emotions is fear.  And fear in proper doses is healthy.  Many people, however, are almost totally dominated by their fears.  It may be fear of failure, or fear of ridicule.  It may be fear of places, or fear of people.  There are as many fears as there are demands upon the human creature.  Anything we’re asked to be or do can create fear.

Of course, everyone is afraid of something.  Actor Spencer Tracy had a fear of flying.  So did Judy Garland.  Modern actresses Jennifer Aniston and Whoopi Goldberg are also said to be afraid of flying.

Pop star Britney Spears is said to panic on encountering large lizards… which I think is interesting.  Madonna is terrified of thunder.

Actress Scarlett Johansson is terrified of birds.  I hope she never sees the Alfred Hitchcock thriller by that name.  She’ll never be the same again.

We’re told that French philosopher Albert Camus was phobic about driving a car.  Ironically, he died in a car accident while a friend was driving.

Sigmund Freud had a fear of traveling anywhere outside of Vienna.  I wonder what kind of repressed desire explains that?

There’s an intriguing story told about the late J. Edgar Hoover, former director of the F.B.I.  The story may be apocryphal, but one source tells it as true.

It seems that Hoover once made a trip to California.  While making a left turn, his chauffeur driven car was struck by another car from behind.  The F.B.I. director, who had been sitting in the left seat behind the driver, was badly shaken by the incident.  From then on Hoover refused to sit in the left rear seat of a car (he called it “the death seat”).  But even more amazing from that day forward Hoover forbade all left turns on auto trips.  Thereafter his aides had to go through the most complicated arrangements to get director, Hoover from place to place without making any left turns.

Think about that, if it’s true.  The director of one of America’s most important law enforcement agencies was reduced to a bundle of nerves by the thought of making a left turn.

We all have the capacity to make our lives miserable by giving in to our fears.

But there’s an antidote to fear, and you can find it in the Scriptures.  It’s an antidote that allowed the heroes of the Bible to dissolve their fears and fight great battles.

The antidote is more than simply being courageous.  Courage is an admirable quality.  It allows us to face our fears for a time and do battle.  But courage is somewhat of a limited ally.  It all too easily falls prey to its greatest enemy, an emotion with an interesting name:  discouragement.  Think about it.  Courage and discourage.  For courage to be lasting and effective, it must be able to see hope.  If it sees no hope, it quickly transforms into discouragement.  The opposite of fear isn’t courage the opposite of fear is faith.

Faith tells us that although the odds are against us we’re not alone.  That’s the Biblical answer to fear.  We may see no hope, but we know the One who’s the source of hope.  That’s faith, not in ourselves but in God.  And that kind of faith can always defeat fear.

It’s interesting that Joseph and Mary, as they fled to Egypt, couldn’t know they were fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, “I called my son out of Egypt.”  And as they headed from Egypt to Nazareth, separating themselves from their families and friends in Judea, they probably weren’t even aware that according to a prophecy which had been written centuries before, the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.  Even as the drama of the first Christmas begins with them making their way to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem because of a ruling by Augustus Caesar that the world should be taxed, they couldn’t know that, according to prophecy, their son must be born in Bethlehem.  Think of it, God had moved a Roman emperor in order to fulfill an isolated piece of Scripture.  God even used the jealous rage of Herod and Archeleus to fulfill His purposes.

Do you see the majesty and glory of it all?  Even in the darkest times, God was there, just as God is with us in our difficult times.  Life was hard for Mary and Joseph, but they weren’t alone.  God was with them.  And that’s the meaning of faith not that the way will be made easy for us, but that God will be with us.

So, why are you afraid?  Why are you dispirited and downcast?  God’s at work.  Because of Him all things are working toward the good for those who love Him.

Why not turn your fears and frustrations over to God?  As Patricia Farris says, “Throw them out… smash [them] against the strong fortress of faith and be done with [them].  God’s ready to offer healing and new life.”  The same loving Father who gently guided Mary and Joseph toward Bethlehem, then toward Egypt, and finally toward a little town named Nazareth watches over our lives as well and he can free you from your fears if you will trust Him.

Without faith we’re in bondage to our worries and anxieties.  But with trust in God, we can be set free.

Let us pray.  Praise is our cry, O Holy One of Israel, for you have come among us and borne our burdens.  Give us open hearts that we might embrace our suffering sisters and brothers, and welcome Jesus in the hospitality we show to exiles.  Amen.

December 24, 2016

His Name Shall be Called Jesus!

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

The late Erma Bombeck, one of America’s best-loved columnists, wrote a funny but penetrating piece.  And I quote her as clearly as I can.

“Most of us have never seen anyone smile at the Post Office.  The Post Office instead is like a clinic for lower back pain.  Well, I was in line yesterday, when the door opened and in walked a lady with a big smile on her face weighted down with boxes for mailing.  She held the door open for her three little girls who filed in, each carrying a package.  It was quite obvious they had never seen the inside of a Post Office.

“She bounded over to a man standing over a counter pasting stamps and asked, ‘Are you a carrier?’

“Of what?” he snapped.

“Another one in line growled, “To the back of the line, lady!”

Her eyes fairly danced with excitement as she announced to no one in particular, ‘It certainly is a nice day, and just think, girls, Christmas is only one week away.”

“Will granddad get his presents?” asked one child.

“Of course, he will,” said her mother “We’ve got it all timed just about right.  On Christmas Eve he’ll be sitting around the fire, the doorbell will ring and a postman will knock and say, with a big smile, “Merry Christmas from your family in Arizona.”

Every eye in the Post Office turned to stare at this cross between Mary Poppins and Tiny Tim.

“Look girls, doesn’t the Post Office look like Santa is on his way?”

We all looked around.  With the exception of Santa pointing his finger at us from a poster and warning, “Mail early” the place had the spirit of a Recovery Room.

Finally she got to the head of the line.  “When will dad get these packages?”  She asked.

The postal clerk shrugged, “Depends.  Maybe by New Year’s or we could get ‘em there in one day.”

“One day would be fine!” she exclaimed.

“It’ll cost you,” he said, scribbling down some figures.  “$45.83.”

The woman hesitated, then picked out one box and said, “This one must get there by Christmas Day.  It’s my father’s birthday.”

The clerk shook his head and said, “Boy, that guy’s a loser.  Imagine having a birthday on Christmas.  One present fits all.  Thank God I don’t know of anyone born on Christmas Day.”

The man behind me whispered loudly, “Thank God, I do.”

“I’ve told that long story by Erma Bombeck to ask:  Well, do you?  Do you know anyone—do you know the one—who was born on Christmas day?

We’re reflecting on the specific scripture lesson from Matthew 1.  Joseph is perplexed, deeply perplexed.  The woman to whom he is engaged is pregnant and he knows the baby isn’t his.  He’s wrestling with what to do.  Will he expose her, making her a public example?  He can never do that, he loves her too much.  He’s a just man, a godly man, so he takes the only course acceptable to his conscience.  He decides to divorce her quietly, privately, hoping to cause as little a ripple in the community as possible.

Even that decision, though it came out of the love and justice of his heart, didn’t set well.  He continued to wrestle with it.  In his wrestling, in the deep midnight watches and wakefulness of his wrenching heart, an angel appeared with the astounding news:

“Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for He will save his people from their sins.”  (Matthew 1:20-23 RSV)

There is the naming of the baby – He is to be called Jesus/Emmanuel.  It had been declared by the prophet, Isaiah, centuries before.  The angel had announced it to Mary at the time of her Annunciation:  “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name, Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-32, 33 RSV)

So, the question, what’s in a name?  Let’s look at the two names, Jesus and Emmanuel.

First, the name Jesus.

Jesus is the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua or Jeshua.  Joshua means “God saves.”

Mark Trotter reminds us that “the Jews chose names not only because of the meaning of the name itself, but because of the tradition associated with the name.  So when someone is named Joshua, you’re to look back to the first Joshua to find the meaning of his name.  The name Joshua takes us back to the Exodus to the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, and the establishment, and the fulfillment of their life, in the Promised Land.

“The two most important people of that period are Moses and Joshua.  Moses began the exodus and Joshua finished it.  Therefore, if you want to understand who Jesus was and what he means to us you look at his name and the tradition associated with it.

“The gospel writers told the story of Jesus with parallels to the story of Moses.  Hebrew legend says that Moses’ father received a visit from an angel who revealed that Moses’ son would be one who would liberate the Jews from Egypt.

“Matthew reports that Joseph had a similar dream of who Jesus is to be, and his name, comes to Joseph, and not to Mary.  The revelation is that the name shall be Jesus, which means “God shall save us from our sins.”

“Look at the other parallels.  Pharaoh threatens to slaughter the Hebrew children, and Moses is spared; Herod slaughters the innocent children of Bethlehem and Jesus is spared.  Moses crosses the Red Sea into forty years of wilderness; Jesus crosses the River Jordan after his baptism and enters the fort and forty nights of temptation.  These parallels weren’t lost on the people in those days who first heard the Good News of Christ proclaimed.  They understood by those parallels who He was and what He had come for.

“Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Law of Israel on the mountain; Jesus preached the Beatitudes, the Law of the Kingdom on a mountain.  Parallels – all the way up to the Transfiguration, which confirms that He is the Messiah, where Moses is present, to cast his vote.

“To say Jesus is like Moses is to proclaim that He’s a liberator, and He has come to release you from your bondage to sin.

“But his name is Joshua, not Moses.  Moses began the exodus – Joshua finished it.  Poor old Moses died an old man, short of going into the Promised Land.  It was Joshua who finally led his people into the life that was long awaited, most expected, incessantly prayed for – the fulfillment of their life.

So, when the angel says, “His name shall be called Jesus,” (meaning Joshua) the name reveals what he will do.  The name says “God saves.”  The tradition of the name means He will save you from whatever holds you in bondage, and will lead you to the fulfillment of your life.  (“What’s in a Name, Dec. 21, 1980)

But it helps us none unless we respond.

So let’s be very specific, name our common bondage and claim our deliverance.

Many of us are still in bondage to sin.  Now, that’s not easy to admit and we’re very adept at evading the truth about ourselves.  Very much like the husband who said to his wife after she had suggested that he lose a few pounds:  “I’m not overweight.  It’s just that according to the chart I should be six inches taller.”  The Scripture is very specific:  “You shall call His name Jesus, for he will save His people from their sins.”  Now that’s Good News only when we’re willing to admit the bad news about ourselves.  The bad news is the truth is that we’re sinners.

Do you feel burdened down by guilt?  Have you started to realize the guilt may be from unconfessed sins?

Do you feel pain in your heart because there’s a severed relationship that needs reconciliation?  Do you feel helpless because you’re held in the tenacious grip of a debilitating habit?  Alcohol?Drugs?  Gambling?

Is your energy being drained because you live too close to the line of moral compromise – cheating in business?  Preoccupied with sexual lusts?

Does your pride often put you in the position of thinking more highly of yourself than you ought to think, of looking down your nose at others?

We could go on and on, but you’ll have to do that personally.

Painful though the process of confession and repentance may be, the joy that comes as a result is “unspeakable and full of glory.”  For the one whose birthday we celebrate tonight is Jesus.  He will save us from our sins.

He will also save us from our fear.  That’s the second common bondage we need to name if we’re going to know deliverance.

The popular writer Loren Eisley, has put it into focus.  Writing about a study of Eskimo culture, Eisley reported that when asked about his beliefs, the Eskimo replied, “We do not believe.  We only fear.  We fear those things about us and those things which we do not understand.”  And so Eisley comments:

“The winter of man has not departed because, like the Eskimo, we do not so much believe as we fear.  We do not fear the Eskimos malevolent ghosts.  We pierce the far rim of the universe and roam mentally through light years of time, but we also fear.  We do not fear the malevolent ghosts but we fear the ghosts of ourselves.  We have come now in our time to fear the water we drink, the air we breathe, the insecticides dusted over our food.  We fear the awesome nuclear power we have lifted out of nature, and cannot return.  We fear the weapons we’ve made, the hatreds we have engendered…we fear for the value of the money in our pockets that stand symbolically for food and shelter.

“We fear the growing power of government to take all these things away from us.  We even fear our scientists and their discoveries.  We fear, and never will cease to fear…we are in the winter; we have never left its icy breath.”

Now that’s a perceptive observation, but I want to affirm what Eisley did not—that we can leave the icy breath of our winter of fear.  That angel on one of the coldest nights of humanity’s history;

“Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, for unto you is born this day a Savior.”

That’s who Jesus is.  What’s in a name?  A Savior, our Savior, from sin and from fear.  Will you claim his deliverance tonight?

The Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah.  The angel announced to Joseph that Mary would bear a son and his name would be called Jesus “for He would save His people from their sins.”  The Gospel writer followed the record of that announcement saying, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet.  “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us) (Matthew 1:22-23).

So that too is a name for the child of Christmas:  Emmanuel, God with us.  The same prophet, Isaiah had this to say about Emmanuel:  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has...light shined…for to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:2, 6 RSV)

What promise!  What hope!  This is the word we desperately need to appropriate tonight, for this is no naïve’ notion, no surface optimism; this is the bedrock of reality which moves from the groaning despair of “Look what this world is coming to” to that daring declaration; “Look who is coming to the world.”

What’s in a name?  More truth than we can comprehend, but an experience on which we can all lay hold tonight—JESUS, FOR HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS; EMMANUEL:  GOD WITH US!

Tonight, yes, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—and for all eternity!  “For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never put it out.”

Let us pray.  Shepherd of Israel, may Jesus, Emmanuel and son of Mary, be more than just a dream in our hearts.  With the apostles, prophets, and saints, save us, restore us, and lead us in a way of grace and peace, that we may bear your promise into the world.  Amen.

December 11, 2106

Unnoticed At Your Own Party

Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10

W.E. Sangster once told about being invited to a wedding reception.  He arrived late and knew nobody there except the friend who invited him.  He subsequently played the role of a mere spectator to the evening’s festivities.

Everyone, he noted, seemed to be in high spirits.  They danced and shouted and sang and laughed and played games and indulged in all sorts of entertainment.  They flung streamers across the hall, pranced around in paper hats, had much to eat and drink and generally seemed to have a great time.

As the evening progressed, however, Sangster noticed a young lady sitting in a corner alone.  She seemed very happy, and smiled very pleasantly when he caught her eye, but she seemed a bit neglected.  No one seemed to be paying her any attention.  Sangster whispered to his friend, “Who’s the young lady in the corner?”

His friend replied, somewhat startled, “Don’t you know?  I must introduce you.  That’s the bride.”

Can you imagine being left alone and unnoticed at your own party, particularly at your own wedding?  That’s how Jesus must feel at Christmas.  Most of the celebration of his birth—the lights, much of the music, the gift-giving, the parties, etc.—have very little to do with him.  How sad—not just for him but for us.  For you see, we need Jesus.  The people around us need Jesus.  Indeed, the whole world needs Jesus.  That’s why the Christmas event took place in the first place.  God so loved the world that he sent us the most important gift ever sent—the gift of His son.

There are several reasons we need Jesus, not just at Christmas time but all year round.  We need Jesus, first of all, because life isn’t easy.  That’s the truth that many of us have learned the hard way.

There’s a humorous story that comes out of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign of 1960.  Kennedy had given a stunning speech in San Antonio, Texas to a large enthusiastic crowd assembled in front of the Alamo.  The Alamo, of course was where a handful of Texans held off a large Mexican army.

When the speech was over, Kennedy wanted to make a quick exit.  Turning to Maury Maverick, a local politician, he said, “Maury, let’s get out of here.  Where’s the back door?”

Maury replied, “Senator, if there had been a back door to the Alamo, there wouldn’t have been any heroes.”

We wish that life had more back doors, don’t we?  Life can get tense at times.

John the Baptist, that glorious forerunner of Christ surely wished for a back door as he languished in Herod’s jail.  His worse days, however, were yet to come.

Remember, he was beheaded by Herod.  Was it for a crime that he had committed?  Hardly.  John was a man of flawless character.  Indeed, Jesus said that no better man had ever lived than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11).  But that didn’t keep him from needing a back door.

All true prophets yearn for a back door at some time in their lives, as we all do.  The writer of our lesson for the day from the Epistle of James reminds his readers of the patience of the prophets who suffered much because of their commitment to God.  There are times when we all need such patience.  It matters not how righteous we are, sometimes life is a challenge.

On September 3, 1987 pilot Henry Dempsey was flying a 15 passenger plane from Lewiston, Maine to Boston.  At 4,000 feet he heard a noise in the back of the plane where the rear stairs were.  He turned the controls over to his co-pilot and walked back to see what was going on.

As he reached the back of the plane, the aircraft hit some turbulence.  Dempsey was thrown against the stairway door, which was hinged at the bottom.  Quite suddenly, the door fell open.  Before he could do anything Dempsey was sucked part way out.  He fell face down on the stairs and grabbed for something—anything that might save his life.  He caught a railing and held on.

The co-pilot thought he had fallen to the ground 4,000 feet below and diverted the flight to a nearby airport.  When he landed Dempsey was found with his face 12 inches off the runway, still alive, but with his hands so tightly gripped around the rails that his fingers had to be pried open.

I’ve not fallen out of an airplane at 4,000 feet in the air, but I have had experiences—as many of you—when it took every bit of strength I have just to hold on.

Someone has compared our situation to the tenacity of a bulldog.  He said, “The reason God made a bulldog like he did was so he could hold on and still breathe.”

The people in this world who have achieved greatness have been those who have held on with the tenacity of a bulldog.

Even though this is that season of the year when society is telling us to be merry, we recognize that for some people—even devoted saints of God—this is the most difficult time of the year.

For those who are alone, this is the loneliest season of all.  For people of limited means, this season of conspicuous consumption is a stark reminder of their lack of material good fortune.  For people who have lost a loved one, the emptiness they feel is amplified by the superficial joy that surrounds them at Christmas.  Life isn’t easy—even at Christmas time.  Maybe I should say, particularly at Christmas time.

We don’t understand why life should be so difficult.  It may be this is the only way God has of producing souls fit to share eternity with him.  We grow spiritually and emotionally as we face failures, frustrations, disappointment, and disease.

Someone has said that heaven isn’t a proper place for raising kids.  However, if a child were to grow up in a perfect environment, he or she would never learn to deal with adversity—he or she would never face disappointments, never stumble, never fall.  And subsequently, that child would never grow.  This world is a training ground for a better world yet to come.  We face life’s difficult times with patience and perseverance and we eventually are victorious.  In the process we become molded into the image of Christ.

That’s one possible explanation for life’s “dark nights of the soul.”  We don’t have all of the answers, of course.  For now, as Paul notes, “we see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  But we know that we need Jesus, first of all, because life isn’t easy.

At such times, our faith in Christ gives us the hope we need to hold on.

Christmas is all about hope.  Isaiah understood that hundreds of years before the birth of Christ.  He described the world in which he lived as a desert.  There was very little hope his people would ever be delivered.  The mighty Assyrian army threatened from without and sin and corruption were a common companion within.  It was a dark and desperate time for Israel.

But Isaiah wrote of a time when, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.  Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.  The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God..  Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.  Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.  The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs…”

When would that day come?  It would come when the Messiah would establish his reign over all the earth.  A great day was coming when everything that was wrong would be set right.  But first a baby would need to be born.  Christmas is all about hope.

Michael Dent, a United Methodist pastor tells about a church sign he used to pass as he drove each week from his student parish to seminary at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  The sign always fascinated him, but he was always in a hurry to get to school or to get home, so he never turned toward the church to see if it really existed.

What fascinated him was the name on the church sign:  Little Hope Baptist Church.

Dent says, “Forget about the name Baptist; think about the name Little Hope.  Why would any congregation want to be named Little Hope Church?  Why would anyone be attracted to a church called Little Hope?  After all, it sounds like a tiny, struggling, theologically challenged group of God’s people.”

He thought maybe the sign was a joke!  Maybe it was there to make you smile!  Maybe it doesn’t really exist at all!  All these thoughts filled his head as he thought about the name—the Little Hope church.

So, one beautiful Sunday afternoon, Michael Dent and his wife and mother-in-law decided to make a journey to see if they could find the church advertised on the sign.

There it was just as he remembered it.  So they turned in the direction the sign pointed, drove for a while and found another sign.  And finally their persistence paid off!

Now, asks Pastor Dent, “What would you expect a church named Little Hope to look like?  Small, decaying, unkempt and unloved?

“There was a church building there.  There was a sign outside that said Little Hope Baptist Church.  And guess what?  The church named Little Hope had a paved parking lot, a big brick sanctuary, a church van with a garage-like parking place and a covered drop-off.  A nice brick house stood next door, probably the pastor’s house.”  Even more importantly there was a historical marker telling some of the church’s history.

And it concluded with these words, “This congregation continues its long tradition of helping community members in need and supports various mission and outreach entities.”

Michael Dent concludes his story with these words:  “What we learned in our pilgrimage to the Little Hope Church last Sunday afternoon is that this historic congregation is a big hope church.  It just happens to sit in and serve a community whose name is, for whatever reason, Little Hope!”  I like that—a big hope church in a little hope community.

Jesus was born in a little hope part of the world.  It was a little hope part of the world then, and it is a little hope part of the world now.  When will the violence and hatred in that part of the world ever end?  Truly only God knows.  But in that little hope part of the world, more than 2,000 years ago, there were shepherds keeping watch over their sheep who beheld angels in the sky who directed them to a manger in Bethlehem.  And there were magi who saw a star in the sky and followed it until they found the place where the Christ Child lay.  Who could’ve imagined it?  A little hope community became the setting of the biggest hope that the world would ever know.

Advent and Christmas celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world.  We need Jesus.  Life is difficult even for the best of people.  Jesus gives us hope even when every other resource has been exhausted, because his Father has resources that are inexhaustible.

It’s our loss if we treat Jesus like a neglected bride at her own wedding this Christmas.  Jesus is the greatest gift to the world.  And he’s available to all of us.  All we have to do is to accept him as our own.

Let us pray.  O God of Isaiah and John the Baptist, through all such faithful ones you proclaim the unfolding of future joy and renewed life.  Strengthen our hearts to believe your Advent promise that one day we will walk in the holy way of Christ, where sorrow and sighing will be no more and the journey of God’s people will be joy.  Amen.

Being Thankful For the Right Reasons

Luke 23:33-43; Colossians 1:11-20

I want to begin with a Thanksgiving riddle.  What do you get when you cross a centipede with a turkey?  Drumsticks for everybody!  When you get a hungry family around the table Thanksgiving Day, you might wish that you could cross a centipede with a turkey.

A group of Moms got together and composed a list of things they’re thankful for.  They wrote what they’re especially thankful:

“For automatic dishwashers because they make it possible for us to get out of the kitchen before the family comes back in for their after dinner snacks.

“For children who put away their things and clean up after themselves.  They’re such a joy you hate to see them go home to their own parents.

“For teenagers because they give parents an opportunity to learn a second language.”

And finally, “For smoke alarms because they let you know when the turkey’s done.”

Each of us would have our own list of the things for which we’re thankful.  Most of us are mature enough in our faith to recognize that Thanksgiving is a most dangerous holiday.  When we give thanks for our good health, what does that say to people who don’t have a healthy body.  Does that say that we’re more deserving than they, or that somehow God loves us more?

When we thank God for our nice homes or our families or our freedom as Americans, what does this say about good, decent God-loving people around the world who don’t share these blessings?

What are some of the things that every Christian, regardless of his or her circumstance, in every corner of the globe can be thankful for this Thanksgiving season?  Let’s explore a few of them.

In our lesson from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae, he begins by giving thanks for the members of the church.  He prays that they might be strengthened “with all power, according to [God’s] glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father…”

And Paul gives the church at Colossae some very specific things for which they ought to be thankful.  These are things every one of us, regardless of our circumstances can be thankful for, too.

The first thing for which we should be thankful, according to St. Paul is our inheritance.  He writes, “…giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light…”

Paul chose his words very carefully.  An inheritance isn’t an award for outstanding merit, is it?  An inheritance isn’t pay for a job well done.  It’s not something one earns or deserves or creates by his or her own devotion.  An inheritance is a gift—a gift that’s dependent on someone else’s efforts.

You may receive a large inheritance not because you’re that smart or energetic, but because, perhaps, you had grandparents who were smart and energetic.  Or in some cases you had a grandfather who was never caught.  Just saying…

Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said he spent a large sum of money to trace his family tree and then spent twice as much trying to keep his ancestry a secret?

A little baby can come into a large inheritance simply by accident of birth.  One of the consequences of the New Birth in Christ Jesus is that we automatically, immediately, at that moment become heirs of all that God has in store for his beloved children.  That’s a staggering fact that many of us who have been in the church all our lives have difficulty accepting.

There’s a wonderful old story that makes this point painfully clear.  There was a believer who wasn’t everything he ought to be and he knew it!  In fact, when he finally passed from this life to the next one he was deeply concerned that St. Peter wouldn’t let him through the Pearly Gates.  When he got to his destination, however, he was welcomed with open arms.

“Are you certain that you didn’t make a mistake?”  He asked St. Peter.  “You see, there are certain parts of my life of which I’m sort of ashamed.”

St. Peter answered, “No, we didn’t make a mistake.  You see, we don’t keep any records up here.”

The man was greatly relieved and overjoyed.  Then he saw a group of men over in a corner beating their heads against a celestial wall and clinching their fists and stomping their feet in disgust.  “What’s the matter with them?” the man asked St. Peter.

“Oh,” said St. Peter with a smile.  “They also thought we kept records.”

Obviously those men kept the law even though they would’ve liked to have lived a little more freely.

I’m not suggesting that what we do is unimportant.  Nevertheless at the top of our list for which we need to be thankful this day is that salvation is the free gift of God.  Sola gratia!  [grace alone] It’s an inheritance that’s bestowed upon us the moment we become children of God.

Eternal life, however, is part of our inheritance as children of God.  Christ earned it, we simply receive it.  You see, it troubles us that no records are kept in heaven because we’re afraid that a few scoundrels will slip in.  We forget that if heaven was based on merit, each of us would be in great difficult as well.

Think of it this way.  Most of us had the privilege of being born an American.  It’s nothing that we earned or deserved.  We could just as easily have been born to a starving family in the Sudan in Africa.  Freedom is part of our inheritance as children of this nation.  Of course, that parallel isn’t exact.  Most of us were born in this country.  It wasn’t something we chose.  However, we must choose to accept the inheritance that Christ bestows upon us.  That’s the only requirement.  We must accept it.  Nevertheless, it’s free.  Every believer can give thanks for that this morning.  That’s the first thing for which we can be thankful according to our text.

Here’s the second—everyone of us can be thankful for the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…”  (John 1:14)  In our lesson St. Paul writes, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation…”  A little farther he writes, “He’s the head of the body, the church; he’s the beginning and the firstborn from the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”

Of whom is Paul speaking?  There’s no doubt he’s speaking of the risen Christ.  Without the incarnation—God becoming flesh and reconciling the world unto himself—there would be no inheritance.  For that all of us can be thankful.

Many people were awe-struck back in the 1960s and 70s by the work of zoologist Dian Fossey who left her home in California to travel to Africa to conduct an extensive study of mountain gorilla groups in the forests of Rwanda.  Dian Fossey left her home in California to live for 18 years among those fierce creatures studying them closely.  Gradually the gorillas accepted her and trusted her.  Tragically, in 1985 Dian Fossey was murdered still seeking to protect the gorillas among whom she had made her home.  The case has never been solved.

It’s much farther from the throne of God to a stable in Bethlehem than it is from California to Rwanda.  Yet Christ made that journey in our behalf.  The Word became flesh.  And, of course, he, too, was murdered and as a result provided us with access to his Father.  “What wondrous love is this, O my soul, what wondrous love is this…Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul…Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul.”

We’re thankful for our inheritance, for the incarnation that makes it possible, and finally, we’re thankful for our inclusion in the family of God.  Paul writes, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

John Haggai in his book Lead On tells about Dr. Claude H. Barlow, a missionary to China and one of the most revered foreigners to work in that land.

A strange disease for which Dr. Barlow knew no remedy was killing people.  There was no research laboratory for this disease, so Dr. Barlow conducted his own research.  He studied the disease, filling a notebook with his observations.  He then procured a vial of disease germs and sailed for the United States.  Before he arrived in this country, however, Dr. Barlow did something quite extraordinary.  He took the germs from the vial and injected them into his own body.  Then he went to John Hopkins University Hospital to be observed.

Claude Barlow became very sick.  He allowed his old professors at Johns Hopkins to use him for experimentation.  Fortunately a cure was found, which a healthy Claude Barlow took back to China with him.  His efforts saved countless lives.

When asked about the experience, Dr. Barlow replied, “Anyone would’ve done the same thing.  I happened to be in the position of vantage and had the chance to offer my body.

I doubt that just anyone would’ve done that, don’t you?  Only a person with a very special kind of love in his or her heart would make that kind of sacrifice.  Christ made that same kind of sacrifice in our behalf.  It’s that very special kind of love proceeding from the heart of God that holds this world together.  Without that love we’re all orphans in a strange and hostile universe.

Have I helped you take your mind off of the superficial reasons for celebrating Thanksgiving?  I hope so.  Let’s give thanks, but let’s do it for the right reasons.  Let’s give thanks for our inheritance as children of God, for the incarnation that makes our inheritance possible, and for our inclusion in the family of God—an inclusion made possible by one who took creation’s longest walk—from the throne of heaven to a stable in Bethlehem to a lonely cross on a hill called Calvary  and back to heaven once again.  Those are things for which all of us can be thankful.

Let us pray.  Holy God, our refuge and strength, you have redeemed your scattered children, gathering them from all the corners of the earth through your firstborn, Jesus the Christ, in whom all things are held together.  Make of us a just and righteous people, worthy by grace to inherit with him the kingdom of light and peace where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

October 23, 2016

Our Most Common Sin

Joel 2:23-32; Luke 18:9-14

What do you think is humanity’s most common sin?  What do you think is your most common sin?

There’s an old story about three preachers—a Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a Methodist—who lived in the same community and became rather close.  They played golf together and met for coffee.  One day they decided they’d spend two days together just to share and get acquainted, to study a little, to talk about their preaching, and to pray.

During the course of that time they evolved in their relationship to the point that they began to confess to one another; to share deeply their inner life.  We call it being accountable.

The Baptist preacher said, “I must confess, fellows, I’m really wrestling with the sin of greed.  I never seem to have enough, and I hate to admit it, but for months now, I’ve been taking money out of the collection plate every week.  Pray for me.”

The Episcopalian priest said, “I understand that kind of uncontrollable urge—my problem is lust.  I simply can’t keep my eyes off of a beautiful woman, and I’m afraid that my lust is going to come to fruition.”

The Methodist preacher was very quiet, thinking deeply, and the other two fellows looked at him, waiting for him to share.  Finally, he broke down, “I’m sorry guys, my sin is gossip and I just can’t wait to get back home.”

Our most common sin—what is it?  I believe its self-righteousness; or, if you want to put it another way, we allow unhealthy pride to smother out any spark of humility that’s within us.

The parable in today’s scripture points to this very thing.  This story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple paint a vivid picture of the sin of self-righteous pride and of the redemptive virtue of humility.

We can’t miss the meaning of the parable if we notice how it begins.  The reason Jesus told the parable is expressed in verse 9:  “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.”

The New International Version (NIV) of the Bible translates the verse this way:  “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.”

The New English Bible has it, “It was aimed at those who were sure of their own goodness and looked down on everyone else.”

The story is simple and straightforward.  Two men went up to the Temple to pray.  One boasted to God of all his good qualities; the other simply asked for God’s mercy.  The proud man, the Pharisee, was a respected pillar of the church.  The humble man was outside the church—almost a religious untouchable.  However, he showed his deep humility before God by his attitude in prayer, “He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven.”  He showed his heartfelt repentance by beating his chest in mourning, as he prayed, “God be merciful to mea sinner.”  Jesus said that the favor of God would be upon the one who showed humility, while the judgement of God would be upon the self-righteous one.

I hope that we will allow this parable to be a mirror into which we look to see our lives reflected, because I believe we’ll see here the nature and the result of our greatest sin.

Let’s briefly look at one important facet of this parable.  Note the first part of verse 11:  “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.”  In that terse word you get the notion that even in prayer the Pharisee was focused on himself.

Preoccupation with self infects the deadly disease of pride into our prayer life and makes our praying ineffective.

The battle between humility and pride is as old as the battle between heaven and hell, and that battle is often fought in our prayer life.

In C. S. Lewis’ classic volume, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis offers 31 imaginary letters from Screwtape, the primary personality of Hell, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior devil just starting his first assignment on earth.  The purpose of the correspondence is to show—and it’s done very humorously—how Hell seeks constantly to divert would be Christians from following the ways of Heaven.  In one note, Screwtape, tells Wormwood the most productive way to overcome good people is to not only work on their pride, but infect them with a sense of false pride…

“Catch him at the moment when he’s really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove!  I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately, pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.  If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt—and so on, through as many stages as you please.  But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humor and proportion in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.”

Now, being aware of the danger of pride doesn’t mean that we don’t look at ourselves, that we don’t examine our consciences and confess our sins.  That’s a very important part of praying.  To scrutinize our life, to look at ourselves in relation to others, to look at ourselves in relation to God, and to confess our sin and shortcoming is at the heart of prayer.

But Jesus was sounding a different kind of warning.  He was warning against being preoccupied with ourselves—the Pharisee looked and prayed thus with himself, and pride prevailed.  No man who is proud can pray.  “The Gate to Heaven is so low that none can enter it, save upon his knees.”

The searching light of Jesus’ teaching reveals the contrast between self-righteousness and a call to humility—and this parable is clearly a condemnation of self-righteousness and a call to humility.  It may be difficult for us to get the full impact of the contrast Jesus is drawing.

“Because we’ve grown up familiar with the New Testament stories, we’ve come to accept the Pharisee as a villain.  The Publican’s status isn’t always clear to us, but we generally assume that he was a fairly decent sort.  This wasn’t the feeling of the people who first heard this parable.  To them it was a shocking thing to have a religious teacher speak a good word for the Publican and criticize the Pharisee.  The Publican was regarded as a grafter and a crook.  He had sold out his people for a profit and he made his money by oppressing the poor.  The Pharisee was taught in the law and obedient in keeping it.  Some listeners no doubt felt like calling out:  ‘Just a minute, Teacher.  Did you mean what you have just said?  Did you not get the characters reversed?’  If a modern preacher should tell a story with a gangster as the hero and a priest as the rascal, the congregation might wonder at his sanity.”

But that really is the contrast Jesus is drawing, dramatic as it may be.

Certainly we have a surprise here in this parable—the most outcast of persons, as far as religion is concerned, is accepted; the most likely candidate for heaven, as far as religion is concerned, is condemned.  And all because of our most common sin—self-righteousness.  So let’s focus on that core problem.

The first warning about self-righteousness is that it separates us from our brothers and sisters in the human family.

There’s a story of a Sunday School teacher, who after telling this story of the Pharisee and the Publican, said, “Now children, let us thank God that we’re not like the nasty Pharisee.”  You see, she was guilty of the same sin as the Pharisee who said, “Thank God, I’m not as that Publican.”  Self-righteousness separates us from others because it causes us to seek to establish worth and judgment on the basis of comparison.  We determine our worth and /or the worth of another by comparing them to us and us to them.

One of my favorite stories is about the two rival college freshmen in an Ivy League University who considered each other their chief rival for valedictorian after the first semester’s grades posted.  They didn’t meet each other, but they read their names, one above the other, on the bulletin board.  Each semester, as the grades were posted outside their professor’s doors, they carefully monitored their progress toward their goal.  And each semester, one of them would be on the top, the other barely below.  Now, though they recognized each other, they never met.  Neither of them ever made a gesture of friendship.  When the time came for graduation, sure enough, one of them made valedictorian and the other salutatorian.  Each walked across the stage and received his certificate, and each disappeared to take up his chosen profession.

Forty years later, one of them was a portly and balding gentleman, dressed in the elaborate robes of the church and the purple hat that signified he was a Cardinal.  This portly and balding gentleman entered Grand Central Station and immediately spotted his collegiate rival.  He was tall and ramrod straight, dressed in a snappy military uniform with four stars across his shoulders—a General.  The Cardinal, in his flowing robes, thought, “Here we are, former college mates and leaders of our respective professions, and we’ve never even met one another.  The least I could do as a man of the cloth is to take the initiative and speak to my rival.  So he crossed the busy Grand Central reception room, faced his collegial arch rival and said, “Conductor, can you tell me when the next train leaves for Chicago?”

The four-star General responded, “I don’t know, Madam, but should a woman in your condition be traveling?”

Self-righteousness leads us to establish worth and judgment on the basis of comparison and competition.  It doesn’t take into account the obstacles others may have faced and overcome.  It doesn’t take into account our indebtedness to others for all that we have and are, and thus it separates us from our brothers and sisters in the human family.

The second and ultimate warning of this parable is that self-righteousness separates from God.

You may remember that Jesus told a sister parable to this one, recorded in Luke 11—a parable about humility and pride and self-righteousness.  It’s the parable of the seat we take at the banquet table.  In that parable Jesus said when you’re invited to a wedding feast don’t sit at the place of honor.  It may be that a more important person than you has been invited—though your host has invited you both, he might have to come to you and say, “Give place to this man.”  If that happened, then you would have to take the lower place in shame.  Save yourself from that he said.  Go and sit in the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he can invite you to come up higher and that will bring honor to you rather than shame.

Jesus wasn’t giving us an Emily Post lesson in etiquette.  He was teaching about the Kingdom, and the Pharisees couldn’t miss the point.  He was telling them as plainly as possible there’s no place for their pride and status, their assumption of honor, in the Kingdom of God.  In God’s Kingdom, God, the host, is going to seat people as he thinks they deserve, and the humble person is going to fare far better than the proud one.  So Jesus closed that earlier parable with this word:  “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Self-righteousness separates us from God.

The story is told that during World War I, the emperor of Austria died after ruling for more than 60 years.  He was carried as his forbears before him, to the crypt of the Church of the Capuchins in Vienna.  When the escort knocked at the gate, a voice from inside offered the traditional challenge, “Who is there?”  The reply came, “His supreme Majesty, the Emperor of Austria.”  The graveside liturgist responded, “I know him not.  Who is there?” Again, the answer came, “the apostolic king of Hungary.”  Once more the voice inside responded, “I know him not.  Who is there?”  The escort this time declared:  “Our brother, Frans-Joseph, a sinner.”

At those words, the gates opened.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me!”  For those who know that they’re sinners and are willing to confess and seek mercy for them the gates are opened, and they go away from God’s presence justified.

So that’s the parable—revealing our most common sin.  It’s a tough story, but if we deal with it honestly, if we face the lessons it teaches us, it will drive us to our knees.  That’s the necessary position for us—on our knees—if we expect to enter the Kingdom of God.

Let us pray.  O God, the strength of those who humbly confess their sin and place their hope in you, save us from vain displays of righteousness, and give us grace to keep faith with the true humility of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

September 25

The Ministry of Making Many Rich

Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1Timothy 6:6-19

One of the most effective and colorful congressmen to ever to go to Washington was a crusty old gent from Texas named Sam Rayburn.  He served Congress for over 50 years – during the last ten of those years, he was Speaker of the House.

But the real greatness of Sam Rayburn wasn’t in the public positions he held.  It was in his common touch.

One day he heard that the teenage daughter of a Washington reporter had died.  Early the next morning he went over to the reporter’s house and knocked on the door.  “I just came by to see what I could do to help”, he said.  The reporter was obviously touched.  “Well, thank you, Mr. Speaker, but I don’t think there’s anything you can do.  We’re handling all the arrangements.”

Sam Rayburn said to him, “Let me ask you – have you had your coffee yet this morning.”  When the reporter said that he had not, Mr. Sam said, “Well, I’ll make it for you.”  Without the fellow objecting, he went into the house and began to fix the coffee in the kitchen for the reporter.  The reporter was taken aback by all this – because he knew the involvements of Sam Rayburn.  “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I thought you were having breakfast this morning at the White House with the President.”

Mr. Rayburn responded, “Well, I was, but I called the President and told him that I had a friend who was having some trouble, and that I wouldn’t be in today.”

That story communicates the essence of the message today.  The Christian walk is a walk of generosity – generosity of self, and of one’s resources.

Our Christian walk is one of generosity because we know that all of life is a gift.  Now that’s the first fact I would want you to take home with you today as we pursue our theme of generosity – the Christian walk is one of generosity because we know that all of life is a gift.

That’s what the Apostle Paul was saying in verse 7 of 1 Corinthians 4:  “For who sees anything different in you?  What have you that you didn’t receive?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”

All of life is a gift.

I like Dennis the Menace.  (I may have mentioned that last week.)  In one cartoon, Mrs. Wilson had told Dennis that once Mr. Wilson was just like him.  Dennis explains this to his friend:  “He got dirty an’ had fights and swiped cookies…an’ busted things, and told fibs, and hated baths…and teased girls!”

Dennis’ friend replies, “Gee! He sounds like a regular fella!  I wonder where he went wrong!”

Where did Mr. Wilson go wrong?  Where do we go wrong?  When did we lose that child-like trust and turn into cynics?  When did we lose that acceptance of life as grace and turn into dog-eat-dog achievers?  When did we cease seeing life as a gift and decide we had to take it by storm?

When did we cease believing that word of Jesus, “Unless you become as little children, you will not enter the Kingdom.”

That’s the issue Paul was addressing in his word to the Corinthians:  “What have you that you did not receive?”  If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”

Do you believe that, friends?  I mean, really believe it?  That all of life is a gift.  Are you living your life, spending it, as though you believed that it was a gift? – a gift that had been given you – you didn’t earn it – it was just given.

Now, let’s move to a second point.

The call of the Christian is to be rich.

Oh – I see the shock on some of your faces.  You’ve never heard me say that before.  You’re right; I’ve never said it before.  In fact, I’ve often criticized the “prosperity gospel.”  The prosperity gospel says that our faith can insure our bank accounts.  In fact, the picture is often painted in such extremity that the poor are completely left out of God’s economy.  The prosperity gospel is a perversion, and I’m not sure the origin of it isn’t out of the very pits of Hell.

Yet, here I am saying that the call of the Christian is to be rich.  Now, before you jump to conclusions about that, and about what you’re hearing, listen again to our Scripture lesson for the morning:  1 Timothy 6: verses 17-19:  “As for the rich of this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.”

There it is.  We can all be rich – in fact, we’re called to be rich; rich in good deeds, rich in our liberality, rich in our generosity, rich in the way that comes from taking hold of life which is life indeed.

How we feel about money, and how we use it, says so much about who we are.  But more than that, it tells the story of whose we are.

A Methodist preacher in Columbus, OH was visiting one of the community’s most wealthy and influential men.  As they were talking about the problems of the world and what a Christian’s response should be, the man rose from his desk and walked to the windows of his penthouse-type office with its commanding view of the city.  He gazed out of the window for a time, then turned and said to the preacher:  “You know, Barry, I’ve kind of got it figured out that God will ask us two questions when we knock on the gate of Heaven.  I really mean this.  First, He’s going to ask, “What have you done with all you had.  Now, that’s an easy one to answer.  We all know what we’ve done with what we had.  “The second question, though is a tougher one, for God’s then going to ask, “Who did you do it for?”

You see, how we use our money tells so much about who we are – but the more important thing is that it tells whose we are.    

Our response to “Claiming the Promise” will be a part of that story – the story of whose we are, told by how we use our money.  What sort of witness are you going to share?

The world is seeing too few stories of persons who with all they are, with all they have are saying, “I belong to God.  Life for me is a gift.  I’m called to be rich – rich in good deeds, rich in generosity.

Do you remember that witness of Jim Elliott – the famous missionary to the Aucca Indians?  He put it so clearly and so challengingly in his diary:  “He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep, in order to gain that which he cannot lose.”  Let that register vividly in your mind:  “He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep in order to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be, also.”  You can lose your treasure – many people have – and if your treasure is in the wrong place, you will lose your soul as well.  But if your treasure is in the right place – even though you lose it, your soul will be saved for eternity.

So, remember, the call of the Christian is to be rich.  But those riches aren’t the uncertain things and material goods that we accumulate – they’re the riches of doing good deeds – being good – being liberal and generous – which provides a foundation for the future – enabling us to take hold of “the life which is life indeed.”

Now, a final point.  Not only is our call to be rich, as Christians ours is the ministry of making many rich.  Did you get that?!! – ours is the ministry of making many rich.  Listen to what the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:8b-10:  “We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well-known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

What a picture.  Do you get the setting of this word?  In verses 4 and 5 of this chapter in 2 Corinthians, he enumerated what he and his colleagues in ministry had gone through.  Let me read that for you:  “But as servants of God, we commend ourselves in every way:  through great endurance and afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger,…”  But then he talked about how they had sought to act – their character in the midst of those circumstances.  Listen to verses six through eight:  “By purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness, for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.”

All of this, he was saying, was the witness of their faith – witness to who they were – servants of God.  What a beautiful word that tenth verse is – as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet, possessing everything.

You see why I picked up a portion of that tenth verse as the message title and to make this third point – making many rich.  That’s our task – that’s our ministry.  No matter the circumstances under which we live, whether we’re rich or poor, whether we’re young or old, whether we’re educated or uneducated – no matter who we are as Christians, our ministry is the ministry of making many rich.

Here’s good news for all of us.  No matter where we are in life – no matter what’s going on in our life right now – no matter what our economic circumstance – we can still make many rich.

How do we do it?  How do we make many rich?  Let me mention just two things, because I need to bring this message to a close.  First of all, we make many rich by sharing the Good News of Salvation.

People are hungry to hear the Good News of Salvation from persons who are living witnesses of God’s gracious redemption and transforming love.  Second, we make many rich by letting them know by our love, care, and attention that they are important, that they mean something to God.

That’s the poverty of people.  They don’t believe they count.  Nobody has ever told them or shown them that they count.  Let me illustrate with one story and close.

On Christmas Eve 1988, a congregation of United Methodists in Nebraska had a wonderful opportunity to do that.  Their pastor, Rev. Jean Samuelson told how it all came about.  Apparently a transient moved into the community who frightened many persons, especially children.  It had to do with his appearance.  He was poorly dressed, smelled badly, and was usually drunk.  He was so crippled and had a scary and contorted face.  People avoided him, but not Rev. Samuelson.  She tried to visit with him and always invited him to church.  If she saw him on the street or in a store, she would invite him, but he always declined.  In time she managed to discover why he was so badly crippled.  He had been stabbed many times when he was a small boy by his father!

During the Christmas Eve service, the man stumbled into the church, drunk.  He found a seat in the back of the sanctuary.  When Rev. Samuelson offered the invitation for persons to come forward for Communion, this man managed to get to his feet and waving a piece of paper in his hand cried out, “Stop Rev. Samuelson.  I want you to read this poem.  Jean Samuelson is a very kind and compassionate person.  She knew that this man had been hurt many times in life, so in kindness she suggested that perhaps they go on with the service and she would read the poem later.  That wouldn’t do.  He cried out again, “Stop.  I want you to read this poem.”  With that he began to come down the aisle.  Because of his drunken condition, he tripped and fell, hitting and cutting his head on the end of one of the pews.  It was then she noticed that not only was his head bleeding, but his hand and arm were also badly bleeding because he had fallen down on the step coming into the church.

She took the poem and tried to read it.  She said it didn’t seem to make much sense.  “Like the snow, I am falling, falling, falling.  Like the night, I am falling, falling, falling.”  Then she said there were some lines that made no sense at all.  Something about his dog.  She was trying to think quickly on her feet.  She knew she couldn’t go on reading the poem.  Yet something told her that she must.

She came to the end of the poem which went something like this:  “Like the snow, falling, falling, falling.  Like the night, falling, falling, falling, I think that I am falling, falling, falling in love with Jesus Christ.”  Rev. Samuelson said that a powerful silence fell over the church.  People were deeply moved.  Some of the people helped the man down to the communion rail.  As the people knelt, tears of love, sorrow and joy were streaming down their face.  (Dr. Rodney E. Wilmoth, “From Declaration to Demonstration”, St. Paul United Methodist Church of Omaha, NE, January 8, 1989)

A real miracle happened in that church on Christmas Eve.  It was the miracle of a congregation coming to an awareness of who they were – that the Spirit of God was upon them to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, to recover the sight of the blind and to set free those who are bruised…to make others rich by sharing the Good News of Salvation and by letting them know by our love, care, and attention they are important, that they are precious in God’s sight.

So, there it is – the ministry of making many rich.  The Christian walk is a walk of generosity, because we come to know that all of life is a gift – that the call of the Christian is to be rich – and that, as Christians, our ministry is the ministry of making many rich – and we do that by sharing the Good News of Salvation and letting them know our love and care and attention, that they are important, and that they mean something to God.

How are you coming along with that ministry?  The ministry of making many rich.

Let us pray.  Holy God, you reach out in love through Jesus Christ to save us so that we may live as faithful servants of you alone.  Unchain us from our desire for wealth and power so that we may, in turn, release others from the prisons of poverty, hunger, and oppression.  Amen.

September 18, 2016

Turn In an Account of Your Stewardship

Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13

I’ve been thinking a lot about heaven lately.  When you minister to the dying and the bereaved, you can’t help but think about what heaven is going to be like.

In the midst of all my pondering, I was helped by of all people, Dennis the Menace.  Under a tree, obviously just enjoying life and reflecting, a friend says “I wonder what heaven is like?”  In successive frames that conveys seriousness, satisfaction and conviction, Dennis responds, “Well…it probably looks like a toy shop.”  ….Sounds like a carousel….”….and smells like a Deli…

Wisdom comes from unlikely places.  For Dennis, Heaven is as good as it gets.  Looks like a toy shop, sounds like a carousel and smells like a Deli.”  All right, Dennis.  I can go on that too.  Wisdom comes from unlikely places.  Jesus knew that, so He told the parable of the dishonest steward.  It’s a troubling story…not one that we don’t get the message on the first reading.  In fact there are some confusing signals in that it demands we stop and work through them.  Rehearse the story.  An imaginary rich man had a steward.  Now a steward is simply a manager, someone who manages the resources and wealth of another so the owner can enjoy the wealth without bothering to attend to the details of the management.  Many rock stars, successful athletes, and people of that nature, who have great wealth, do the same thing.  They hire managers who, in turn employ accountants and lawyers to handle their client’s wealth.  In Jesus’ story, we have a very wealthy person who employed a manager – in biblical language – a steward.  The steward’s task was to take care of the wealth of the master.  But the master discovered the steward, in some fashion was squandering or abusing his stewardship.  So, the master called him in and said in a sense, “You’re fired!  Would you please put the books in order before I put you out the door?”  The crooked employee then began to consider how he was going to live after he’s kicked out on the street.  He decided he wasn’t strong enough to dig and he was too proud to beg.  What was he going to do?  He hatched a very clever scheme.  He invited all of his master’s debtors into the office and one by one he inquired how much money they owed the master.  (We’re getting a hint of why he wasn’t a very good steward.  He doesn’t seem to know how much is owed the master.)  Systematically, he reduced the indebtedness by as much as 50 percent, apparently so when he was fired he would have people who were indebted to him and his life would be easier for it.  Apparently the master discovered what was going on, - this is the thing that’s so shocking to us coming from the lips of Jesus – called in the dishonest steward, and commended him for his shrewdness.  (Dr. Carl L. Schenck, “Godly Shrewdness”)

Now that’s what’s troubling.  The master commends the manager for his shrewdness.  Actually the manager has been dishonest.  What have we here?  Is Jesus praising shrewdness?  Is He affirming dishonesty?

The key to the parable is Jesus’ commentary on it in Verse 8:  For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

Remember parables generally are pithy little stories that generally illustrate only one point.  So the key to understanding this story is found in what Jesus says at the end of the story – the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

We need to see this parable as a trickster story – the kind of story that appears everywhere in every culture, and in every age.  They’re stories about how an underdog gets the best of the top dog, stories in which the mighty are knocked from their thrones and those of low estate are elevated.  The heroes and heroines of these stories are people who, because of circumstances of poverty, or birth, or misfortune are at a disadvantage in this life, or find themselves in a crisis, or in a situation of overwhelming odds.  And in that situation they use creative and ingenious schemes to gain some advantage or to make a fool out of their adversary.  That’s why they’re so popular.  They appeal to that instinct in all of us that cheers for the underdog.  That’s unless we happen to be the top dog.  Br’er Rabbit stories are trickster stories told by oppressed blacks in the Old South.  Huckleberry Finn had something of the trickster in him.  (Mark Trotter, “Jesus and the Trickster”)

So Jesus tells this trickster story not to affirm dishonesty but to affirm shrewdness.  Now don’t get ahead of me.  Jesus isn’t calling us to be shrewd in the fashion that we use the word.  Our use of the word carries a lot of extra luggage.  In fact a part of the dictionary’s definition of shrewd includes the word sly.  But the basic definition of the word is:  “sharp or wise; sagacious, artful.”

In that meaning of the word Jesus is affirming shrewdness.  On occasion He had called us to be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.”  Here the point of His parable is made clear in the commentary:  “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

Let’s make one big point about the primary meaning of the parable and then move to our particular focus.  The point is this:  If we believe that Jesus is Lord, and that God keeps his promises, why do we allow ourselves to be defeated by adversity?

Now you wonder how I get that out of the parable?  Go back to what Jesus said:  The children of this age – other translations have it the sons of this world – are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

“The children of this world” is a code word for those who live without faith in God.  They don’t believe their lives are guided by providence.  They’re what we would call in our day, secularists.  They don’t believe that God guides the future.  They don’t believe there is such a thing as providence.  They think it’s all up to them.  They also believe that life is basically unfair, and that nothing will change that.  But they are determined to make the best of things anyway.  Nor do they complain about misfortune.  They take life as it comes.  And with gusto, they throw themselves into living the life that’s given them.

Now here’s the point.  How much more should you, who believe in providence, who believe that life is fair, who believe that Jesus is Lord, and that His Kingdom is waiting for you, how much more should you take life as it comes, making the best of it, trusting that God keeps His promises, living life to the full in gratitude and in thanksgiving.

He invites the comparison.  The children of this world are more shrewd than the children of light.  The children of this world, the tricksters, are the ones who appear to be more faithful than the children of light.  What faith ought to mean is that you don’t give up, and you don’t bemoan your fate, and you don’t complain that life is unfair.  If you believe the future is in God’s hands, then you keep on working, and you keep on believing, and you keep living your life to the full, even in the face of a crisis.

It’s interesting to note that the early Christian theology, we would call it “primitive theology”, actually pictured Jesus as a trickster.  It was in the first theory about what happened on the cross.  It said that Jesus fooled death by trusting God.  The message of the cross ever since then has been that death has no power over those who trust the Promise.  That’s why Paul said, in his letter to the Corinthians, “O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory?...Thanks be to God who gave us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Here’s what victory looks like.  Bonnie Kittle taught Old Testament literature at Yale Divinity School.  She lived with cancer for years.  Few knew that.  Those people in her classes didn’t know it.

She came to class one day and lectured on Moses’ farewell speech to the nation in the Book of Deuteronomy.  It was a lecture of such special excellence that the class arose and gave her an ovation.  Visibly moved, Bonnie Kittle came back into the class and asked everyone to sit down.  She told them this would be her last class with them because she was going to the hospital.  They were stunned.  They didn’t know she had never mentioned anything.

Her last lecture was on Moses’ farewell speech.  Moses had taken the Israelites through the wilderness for forty years.  He wanted now to enjoy the culmination of that pilgrimage and enter the Promised Land with them.  But he couldn’t do it.  He wasn’t allowed.  He accepted that in faith.  He faced death now as he faced every other moment in his life, trusting in the providence of God.  The class saw the parallel.  They saw that Bonnie Kittle had lived the same way.

Her father, at her memorial service, said this about her.  “For these last three years this is the way she lived; with her husband and her two boys.  Three surgeries, four bouts with debilitating radiation, a year and a half of chemotherapy, a wheelchair, and then finally confined to bed.”  Then he asked, “Did she crawl or curse or complain or strike out against the world?  No. After surgery she and her family went to Israel.  There were four trips west; to Yosemite, Sequoia, Disneyland, Idaho, Mt. Ranier and the Grand Canyon.  Then finally they all went to England.  There were the lectures, and a week at summer camp, and ordinations, and installations and counseling, and all the while, remaining a wife and mother.”

And then Dean Keck spoke.  “She bonded with the one on whom death no longer holds a claim.  And in her sometimes lonely battle for life, she knew that salvation is nothing if it doesn’t deliver us from death.”  And then he said this, “This is the victory of the victim which we celebrate.”  The victory of the victim.  (Marl Trotter, “Jesus and the Trickster”)

Now that’s the big point of the parable – we children of light ought to be at least as wise a children of the world.  That we don’t have to cringe from life, that we don’t need to back away when life deals us a rotten hand.

So hear the question again:  If we believe that Jesus is Lord, that God keeps his promises, why do we allow ourselves to be defeated by adversity?

With that as the foundation, let’s move to other lessons in the Scripture.  These lessons huddle around the suggestive phrase in verse 2:  “Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.

Now the old Revised Standard Version and the King James Version puts it in this way:  “Give”… or “Turn in an account of your stewardship”.

Isn’t that the request the Lord constantly makes of us?  “Turn in an account of your stewardship.”  Wouldn’t life take on more intentionality and seriousness if each of us closed our day deliberately responding to this request of our Lord?  “Turn in an account of your stewardship.”

Let me suggest two areas that we might focus on.  One, the degree of our devotion.  How would you feel this morning giving account of the degree of your devotion to Christ?

Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler?  He came to Jesus wanting to know what he might do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus responded to him; “You know the commandments – do not commit adultery – do not kill – do not steal – do not bear false witness – honor your father and mother.”  The young ruler responded, I have observed all these commandments from the early days of my youth.  Then comes one of the most probing words in all of Scripture – “One thing you lack.”

Often times we focus on what Jesus said following that – “One thing you lack -- go sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor.”  It’s important to hear that latter word – but the first word is the most important one.  One thing you lack.

If Jesus said that to you – one thing you lack – what would you expect Him to follow it up with?  He may say go sell all that you have and give to the poor – though my hunch is that’s unlikely for most of us.  But He would say something – one thing you lack.  What’s the big thing missing in your life that betrays your full devotion to Jesus Christ?

Is it a lack of compassion for the poor?

Is it a disregard for the growing number of elderly in our nation who are hidden away as names and numbers in giant filing cabinets called nursing homes?

Is it a failure to even think about a vast prison population and a criminal justice system that produces and enhances criminal lifestyle rather than rehabilitation?

One thing you lack, Jesus said.  “In as much as you did unto the least of these – the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the prisoners, the sick, the widow, the orphan – in as much as you did it unto the least of these you did it unto me.”

One thing you lack.  Do you lack a gentle spirit, a heart of mercy?  Do you lack a passion to be like Jesus?  Do you hunger and thirst after righteousness?  Is your heart broken over things that break Jesus’ heart?  Do you ever look out over this city, this community, as Jesus looked over Jerusalem, and weep for it?

If Jesus said to you, one thing you lack, what do you suppose He would focus on?  In our Scripture He’s talking about money as He talked about anything else.  If you’re familiar with Jesus’ teaching, it’s no surprise that He would close His lesson with that word in verse 13:

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.

It’s one of the biggest issues in our life.  Money and our use of it.  Nothing is more telling of our devotion to Christ than our attitude toward and use of money.

An enormously rich man complained to a psychiatrist that despite his great wealth which enabled him to have whatever he wanted, he still felt miserable.  The psychiatrist took the man to the window overlooking the street and asked, “What do you see?”  The man replied, “I see men, women, and children.”

The psychiatrist then took the man to stand in front of a mirror and asked, “Now what do you see?”

The man said, “I see only myself.”

The psychiatrist then said, “In the window there is a glass and in the mirror 

There is glass, and when you look through the glass of the window, you see others, but when you look into the glass of the mirror you see only yourself.  The reason for this said the psychiatrist, “is that behind the glass in the mirror is a layer of silver.  When silver is added you cease to see others.  You see only yourself.”

Whenever your devotion to money and material things causes you to be self-centered you in essence deny God’s intention for your life.  It’s also a denial of the Christ, for Jesus came into the world so that we might be in union with God.

The implication in the parable that Jesus told is that if you allow money to be your master there’s no way you can say “Yes!” to God.  There are some things money cannot buy.  Money will buy a bed, but not sweet dreams.  Money will buy books, but not wisdom.  Money will buy a house, but not a home.  Money will buy all kinds of pleasure, but not joy.  Money will buy a crucifix, but not a Savior.  (Dr. Rodney E. Wilmoth, “Mentor, Mediator, and Master”)

Give an account of your stewardship, Jesus says to us.  Make course corrections in life as a response to His probing word:  “One thing you lack.”

Let us pray.  When joy is gone and hearts are sick, O God, you give us Christ as our healing balm.  He came in human flesh that he might give himself as a ransom for our salvation and anoint us with the Spirit of consolation and joy.  Hear the cry of your people, that we may rejoice in the richness of your love and be faithful stewards of your many gifts.  Amen.

September 4, 2106

No Price Too High

Jeremiah 18:1-11; Luke 14:25-33

Some years ago TIME magazine asked a group of Americans to rate one hundred famous events in history as to their significance.  The results of that poll are quite amazing.  Number one was Columbus’ discovery of America.  Three events tied for fourteenth on the list:  the discovery of X-rays, the Wright brother’s first plane flight, and the crucifixion of Jesus.  Notice that:  Jesus tied for fourteenth.

That poll indicates that you and I haven’t done a very good job of communicating to the world the meaning of the cross.

Someone has said that at the heart of the Bible is the Gospel.  At the heart of the Gospel is the cross.  At the heart of the cross is the very love of God.

The Christian Century carried a story several years ago about a young man named Lou Marshall who at one time was a student at Yale Divinity School and worked in one of New York City’s worst slum neighborhoods.  His ministry was to a few of the city’s teenage gang members.  In fact, he was instrumental in heading off a potentially bloody rumble between two of the gangs, the Young Untouchables and The Playboys.  It was while he was walking home from mediating this dispute that he was attacked by four gang members who resented his interference in gang affairs.  Lou Marshall was beaten senseless on the streets of New York City and left in a pool of his own blood by four young men he was trying to help.  Two days later, he died.

At the memorial service attended by members of both gangs whose battle he’d headed off the Reverend Howard Moody, pastor of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village said, “Lou’s death is a testimony of ours as human beings and a city of people to build a place where people can dwell together in peace.  Some people will say the crumbling pavement on which hedied wasn’t worth his life so full of promise and hope others might say that he was foolish to become involved in a way that was so dangerous.  Still I believe that street has been more holy because a man’s blood was shed – a man who had the courage to stand there for what he believed was right.  Early Christians believed that because of the shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ, the world would be a different and better place.  The Apostle Peter wrote, “You were ransomed from your futile ways not with perishable things such as silver and gold but with the precious blood of Christ.”

I believe a sacrifice like that deserves a greater ranking than fourteenth, don’t you?  The cross is the ultimate symbol we have not only man’s cruelty, but of God’s compassion.  It’s God’s most complete act of affirmation of the creatures into whom he breathed his own Spirit.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.”

The Cross means, first of all, that God sees us as persons of vital worth.

Jesus’ claim on us is total and our response should be commensurate to that claim.  Like Jeremiah and Psalm 139, the Luke text declares the unequivocal reign of God in our lives.  The Luke text in the Greek repeats the word “and” seven times in verse 26.  Here’s a clunky version, “If anyone comes to me and not hates the father of himself, and the mother and the wife, and the children, and the brothers, and the sisters, besides and even the soul of himself, he’s not able to be a disciple of me.”  There’s no exclusion, nothing off limits.  All of our loyalty belongs to Jesus, nothing and no one can come before him if we’re to be his disciples.

Our God is indeed an awesome God and our response to God’s power and might and providence and omnipotence and, and, and… had better be more than a shallow appreciation or a flippant acknowledgement or a partial obedience.  We’re to love God with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our mind and all of our strength, even when such love comes with cross-bearing.  But what does that kind of all encompassing response to God look like?

It looks like building a huge tower, stone by stone, for years.  An “and, and, and” kind of faith takes time resources, effort, commitment and a willingness to keep going even when there isn’t much sign of completion.

“And, and, and” discipleship entails risks, no less than those of going into battle.  The stakes are great, not unlike high-level negotiations with the most powerful of kings.

“And, and, and, and, and” kind of following means renouncing interest in much the world values and that we value, too.  When we choose to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, we’re saying NO to chasing status, success, money, fame, admiration, popularity, personal fulfillment and much more.  Our focus, our loyalty, our singular goal is faithfulness to Jesus.  Following with all we have and holding nothing back from the One who holds nothing back from us requires that we seriously, intentionally count the cost and decide if we’re willing to ante up.

None of this resonates in our culture.  Not really.  We live in a context where choices abound almost without limit.  Ours is the culture that touts self-made men and women as those to be emulated.  We collect possessions, consume goods, and throw away not just stuff but relationships.  We no longer build cathedrals that take lifetimes to complete; we create virtual worlds that can be manipulated endlessly on a whim.  Battles, war, kings – not many of us have experience with these outside of “Games of Thrones” or “Call of Duty.”

There is nothing more discouraging than to hear a congregation sing mournfully, like a funeral dirge, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free….” As if the cross were some terrible burden that God places on humankind.  You probably know that little parable that tells how when birds first received wings, they thought that God was seeking to saddle them with some terrible burden.  Do it is with the cross.  There’s a cost to bearing a cross.  It means that you can never look at your life in the same way again.  It might even mean that you would lose your life.  But it’s the cross that gives our lives wings—for the cross represents our giving our best to a cause greater than ourselves.

Bertoldo de Giovanni knew what that kind of commitment was all about.  You may not be familiar with Bertoldo’s name.  In his own time, he was an important sculptor.  Today he is all but forgotten.  Except that he had a pupil whose name was Michelangelo.

Michelangelo was only fourteen years old when he came to Bertoldo.  It was apparent, however, this young man was enormously gifted.  Bertoldo knew that gifted people are often tempted to coast rather than to grow, therefore, he was persistent in seeking to instill in young Michelangelo a desire to give himself completely to his work.  One day he came into the studio and found Michelangelo toying with a piece of sculpture far beneath his abilities.  Bertoldo grabbed a hammer, stomped across the room and smashed the work into tiny pieces shouting as he did, “Michelangelo, talent is cheap; dedication is costly.”

Dedication is costly.  It cost Matthew his life by a sword in Ethiopia.  It cost Mark his life at the hands of a mob in Alexandria.  Luke was hanged on an olive tree in Greece.  It cost the Apostle John banishment on the Isle of Patmos.  The once doubting Thomas paid the price on a lance.  James the Greater was decapitated at Jerusalem.  James the Less was thrown from the Pinnacle of the Temple, then clubbed to death.  Bartholomew was flayed alive.  Peter was crucified in Rome with his head downward.  Andrew witnessed to Christ right up to the moment of his own death on a cross.  Jude was shot with an arrow.  Make no mistake about it.  This gospel we treasure was paid for in blood.  But that is the secret of its greatness.  “Talent is cheap, dedication is costly.”

You and I need this message of the cross, because we’re tempted to believe there’s some other way.  Husbands and wives want to have lasting marriages, but they want to do it without it costing them their fidelity and freedom.  Parents want to raise Christian children, but they don’t want to pay the price of setting the kind of example necessary to help children know the Jesus way of living.  Church members want a church that’s vital and alive in the community, but they want someone else to bear the burden.  Each of us in our individual pursuits want to contribute something lasting to this world, but we want to do it from an armchair with one hand on a TV remote.  And it can’t be done.

Jesus once compared the Kingdom of God to a pearl of great price.  What he was saying was this.  It’s worth the price.  Indeed, “No price too great!”  My friends, you are of vital worth to God.  He sees in you infinite potential.  There’s only one way to become what God has created you to be.  It’s the way of love, commitment and service.  It’s the way of the cross.

Let us pray.  Creator God, you form us on the wheel of life as a potter molds the clay.  Shape us into holy vessels, bearing the mark of your wise crafting, that we may remain strong and useful through years of faithful and obedient service in Christ’s name.  Amen.

August 21, 2016

Busy Bodies

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17

People knew legendary jazz musician Cab Calloway as a man of dignity and humor.  One night at Birdland, the legendary jazz bar, Cab was introducing a promising young saxophone player.  As the sax player finished his set, a self-appointed jazz critic came over to him and said, in front of Cab, “You aren’t that good, man.  All you can do is play like Charlie Parker.”

Cab took the young man’s sax and handed it over to the critic.  “Here,” he said, “you play it like Charlie Parker.”

Isn’t it true that whenever you are trying to do something significant, somebody comes around to criticize?  Busy bodies.  The world is full of them.

Well-known columnist James J. Kilpatrick bought a computer program that not only could scan his copy for errors, but could also tell him about grammar, usage, style and punctuation.  In short, the computer could tell Kilpatrick the difference between good writing and bad.  Just for fun he fed it some of his own copy and the machine promptly told him he was a lousy writer.

Then Kilpatrick tried Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  The computer informed him that Abe’s writing style was very weak because he was wordy and used too much of the passive voice.  It also observed that Lincoln used too many adjectives, that most of his sentences contained multiple clauses and that he should try to write more simply.

Even computers are becoming busy bodies.  Critics are everywhere.  Anybody who tries to do anything significant in the world is going to have someone there telling him that he should have done it differently.  As Yogi Berra once said:  “Anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked.”

Jesus healed a woman with a bad back.  She had been bent over for eighteen years, unable to straighten herself up.  Jesus saw her, had compassion on her, and healed her.

THAT’S WHAT JESUS DOES.  He heals people.  He heals them spiritually, he heals them emotionally and occasionally, he heals them physically.

There was an article in the newspapers recently about a woman with a chronic bone problem she couldn’t raise her head or drink a cup of tea.  She suffered from a rare condition that had caused her head to be stuck pointing down, almost fused to her chest.  She was virtually a recluse.  Because she couldn’t look up, she couldn’t safely cross the road.  She couldn’t eat or drink properly.

But she found someone who could help her.  You will not believe how.  A surgeon used a radical procedure in which he completely detached her head from her spinal column.  The story sounds like it was lifted from the National Enquirer rather than the Associated Press, but that’s the technique he used.  At one point, her head was only connected to her shoulders by major arteries and the spinal cord and muscles.  After making the necessary adjustments, the surgeon reattached it to her spine.  It was a risky procedure, but it worked.  Now she has almost full use of her head and neck.  The woman found the right doctor and he healed her.

Two thousand years ago, there were no doctors to perform radical procedures like that.  But there was still help.  Jesus was there.  And Jesus heals people.  He healed people then and he heals people now.

The University of Arizona’s College of Medicine in Tucson now has a program which they call “Integrative Medicine.”  It’s a program designed to study and apply alternative forms of medicine.  Among the forms of alternative medicine which the college employs is prayer.

In scientific studies prayer has been shown to lower blood pressure.  Even more impressively, religious folks have been found to live longer than agnostics and atheists.  One recent study has shown that heart patients are less likely to die when designated family members pray for them, even when these heart patients don’t realize they are being prayed for.

We’re glad that medical science is finally catching on to what you and I have known all our lives.  Jesus heals people.  He heals them spiritually, he heals them emotionally and occasionally, he heals them physically.  That’s what Jesus does.  But still there are critics.  Naysayers.Busy bodies.

There was a critic present when Jesus healed this woman with the bad back.  The ruler of the synagogue where Jesus was teaching that day was “moved with indignation” because Jesus healed this woman on the Sabbath.  “There are six days in which men ought to work,” this ecclesiastical busy body said, “Come and be healed on any of those days, but not on the Sabbath.”

THE RULER OF THE SYNAGOGUE WAS UPSET BECAUSE JESUS WAS BREAKING THE RULES.  “We have a rule,” he intoned.  “No healing on the Sabbath.”  Have you ever noticed how many stupid things are done because there are rules?

Greyhound bus lines had a rule:  No pets on their buses.  And so late one night at a rural truck stop in Florida a Greyhound driver kicked an 80 year-old woman off his bus.  Her crime?  She was returning home from her birthday party with her present:  a tiny puppy named Cookie.  You remember the story don’t you?

Dogs aren’t allowed on Greyhound buses and the driver refused to make an exception, leaving this poor elderly woman about 80 miles from home at 3 a.m.  Can’t you hear the bus driver justifying his actions?  “We have a rule.  We have a rule.”

A security guard summoned by the bus driver called sheriff’s deputies to escort her away adding to this poor woman’s fright.  “When the bus pulled away and I saw all those policemen I was scared,” she said.  “I thought they were going to put me in jail.  I don’t know, I was crazy with fear.  I’ve never gone to jail.”

What could’ve quickly become a terrifying ordeal for the woman, who walks with a crutch and has trouble hearing and seeing, instead became an inspiration.  After getting her a sandwich and something to drink, police from five different jurisdictions teamed up to ferry her home.

“I’ve never seen so many people so nice with me an old lady,” she said.  They gave me love, respect, and attention.  Love has a lot of names,” she continued, “compassion, respect, and friendliness.”  Greyhound apologized and gave her a refund.  The unidentified driver, a 20 year Greyhound veteran, was suspended.

Greyhound had a rule.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ time also had rules.  And most of these rules were good including the one about not working on the Sabbath.  Would any of us disagree that it would be better if no one had to work on the Sabbath?  Then families could have time together.  People could slow down and have a day of rest and relaxation.  We could see to our religious duties with a minimum of disruption.  But would we close the hospitals?  Of course not.  Some things are more important than rules and regulations.  Jesus healed a woman with a bad back.  Jesus was criticized because this was on the Sabbath.  But Jesus answered his critic.  He called him a hypocrite.  He noted that people will untie their ox or their donkey and lead them to water on the Sabbath.  Would they begrudge it that this woman who had been bound for eighteen years should be set free?

In performing this miracle Jesus established a principle that needs to be engraved on your heart and mine:  RULES AND REGULATIONS ARE IMPORTANT.  BUT THE ONLY THING THAT REALLY MATTERS TO GOD IS PEOPLE.  Do you hear what I am saying?  It’s the message of the Gospel.  The only thing God really cares about is people.  Not rules.  Not laws.  People.  The reason God gave us laws was for our benefit.  This is the way to live life to the fullest, follow these rules.  But what if we break one of the rules?  What if we do something downright stupid?  It’s not the end of the world.  We may pay for our shortcoming.  There’s an inviolable law that says we shall reap what we sow.  Still, it’s not the end of the world.  There’s hope.  There’s forgiveness.

Psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp says that one of the greatest challenges of his profession is to help people overcome their fears.  Only then can a person realize his or her true potential.

Kopp cherishes a story from his father’s childhood that illustrates how unreasonable fears overwhelm us at times.  Kopp’s father grew up in desperate poverty in the heart of New York City.  As a boy, he would often hang around the local shipyards and throw stones at the coal barges that sailed in and out of the harbor.  To drive him away, the men on the barges threw pieces of coal at the boy.

By collecting these pieces of coal, the little boy helped his family to heat their home in the winter.

One day, the boy’s mother gave him a nickel and sent him to the day old bakery to buy some bread.  The bread only cost two cents, so she expected her son to bring back exactly three cents in change.  It was a cold winter day, and the boy was dressed only in a threadbare sweater with six pockets.  He walked the long route to the bakery and bought his two cents’ worth of bread, then made the long trip back in the cold.  As the boy neared home, he began to worry about those three pennies in change.  If he lost even one penny, he would be in for a spanking.  So he reached into one of the six pockets and fished around for the change.  It wasn’t there.

Frantically, he reached into four of his other pockets.  No pennies anywhere.  He had only one other pocket to check.  But he couldn’t bring himself to reach into that last pocket.  He just couldn’t confront his awful fear that he had lost the three pennies.  So Sheldon Kopp’s father sat out on his front porch for hours in the cold.  If he looked in his one remaining pocket, he feared discovering that the money was gone.  If he went inside, he feared facing his parents and their anger.  So he sat outside in the numbing cold, paralyzed by competing fears he just couldn’t bring himself to face.

Somehow that young fellow didn’t realize that his parents’ love for him was much greater than their love for money.  Their love for him was even greater than the principle of being responsible.  Their love for him was greater than his tiny heart and mind could imagine.  He didn’t need to sit out in the cold regardless of his crime.  There was warmth the warmth of love and forgiveness in his parents’ house.

That’s a lesson that we all need to learn, isn’t it?  Jesus broke the rules.  He healed a woman on the Sabbath.  Jesus wanted us to see that God’s love for God’s children is greater than God’s obedience to rules and laws.  We need don’t need to sit out in the cold, dark night of fear.  God’s love is greater than all of our sin.  All that matters to God is that we come home.

Let us pray.  Merciful God, as we pour out the wealth you have entrusted to us, the parched places are watered; as we cease our evil talk, the rising light of peace dawns in the darkness.  So lead us into faithful living that your promises may unfold in us as a woman’s back, long bent, unfold at Christ’s command, to the praise of your holy name.  Amen.

August 14, 2016

Future Tense

Jeremiah 23:23-29; Luke 12:49-56

For nine seasons, “Seinfeld” was the top-rated comedy on the air.  It dominated the Thursday night television lineup.  But the show almost didn’t make it to the airwaves in the first place.  The first few episodes didn’t test well with audiences.  Audience members had a number of discouraging things to say about it.  The character of Jerry received a “lukewarm reaction,” and was considered by the test audience to be “dense and naïve.”  The character of George was labeled a “wimp.”  The whole thing was rated as “average in humor.”

How many times through history have the prognosticators been wrong?

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.  The device is inherently of no value to us.”  Thus read a Western Union internal memo, 1876.

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value.  Who would pay for a message sent to nobody particular?”  David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

“I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.”  Gary Cooper said this about his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone Withthe Wind.”

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”  Decca Recording Co.rejecting the Beatles in 1962.

Someone has said that hindsight is 20/20.  And it’s true.  Time and time again people have been wrong particularly about the future.  Jesus said to the multitudes, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, straightway you say, ‘There comes a shower,’ and it comes to pass.  When you feel a south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’ and it comes to pass.  You hypocrites,” he continued, “You know how to interpret the weather; why can’t you interpret the times in which you live?”  (Paraphrase)

Did you know there are consultants who are paid millions of dollars by large corporations to read the times?  In big business it’s important to know where society is headed.  If you can spot a trend and ride that trend, there are fortunes to be made.  Why don’t you and I spend a few moments this morning, led by the Holy Spirit, interpreting the times in which we live?  We won’t earn millions doing it, but at least we’ll be following the leading of the Lord.

Trend #1.  WE ARE MATERIALLY RICH.  Wouldn’t you agree with that?  We’re a prosperous people.  People have their houses filled with toys of every kind.  The stock market has reached new heights.  New millionaires are created every day.  We personally may not feel very rich, but as a people, we are.  We’re so rich that it has become a spiritual problem.  Money has begun to obscure some of our more important values.

Edith Schaeffer and her husband, Dr. Francis Schaeffer, have dedicated their lives to ministry, especially among young people.  Their greatest work has probably been with their L’Abri Fellowships, found in Europe and the United States.  The L’Abri Fellowships have served to deepen the faith of innumerable people, and to impact the society around them.  Did you know the L’Abri Fellowships might never have come about if not for a handful of termites?  Here’s the story:

In 1955, the Schaeffer family was faced with a series of crises.  Their two children were seriously ill.  Recent upheavals in the weather had deposited mountains of mud in the downstairs part of their house.  And then they received the most jarring news:  they were being evicted from their house and asked to leave their village.  For five years they had been residents in the Swiss village of Champery, but now they were being asked to leave because, according to the eviction notice, “You have had a religious influence on the village of Champery.”  (Would any of us be run out of town today for that “offense?”  We can only pray so.)

Switzerland is divided into cantons, and residents must apply to live in a specific one.  Detailed arrangements must be made with the local government before one can buy or rent a house and settle.  And there’s always the danger that one can be rejected for residency.  Since the Schaeffers weren’t Swiss by birth, they could be asked to leave the country too.  Now the Schaeffers had five days in which to leave their canton.  The only way they would be allowed an extension would be if they signed a contract agreeing not to discuss religious matters with anyone in their village.  Naturally, they wouldn’t sign.  Edith began to pray passionately that God would help them find another home in Switzerland.

Yet obstacles kept emerging to block their way.  The homes Edith found were way out of their price range.  Finally, in tears, Edith prayed that she and Francis would be obedient to living in God’s will, even if it meant leaving Switzerland.  That very afternoon, a real estate broker took Edith to a large house in another canton.  It looked like the perfect place, but it was for sale, not rent. There was no way Edith and Francis could afford it.  Yet something told Edith this was God’s will for them.  She began to pray for a definite sign that this house was to be theirs.

The next day a letter arrived from the U.S.  It was from a couple named Salisbury.  The Salisburys were familiar with the Schaeffer’s work.  Recently, the Salisburys had received a financial windfall.  They had decided to use the money for a new house.  But as they toured one very nice house, they noticed a few termites in the rafters.  Seeing the termites reminded Mrs. Salisbury of the Bible passage about not laying up stores on earth, where they will decay, but laying up treasures in Heaven instead.  She and Mr. Salisbury decided this money should be invested in the Lord’s kingdom.  They wrote specifically that they wanted the money to be used to “buy a house somewhere that will always be open to young people.”  This money was used as part of the down payment on the house that became the first L’Abri settlement.

Some of us would probably profit from finding termites in our attic if those termites would remind us that we are more concerned about laying up treasures on earth than in Heaven.  But that’s the first thing we can say about our times.  We’re materially rich.

THE SECOND THING WE CAN SAY IS THAT WE’RE SPIRITUALLY POOR.  Wouldn’t you agree with that?  We as a nation, though materially rich are becoming spiritually bankrupt.

We’ve reached new lows when it comes to public morality.  Not only with regard to sex scandals in the highest places, but also with regard to traditional virtues of all kind.  Last year the Rev. John Papworth, and Anglican priest in North London, England, was quoted in the newspapers saying it’s morally justifiable to steal from large supermarkets because these stores are putting smaller ones out of business.  What great spiritual advice coming from a pastor.

We’re in a moral slide.  In a sense, we’re replacing being good with feeling good.  Being good requires too much of us.  Feeling good requires nothing at all.

A recent magazine article noted that subliminal messages are back.  Remember the hullabaloo a few decades ago when we were told that movie makers were embedding subliminal messages into their movie messages such as, “Eat popcorn…Drink Coke.”  The purpose of these messages was to boost snack bar sales.  (It worked; sales reportedly jumped by 60%.)  The Federal Communications Commission banned subliminal messaging in broadcasting in the 1970s after a TV ad for a game called Husker Du beamed subliminal messages to kids urging them  to “get it.”

Subliminal messages are back, but this time their goal is to help us become better people without having to work for it.  A firm called Progressive Awareness Research Inc. has introduced Innertalk:  Subliminal Affirmation Software for Positive Change, which flashes subliminal notes to computer users as they do their work.  The program’s 9000 affirmations cover topics from brainpower to spitituality.

For example, for bowlers:  “I am a winner on and off the lanes.”  For health:  “I brush my tongue.  I like my mouth to be fresh.

A firm called Motivision offers a similar device, a $250 box that plugs into the television and flashes phrases like “I feel secure with my developing self.”

Salvation through subliminal messages.  Gain without pain.  We have substituted feeling good for being good.  The best prescription for high self-esteem is to begin living out your values.  Tell yourself that you are only going to do those things you know are right, and you’ll be amazed at how good you feel about yourself.  But that isn’t where we’re headed as a people not at least until we reach rock bottom.

And that brings us to the final trend:  First, we’re materially rich; second, we’re spiritually poor.  THIRD, WE’RE AFRAID.

In spite of our prosperity, in spite of advances in science, medicine, agriculture, communications and nearly every other field imaginable, we’re apprehensive.  That’s what surveys show.  We view the future with concern and even alarm.

Someone asked, “Will my life have a storybook ending?”

Someone else answered, “Are you familiar with Stephen King?”

In spite of all our advances we’re anxious.

In spite of our vast prosperity, in spite of our attractive homes filled with toys, we have a free floating fear about the future.  This fear goes beyond concerns about terrorism, the environment and Social Security.  Could it be that we’re afraid because of our spiritual poverty?  We’re afraid because of an emptiness within a longing a God-shaped void that has never been adequately filled.

Jimmy Stewart was one of Hollywood’s most loved and most respected actors.  According to all accounts, Stewart’s character and integrity were byproducts of being raised by loving and honorable parents.  He himself once wrote of his father’s wise and loving advice to him before Jimmy went off to fight in World War II.  In a letter, Alex Stewart wrote, “My dear Jim boy, soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger…I am banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm.  The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise of these words…I can say no more…I love you more than I can tell you.  Dad.”  Part of the 91st Psalm reads, “For he shall give his angels over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.”

This is the proper antidote to the anxiety that many of us feel in this turbulent world in which we live.  God’s with us regardless of what the future may bring.  What we need to do is to regain our connection with God.  We need to focus less on our financial resources for security and more on the Rock of Ages.  Read the signs of the times.  They will tell you we need God more than ever before.

Let us pray.  Judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression; you give peace to those who seek it, and you condemn the rage of violence.  Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and following your servants and prophets, look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Amen.

August 7, 2016

Blessed Are Those Who Are Awake

Psalm 33:12-22; Luke 12:32-40

Mark Twain once said that he heard a preacher who was powerfully good.  He decided to give him every cent he had with him.  But the preacher kept at it too long.  Ten minutes later, Twain decided to keep the bills and only give change.  Another ten minutes more Twain said, “I was darned if I’d give him anything at all.  Then when he finally stopped and the plate came around, I was so exhausted, I decided to $2 just for spite.”

Now I know you sympathize with Mark Twain.  I don’t hear as many preachers as you do – or, I don’t hear preachers on a regular basis the way you do, but I understand that sympathy.  I have to listen to myself every week.

But I also feel for the poor preacher in Twain’s story.  One of my problems in sermon preparation is how much to cover.  When you come to a passage like the one at which we’re looking at this morning, and in your general sermon planning, you have decided to deal with it, how do you narrow the focus?  I have to keep reminding myself there will be other Sundays for me and you, and other preachers to deal with this text.  Above all, I have to trust you and the text to the Holy Spirit, and pray the sermon will be the catalyst to arouse your curiosity, stir your thinking, and prod you to deal with the text on your own – or, perhaps in conversation with a friend or a spouse or your family.

I also have to be aware there are some suggested truths in the text that I have dealt with recently in other contexts.  So, that’s the way I arrived at the focus today:  “Blessed are those who are awake”.

I state that as a Beatitude – a Beatitude of Jesus.  Though not among the ones found in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is pronouncing a blessing:  “Blessed are those whom the Master finds awake.”  Blessed are those who stay awake, alert, and ready for what life presents them—to be awake in order to be responsive and responsible to all the unexpected visitations or calls and opportunities and relationships.

Now I’m not ignoring the fact that Jesus is teaching about the Second Coming.  There’s praise here for the servant who’s ready when the Lord returns and He’s going to return.  We don’t know when or how, but you can’t read the New Testament faithfully and miss that message.

The primary truth Jesus teaches us about the Second Coming is that it’s certain, but we can’t know the timing.  So, Hs call is to stay awake – to be ready.  He makes His case in the language of His day.  “Let your loins be girded, and your lamps burning,” He says.  Get the picture in that context.  “The long flowing robes of the East were a hindrance to work; and when a man prepared to work, he gathered up his robes under his girdle to leave himself free for activity.  The Eastern lamp was like a cotton-wick floating in a sauce-boat of oil.  The wick always had to be kept trimmed, and the lamp replenished or the light would go out.”  (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, p. 167)

So, in a narrow sense, Jesus is referring to the Second Coming of Christ – but in the wider sense, He’s referring to the time when God’s summons enters a person’s life.

So the text speaks to the whole of life, and that’s the way I want to look at it this morning.  The need to stay awake – to stay alive and alert.

First, we need to stay awake because we never know when we’re going to be surprised by new possibilities.  Most of us have lived long enough to know the unexpected will happen – we can count it.  (Murphy’s Law)  I’ve certainly found  so in my life.

A certain pastor shared a story about his work as leader of a dynamic congregation in California.  He writes, “My work was creative and fulfilling.  The community of faith of which I was a part was alive and vibrant.  I was a part of the lives of many people, and they were a part of mine.  It was the kind of congregation that most ministers dream of serving.  I loved my people; I felt loved; I was secure; I had meaning.  I was “on top” and life had never been more thrilling.

“Then, out of the blue came a letter from the Editor of The Upper Room, inquiring if I would be interested in coming to the staff of The Upper Room to lead a prayer ministry for the whole church.  The sentence that really grabbed my attention was this, ‘We want to put forth a mighty thrust in prayer across the land.’

“That shocked me, he said.  “I wasn’t prepared to even think about such a dramatic change or direction in my ministry.  Yet, something stirred within me, and I went to Nashville for an interview.  During the interview – the only personal interview we had – I told them the very fact they were talking to me about leading a prayer and spiritual renewal movement showed how desperate the church was.”

On the plane, returning home to California, 33,000 feet above God’s beautiful earth, the pastor said he entered into the most profound period of prayer he’d ever known.  In the back of a little book he’d been reading, he wrote down some of what he was feeling – words that he intended to share if the position actually became his to accept.  Here’s what he wrote:  “I want to deliberately enter the ‘school of prayer.’  I’ve been an auditor before – not fully matriculated –but I want to be a full-time student.  I’ll be willing to share my pilgrimage.  I must honestly confess that what I have to share right now isn’t expertise, but conviction.  If you want one who’s committed to Christ, who believes that He (Christ) is the key, and the secret of life is what Paul said, ‘Yes, Christ in you bringing with him the hope of all the glorious things to come’ ~Colossians 1:27 – if you want someone who has the deepest conviction that the most pressing need of our day is God-power which is available and is tapped primarily through prayer, if you will accept me and my commitment and conviction with the full knowledge that I make no pretensions about ‘having fully attained’ in this exciting adventure, then I’ll come…I’ll accept the responsibility.

“We’ll journey together and call God’s people back to their heritage and hope.  Along the way we’ll strive to put into their hands and heads and hearts the very best resources to assist them in learning to pray.”

As he reflected upon the possibility for such a ministry he said, “I was higher in my spirit than any 33,000 feet.

“I never had a chance to put that in a letter.  The call came offering me the opportunity to take this responsibility and I accepted.”

Isn’t that the way life works?  We need to stay awake, because we never know when we’re going to be surprised by some new possibility.

So don’t settle down.  Don’t allow yourself to become dull and drowsy.  Don’t allow those feelings of being trapped or cornered to prevail.  Don’t be seduced by the deadly thoughts that you don’t have any options.  God is alive and working the world and when God is alive there are always new possibilities.  Our God is a God who says through the prophet Isaiah, “Behold I am doing a new thing”, and through His Son Jesus, now ascended and sitting on the throne, “Behold, I make all things new.”

The first word of our scripture lesson expresses the hope that’s ours:  “Fear not, little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”  We need to stay awake because we never know when we’re going to be surprised by a new possibility.

Now the other side of that coin is that we never know when something important is going to be taken from us.  Do you see the connection?  Whether it’s the opening of a door, or the closing of a door, the demand is that we stay awake.  Bishop Peter Storey from South Africa tells a story of three men in town for a convention.  They were assigned rooms on the 51st floor of the convention hotel.  They had been out for an evening – having had a late dinner and entertainment.  When they came in, the elevator was out of order.  Can you imagine that in a room on the 51st floor and no way to get there but to climb the stairs.

It was a terrible dilemma, butthey had no alternative.  Being creative, they decided they would devise a way to make the climb bearable.  For 17 stories – as they climbed the stairs – they would tell funny stories.  Then, for the next 17 stories they would tell scary stories.  Then, for the final 17 stories they would tell sad stories.

Well, it worked.  For 17 stories they laughed and laughed as they told funny story after funny story taking their minds off of their arduous climb.  Then, for the next 17 stories there were the scary tales – and that helped because it seemed to energize them.  Then as they began the last trek – up the steps of the last 17 stories – they began to tell sad story after sad story.  When they got to the 50th floor they had run out of stories.  No one spoke up.  Then it happened.  One fellow broke the silence, “Guys, here’s the saddest story of all.  I forgot the key at the reception desk.”

The key – whether a door is being opened or a door is being closed; the key is that we stay awake.  Because we never know when we’re going to be surprised by a new possibility; nor do we ever know when something important is going to be taken from us.

It’s true in the whole of life – doors open and doors close.  There are limits to our dreams and ambitions.  “When we’re young our dreams are big and exciting and we believe we’ll realize them all.  We will have our own prestigious law firm, be a renowned surgeon, a media superstar, president of a corporation, Nobel prize winning scientist, sing like (Pavarotti), dance like (Fred Astaire), write like Camus, paint like Wyeth, and play golf like Jack Nicklaus.  Every young couple who comes to me for their wedding assured me theirs is going to be the ideal marriage, the perfect union.  I don’t dispute such dreaming nor do I disparage ambition and idealism.  In fact, give me and idealist any day over a cynic – especially a 21-year-old cynic.

“Yet, those who have weathered turnings of the seasons know that between the dream and the reality falleth the shadow, as T.S. Eliot observed.  Along about age 30 or 35 that shadow descends and we may) learn that we don’t possess the gifts we imagined we had, that we’re not going to sing, paint, or play golf like anyone but ourselves.  This is the time when we become too old to be young and are still too young to be old; then when we must saddle our dreams and accept the fact that some of them will not come true, that certain ambitions will not be met.”  (Donald Shelby, “Wanting our Cake When the Party’s Over”)

So, we need to stay awake, because we never know when something important is going to be taken away from us.

Let me focus that in a very specific way in closing – Our relationships with each other.  Time is fleeting, and we never know what’s going to happen to any one of us – we need to stay awake in relationships – to be caring, affirming, concerned, attentive – investing ourselves in family, in love, in ministry because we never know when something important is going to be taken from us.

Richard Sewall, Professor of English at Yale, shared a word in a Convocation Address at Williams College which I would like to share with you:

“I want to share with you a little of what I have learned this year, the high-water mark of my experience as a human being.  Two things, intimately bound are closest to my heart now:  love and death.

“You’ll have to know that my wife, Matilde, died of cancer of the pancreas in November and from that experience I have learned this:  Never be embarrassed to talk about hallowed things like love and death.  We Americans are a bit finicky about both.  There is very little serious talk about love, and as for death, we hide from it… What has tortured me these months since Matilde died are the things I didn’t say, the love I didn’t express.  Why was I so dim, so finicky, so inhibited, so embarrassed.”  (Quoted by:   Donald J. Shelby, “After the Trumpet Call, Silence,”)

Doesn’t that make the point.  We need to stay awake because we never know when something important is going to be taken from us.  So, Jesus pronounces a wonderful benediction – a beatitude that we need to receive – “Blessed are those who stay awake.”  And He’s talking to all of us – no matter where we are in life – or what life offers us.

That’s it – to stay awake and alive to life – no matter where we are.

Let us pray.  God of Abraham and Jesus, you invite your people to contemplate heavenly things and urge us toward faith in you.  May your coming among us find our doors open, our tables set, and all your people ready to greet you.  Amen.

July 31, 2016

How to Escape Being Possessed By Our Possessions

Psalm 49:1-12; Luke 12:13-21

Somewhere along the way I saw a cartoon of an elderly man of obvious wealth on a canopied death bed, surrounded by servants, family members, lawyers, and all sorts of “hangers-on”.  It was quite clear why most of the people had gathered there, but now the old gentleman is sitting up with his arms folded and a very determined look on his face.  One bystander says to another, “Someone just told him he couldn’t take it with him, and so he says he isn’t going.”

We laugh at that.  It’s a caricature that’s not far from the picture Jesus paints in our parable today – the parable that has been titled, “The Parable of the Rich Fool.”  For a long time, the working title of it was “Can We Be Successful and Rich and Also Christian?”  In my thinking I was adding another picture of Jesus to this parable – that funny, but mind-stopping picture of a camel struggling to pass through the eye of a needle.  And then, Jesus’ dogmatic and challenging word:  “It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom.”

Though it may take you back, it’s a legitimate question, “Can we be successful and rich and also Christian?”  If I had pursued that question, I would’ve eased the minds of most of you by answering the question right off.  “Yes,” yes, it’s possible to be successful and rich and also Christian.  Otherwise most of us here today would be condemned already, because though not all are rich, most are successful.

I couldn’t pursue the message in this fashion because it would let too many of us off the hook.  Not many of you here today would admit that you’re rich, so you could rationalize the issue quickly.  In fact, this is one of those parables of Jesus that too many dismiss out of hand, thinking it has nothing to say to them because it’s about a rich man – a rich man whom Jesus called a fool.  But look how the parable begins, verse 15:

“Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  That’s the way the Revised Standard Version has it.  “Be on your guard against covetousness in any shape or form.  For a man’s real life in no way depends upon the number of his possessions.”

Though I’m not overly fond of The Living Bible, there’s a very practical and piercing edge to the paraphrase of this verse:  “Beware!  Don’t always be wishing for what you don’t have.  For real life and real living aren’t related to how rich you are.”

You get the point.  The parable is now about how much we possess, it’s about how we feel about what we possess.  It’s about priorities.

Notice how the parable ends.  Jesus condemns the “rich fool,” then brings us all into the realm of judgment, verse 21:  “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and isn’t rich toward God.”

Our focus then is a broad one.  None of us are excluded from this sharp and challenging teaching of Jesus.  We’re talking about a danger common to all of us as we ask the question, “How do we escape being possessed by our possessions?”

In answer to the question I want to first sound two reminders.  First, any one of us can become victims of a covetous spirit.

Sometimes, those who don’t have much are more covetous than those who do.  “Indeed, many a relatively poor man is greedy at heart.  Many rich men realize the emptiness of riches alone.  They sometimes escape from covetousness by using their goods in the service of God and humanity.  The greatest danger from covetousness comes to those who are in between poverty and wealth.  The enterprising, ambitious man often comes to measure success by a dollar sign and nothing else.  This is deceptive and dangerous.  We think it will bring happiness.  It often brings misery and bitterness.  When a man is a slave to the almighty dollar, he’s undermining his own life at the roots.”  

Many have bought into the prosperity gospel even as we snicker at Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen.  Ours is a subtler version, perhaps, but we imagine that God wants us to have large endowments, a hefty retirement account, and we (at least I) do a fine job of theological gymnastics to justify whatever level of prosperity gives the desired level of security.

Have you ever thought of it this way?  We envy people who are rich; Jesus pitied them.  When we hear of people inheriting fortunes, we say ‘lucky people.’  When we hear of men winning rich prizes through their own industry and skill, we’re willing to admit that we would gladly be in their places.  We think of the sense of security and the relief from financial strain that wealth could bring, of the desirable things it could purchase, of the opportunity it would give for doing good, and after considering all this, we conclude that it’s good to be rich.

Jesus taught otherwise.  As James Denny points out, he taught that men should be afraid to become rich.  “How hardly shall they that have riches enter the Kingdom of God!  It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom.”  ~Mark 10:24-25

“This parable (of the rich fool) is designed to show how riches and good fortune in life tend to lead not to blessing but to tragedy.  Here we discover one of the great differences between the thinking of Jesus and our own.”

Isn’t it true?  We envy people who are rich; Jesus pitied them.  All of us can become victims of a covetous spirit.

Now the second reminder.  Values in life aren’t measured by material things.

Someone has said that money can’t purchase happiness, but it can enable you to look for it in some very interesting places.  A very wealthy man who had amassed a tremendous fortune at a young age asked his wife one evening, “Honey, would you still love me if I didn’t have all this money?”  She replied, “Certainly I’d love you, Sweetie.  I’d miss you, but I’d love you.”

How easy it is to misplace values.  In the Franklin County Courthouse in Virginia, the will of the man who owned Booker T. Washington is preserved.  Since most of his property was in slaves, the owner had listed them and set down the price of each one of them.  Opposite the name of Booker Washington he had marked, ‘$200.”

Was this a fair estimate of that youngster’s worth?  He turned out to be one of America’s great men.

It’s easy to misplace values.  Each of us has to answer in our own hearts, within the context of our own particular vocation, situation, and walk of life.  I confess to you there are temptations that are peculiar to the ministry – to my vocation – that would threaten to pervert ambition and center it not in the Kingdom of God but in ourselves.  I wrestle with that almost daily.

Two reminders:  Any one of us can become a victim of a covetous spirit; two, it’s easy to misplace values and put self in the center of things.

Now, some questions – questions that will give us perspective as we seek to escape being possessed by our possessions.  The first question:  Where do I place my security?

Our Lord is quite explicit about the reason why he regarded the possession of wealth as undesirable.  To possess wealth gives a man a false sense of security.  Jesus spoke of the “deceitfulness of riches” ~Matt. 13:22.  When a man possesses riches, he’s deceived about his position in life….

“The rich man in the parable is an illustration of this.  When his ground began to bring forth plentifully, he took an inventory of his possessions and found them enormous, almost embarrassing, and he began to say to himself, “At last I can be at ease.”  When he surveyed his balance sheets, and looked over the huge new barns he had built and the enormous stock he had laid up, he said to himself, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years so take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.”  How secure he felt and how settled he considered himself!  He didn’t need God now; he didn’t need prayer; for he had so much else.  He didn’t think of the possibility of death and then the judgment seat; he had so many pleasant things to absorb him.”

So we need to ask:  Where do I place my security?

The second question:  Do I include the fact of God in my planning?

“The rich man reached affluence mainly by reason of the common wealth… (the gifts of God – the land and the seasons, yet he had no gift of sympathy).  ‘What shall I do, because I have nowhere to bestow my fruits?”  Was there no sickness to heal, no nakedness to clothe?  Were there none on whom a sharper problem pressed, who were compelled to ask, ‘What shall I do, because stark poverty has come to be our guest?’  Deliberately this man proposed to spend the rest of his days on the pleasure of his body:  “Soul, thou has much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.”  He was heedless of his comrades of earth, even as he was heedless of God.”

You see, when we don’t include God in our planning, we grow blind to the world around us.  We also grow blind to God and our spiritual need.

Sir John Wilson travels 50,000 miles a year in behalf of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, an organization that (annually) brings sight to 141,000 people.  What’s remarkable is that Wilson himself is blind.  A few years ago he traveled to the village of Nakong in Northern Ghana where almost everyone is blind.  Farmers taught him to plant grain by following a straight piece of bamboo.  Their wives went to the well by following a piece of rope.  He discovered these villagers were so accustomed to blindness they found it difficult to believe the rest of the world could see.

Something like that happens to spiritual vision.  Some people become so accustomed to the dark they no longer believe the light exists.  That happens to us when we leave God out of our planning.  That’s what happened to the rich fool.  His plans were spoiled because God had another intention.  This wise man hadn’t consulted God and his plans were spoiled because he had considered the welfare only of himself.  His plans, inspired by selfish ambition, were all folly, because God has the final decision, and this is God’s world.

Do I include the fact of God in my planning?

The third question:  Why do I want more?  Most of us don’t stop to ask that, do we?  We get on a roll and we don’t even question why we’re doing what we are.  Accumulation and gaining more, becomes an end, rather a means.

Why do I want more?

Security?  We’ve addressed that question.

Status and ego identity?  Read the story and notice how many times the word “I” and “My” occur.  The rich man uses “I” six times, and he used “my” or “thine” addressed to himself six times…the language of a self-centered, selfish, egotist.

Is that the reason we want more?  To satisfy our ego, to give us status?

The question comes around to a fourth one:  What would I like to be remembered by (legacy)?

Someone has said there are 3 kicks to every dollar:  the kick of earning it, the kick of having it, and the kick of giving it away.  Isn’t it true that people are remembered most and best by what they give away—how they spend themselves or refuse to spend themselves in love to others.

George Willis Spann lived in Pueblo, CO.  They called him “pop” Spann.  For 34 years, “Pop” was caretaker of the public school in Pueblo.  “He loved and served the children far beyond the call of duty.  And they loved him.  He listened to their problems and helped them out of scrapes.  He bandaged their hurts and fixed their bicycles.  He played with them after school hours, even though he had to work later to do his chores.  He strengthened the weaker ones and gave friendship to those who needed it.  He loaned them money and bought them presents.  He often spent part of his own salary for more equipment for the children.  At Christmas, he always gave them a paper mural of the nativity for the cafeteria.  All the community came to love and respect this modest, sincere man.  Shortly after his retirement, the city of Pueblo built a handsome new school building for $375,000.  It proudly bears the name, “George Willis Spann” in honor of “Pop,” the man who lived a life the same time he was making a living.

What do I want to be remembered for?

Now the fifth and final question:  Am I rich toward God?  That’s the clenching question, and that’s the note on which Jesus closes his parable, verses 20-21:  “God said to him, ‘Fool!  This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and isn’t rich toward God.”

In the vast Dallas—Ft. Worth Airport is the mounted skeleton of a plesiosaur.  His bones were found during the excavating necessary to build that ultra-modern air terminal.  The plesiosaur is said to be 70 million years old.  He was a great lizard, 25 feet long and weighing 10,000 pounds.  When you stand in the midst of that monument to the latest in modern technology, you can’t help but be impressed by those ancient bones in contrast to this most modern of airports; and the combination of the old and the new causes you to think about life itself.  When centuries have passed, how significant will be the things we allow to cause us anxiety, or the things we presently think are important?  The question that has eternal significance is, “Are we rich toward God?”

A man’s life is surely a tragedy and a failure if he has been a success in everything else, but in the end, he lacks the one that matters.  When the rich young ruler came to Jesus, He looked at him and loved him and said, “One thing you lackest; go and sell what you have and give it to the poor – and you shall have treasure in heaven.”  ~Matt. 19:21

What is true wealth?

A clear conscience – cleansed by prayer and the forgiving grace of God.

A committed will – kept strong by a day-to-day Gethsemane “Not my will, bu Thine be done.”

A loving family – our own husbands, wives, parents, children – but also that wider family that’s ours when we care and allow others to care out of our love for Christ.

A companionship with the living Christ whose love atones our sins and mistakes, and whose presence is kept alive by our response to his promise for presence:  “Abide in me, and I in you; for apart from me, you can do nothing at all.”

That’s true wealth, and that is the wealth which a certain rich man exchanged for overflowing barns.  We don’t want to make the same mistake, do we?

Let us pray.  Generous God, in abundance you give us things both spiritual and physical.  Help us hold lightly the fading things of this earth and grasp tightly the lasting things of your kingdom, so that what we are and do and say may be our gifts to you through Christ, who beckons all to seek the things above, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

July 17, 2016

Let Your Soul Catch Up

Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42

A religious poll asked people this question:  “Do you believe in the Second Coming of Christ?”  If the respondent answered yes, a subsequent question was put to them:  “What would you do if you knew Jesus was coming back today?”

One young man replied, “Look busy, man!  Look busy!”

Isn’t that the mindset of our age?  It seems as though most of us build our lives on the premise that personal worth and significance, as well as meaning in life, is dependent upon being busy.  Too often we’re identified by what we produce and what we achieve.  We’re even identified on the basis of how much we consume—not only of material goods but education, public events, passive hobbies and pleasure.

Psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, and others who study the ways of humankind, describe us as a driven people.  One of our primary characteristics is that we’re under enormous stress and pressure.  We’re tyrannized by fear—fear of failure, fear that we will not achieve, fear that we will not stack up to other people’s expectations of us.  Add to that our confusion about who we are and our uncertainty about where we’re going and you end up with a “stressed-out people.”

I believe that all the strained relationships we know, the staggering divorce rate, the distrust that characterizes relationships, and the growing climate of violence, are the consequences of this “stressed-out life.”

“Burnout” has become a term everybody knows, because we see people around us collapsing into numbness and addiction—if it’s not addiction to drugs, it’s addiction to television and pleasure and the rat-race of getting ahead.

It’s little wonder that a USA Today poll a couple of years ago showed that an overwhelming majority of people from all works of life, when asked what they wanted most from life, replied “peace of mind.”

And so we come to our lesson from the Gospel of Luke – the story of the best-known sisters in the Bible:  Mary and Martha.

A pastor tells of a painting his wife created and said that he played a big role in its creation.  The painting is based on a similar story in John’s Gospel and is entitled “Broken and Poured Out.”  “When you look at the painting,” the pastor said, “you notice Jesus’ feet.”  It was the pastor himself who sat for six hours, modeling the feet of Jesus for his wife’s painting.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus had come to Bethany where he’d raised Lazarus from the dead.  Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were there, and Martha served a meal to them.  But, Mary took a pound of costly ointment, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet, and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.  Judas got upset at that and wanted to know why the expensive ointment wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor.

The painting the pastor’s wife created captures that scene.  Mary, having anointed Jesus with that precious perfume, washes his feet with her hair, and with her tears, and dries them with her hair.  But in the painting, the artist captures the essence of Jesus’ life and ministry with focus on an overturned chalice on the white tablecloth.  At first, it seems incidental.  But as you immerse yourself in the painting, you know this is the central symbol.  The red wine is spilled and is running off the edge of the table—a graphic reminder of Jesus’ life broken and poured out in love for us.

But this story in Luke’s Gospel is a bit different.

It seems these two sisters, Mary and Martha, have a household.  At one point in Jesus’ public ministry, he and, quite likely, some of his disciples came to Mary and Martha’s household and stayed with them.  Martha was busy with all the things that hostesses have to do.  She was cleaning, cooking, baking, and attending to the needs of her guests.  Mary, on the other hand, lifted not one finger to help.  She sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to the conversation and the teaching there.

Now reading this story with our 21st century cultural perspective we might grow somewhat disappointed in this character Mary for her unconcern for her sister’s labors.  We would have reason to think that she was inconsiderate or rude to her sister.  But if we had been first century Palestinian Jews, we would’ve seen Mary’s behavior in a much more profoundly negative light.  For you see in the Middle East, in ancient times, there was an unbreakable law of hospitality.  When you brought someone to your home or into your tent, you had a moral obligation to provide for them whatever their needs might be, even to the point of depriving yourself.  Indeed, if you consider what it was like to live in the harsh environment of the Middle East in the ancient world, this law of hospitality developed out of the reality that travelers were always in danger.  Sometimes they were in danger from bandits and brigands, and always in danger from the elements.  If you were a traveler, you were engaged in an activity that was treacherous.  If you were to be taken in by anyone, the act of taking in a traveler implied a readiness to provide for the traveler’s needs because those were often life or death issues.  So, in the Middle East, in the first century, you simply didn’t have someone in your home and fail to provide every courtesy.  It wasn’t just a matter of courtesy; it was the law of the society.

Martha was busy doing what was expected, not just out of hospitality in the superficial sense; she was doing what was demanded of her by one of the deepest and most profound and most binding customs of her era.  With that in mind then, Mary’s frivolous attitude towards the law of hospitality would have to be seen as almost scandalous.

That’s the story.  What’s the lesson here for us?

First, there’s confirmation here in the New Testament that people have different temperaments.  That was a big problem.  Mary and Martha were temperamentally polls apart, and their temperaments clashed.  Martha was the active, get-things-done, organizing type.  Mary was reflective, quiet.  She wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.

I’m not sure we pay enough attention to this—in our families, or in other relationships.  We don’t give it enough attention in the church.  It doesn’t take much observation to recognize the fact that some people are naturally dynamos of activity.  Others are inclined to quietness.  And isn’t it true that within the church, we expect everybody to fit the same mold.  We talk about people being “go-getters”.  I know that when the nominating committee does its work in selecting the leadership of the church, that’s always a big question.  More often than not, the committee is tempted to select people who are inclined to hyper-activity.  We need to realize that not all people are of the same temperament.

The reason that’s so important in the church is there’s no right or wrong way to serve God.  God didn’t make us all alike.  God has created us that way.

Now consider this second lesson from our story.  It’s easy to be distracted from the center—to do the good and neglect the best.

Look at Martha.  We’ve already indicated that she was playing out her obligation to a hilt.  What she was doing was absolutely right in terms of the deepest and most profound and binding customs of her day.  But don’t you think she would’ve enjoyed sitting and listening to the teachings of Jesus—of course she would.  But there was the meal to be prepared.  Jesus was their guest and had to be fed.  We can’t really condemn Martha and persons like her.  I’m glad—because I’m one of them.  But there’s a call here—a reminder—a warning.  There’s a tyranny here that we don’t often recognize.  It’s the tyranny of the immediate.  All of us know it, if we would reflect just a bit.  Most of us are driven to do that which has to be done immediately, without giving thought to the overall situation.  It’s a sense of urgency.

Jesus taught us about that in another situation.

He challenged the Pharisees because they had lost all sense of proportion between one duty and another.  Listen to Jesus in Luke 11:42:  “But woe to you Pharisees!  For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God, it’s these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”

They had taken the letter of the law to an extreme and violated its purpose and spirit.  Of course they should tithe—but to extend that law to the smallest herbs—mint and rue—that was ridiculous.  The law of tithing had to be kept, but in keeping it, don’t forget there’s an immeasurably higher law—loving God and loving our neighbor.

So Jesus’ word to Martha is a warning to us.  We can be distracted from the center, doing the good and neglecting the best.  We can become victims of the tyranny of immediate demands.

And that leads to this final lesson—and the big point of the message.  All of us must find and take the time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  Someone observed that most of the time we we’re so anxious to do something that we neglect to be someone.  While doing is important, so is being.  The world of getting things done is vital—the world of achievements, hard work, of goals reached and tasks completed, of obligations assumed and honored…But the world of being is also vital—the world of quiet listening and resonating with our inner feelings, the world of coming close to persons, the world of meditation and prayer, the world of watching the sunrise and sunset, and seeing things in the world as though for the first time, the world of reflection and encounter, the world of laughter and fun, the world of wonder and awe.”

That can’t happen if we don’t find and take time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  Have you ever noticed how some people always seem to be invading other people’s space—always getting a bit too close?  You know the type that never settles for just a handshake and instead insists on a bear hug.

Dr. Dahrl Pederson was commissioned by NASA to study the human need for personal space in order to determine what effects the cramped, confining conditions aboard a spacecraft might have on our astronauts.  His studies show that strangers don’t like to get any closer than 14 to 17 inches from each other and for most people the desired distance is much greater.”  (Donald J. Shelby, “His Journey and Ours:  Space and Silence”)

I cite this to make a point that not only do we need margins of space around our bodies, we need inner space and silence around our souls.  We need a place, and we need a time, to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies.  Stress is one of the number one killers in the world today.  I don’t need to cite all the figures—you know them already.  The data is clear.  There’s no killer-disease that’s not either caused by or intensified by our levels of stress.  We need the place and we need to find the time to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies.

A pastor shared this story about a visit he made one Sunday afternoon to a member of his congregation who was resident in a convalescent home.  Her name was Annie.

Annie was looking out the window in her room when (he) entered.  “Preacher,” she beckoned, “come over here and look at those birds out on the patio.”  When he stepped over to join her at the window, she said, “You know when I was a little girl on the farm back in Missouri, one Sunday morning my father called me to get ready for church.  I was watching some blackbirds out the parlor window.  I said, ‘Papa, I wish I could be like those blackbirds and fly away when I want to.  I don’t want to go to church today.’  My Papa knelt beside me and said gently, ‘Annie, there will come a day when you will want to go to church and you will not be able to attend.  Then you will realize why it’s so important.’”

Annie turned to me and said with tears in her eyes, “Today is one of those days, Preacher, today is one of those days.”

We need to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  Worship is one of the ways to do that—gathering with God’s people each Sunday to praise God.  Daily times of prayer and scripture reading.Deliberate retreats.Occasions during the year when you intentionally set aside a weekend for a conference—when you focus your mind and heart on the things God and the things that really matter.Intentional sharing with other Christians.

Mary and Martha teach us many things.  But these three lessons are central.  We need to honor the fact that different people have different temperaments.  Each one of us is a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God.  Two, it’s easy to be distracted from the center—to do the good and neglect the best.  And three, all of us must find and take the time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.

Let us pray.  Ever-faithful God, whose being is perfect righteousness:  reconcile us in your Son with the helpless and the needy, with those we would ignore or oppress, and with those we have called enemies that we may serve all people as your hands of love, and sit at the feet of those who need our compassionate care.  Amen.

July 10, 2016

Let Your Soul Catch Up

Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42

A religious poll asked people this question:  “Do you believe in the Second Coming of Christ?”  If the respondent answered yes, a subsequent question was put to them:  “What would you do if you knew Jesus was coming back today?”

One young man replied, “Look busy, man!  Look busy!”

Isn’t that the mindset of our age?  It seems as though most of us build our lives on the premise that personal worth and significance, as well as meaning in life, is dependent upon being busy.  Too often we’re identified by what we produce and what we achieve.  We’re even identified on the basis of how much we consume—not only of material goods but education, public events, passive hobbies and pleasure.

Psychologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, and others who study the ways of humankind, describe us as a driven people.  One of our primary characteristics is that we’re under enormous stress and pressure.  We’re tyrannized by fear—fear of failure, fear that we will not achieve, fear that we will not stack up to other people’s expectations of us.  Add to that our confusion about who we are and our uncertainty about where we’re going and you end up with a “stressed-out people.”

I believe that all the strained relationships we know, the staggering divorce rate, the distrust that characterizes relationships, and the growing climate of violence, are the consequences of this “stressed-out life.”

“Burnout” has become a term everybody knows, because we see people around us collapsing into numbness and addiction—if it’s not addiction to drugs, it’s addiction to television and pleasure and the rat-race of getting ahead.

It’s little wonder that a USA Today poll a couple of years ago showed that an overwhelming majority of people from all works of life, when asked what they wanted most from life, replied “peace of mind.”

And so we come to our lesson from the Gospel of Luke – the story of the best-known sisters in the Bible:  Mary and Martha.

A pastor tells of a painting his wife created and said that he played a big role in its creation.  The painting is based on a similar story in John’s Gospel and is entitled “Broken and Poured Out.”  “When you look at the painting,” the pastor said, “you notice Jesus’ feet.”  It was the pastor himself who sat for six hours, modeling the feet of Jesus for his wife’s painting.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus had come to Bethany where he’d raised Lazarus from the dead.  Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were there, and Martha served a meal to them.  But, Mary took a pound of costly ointment, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet, and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.  Judas got upset at that and wanted to know why the expensive ointment wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor.

The painting the pastor’s wife created captures that scene.  Mary, having anointed Jesus with that precious perfume, washes his feet with her hair, and with her tears, and dries them with her hair.  But in the painting, the artist captures the essence of Jesus’ life and ministry with focus on an overturned chalice on the white tablecloth.  At first, it seems incidental.  But as you immerse yourself in the painting, you know this is the central symbol.  The red wine is spilled and is running off the edge of the table—a graphic reminder of Jesus’ life broken and poured out in love for us.

But this story in Luke’s Gospel is a bit different.

It seems these two sisters, Mary and Martha, have a household.  At one point in Jesus’ public ministry, he and, quite likely, some of his disciples came to Mary and Martha’s household and stayed with them.  Martha was busy with all the things that hostesses have to do.  She was cleaning, cooking, baking, and attending to the needs of her guests.  Mary, on the other hand, lifted not one finger to help.  She sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to the conversation and the teaching there.

Now reading this story with our 21st century cultural perspective we might grow somewhat disappointed in this character Mary for her unconcern for her sister’s labors.  We would have reason to think that she was inconsiderate or rude to her sister.  But if we had been first century Palestinian Jews, we would’ve seen Mary’s behavior in a much more profoundly negative light.  For you see in the Middle East, in ancient times, there was an unbreakable law of hospitality.  When you brought someone to your home or into your tent, you had a moral obligation to provide for them whatever their needs might be, even to the point of depriving yourself.  Indeed, if you consider what it was like to live in the harsh environment of the Middle East in the ancient world, this law of hospitality developed out of the reality that travelers were always in danger.  Sometimes they were in danger from bandits and brigands, and always in danger from the elements.  If you were a traveler, you were engaged in an activity that was treacherous.  If you were to be taken in by anyone, the act of taking in a traveler implied a readiness to provide for the traveler’s needs because those were often life or death issues.  So, in the Middle East, in the first century, you simply didn’t have someone in your home and fail to provide every courtesy.  It wasn’t just a matter of courtesy; it was the law of the society.

Martha was busy doing what was expected, not just out of hospitality in the superficial sense; she was doing what was demanded of her by one of the deepest and most profound and most binding customs of her era.  With that in mind then, Mary’s frivolous attitude towards the law of hospitality would have to be seen as almost scandalous.

That’s the story.  What’s the lesson here for us?

First, there’s confirmation here in the New Testament that people have different temperaments.  That was a big problem.  Mary and Martha were temperamentally polls apart, and their temperaments clashed.  Martha was the active, get-things-done, organizing type.  Mary was reflective, quiet.  She wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.

I’m not sure we pay enough attention to this—in our families, or in other relationships.  We don’t give it enough attention in the church.  It doesn’t take much observation to recognize the fact that some people are naturally dynamos of activity.  Others are inclined to quietness.  And isn’t it true that within the church, we expect everybody to fit the same mold.  We talk about people being “go-getters”.  I know that when the nominating committee does its work in selecting the leadership of the church, that’s always a big question.  More often than not, the committee is tempted to select people who are inclined to hyper-activity.  We need to realize that not all people are of the same temperament.

The reason that’s so important in the church is there’s no right or wrong way to serve God.  God didn’t make us all alike.  God has created us that way.

Now consider this second lesson from our story.  It’s easy to be distracted from the center—to do the good and neglect the best.

Look at Martha.  We’ve already indicated that she was playing out her obligation to a hilt.  What she was doing was absolutely right in terms of the deepest and most profound and binding customs of her day.  But don’t you think she would’ve enjoyed sitting and listening to the teachings of Jesus—of course she would.  But there was the meal to be prepared.  Jesus was their guest and had to be fed.  We can’t really condemn Martha and persons like her.  I’m glad—because I’m one of them.  But there’s a call here—a reminder—a warning.  There’s a tyranny here that we don’t often recognize.  It’s the tyranny of the immediate.  All of us know it, if we would reflect just a bit.  Most of us are driven to do that which has to be done immediately, without giving thought to the overall situation.  It’s a sense of urgency.

Jesus taught us about that in another situation.

He challenged the Pharisees because they had lost all sense of proportion between one duty and another.  Listen to Jesus in Luke 11:42:  “But woe to you Pharisees!  For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God, it’s these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.”

They had taken the letter of the law to an extreme and violated its purpose and spirit.  Of course they should tithe—but to extend that law to the smallest herbs—mint and rue—that was ridiculous.  The law of tithing had to be kept, but in keeping it, don’t forget there’s an immeasurably higher law—loving God and loving our neighbor.

So Jesus’ word to Martha is a warning to us.  We can be distracted from the center, doing the good and neglecting the best.  We can become victims of the tyranny of immediate demands.

And that leads to this final lesson—and the big point of the message.  All of us must find and take the time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  Someone observed that most of the time we we’re so anxious to do something that we neglect to be someone.  While doing is important, so is being.  The world of getting things done is vital—the world of achievements, hard work, of goals reached and tasks completed, of obligations assumed and honored…But the world of being is also vital—the world of quiet listening and resonating with our inner feelings, the world of coming close to persons, the world of meditation and prayer, the world of watching the sunrise and sunset, and seeing things in the world as though for the first time, the world of reflection and encounter, the world of laughter and fun, the world of wonder and awe.”

That can’t happen if we don’t find and take time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  Have you ever noticed how some people always seem to be invading other people’s space—always getting a bit too close?  You know the type that never settles for just a handshake and instead insists on a bear hug.

Dr. Dahrl Pederson was commissioned by NASA to study the human need for personal space in order to determine what effects the cramped, confining conditions aboard a spacecraft might have on our astronauts.  His studies show that strangers don’t like to get any closer than 14 to 17 inches from each other and for most people the desired distance is much greater.”  (Donald J. Shelby, “His Journey and Ours:  Space and Silence”)

I cite this to make a point that not only do we need margins of space around our bodies, we need inner space and silence around our souls.  We need a place, and we need a time, to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies.  Stress is one of the number one killers in the world today.  I don’t need to cite all the figures—you know them already.  The data is clear.  There’s no killer-disease that’s not either caused by or intensified by our levels of stress.  We need the place and we need to find the time to allow our souls to catch up with our bodies.

A pastor shared this story about a visit he made one Sunday afternoon to a member of his congregation who was resident in a convalescent home.  Her name was Annie.

Annie was looking out the window in her room when (he) entered.  “Preacher,” she beckoned, “come over here and look at those birds out on the patio.”  When he stepped over to join her at the window, she said, “You know when I was a little girl on the farm back in Missouri, one Sunday morning my father called me to get ready for church.  I was watching some blackbirds out the parlor window.  I said, ‘Papa, I wish I could be like those blackbirds and fly away when I want to.  I don’t want to go to church today.’  My Papa knelt beside me and said gently, ‘Annie, there will come a day when you will want to go to church and you will not be able to attend.  Then you will realize why it’s so important.’”

Annie turned to me and said with tears in her eyes, “Today is one of those days, Preacher, today is one of those days.”

We need to let our souls catch up with our bodies.  Worship is one of the ways to do that—gathering with God’s people each Sunday to praise God.  Daily times of prayer and scripture reading.Deliberate retreats.Occasions during the year when you intentionally set aside a weekend for a conference—when you focus your mind and heart on the things God and the things that really matter.Intentional sharing with other Christians.

Mary and Martha teach us many things.  But these three lessons are central.  We need to honor the fact that different people have different temperaments.  Each one of us is a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God.  Two, it’s easy to be distracted from the center—to do the good and neglect the best.  And three, all of us must find and take the time to let our souls catch up with our bodies.

Let us pray.  Ever-faithful God, whose being is perfect righteousness:  reconcile us in your Son with the helpless and the needy, with those we would ignore or oppress, and with those we have called enemies that we may serve all people as your hands of love, and sit at the feet of those who need our compassionate care.  Amen.

July 3, 2016
I Saw Satan Fall
2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
As we pick up in our preaching journey through Luke, let me review for just a moment.
Recently, we looked at the passage from Luke 9, verses 57-62.  It was the story of Jesus’ encounter with three different men and their discussion about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.  Jesus spoke demanding words to all of them, concluding with that dramatic exhortation:  “no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
But there’s another side to the story.  A man was complaining to a friend about the woman he had married and recently divorced.  They were only married about nine months.  “That woman made me a millionaire,” he said.  That surprised the fellow.  “Why in the world then,” he asked, “would you have divorced her if she made you a millionaire.”  The first man replied, “Well when I married her I had nine million dollars.”
It’s always important to get the whole story.  With verse 17 of our scripture lesson, the other side of the story begins—the side that’s bright with exultant joy and wonder at being a part of Jesus’ mission and ministry, of witnessing the triumph of his work of redemption, of traveling with him on the road to Glory.
That’s our focus for the message today.
I want us to focus on verse 18.  How suggestive is that word of Jesus:  listen to it.  “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.”
Jesus is reflecting on the ministry of the seventy.  They went out, following Jesus’ instructions, and were amazed at what happened.  They returned with joy saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”  It was then Jesus said to them, “I saw Satan fall.”
That’s the image for the sermon today.  “I saw Satan fall.”  And this is the question:  Has there been a time in your life when Jesus, looking at your life and ministry, has said, “I saw Satan fall?”
I want you to close your eyes—would you do that?  Close your eyes and ponder that question in silence for just a moment.  Has there ever been a time in your life when Jesus, looking at your life and ministry, has said, “I saw Satan fall?”
Not an easy question to answer, is it?  But am I wrong in suggesting that indeed that should be the result of our ministry—the fall of Satan.
Maybe you can answer the question better after the sermon is over, after I remind you of when Satan falls.  We will take our cue from the ministry of the seventy, and some of the expressions of that ministry that we find in these verses of our text.
First, note this as a beginning point:  Satan falls when a person trusts Jesus with his life.  Look at verses three and four:
Verse 3:  Go on your way.  See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
Verse 4:  Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.
What a trust!  And that kind of trust is what made Satan fall.
It’s a radical trust Jesus is calling for.  His tactic was to send his disciples out utterly defenseless, totally dependent on him, and on the reception of the people to whom he sent them.  They were to carry no cash, no spare clothes or provisions.  Jesus wasn’t only testing them he had something else in mind as well.  To be confronted by these servants of Christ, the people to whom they went would be forced to make a decision as to what they should do with them.
“If the missionaries had enough money to support themselves, then letting them hire a room in a hotel would be a simple commercial transaction carrying no spiritual implication.  But if the people were faced with penniless, destitute men, claiming to be Messiah’s own ambassadors, they would be forced to decide whether they would receive and entertain them as such, or reject them.”  (David Gooding, “According to Luke”, p. 197)
Earl Davis, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Memphis, TN, tells a precious story that speaks to us here.  A pastor and his wife drove up to the church a bit early for the evening activities one Sunday and noticed one of the little girls of the church, perhaps seven or eight years old, sitting on the steps with a big suitcase.  The pastor’s wife figured the little girl had run away from home, so she went over and sat down beside her and began a conversation.  A few general questions revealed the little girl wasn’t running away from home.  “Well, why do you have this suitcase with you?”  asked the pastor’s wife.  The little girl responded, “This morning the pastor asked who would follow Jesus wherever he went, and I said I would.”  She had come prepared.
Now the primary contradiction is that we cease trusting things and our own resources and we begin to radically trust Christ.
A chaplain was visiting with a man in the hospital.  He’s had a close call.  His recuperation was going to require a long time and much discipline.  “It’s been a saving experience," he said.  “I’ve learned that I’m not invincible.”  Then tears came to his eyes as he said, “I’ve confessed to God and I want you to hear my confession also.  I’ve trusted too much in myself and my money.  I’m praying every day the Lord will forgive me and I’m seeking to put my total trust in him.”
The chaplain saw Satan fall in the hospital room that day, because Satan falls when a person trusts Christ with his life.
Another minister of the Gospel recalled visiting some patients when he heard the cardiac emergency team being called.  For anyone who’s experienced that alarm, it’s chilling to see doctors and nurses run into the room where some person trembles on the border between life and death.  He said a prayer for both the patient and the family and reflected on his own life.  He thought about how every time we try to die to self, the devil calls in his spiritual emergency team and they work like the devil, to keep the old man, the carnal man, the man who trusts in his own self alive.  So it’s an ongoing experience.  It’s an ongoing effort, the man who trusts in his own self alive.  So it’s an ongoing experience.  It’s an ongoing effort, a never-ending struggle—to deny ourselves, to cease trusting things and our own resources and to trust Christ completely.  When we do that Satan falls.
Now, a second word.  Satan falls when a person stands firm against evil in whatever form evil may take.  Look at Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in verse 10 and 11.
Verse 10:  But whenever you enter a town and they don’t welcome you, go out into its streets and say,
Verse 11:  Even the dust of your own town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.  Yet know this:  the kingdom of God has come near.
Public demonstrations have been a positive force in the past thirty years in some of the most important social issues of our time.  Demonstrations fired and kept the Civil Rights Movement alive.  Demonstrations played a significant role in bringing the Vietnam War to a close.  Jesus was calling for a demonstration from his disciples.  He’s telling them they are to shake the dust off their feet if people refuse to hear the gospel.
Whether public demonstration or not, public action is called for from the church and individual Christians.
Winston Churchill was great with words.  He was always able to put in brilliant succinctness, expansive ideas and challenges.  He said of the slow Allied response to Hitler’s onslaught at the beginning of World War II, “Virtuous motives, trembled by inertia and timidity, are no match for armed and resolute weakness.”  (“The Gathering Storm”, p. 171)
Third and closely akin to a stand against evil is this dynamic:  when a person exercises the power of Christ obediently in faith believing, then Satan falls.  Let’s read verses 8 and 9.
“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what’s set before you;
“Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.’”
Don’t get hung up here with the ministry of healing which Jesus obviously gave to his disciples.  You don’t have to jump off the deep end of a pool to get into the water.  You can walk in from the shallow end.  But to get in, you have got tp step or jump in somewhere.
Ray Sexton, a psychiatrist, tells about a troubled man who went to see a psychiatrist.
After customary introductions, the psychiatrist asked him to tell him what his problem is.
Embarrassingly, the patient reported he had difficulty when he arrived in his home.  He would walk into his bedroom thinking that something was under his bed.  Consequently, he would crawl under his bed, look thoroughly and seeing nothing, and would then be hit with the idea that something was on top of his bed.  Quickly, he would look to the top of his bed closely and see nothing.  Again, the idea would hit him that something was under his bed.  He would then drop down under his bed looking thoroughly and see nothing.  He would feel that something was on top of his bed again.  This would go on over and over.  Top, underneath, top, underneath, top, underneath.  The gentleman told the psychiatrist this was driving him crazy.  He needed some relief in order to carry on his life.
The psychiatrist reassured him that he had a correctable problem but that it would require weekly visits to dig out the deeper rooted conflicts.  The cost would be $100 per visit, per week over a period of about two years.
Somewhat dazed, the patient left the office without making his appointments.  He wasn’t seen or heard from by the psychiatrist for about six months.  The psychiatrist accidentally ran into him at a neighborhood restaurant.  The psychiatrist asked him, “Joe I haven’t heard from you, whatever happened?”
The patient said, “Well when you told me how long it would take and the expense, I was devastated.  I immediately went to the bar to drink away my despair but the bartender cured me in one session for ten dollars.  I haven’t had a problem since.”
The psychiatrist asked him, “What in the world did the bartender do?”
Joe happily responded, “The bartender told me to go home and saw the legs off of my bed.”
So we can do something, and we must do something.  We’ve got to step or jump in somewhere.
We can get in there, can’t we?  Making sure that where we are, God is.  Making sure that we obey Christ in giving cups of cold water and feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and prisoners.  We can get in somewhere.  And when we get in—taking a step of faith and attempting what we know we could never do in our own power alone, Satan will fall.
Now, this fourth and final word.  Satan falls when a person is so at one with Christ that Christ lives and acts through that person.  Look at verse 16.
“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
That’s a pretty radical picture isn’t it?  He who hears you hears me—and he who rejects you rejects me—a radical picture of oneness with Christ.  But it’s consistent with all of Jesus’ teaching.  You remember his metaphor of the vine and the branches in chapter 15 of John’s gospel in which Jesus tells us who God is, and who he is in relation to God, and who we are in relation to him:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser…I am the vine, you are the branches.  He who abides in me, and I in him, it’s he that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
And do you recall his petition in what we have come to call the “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17.  Not the prayer he taught us to pray, but his own last anguishing prayer for his disciples and us.  Listen to him as he prays:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so the world may believe that you have sent me.
The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
I in them and thou in me…that the world may know that thou has sent me and has loved them even as thou hast loved me.
Satan falls when that happens—when a person is so at one with Christ that Christ lives and acts through that person.
One of the best letters of reference ever received at the University of Alabama Medical School, according to the Director of Admissions, came from an old mountaineer.  The letter read:
“I know’d this kid from the day he was born.  He played with my kids, helped me with the chores.  I don’t know if he has sense enuf to make it in medical school, but I know he will be the kind of man I’d like to come here to take care of me and my folks.”  (Don Shelby, “Final Evaluations”)
Isn’t that beautiful?  And it hints at what I’m saying.  We can be so at one with Christ that Christ will live and act through us.
Let’s go back to my original question now—the question with which we began:  Has there been a time in your life when Jesus, looking at your life and ministry, has said, “I saw Satan fall?”  Maybe you can begin to answer the question now.  For Satan falls when a person trusts Jesus with his life.  Satan falls when a person stands firm against evil.  Satan falls when a person exercises the power of Christ obediently in faith.  And Satan falls when a person is so at one with Christ that Christ lives and acts through that person.
As we close, there was a significant verse in our scripture lesson—it was the closing verse of the lesson—verse 20.  Jesus told his followers that it was wonderful they discovered that all the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name—and that was something to rejoice over—but he said to them the most important thing for you to rejoice about is that your names are written in heaven.  We can go on that, can’t we—we can rejoice even when we’re failing in ministry, even when we feel ourselves a failure—if we know our names are written in heaven.
Let us pray.  God of all nations and peoples, your Son commanded his disciples to preach and heal throughout the world.  Grant us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the zeal to proclaim the good news of peace and justice, and gather all humanity into life with you.  Amen.

June 26, 2016

People Who Procrastinate

When Good People Have Bad Times, #6

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Luke 9:51-62

Most of you are familiar with that time-honored story about a board meeting that Satan once called in hell.  At this meeting Satan put this question to his senior advisors:  “We need to develop a new strategy for causing havoc upon earth.  Do you have any suggestions for a new means of reaching human beings for our side?”

One advisor suggested, “Tell them there’s no heaven.”

Another said, “Tell them there’s no hell.”

But the prize winning suggestion was judged to be much more effective:  “Tell them there’s no hurry.”

Could I suggest to you this morning that in the most important matters of life, there’s indeed a very big hurry?

In today’s lesson Jesus encounters a man and says to him, “Follow me.”

But this man replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Interesting response.  Here’s what we don’t know about this man.  Had his father just died?  Certainly, if so, he did need to see to this immediately.  Or did his father have a lingering illness that would claim him sometime in the near future?  Or was he simply saying that he had responsibility for his father and that some day some time his father would die, so he had better stay home until that day came?

Whatever the answer, Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said to him, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

Again, it sounds like a sensible response, but remember, Jesus could see into people’s hearts.  He knew when someone had a legitimate concern or was simply using a delay tactic.

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

It may trouble you that Jesus treated these men who simply indicated they needed more time so harshly.  But Jesus knew that in the truly important things of life there’s a need for urgency.  How’s your sense of urgency?  Some things simply can’t be put off without the threat of dire consequences.

Consider, for example, the simple act of expressing our love for the people closest to us.  Expressing such love simply can’t be put off.

“Dear Abby,” the advice columnist, was once asked what letter was requested the most for reprinting by her readers.  She replied it was this one:

“Dear Abby:  I’m the most heartbroken person on the earth.  I always found time to go everywhere else but to see my [aging] parents.  They sat at home, loving me just the same.  Now when I go to visit their graves…I wonder if God will ever forgive me for the heartaches I must’ve caused them…”  Can you feel the regret in those words?

Some things simply can’t be put off, like expressing love for someone special.

You may be familiar with that literary giant of another generation, Samuel Johnson.  Johnson’s father was a book seller—selling books from town to town—during Johnson’s boyhood.  Once when his father was very ill, tired and worn down by his constant struggle to support his family, he asked young Samuel to go to a certain market to take his place.  Young Samuel—like many of us in our youth, too self-involved—smugly refused to do so.  His father dressed and made the arduous trip himself—never saying a word of reproach to his son.

Fifty years later, the renowned and prosperous Samuel Johnson, now his name a household word throughout England, stood bareheaded for hours close by a spot near that same market where once his father’s bookstall had stood.  People stared at him as he stood there almost motionless in the midst of wind and rain.  He was remembering that time long ago when his aging father asked of him a small favor and he had smugly refused.  Can any of you identify with his great regret?

A great theologian, a man who has inspired millions of Christians, confessed sometime back that he’d been an abysmal failure with his own children.  “How I wish,” he laments, “that when my children were young, I spent less time with my books and more time with my family.”

There’s an urgency about love, is there not?  Children grow up, oh, so quickly.  Time takes its toll in the aging process.  There are some persons whose love we treasure today who might not be with us tomorrow or next week or next year.  If we’re going to take time to show our love for one another, we had better do it now.  There’s an urgency about the really important things in life.  One of those important things is demonstrating our affection for people we love.

Sometimes there’s an urgency about demonstrating love.

There can sometimes be an even greater urgency about altering a lifestyle.  There comes a time when a person must change his or her way of living…and do it now.

Daily we’re confronted with tragic stories of the inroads that drug abuse has made into our society.  Ball players, movie stars, children of famous political families as well as ordinary citizens by the thousands are having their lives destroyed by this modern plague.  How low does a person have to sink—how much money does he need to spend—how many people does he have to hurt—before he says, “Whoa—this is it—I’ve got to get control of my life?”

There comes a time when fighting a destructive habit or a debilitating weakness when you must say, “I must stop now or it will be too late.”

There’s a story of a man who waited until it was too late to make a change in his life.  His name was Judas.  I wonder if Judas ever intended for Christ to die.  I wonder if he ever thought it would go that far.  Perhaps Jesus had said something that hurt or offended Judas.  That happens sometimes in church.  Sometimes we might make the most innocent comment to someone and they may misconstrue it, and quite unintentionally we’ve lost a friend.

Maybe Judas felt rejected by the other disciples.  Perhaps it troubled him that he wasn’t part of that small circle of disciples closest to Jesus—Peter, James and John—who were always there on significant occasions in Jesus’ life.  Could it have been simple jealousy?  “I’ll show them.”  Judas may have said to himself.  But it may be that he never intended for Jesus to be crucified.

“I’ve betrayed innocent blood,” he cried out to the temple authorities as he tried to return their money.  “What’s it to us?” they said with a sneer as they turned their backs on him.  Suddenly Judas realized that it was too late and he went and hanged himself.

It’s an awful thing to wake up and realize it’s too late—too late to save your marriage—too late, you’re pregnant—too late, you’re addicted—too late, you’ve been caught, you’ve brought disgrace to your family and friends—too late, you’ve had that tragic accident.  Do you see there’s sometimes an urgency about changing the way you are living?  Stop, for God’s sake, stop, an inner voice may be saying to you this morning, before it’s too late.

There’s built into life an important urgency when it comes to the things that really matter.  Such it is most crucially with our relationship with Christ.

I challenge you to find one place in the New Testament where Jesus told anybody to “go home, think it over, and get back to me tomorrow.”  It simply doesn’t happen.  We read in Matthew 4 that Jesus came to Simon and Andrew and James and John at their fishing boats beside the Sea of Galilee and said to them, “Follow me” and immediately they left their nets and followed him.

In today’s lesson Jesus encounters two men who want to delay making a commitment to him, and Jesus rebukes them.  Jesus’ invitation is always an invitation to do it now!  Procrastination is a major problem in many people’s lives.  It complicates our lives in so many ways.  For some of us it’s a major block to success in our work, and even in our personal relationships.  It may even keep us from enjoying life abundant.

When Jesus calls us, he says do it today.  There are three reasons he calls us with such urgency.  The first has to do with our nature.  We’re creatures of habit.  The older we get the harder it’s to change.  The road to hell really is paved with good intentions.  We may have good intentions but if we don’t act on them now, chances are we never will.  That’s our nature.

There’s a second reason for urgency in committing ourselves to him.  Time is passing by quickly and so much of it is being wasted because we don’t have a great purpose for our lives.  There’s no limit to what we can accomplish once we know what our purpose is and put our hand to the plow.

In 1961 a group of students in Nashville, TN set out to make a difference in the world.  They were the third of three busses of Freedom Riders who set out to end segregation throughout the South.  This was dangerous business.  The two previous busloads of Freedom Riders had already encountered fire-bombings and severe beatings, and the Nashville students determined the movement, having commenced, shouldn’t be allowed to fail.

No one could deny that these students experienced joy during their trials—the notorious Bull Connor complained, “I just couldn’t stand their singing”—but these students were fully mindful of the potential cost as well.  The night before their departure, they had signed their last will and testaments.

Friends, those young Freedom Riders changed our world.  The greatest reason that we don’t use time effectively is that our lives have no driving purpose, no grand aspiration.  There’s an urgency about making a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ right now because of our nature and because, otherwise, we squander our mostvaluable resource, our time.

But there’s a third reason for this urgency—and that is the world’s need.  For example, in this materialistic age and society in which we live many of us have grown callous to the fact there really are boys and girls and men and women dying of malnutrition and disease brought on by one thing—simple poverty.  We, the few, have so much while the vast majority of God’s children have so little.  Does anyone care?  Somebody needs to do something and do it now!  Every minute that’s lost means sorrow and suffering for a little one somewhere.  Do you see the urgency?

Human needs go far beyond poverty.  There are people in our very community whose souls are shriveling up within them because they feel that no one cares for them.  What do you think being a part of a loving church family could do for them?  Will it be too late by the time we reach out to them?

There are young people on the wrong path.  To them, they’re simply having a good time.  But the tentacles of addiction are slowly enfolding them into its grip.  Can we reach them before it’s too late and their very lives are strangled out of them?

It ought to be plain now that the really important things in life can’t be put off—showing our affection for loved ones before it’s too late—ridding ourselves of a destructive habit or weakness or sin, before it’s too late—or committing our life to Christ, before it’s too late.  If we put off turning to Christ, it’s unlikely that we will ever heed his call.  That’s our nature.  We could be so much more effective in how we use our time if we could but center our lives in him.  And there are people’s lives that we can touch, that we really can help, if we act before it’s too late.

Satan’s most effective tool—tell them there’s no heaven?  No.  Tell them there’s no hell?  No, not that either.  Tell them there’s no hurry.  My friends, there are some things in life about which there really is a hurry.  Giving your life in service to Christ really is urgent!  Do it today!

Let us pray.  God, you call us to go where Christ leads.  Turn us from the ways of the world; guide us to fullness of joy in the Spirit, where bodies and souls rest secure; and grant us strength to follow the way of the cross, which frees us to love one another for the sake of all creation.  Amen.

Prayers of Intercession

We pray now in Jesus’ name for the church, the world, and all who are in need.

Holy God of healing and peace, we thank you for life and health; for morning and evening; for rain and sun; for all you give us to sustain life; and most of all for Jesus, who died and rose again to make real the promise of new life.

We ask, O God, for a church that ministers every day to bring people together in your name, for hearts that will not judge, for minds that recognize injustice and oppression in all its forms, for hands that are open to answer your call.

Merciful God, the nations you have called into being are many and full of marvels.  We pray for their well-being; for leaders and workers; teachers and soldiers; scholars, artists, parents, and peacemakers; for nations and peoples in strife, that your way be known in all the lands and joy may reign.

Turn our hearts, Holy One, to respect and honor those who are not like us; let us see in peoples of every nation the majesty of your desire for richness and difference.

We pray for bodies and spirits healed, for those who are in pain, for those awaiting surgery, for those who are struggling with physical therapies, for those awaiting death, and for those we name now aloud or silently…

We ask your special blessing, O God, on the children in our communities, for their play and work in this summertime to give them strength and renewal; for an ever-increasing opening of their minds, new ways of seeing, new understandings of the gifts you call them to use; and for their happiness and health.

For the secret burdens we lift before you now, either silently or aloud…

We give you thanks for the saints who have taught us how to listen to your word, how to answer your desire for our lives, and how to teach and proclaim your love to others.

Into your hands we place our prayers and all whose welfare we entrust to your care.  Bless them and all who have needs only you can know.  In thanksgiving for all your gifts, we pray this in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

June 19 2016

People Who Are Down on Themselves

When Good People Have Bad Times, #5

Isaiah 65:1-9; Galatians 3:26-29

“Dad, will you help me with my homework?”  asked one eighth grade boy.

“I’m sorry,” replied the father.  “It wouldn’t be right.”

“Well,” said the boy, “at least you could try.”

Welcome on the Father’s Day, 2016.  Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are problematic for pastors, especially Father’s Day.  Some young people today have no real relationship with their Dads.  And many others have a relationship that could be termed destructive.

Charles Sell, in his book Unfinished Business, tells about David Simmons, a former cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys.  Dave’s father, a military man, was extremely demanding.  He rarely said a kind word.  He never permitted his son to feel any satisfaction about anything he did.  He always pushed him to do better.

When David was a small boy his father gave him a bicycle, unassembled, and commanded that he put it together.  When he failed his father said, “I knew you couldn’t do it.”  Then he assembled it for him.

When Dave played football in high school, after every game, his dad would go over every play and point out Dave’s errors.  The stress was almost unbearable.

By the time he entered college, Dave hated his father.  When colleges offered Dave a scholarship to play football, he chose Georgia Tech…mainly because it was the college farthest from his home.  After college, Dave was a second round pick in the professional football draft.  The first round pick of the team that chose him was a player you may have heard of, a quarterback named Joe Namath.  Think of that—Dave Simmons was the second player chosen by this team after Joe Namath.  Quite an accomplishment!  His father’s only comment:  “How does it feel to be second?”

As an adult Dave Simmons became a man of faith, and God’s love caused him to reach out to his Dad.  It was then that he first learned about his grandfather on his Dad’s side.  He really hadn’t known anything about his Dad’s upbringing.  His grandfather had been a tough lumberjack.  He was known for his quick temper.  He was also known for regularly beating his son, Dave’s Dad.

This information caused Dave Simmons to feel more sympathy for his Dad.  As he put it, “Knowing about my father’s upbringing…helped me see that, under the circumstances, he might have done much worse.”  By the time his father died, Dave and his Dad were friends.

It’s a great story.  I’m thankful that Dave was able to reconcile with his Dad.  It never happens in some families.  People go to their graves never able to forgive or forget.  It even affects their feelings about God.  It’s very difficult for some people to pray, “Our Father…” when their entire image of “father” has been distorted.

I hope that’s not true of you.  But here’s the good news for today.  It matters not what kind of relationship you have with your earthly parents, you have a heavenly parent who’s everything that you hoped a Mom or Dad would be—forgiving, accepting, a Parent who believes in you, who created you in His image.  You are the apple of God’s eye.

Do you remember Max Lucado’s famous words?  “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.  If He had a wallet, your photo would be in it.  He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning…Face it, friend.  He’s crazy about you!”

Here’s how St. Paul put it in our lesson for the day:  “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There’s neither Jew nor Gentile; neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you’re Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

For the past few weeks we’ve been dealing with the theme, When Good People Have Bad Times.  One reason many good people have bad times is that they carry around baggage from past experiences or relationships.  Many people have had their self-image trampled at home, at school, or on the job.  For them, it’s not simply a matter of having sporadic times of adversity.  They carry their bad times within.  There’s no use in changing locations or changing jobs or even changing spouses or friends.  They can’t escape themselves.  What do you do when it’s the inner self that’s been damaged?

W. Paul Jones tells the story of a woman who suffered from polio during her childhood.  Some of you have never seen a young person crippled by polio—confined to a wheelchair, or crutches—or even worse, an iron lung.  Thank God and Jonas Salk that you haven’t.  It’s a terrible thing to happen to a young person.

But the effect on the self-image of the woman that Paul Jones tells about was worse than her physical pain.  Here’s how she viewed herself.  She said that when, as a child, her mother would leave her in Sunday school, she would always ask her mother if she could wear her mother’s locket.  Her mother assumed she had a special attachment to the locket.  That wasn’t it at all.  Here’s how she explained her relationship to the locket.  She says, “I knew I wasn’t worth coming back for, but I knew my mother would come back for her locket.”  How incredibly sad to feel that way about yourself.

Many good people have bad times because they carry around baggage from past experiences or relationships that have crushed their self-esteem.  Maybe that’s true of you.  St. Paul’s words are refreshing balm to all who have been damaged by their past for whatever reason, “So in Christ Jesus you’re all children of God through faith…”  And he continues, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There’s neither Jew nor Gentile; neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you’re all one in Christ Jesus…”

Some people have bad times because they carry around baggage from past experiences or relationships.  Other people carry around baggage because they’ve been put down because of their gender, ethnicity, race or some other personal characteristic.  Some of you know what I’m talking about.  Others of you would prefer I ignore the whole issue altogether.

Let me say this:  if you’re going to carry any bigotry in your heart, please don’t use the Bible as your excuse, at least not the New Testament.  In the book of Acts, there’s an amazing story about an Ethiopian eunuch.  Do you remember that story?

One of the Apostles, named Philip, was led by the Spirit to Gaza.  On the way he encountered an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure.  The eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home.  He was sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”  So Philip ran to the eunuch’s chariot and heard him reading aloud passages from Isaiah the prophet.

Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”  And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him in the chariot.

Now the passage from Isaiah the Ethiopian was reading was this:  “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he didn’t open his mouth.  In this humiliation he was deprived of justice.  Who can speak of his descendants?  For his life was taken from the earth” (Isaiah 53:7-8).

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Of course, Isaiah was writing of the coming Messiah.  So Philip, beginning with this Scripture, told this Ethiopian the good news about Jesus.  And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water!  What prevents me from being baptized?”  And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and Philip baptized him (Acts 8:26-40).

What prevented this Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized?  Nothing!  Not the color of his skin or physical condition.  How could our forefathers have ever read this story and excluded black people from their churches?  It’s incredible!  “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There’s neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…”

Here’s what we need to see:  God has passion and that’s people…Every person on this earth.  God loves you not because you’re white, not because you’re male or female, not because you’re American, not because you’re physically attractive, not because you come from the right socio-economic class.  God loves you because you are you.  He loves you so much that He sent His Son in your behalf.  But never forget God sent His Son in behalf of every person on earth.  And, if God can love every person on earth, so must we.

It’s amazing to me that in a nation that considers itself a Christian nation, we’re still fighting battles over gender equality or racial equality or any of the other battles concerning the rights of all people to live in dignity and freedom from discrimination.  I suppose it’s because so many of us have never been on the receiving end of such treatment.

Pastor Jamie Buckingham says he was on the receiving end of such rejection one time and it radically changed his attitude.  He tells about it in his book, Parables.  Buckingham was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  Thousands of Jews were there to pray.  As an obvious Gentile he tried not to be conspicuous.

Close by was a huge fountain where the Orthodox Jews, with their beards and long side curls, dressed in their traditional rabbinical clothing, were washing their hands in ceremonial cleansing before approaching the wall.  Buckingham was looking for a place where he, too, could pray, apart from the crowd.  Turning, he inadvertently bumped into a young Hasidic (that is, ultra-Orthodox) rabbi.

“Gentile dog!” the young rabbi snarled.  Then, without warning, he spit on the front of Buckingham’s shirt.  Whirling away, the young Hasidic rabbi made his way back to the fountain where he had washed his hands moments before.  Having been touched by a Gentile, he obviously felt unclean and now felt forced to go through the ritual purification once again.

Buckingham says the effect of being cursed and being spat upon by this ultra-religious individual was dramatic for him.  He says he never in his life felt so alone, so rejected.  Suddenly he knew how the Jews had felt across the centuries as they had been hunted, persecuted and killed by religious people—both “Christians” and Moslems.  Only this time it was he, a follower of Jesus, who was the object of contempt—scorned for not being as religious as that young rabbi.  Standing in the midst of that cacophony of religious sound, he said, with spit running down his shirt, his entire identity changed.  Suddenly, he says, he felt at one with blacks and Native Americans in this land who for generations were considered less than human.

What an insight that Jamie Buckingham gained from his experience.  St. Paul somehow had that same insight.  Can you imagine how revolutionaryit was when Paul wrote, “There’s neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…”  That wasn’t in the 21st century when St. Paul wrote this.  This was more than 2,000 years ago.  Why are we still fighting these battles for tolerance and acceptance today?  It’s absurd—particularly for followers of Jesus.  Our God has a passion for people—all people.

One week ago our land was rocked by a horrific crime against mankind in Orlando, FL.  A man filled with hate took the lives of 49 people and injured 53 more.  I suspect that one reason some people are so filled with hate is that they’ve never known the unconditional love of their Heavenly Father.  They hate others because they feel rejected themselves.  If this should be true for you, this Father’s Day would be a good day for a new start.  

Friend, you’re a child of God.  In Max Lucado’s words, “If God had a refrigerator your picture would be on it.  If He had a wallet, your photo would be in it.  He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning…Face it, friend; He’s crazy about you!”  If you understand the truth in those words, know that what God wants from you is simply for you to go out and spread that same love to everyone you encounter.

Let us pray.  God our refuge and hope, when race, status, or gender divide us, when despondency and despair haunt and afflict us, when community lies shattered:  comfort and convict us with the stillness of your presence, that we may confess all you have done, through Christ to whom we belong and in whom we are one.  Amen.

June 5, 2016
A Widow at the End of Her Rope
Series:  When Good People Have Bad Times, #3
1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-14
Our lesson for today comes from the time of Elijah the prophet.  This is the third in our series titled:  When Good People Have Bad Times.
It was a difficult time in Israel’s history.  The kingdom had fallen into idolatry.  Baal worship had become the official state religion.  There was a terrible drought and famine in the land.  Food was scarce, and Elijah the prophet was on the run from Ahab the king and his wicked wife, Queen Jezebel.  The Lord led Elijah to a brook where he could drink, but soon it dried up.  And thus the word of the Lord came to him:  “Go once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there.”
Zarephath was located on the Mediterranean coast between Tyre and Sidon in the heart of pagan territory.  In fact, it wasn’t far from Queen Jezebel’s home town.  It was an unlikely place for Elijah to hide from Ahab and his henchmen.  Then God said something else to Elijah that was equally as unlikely:  “I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”
This sounds counter-intuitive because nobody struggled more mightily during a time of drought and famine than widows—unless they had grown children to provide for them.  The government certainly didn’t do it.  Their neighbors probably didn’t do it either.  They could barely provide for themselves.  As Elijah made his journey to Zarephath, he was certainly thinking that a pagan town and a widow and her young son with little resources couldn’t be of much help.  But he went where God told him to go.
That’s one of the first secrets, of course, of a fulfilling life.  If God tells you to do something or to go somewhere, then get moving.
There’s a well-known story about a weak and sickly man who was unable to afford a doctor.  He lived in the deep back woods in an old log cabin.  In front of his cabin was a huge boulder.  One night he had a vision in which God told him to go out and push the massive rock in front of his house all day long, day after day, until God told him to stop.  The man got up early the next morning and did what he was told.  He pushed on the rock as long as he could.  After a rest he pushed some more.  Each day he pushed a little harder and a little longer.  Day after day he pushed.  Days rolled into weeks, and weeks into months, as he faithfully pushed against the rock.
After several months of pushing this rock, however, the man was getting tired.  He began to doubt that his vision came from God.  He decided to measure how far he’d been able to move the rock during these months…and he discovered he’d not budged it at all.
The man replied, “Lord, You know how sick and weak I am, and then the vision you gave me built up false hope.  I’ve pushed with all that was within me for many months, and that old rock is right where it was when you started.”
Jesus said to him, “I never told you to move the rock, I told you to push against the rock.”  Jesus told the man to step in front of the mirror and look at himself.  The man did so and was amazed.  He’d been so sickly and weak, but now what he saw in the mirror was a strong muscular man.  And it dawned on him that he’d been feeling better for months, and it was all because he’d been pushing the rock.  Suddenly the man understood the plan of God wasn’t to change the position of the rock, but to change him.  That’s how obedience to God works.  Our task isn’t to understand what God is seeking to accomplish.  Our task is simply to obey.  Later we will see the blessings that will flow due to our obedience.
Elijah heard the word of the Lord that he was to go to the town of Zarephath where God had instructed a widow to supply him with food.  Elijah did as he was told even though the plan seemed to be a wee misguided.  When he came to the town gate of Zarephath, he encountered a widow there gathering sticks.  Since this was Baal territory, we may assume this woman had been raised to worship idols.  Yet she was a giving person, a kind person.
Does that happen sometimes—that sometimes a person of another faith or even no faith at all might be a more giving person, a kinder person, than a person brought up in church?  Yes…, it does happen.  There are kind, giving people all over this planet.  Don’t prejudge a person just because he or she is of another faith or nationality.
Elijah called to this widow and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?”  Amazingly she did as he asked, even though there was only a little water to go around.  And, as audacious as his request for water was, as she was going to get it, Elijah called after her and said, “And bring me please, a piece of bread.”
“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” the widow said, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug.  I’m gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Can you hear the suffering in this widow’s words?  She and her son were on the verge of certain starvation.  “I’m gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid.  Go home and do as you have said.  But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.  For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says:  “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.”
This is astounding.  Even though this widow has no experience of Elijah’s God, she did as Elijah told her.  She used her last resources to provide for his prophet who wasn’t even of her faith.  Then something even more astounding happened—the food and the oil kept coming, just as Elijah had said.  There was food every day for the woman and her son, as well as for Elijah, for the jar of flour wasn’t used up and the jug of oil didn’t run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord.
Hallelujah!  This poor widow probably thought.  Life’s going to work out after all.  I may be poor and times may be hard, but Someone is looking out for me.
But then the story takes a sad twist.  Have you noticed how some people have no luck, at least no good luck?  Some of you will remember the song from the vintage TV show, Hee-Haw:  “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all; gloom, despair and misery on me.”  If this poor widow had been a Hee-Haw fan, that would surely have been her song.
That’s the theme song of many people.  It’s especially true of the economic insecure.  They seem to be particularly unlucky.  Have you ever noticed that?  Of course, part of this is because they’re poor.  When you have no money you let the maintenance go on your house.  Then your roof leaks and ruins your ceiling.  It falls and ruins your floor, and so on.  Or, because you’re poor, you fail to seek help for a medical condition, until it’s too late.  And what might’ve been a minor surgery, if caught in time, becomes life-threatening.  Anybody who doesn’t hurt for the plight pf poor people in our society, and the battles they face, is certainly not a friend to Jesus.  Jesus was full of compassion for such people.
Our God is a God of compassion and life, the God who stops to tend to the vulnerable and brings resurrection to people and places overcome with weeping and mourning.  Our God brings about resurrection-like reversals, turning one who once violently persecuted the church of God to one who is willing to be bound and even die for it.
During years of interviewing children for his TV program House Party, the late Art Linkletter occasionally interviewed an underprivilegedchild.  Mr.Linkletter himself grew up in a poor family.  He writes in his book Kids Say the Darndest Things! That if the church hadn’t donated dinners to his family, holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas would’ve been bleak.  In one interview, he asked an impoverished child, “What makes a happy home?”
The little boy answered, “A steady paycheck.”
There’s something to that.  It’s no fun being poor.  This widow in the story knew about poverty.  But, for now, God was providing her daily essentials.  And she was pleased.  But then she hit an obstacle that she couldn’t handle.  Her precious son became gravely ill.  He grew worse and worse, until one day he finally stopped breathing altogether.  The distraught widow said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God?  Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”
That’s very telling.  She shared an attitude that was very prevalent in biblical times.  Her son was sick and therefore she felt she was being punished for some sin she had committed by having her son taken away from her.  There are some people who feel like that today.  How sad.
“Give me your son,” Elijah replied.  He took the boy from her arms, carried him upstairs to his own room, and laid him on the bed.  Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?”  You think because Elijah is a prophet that he has life all figured out.  But he has no idea why this widow’s son is either dead or at least on the verge of death.  After all, he has stopped breathing.
Then Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”
The writer of 1 Kings says simply, “The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived.”  Then Elijah picked up the child and carried him downstairs.  He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!”
Can you imagine this woman’s response to this good news?  Elation!  Joy!  Gratitude!  Certainly all that, but it also confirms her faith in Elijah’s God.  She says to Elijah, “Now I know that you’re a man of God and that word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.
I don’t believe it was an accident that God sent Elijah to the widow at Zarephath.  Did it matter that she was probably a worshipper of Baal?  Probably not.  Who can fault her for that?  That was the way she was brought up.  That was part of the air she breathed.  Her parents and all her neighbors believed the same thing.  But she had a good heart and a loving spirit.  She was willing to share with a stranger from another region and another religion.  I believe God loved this widow.  Do you think God ignores the needs of people in other lands and faiths?  Jesus knew better than that.  Listen to these words from Luke 4 in which Jesus discussed this incident in Elijah’s life and one in the life of Elisha, Elijah’s successor:  “I assure you there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.  Yet Elijah wasn’t sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.  And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian
Do you hear what Christ is saying?  In a restricted view of the universe, we say, “Charity begins at home.”  God says, “Charity begins wherever there is a need.”  Jesus says there were many Jewish widows to whom God could’ve sent Elijah, and there were many Jewish lepers that Elisha could’ve healed, but God chose foreigners who worshipped pagan gods to receive a blessing from these prophets.
Some people have such a small god—a god who reflects their own petty prejudices.  Our God is the God of all people everywhere, including people who’ve never been introduced to the God of Jesus.  That’s our job—to let them know who He is.  I believe Jesus is the best picture that humanity has of the character of God, and so I believe we ought to do everything we can to help people know the good news that Jesus Christ can set them free.  But in the meantime, don’t ask me to prejudge any other person of any other nationality or color or faith.  God is the God of all people.
Do you think that God had a plan and a purpose when He sent Elijah to the region of Sidon and the town of Zarephath?  Don’t you think that after this experience with Elijah that this widow couldn’t wait to tell her family and friends about this prophet who had so blessed her life?  Everyone knew she was a kind and loving person.  Now she had met a God who had set her free from worshipping a lesser god.  Do you understand that when we encounter people of other faiths, this is to be our task—we’re to be so kind and loving to them, that they see who God really is—He’s like Jesus.  And when they learn about Jesus, they’re to be turned into evangelists.
What a wonderful story this is.  God uses his prophet to bring healing into the home of a widow and her son, and in doing so introduces a village in the heart of Baal country to the God of Abraham, Elijah…and Jesus.  That’s the way God works—through people with open hearts toward all people whether they’re like them or not.
Let us pray.  Mighty God, your hands hold the power of life itself.  You restore life in the face of death, bringing hope out of despair and promise out of destruction.  Through the breath of your Spirit bring new life to us, that we may announce to the world the power of your presence made known in Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

May 1

A Peaceful Mind

Finding New Life in Christ, #6

Revelation 21:22-22:5; John 14:23-29

One of the most bizarre true stories to hit the news media in the 1990s was that of Tracy Lippard, a contestant destined for the Miss Virginia beauty pageant after winning the title of Miss Williamsburg, VA.  Unfortunately, Tracy never made it to the Miss Virginia pageant.  Instead, after crowning her successor as Miss Williamsburg, Tracy got in a car and drove 275 miles to Lewisburg, W. Va.  Her goal was to seek revenge against her boyfriend who had jilted her for another woman.  Reportedly she carried with her a 9-mm semiautomatic hand gun, a butcher knife, a pair of rubber gloves, a bottle of lighter fluid and a claw hammer.

When she arrived at the home of her rival, she rang the doorbell.  Her rival’s father answered the door.  Tracy told him that her car had broken down and she asked to use the phone.  It was a lie of course.  Once inside the house, she struck her rival’s father with the hammer.  It stunned him, but didn’t knock him out.  She then pulled the gun and attempted to shoot him.  Little did she know that he was an ex-secret service agent.  At this point, her rival’s mother joined the skirmish and the parents held the distraught Tracy until the police arrived.

After being arrested, the police questioned her as to why she would do such a terrible thing?  Tracy Lippard said that she was motivated to seek revenge because she needed “inner peace.”

I suspected that most of us long for some form of inner peace, but we don’t go to such desperate lengths to gain it.  Still, we long for it.  That’s why John 14:27 is a favorite verse for so many people.  Jesus says to his disciples:  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Let me begin by asking an important question:  do you have a peaceful mind?  Well, of course, you say.  Really?  Let me ask a second question:  Is there anyone in this room who is a worrier?  Is anyone in this room married to a worrier?

One woman wrote to a national magazine to say that every year, it seemed, her family would get on a highway a few miles out of the city, and her mom would wail, “Oh my goodness!  I think I left the iron on.”  And almost every year they would turn around and go back.  But as far as she could recall, not once was the iron ever plugged in less turned on.  It seems that her mom was dominated by the fear that all their earthly possessions would disappear in a fire caused by her forgetfulness.

That was a family ritual, she says, until she was about 14 years old.  On that occasion they were headed out of Chicago for Lake Geneva, WI and, sure enough, her mom gasped, “I just know I left the iron on.”

She says this time her father didn’t say a word.  He just pulled over onto the shoulder of the road, got out, opened the trunk and handed his wife her iron.

Can anyone relate to that?  Worriers are amazing.  Has anyone here ever worried about removing a tag from a mattress?  Somewhere along the way, most of us have heard that we aren’t supposed to remove the tags from our mattresses because it violates some kind of law.  In fact, many mattresses still have tags that say something like, “It is unlawful to remove this tag!”

Maybe you actually removed a tag from a mattress at some time in your life, and you live in fear that someday there will be a knock at your door.  A stranger will flash a badge with a warrant to search your house, and he will be looking for missing mattress tags.

Let me set you mind at ease.  First of all, how would anyone ever know you removed the tag?  I mean beside the NSA, and supposedly they’re only interested in terrorists, not missing mattress tags.  And, secondly, those tags are on those mattresses for your benefit.  It shows that you’re purchasing a new, never-been-slept on product and to inform you about the contents of the mattress.  According to law, it’s only unlawful to remove the tag prior to the sale and delivery of a mattress to the consumer.  Only you have purchased the mattress, it’s your right to remove the tag.

I hope I’ve set your mind at ease at least about one thing—those of you who go to great lengths to find something to worry about.  I’m being frivolous, of course, but I’m always amazed at the things people can find to worry about.  As some unknown poet put it:

He worried about the weather, he worried about his health, he worried about his business, he worried about his wealth.  She worried about the children, she worried about her clothes.  She worried about the neighbors.  She worried about her woes.  They worried about their taxes, they worried about their pets.  They worried about their future, they worried about their debts.  They worried, still they worried, they worried, but alas they worried about a lot of things… That did not come to pass.  

Here’s the reason I mention this.  I suspect that it’s really nice folks—folks who’re more likely than not to be in church—who worry the most…at least about the trivial things.  I don’t know why that is.  Maybe it has something to do with being super conscientious.

We among all people need to hear these words from our Lord, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Jesus was preparing his disciples for living in the world without his physical presence.  These words were spoken by Christ on Maundy Thursday.  In a matter of hours the disciples would have their world flipped upside down.  This was the night before Jesus went to the cross.  And he’s trying to prepare them for the kind of challenges they will have to face.

After all, these are men who’re preparing to go into battle.  They don’t know it, but many of them will suffer horrible deaths because of their loyalty to Jesus.  They will need to be filled with the right stuff to face the challenges they will encounter.

It wouldn’t be a matter of simply remembering to unplug the iron or removing a tag from a mattress.  It would be gladiator pits, lions, swords, and crosses.  And thus Christ says to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

You and I may not be facing the challenges the disciples faced.  There will be no gladiator pits, lions, swords or crosses.  But we walk around burdened by many issues of life:  unsure about how we’re going to pay the house payment and still save for our child’s education; concerned about the possible loss of our job or whether our children or grandchildren will even be able to find a job; anxious about how we’re going to make it without a loved one.

Whatever our issue is, life happens and when it does it sometimes sends our world into a tail spin.  It’s good to know that Jesus has already spoken peace into our situation.  Don’t sink into the mire of despair.  He has your well-being at heart.  Hope, therefore, in the Lord and trust in him.  His word says that everything is working out for your wellbeing (Romans 8:28).  We may not see it now but we believe that things will get better.  The thing about hopelessness is that it makes us helpless because we see no way out.  Abiding in Christ’s peace reminds us there’s hope, and so we can keep moving forward and refuse to give up.

The community of Spencer, SD was once devastated by a tornado.  Six people were killed.  Many buildings were destroyed including St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church.  The day after the tornado a group from St. Matthew’s walked with their pastor through the remaining rubble of that community.  It was an unbelievable sight.  There was a grain elevator twisted and fallen, a water tower toppled, vehicles and other heavy items strewn around like toys.  Whole buildings were gone from their foundations. 

When they neared the site of their church someone called out, “There’s the statue, there’s Jesus!”

Sure enough, there it was—the traditional white statue of Jesus that stands at the altar of many small churches, with arms outstretched and a loving demeanor.  There the statue stood—all that was left of a 100-year old Lutheran church.

The white paint on the statue was nearly gone and the arms were cracked.  But one observer that day said, “I didn’t notice the damage, it was just so remarkable, so moving and so fitting to look up from the chaos around us and see Jesus, arms outstretched, welcoming, and loving his people.”

What that group of church members were to learn only later was how two young girls, helping to clean up for a family member in a nearby home, had taken the time to come over to where the church had been to set aside a few items of church property they found scattered in the area.  When they saw the statue lying in the rubble they figured everyone in Spencer needed to know that Jesus was still there, so they stood him up for all to see.  That’s our purpose today as his church—to raise up Jesus where a fearful world can see him.

Before he left them, Jesus gave his disciples what they needed most—peace, a peace that passes understanding.  It was the peace that comes from knowing that no matter how serious the situation they found themselves in, Christ was still there with outstretched arms.  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Christ’s peace will always be with us.  That’s the greatest good news that we will ever hear.  No matter what our circumstances, Christ will be with us.

Let us pray.  Gracious God, through a vision you sent forth Paul to preach the gospel and called the women to the place of prayer on the Sabbath.  Grant that we may be like Paul and be found like Lydia, our hearts responsive to your word and open to go where you lead us.  Amen.  

April 24, 2016

Staying Close To Christ

Finding New Life in Christ, #5

Acts 11:5-18; John 13:31-35

Churches are funny places.  You know that by now.  I always enjoy a good story about funny things that happen in church.  Some of them you couldn’t make up.

I read recently about a “Women’s League” in a certain church that wanted to announce a new project for the church.  The president announced the project on a Sunday morning to the congregation.  After a brief description, she asked all of the ladies of the league to “march up to the front of the sanctuary”—a group of women mostly 55 years of age and older.

The pianist for the church took it upon himself to give the ladies a marching tune to encourage them as they came down the aisle.  He started playing a children’s chorus, titled, “The Lord’s Army.”  If you’re not familiar with the words to “The Lord’s Army,” they go like this:  “I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery…”  In the pianist’s mind this was a wonderful marching tune to dramatize women’s service.

Unfortunately, everyone besides the pianist was hearing the words in their minds to the original tune of The Lord’s Army, “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be…”

The pianist said afterward, “When the surprised Women’s League President asked why I was playing that tune, I got so flustered I couldn’t answer, so I just left through the side door.” 

That was probably a wise move.  Funny things happen in churches, but friends, all of Jesus’ plans for the world are centered in the church.

Our lesson from John’s Gospel is directed at the church.  It reflects who we are.  We’re those who follow Jesus.  We don’t simply believe in Jesus.  We don’t simply worship Jesus.  If we want to truly be the church of Jesus Christ, we try to live our lives following his example and his teachings as God gives us the grace to do so.

It’s like a group of hikers who decided to climb up the beautiful Blue Mountains in Jamaica.  The earlier parts of the hike were quite fine but the closer they got to the top, the more treacherous the path became.  They could no longer walk in groups but now had to walk in single file.  Halfway up the mountain, in the pitch darkness, the leader said, “Now, follow my feet.  Do not venture to your right.

After he said this, he reached into his pocket, retrieved a stone and asked for their silence.  He threw the stone off the right side of the trail…and they waited and waited and waited, until finally they heard the sound of the stone reaching the bottom.  From then on there was no question about everyone following close behind their leader.  Everyone in the group leaned against the side of the mountain going up the rest of the way, trying hard not to venture to the right.  It was a long difficult journey following the leader, but when they got to the top, it was nothing but glory.

In the same way, Jesus calls us to follow him.  The path may be treacherous, but if we stay close to him, one day we will share his glory.

Our lesson for the day takes us back to before Easter.  It’s the Passover and Jesus and his disciples have gathered for supper.  Satan has already entered Judas’ heart to betray Jesus.  Jesus rises from supper and begins washing the feet of the disciples.  He then says to them if he as their Teacher and Lord would wash their feet, they should follow his example and wash one another’s feet.

Jesus then reveals that one of his disciples will betray him.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t identify the individual who will betray him.  To do so might have jeopardized Judas’ safety.  Certainly, Simon Peter, had he fully understood what Judas was about to do, would’ve drawn his sword like he did to the servant of the high priest in the garden when Jesus was betrayed.  Throughout the whole experience, Jesus demonstrates grace and mercy.  No surprise there—grace and mercy were what Christ was all about.

After Judas had departed, the events leading up to Christ’s death fell into place very quickly.  The long tension building up toward his death would soon be over.

At this point Christ turns to the remaining disciples and says, “My children, I will be with you only a little longer.  You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now:  Where I am going, you cannot come.”

This is interesting, don’t you think?  He addresses his disciples as “My little children…”  These were big, tough men.  But he calls them, “My little children…”  This is a term of love by which Jesus expresses his concern for them.  And then once again he announces that he’s going away and they won’t be able to find him.  This isn’t the first time he’s tried to prepare them for this eventuality.  Soon, they would be able to go where he’s gone, to that place he’s prepared for them.  But first, they must endure a treacherous journey before reaching the summit of the mountain.

Then he speaks these words to them:  “A new command I give you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Just like those hikers who survived the treacherous climb up Blue Mountain by staying close to their leader and following in his steps, the eleven disciples would survive in his absence by obeying his teaching and following his example of love.

There are some things we need to note about this new teaching by Christ about love.

First of all, the command to love, in itself, wasn’t a new commandment.  Leviticus 19:18 teaches the principle of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.  The disciples already knew they were to do that.  Gracious!  Christ told them to love their enemy.  Loving their neighbor as they loved themselves ought to be a piece of cake.  It’s called the ___? Golden Rule and, of course, variations of it are practiced today by people all over this world to one degree or another.

Oh, there are some people who find it too difficult.  When D.H. Lawrence first read a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, he said they all ended up in the same place.  He said the message that Hemingway was conveying was this:  Whatever it takes in life, make sure of one thing:  don’t ever get too attached to anyone!  Don’t ever commit yourself to another person!  Never get caught in that trap!

And you know what?  That’s exactly how Ernest Hemingway lived.  In fact, Hemingway once fired a babysitter because his sons were starting to care for her too much!  Not good for you boys!  Don’t get too attached to anyone!  Perhaps the quality of his relationships was one reason Hemingway took his own life.

We were never designed to live detached from other people.  Even football coaches talk to their players about loving one another.  Vince Lombardi, one of the toughest NFL coaches who ever lived talked about that.  He said on one occasion, “There have been a lot of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don’t win the game.  Then you come to the third ingredient:  If you’re going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care for one another.  You’ve got to love each other.  Each player has to be thinking about the next guy and saying to himself:  If I don’t block that man, Paul is going to get his legs broken.  I have to do my job well in order that he can do his.  The difference between mediocrity and greatness is the feeling these guys have for each other.  Most people call it team spirit.  When the players are imbued with that special feeling, you know you’ve got yourself a winning team.”

Of course, no NFL coach is going to talk to his players about loving their enemies, as Jesus did.  Not unless you can somehow spin “loving” to mean “tearing their head off.”  But it wasn’t a new teaching when the master said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  That’s an idea nearly 3,000 years old.

Here’s what’s new in our lesson for today.  We’re not simply to love other people as we love ourselves.  We’re to love them as Christ loves us.  Now this is moving the goalpost a whole lot farther.  The standard for love is moved from ourselves to Christ.  Christ’s love is perfect and unconditional.  He extends it even to loving the “undeserving.”  Christian love, like Christ’s love is unconditional and sacrificial.  That’s the kind of love we’re to have for our neighbor.  Let me give you an example of that kind of love.

In her inspiring book and film, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells the story of her family, a Dutch Christian family, who ended up in a concentration camp for trying to rescue Jews during the Nazi occupation of their county.

Corrie said her family carried a heart for the Jews over three generations.  Her grandfather Wilhelm ten Boom started a weekly prayer group in 1844 in the city of Haarlem, near Amsterdam for the salvation of the Jews.  This weekly prayer meeting amazingly continued uninterrupted until 1944 when the ten Boom family was sent to a concentration camp for helping Jews flee from Nazi persecution.

Corrie tells an interesting story about her father Caspar ten Boom.  When the Jews were forced to wear the “Star of David,” Caspar lined up to receive a star even though he wasn’t Jewish.  He wore it because he wanted to identify himself with the people for whom he and his family had been praying for all those years.

He so completely identified with the Jews that he was willing to wear a sign of shame and suffer persecution for the sake of the people he loved.  He didn’t have to wear the Star but chose to.

Corrie and her sister Betsie followed in the footsteps of their family.  And they both suffered mightily because of their concern for their Jewish neighbors.  In fact, Corrie’s sister Betsie died in the Nazi concentration camp.  That’s not simply loving your neighbor as you love yourself.  That’s loving as Christ loved.  That’s loving sacrificially.

What does this love look like?  How do we manifest it?  Jesus tells us how Luke 6:27-36:  “But to you who are listening I say:  Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?... But love your enemies… Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he’s kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

This is, indeed, a new kind of love.  It’s a love that’s usually only manifested by those who have given their lives entirely to Jesus.  And the first place this love should be made manifest is within the body of believers.

Listen again to his words, “A new command I give you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you’re my disciples, if you love one another.”

This command is directed to the church (the body of believers).  We’re to love one another as Christ loved us.  This is how the world will know that we follow Christ—because we love one another.

Some of you may be familiar with a singer/songwriter named Ken Medema.  Ken is almost totally blind, but he’s a man of great spiritual vision.  Several years ago he wrote a song directed at the church that contains several pointed questions.  He writes, “If this isn’t the place where tears are understood, where can I go to cry?  If this isn’t the place where my spirit can take wing, where do I go to fly?  If this isn’t the place where my questions can be asked, where do I go to seek?  If this isn’t the place where my feelings can be heard, where do I go to speak?  If this isn’t the place where you accept me just as I am, where do I go to be free?  If this isn’t the place where I can try and grow and love, where do I go to be just me?”  What great questions!  The church is intended to be a safe place where we can be ourselves without fear of judgment.  It’s intended to be a place where people truly love and accept one another.

A well-known pastor was talking about Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies.”  This pastor said, “I don’t think I have any enemies…outside of the church.”  He wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek.  This will surprise you, but sometimes church people don’t reflect unconditional, sacrificial love even toward one another.  No wonder people outside the church wonder about the credibility of our witness.

Loving one another as Christ has loved us isn’t easy.  Christ doesn’t expect us to do that which is easy but that which is right.  Stay close to Christ.  Live as he lived.  Follow the leader.  Follow the way of love.

“A new command I give you,” said Jesus, “Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you’re my disciples, if you love one another.”

Let us pray.  Alpha and Omega, First and Last, glory outshining all the lights of heaven:  pour out upon us your Spirit of faithful love and abundant compassion, so that we may rejoice in the splendor of your works while we wait in expectation for the new heaven and the new earth you promise when Christ shall come again.  Amen.

April 17, 2016

No More Tears

Finding New Life in Christ, #4

John 10:23-30; Revelation 7:9, 14-17

One pf these days I ought to give you a quiz on my sermon from the week before.  Don’t worry.  I’m not actually going to do it.  It would be too embarrassing.  Truthfully, there are times when I can’t remember what I preached on the week before.

That’s why it caught my attention when a pastor named Benton Lutz told about the one sermon he most remembers.  The pastor who preached this sermon described an experience he once had in a bath tub.  The preacher said that he was in a tub, the water was running; the tub was filling and suddenly he realized he’d forgotten the shampoo.

“I’ll get it for you,” said a small voice from the other side of the curtain.  Then after a moment that same small voice said, “Daddy, I’m bringing you no more tears.”  And her hand reached in with the “No More Tears” baby shampoo.

“Thank you, dear,” he said.

Then the preacher went on to say, “No one, least of all those we love and those who love us, can promise us ‘no more tears.’”  Then he added, “It’s a condition of love that tears will flow.”

That pastor was correct—no one except God can promise us “no more tears.”  Sometimes even our closest friends and associates can’t “scratch us where we itch.”  They mean well and they really want to help, but there are hurts that no human being can alleviate.  There are hurts that only God can heal.  There are burdens only God can lift.  There are fears that only God can put to rest.  So it’s with great joy that we read the good news for the day from the book of Revelation, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

We’re continuing our series of messages on “Finding New Life in Christ.”  We began on Easter Sunday morning as we remembered how God raised Christ from the dead and what that means for our lives.  Then, on the Sunday after Easter, we saw how Christ appeared to his disciples behind a closed and locked door as he sought to calm their fearful hearts.  Then last Sunday we took a “Timeout at Tiberius” where we saw the grace of Christ at work in the life of Simon Peter who had denied Christ, and we reminded ourselves that just because we’ve failed, Christ can still use our life as a blessing to others.  Today we refresh our hearts with one of the most beautiful sentences in all of literature or religion:  “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

But notice something as we begin—something that may disturb you.  In Revelation, this promise isn’t made to everyone.  God’s very intimate love is being expressed in this passage toward a very special group of believers.  These are those who’ve come through the Great Tribulation.  These are those whose robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.  Now these who’ve suffered so greatly are dressed all in white before the throne of God, and he’s personally wiping away every tear.

The book of Revelation was written around the time when the Roman emperor Domitian was reigning (A.D. 96).  Like the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel, Revelation uses symbolic and apocalyptic language quite extensively.  Was this a kind of code used to hide its message from the early church’s enemies or is Revelation a literal description of the last days of humanity’s journey on earth?  We’ll let the scholars battle that out.  One day we’ll know for certain.  But the imagery is quite extraordinary and quite beautiful as well.

John has a vision in which he sees a great multitude that no one could number, from every tribe and many peoples and languages.  They’re standing before the throne, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hand.

These are people who had been through an unprecedented time of suffering…but here in verse nine they’re standing in complete triumph.  That’s what the palm branches in their hand signify.  Remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem just before he was brutally murdered?  Remember the multitude waving palm branches and hailing him as the Messiah (Mark 11:1-10)?  Palm branches are a sign of triumph and hope.

One of the twenty-four elders asks John about the identity of the great multitude before the throne.  When John indicates that he doesn’t know the answer, the elder explains these were those who were coming out of the Great Tribulation.

While we’re not certain what the Great Tribulation refers to, we know the first century church saw their leaders martyred:  burned at the stake, beheaded, and fed to lions.  This passage was written to comfort those first century Christians as well as those who came after them.  The symbolism, they had washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb indicates they had suffered greatly, but now they were part of a victorious multitude that surrounds the throne of God because of their faith and because of the sacrifices they’d made.

Sacrifice is an important part of what it means to be a Christian.  If we took the cross more seriously, we’d understand that.  Think how Christ suffered.

I enjoy the way author Max Lucado talks about Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his betrayal.  He writes, “See that person?  See that solitary figure?  What’s he doing?  Flat on the ground.  Face stained with dirt and tears.  Fists pounding the hard earth.Eyes wide with a stupor of fear. Hair matted with salty sweat.  Is that blood on his forehead?  That’s Jesus.  Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“Maybe you’ve seen the classic portrait of Christ in the garden.  Kneeling beside a big rock.Snow-white robe.  Hands peacefully folded in prayer.  A look of serenity on his face.Halo over his head.A spotlight from heaven illuminating his golden-brown hair.”

Lucado goes on to say, “Now, I’m no artist, but I can tell you one thing.  The man who painted that picture didn’t use the Gospel of Mark as a pattern.  When Mark wrote about that painful night, he used phrases like these:  ‘Horror and dismay came over him.’  ‘My heart is ready to break with grief.’  He went a little forward and threw himself on the ground’…We see an agonizing, straining, and struggling Jesus.  We see a ‘man of sorrows.’  (Isaiah 53:3)  We see a man struggling with fear, wrestling with commitments, and yearning for relief.  We see Jesus in the fog of a broken heart.

“The writer of Hebrews would later pen, ‘During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death’” (Hebrews 5:7).

That’s life at its rawest and sacrifice at its fullest measure.  If the Son of God can cry tears of pain and agony, then who is exempt?  No one.  Sacrifice and suffering are an important part of what it means to be a Christian.  That brings us to the second thing we need to see:  The promises of Christ are for those who have carried his cross.

It’s important that we understand this.  In Revelation, God’s promises are to a very special group of people, those who have committed themselves totally to Christ’s service.  Following Jesus is about committing yourself to a life of service—and sometimes at great cost.

Stan Mooneyhan tells a famous story of an international congress held sometime back.  The subject of the conference was the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union who weren’t permitted to leave that country and was suffering various types of persecution.  Simon Wiesenthal, director of the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, famous for locating and bringing to justice so many Nazi war criminals, was at the conference.

Wiesenthal reported that a Jewish participant at the conference called his hotel at 2 a.m. Simon demanded irritably, “Why are you calling me at this hour?”

The caller responded, “Because you were sleeping.”

There are many of us who are sleeping.  We’re casual members of the church.  We’re casual citizens of our country.  Every day is casual Friday for us.  “Take up a cross?  What does that mean?  I put a few dollars in the offering plate those Sundays I make it to church.  I’m a law abiding citizen.  What more do you want out of me?”

Christ is asking for much more.  He’s calling us to a life of service.  He’s calling us to make a difference in someone’s life.  He’s calling us to take a stand, to make a witness in our homes, in our personal relationships, on the job, in our civic and political affairs.  There’s no middle ground.  It’s a matter of personal integrity.  It’s a matter of saying “yes” to Christ—of making a personal commitment of our life to him.

Duncan E. Littlefair, in his book Sin Comes of Age, tells about a small and little-known book by H.G. Wells titled The Croquet Player.  “Significantly, it came out in 1938, while the Western nations were passively watching Hitler expand his power.

“Toward the end of the novel a psychiatrist is explaining a case of strange behavior to a young man who’s one of the central characters.  Refusing to face a world as grim as it really is, the psychiatrist says, some sensitive people try to run away from reality.  But the facts must be faced, the psychiatrist insists, and one of these is that people are essentially the same fearing, snarling, fighting cavemen they were hundreds of thousands of years ago.

“The young man asks what has to be done.  The psychiatrist’s answer is those who care for civilization must become giants who will make an enormous effort to build a harder, stronger, more disciplined society.  While he’s explaining, the young man keeps pulling away.  The young man feels nervous and frightened over all this apocalyptic talk.  Finally he cries that he realizes the world is going to pieces but what can a fellow like himself do about it?  Become giant-minded and build a new civilization—him?  He says he’s sorry but he has other engagements.  He’s due to play croquet with his aunt at twelve-thirty.”

I hope I don’t sound too judgmental when I say that many of us are playing croquet when God has called us to play the part of moral and spiritual giants in this age of uncertainty and doubt.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it best:  “When you go out of here to help the sick, when you go out of here to deal with the brokenhearted, when you go out of here to help the poor, it isn’t easy.  It means suffering and sacrifice.  But God wants the church today that will bear the cross.  Too many Christians are wearing the cross, and not enough are bearing the cross.  The cross is something you die on.  It may mean the death of your prestige.  It may be the death of your popularity.  It may mean the death of your budget as it has always stood.  But there are too many churches more concerned about a cushion than  a cross, more concerned about making the gospel something easy, retranslating the gospel to read, ‘Go ye into all the world and keep your blood pressure down, and lo, I will make you a well-adjusted personality.’  That isn’t God’s church.  Don’t forget that Bethlehem was just 18 miles from Calvary.  You’ve got to go by Calvary.”

Peter Marshall, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate and one of the twentieth century’s most popular preachers, once remarked that God has equipped us to go deep-sea diving and instead we wade in bathtubs.

Sacrifice is an important part of what it means to be a Christian.  Can we claim the promises of Christ if we don’t carry His cross?

Now we’re not talking about salvation here.  If you’re here today just to make sure you have a ticket to heaven, that’s already been punched for you by Christ.  What we’re talking about here today is more than salvation.  It’s about following Jesus.  It’s about being all that Jesus called you to be.

I’m trying to be faithful to our text for today.  It’s to those who have come through the great tribulation, those who have persevered in bearing witness to Christ at a terrible price about whom we read these wonderful words, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This is to say that every act of service that you perform in Christ’s name will one day be rewarded.  There are many good people who love Christ, who serve Christ, who serve their communities, who seek to be good neighbors, who seek to reach out to help those unable to help themselves, and yet they find their lives very hard.  Does anybody care?  Yes, somebody does care.

Let me assure you that, if you’re seeking to be a follower of Christ, then God is aware of your situation.  You may not sense His presence now, but one day you will experience the love of the Father in a way that only the redeemed of the Lord  can ever experience.

Things may get dark in our lives.  Situations may overwhelm us.  ISIS may threaten in the Middle East.  Boko Haram may seek to destroy in Nigeria.  But none of them will triumph over God’s people.  The same God who wiped tears from the eyes of His Son is aware of our pain, our need.  “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Notice how personal and intimate that word picture is, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  It’s like a mother holding her child in her arms giving comfort and solace.  Does that sound too sentimental to you?  If so, blame it on Jesus.  After all, didn’t he teach us to pray saying, “Abba” or “Daddy?”  For all his power and might and majesty, the God of the Bible has the tender heart of the most loving mother or father in all the world.  “He will wipe away every tear.”

Philosopher Peter van Inwagen writes on the problem of suffering.  He says, “I have never had the tendency to react to the evils of the world by saying, ‘How could there be a loving God who allows these things?’  My immediate emotional reaction has rather been:  ‘There must be a God who will wipe away every tear; there must be a God who will repay.’”

And that’s the correct way to look at it.  God’s very intimate love in this passage is being expressed toward a very special group of believers.  These are those who have come through the Great Tribulation.  This reminds us that sacrifice is an important part of what it means to be a Christian.  It should also remind us the promises of Christ are for those who have carried his cross.  Every act of service performed in Christ’s name will one day be rewarded.  Are you one of his followers?  Then hear the Good News:  One day the God of all creation will wipe away every tear from your eyes and pain will be no more.

Let us pray.  God of comfort and compassion, through Jesus, your Son, you lead us to the water of life and table of your bounty.  May we who have received the tender love of our Good Shepherd be strengthened by your grace to care for your flock.  Amen.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Room With Locked Doors

Finding New Life in Christ, #2

Psalm 118:14-29; John 20:19-31

Have you ever been afraid?  Of course, you have.  Is anyone in the room afraid to fly?

A woman on a flight was suffering from the jitters.  This wasn’t her first flight, but still she had never been able to relax while flying on a plane.

It didn’t help that her current flight was delayed twice before getting off the ground because of mechanical problems.  Then, after they were aloft, the lights began flickering.  “Oh, no,” she thought, “something else is wrong with this plane.  I knew I shouldn’t have taken this flight.”

She mentioned the flickering lights to a flight attendant.  “I’ll take care of it,” the flight attendant said.  Imagine this woman’s surprise when moments later all the lights in the plane went out.  The plane was in total darkness except for emergency lighting.  Clearly the flight attendant solved the problem of the flickering lights.  She had simply turned them all off.

A passenger across the aisle who had overheard the woman mention the flickering lights to the flight attendant leaned over and said, “Whatever you do, please don’t mention anything to that flight attendant about a problem with the engines.”

Most of us realize that fear of flying is irrational.  Statistically, flying is one of the safest ways to travel.  But still, for some of us, it’s a helpless feeling being thousands of feet in the air, dependent on a couple of motors to keep us there.

You may be perfectly at ease in the air, but all of us are afraid of something.  It may be cancer, or if you’re a certain age, Alzheimer’s.  It may be losing your job or being deserted by your spouse.  It may concern the safety of your children or simply looking silly in front of others.  But all of us know what it is to be afraid.

As humorist Dave Barry once put it, “All of us are born with a set of instinctive fears—of falling, of the dark, of lobsters, of falling on lobsters in the dark…”

Fear and anxiety are part of living.  I’ve read somewhere that, at any given moment, there are more than 2,000 thunderstorms occurring somewhere on earth.  Some of us are afraid of thunderstorms, but it’s obvious that thunderstorms are going on all the time, and it is inevitable that at some time in our lives one of these storms will be where we are.  You can run, but you can’t hide.  Not always.  Fear is a part of life.

And we live in a fearful age.  During his 1933 Inaugural Address, President Franklin Roosevelt sought to calm a troubled America in the throes of a depression by saying, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

I wonder what Roosevelt would say today?  Certainly there’s enough to be afraid of besides fear:  violence in schools, random mass murders, terrorism, the growth of ISIS, the deterioration of our environment.  There is much to fear.

The disciples of Jesus knew what it was to be afraid.  Our lesson for the day from John’s Gospel, begins like this:  “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders…”

The disciples were afraid…and with good reason.  Their Master had been crucified.  They feared the same thing would happen to them.  Even though there had been reports that he’d been resurrected, they were still wrestling with what that meant.  They remained in seclusion and were meeting under the cover of night, secretly, behind locked doors.

Sometimes, we too live in fear and lock ourselves away behind metaphorically closed doors.  We might say that the disciples lacked faith but let us put ourselves in their position.  They faced imminent danger from the civic and religious authorities.  They needed reassurance that everything would be okay.  We understand their predicament.  There are times we need reassurance as well.

We’d like to think that Easter Sunday solved all the disciples’ fears and doubts.  It didn’t.  Over the fifty days after Easter until the Day of Pentecost the disciples struggled mightily to accept the reality of the resurrection.  Experiencing new life didn’t happen overnight just as it often doesn’t happen that way for us either.

But listen as the story continues, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them…”

In the midst of their fear and confusion, Christ came to them.  Even though the doors were locked, he came and stood among them.  This shows something about the nature of his new resurrected body—walls were no obstacle to him—but it also instructs us that no matter what walls and doors we hide behind, Jesus is able to come to us with his loving care.  He’s able to reach us behind the walls where we’ve hidden ourselves.  He’s able to dispel our fears and meet us right at the point of our need.  Nothing is too difficult for him.

In the midst of their fear and confusion, Christ came to them.  If you could hold on to that truth, you could handle most of life’s anxieties.

Dennis Guernsey, in his book If I’m So Free-How Come I Feel Boxed In? Tells about a psychologist who was watching a little girl come skipping out of a church office on her way back to her classroom.  Evidently, she’d been sent on an errand by her day school teacher, and she was reporting back to her class as ordered.

The distance from the church office to her classroom was about 100 feet.  As she skipped, she chanted a little saying to keep herself in step:  “My mommy loves me…my daddy loves me…my teacher loves me…my grandma loves me…God loves me…Jesus loves me…” She felt loved, says Dennis Guernsey, 100 feet worth of love.

The psychologist watching her take this journey commented, “I wish my patients felt just one-tenth of the love she feels.  What a difference it would make in their lives.”

That would be a good mantra for anyone who’s about to succumb to a burden of fear.  “God loves me…Jesus loves me…” Nothing can separate us from that love.  Walls can’t do it…locked doors can’t do it… “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” writes the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:38-39.  And it’s true.

The most potent antidote to fear is our faith in God.

Scottish writer Ralph Turnbull years ago told a harrowing story that happened during World War I.

After the Armistice of 1918, a destroyer carried the British prime minister, Lloyd George, from France to England.  The weather during that crossing was frightful, and when they reached Dover the conditions were so bad, even in the harbor, they couldn’t get alongside the docks.  So they sent for a small motorboat called a launch to carry the prime minister to the shore.  The only problem was how to get him from the destroyer to the launch.  The destroyer was rolling alarmingly, and there was a danger of having him fall into the sea.

What they did was to station five men on the launch.  The prime minister was led to the gangway, and the officer in charge told him that at the word “Go” he was to step forward and release his hold.  So he waited.  The ship rolled down the next swell until the upper edge of the side of the boat was almost submerged.

When the ship had reached the limit of her roll, the officer shouted, “Go!”  And the prime minister stepped forward and let go.  He fell directly into the small boat below and was caught as neatly and as surely as if he were a baseball in a centerfielder’s glove.  He was safe because he trusted the officer’s word.

I can’t imagine a more perfect picture of faith than that.  It means letting go and trusting ourselves completely to the promises of God. 

Dr. E. Stanley Jones, one of the great Christians of the twentieth century, put it like this:  “I see that I am inwardly fashioned for faith and not for fear.  Fear isn’t my native land, faith is.  I’m so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life.  Faith is oil.  I live better by faith and confidence than by fear and doubt and anxiety.  In anxiety and worry my being is gasping for breath.  These aren’t my native air… We don’t know why it’s that worriers die sooner than non-worriers.  But that is a fact.  But I who am simple of mind think I know,” writes E. Stanley Jones.    “We’re inwardly constructed in nerve and tissue and brain cell and soul for faith and not fear.  God made us that way.  To live by worry is to live against reality.”

While the disciples were there cowering behind locked doors, Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.  “The disciples were overjoyed,” says the Gospel of John, “when they saw the Lord.”

It wasn’t Christ’s words that reassured the disciples, but his presence.  It was knowing he was alive.  What was it that Bill and Gloria Gaither wrote?  “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow…”  And that’s true of us all.

If we know within our hearts that our Redeemer lives, we can walk with confidence regardless of our situation.

Some of you will remember Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who was the closest thing we’ve had to an expert on death and ministry to the dying.  Ms. Kubler-Ross once showed a group of seminary students a drawing that a child had made.  The child had terminal cancer but refused to talk to anyone, withdrawing behind a wall of silence.  The only communication offered by this child was through these drawings.

This particular drawing that she showed to the class had a beautiful little cottage set off to the side of the paper.  Above the cottage was a bright, brilliant sun shining.

Surrounding the cottage was a beautiful lawn with flowers and trees.  In front of the cottage was a family of four:  a mother, a father, and two children at play.

In the center of the paper, however, stood a tiny figure facing a large army tank which was bearing down upon him—about to run him down.  Obviously the tiny figure represented the dying child who saw himself helpless before a gigantic force which was about to destroy him.

Dr. Ross asked the group of students, “How could you help this child communicate his fears?  How could you offer him comfort?”

Two students answered her challenge.  One student drew a picture of a figure holding a stop sign in front of the tank.  But this did nothing to soothe the child when it was shown to him.

However, the second seminarian drew another person in the picture.  And the person was doing nothing more, nothing less, than simply standing by the little child who was facing the gigantic force, holding the hand of the child.  And that broke the wall of silence and enabled the child finally to pour out all his pent-up feelings.  All the little fellow needed was to know someone was with him.  He wasn’t alone.

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders.  Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.  The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Why were they overjoyed?  They knew they were no longer alone.  Their situation was still troubling.  Their lives were still in danger.  But they wouldn’t face it alone.  Christ was with them.

And that’s the Good News of the day for us as well.  Someone is beside us, holding our hand.  Regardless of whatever force may be sent against us, we will prevail.  The Lord is alive.  He will not forsake us.  “Because he lives, we can face tomorrow; because he lives all fear is gone…” Thank God.  He is alive.

Let us pray.  O God, you raised up Jesus Christ as your faithful witness and the first-born of the dead.  By your Holy Spirit, help us to witness to him so that those who have not yet seen may come to believe in him who is, and was, and is to come.  Amen.  

March 27, 2016

Sunday’s Here

Resurrection of the Lord

1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-9

A favorite sermon of mine and one you may be familiar with is Tony Campolo’s classic, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming.”  It was based on a sermon Tony once heard his African-American pastor preach on Good Friday.  This pastor began his message by quietly saying, “It’s Friday and my Jesus is hanging dead on a tree.  But it’s Friday, and Sunday’s coming.”

One of the deacons yelled, “Preach, brother, preach!”  It was all the encouragement that preacher needed.  He grew a little louder.

“It’s Friday, and Mary’s crying her eyes out and the disciples are scattered like sheep without a shepherd.  But it’s Friday, and Sunday’s coming.”

And he keeps working that one phrase over and over again.  “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.  It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.  It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming” until he reaches the climax of that great message.  And he shouts out, “It’s Friday!” and the whole congregation stands up and with one voice shouts back, “But Sunday’s coming!”

Well, friends, it is my great privilege to stand before you this Easter Sunday 2016 and to declare to you, Sunday’s here!  Easter Sunday’s here!  Our greatest fears have been proved groundless and our greatest hopes have been realized.  Death has been defeated.  Hate has done its worse and love has forever triumphed.  Sunday’s here and Jesus Christ is risen from the grave.

You know the story of the first Easter.  The details vary from Gospel to Gospel.  That’s what happens when you depend on the testimony of eye-witnesses.  And unfortunately, no one thought to get out their cell phone and record the event for posterity.

In John’s account, it was early Sunday morning.  It was still dark.  Mary Magdalene is making her way to the tomb.  Mary Magdalene loved Jesus so very much.  In Mark’s Gospel we’re told that Jesus had cast out seven demons out of Mary.  We don’t know what that means—the casting out of demons.  Some people believe Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute before she met Jesus.  We don’t know.  The “seven demons” may refer to a complex illness, not to any form of sinfulness.  Whatever the seven demos referred to, it was life-changing for Mary Magdalene when she met Jesus, as it is for most people.  She became one of his most devoted followers.

Mary Magdalene was present at Christ’s crucifixion even though most of his followers had scattered.  Now she is the first to come to his tomb on that first Easter Sunday morning.  She’s unprepared for what she finds there.  The stone that had sealed Christ’s tomb has been removed.  His body is gone.  Not knowing what else to do Mary runs to find two of Jesus’ closest disciples, Simon Peter and John, and says to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”  Perhaps, they thought, grave robbers had stolen Jesus’ body, or the Roman authorities, or some misguided religious zealots.  Who knows who it might have been?  But his body was missing.  It’s interesting.  Notice that none of those who had been closest to Jesus suggested that he could be risen from the grave.

That’s one sign these stories are authentic.  These were honest reactions of people very much like you and me.  Later Jesus’ disciples would recall how many times he’d said to them things like, “I am the resurrection and the life,” but when it actually happened, his resurrection, they were just as shocked as anyone else.  Such things as people rising from the dead weren’t part of their reality, just like it’s not part of ours.  We’d like to believe the dead live on…that the grave isn’t the end.  But until one man rose from the dead, it wasn’t something that we could count on.

But on that Sunday long ago a man emerged from a tomb…and then we knew beyond a doubt, death had been defeated.  Friday was over; Sunday was finally here.

It’s said that when Queen Elizabeth I of England was dying she exclaimed, “All my possessions for a moment of time!”  Isn’t that the hope of us all—especially for those we love—that there will always be more time?  But what evidence do we have of that except for Easter Sunday?  Sunday’s here and Jesus is alive!

But don’t be misled.  The Bible is very forthright.  Fridays are still very much a part of life.

Imagine what Mary Magdalene felt on Friday as she stood at the foot of the cross and watched her beloved Master be put to death.  She heard the jeers and mockery of the crowd.  She has been there when they cried for a known murderer, Barabbas, to be set free, but the innocent Jesus to crucified.  And there he was…stretched out on a cross with nails pounded through his hands and feet.  His naked body hung between two common criminals, exposing his shame.  The soldiers mocked him, spat upon him, pierced him and left him exposed to the elements to die.  The Bible is very forthright in acknowledging life’s Fridays.  They’re part of living in this world.

While Marshall Shelley was editing the notes for what would become The Quest Study Bible, his wife gave birth to their first child, a daughter who was severely handicapped both mentally and physically.  Shelley, who is editor of Leadership Journal for pastors and a respected Christian leader, faced another test of faith eighteen months later when a second child was born…who lived for only one minute.  And then, six months after that, his first child died.  It didn’t matter that she had limitations.  There was an enormous hole in his heart.

Shelley says by this time he was full of some honest and hard questions for God.  You can understand that.  You’ve had those same questions if you’ve watched a loved one suffer.  Shelley asked those questions.  Afterward he said, “God’s not offended by [our asking questions].  In fact, He invites it!”  We don’t know how God renewed Marshall Shelley’s faith after those two tragedies, but He did.

Don’t think you’re the first believer to face your Friday.  That’s part of life’s fabric.  It’s how we grow in our relationship with God.

British author Malcom Muggeridge once wrote a letter to his friend Bill Buckley.  In it Muggeridge made this profound statement:  “As an old man, Bill, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strike you most forcibly—the only thing that’s taught one thing is suffering.  Not success, not happiness, not anything like that.  The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about—the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies—is suffering, affliction.”  He’s talking about life’s Fridays.  He’s talking about every dark night of the soul.  The Bible is very forthright in acknowledging life’s Fridays.

But the Bible is equally clear that Friday isn’t God’s final word.  Sunday is God’s ultimate answer to life’s most profound questions.  Easter Sunday!  Death and darkness have been defeated.  Christ is risen from the grave.

On that first Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene, Peter and John were confused.  Where’s his body?  Peter and John start a foot race to the tomb.  John outruns Peter and arrives first, but, for some reason, is reluctant to go in first.  He bends over and looks in but he doesn’t enter.  Maybe it’s his fear of defilement.  Maybe he doesn’t want confirmation of what the women had reported.  Maybe his heart can’t take the reality of Jesus’ missing body.  Something, though, holds him back.

When Peter arrives at the tomb, however, he plunges right in—so like Simon Peter.  He sees the grave clothes and the burial cloth.  After a while, John goes in too, and also sees the grave clothes.  The scene has a different effect on John than it did on Peter.  It may be that John perceived the missing body and the position of the clothes as a sign this was not a robbery.  The grave clothes were in good order.  If thieves had gone with the body, the clothes wouldn’t have been so well arranged.  Whatever the reason, Dr. Luke makes a point of saying that “John believed.”  It may be that John was already beginning to remember the things Jesus told them.

The orderly arrangement of the grave clothes should serve as a metaphor for us, too.  It should remind us that while we’re mourning, God has already ordered things for our good.  Christ triumphed over death and the grave.  He’s defeated our final enemy.  The reality of the resurrection instructs us there is victory on the other side of our pain—that it isn’t over until God says it’s over.  God in his great love is coming to redeem us.

William Hinson, in his book titled Solid Living in a Shattered World, tells about a man named Sutherland whose story was detailed in Time magazine many years ago.  Mr. Sutherland’s son was missing in action in the Second World War.  There wasn’t any word whether the boy was dead or alive.  Mr. Sutherland was alone in the world, so he nourished the hope that somewhere, somehow his son was still alive.

One Easter Sunday morning as he was walking through King’s Cross Station in London on his way to church, Mr. Sutherland saw across the multitude a familiar face—a face he thought was his son’s.  They made eye contact for a moment, then the man that he believed to be his son turned a walked hurriedly away and was lost in the crowd.  Mr. Sutherland was convinced his son was alive and had amnesia.  He withdrew all of his savings and spent everything he had traveling across England and Scotland posting pictures of his son and his own name, address and phone number.

Each Easter Sunday morning Mr. Sutherland would position himself in King’s Cross Station and search out every face to see if he might find his son again.  He’d been doing that for ten years when the Time article was written.

There’s a great deal of sadness in that story—the kind of sadness that produced the missing children’s network here in the U.S. and the lingering concern for MIA’s in such conflicts as Vietnam.  But there’s also a lot of love in this story—a love only a parent can know. I have no doubt that Mr. Sutherland did find his boy one day, though probably not in the places he’d been looking.  He found him when he, himself, was in the arms of his heavenly Father.  For you see, the Father’s love is the best assurance we have that Sunday’s coming.  The Bible is very forthright in acknowledging life’s Fridays.  But the Bible is equally clear that Friday isn’t God’s final word.

And that brings us to today—Easter 2016.  We’re those who live on the other side of the resurrection. We’re those who have the privilege of knowing that God’s with us and that neither life nor death can separate us from God’s love.  How’s that being lived out in your life?

So many people today are filled with hopelessness and despair.  So people many are filled with anger and fear.  Aren’t we Easter people?  Haven’t we gotten the word that, though there will always be Fridays until the day the Lord takes us home, Sunday’s coming.  God loves us so much that He won’t leave us in grief or the grave.

In closing I would like to share a story of one of the finest preachers of the twentieth century.  His name was John Claypool.  In an Easter sermon years ago he told the story of a dream he once had.  It was very close to Easter time, and he dreamed he had died.  In his dream he found himself moving through a cool, dark tunnel.  And then he came out in what he could only describe as kindly light.  He was accepted.  He was embraced.  He was welcomed.  Suddenly a voice spoke his name and said, “Welcome, I have some questions I need to ask you.”

He thought to himself, “Here’s a catalog of all the complaints against my living.”

But the voice said to him, “Can you weep for all the pain you’ve caused others and you’ve caused yourself; for the way you’ve abused power or neglected power; for the things you’ve done that you wish you hadn’t done and the things you’ve left undone you wish you had done?”

Claypool said he began to remember many of the things in life for which he’d deep regret and there was a powerful sense of sadness in his being.

But then the voice said, “Let me ask you a second thing.  Can you laugh at all the funny stories that you heard, all the hilarious things that you’ve witnessed, and the good things that have happened?”

He began to think about all of the goodness and mercy that he’d experienced.  A great sense of laughter began to well up deep from within him and it seemed as if God Himself was laughing about him.

But then when the laughter had died down the voice said, “I have another question to ask you.  Do you want any more of it, this life that I want to give you?  Do you want more of it?”

Claypool said he remembers thinking there’s nothing automatic about this answer.  “Here’s the pain of life.  Here’s the wonder of life.  Do I want more of this bittersweet reality that I’ve experienced?  From somewhere deep within me the words rose up, ‘Yes, yes, I do want more of it.’”

And with that the light said, “Welcome, that’s what I want to give you.  It’s my good pleasure to give you abundant life.  Therefore, enter into the joy of your Lord.”

And at that, in the dream, he says he seemed to plunge further and deeper into a great ocean of life.

You know what day it was in John Claypool’s life, don’t you?  It was Sunday, Easter Sunday.  Sunday’s coming for every person who believes that Jesus Christ has overcome the grave.  This isn’t a denial of life’s suffering and sorrow.  Even Jesus, the innocent Son of God had his Friday.  But remember this whenever you’re going through sorrowful time.  This is only Friday and Friday’s not God’s final word.  Sunday’s God’s final word, Easter Sunday!  Jesus Christ is risen from the grave!  Hallelujah!  Amen.

Let us pray.  We exult in your love, O God of the living, for you made the tomb of death the womb from which you bring forth your Son, the first-born of a new creation, and you anointed the universe with the fragrant Spirit of his resurrection.  Make us joyful witnesses to this good news that all humanity may one day gather at the feast of new life in the kingdom where you reign for ever and ever.  Amen.

March 20, 2016

The Big Reveal

Isaiah 50:4-9; Luke 19:28-40

Does anybody remember when pet rocks became a big fad in this country?

In April 1975, Gary Dahl was in a bar listening to his friends complain about their pets.  This gave him the idea for the perfect “pet” – a rock.  Think about it.  A rock wouldn’t need to be fed, walked, bathed, or groomed; furthermore, pet rocks wouldn’t die, become sick, or be disobedient.  He said they would be perfect as pets, and joked about it with his friends.

But Dahl later took his idea further than simply sharing it with a few of his drinking buddies.  He began selling ordinary gray stones bought at a builder’s supply store as pet rocks.  These rocks were marketed like live pets, in custom cardboard boxes, complete with straw and holes to allow the pet rock to breathe.  He also drafted an “instruction manual” for a pet rock.  It was full of puns, gags and play on words.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Only in America, I suppose, could a gag like pet rocks become big business.  The fad lasted about six months.  Dahl, who died in 2015, sold 1.5 million Pet Rocks and became a millionaire.  By the way, you can still buy a pet rock with a walking leash on Amazon.  What a great country!

I thought about pet rocks when I thought about our lesson for today.

It’s been said that true Christianity is a radical experiment that has only been tried once, by St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up everything because of his love for Christ.

In one story, St. Francis is on a pilgrimage, and he’s singing.  Someone asks him where he’s going and he says, “I’m going to God.”  They ask him where he’s coming from, and he says, “I’m coming from God.”

“And why do you sing?” they ask.

“I sing to keep from losing my way,” he responds.

Pastor Michael Powell says, “That’s my image of Jesus as he’s entering Jerusalem.  The sun is out, the birds are singing, dogs are barking and children are laughing.  It’s a beautiful day for a parade, and Jesus is happy.  He knows where he’s coming from and he knows where he’s going.  His eyes are fixed on God, and there’s a song in his heart.”

That’s a heart-warming thought.  Its true Jesus knows where he’s coming from and where he’s going, but he also knows there’s going to be a lot of pain in between.

Palm Sunday is Jesus’ coming out party.  This is where he presents himself to the world as the Messiah.  Every once in a while we have the opportunity to present ourselves to others—whether it’s through a casual introduction, or a job interview, or a speaking engagement, or even a first date.  Sometimes those presentations go well.  Sometimes they don’t.

Jesus is about to present himself to the Holy City of Jerusalem.  His goal, as we noted, is to present himself as the Messiah.  Up until this time, Jesus has been reluctant to make his mission official—somewhat like presidential candidates who spend so much before the primaries dancing around whether they’re candidates or not.  We think of how many times Jesus has said to the people up to this point something like, “Don’t tell anyone what I’ve done for you.  Don’t tell anyone who I am, etc.”  But now the time…his time…God’s time has come.  The time of preparation is over and the time of preparation is at hand.

Jerusalem will be Jesus’ big reveal—to use a term from the modern vernacular.  If you’re not familiar with this term, the “reveal,” also known as “the big reveal,” is a plot device in story-telling.  It refers to the moment when a previously hidden key element of the plot is exposed to the audience.  It’s that “ah ha!” moment when you say, “So this is where the narrative is headed.”  Palm Sunday is Jesus’ big reveal.

Jesus is headed to Jerusalem.  He’s come up from Jericho.  As he approaches Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sends two of his disciples ahead, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden.  Untie it and bring it here.  If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

Jesus’ instruction to these two disciples was to find him the colt of a donkey and bring it to him.  Jesus was clearly fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy that the Messiah will ride a donkey.  But what is the significance of the Messiah riding a donkey?

Note this:  All of Israel was waiting for a Messiah who would be a political revolutionary.  They expected the Messiah to come riding on a horse with his sword drawn prepared to overthrow the Roman oppressor.  They had somehow missed Zechariah’s prophecy.

In the days of Zechariah, when a king came riding on a horse, he was announcing his intention to declare war on his enemy.  However, when the king came riding on a donkey, he was announcing his intention to make peace with his enemies.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey was an announcement that he’d come to usher in a kingdom of peace.  Riding on a donkey was a prophetic declaration of his purpose and mission, not just for Jews but for all of humanity.  He came in peace, for peace and to bring peace—a peace that without Christ the world can never know.

Jesus had prepared all his life for this day.  It was a divine appointment—so much so that even the owners of the donkey responded agreeably when they were told simply, “The Lord has need of it.”

The Spirit of the Lord went ahead of the disciples and prepared the heart of the owners of the colt.  There’s good news in that as well.  You see, when God has a plan and a purpose, nothing can stand in His way.  If God says that His kingdom is coming, it’s time for us to call together the preparation committee.

E. Stanley Jones once told about a young man who was arrested for preaching the Kingdom of God.  He defended himself by declaring that he was only preaching what Jesus had preached long ago.  The prosecutor refuted his argument by saying, “But the Kingdom of God hasn’t come yet.”

“It has for me,” the young man replied.  And that’s the way it ought to be.  The Kingdom with its message of hope is at hand to those who believe.

“The Lord has need of it.”  That’s all it took and the disciples threw their cloaks on the donkey, making a saddle for Jesus to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem to begin the process of bringing in his kingdom of peace.

Jesus moved down the west side of the Mount of Olives toward the city and was indeed welcomed by the crowd as their Messiah.  They threw their cloaks on the road, forming a royal carpet as a way of showing their respect.  The whole crowd of believers began to joyfully praise God for all the miracles they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!...Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

This is a direct reference to Psalm 118:26.  Luke is the only gospel writer who uses the words “peace” and “glory.”  The other writers used the word, “Hosanna,” which Luke’s Gentile audience wouldn’t have understood.

The fact the crowds welcomed Jesus like this troubled the Pharisees and they told Jesus to rebuke his followers.  To this Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”  Imagine that, the stones or rocks crying out.  I told you I would come back to pet rocks.  If the crowds kept silent, all the pet rocks would be crying out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Nothing can stop this movement, Jesus is telling them.  If the crowds were silenced, even inanimate objects would be raised up to testify the he’s the Messiah.  All of history was preparing for this one single event, when he would be declared as king.  Luke’s narrative clearly paints the picture that this was a divinely orchestrated event.  He takes us on a journey to help us understand that nothing can thwart or frustrate what God has already predestined to happen.

Later, in Revelation 6:2, Jesus will be presented as one riding on a horse.  That’s when the kingdom of God shall come in all its fullness—a kingdom of peace and love, where every tear will be wiped away and every wrong will be made right.  That kingdom will be particularly good news for those who are oppressed and those who suffer.

Bishop Stephen Bouman tells a story that I believe reflects that kingdom.  He tells about his congregation in New Jersey which, in his words “began to find [its] power as a congregation” when it threw open its doors to the poor and the homeless.  He mentions one man in particular.  His name was Edgar.  He lived alone in a nearby welfare motel “better known for drug addicts and prostitutes than for the righteous.” 

For some reason, Edgar adopted Bouman’s church.  It wasn’t always a perfect fit—which is an understatement.  Edgar was rough around the edges.  On occasion, he got loud and demanding and was known to interrupt the sermon if he didn’t agree with something the preacher said.

Bouman says that, if the truth be told, his heart sank on Palm Sunday when Edgar was waiting in the sanctuary for him after a full day of pastoral responsibilities.  He knew that Edgar wanted something—a ride, perhaps some of his time—and Edgar would be complaining about this and that.  Bouman wanted to go home.  He was tired.  But by the grace of God, he didn’t get the opportunity.

On the drive to the motel, Edgar talked his ear off.  They pulled into the parking lot of a rundown motor inn near a bridge.  Then, in that most dismal setting, the most wonderful thing happened.  A door opened and an elderly woman emerged from the motor inn.  She knocked on another door and another elderly woman emerged.  They limped toward Bouman’s car.  They were joined by others waiting on the edge of the parking lot.

Then, for the first time Bouman noticed that Edgar had grasped in his hands some palm branches from that morning’s church service.  He’d promised the folks at the motel that he would bring them some palm branches and he was delivering on that promise.

There they were—mothers and their children, addicts, prostitutes, the mentally ill.  As they surrounded the car, Bouman thought of Jesus’ words, “Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you for they believed in Him.”

“Get out of the car,” said Edgar as he thrust the palms into his pastor’s hand.  “Give them the palms!”  And Bouman distributed the branches among those waiting.  “Bless them,” Edgar demanded.  And so Bouman blessed the palm branches.  Then Edgar placed Bouman’s hand on each forehead and pronounced a benediction.

In my opinion, that’s a beautiful picture of Christ’s coming kingdom.

Here’s what Palm Sunday says to us—nobody will be left out of God’s kingdom regardless of the challenges they’ve faced in this life.  See your king, God says to us—he’s riding on a donkey.  Thank God for that.  Later—when it’s time, according to Revelation 6—you’ll see him on a white horse, but for now, on this occasion, it’s a donkey.  The Messiah comes with peace and humility.

But here’s what’s even more beautiful.  Revelation 7:9-12 mentions palm branches again.  And it’s definitely about Edgar and his crowd…and you and me.  We read, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice:  ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’

“All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures.  They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:  ‘Amen!  Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.  Amen!’”

Maybe Jesus was singing as he entered Jerusalem that day.  He could see what lay ahead, yes, the cross—but beyond the cross to the resurrection…and his ascension to be with the Father…and then to Pentecost when the church would be empowered to carry out his ministry…and today in 2016 when we would be gathered in worship to sing his praise…and then all the way to the end of time when all the saints of God will be gathered around the throne to sing God’s praise forever.  And, if any pet rocks are there, they will be singing, too.  After all, Christ said on that first Palm Sunday as the people shouted out his praise, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”  This is of God, he’s saying.  And nobody can stop it.  Amen.

Let us pray.  Giver of light, your steadfast love endures forever.  Open our hearts to the Blessed One who comes so humbly, on a borrowed colt.  Open before us the gates of your justice that we may enter, confessing in heaven and on earth that Jesus is Lord.  Amen.k here to edit text

March 13, 2016

Eyes Fixed Upon the Goal

Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14

Paul Powell in his book, The Complete Disciple, describes a picture painted by a famous artist.  It’s a picture of a wagon train in the old West.  Nighttime has fallen the wagons have been circled for protection.  In the center of the circle of wagons is a campfire and a group of rugged men are gathered around it.  The wagon master, a muscular man with a scruffy beard, has a map spread before him.  On the map is a heavy black line which zigzags across the map showing the course they’ve taken at that time.  They had veered north part of the way, then south, but their main direction has been west.  Evidently there’s been an argument about which way to go next.  But the wagon master has placed one finger on the end of the black line.  With his other arm he’s pointing toward some dark, hazy mountains in the distance.  He seems to be saying, “We may have to go south around a mountain, or north across a river, but our direction will always be west.”  That’s how they will reach their destination, by moving forever westward.

One of the secrets to a successful life is to have your eyes fixed upon a goal and to pursue that goal with all your heart.  Just as the early pioneers were determined to go westward, every person who makes a difference in our world has his or her eyes fixed on a worthy goal.  The Apostle Paul was one of the most influential people who ever lived.  One of the reasons he was so effective was that his eyes were fixed firmly on a goal that simply couldn’t be surpassed.  Listen to his words:

“What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I lost all things.  I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.  I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

“Not that I have already obtained all of this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

What a marvelous statement of St. Paul’s passion for serving Christ.  This is why Paul has helped so many people over the past two millennia.  He knew what was truly important in life, and he gave himself completely to accomplishing what was important.

Many people live ineffective lives because they don’t focus on that which is most important.  One of the most important lessons for life involves setting and maintaining priorities—putting first things first.  Without priorities…The athlete fails to win the prize…Couples fail to achieve marital happiness…Financial goals go unmet…Businesses go bankrupt…Churches become stagnant in their ministries…Students fail to make the grade…Dreams remain unfulfilled…Parents falter in raising their children properly.

E. Stanley Jones in his book, Conversions, tells us that when people first started voting in India, the world’s largest democracy with two hundred million potential voters, many of the voters were illiterate.  They got over this difficulty by placing the ballot boxes in a row with a symbol on each box representing the various parties.  This way even those who couldn’t read knew who they were voting for.

However, one man, says Jones, tore his ballot into small bits and dropped a piece in each of the ten boxes.  He voted for all ten parties.  What he didn’t realize was that in doing so he actually voted for none!

Only a certain amount of time and energy and material resources are allotted to each of us.  In order to be effective in our work, our homes or in our communities we set priorities.

I read a story that was told on retired Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden.  Bowden played baseball in college and he never hit a home run.  In fact, his senior year at Howard College, he was the only player not to hit a home run.

One day, he hit a line drive against Auburn.  As he approached third, the coach was waving him on.  As he made the turn, he heard his third base coach say, “But hurry!”

When he touched home, the team was ecstatic, slapping his back and shaking his hand.  He had finally scored a home run.  Meanwhile, no one noticed the first baseman yelling for the catcher to throw him the ball.  When he caught it, the umpire yelled, “out.”  When Bowden ran so joyfully around the bases, looking toward his first home run, he’d failed to touch first.  So his one home run was negated.  Maybe that’s why he became a football coach.  Anyway, you can probably imagine what he later told his players based on his own experience, “If you don’t take care of first base, it doesn’t matter what else you do.”

Successful living is about taking care of the things that matter most.  A great exercise would be for each of us to make a list of five things in our life that are really critical to us.  If this were a workshop rather than a worship service, I would pause right now and have you each write such a list.  I hope you will think to do so sometime this afternoon.   Where does your spouse fall on that list…your children…your work…your responsibilities to the community…etc?  Where does your faith fall on that list?  Then realistically, how well does your weekly schedule reflect your priorities?  Will your priorities help make you the kind of person you mean to be?

A student at Amherst College, soon after entering school, put over the door of his dormitory room the letter V.  Because of that V he endured all sorts of ridicule.  But he paid no attention to the ridicule nor would he disclose the secret of the letter.

When his four years were completed, and graduation day came, that student was appointed to deliver the valedictory address for his class.  Then the mystery of that letter V was revealed.  It stood for valedictory.  That letter on the door held before him during his four years the ideal that he’d set for himself.

What letter could you put over the door of your house that would remind you as you leave your house each day what your life is all about?  Would you put up a letter M that stands for money?  Or a P for prominence or position or power?  It’s a good idea, someone has suggested, every once in a while to look at the letter you have put on your door as a reminder of where you want to go with your life.

Life is about focus and determination.  We don’t have to go to a motivational seminar to learn that.  Most of us have already learned it in our daily lives.  We simply need to be reminded from time to time.

St. Paul’s life was focused entirely on serving Christ.  “But one thing I do,” he writes in today’s lesson, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  The Apostle Paul’s life was focused entirely on serving Christ.  There’s no stopping anyone with kind of focus and commitment.

Max Lucado in his book The Applause of Heaven tells about a remarkable man named Robert Reed who has that kind of focus about life.  “Robert’s hands are twisted,” writes Lucado, “and his feet are useless.  He can’t bathe himself.  He can’t feed himself.  He can’t brush his teeth, comb his hair, or put on his underwear.  His shirts are held together by strips of Velcro.  His speech drags like a worn-out audiocassette.

“Robert has cerebral palsy.  The disease keeps him from driving a car, riding a bike, and going for a walk.  But it didn’t keep him from graduating from high school or attending Abilene Christian University, from which he graduated with a degree in Latin.

“Having cerebral palsy didn’t keep him from teaching at a St. Louis junior college or from venturing overseas on five mission trips.

“And Robert’s disease didn’t keep him from becoming a missionary to Portugal.  He moved to Lisbon, alone, in 1972.  There he rented a hotel room and began studying Portuguese.  He found a restaurant owner who would feed him after the rush and a tutor who would instruct him in the language.  Then he stationed himself daily in a park, where he distributed brochures about Christ.  Within six years,” reports Max Lucado, “He led seventy people to the Lord…”

People sit around and complain they’ve never had the opportunity to do anything meaningful in the world.  Do you have cerebral palsy?  So what are you complaining about?  That sounds a little harsh I know.  But here’s what you and I so often lack—focus and commitment, especially in our Christian faith.

St. Paul writes, “But one thing I do:  Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Many people live ineffective lives because they don’t set priorities.  Successful living is about taking care of the things that matter most.  Paul’s life was focused entirely on serving Christ.  That’s where we need to focus our lives as well.

I’ve read that on the Australian coat of arms is a picture of two animals:  an emu and a kangaroo.  These animals were chosen because they share a characteristic that appealed to the forefathers of that country.  Both the emu and kangaroo can only move forward, not back.  The emu’s three-toed foot causes it to fall if it tries to go backwards, and the kangaroo is prevented from moving in reverse by its large tail.

Maybe we need an emu and a kangaroo on our personal coat of arms so we will never backslide.  We need a high and lofty goal for our lives—a goal like St. Paul’s that lifts us heavenward.  Only then can we be all that God has created us to be.

Let us pray.  Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness and your grace waters the desert.  Help us recognize your hand working miracles beyond our imagining.  Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing that you are doing, so that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love for all, and its presence in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

February 28, 2016

Second Chances

Growing Strong in the Season of Lent, #3

Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:6-9

There’s a hilarious story about a farmer who had three sons:  Ron, Don and Little John.  All had their names on the church roll but none ever attended church or had time for God.  Then one day Don was bitten by a rattlesnake.  The doctor was called and he did all he could to help Don, but the outlook for his recovery was very dim at best.  So the pastor was called to evaluate the situation.

The pastor arrived, and he began to pray:  “O wise and righteous Father, we thank Thee that in Thine wisdom thou didst send this rattlesnake to bite Don.  He hasn’t been inside the church in years and has shown little interest in You.  We trust that this experience will be a valuable lesson to him and will lead him to genuine repentance.  And now, O Father, wilt thou send another rattlesnake to bite Ron, and another to bite little John, and another really big one to bite the old man.  For years we’ve done everything we know to get them to get serious with Thee.  Thank you God for rattlesnakes.  Amen.”

That’s some prayer, isn’t it?  We don’t know if Don recovered or not, but if he did, maybe he decided that God had given him a second chance and was in church the following Sunday.  Second chances are good.

Some of you may remember a man named Alan Simpson who served with distinction as a Republican member of the U.S. Senate from the state of Wyoming from 1979 to 1997.  In his younger years, however, Simpson’s life wasn’t so circumspect.

Not too long ago, Simpson was involved in a Supreme Court case, Graham v. Florida.  In a brief support of the claimant in the case, Simpson admitted that as a juvenile he was—in his own words—“a monster.”  At one time he was on federal probation for shooting mailboxes and punching a cop.

One day when Simpson was in high school, he and some friends “went out to do damage.”  They went to an abandoned war relocation structure and decided to “torch” it.  They committed arson on federal property, a crime now punishable by up to twenty years in prison if no one is hurt and punishable by up to life in prison if the arson causes a person’s death.  Luckily for Simpson, no one was injured in the blaze.

Simpson not only played with fire, he also played with guns.  He played a game with his friends in which they shot at rocks.  These were rocks situated close to the participants, at times using bullets they stole from the local hardware store.  The goal of the game was to come as close as possible to striking someone without actually doing so.  Again, Simpson was lucky:  no one was killed or seriously injured.

Simpson and his friends went shooting fire arms throughout their community.  They fired at mailboxes, blowing holes in several and killing a cow.  They fired at a road grader.  Federal authorities charged Simpson with destroying government property.  He pleaded guilty.  He received two years of probation and was required to make restitution from his own funds—funds that he was supposed to obtain by holding down a job.

As all of this was unfolding, Alan saw his parents look at each other in total disbelief, and he saw his father cry.  Fortunately, Alan Simpson got a second chance, and he became one of the most respected senators of his generation.

I’ve wondered, though, what would’ve happened if Alan Simpson had been a young black male from a poor family and had committed the same offenses?  Would he have been given the same second chance or would he still be rotting away in prison many years later?  I’m just wondering…

Do you believe in second chances?  Thankfully, God does.

Jesus told a parable:  “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but didn’t find any.  So he said to the man who cared for the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any.  Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?’”

That makes sense, doesn’t it?  What good is a fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit?  Notice that it had been three years that the owner had the fig tree growing in his vineyard and yet it yielded nothing.  Three years is the length of time that it takes a fig tree to become an established, fruit-bearing tree.  That it wasn’t bearing at this point seemed highly unlikely that it would ever bear fruit.  So the owner of the vineyard was making a practical business-like decision.  The tree’s taking up room.  It’s using fertile soil in which another tree might prosper.  “Cut it down!” he says to the man who cared for his vineyard.

But the man who cared for the vineyard tries to intervene.  “Sir,” the man replies, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine!  If not, then cut it down.”  Obviously the man who cared for the vineyard saw possibilities in the tree that the owner of the tree couldn’t.  The owner could see only a tree that wasn’t pulling its weight.  But the man who looked after the tree was more familiar with it and believed the tree deserved another chance.

Thank God for second chances.  Some of you may have seen a movie a few years ago titled Catch Me if You Can.  It was an exciting movie based on the true story of Frank W. Abagnale, played in the movie by Leonardo DiCaprio.   

Frank’s dad, Frank, Sr. played by Christopher Walken was, for a time, in serious trouble with the I.R.S.  His self-indulgent wife divorced him.  The resulting break-up of his family had a profound effect on young Frank, aged sixteen.  He began acting out his frustration by impersonating adults engaged in several vocations.

For example, he becomes a substitute teacher even though he was only a high-schooler himself at the time.  Then he successfully impersonated a Pan Am co-pilot.  After that he impersonated a physician (yes, a medical doctor).  How would you like a high school kid doing surgery on you?  He also impersonated a lawyer.

He funded these adventures by passing hundreds of fake checks.  He succeeded partly because he was careful to dress right—after all, clothes make the man (they say), and more importantly because he possessed a convincing charm—enough charm to acquire information, hotel rooms, flights around the world, and oodles of cash.

In the film a determined FBI agent, played by Tom Hanks, tracks Frank across several continents.  Arrested and sentenced to 12 years in jail, 26 year old Frank is given a second chance by the government.  He’s given early release in return for his skill and expertise.  As a consultant to the FBI and thousands of corporations around the world, he’s now known as one of the world’s leading experts on fraud.

He’s also a polished public speaker addressing corporations about how to protect themselves from people like him.  A true story.  Frank Abagnale, like Alan Simpson, is a man who could testify, “Thank God for second chances.”

Here’s something we need to note.  A second chance implies that something we’ve done is wrong.  We need to consider this truth for a few moments while we still have the word “sin” in our vocabulary.  I’m being serious.  The whole concept that God would ever pass judgment on human beings is fast disappearing from American religion.  Writer David Brooks in his recent best-selling book The Road to Character says that we have done our young people a disservice in letting this ancient word “sin” slip from our modern lexicon.  We’ve made it very difficult for our young to even talk about right and wrong.  I believe he’s right.

You know me by now.  I’m a person who preaches 99% of the time about a God of grace and love.  But from time to time we need to face the facts.  It’s absurd to think that a Creator God has no exceptions from those whom He has created.

That wonderful preacher Dr. Tom Long tells a story about one of his students who hailed him one day as he walked across campus.  “Dr. Long,” she said, “could I speak to you for a moment?”

Long said, “I’m going to get a cup of coffee, care to join me?” She did, and as they were sharing coffee, she told him what was on her mind.  She said that she was serving as a field education student in a local church and that her supervising pastor was requiring her to preach next Sunday.  Long said, “Good.”

She said, “No.  It’s not good.  He’s making me preach on the lectionary.”

Long again said, “Good.”

She said, “It’s not good.  Have you read the lectionary texts for this week?  They’re all about judgment.  I don’t believe in judgment.  I believe in grace.  I believe in mercy.  I believe…it took me three years of therapy to get over judgment.  I’m not going to preach judgment.”

They talked about it fora while and then moved on to other things.  She started to tell Dr. Long about her family life.  She and her husband have several children, only the youngest of whom—a teenage boy—was still at home and he was driving them crazy.  He was into drugs, maybe dealing them, in trouble with the police.

She said, “Like last night we were sitting at supper, we had no idea where our son was.  In the middle of supper, he comes in the back door and I said would you like some supper and he practically spit at us.  He just stomped down the hall to his room and slammed the door.”  She said, “My husband got up and turned on ESPN.  That’s always his response to this.”

She said, “I don’t know, something got into me.”  She said, “I’m afraid of my son physically.  Physically afraid of my own son.  But something got into me and I got up from the table and I went down to his room and I pushed open the door and I said to him, ‘You listen to me.  I love you so much and I’m not going to put up with this.’”

Dr. Long said, “Caroline, I think you just preached a sermon on judgment.  God loves us so much God won’t put up with the foolishness in our lives.  We’ve foolishly hungered for success and power and status, and God says through Jesus, ‘That’s foolish.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice.  That’s what makes life free and good…Jesus says that’s foolish [to hunger for success and power and status].  I love you so much I’m not going to put up with that.’”

To say that God gives us second chances is to imply the fact of God’s judgment on our sometimes foolish lives.  God created us to bear fruit—the fruit of love, joy, peace, [tolerance], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  To think that God would forever put up with our lack of fruit…and even the bearing of wrong fruit…simply defies logic.  We don’t know what form God’s judgment may take, whether in this world or the next, but God does judge.  If nothing else, we see foolishness take a toll on our bodies, our relationships, our reputations, on our witness to others.

The late humorist Lewis Gizzard once said that thinking about God’s final judgment over our lives scared the “you-know-what” out of him.  One day he received a questionnaire in the mail titled “Heaven:  Are You Eligible?”

Gizzard said he took the test and scored “too close to call.”

I suspect that all of us might score “too close to call.”  Thank God for second chances.  But a second chance implies that we’re not living our lives at the highest level and we need to do something about it.  That’s called repentance.

“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any.  So he said to the man who cared for the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any.  Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?’”

And who can argue that the owner had the right to cut down the nonbearing tree?  Look around you.  That’s how all of life is ordered.  It’s part of the law of sowing and reaping.  Sow all the wild oats you want to, but eventually there will be a harvest.  What kind of harvest can you expect under such circumstances—certainly not a good one?

“Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?”  The need for a second chance implies that something we’ve done is wrong, and we need to do something about it.

Life’s second chance is what the cross is about.  “So he said to the man who cared for the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any.  Cut it down!  Why should it use up the soil?’”

“But the man who cared for the vineyard obviously represents Christ.  Someone once called Christ “the forgiving side of God.”  That’s not a perfect statement theologically, but for our unsophisticated minds, that’s close enough.  We read in Hebrews 7:24-25, “But because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.  Therefore he’s able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”

Second chances are what the cross is all about.  Christ lives with God to make intercession in our behalf.  The question is, what will we do in response to the second chance God gives us?  Do we continue to make the same foolish mistakes?

We’re making a pilgrimage through the Lenten season.  On the first Sunday, we dealt with Christ’s temptations in the wilderness.  We called it a test.  And we noted this is how we should always look at temptations, not as a test designed to defeat us but as an opportunity for us to become stronger.  Last Sunday we saw how Abraham was tested when he doubted God’s promise that God would provide him an heir.  This test was another way of making Abraham stronger.

In the same way, second chances are designed to help us learn and grow stronger as we make our pilgrimage through life so that we might bear more and better fruit.  Christ offers us a second chance.  Won’t you accept his gracious offer and make a new beginning today?

Let us pray.  God of infinite goodness, throughout the ages you have persevered in claiming and reclaiming your people.  Renew for us your call to repentance, surround us with witnesses to aid us in our journey, and grant us the time to fashion our lives anew, through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.


January 24, 2016

Shall We Waddle or Fly?

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

By the time John arrived at the football game, the first quarter was almost over.  “Why are you so late?” his friend asked.

“I had to flip a coin to decide between going to church and coming to the game,” John answered.

“How long could that have taken you?” asked his friend.

“Well,” said Ted, “I had to flip it 12 times.”

For football fans, we’re about half-way through the time between the college National Championship game and the Super Bowl.  Since football season is nearly over, none of our men had to flip a coin about whether to attend church or watch a game today.  We can be thankful for that.

Prolific author Leonard Sweet tells about a college football game that turned out to be a terrible mismatch.  One team outweighed the other by thirty pounds per man, was more experienced, better coached, etc.  The lighter, weaker team was terribly beaten, not only on the scoreboard but also on their bodies.  They were bruised and cut and bleeding and several first-stringers already had left the game because of injuries.

As they gathered around in their huddle late in the final period, the quarterback noticed they had twelve men on the field, one more than the eleven allowed by the rules.  If the referee discovered the extra man on the field he would assess a penalty, thereby adding to their already deep humiliation.

“Look,” the quarterback said to his teammates.  “We’ll try a quick running play that will take us past the bench.  As we pass the bench, I want one of you to drop out.  If we can do this fast enough, the referee may not notice and we can avoid a penalty.”  Amidst great confusion, they succeeded in running the play right past their bench.  When they returned to the huddle to decide on their next play, the quarterback discovered, to his amazement, that six men had dropped out.

Those football players were discouraged.  Or, maybe, they were amazingly wise.  After all, they were severely overmatched.  So they substituted themselves out of the game.

Unfortunately, that sometimes happens in church.  People get discouraged and they drop out.  Or they simply get lazy and drop out.  Or, perhaps, they get upset with the pastor and drop out.  Whatever the reason, whenever anyone from our fellowship drops out, we’re hurt in our ability to be all God means for us to be.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians.  “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but many.  Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts but one body…”

Well-known retired seminary professor Dr. Fred Craddock once pointed out that the church was not born full grown.  It needed to grow in its self-understanding.  What was the church?  How should its life be shaped?  As Craddock pointed out, there was no shortage of models from which these early Christians could draw.

For example, they could’ve patterned their church life after the Temple.  They loved the Temple.  It was the place of worship.  But they didn’t pattern themselves after the Temple, because the Temple was exclusive.  It was clergy dominated…

Or they could’ve patterned themselves after the Synagogue.  Synagogues were led by laity.  They were informal places where people gathered to read, hear and discuss the Scriptures.  But they didn’t model their corporate life after the synagogue…

Or the church could’ve remained as simply an informal movement with no formal organization—just the power of the preacher and his or her message.  Craddock noted that such movements have revitalized the church through the ages.  But movements come and go.  The early church needed to be something more than a movement.

There were other possibilities for the church to pattern itself after, but each had its limitations.  Ultimately, Craddock concluded, the church came to understand itself as the Body of Christ.  And that’s the way the Apostle Paul thought of the church—a body—a unified whole with many parts dependent on one another.

As someone else has noted, throughout the Bible, there are other word-pictures about what the church should be.  1 Corinthians 3, the church is compared to a field and to a building.  In Ephesians 5, the church is compared to a bride.  In each of these comparisons, the church is “like” this, or “like” that.  But in this passage, Paul says the church is the body of Christ.  Not “like” the body of Christ.  We are the body of Christ.  And we can’t afford to take any part of the body for granted.

Pastor and author Kenneth Chafin tells of a very gifted athlete he knew in college whose athletic career ended when he seriously injured his big toe in an accident.  If you’re an athlete who’s severely injured your big toe, you know how debilitating that can be.  So it is with the church.

We’re the body of Christ and that means each of us has a vital role to play.  Just as a body needs its eyes and ears and its stomach, and, yes, its big toe, so the church needs all its different parts to be what God has called us to be.

You may remember a few years ago when Snoopy, the loveable Beagle in the Peanuts cartoon, had broken his left leg.  Hundreds of people wrote letters to Snoopy or sent sympathy cards.  Snoopy himself philosophized about his plight one day while perched on top of his doghouse and looking at the huge white cast on his leg.

“My body blames my foot for not being able to go places,” he says.  “My foot says it was my head’s fault, and my head blames my eyes… My eyes say my feet are clumsy, and right foot says not to blame him for what my left foot did…”

Snoopy looks out at his audience and confesses, “I don’t say anything because I don’t want to get involved.”

There are many people who don’t want to get involved.  They want only a nominal relationship with the church.  Spiritually, however, that’s not possible.  Casual attendance at worship isn’t enough.  The particular problem of our era is the reality that those in the pews this week aren’t necessarily those seated there next week.  What is considered “regular” worship attendance these days?  Twice a month?  Once a month?  This isn’t about chiding; this is about understanding the reality in which the church operates today.  Your church needs your service.  We have a community to win—or should I say a world to win—and we need your involvement.

St. Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’  And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.  And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.  But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it…”

The fact that you’re a member of the church means that your gifts are needed—your abilities, your talents.  And, it’s not enough to simply occupy a pew each week.

Dr. Bob Reccord gives us a powerful analogy.  He notes that in March of 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., and was hospitalized for several weeks.  Although Reagan was the nation’s chief executive, his hospitalization had little impact on the nation’s activity.  Government continued on.

On the other hand, suppose the garbage collectors in this country went on strike, as they did some time ago in Philadelphia.  That city wasn’t only a literal mess, the pile of decaying trash quickly became a health hazard.  Suppose that happened throughout our land.  A three-week nationwide strike would paralyze the country.  “Who’s more important,” asked Dr. Reccord, “the President or a garbage collector?”

In the kingdom of God, all of us are equally important.  If any of us fail to do our part, the church is poorer for it.

We have people serving in diverse roles—as God has gifted each of us.  Each of us is essential to the task of working with God to bring in His kingdom.  You’re important, regardless of the role you play.

General Dwight Eisenhower once rebuked one of his Generals for referring to a soldier as “just a Private.”  He reminded him the Army could function better without its Generals than it could without its foot soldiers.  “If this war is won,” he said, “it will be won by Privates.”

And that’s true of any army—especially that army which is the church of Jesus Christ.  Each of you is precious to this group of people and we need each of you to offer your talents to making this church all that God means for it be.

In 1993 scientist, Dr. Jerry Hall of George Washington University Medical Center, for the first time cloned human embryos, splitting single embryos into identical twins or triplets—setting off a firestorm of controversy.  The experiment wasn’t a technical breakthrough, since he used methods that are commonly used to clone animal embryos.  However, since he and his team showed that cloning of humans is indeed possible, it opened up a range of practical and ethical questions.

For example, since embryos can be frozen and used at a later date, it could be possible for parents to have a child and then years later, use a cloned, frozen embryo to give birth to an identical twin.

I won’t attempt to deal with the religious and ethical questions raised by the possibility of cloning embryos.  I do know, however, that spiritual cloning in the Body of Christ is impossible.  Each Christian is uniquely gifted by the Spirit of God.  If you “drop out” of the church, or if you neglect to offer your spiritual gift in service to the church, you’re not reproducible.  You can’t be cloned you’re uniquely made and gifted by God to fulfill a significant place within the Body of Christ.

That’s how God means to establish His Kingdom in this world, working through each of us, doing our part, giving our best.  It’s not enough for us to simply sit in our pew each week and listen attentively at least I hope you’re listening intently.

The amazing philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once told a parable of a community of ducks.  Each Sunday these ducks would waddle off to duck church to hear the duck preacher.  The duck preacher would speak eloquently and passionately about how God has given the ducks a special gift.  The gift was wings with which to fly.  With these wings, the duck preacher would assure them, there’s nowhere ducks can’t go.  With those wings there’s no God-given task that ducks can’t accomplish.  With those wings they can soar into the very presence of God.

As the duck preacher exhorted his duck congregation, shouts of “Amen!” were quacked throughout the congregation.  Wings were lifted in praise.  And, then, at the conclusion of the service, the ducks left the gathering place commenting on what a wonderful message they’d heard.  And each of the ducks quietly waddled their way back home.  They didn’t use their gift at all.

That happens sometimes and what a tragedy that would be if that’s as far as our discipleship got.

St. Theresa put it this way:  “Christ has no body now but yours… No hands, no feet on earth but yours… Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world… Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good… Yours are the hands with which He blesses the world… Yours are the hands… Yours are the feet… Yours are the eyes… You are His body.”  You’re his body.  You’re the hope of the world.  It’s time for us to lift up our wings and fly.

Let us pray.  In you, O Lord our God, we find our joy, for through your law and your prophets you formed a people in mercy and freedom, in justice and righteousness.  Pour your Spirit on us today, that we who are Christ’s body may bear the good news of your ancient promises to all who seek you.  Amen.


January 17, 2016

An Extraordinary Wedding Gift

Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11

During a wedding rehearsal, the groom approached the priest with an unusual offer.  “Look, I’ll give you $100 if you’ll change the wedding vows.  When you get to the part where I’m to promise to ‘love, honor, and obey’ and ‘forsaking all others, be faithful to her forever,’ I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave that part out.”  He slipped the priest the cash and walked away.

The wedding day arrived.  When it came time for the groom’s vows, the priest looked the young man in the eye and said, “Will you promise to prostrate yourself before her, obey her every command and wish, serve her breakfast in bed every morning of your life and swear eternally before God and your lovely wife that you will not ever even look at another woman, as long as you both shall live?”

The groom gulped and looked around and then said in a tiny voice, “I do.”

After the ceremony, the groom pulled the priest aside and hissed, “I thought we had a deal.”

The priest gave him back his $100 and said, “We did, but the bride’s father made me a much better deal.”

Funny things happen at weddings—in real life as well as in jokes.

We don’t know if that is what happened in the wedding that took place in our lesson for the day from John’s Gospel or not.

A wedding was under way in Cana in Galilee when the hosts ran out of wine.  This was an embarrassing predicament.  Jesus’ mother Mary was there as well as Jesus and his disciples.  When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?”  Jesus replied.  “My hour has not yet come.”

This reply sounds much harsher than it really was.  The word which in English is translated “woman” is, in the Greek, a term of endearment.  It’s not a term of scolding or contempt, but of great affection.  It does, however, speak to Christ’s lack of eagerness about revealing his messianic mission.  The time wasn’t quite here for that.  Nevertheless, Mary said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Those are important words:  “Do whatever he tells you.”  We’ll come back to them in a few moments.

Nearby, stood six large stone water jars.  The kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing.  Each of these jars held from twenty to thirty gallons.  Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.”  So they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

You know what happens next.  When the master of the banquet tasted the water it had been turned into wine.  He didn’t realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.  Then the master of the banquet called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

John then adds these words, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”  Remember John has “signs” not miracles and Jesus calls these “works,” as in the works of his Father.  Signs point to something beyond themselves.  They reveal and make known.  And this, Jesus’ first sign, reveals the glory of God.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus always seemed to work in unexpected ways?  Imagine, for example, you have a problem with your eye and you go to a doctor.  He says, “Come let me spit on the ground and make mud and put it in your eye.”  Which one of you would do as he says?  We would probably run in the opposite direction.

Or imagine that one of you had skin cancer and came to me and asked me to pray for you and I were to tell you to go show yourself to another pastor down the road?  That’s sort of what Jesus did.  Would that make sense to you?

Or imagine there’s a crowd with more than ten thousand people to feed; five thousand of that number were men alone (and we know about men and their appetites), and he says to you, “Go feed them with these five barley loaves and two fish.”

You would most certainly be incredulous in all those circumstance.  Those instructions don’t make sense to the natural mind but, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:25, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

Jesus’ response to Mary’s request that he do something to solve this embarrassing situation at this wedding celebration is one of those incidents that don’t make sense.

Here’s the situation.  There were six water jars standing nearby, each water jar having a capacity of 20 to 30 gallons each.  These jars were used for ceremonial cleaning—in other words, for Jewish purification rites before and after meals.  Most likely the water jars would be outside.  Drinking from these purification jars would be unthinkable, unless you’re the kind of person who drinks bath water.  But here’s Jesus, instructing the servants to fill those jars with water and then to dip into the jars and to serve what was in the jars to the master of the feast who would’ve been on the inside of the house and thus wouldn’t know what he was drinking from.

What a strange instruction from Jesus.  It would require great respect and trust in him for the servants of the house to do what he said.  They could lose their job or worse their freedom if their master found out they had given him wine to drink taken from these purification jars.  It just didn’t make any sense, but they did it nonetheless.  Mary said, “Do whatever he tells you,” and the servants did exactly that.

Last week we talked about the importance of obedience in the Christian life.  It’s not always possible to know what God wants us to do with our lives, bit it’s important, that as best we’re able to discern God’s will, we’re to do it.  It certainly would be easier to do “whatever he tells you” if we’re certain he was telling us to do, but that’s not always easy.  But that’s true in human relationships as well.

A woman tells about one time when her mother visited her.  For breakfast the first morning she made tea for her mother’s breakfast and coffee for her own.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” her mother said.  “I much prefer having coffee.”

“But, mother,” the daughter protested, “you always drank tea at breakfast at home.”

“True,” her mother agreed.  “You see, before I got, married I used to have coffee at breakfast.  But I found that your father liked tea, and I thought it was silly to make both.”

The daughter suggested that if, after 37 years of marriage, she preferred coffee, that’s what she should have.

Back in her own home, her mother started making coffee for herself but the usual tea for her husband.

After a week or so, her husband looked up from his breakfast.  “How is it,” he asked, “that you can have coffee in the morning. And I have to have tea?”

I have no idea how many years this couple had gone assuming they knew what the other wanted.  You don’t have to be married for long, though, to have such misunderstandings.

Somebody saw an ad in a newspaper.  “Bike For Sale:  Suzuki 1000.  This bike is perfect!  It has been ridden 1,000 miles and has had its 500 mile dealer service. (Expensive) It’s been adult ridden and all wheels have always been on the ground.  I used it as a cruiser/commuter.  I’m selling it because it was purchased without proper consent of my loving wife.  Apparently, ‘Do whatever you want!’ doesn’t mean what I thought.  Ask for Steve.”

Ah, the joys of married life.  No wonder we have difficulty discerning God’s will for our lives, if we can’t even communicate our desires to one another.  It’s difficult for us to know sometimes what God desires out of us.  But I can suggest a couple of areas in which God’s will is pretty clear.

We know it’s God’s will that we are to take care of our relationships.  Marriage is one of those relationships for many of us.

Remember the groom in our opening story who wanted the priest to eliminate those lines “love, honor, and obey” and ‘forsaking all others, be faithful to her forever?”  There are many couples today who want to alter their vows so they’re less restrictive.

Doesn’t God want us to be happy, we may ask?  Most certainly He does.  That’s the whole point.  God knows the secret of marriage is a faithful loving relationship.

There was an article in Reader’s Digest recently by a man named Patrick Cooney titled, “Why I Wear Two Wedding Bands.”  Cooney says that he has worn two wedding bands for more than a dozen years.  When he’s asked about them, he responds, “I have two wives.”  He’s kidding, of course.

One day a stranger wouldn’t let him off with this glib answer about why he wears two bands.  So Cooney spilled the whole story.  He explained his father died in 1999.  As they were saying their final farewells at his funeral, his mother, who had been married to his father for 50-plus years, removed his father’s wedding band and handed it to Patrick.  Surprised, he placed the gold band on his left middle finger, next to his wedding band.  There it has remained.  He told the stranger that he wears his father’s wedding band to honor his father and his parent’s marriage.  He also wears it to remind himself to be the son, brother, husband, and dad that his father wanted him to be.  He’s now 60 years old and has been married for 30 years.  The stranger walked away, then turned back and said, “Sir, you know, I have my father’s wedding band in my sock drawer at home, and beginning today, I’m going to start wearing it.”

A powerful story but isn’t it true of all of our relationships?  It’s important not only to be faithful and attentive to our spouse, but to our children or our parents and our friends.  I can tell you right now, without any hesitation at all that it’s God’s will for us to take care of our relationships.

It’s also God’s will for us to take care of our responsibilities.  I know it’s tiring to hear, but one of the keys to a satisfying life is to make sure we take care of our responsibilities, follow through, whether they be at work or in our neighborhood, or at home; whether they be to our civic club or to our church.  I can promise you that failing to meet your responsibilities only leads to guilt and shame.

I know that’s a word that some of us don’t want to hear.

Pastor Richard Fairchild tells a fictional story by Laura Richards which appears in a book called The Moral Compass.  It concerns a meeting between an angel called “The Angel Who Tends to Things” and a man at work.

“I have come to speak to you about your work,” said the Angel.  “It appears to be unsatisfactory.”

“Indeed!” said the man, “I hardly see how that can be.  Perhaps you will explain.”

“I will,” said the Angel.  “To begin with the work is slovenly.”

“I was born heedless,” said the man.  It’s a family failing which I have always regretted.”

“It is ill put together, too,” said the Angel.  “The parts don’t fit.”

“I never had any eye for proportion,” said the man.  “I admit it’s unfortunate.”

“The whole thing is a botch,” said the Angel.  “You have put neither brains nor heart into it, and the result is a ridiculous failure.  What do you propose to do about it?”

“I credited you with more comprehension,” said the man.  “My faults, such as they are, were born with me.  I’m sorry that you don’t approve of me, but that’s the way I was made.  Do you see?”

“I see!” said the Angel.  He put out a strong hand, and taking the man by the collar, threw him head-over-heels into the ditch near where they were standing.

“What is the meaning of this?” cried the man as he scrambled out breathless and dripping.  “I never saw such behavior.  Do you not see what you’ve done?  You’ve ruined my clothes, and drowned me besides.”

“Oh yes!” said the Angel.  “This is the way I was made.”

Ah, yes.  We have our rationalizations for being the way we are.  But sooner or later we have to face up to our responsibilities.  Sooner or later this is a lesson we all need to learn.  If you doubt that is so, see what happens to celebrities when they live only for their own gratification.  Either they grow up, or eventually they die at a young age, or they become bitter, dissolute individuals.  The secret of a successful life is really quite simple.  In the words of Mary to the servants, “Do whatever Christ tells you.”  Take care of your relationships and your responsibilities.

I really enjoy the way the story of the wedding at Cana ends.  As the master of the banquet tasted the wine taken from the water jars, he says, “You have saved the best till now.”

That’s one of the great messages of the New Testament.  For those who seek to live as God wants us to live, He always saves the best till last.  Things work out better when we do what Christ says.

Let us pray.  O God of steadfast love, at the wedding in Cana your Son Jesus turned water into wine, delighting all who were there.  Transform our hearts by your Spirit, that we may use our varied gifts to show forth the light of your love as one body in Christ.  Amen.

January 3, 2016

What Are You Seeking?

(Epiphany of the Lord)

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

What is it that you’re seeking?  Everybody is seeking something.  That’s why Google is one of the most profitable companies on earth.  People go to Google every day to search for information about an astounding array of subjects.  People are seeking more info on the latest crisis in the news.  They’re seeking gossip about their favorite celebrity.  They’re seeking information about a specific model of car they’re considering to purchase.  Even terrorists go to Google, we’re told, to find terrible new ways to wreak havoc on civilized societies.  Everybody is seeking something.

What are you seeking?  Maybe it’s not information.  Perhaps you’re seeking for truth or peace.  Or hope.  Maybe you’re looking for that great new product that’s going to make your life everything you’d hoped it would be.  At least, that’s what the ads suggest.  Maybe you’re looking for a new mate. promises to find God’s perfect match for you.  Good luck with that.

A young woman was sitting in a coffee shop expounding on her idea of the perfect mate to some of her friends.  “The man I marry must be a shining light when with friends.  He must be musical.  Tell jokes.  Sing and stay at home at night!”

A little elderly lady at the next table overheard and spoke up, “Girl, what you just described is my computer.”

A perfect mate is hard to come by.  [With the exception of my mate of course,  who says I can’t think quickly in the pulpit.]

What is it that you’re seeking?  We’re all seeking something.  Our lesson from the Gospel for Epiphany is the beloved story from Luke 2 that begins like this:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?  We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

You know the story well.  When the Magi reached Jerusalem, they sought help with their search.  Assuming the newborn king would be born in a palace, that’s where they headed for directions.  When King Herod heard about their quest he was disturbed.  He in turn, consulted the chief priest and teachers of the law.  They pointed the Magi toward Bethlehem.  Then Herod adds these chilling words, “Go and search carefully for the child.  As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

Of course, the last thing Herod intended was to worship the child.  His motives were far more sinister.  But the Magi finally did find the child, and when they found him, they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Their search was over.  They’d found the newborn king.

Let’s return to our opening question.  What is it that you’re seeking?  Everybody’s seeking something in life.  It’s clear what Herod was seeking.  Herod was seeking to preserve his power.  We’ve discussed before about Herod’s character…or lack thereof.  Herod was a bloody tyrant.

History records that Herod murdered many of his own family including his favorite wife (he had ten), her grandfather, her brother, and some of his own children.  On one occasion he had the whole Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Jewish government, assassinated.  On another occasion he had every notable man in Jerusalem murdered.  H was very capable of the horrendous crime reported in the Christmas narrative.

Jesus was born during the latter years of Herod’s reign.  Herod’s reign as king had been a long one (37 B.C. – 4 A.D.).  This fact shows just how much of a monster Herod really was.  Just imagine!  He wouldn’t even be around when this child king being sought would inherit the throne, yet he felt threatened by the reports of such a child.  Herod was a man possessed by a lust for power.  He was suspicious, savage, and warped.  Note that when realized he had been outwitted by the Magi, he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.  He was a mad man driven by his need to dominate.  Don’t think that Herod’s character has no relevance to our world.  There are still people around whose minds are that warped.  And I’m not merely referring to political tyrants.

One of the vilest practices that still haunt our present day society is domestic violence.  I read recently that thirty percent of all American couples will experience some form of domestic violence during their lifetimes.  That’s a horrendous statistic.  Surely it’s overstated.  Maybe, on the other hand, there are more Herods around than we realize—people, generally men, who love exercising their power over others, especially those who’re weaker.  I do know that twenty percent of all officers killed in the line of duty are killed while answering calls involving family fights (domestic altercations).  And approximately twelve to fifteen million wives are battered each year.

You may think that Epiphany isn’t an appropriate time to spotlight this particular tragedy, but if not now, then when?  Herod was seeking to preserve his position of power.  Power is still a dangerous motive in people’s hearts.  There are Herods in company offices.  There are Herods in service institutions.  There are Herods in many homes.  Herod was driven by a need to maintain power.

The chief priests and teachers of the law, on the other hand, were simply seeking to maintain the status quo.  Herod was disturbed after the visit by the Magi and called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law.  He asked them where the Messiah was born.  “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied.  And they, of course, spoke correctly.  Christ was born in Bethlehem.

There’s no hint in this narrative about the conflict that would eventually evolve between Jesus and the high priest and teachers of the law.  Ironically, they were the ones who were most responsible for Jesus’ death—not Herod.  And probably there would’ve been no conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, if Jesus had simply left well-enough alone.  All the chief priests and teachers of the law wanted to do was simply maintain that status quo.  Isn’t that the role of religion—to maintain tradition?  It’s both the strength and the weakness of the church that we love for things to stay the same.

A wonderful story is told about a new seminary graduate who went out to his first congregation, a rural church which had a long history.  As he was leading his first worship service, he noticed right away that everyone sat on one side of the church.  That seemed sort of strange.  Then, when it came time to sing the hymn just before the sermon, the new pastor was amazed to see the entire congregation stand up, walk over to the other side of the church and sit down to sing.  The pastor couldn’t figure it out and no one explained it to him.  The same thing happened week after week.

Finally the pastor pieced it together:  many years earlier, the church was heated by a woodstove over on one side of the building.  The building was cold during the winter.  When people first got to church, everyone sat on one side, close to the woodstove.  As the service would go on, the woodstove would get very warm, too warm for comfort, and so the congregation developed the practice of moving over to the other side of the church before the hymn before the sermon.  And they still did exactly that.  Even though the church building had been remodeled several times and the woodstove had long since been replaced, the congregation still kept its practice of changing sides during the service.  Most of the members didn’t even know why; it was just something they did.

Ah, tradition, how we love it in the church.  Maybe that’s why the church is so resistant to change.  Sometimes we have to bring the church kicking and screaming into the modern world.  And that’s how it was in the first century A.D.  And that’s why it was the chief priest and the teachers of the law who had the Roman government hang Jesus on a cross.  He upset the status quo.

In his wonderful book, The Jesus I Never Knew, evangelical author Philip Yancey tells about the impact that a film had on him as a young man.  The movie was Italian director Pasolini’s controversial movie The Gospel According to St. Matthew.  It’s interesting how Pasolini came to produce this movie.

Pasolini was trapped in an enormous traffic jam during a visit by the pope to Florence, Italy.  So, Pasolini checked into a hotel room where, bored, he picked up a copy of the New Testament from the bedside table and read through the Gospel of Matthew.  “What he discovered in those pages so startled him that he determined to make a film using no text but the actual words from Matthew’s gospel…”

What emerged was a film that presented Jesus—using only Matthew’s text—to the young people of the 1960s as someone very much like themselves—anti-materialistic, anti-hypocritical, pro-peace, and pro-love.  Yancey had never experienced anything like this.  “For me,” he writes, “the film helped to force a disturbing revaluation of my image of Jesus.  In physical appearance, Jesus favored those who would’ve been kicked out of Bible College and rejected by most churches…Those in authority, whether religious or political, regarded him as a troublemaker, a disturber of the peace.”

Obviously, the only way to deal with such a troublemaker was to crucify him.  That’s what we do with troublemakers, isn’t it?  Silence them with a cross or a gun or prison or simply social isolation.  We love the status quo.  So did the chief priest and the teachers of the law.  Herod sought to maintain his power; the religious leaders sought to maintain their traditions.

Finally, there were the Magi.  They were foreigners, probably gentiles, but they were seeking the new born King of the Jews.  It’s a shame the Magi couldn’t have used Google…or Siri.  A GPS on their camels would’ve been nice.  Instead, they were dependent on a bright light in the heavens to lead them.  It led them first to Jerusalem.  If they had modern technology, they wouldn’t have needed to ask Herod to help them refine their search and maybe Herod would never have been alerted.

The Magi were from the East, probably Persia.  They were considered to be skilled scientists of their day:  skilled in philosophy, science, medicine, and astrology.  Some say they were of the priestly order of Persia, advisors to the Persian rulers.

How did they know the child whom they sought would be the King of the Jews?  It may be they had contact with the Jewish community in Persia, left there from days when Jews were captive in that land.  A definitive answer isn’t given.  But they were led by the star, first of all to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem to the house where the young child lay.  Their purpose, of course, was to worship the newborn King.  And that is exactly what they did.  Matthew tells us:  “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

Herod was seeking power; the chief priest and teachers of the law were seeking to maintain the status quo; but the Magi were seeking the newborn King, so they might worship him.  And so I ask one last time, what is it that you are seeking?

My guess is that you have come here this day genuinely seeking God.  You realize the dangers in life seeking anything else.  Power, wealth, pride, even an attachment to the status quo can be the enemy of God.  We must lay every other motive in life before the child of Bethlehem.

Let our prayer be, “Take my every thought, O Lord, everything I am and everything I hope to be, and help me focus on one thing, your kingdom and your righteousness.  For it is in the name of the child born in Bethlehem that we pray.  Amen.”


December 24, 2015

The King Born In a Manger

Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

It’s a true story—no matter how much like a fairy tale it may sound.  A totally unsuspecting man literally stumbled upon what was, and still is today the world’s largest diamond—all 3,106 carats of it—about 1-1/3 lbs.  It happened at the Premier Mine #2, near Pretoria, South Africa in 1905.

Due to the immense value of this enormous diamond, the authorities in charge of its transportation were posed with a huge security problem.  How could they get it to their company headquarters in England?  They solved their dilemma in an interesting way.  Detectives from London were placed on a steamboat that was rumored to carry the expensive stone.  The detectives placed a parcel in the Captain’s safe and guarded the safe throughout the entire journey.

However this was a diversionary tactic.  The stone on that ship was a fake, meant to attract those who might be interested in stealing it.  The actual diamond was sent to England in an ordinary plain cardboard box via parcel post, albeit registered.

One hundred and five stones were cut from this diamond, known as the Cullinan diamond.  Two of the largest stones which produced were the 530- carat stone known as the Great Star of Africa and the 317-carat Cullinan II, both of which are a part of the British crown jewels.

If you shopped for jewelry this season, you know how expensive even one carat is.  Just imagine a stone with 3,106 carats.  Invaluable!  And yet it was shipped by parcel post in a plain cardboard box.  What a beautiful analogy for what happened more than 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem of Judea.  The King of Kings born is a lowly stable, lying in a manger, a trough where animals fed.

And who were the first to pay him homage?  According to Luke’s Gospel, it was a group of lowly shepherds.  Matthew tells of magi bringing the Christ-child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  We include the magi in our nativity scenes, but they came later, when the holy family was finally in a house.  The first visitors were the shepherds.  What’s so extraordinary about that?

It’s easy to romanticize shepherding.  King David was shepherd.  And we love Psalm 23 which speaks of God as a shepherd, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”  The truth is, however, that shepherds were a despised class of people.  Their work made it impossible for them to abide by the ceremonial laws, particularly those concerned with personal hygiene.  They were generally unclean, unkempt men who brought with them the odors we associate with animals.  They, of course, had no reliable access to means of bathing.  Even worse, it was popular for shepherds to be regarded as thieves.  They were considered unreliable and were not allowed to give evidence in court.

Yet there they were, attending the birth of the newborn King of Kings.  You know the story.  They’d been guarding their flock on a nearby hillside.  Suddenly, “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”

There lay the babe in the manger…sharing his birthplace with animals from the field, and the shepherds…and his humble parents, unable to find refuge in a nearby inn.  Christ didn’t come into our world amidst wealth and power; nor was he wrapped in fine linen and placed in a gold cradle.  Like an exquisitely expensive diamond shipped in a plain cardboard box, Christ came into the world not to reign with power, but to bring into the world a kingdom of love, peace and good news—good news to the poor, the hurting, the lost, the lonely, the grieving and the dying.

What are we to make of this, the most beautiful story ever told?  What are we to take away with us as we leave this place to return to our homes on this Christmas Eve?

First, Christmas Eve reminds us of God’s love for the unlovely.  We so glamorize the Christmas story, but there was nothing glamorous about giving birth in a stable filled with animals.  There was nothing glamorous about shepherds.  And, of course, that’s the point of the story.  God loves the unlovely.

John Jacob Niles, the famous folk song authority, tells about a time many years ago when a small group of traveling evangelists came and set up their tents on the courthouse square in his town.  They hung their wash on the Confederate monument.  They began to preach on the courthouse square until the county commissioner decided that it was inappropriate and required them to pack up and leave.  But before they left, a thin, pale girl, the daughter of an itinerate evangelist, got up and sang a song that John Jacob Niles had never heard before.  “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, why Jesus our Savior did come forth to die for poor, lonely people like you and like I.  I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

Since he was a collector of folk songs, Niles went to her and said, “Where did you hear that song?”

She said, “I don’t remember.  I don’t know where I learned it.”

He said, “Is there more to it?”

She said, “No, I only know this one verse.”

So John Jacob Niles took that song, elaborated on it, and published it.  Since then, that beautiful carol has blessed many hearts.  In its simplicity, it illustrates the feelings all of us surely have at Christmas, but especially the poor, the lonely, the hurting and the grieving.

But you say, Pastor how can you say that?  Don’t you know that Christmas is even harder for the poor, the grieving, and the depressed?  Yes, I understand that.  It’s difficult if your resources are limited to see Christmas celebrated by the affluent and ostentatious.

It’s difficult when you are lonely or hurting or grieving or depressed to see the smiles of those who have loving families, friends who care for them, good health and all the benefits of the good life.  Unless, of course, the real message of Christmas lives in your heart.

For what the babe of Bethlehem says to us more loudly than anything else is that God has become one of us.  God walked where we walk.  God sympathizes with our situation.

Years ago, during one of the “welcome home” ceremonies for Desert Storm troops, veteran film star Glenn Ford told a story of his involvement in the Vietnam War.  He referred to a time when he and a number of combat units were struggling through the steamy swamps of South Vietnam under infrequent, but deadly enemy fire.

Since he had just arrived in the area the day before, many of the men didn’t know that a well-known film star was in their midst.

After several hours of sloshing through the wetlands, a young private recognized the actor who had made so many successful films.  Seeing the stunned look on the private’s face, Ford assured the young man that, indeed he was the same Glenn Ford from the movies.  The private smiled a mile—wide grin and said, “Well, don’t that beat all!  You’re just one of us, ain’t you?”

And that’s how God came to us in Jesus, just as one of us.  But why, why did he come?  It was to show us a whole new way to live and to love.

In the 1970s there was a popular film called, The Poseidon Adventure.  Perhaps some of you remember it.  It was about a luxury ocean liner, the SS Poseidon that was completely overturned on New Year’s Day by a freak ocean wave.  The film tells the story of people trying to escape before the ship sinks.

The bizarre thing about the SS Poseidon is that it lay in the water completely upside down.  What was the top of the ship was now the bottom.  The hull was on top of the water, and the deck was way down in the sea.

The people in the film had to respond to a world turned upside down and how to escape the sinking ship under such circumstances.

We have a hard time accepting it, but Jesus came to turn the world of human values upside down.  In a world that glorifies power and wealth, Jesus called the poor and powerless blessed and said it is they who will inherit the Kingdom of God.  In a world that says the best way to deal with our enemies is to crush them, Jesus says the best way to deal with our enemies is to love them and make friends of them.

In a world that tells us the way to deal with people is to use them, abuse them and then move on, Jesus tells us that we’re to honor all people, respect them, and always be there when they need you.  If we have difficulty with such values maybe it shows how far we are from the Kingdom of God.

Like an expensive diamond in a cardboard shipping container, Christ came to us to show us a world of love, peace and good will to all people.  The ultimate Christmas gift is something wonderfully special indeed.  Go to your home this Christmas Eve and carry that very special gift with you in your heart.

Let us pray.  Glorious God, in Jesus your grace appears, bringing salvation to all.  Help us to ponder your words of love by the light of your Spirit that we may proclaim glad tidings of peace and welcome Christ in our world.  Amen.

  • December 20
  • A Small Town Is Blessed
    Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:39-56
    Some of you like me grew up in a small town, so you can identify with some of those lists that begin with “You know you live in a small town when…”  For example, “You know you live in a small town when…”
    City limits signs are both on the same post.  A “Night on the Town” takes only 11 minutes.  The local phone book has only one yellow page.  
    You know you live in a small town when you call a wrong number and they supply you with the correct one.
    Well, you get the idea.  Small towns don’t get much respect.  It’s like a joke Pastor John Ortberg tells on the city of Fresno, CA.  He says, “People go to Hollywood because they want to get famous.  People go to Silicon Valley because they want to get rich.  People go to Fresno because they get bad directions.”
    Fresno is a town of respectable size, but it’s not Hollywood and it’s not Silicon Valley.  Small towns don’t get much respect.  And yet some of the best folks who ever lived came from small towns.
    Abraham Lincoln, generally recognized as our greatest president, hailed from Knob Creek, KY which was so small it no longer exists.
    President Jimmy Carter, of course, still calls Plains, GA home.  Plains has a population of 611.  You don’t have to be a big city to produce a big person.
    Of course, the greatest person who ever lived came from a small town in one of the unlikeliest places on earth.  We read in Micah 5 these beautiful words, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel…”
    These words were written 700 years before Caesar Augustus issued his decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…a census that required Joseph and Mary, his young bride-to-be, to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem because Joseph belonged to the house and lineage of David.  You know the story, probably by heart.
    Joseph went there to register for the census with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room available for them in the inn.
    And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
    Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
    When the angels had left the shepherds and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 
    “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened…”  The world didn’t know it, but all the truly important people on earth were huddled in a stable that night long ago in the tiny town six miles outside of Jerusalem known as Bethlehem.  In the world’s estimation the important people were in Rome—Augustus Caesar, his household and the Roman senate—but we know better.  The truly important people that night consisted of some humble shepherds and a young couple with their newborn son who had been forced to take shelter in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn.  Why do I say that all the important people were in Bethlehem?  Because the babe which was born that night would forever change the world, as well as humanity’s relationship with God.  And it happened in a small town called Bethlehem.
    In August, 1865, shortly after the Civil War, the parishioners of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia sent their rector, Phillips Brooks, abroad for a year.  His travels took him through Europe and in December to the Holy Land.  There he traced the footsteps of Jesus southward and visited the scenes of the Bible narrative.
    After two weeks spent in Jerusalem, Christmas Eve found him in Bethlehem at the birthplace of Jesus.  Of his stirring emotions on that “Holy Night,” he later wrote to his Sunday school back in Philadelphia.  He said, “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born.  The whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God.  It was as if I could hear angelic voices telling each other of the Wonderful Night of our dear Savior’s birth.”
    Two years later, in 1867, Brooks put his pen to paper and wrote these immortal words:
    “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!  Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.  Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
    The prophet Micah, who first announced where Christ would be born, was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah.  In those days 700 years before Christ’s birth, God was speaking to both men of the One who was to come.
    Not as well-known as Isaiah, Micah still helped shape Israel’s national character.  His inspired preaching against injustice eventually brought Hezekiah the king to repentance and, in doing so, saved Israel.  During this time there was a shocking contrast within both Judea and Israel between the extremely rich and the oppressed poor.  Does that sound familiar?  Such oppression gained support from corrupt political and religious leaders of that day.  This failed leadership caused the nation to become morally bankrupt and therefore ripe for judgment.
    Micah foretold there would come a ruler who will “shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.  And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.  And he will be our peace…”  The place where this ruler would be born, said Micah, is Bethlehem.
    Bethlehem means house of bread.  “Sounds more like a home for the Pillsbury Dough Boy,” says one author, “than it does the birthplace of a king.”
    It’s profound, don’t you think, that God would raise the one who would be the “bread of life” from the so-called “house of bread?”
    As someone has written:  “Bread is one of life’s most common things.  God wanted His Son available to all.  His birth was announced to shepherds, the common man, but not to the religious elite nor to those with political clout.  His cradle was a manger, a common animal’s feeding trough in a lowly stable.  You don’t have to be rich to know Him.  You don’t have to be well-known or popular to know Him.  You can just be you.  Jesus came not for the religious, for the ones who thought they were all right, but for the ones who were aware of their needs.  That Christ was born in ‘The House of Bread’ gives us confidence that God does indeed want us to be his children no matter how insignificant we may seem to ourselves or to those around us.”
    A small town and a small baby—this is how God came to us.  Not in a power center of the world, not with pomp and circumstance did Christ come, but in a stable that housed animals and furnished with straw.
    Pastor Matthew Rogers writes, “When a new king is born you can hear the shots of artillery in a 41-gun salute.  When a new king is born, flags billow and chapel bells peal loud clanging music into the night.  When a new king is born, champagne corks stream through the air by the thousands.  When a new king is born, people stand together and sing choruses in the street.  When a new king is born, clouds of euphoria make millions of people feel like they are members of one harmonious family.
    “At least that’s the way one newspaper article says it was on June 21, 1982 when at 9:03 p.m. the future King of England came into the world.
    “His name was William, Prince of Wales, born to Prince Charles and his young wife Diana.  This boy was legitimate heir to the throne.  He was royal ancestry.  Born to be king.
    “But that’s not the way it was when Jesus came into the world.  It’s difficult to imagine a birth more humble or lowly than the birth of Jesus…Douglas Connelly says, ‘Imagine coming upon a young woman giving birth to a baby in an abandoned car in some urban alleyway, and you come closer to the way it really was.’”  And that was the way it was when Jesus was born.
    A small town, small babe and miraculously an entire world was saved.  I say miraculously because Christmas is from God.
    Frederick Buechner, in his book Listening to Your Life, wrote:  “When [this] child was born, the whole course of human history was changed.  That is a truth that is as unassailable as any truth.  Art, music, literature, western culture itself, with all its institutions and western man’s whole understanding of himself and his world.  It is impossible to conceive how differently things would have turned out if that birth had not happened, whenever, wherever, and however it did.  And there is a truth beyond that for millions of people who have believed since.  The birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life, but a new way of living it.  The truth of this incarnation should never cease to amaze us.  The mystery of the eternal, cradled in a manger, elicits awesome wonder and grateful praise.”
    Notice what Buechner says:  “The birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life, but a new way of living it.”  Let’s consider both of those new possibilities.
    The birth of Jesus made possible a new way of understanding life.  As someone noted, “you can listen to a cricket singing in his field and consider that he has no knowledge of other crickets in other fields, some far away some nearby.  He has no knowledge even of the cricket in the field across the road.  His world is one patch of weeds, and his lifetime, a single summer.
    “You can think of ancient man, with no knowledge of countries and continents across the seas.  His own little community is his world.  He knows no other.
    “You can think of the worlds unknown to us, of the outer limits of the universe about which we know next to nothing.  This little ball of mud, our whole universe, and our whole lifetime, these few years.  God has kept some greater knowledge in reserve for us for the future.
    “But once in a while, God opens a window in that larger eternal, heavenly world.  He opened such a window at Bethlehem when angels appeared to shepherds.  We learn this much:  it is a world of heavenly messengers who do God’s bidding, a world of peace, and a world where all glory is given to God.”
    All of that you can learn from what happened that night in the small town of Bethlehem.  The birth of Jesus made possible a new way of understanding life.
    The birth of Jesus also made possible a new way of living.  We hear people ask, why can’t we keep the Christmas spirit all year long?  And the answer is, of course, that’s why Christ came—that we might keep his spirit all year long.  The Christmas spirit is no more than the way the follower of Jesus is to live every day of his or her life—showing kindness to strangers; treating all people regardless of their station in life with respect; being generous with the poor and compassionate with the wayward.  That’s not an aberration.  That’s simply living the Christ life.
    Helmut Nausner is well-known Methodist pastor living in Austria.  He tells of a Christmas Eve during the Nazi occupation when he was very young.  His father was away, so his mother gathered the children around her to read the Christmas story and to pray.  As they did they could hear the soldiers outside their windows, marching the streets, patrolling the curfew, and enforcing the orders forbidding religious celebration.  They were very quiet.
    During the reading and praying, young Helmut kept wondering what his mother would do about the music.  Poor as they were, they had a piano that was used for house services where his Papa preached and his Mama played the hymns.  Mama, he said, loved the Christmas music, but surely the soldiers would hear if they sang.  “What would they do to Mama and to us?”  He wondered.
    When they finished their reading and prayers, Helmut’s youngest sister asked, “Mama, aren’t we going to sing?”  With only a moment’s hesitation, his mother answered, “Tonight we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child into our world.  He came that we might never be afraid any more.  Of course we are going to sing.”
    She gathered he brood about her and they sang, “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.  Come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.”
    You and I don’t have to sing in fear this morning—all fear has been taken away.  How?  Well, it begins in a small town called Bethlehem, “the house of bread.”  Friends, you have to know the Bread of Life?  You can, you know.  You can know a Christmas miracle in your life today. 
    Let us pray.  Shepherd of Israel, you gently support the one who is with child and   call forth the Lamb who dances in the womb, stir our hearts to recognize Christ’s coming, as Elizabeth recognized his presence in Mary’s radiant obedience to your desire, and open our souls to receive the one who came to love your flock.  Amen.

December 13, 2015

Peace Comes to Our Hearts

(Signs of Christ’s Coming, #3)

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7

About this time of year many of us start getting a little frantic, don’t we?  Christmas is so near.  There’s still so much to do.

This is a frantic time for many of us.  The season of Advent was supposed to be our chance to get ready, but in another week it will be over and the big day will be here.  All the decorations will be in place, the packages will all be wrapped, the last card will have been sent—then, ready or not, Christmas Day will arrive.

Are you prepared for Christmas?  I mean the real Christmas.  Not the Christmas of Santa Claus and reindeer and tinsel and expensive gifts—as wonderful as these things are.  Are you prepared for the birth of the Christ child?

This week as I read the lectionary readings I read the Gospel lesson last.  I read the Zephaniah passage first:  “rejoice and exult with all your heart.”  Then I flipped to Philippians and read:  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”  So far so good.  Rejoice!  That’s an important admonishment during this season of all-too-common horrific news.  Despite all the evidence to the contrary, there are reasons to rejoice, chief among them God’s nearness.

St. Paul, in Philippians 4, gives us a formula for getting our hearts ready for Christmas.  Listen closely to his words:  “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

In these words, Paul gives us a comprehensive formula for finding peace this Christmas—a peace which, as he says, transcends all understanding.  Let’s consider for a few moments this formula Paul gives us and see if it brings us peace during the Advent season.

Let’s begin with “Rejoice in the Lord always.”  Christmas is a time for joy.  But St. Paul’s admonition about “rejoicing in the Lord always” was no Pollyanna denial about the presence of suffering in the world.  Paul wrote this letter from prison—essentially on death row.  He was in chains, waiting to find out if he would be sentenced to death or if he would be let go.

Paul had an amazing spirit.  Three times he was shipwrecked; at least once he was stoned—and I don’t mean stoned as in being stoned in Colorado; I mean stoned with real rocks.  Five times he was scourged, and he was beaten many times as well.  He’d been the focus of riots and death threats, and after one harrowing, near-death experience, he was snake bitten!  Yet these experiences couldn’t take away his joy.

It’s obvious from Paul’s example that joy doesn’t mean everything is going your way.  Joy doesn’t mean receiving everything you desire in life.  Joy doesn’t mean having an enormous haul of goodies under your Christmas tree.  Joy doesn’t come from fame and prosperity—as we have surely seen in the lives of some of our biggest celebrities.  Joy comes from an inner assurance that whatever you’re going through, whether good times or bad, that God is with you.

I know that joy is a difficult concept for some people, especially at Christmas.  One of the most depressing facts about Christmas for these people is the fact that everybody is so jolly.  There are persons who have lost the ability to laugh, to play, even to rejoice in the Lord.  They may not be misers, but they have a great deal of the spirit of Scrooge in them, very much of the Grinch that stole Christmas.  Something in life has made them afraid—to trust life, to trust other people, to trust God.

Dr. Raymond Moody put it this way in his book, Laugh after Laugh:  

“It is well to recognize that some persons are actually fearful of joy, elation, pleasure or other usually positive emotional states.  In many of these people being joyful causes them to have feelings of guilt, shame or unworthiness.”

That’s sad, isn’t it—to be fearful of joy?  To feel unworthy of experiencing happiness?  Unfortunately, such feelings have crept into the attitudes of some followers of Christ.

If there was ever a time for dancing, it’s Christmas.  The Lord of all heaven and earth has come into our world as a tiny babe.  What a supreme cause for celebration.

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!” writes St. Paul.  Some of us are afraid of giving in to that kind of unadulterated joy.

Then Paul says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”  That’s an interesting thought.  Advent and Christmas are a time for gentleness—unless, of course, you’re headed for the mall.  I’m kidding, of course—at least I think I am.  Some people have actually broken into fights over Christmas bargains.  Others have been trampled by an avalanche of eager shoppers.  It’s hard to be gentle at Christmas.

We don’t often think of the gentleness of God.  But how else can we think of God at Christmastime?  We know of God’s power.  We know of His holiness.  But how often do we think of His gentleness?  Yet this same God who created the heavens and the earth became one of us.  He emptied Himself and took on human form, even the form of a tiny babe.  It’s a thought too amazing for us to comprehend.  I love the way Mark Lowry put it in his beautiful Christmas song:

“Mary did you know…that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you…”

I particularly love the final two lines of this wondrous song:  “Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?  And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.”

How can we possibly get our minds around something like that?  And yet it’s part of the magic of Christmas.  “Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near,” writes St. Paul.

There’s a story of a soldier in the Israeli army.  He was on patrol in an area of occupied Palestine when he felt a rock strike him in the back, then another and another.  He whirled around, his rifle ready to fire.  There in front of him were several Palestinian children.  They were picking up more stones to throw at him.

What was he to do?  He wasn’t going to fire live ammunition at mere children, but he couldn’t allow them to continue throwing those rocks either.  Suddenly, he had an idea.  He bent down and picked up three of the rocks…and then he began to juggle them…yes, juggle the rocks.  The children were mesmerized and forgot about their rocks.  The soldier did a few tricks, and the children laughed.  Then he did a grand finale, and they applauded.  He took a bow and walked away.

The story could’ve had a different ending, couldn’t it?  We’ve seen confrontations in the recent months that have had far different endings.  But it doesn’t need to be that way.  We could have the gentleness of Christ, a gentleness that transforms anger to laughter, hatred to love.  That’s the kind of gentleness Paul is urging us to adopt in our own lives.

Paul then writes, “Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

No wonder Paul could rejoice—even while waiting in prison to learn his fate.  No wonder when people oppressed him and abused him, when they beat him and said all manner of vile things about him, he could respond with a magnificent gentleness.  He’d learned life’s greatest secret:  “Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Henry Frost, a missionary to China, was going through a difficult time in his life.  Later he wrote these words in his journal:  “I had received sad news from home, and deep shadows covered my soul.  I prayed but the darkness did not vanish.  I summoned myself to endure, but the darkness only deepened.  Then I went to an inland station and saw on the wall of the mission home these words:  ‘Try thanksgiving.’  I did,” he says, “and in a moment every shadow was gone, not to return.”

Have you ever gone through a difficult time when your spirits were flagging and you were about to give up?  Did you try giving thanks, even in the midst of your difficult times?

It’s so easy to be thankful at Christmas, isn’t it?  We have so much.  Santa Claus will reward us with so many nice things.  The stores are filled this year with symbols of our material affluence.  But for some people material affluence only masks spiritual poverty.  They grasp at things external because internally they’re paupers.

“Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always,” writes St. Paul, “I will say it again:  Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”  Then St. Paul, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, makes us a promise, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  May it be so this Christmas for you and yours.  Amen.

Let us pray.  O God of the exiles and the lost, you promise restoration and wholeness through the power of Jesus Christ.  Give us faith to live joyfully, sustained by your promises as we eagerly await the day when they will be fulfilled for all the world to see, through the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

December 6, 2015

A Voice Calls in the Wilderness

(Signs of Christ’s Coming, #2)

Baruch 5:1-9; Luke 3:1-6

 I guess everyone has his or her own concept of what’s important in life.  There’s a tombstone in Wisconsin that leaves no doubt about the priority of the person who lies in that particular grave.  Under a certain man’s name and the dates of his birth and death is carved this inscription:  “Bowled 300 in 1982.”

Well, that was what was important to this man.  He once bowled a “300” and he wanted the world to know it.  Some of you bowlers can relate to that.  Everyone has his or her own concept of what’s important in life.

Our lesson for the Second Sunday in Advent takes us to a man who believed he had one mission in life and that was to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus.  His name was John.  We know him as John the Baptizer.  Listen as the Gospel of Luke describes John’s ministry:  “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:  ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness:  Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.  The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.  And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

Central to John’s life was this one mission:  to prepare the world for the coming of Christ.  That’s also our task—to prepare the world for Christ.  It’s easy for us to forget that sometimes.

A young woman tells about her fiancee who had been sent to basic training in the Coast Guard at Cape May, N.J., soon after their engagement.  She visited him when he was given his first liberty.  That evening they had a wonderful, quiet dinner, and then they took a romantic, moonlit walk toward the ocean.  However, at the sidewalk’s end, the young recruit stopped.  His fiancee wasn’t ready to stop.  “let’s go on down to the water,” she insisted.

“What?” he replied.  “And have the sand ruin the shine on my shoes?”

Those of you who have been in the military understand.  It takes labor to have a lustrous shine on your shoes.  But that young man needed to decide in a hurry which was more important to him—his fiancée or his shoes.  

It’s easy for us as followers of Jesus to take our eyes off the target, to forget what’s really important.  There are so many priorities, particularly during the Advent and Christmas seasons.  For example, good music is always a priority, but especially at Christmas.

I read recently that singing Christmas carols is good for your health.  According to this report singing can reduce stress as well as boost hormones that promote healthy feelings.

Even if you’re not apt to belt out Christmas tunes door-to-door with a group of carolers, says this report, sing along with your kids or your spouse to Christmas carols on the radio while you run errands or drive to visit family.  Ignore what other drivers think—sing Christmas songs at full voice with a silly smile on your face.  Have fun making other people on the road wonder what you’re up to.

Preparing music and other elements for our worship services are important.  So are all the other activities of the church.  As long as we remember our overall goal—that’s to prepare ourselves and the world for the coming of Christ.

In the same way John the Baptizer came to announce the coming of a king, a different kind of king.  “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.  The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.  And all people will see God’s salvation.’”  What a wondrous way to depict the preparations of the world for Christ—straightening the curves, filling in the valleys, cutting away the high mountains that the road might be level and easy to travel upon.  Dr. Ralph F. Wilson tells about the effort it took to straighten a highway in Southern California years ago, the old highway, US 99.  This treacherous piece of highway used to wind, dip, and climb as it crossed the rugged Tehachapi Mountains.  At one point the road rises to an elevation of more than 4,000 feet.

An old deacon told Wilson that when he was young it took him two full days to drive a large truck only 110 miles from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, CA.  As the road climbed the steep mountains he would have to shift to low gear and crawl up the slope.  When the road descended into the deep canyons on the other side he would have to shift into low gear again and ride the brakes in order to keep the heavy truck from careening off the narrow road.

Fortunately the government decided to do something about this dangerous piece of road.  Between 1960 and 1972 highway US 99 was upgraded to Interstate highway I-5, one of the most impressive engineering projects in human history.  Road cuts hundreds of feet deep were sliced through the mountains.  The rock and dirt extracted from these slices were used to fill deep gorges and canyons.  “Whenever I cross the [this stretch of] I-5,” Wilson continues, “I think of Isaiah’s words, of John’s mission of preparation, and of God’s working in my life to make me a fit disciple of Jesus.  God is seeking to prepare you and me.  To cut through the mountains of our pride, to fill up the valleys of our despair, to straighten our crooked moral rationalizations, and make us fit for the King himself to travel upon.”

This is why each year on the Second Sunday of Advent we revisit John the Baptizer preaching and baptizing in the wilderness.  The leveling of the land is a word picture helping us understand the way John’s ministry prepared the way for the ministry of Christ.  “And all people will see God’s salvation,” Luke says to us, quoting the words of Isaiah, this was the message of John, the voice in the desert—“salvation has come to all people.”

How were the people to prepare themselves for the coming Christ according to John the Baptizer?  They were to repent of their sins.  We read concerning John, “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Repentance is a difficult word to tie to Christmas.  After all, Christmas is a warm and fuzzy holy day.  At Christmastime we think of God like a jolly old Santa Claus who forgives all and accepts all and would never hold us responsible for how we live our lives.  The last thing we want to think about at Christmas is repentance.

Even if it weren’t Christmastime, it’s hard to combine a vision of a prophet out in the wilderness dressed in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey and calling people to repentance with a vision of our modern day society that doesn’t even acknowledge the concept of sin.  “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” trumpets the television commercial.  We’re not even sure what sin is any more.  It’s a word that has lost its sting, the punch line of a tired joke.

Meanwhile, domestic violence takes the lives of thousands of women each year, more than half of the nation’s children live in single parent homes, addictions continue to soar, young people wander around without a moral compass, mass media spews out violence and obscenity and explicit portrayals of sexual impropriety.  Could it be that we’re in greater need of a baptism of repentance than we might imagine?

Actually, we’re not that much different from the people in Jesus’ time.  Jews of John the Baptizer’s time felt no need for a baptism of repentance.  Jews believed that only Gentile converts to Judaism needed to be baptized.  This was to wash away all their defilement from their past lives.  Jews considered themselves children of Abraham.  Why would they ever need to be washed clean from their past?  They, like we, had no concept they needed to prepare their lives for a new kind of reality—the coming of the King of Kings, the Messiah, the Prince of Peace who would establish a new reign of love and light.

I enjoy the way that wonderful preacher and writer Frederick Buechner described John’s ministry.  Listen to his words:  “John the Baptizer didn’t fool around.  He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea.  He subsisted on a starvation diet, and so did his disciples.  He wore clothes that even the rummage-sale people wouldn’t have handled.  When he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time.

“The Kingdom was coming all right, he said, but if you thought it was going to be a pink tea, you’d better think again.  If you didn’t shape up, God would give you the ax like an elm with the blight or toss you into the incinerator like chaff.  He said being a Jew wouldn’t get you any more points than being a Hottentot, and one of his favorite ways of addressing his congregation was a snake pit.  Your only hope, he said, was to clean up your life as if your life depended on it, which it did, and get baptized in a hurry as a sign that you had.  Some people thought he was Elijah come back from the grave, and some others thought he was the Messiah, but John would have none of either.  ‘I’m the one yelling himself blue in the face in the wilderness,’ he said, quoting Isaiah.  ‘I’m the one trying to knock some sense into your heads’ (Matthew 3:3).”

Maybe we need a little head-knocking as we get closer to Christmas—all of us.  We’re preparing our homes for Christmas, but not our hearts.  We’re hanging up lights, but ignoring the darkness in our own lives—the darkness of strained relationships, the darkness of moral weakness, the darkness of anger, hopelessness and fear.

John the Baptizer wanted people to understand the coming of the Messiah would mean the coming of an extreme change of heart and mind.  And that day is still to come—a day when the poor will no longer be oppressed, a day when the hungry will be fed, a day when the world will no longer take up arms, a day when children will no longer live in fear.  And you and I are called to participate in that change.

Are you willing to do your part?  Or are you satisfied to participate only in that part of Christmas that feeds our desire for parties and presents and pleasant thoughts and cares little about the plight of our neighbors and our world?  If so, then the prophet says it’s time to repent.  The King is coming.  Prepare, ye, the way of the Lord.

Let us pray.  Out of the embrace of the mercy and righteousness, you have brought forth joy and dignity for your people, O Holy One of Israel.  Remember now your ancient promise:  make straight the paths that lead to you, and smooth the rough ways, that in our day we might bring forth your compassion for all humanity.  Amen.  

November 29

A Fig Tree Sprouts Leaves

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

(Signs of Christ’s Coming, #1)

In one of his books, motivational speaker Zig Ziglar tells the story of NFL quarterback Jeff Hostetler, formerly with the New York Giants.  At the beginning of his career, Jeff was a back-up quarterback.  By the end of his seventh season, he’d thrown less than two hundred passes, and none of them had any bearing on the outcome of a game.  Then Phil Simms, the starting quarterback of the Giants, went down with an injury, and coach Bill Parcels looked to his back-up quarterback on the bench and said, “Okay, Jeff, it’s your turn.”  Jeff Hostetler ran out onto the field and led his team to victory not only in that game but in the remaining games of the season including the Super Bowl.

However, as Zig Ziglar points out, there was more to the story than that.  During those seven years Jeff was in waiting, he “threw thousands of passes through a swinging tire.  He worked with his wide receivers and running backs in countless practice sessions, sharpening and honing his skills.  He lifted tons of weights, did hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups, jogged many, many miles, and did numerous wind sprints.  He literally spent hundreds of hours poring over the playbook, studying not only his own offense and defense but the defenses of the opposing teams.”  When Coach Parcells turned to Jeff Hostetler and said, “Okay, Jeff, it’s your turn,” Jeff was ready.

We’re beginning that season of the year known in the church as Advent.  Advent is a time of preparation.  It’s a time of getting ready.  During these weeks we focus our attention on the coming of Christ into our world.  We consider the words of the prophets and their expectations for the coming Messiah.  We ponder the meaning also of those texts in the New Testament that speak of Christ’s return to rule, to judge, and to save at the end of time.  

We live in a time when we’re surrounded by signs.  The song from the sixties said, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign/ Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind.  Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

Some of us grew up in an era before Interstate highways.  Most travel back then was done on two lane roads.  Along those roads would often be posted a series of five small red signs with white letters on them containing a humorous poem on four of those signs, with a 5th sign reserved for their sponsor.  Does anybody know what I’m talking about?  That’s right – Burma Shave signs.  For those too young to remember, here are some examples of those signs:

Drove Too Long/ Driver Snoozing/ What Happened Next/ Is Not Amusing.  Burma-Shave.  And my favorite:  The Midnight Ride/ Of Paul for Beer/ Led to a Warmer/ Hemisphere.  Burma-Shave.  I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.  As the song says, “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign…”

Signs are important.  Imagine trying to navigate your way in an area unknown to you without signs or a GPS.  Signs keep us aware of our surroundings; they help with directions; and they even help us to keep safe by offering warnings to us.  To ignore signs is risky.  It can sometimes be quite costly too.

“The days are surely coming,” says the prophet Jeremiah.  The days of promise and fulfillment are surely coming.  The days of justice and righteousness are surely coming.  The days of salvation and safety are surely coming.  These are words we need to hear this Advent.  When the news is grim and there’s no shortage of injustice or unrighteousness or damnation or danger, we’re called to hold up God’s promised future.  We’re to hold it up and live into it.

Our lesson for today begins like this:  “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars.  On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.  People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.  At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.  When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

In this passage, Jesus notes there are signs that will precede the coming of the “Son of Man.”  Christ said that no one, not even he himself, knew when that day would be.  And yet, he said, there will be signs.  These signs will cause people to be terrified.  The signs include the sun, moon, and stars being shaken and the sea roaring and being tossed.  The world will experience an unprecedented state of chaos.  Things will be out of control.  It’s a disturbing passage.  Yet notice what he says about these events.

First of all, he says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  Did you hear what he’s saying?  During distress among the nations, Christians are called to stand up and raise our heads in anticipation of redemption.  Lifting up examples of Christians working for justice and mercy while war and violence rages, is critical.  We need to know there are alternatives to the predominate narrative of fear and retaliation.  We need to bear witness to the coming Kingdom in ways that make it possible for the world to see signs of its coming, too.  There are leaves coming forth from the fig tree, but we have to look to find them.

Recently I read a story about five roommates, four American college students and the fifth a Syrian refugee.  Here’s a short exchange from that story:

Shapiro:  I asked Doug, why did you decide to take in a refugee as a roommate?  What was the motivation there?

Walton:  My immediate answer just sounds so cliché’, but I think the motive is love.  I was told he’s coming and that I have an opportunity to help him out.  And I was like, yeah, why wouldn’t I do that?  I just love Mohammed, and I just want to help him out.

Isn’t that all that matters to those who love Jesus?  No one loves us like Jesus loves us.  “When these things begin to take place,” Jesus says to us, “stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

No doubt there are stories from our own community to share, stories of Christians standing up in hopeful expectation when circumstances seem dire.  Now is the time to stand up and proclaim what God says is surely coming.  Advent is a time of heightened awareness, not to the threat of terrorists, but to the inevitable coming of the Son of Man.  We’re to be on the alert for the kingdom of God, even in the midst of the upheaval of this world.

The call for this first Sunday in Advent is not a call for fear, but a call to faith.  Of course, there will always be bad things happening in this world, but don’t despair.  It’s under God’s control.  And God will never forsake us.  A few verses later Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”  Does that mean we can trust every promise that Christ ever made to us?  Those promises are golden—including the promise that, no matter what happens, he will give us peace that passes understanding…if we will trust in him.  We can trust his every promise…including the promise that he’ll never forget us or forsake us…including the promise that he’s prepared a mansion for us, where he is so shall we also be.

“Be always on the watch…” is his final word to us.  Like a child waiting for Santa Claus, be on watch.  Like a couple awaiting the birth of their first child, be on watch.  Like a family waiting for the return of their soldier after receiving word that he’s safe and headed home, be on watch.

Robby Robbins was an Air Force pilot during the first Iraq war.  After his 300th mission, he was surprised to be given permission to immediately pull his crew together and fly his plane home.  These young military men flew across the Atlantic to Massachusetts and then had a long drive to western Pennsylvania.  They drove all night.  When his buddies dropped Robbins off at his driveway just after sun-up, there was a big banner across the garage—“Welcome Home Dad!”

How did they know?  No one had called, and the crew themselves hadn’t expected to leave so quickly.  Robbins relates that when he walked into the house, the kids, half dressed for school, screamed, “Daddy!”  His wife Susan came running down the hall—she looked terrific—hair fixed, make-up on, and wearing a crisp yellow dress.  “How did you know?” he asked.

“I didn’t,” she answered through tears of joy.  “We knew you’d try to surprise us, so we were ready every day.”

That’s to be our attitude toward Advent.  This is a reason for waiting on tiptoe.  Our redemption is drawing near.  The kingdom is drawing near.  Christ’s words will never pass away.  You can trust his promises forever.  Therefore, “Be always on watch.”

Let us pray.  O God of all the prophets, you herald the coming of the Son of Man by wondrous signs in the heavens and on the earth.  Guard our hearts from despair so that we, in the company of the faithful and by the power of your Holy Spirit, may be found ready to raise our heads at the coming near of our redemption, the day of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

November 1, 2015

God’s Pattern for Sainthood

Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a

Lutheran pastor Martin Taylor tells a delightful story which he says he heard from another pastor, an elderly gentleman, at a pastor’s gathering.  As a young man this pastor had been studying for the ministry and was asked to serve a small congregation in Canada over the summer months.  His father who was also a pastor urged him to accept the opportunity, but he was reluctant.  He was young and inexperienced.  The idea of serving a congregation and especially the writing of sermons terrified him.  His father said he would help him with that.  He would simply provide him with some of his old sermons that he could recycle as needed.

Reluctantly the son agreed to this proposal.  And things went relatively well…until the day that a member of the church died.  The son panicked.  He had never presided over a funeral.  He didn’t even know this parishioner.  How could he prepare a message under these circumstances?

His father said not to worry.  He had a funeral meditation that he’d written to commemorate the life of one of his church’s leading saints, a meditation that had received many accolades.  Evidently the person the father had eulogized was a person who had lived an exemplary life.

Apparently this wasn’t so for the person who had died in the son’s parish.  Indeed, he was something of a scoundrel.  So as the son rattled on about what a great saint the deceased was, the family became increasingly uncomfortable.  They knew it was all untrue.

Finally a young boy in the family, who had been overhearing his family’s whispered comments about the inaccuracy of the young pastor’s description of their dearly departed, broke the decorum of the funeral setting.  He stood in front of the pulpit and declared in a stern voice, “Hogwash, hogwash, hogwash!”  Actually that’s not the term he used.  It’s a more polite paraphrase of a common expletive.

This totally unhinged the young pastor.  He was stricken speechless.  All he could do was to put away his notes, close his Bible, say “Amen” and sit down.

Well clearly the deceased wasn’t a saint—not, at least, in the way we normally think of a saint.  Let’s reflect for a few moments on what it takes to be a saint as we look at our text for this All Saints’ Day from the Psalms.

Perhaps of all the books of antiquity, the book of Psalms is the most appealing; not just for the beauty of its poetry but the poignancy and authenticity with which the Psalms are written.  In the Psalms we see the human heart wrestling with its own imperfections, and we see the perfection of the God who calls human beings to righteous living.

Psalm 24 is a beautiful hymn.  It begins like this:  “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.  Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?  Who may stand in his holy place?  The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god.  They will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God their Savior…”

This psalm marks an important moment in Israel’s history.  David had just repossessed the ark of the Lord from Israel’s enemies.  This psalm was sung while a procession of joyous people was entering the city of Jerusalem.  The psalm has two main themes:  The power and majesty of God as maker and sovereign over all the earth, and the righteousness required of men and women if they’re to be blessed by God.  Let’s begin with the power and the majesty of God.

The first thing the Psalmist affirms is that God is the ruler of all creation.  “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” writes the psalmist, “the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters…”

D. J. DeHaan tells about traveling with his wife through northern Texas on Interstate 40.  They pulled off at a rest stop.  On a metal sign was description of the area.  One sentence caught DeHaan’s eye.  It read like this, “Traveling the high plains of Texas is an experience in immensity.”

And that’s true.  Texas is an immense state.  But even Texas pales in significance to the immensity of creation.  Look up at the sky on a clear summer night.  If you live in a big city, you may not see all that many stars.  Depending on where you live, you may see a few hundred to several thousand glowing dots in the sky.  Astronomers tell us; however, there may be as many as 10 billion galaxies in the universe, with each galaxy containing perhaps 100 billion stars.  In other words, not only are the stars we see in the night sky far away from us, they’re a mere fraction of what’s really out there.

Can you even imagine such immensity?  “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” writes the psalmist, “the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters…”

But not just the earth…the billions of galaxies are His as well.  It’s breath-taking if you truly try to get your mind around it.  We worship a great God.

Sister Mary Rose McGeady, in her book, Does God Still Love Me? Tells a wonderful story about a colony of mice that made their home at the bottom of a large upright piano.  These mice lived in a world of constant music.  Music filled all the dark spaces of their existence with lovely melodies and harmonies.

At first, the mice were impressed by the music.  They drew comfort and wonder from the thought that Someone made the music—Someone though invisible to them, yet close to them.  They loved to tell stories about the Great Unseen Piano Player whom they couldn’t see.

Then one day an adventuresome mouse climbed up part of the way in the piano and returned with an elaborate explanation about how the music was made.  Wires were the secret—tightly stretched wires of various lengths that vibrated and trembled from time to time.  A second mouse ventured forth and came back telling of hammers—many hammers dancing and leaping on the wires.

The mice decided they must revise their old opinions.  The theory they developed was complicated, but complete with evidence.  In the end, the mice concluded they lived in a purely mechanical and mathematical world—a world simply of wires and hammers.  The story of the Unseen Piano Player was relegated to mere myth…But the Unseen Player continued to play nonetheless.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters…”  The first thing the psalmist affirms is that God is the ruler of all creation.

The second thing the Psalmist affirms is that God demands righteousness from all who worship Him.  “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.  Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?  Who may stand in his holy place?  The one who has clean hands and a pure heart…”

The temple or the tabernacle of the Lord sat on a hill.  The hill on which it sat was referred to as the Hill of the Lord for it was there that God’s presence was resident in the Ark of the Covenant, which sat in the inner parts of the temple.  Why was this place Holy?  It was Holy because it had been separated for God’s use.  A Holy God is separate and sanctified.  That means He is unique and in a class by Himself and any worship to Him must also be offered from lives that have been separated for Him alone.

I suspect the idea of “clean hands and a pure heart” is a concept that few people would comprehend in our society today—a society which is rapidly becoming cruder and ruder.  The idea of separating oneself from such a society would seem to most to be eccentric.  Who wants to be a saint?  Who wants to be thought different?  And yet, I suspect that persons who so completely dedicate themselves to God would know a peace the rest of us can only envy.

I didn’t watch the video.  I didn’t want to see.  Hearing was difficult enough.  The BBC reporter in his detached newscaster voice shared the dying 6-year-old Yemini boy’s plea to the doctors working on his body, his small body badly injured by a missle that struck his house.  The boy, in tears, said, “Don’t bury me.”  A reporter shared the footage of Fareed’s last words on his Facebook page and after the little boy died it went viral.  The story on the BBC website is titled, “A dying boy’s plea that became an iconic message for peace.”  The BBC reports that a Yemini activist posted on Facebook, “Just like young Aylan (Kurdis) death encapsulated the tragedy of the Syrian people, and Fareed’s plea not to be buried encapsulates the tragedy of the Yemini people.”

In recent days I’ve been trying to both keep in mind and push from my consciousness the photos I Time Magazine’s special report, “Exodus.”  The images are black and white, featuring young men and old women, children carried on their parent’s shoulders and trudging along behind them, all of them with looks of painful determination on their faces.  The report offers daunting statistics like, “If this population were a country, it would be the world’s 24th largest.”  “Half of all the refugees are children.”

Then I hear of a little boy, begging the adults surrounding him, “Don’t bury me” and I feel accountable.  I feel compelled to remember Aylan and Fareed on this All Saints’ Day.  This November 1, as I remember my beloved brother-in-law who died way too soon and my friend Don and high school best friend Jim and church members I have buried and miss.  I also feel a need to remember those in the communion of the saints I don’t know but dare not forget.

The lectionary texts for this week in Isaiah and in Revelation are about community on the grandest scale.  They’re about God’s long awaited redemption of whole peoples, of the entire creation, a new heaven and new earth.  Listen to the scope of this redemption in Isaiah:  “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”

Hear the intimacy of this relationship in Revelation:  “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

This is All Saints’ Day.  God hasn’t forgotten Aylin or Fareed.  Nor has God neglected the ones you have loved and miss, the saints in the cemetery and the ones interred in the mausoleum.  We need to remember them all.

Don’t bury them.  Don’t imagine that death has the last word, either.  Too often resurrection is left to Easter Sunday; we don’t even observe the entire season.  It is as if we can only suspend our disbelief in the finality of death for a few hours, once a year.  We sing alleluia and then live as if Jesus never left the tomb, relegating the tragedies of our time to the category of inevitable, insurmountable and beyond hope.  We ignore the pleas of Fareed.  We allow the rhythms of the news cycle to focus and frame our attention even as vast numbers of people continue to suffer long after the cameras are turned off.  We recite the correct faith statement, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day…I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  But we fail to act on that belief, ignoring Jesus’ command to move the stone.  We neglect to unbind the ones Jesus has called forth from the grave.

All Saints’ Day is a day to celebrate the resurrection, to have the audacity to proclaim that death, destruction, violence, and pain aren’t ultimate.  All three of these texts for All Saints’ Day are about God’s ability and certain promise to bring about long awaited and seemingly impossible reconciliation, redemption and life.  The question we need to ask ourselves and those gathered is:  Do you believe this?

Will you take a dare?  God is daring you to believe in what much of the world says is impossible and then live in ways that reflect that radical belief:  God hears and heeds the pleas of all his children crying, “Don’t bury me.”  God’s home is among the mortals.  God destroys the shrouds that have been cast over all peoples.  The Lord wipes away the tears of Fareed and all faces.  God is creating a new heaven and a new earth.  Death and mourning and crying will be no more.

Let us pray.  Eternal God, hope of all who trust in you, in Christ you weep with those who mourn even as you cry out in triumph over the grave.  Unbind us from sin, release us from captivity, and with Lazarus, raise us from death to life, so that we may join that great crowd of saints who forever sing praise to your holy name; through Christ, the resurrection and the life.  Amen. 


October 25, 2015

A Man with No Name

Jeremiah 31:7-9; Mark 10:46-52

Jesus and his disciples were passing through the city of Jericho, a beautiful city some fifteen miles northeast of Jerusalem.  Jesus was at the height of his popularity, and great crowds greeted him as he came into the city.  Although we don’t know for certain, perhaps Jesus spent the day teaching in Jericho, which might explain why the people were so excited about having him visit their city.

But regardless, as Jesus was leaving the city he encountered some desperate people with nowhere else to turn.  Let me describe the situation to you.  Ancient cities were surrounded by a wall to protect them from attack.  At nightfall the gates in the wall would be closed for security.  During the day, you could always find beggars just outside these gates.  They were forgotten people, cut off from their family and friends.  Their only hope was that a stranger passing through might stop, take pit on them, and give them something to eat or possibly even a few coins.  The situation wasn’t unlike our present problem with the homeless living in the streets of our cities.  And, like today, the beggars were an embarrassment to most people.  They weren’t what residents wanted important visitors like Jesus to see.

The lectionary texts for this week have themes of restoration after long seasons of suffering.  Ponder this question.  How do you offer hope without minimizing the suffering of others?

Among the beggars that particular day was a blind man called Bartimaeus, which means, simply, the son of Timaeus.  Note that:  We know his father’s name, but not his.  He’s a man with no name—and given his circumstance, no prospects of success.  An anonymous beggar on the side of the road.  Today we would probably find him at a busy intersection on an interstate with a sign:  homeless, need food.

People passed Bartimaeus by without even seeing him.  Or they passed by on the other side of the road so they could ignore him.  Or they grudgingly tipped him a few coins.  And some despised him because he reminded them of how miserly they were with their charity.

We don’t like beggars, do we?  They make us feel uncomfortable.  We resent their intrusion into our lives.  But, you see, there was no place else for Bartimaeus to turn.  There were no government programs in Palestine for helping vision-impaired persons to train for productive jobs.  There was no white cane or seeing-eye dog programs.  Today Bartimaeus could’ve lived a life of dignity and value even though he was sightless. Thanks to modern technology and educational programs for the blind, many sightless persons are productive members of the community.  There were no such opportunities in first century Israel, however.  Bartimaeus was on his own trying to cope in a world of perpetual darkness while his neighbors lived in a wonderful world of light.

Please understand that Bartimaeus didn’t need his vision to have a fulfilling life.  There have been many people whose eyes didn’t function as they should who have lived amazingly whole lives.  Outstanding people like Helen Keller and Louis Braille.  People like mountain climber and author Erik Weihenmayer, the first bind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest.  People like the gospel songwriter Fanny Crosby and a host of noted popular musicians.

But for Bartimaeus it was a Spartan existence.  He would’ve preferred that he could work at a real job like people who had their sight.  It was lonely and demoralizing sitting by the side of the road day after day begging for alms.  The hours passed slowly—much more slowly than if Bartameus had a job.  And the amount he collected was barely enough to allow him to buy bread for the day.  But Bartimaeus never gave up.  Somewhere, somehow, he believed there was something better for him.

And suddenly it was here—the opportunity for which he had prayed for so long.  There was a tumult of excitement on the road.  A local celebrity and his disciples were passing by.  A large crowd of curious folk had gathered to see this man called Jesus pass through their town on his way to Jerusalem.  The news of his compassion and his healing power had reached beyond Jericho to the outlying area.  People wanted to see him and touch him.

When Bartimaeus learned it was Jesus passing by, he knew this was his one opportunity to do something about his situation.  This was his one opportunity to escape from his life of dependency and despair.

So he began to cry out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  And what happened when he made his cry?  Many in the crowd began to rebuke him, that he should hold his peace.  Pushy beggar!  Why can’t he accept his fate like the rest of us?  What right does a blind man have with hopes and dreams?

How often in life when a person tries to make a meaningful change do others try to discourage him?  But Bartimaeus cried out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Notice that Mark doesn’t reinterpret the title for Jesus as other New Testament authors do.  Mark is telling the readers that those who regard Jesus as Son of David haven’t yet had their blindness healed.

Then something interesting happened.  Jesus stopped.  How beautiful are those words in Mark’s Gospel, “Jesus stopped…and said, ‘Call him.’”  In the midst of the pressing crowd, Jesus was willing to stop and minister to one needy soul.  “Call him,” said Jesus.

And someone called Bartimaeus, and said, “Cheer up.  The Master is calling for you.”  And Mark tells us, “Throwing his cloak aside, Bartimaeus jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

Brothers and Sisters, this is faith in action!  This is enthusiasm!  He doesn’t just slink up to Jesus, as would be appropriate for a person regarded by the religious establishment as an outcast and unclean.  He jumps up and stands tall before the Messiah.  He throws off anything that would stand between him and the Savior.  Like the original disciples, he leaves everything to follow Jesus.  Bartimaeus was disadvantaged, but Bartimaeus was not helpless.  He had determination.  He wasn’t going to let people tell him to be quiet.  There is anticipation and hope.  When he saw the opportunity for healing, he literally leaped at that opportunity.

The plot moves forward in a way that makes the reader want to know what will happen next.  Like in the movies, the camera zooms in on Jesus and Bartimaeus while the disciples and the crowd becomes merely background.

“What do you want me to do for you?”  Imagine that question to you, just you.  Never mind the crowd who told you to be quiet.  Never mind the past, how you got here, how long you’ve been beside the way.  Jesus, standing still, waiting for you to come to him, asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher let me see again.”  Do you notice the shift?  No longer does Bartimaeus call Jesus “Son of David,” He calls him Rabbi, my teacher.  Already his vision is restored.  The honorary title has transformed to personal relationship.  Salvation isn’t theoretical, it’s actual.  Jesus pronounces the transformation and immediately, newly and rightly seeing, Bartimaeus, no longer beside the way, follows Jesus on the way.

This is a call story and every call story is specific, personal, involving a new way of seeing.  Once I was blind but now I see.  It means moving beside the way to on the way and only Jesus can bring about that change of status.

Why do you think “Amazing Grace” is such a popular hymn?  What resonates with the imagery of having been blind but now being able to see?

M. Eugene Boring in his Commentary on Mark notes that Bartimaeus’ throwing off his cloak is “but a further indication that this is a call/discipleship story.  The mantle in which he slept and which he spread before him beside the road to collect alms seems to be his sole possession and means of his livelihood; his casting it away corresponds to the other disciples leaving their boats, tax desk, and ‘everything.’”  This new vision reorients Bartimaeus’ entire life; nothing is as it was before.  This newest disciple is on the way, just as the way leads to Jerusalem.

So it was for the man with no name, known only as the son of Timaeus.  He refused to give into despair.  Instead he called out to Jesus and he was healed.

Not all of us had the dramatic call story of a Bartimaeus or a Saul turned Paul.  However, most of us have had encounters with our teacher.  Most of us have experienced, in one way or another, new vision, a time when we have taken heart and had a change of heart.

The Good News is that Jesus cares.  Trust him.  Turn your burdens over to him and carry on in the knowledge that the day will come when you, too, will experience victory in Jesus.

Let us pray.  O Jesus Christ, teacher and healer, you heard the cry of the blind beggar when others would’ve silenced him.  Teach us to be attentive to the voices others ignore, that we might respond through the power of the Spirit to heal the afflicted and to welcome the abandoned for your sake and the sake of the gospel.  Amen.

October 18, 2015

Be Careful What You Ask For

Job 38:1-7; Mark 10:35-45

There’s a wonderful story about the King and Queen of Sweden who were attending the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York.  Trying to get into an ice hockey game featuring the Swedish National Team, they were stopped by the ticket taker because their tickets were for another game on another day.  The King said that the correct tickets were in his car and he asked that they be allowed in without the correct tickets:  “Could you make an exception for us, please?” he asked.  “You see, I’m the King of Sweden.”

The ticket taker responded, “Sure you are, and I suppose this is the Queen.”

The King and Queen of Sweden went back to their car to get the correct tickets…only to see it being towed away.

I guess it’s a little different being the King and Queen of Sweden and being, say, the Queen of England.  The job obviously comes with fewer perks.

How about your job?  Are you at the place you had hoped to be at this stage of your life?  We spend our whole lives pursuing dreams and goals.  The aim is to go higher, to become greater.  To have more perks, as it were.  That’s the mark of success.  It even affects our families.  We want our children to become doctors and lawyers and engineers.  Nobody tries to persuade their children to become servants.  What?!  A servant?  But sometimes God’s way confuses man’s wisdom.

In Mark 10, Jesus tells his disciples for the third time about his impending death.  “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law.  They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles [Romans], who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him.  Three days later he will rise”.

Jesus might as well have been speaking a foreign language to his disciples.  They just didn’t get it—even two of his closest disciples, James and John.  Jesus predicts his death, and they don’t seem to be concerned at all about the suffering he’s about to endure.  Instead they’re still looking after their own selfish interests.

They approach him privately.  That tells you something right there. If they’re approaching him about something high and noble, they would certainly have done so in front of the other disciples.  No-o-o…this is a different kind of request.

“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

There’s another red flag.  If one of your children came to you and said “Mommy, we want you to do for us whatever we ask,” what would be your reaction?  You’d brace yourself, wouldn’t you?  This was going to be a doozy.

That was Jesus’ reaction too.  “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”  Ah, so this is the desire of their heart.  After hearing Jesus’ teachings and seeing his compassion for the least and lowest, they’re still on a power trip.  They want the places of highest honor and authority in Jesus’ Messianic Kingdom which they anticipate he’s about to establish.  “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

These were positions of authority.  Obviously, this is something they’d talked about at home in great detail.  In Matthew 20 their mother makes this same request in their behalf.  She was Salome.  Some scholars believe she was a sister of Jesus’ mother [Mary] and thus Jesus’ aunt.  If this is true, then James and John were Jesus’ first cousins and perhaps they hoped that family ties would help their cause.  Nepotism is what it’s called, I believe.  That never happens in the workplace, does it?  Of course it does.

Look how often it happens in politics.  Does the name Kennedy ring a bell, or Bush, or Clinton?  

Some of you will remember that after winning the 1960 presidential election, President-elect John F. Kennedy appointed his younger brother, Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General.  The choice was controversial.  After all, Bobby was only 35.  He had no experience in any state or federal court.  But John Kennedy, ever the quick wit, joked, “I can’t see that it’s wrong to give [Bobby] a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law.”  He was going to get a little experience…as Attorney General of the United States.  Actually the case against Robert Kennedy was a little over-stated.  He’d already achieved a name for himself as a government lawyer at 35.

But it’s not unusual for someone to try to use family or social ties to get ahead, to cut the line, to be bumped up over someone else who may be more qualified than we are.  Our goal is to get ahead.  And sometimes we don’t care whose turn it is.  In this world, it’s survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog.

John and James wanted to get ahead.  They weren’t simply asking Jesus to be chummy with them and sit close to him.  This wasn’t a request for relationship, but one for power.  They wanted to be at the top of the pecking order.

“You don’t what you are asking,” Jesus said.  “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

Jesus wanted them to understand that in his Kingdom positions of power didn’t come according to family or social connections.  It costs to have a place at his table.  To ask for a place of honor in his Kingdom is also a request to share in his suffering since the one is a requisite to the other.  Paul makes the same point in Romans 8:17:  “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if needed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said.  Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

“Are ye able?” said the Master, goes an old Gospel song, “to be crucified with me?  ‘Yea,’ the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘to the death we follow thee.’”

James and John were among those “sturdy dreamers.”

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.  These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

Jesus explained that positions of honor in the kingdom weren’t his to give.  Maybe in our generation we would nominate Mother Teresa or Dr. King for those positions.  But God has had many worthy servants through the ages, most of whom are unknown to us.  Maybe that honor’s reserved for the janitor at your school or business.  Who knows?  Nevertheless, Christ does indicate there are places of honor reserved for those who serve him.  Never think that your service to Christ is in vain.  You will have a place at his banquet table.

Now, it’s interesting what happens next.  The other ten disciples become furious when they learn of James and John’s private attempt to gain preferential treatment in Jesus’ Kingdom.  We read, “When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.”  Perhaps they were upset—not because they thought James and John’s request was unfair—but because they too harbored those same selfish ambitions.

Isn’t it funny how sometimes we judge others more harshly than we judge  ourselves for the same sins?  The anger of the other ten disciples may not have been motivated by the injustice of James and John’s request but by their own jealousy.

At this point, Jesus, in order to avert discord among the twelve, calls them together.  He begins to reemphasize the meaning of real greatness.  He contrasts greatness in this world—positions of power, elegant houses, expensive cars, and fat bank accounts—with greatness in God’s kingdom.

Jesus came to save sinners, call tax collectors, restore those chained to a living death among the tombs and touch lepers.  What exactly were James and John expecting when they yearned to be Jesus’ right and left hand men?  Perhaps they have yet to make the distinction between Gentile glory and Jesus’ glory.  Maybe they are still hoping to lord it over others.  It could be that the passion predictions, dire and repeated as they are, are overshadowed by the transfiguration experience James and John witnessed a few chapters back.  Don’t we all want to go from glory to glory?  Palm Sunday to Easter with no Good Friday in between?  The birth of Jesus with no talk of judgment and the Second Coming?  Building booths on the mountain rather than returning to the mess in the valley?

“Instead,” says Jesus, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

I don’t need to tell you that service is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  His incarnation—his coming in human flesh—was a most powerful demonstration of that truth.  His death, which he had just predicted, was a demonstration of that.  As he once put it:  “Greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.  The washing of His disciple’s feet at the last supper was an indication of that.  Think of it.  The great, matchless God of the universe stoops down to become a human being and becomes a washer of feet.  This is greatness at its zenith!  Jesus himself is the supreme example of that which he’s calling us to be.  In humble, lowly form he came into the world, and it wasn’t so that he could be elevated and made ruler over the Roman world, but to suffer and to die for us.  He didn’t have to do it but he did.  He demonstrated greatness in his immaculate service to humanity.  And that’s what Christ asks out of us.

Years ago, there was a provocative story in Discipleship Journal about former President Franklin Roosevelt and a man who served him.  The man’s name was Harry Hopkins.  Hopkins was Roosevelt’s closet adviser during much of his presidency.

During World War II, when his influence with Roosevelt was at its peak, Hopkins held no official Cabinet position.  This disturbed many people.  And Hopkins became a major political liability to the President.

A political foe once asked Roosevelt, “Why do you keep Hopkins so close to you?  You surely realize that people distrust him and resent his influence.”

Roosevelt replied, “Someday you may well be sitting here where I am now as President of the United States.  And when you are, you’ll be looking at that door there and knowing that practically everybody who walks through it wants something out of you.  You’ll learn what a lonely job this is, and you’ll discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins, who asks for nothing except to serve you.”

It is said that Winston Churchill rated Hopkins as one of the half-dozen most powerful men in the world in the early 1940s.  The sole source of Hopkins’ power was his willingness to serve.

Christ is also looking for people whose only desire is to serve him.

Let us pray.  Creator God, you are wrapped in light as a garment, clothed with honor and majesty.  Enlighten us with true faith and humble obedience that seeks to serve others in your name.  Amen.

October 11

When is Enough…Enough?

Amos 5:10-15; Mark 10:17-31

Comedienne Joan Rivers who died last year once said something with which many people would agree.  “People say that money isn’t the key to happiness,” said Rivers, “but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.”

“I always figured if you have enough money…” says Rivers.  How much is enough money?  That’s a good question.  Ameriprise Financial has spent millions of dollars in advertising asking that question, “Do you have enough money?”

A Hollywood film editor once said, “I had this date the other night with a woman who wanted to walk along the beach.  I’m wearing a twelve-hundred dollar suit, a seventy-five-dollar tie, a hundred-and-fifty-dollar shirt, and a pair of two-hundred-dollar shoes.  It costs me fifteen dollars to clean my suit and six dollars to have my shirt hand-washed.  “I don’t even want to think about what it would cost if I should get a drop of spaghetti sauce on my tie.  And this woman wants me to roll up my pants and walk along the beach!  All I can think about is how much it’s going to cost me if she wants to sit down on the sand.  Here’s the bottom line that I need to ask myself:  Can I afford to wear my own clothes?”

A twelve-hundred dollar suit, a seventy-five-dollar tie, a hundred-and fifty-dollar shirt, and a pair of two-hundred-dollar shoes…When is enough…enough?  That, by the way, is from a book titled, Lives without Balance.

Author and sociology professor Tony Campolo in his book Everything You’ve Heard Is Wrong tells about a young idealistic student he once had in one of his classes named Ralph.  During his undergraduate years, Ralph committed to becoming an advocacy lawyer who would champion the rights of the oppressed and stand up against the exploitation of the poor.  Ralph was full of passion for justice and radiated a compassion for the underdog that inspired all who knew   him. 

By the time he graduated from law school, however, Ralph was deeply in debt.  So he took a job with a large firm that specialized in corporate law and did as little pro bono work as possible.  The pay was mind boggling, and Ralph convinced himself that he would only stay with the firm for as long as it took him to make enough money to pay off his school bills.  He assured his former professor the yuppie subculture into which he was jumping wouldn’t rub off on him.  He was certain that who he was had been so firmly established that the surrounding culture couldn’t change him one little bit.

Well, you can imagine the rest of the story.  When Tony Campolo met Ralph a few years later he was a transformed person.  His idealism was gone.  He was on the verge of becoming a partner in the firm, he had a live-in relationship with one of his colleagues, and they had just moved into a “super place up on the East Side.”  What saddened Campolo most was the excitement that had once sparkled in Ralph’s eyes seemed gone.  “Oh,” says Campolo, “Ralph still went to church regularly.  He had found one of those churches that served, as they say, ‘a better class of people.’”

I guess that Ralph discovered that once you get on the treadmill of material-  success enough simply is never enough.  When is enough…enough for you?

A wealthy man came to Jesus to ask what he needed to do “to inherit eternal life.”  Evidently, this man was where many of us are.  His material needs were being met, but not his spiritual ones.  He wasn’t a bad man, just an empty one.

His approach to Jesus, however, was a bit of unbecoming flattery.  He addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher.”  This was a violation of proper Jewish etiquette.

“Why do you call me good?”  Jesus replied.  “No one is good—except God alone.”  Jesus was probably cautioning this man not to put his ultimate confidence in teachers or powerful people, but only in God.  The arm of flesh is frail and will fail, but God remains true.  

“You know the commandments, “said Jesus.  “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your mother and father.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

This man believed that, if he just kept the Mosaic Law, he would have it made spiritually.  So, here’s his situation:  He thought money would make him happy.  But it didn’t.  He thought minding all the rules of his faith would make him happy, but it didn’t.  All his life he’d been taught that if he had enough money.  And if he was a good guy, that would be enough.  But it wasn’t.  REPEAT

Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him.  Jesus knew this man was trying to live as his society told him he ought to live.  And Jesus appreciated that.  And Jesus wanted to give him the key to what he needed.  “One thing you lack,” he said.  “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”

“At this,” says the Gospel of Mark, “the man’s face fell.  He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”  At least one Bible scholar says this may be the saddest verse in the Bible.  This young man was in the presence of the Master himself.  He could’ve made his life something magnificent.  His name would’ve been called blessed by hundreds of people he might’ve helped.  He could’ve written one of the Gospels perhaps.  His name would be revered even today.  But he turned away because he couldn’t let go of the good in order to grasp the best.  God gives us the freedom to choose, doesn’t He?  We don’t have to accept what God has to give us.  “He went away sad,” says the Gospel, “because he had great wealth.”

Can you imagine that?  We could understand it if we read, “He went away sad in spite of his great wealth.”  Many people are sad in spite of their great wealth.  But it says, “He went away sad because of his great wealth.”  Is it possible to be sad because you have great wealth?

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words.  But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who’s rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, Mark tells us, and they said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

That’s a good question.  If accumulating toys won’t bring you happiness and keeping the rules won’t buy you salvation, what’s it going to take?  If we take everything we have and sell it, and give the proceeds to the poor like Jesus was telling this man to do, will that do it?  Well, that depends.  Is money what’s most important in your life?  Is it your money that’s keeping you from giving your all to God?  When Jesus told this man to sell everything he had and give to the poor, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.  Jesus was simply telling this man the truth about what came first in this man’s life—and that was his money.

What is it that comes first in your life?  A pastor friend once told me, “show me your checkbook register and I can tell you what your priorities are.”  What is it that keeps you from doing great things for God?  Is it your job?  Is it your family?  Is it TV, Facebook, e-mail, a hobby?  Where do you devote your time, money, dreams, energy?  Jesus said, “Where a man’s treasure is, there will his heart be also…”

Jesus knew where this young man’s heart was.  He was a nice guy, he kept all the commandments.  That may be more than you or I do.  Jesus looked at him and loved him, but Jesus knew that God didn’t come first in this young man’s life.  Again, what is it that comes first in your life?

In many people’s minds Paul Tillich was the twentieth century’s most perceptive theologian.  Tillich once said that whatever is our ultimate concern in life, that’s our god.  Among these concerns might be our personal success, or our allegiance to our country, or the quest for scientific truth, or a whole host of important concerns.  Or, our ultimate concern could be the God of the Bible.  All but the latter are forms of idolatry.

That’s a hard teaching.  You mean God must come before my job, my family, my concern for my health, even my allegiance to my country?  Yes, nothing in this world can come before God.  A very real example is our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church in Egypt, Nepal, India, Syria, etc.

Are you ready to put God first in your life?  Are you tired of the emptiness of living life your way and not God’s way?  Have you discovered that there’s not enough..?  Sir William Beach Thomas said, “To achieve happiness by a succession of pleasures is like trying to keep a light on all night by striking successive matches.”  Happiness comes not from pleasure but from purpose.  The happiest people I know are people who have given their lives completely and unreservedly to God.

The disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words about the difficulty of the wealthy entering the kingdom.  Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age…and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Please don’t misunderstand.  Jesus doesn’t say that’s impossible for people with wealth to enter the kingdom.  He said, “All things are possible with God.”  The only people in danger are those who put their wealth before God.  The only people in danger are those who enjoy their wealth while turning a blind eye to the needs of the poor.  The only people in danger are those who have no greater purpose in life than the accumulation of more.  When is enough…enough?

Let us pray.  God, you promise never to forsake us, but to bring us to life, nurture us with your presence, and sustain us even in the hour of our death.  Meet us in our deepest doubts when we feel abandoned, drowning in our fear of your absence.  Visit us in the tension between our yearning and our anger, that we may know your mercy and grace in our time of need.  Amen.

September 27, 2015

Wanna Fight

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Mark 9:38-50

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said.  “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us…”

What a message this is for our society:  “whoever is not against us is for us…”

That’s not the current theme in our society, is it?  It’s us against them…Democrats against Republicans…Illegal immigrants against native born descendants of immigrants…Christians against Muslims…Fundamentalists against scientists…Pick your side and get ready to r-u-m-b-l-e.

Arthur Herman’s book How the Scots Invented the Modern World tells about one incident between two of our most austere groups, Episcopalians and Presbyterians.   

When one Episcopal missionary tried to preach in the Carolinas, says Herman, the local Presbyterians “disrupted his services, rioted while he preached, started a pack of dogs fighting outside the church, loosed his horse, stole his church key, refused him food and drink, and gave two barrels of whiskey to his congregation.”

I thought that latter was a little amusing.  They “gave two barrels of whiskey to his congregation.”  As Pastor John Buchanan notes, most Episcopalians he knows would’ve welcomed that action.

Later, having escaped and returned to civilization, the missionary wrote about his Presbyterian adversaries.  He said, “They delight in their low, loutish, heathenish, hellish life and seem not desirous of changing it.”

I don’t know about you, but that isn’t exactly the picture I have in mind of Presbyterians today—“low, loutish, heathenish, and hellish.”  Of course, maybe you’ve had a different experience.  Just kidding, of course.  Times change, though, sometimes for the better.

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said.  “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us…”

Isn’t that just like Jesus?  Doesn’t he know we like to huddle in our own little cliques:  suburbs and inner city, black and white, Hispanic and Anglo, gays and straights, tattooed or not, religious and atheist, the wealthy and everybody else.

How dare Jesus ruin our fun!  We enjoy looking down on people who aren’t like us, who look at life differently than we do, who have a different set of values.

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said.  “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us…”

The most natural thing in the world is to prefer people who are like you.  Sociologists have a name for it—ethnocentrism.  People prefer people who are like them.  We’re uncomfortable around people who are different.  It makes no difference how they are different.

A few years back, when everyone dressed in their Sunday best to go to church, anyone wearing blue jeans would’ve made some people feel uncomfortable.  Today, in churches where casual dress is the norm, a person dressed in a suit might make some people feel uncomfortable.  We like people who are like us—who look like us, dress like us, come from the same kind of families, share our values.

It’s the most normal thing in the world for people to prefer people who are like them.  The problem comes when discomfort turns to opposition or even persecution.

This is what’s at stake in the lesson from Mark’s Gospel this week.  The disciples raise the issue of some rogue exorcist casting out demons in Jesus’ name but not following “us”.  Did you catch that reference?  The issue isn’t that this person isn’t following Jesus the issue is that he or she isn’t following the disciples.  Right from the get-go, Christians questioned those who don’t worship, serve and follow Jesus in the same way they do.  The examples of this are endless, truly endless.

Passing the peace, frequency of Communion, manner in which Communion is served, bread used in Communion, wine or juice, Welch’s or store brand, immerse, adult, infant, once, multiple times, kneel, clap, children in worship, children in children’s church, children in part of the service, adult beverages on premise, who’s allowed to preach, bishops, free standing congregations, robes, stoles, liturgical year, organ, guitar, screen…whatever the issue from exorcism to excommunication, disciples tend to want to stop those who don’t follow us.

I was making a joke and we all may think what I said was petty.  But there’s no joke about all the mischief that has been done through the ages in the name of religion, even in the name of Christianity.  We’re horrified at the barbaric actions of ISIS, but they’re no more barbaric than some of the atrocities committed by Protestants and Roman Catholics against one another through the ages.

Among our duties as followers of Jesus is to bring peace to the world.  We follow one who’s been called the Prince of Peace.  Here’s what our text calls us to think about:  What happens when we can’t get along among ourselves?

In the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales there’s a remarkable description of a poor parson, the priest of a rural country church.  Here’s how Chaucer described him as translated in modern English:

“He was a good man, a person who thought only holy thoughts and did only good deeds.  He was very gentle, diligent, and always patient in the face of adversity.  He wouldn’t look down on any of his poor parishioners for not donating money to the church.  In fact, he’d rather give them what little money he himself had, especially since he lived happily on very little.  He didn’t think himself better than others, but he would scold people for being too stubborn in their ways.  The county where he lived was large and the houses were spread far apart, but that didn’t stop him from visiting every one of his parishioners, rich or poor.  With his walking stick in hand, he’d make his rounds from house to house no matter what, even if he was sick or it was raining.  He truly was the embodiment of the teachings of Jesus Christ.  He lived as he preached, which set the perfect example for his parishioners, his flock of sheep.”

It’s a rather romantic vision of the priest.  But Chaucer sums up his character in these unforgettable words:

He lived by the motto, “…if gold rust, what then will iron do?  For if a priest be foul in whom we trust/No wonder that a common man should rust….”

To me, that admonition isn’t just for pastors, but for the whole Christian community:  “…if gold rust, what then will iron do?”  We’re those whom Christ calls to be light to a dark world.  If, rather than bringing light, we bring more darkness, what hope then is there for the world?  “…if gold rust, what then will iron do?  For if [Christians] be foul in whom we trust/No wonder that a common man should rust…”  

Jesus said to his disciples, “For whoever is not against us is for us…”  The church of Jesus Christ is called to be a unifying force in human society, not a divisive one.

Our nation and our world seem to be more and more fragmented.  We see it everywhere we look.  Government is but one example.  Liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists all over this world seem to be at one another’s throats.  In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all get along?”

There was an ironic story in the Associated Press a few months back.  Here’s how it read:  “Tens of thousands of people packed St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City to hear Pope Francis pray for peace in Ukraine.  The ceremony was topped by the release of two white peace doves.  Unfortunately…A seagull and a crow attacked the symbols of peace.”  Isn’t that a metaphor for life in today’s world?  Who will show us the way out?  I hope it will be the people of God.

Our lesson for today shows the disciples acting territorial, jealously guarding their claim to represent Jesus.  On one level, this is understandable.  In that day and time, disciples were often named after their rabbi.  They were responsible for carrying on his legacy.  They were identified not as themselves but by the name of their rabbi.  That was the nature of the relationship between disciples and rabbis.  And it was an exclusive one.  It would be an invasion for anyone else to use the name and even the teachings of a particular rabbi if not authorized by him to do so.

The disciples of Jesus encountered a man using the name of Jesus to preach and drive out demons when he wasn’t “authorized” to do so.  This offended the disciples and they told him to stop.  The disciple John tells Jesus what they had done.  It wasn’t that the disciples had found any misuse of the name of Jesus on the part of the man or knew of any personal sin in the man’s life.  They just felt he should not be doing this because he was unauthorized.  The disciples felt they owned the Jesus franchise.

Jesus said to the disciples to stop hindering the man, for no one could perform a miracle in his name and then speak evil of him publicly.  Jesus’ acceptance of this man was reinforced when he said “whoever is not against us is for us.”  Though this man didn’t follow Jesus in exactly the same way or capacity the disciples did, he nevertheless followed him.

In verse 41 Jesus broadens his words to include actions besides casting out demons.  Even one who performs the smallest act of hospitality in his name, he said, such as giving someone a drink of water because they belong to him will not lose his reward.  Jesus had no interest in awarding exclusive franchises.  His desire was to develop relationships with people, not in causing divisions between them.  If the gold rust, what then the iron…?  We’re those called to bring Christ’s peace to the world.  How can we bring peace if we are ourselves at strife?

Some of you may know the story behind the Christ of the Andes.  In 1899 the people of Argentina and Chile were poised for war.  Then and Argentine bishop appealed for peace between the two countries.  A Chilean bishop took up his cause, and the dispute was submitted to King Edward VII, whose decision settled the quarrel.  The unused guns from both countries were then melted down to be used in a colossal statue of Christ, erected on a mountain range between the two countries.  That’s our legacy as Christ’s followers.  May we be ambassadors of peace with all people.

Let us pray.  Raise us up, O Lord, for it is you alone who restores life and health to the suffering and to those who wander from the truth.  By your grace, may we offer powerful and effective prayers for one another and the world, in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

September 20, 2015

Moving On Up

A quick way to start a disagreement among sports fans is to ask who is the greatest.  For example, since this is football season, who’s the greater quarterback, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning?  Thursday night’s game was Peyton’s 42nd “come from behind” win in his pro career.

Among golfers you might ask, how would Jack Nicklaus have done against Tiger Woods?  Let’s go back a few years in professional basketball, how about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird?

In our own nation, there are those who will contend that Michael Jordan was the greatest athlete of all time.  In the golden age of the NBA, also known as the Michael Jordan era, there was a television ad campaign built solely around Jordan and the dreams of little boys to “be like Mike.”

Seeking to be number one, of course, is as old as Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.  The drive to be recognized as the greatest even infected Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus and his disciples were passing through northeastern Galilee heading toward Capernaum.  It was the first leg of their final journey toward Jerusalem... Jesus wanted to keep their presence from becoming known because his public ministry in Galilee had ended and now he wanted to prepare his disciples for what lay ahead.

They came to Capernaum after an absence of some months.  Jesus had noted some bickering by his disciples while they had been on the road.  When they were in the house, Jesus asked them what it was they had been arguing about.  They kept quiet because they were ashamed to admit they had been arguing about who among them was the greatest.  Matters of rank are important in any organization so it was only natural for the disciples to be concerned about their status in his Messianic Kingdom.

Who is greatest:  The scene reflects the post-Easter situation; even in the church, the struggle for leadership and status continues.

We might think that such conversations would produce a migraine for the Master.  Needless to say, they didn’t.  At least this one didn’t.  Jesus understood such feelings.  He understood that such motivations were part of human nature.  These motivations to be number one come from God.

After sitting down (which was the recognized position of a Jewish teacher) Jesus gathered the twelve around him and began to teach them.  If anyone wants to be first in God’s kingdom, he said, he must be willing to be the very last—and servant of all.

Take notice:  Jesus didn’t chastise them for wanting to be first.  He wasn’t condemning anyone’s desire to improve their position in life.  This is a criticism that has been thrown at Christianity that we’ve counseled the poor and the oppressed to be content with their situation and not cause trouble, and thus we have contributed to their lowly situation.  That’s a misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings.

Notice how the 35th verse reads, “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

In other words, Jesus isn’t saying to his disciples that it’s wrong to want to be the greatest.  He’s saying, “If you want to be first, if you want to be great, here’s what you must do…be willing to serve.”

Jesus isn’t condemning their ambition.  Ambition is an impulse given to us by God to help us better our lives.  A person who lacks ambition can be a drag on society.

I derived the title of today’s message from a theme song from a television show of the 70s and 80s many of you remember, “The Jeffersons.”  Do you recall how the theme song went?  It was sung by Ja’net Dubois accompanied by a Gospel choir:

“Well we’re movin’ on up, to the east side.  To a deluxe apartment in the sky.  Movin’ on up, to the east side.  We finally got a piece of the pie.

“The Jeffersons” was one of the longest-running sitcoms in the history of American television.  The show focused on George and Louise Jefferson, an affluent African-American couple living in New York City.  The show was one of the first to portray a successful black family paving the way for future sitcoms like “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”  And who could argue with the idea that it’s a good thing for African-Americans to see examples of success among their own people—even if it’s in a sit-com.  Life has been difficult enough for minority people of color in this country.  It’s not against Christian values to achieve a comfortable lifestyle for your family.  As long as attaining material success doesn’t become the primary drive for your life, Christ understands the motivation to move up in life.  Such motivation is necessary to provide for yourself and those you love.

Author Steve May tells about a working mother in the 1930s named Mildred Benson who was a columnist to the Toledo Blade in Toledo, Ohio.  Benson’s husband was terminally ill.  To help provide for her family, Benson devoted her spare time to a dream she had nurtured for many years.  Under the pen name of Carolyn Keene she began writing mysteries for young girls.  You may have heard of the main character in those mysteries, Nancy Drew.  Benson was surprised at the impact this resourceful fictional character had on the lives of her readers.  Many women found the inspiration to improve their lives through Nancy’s example.  Benson’s parents didn’t think she should write; her father was convinced she could never make a living at it.  But she had a dream, a lofty ambition, and she became internationally known and improved the lives of many young people at the same time.

There’s no shame in being ambitious as long as you don’t abuse people in achieving your ambitions, and as long as you balance that ambition with your love for God and your neighbor.

Jesus wasn’t condemning the disciples for their ambition.  Nothing great in life is accomplished without ambition.  Rather he was making the point that greatness in his kingdom is determined by service and not status.  Christ’s own mission called for a renunciation of status and entitlement.  Jesus was saying to his disciples, “if you want to be first, here’s what you must do.  You must learn to serve others.”  Actually, Jesus was conducting one of history’s first success seminars.  Every business person here this morning knows it:  you want to be number one in your business—get a reputation for service.  Want to move on up in any field?  Learn to serve.

It’s interesting how Jesus made his point.  He set a child among the disciples (it has been suggested this might have been Simon Peter’s child).  Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me doesn’t welcome me but the One who sent me.” 

It’s important for us to know that in both Jewish and Greco-Roman societies children were considered the least important human beings.  These societies idealized the mature adult (males in particular).

Jesus took the child in his arms and continued his teaching.  To welcome or show kindness to one of these little children in his name, he said, is equivalent to welcoming Jesus himself and not him only but also his Father in heaven.  It’s this perspective that dignifies the act of serving others.

God’s not concerned about titles and position and status.  He doesn’t care if you’re the CEO or if you’re the one who sweeps the floors of the building.  Titles don’t impress God or qualify you to be a great man or woman.  What qualifies you is a willingness to serve.  In God’s kingdom, greatness is servanthood.

I like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s interpretation of this passage.  “True greatness,” he said, “comes not by favoritism, but by fitness…  That’s your new definition of greatness, and by this definition everyone can be great.  Because everyone can serve.  You don’t need to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.  You don’t need to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.  You don’t need to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.  All you need is a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.  And you can be that servant.”

In recent months the “period of instruction” for our session meetings has come from the book entitled, Leading like Francis – Building God’s House.  St. Francis of Assisi was born into a family of affluence a cloth merchant and a prominent member of the ascending middle class.

In 1204, Francis set off to enlist in the Fourth Crusade, hoping to gain knighthood.  Instead, a vision directed him to go home and seek God’s will.  Giving his armor to a poor knight, he returned to Assisi.  Like a true servant leader, Francis listened to his deeper call and the action of the Holy Spirit.

Francis continued to change into a servant of the poor.  He gave generously to beggars who came to his father’s shop.  Francis’ ministry to the lepers who were exiled from Assisi became his defining moment in his conversion to servant leadership in Christ.  From that moment, Francis embarked on a life of loving service to the poorest, most despised members of society.  Servant leadership means to love, to be a resource for others so they can become “healthier, wiser, freer and more autonomous, and more likely themselves to become servants.”

I hope, as you look ahead to what remains of your life that you will determine to make this your legacy:  whatever else you leave behind you will seek to leave this world a better place because you have been here.

Some of you will remember Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, who died in 2002.  He was unique in his ability to identify with his employees.  Adopted as a child, he never finished high school.  In his book, Well Done:  the Common Guy’s Guide to Everyday Success, Dave said he got his MBA long before his G.E.D.  He says he has a photograph of himself in his MBA graduation outfit—a snazzy knee-length work apron.  He claims to be the only founder among America’s big companies whose picture in the corporate annual report shows him wielding a mop and a plastic bucket.  That wasn’t a gag.  He calls it leading by example.  At Wendy’s, he says, MBA doesn’t mean Master of Business Administration.  It means Mop Bucket Attitude.  It means a commitment to service.

Jesus also left a legacy of service for his followers.  He did it by wrapping a towel around his waist on the night when he was betrayed and washing their feet.  He taught them to serve by his own example.

How are you doing while you’re moving on up?  Are you learning to serve?

Author, Philip Yancey wrote in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, “You can gauge the size of a ship that has passed out of sight by the huge wake it leaves behind.”

What kind of wake will you leave behind?  Will the water ripple at all because you’ve been here?  The word is service—service to your church, service to your community, service to those who need it most.  Are you moving on up?

Let us pray.  O God, our teacher and guide, you draw us to you and welcome us as beloved children.  Help us to lay aside our envy and selfish ambition that we may walk in your ways of wisdom and understanding as servants of your peace.  Amen.


September 13, 2015

Right Answer—Wrong Conclusion

James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

There’s a famous encounter between a Jewish father and his son.  Instead of asking his son if he knew all the answers at school, he asked him, “Did you ask the right questions?”  This father believed that asking the right questions was as important as knowing all the answers.

Tom Peters, the well-respected business guru, encouraged asking questions in the work place—even what may seem to others to be dumb questions.

As someone has put it, “Asking dumb questions is a lot easier than correcting dumb mistakes.”

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes like this:  “Ask a question and you’re a fool for three minutes; do not ask a question and you’re a fool for the rest of your life.”

Every good teacher knows the power of asking the right questions.  Jesus was a good teacher.  Indeed, he was the best teacher who ever lived, and like a good teacher he asked a lot of questions.  Questions like, “If you’re friendly only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?  Even the Heathen do that.”  (Mt. 5:47, TLB)  Or, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”  (Mt. 6:27)  How about, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?  (Mt. 12:11)  Or, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  Mt. 12:48.  Jesus literally asked hundreds of questions.  That’s what you do when you want people to think of themselves and come to solid conclusions.

The most important question Jesus ever asked is found in our lesson from Mark for today.  Jesus and his disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi.  And he posed this question to them, “Who do people say I am?”

His disciples replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked.  “Who do you say I am?”

Not an informational question, but posed to elicit inadequate answers as the backdrop for the authentic Christian confession.

Do you see what he’s doing?  He wants his disciples to decide for themselves who he is.  He doesn’t want them to parrot answers of others.  He begins by asking what others are saying about him.  But he already knows what others think.  What he wants is to hear his disciples voice their innermost thoughts about who he is to them.  “But what about you?”  He asked.  “Who do you say I am?”  The question isn’t the identity of Jesus, but the identity of God:  Is God the one who has definitively acted in the Christ event or not?

It was Simon Peter, of course, who answered.  Simon was always quick to shoot from the lip.  “You are the Messiah,” he said.  This time Simon got it right.  He was probably putting into words what the rest of the disciples were already thinking:  “This is he whom our nation has long awaited.  This is he who has been promised.  This is he who will deliver Israel.”  “You are the Messiah,” he said.

Peter speaks for all the disciples, and gives the answer the church later knew to  be correct.  “Messiah” is the transliteration of the Hebrew word for “anointed,” which became “Christ” in the Greek language of the New Testament.  “Anointed” refers to the inauguration ceremony of the prophet, priest or king, in which oil was poured on the head of the chosen one as a sign of consecration into the sacred office.

Then, as he often did, Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.  Jesus then began to teach them that he must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.  He spoke plainly about this so none of them could misunderstand, and when he was finished Simon Peter took him aside and began to give him some advice.  No, that’s not what it says, is it?  What it says is that Peter began to rebuke Jesus.  A few moments before Peter had declared that Jesus was the Christ and now Peter is rebuking him.

This is important.  Peter had given the right answer, but he had drawn the wrong conclusion.  Peter was absolutely right that Jesus was the Messiah, but he was absolutely wrong in his conclusion about what that meant.  Peter was a product of his culture.  He expected the same kind of Messiah that everyone else expected.  Maybe this is why Jesus sternly warned his disciples not to tell anyone of his identity.  They weren’t ready to talk to people about what it meant to say that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.  They didn’t understand it themselves.

People had many false notions of “Messiah.”  The promised Davidic Messiah was commonly thought to be a political, nationalistic figure who would free the Jews from Roman domination.  Jesus’ mission wasn’t at all like that.  Jesus’ mission  wasn’t simply to deliver Israel, but to deliver all of humanity.  That couldn’t be achieved with a simple revolt.  The whole structure of human existence needed to be changed before his work would be done.  The disciples, including Peter, didn’t have a clue what that would entail.

Contrary to popular messianic expectations of the day, Jesus didn’t come to establish an earthly kingdom.  Instead, he declared the Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected and killed, and after three days rise again.  For the disciples this was a new paradigm of God’s plan for his people for which they weren’t prepared.  Jesus made the point that his suffering and death MUST happen.  In contrast so previously veiled language, Jesus spoke plainly about the need for his death and resurrection.  Peter understood his words, clearly, and though he’d just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, he couldn’t reconcile his view of Messiah with the rejection, suffering and consequent death that Jesus predicted.  Peter had the right answer, but he jumped to the wrong conclusion about what that meant and so he rebuked Christ.

This jives with the Epistle of James if we consider the admonition to bridle our tongues as an indication of both the power and carelessness of our speech.  We church insiders talk a lot about Jesus, but the talk is cheap if we don’t take up our cross and follow.  We may say of Jesus, “You are the Messiah!”  - but refuse to believe sacrificial action comes in the wake of such a proclamation.  Therefore, Wisdom rebukes us, too, lamenting our lack of fear of the Lord as made evident by our lack of faith in action.

I wonder how often we do that—answer the question right, but draw the wrong conclusion.  If I were to ask you to come forward to the front of this church today and ask each of you who Jesus is, I have no doubt that most of you would answer, “He is the Christ.  He is the Son of God.  He is the Savior of the world.”  I have not a doubt you would get the answer right.  If I were to go on and ask you, “Who loves you more than anybody in this world loves you, more than your parents love you, more than your children love you, more than your siblings love you, more than your spouse loves you?”  I haven’t a doubt in the world that each of you beginning in kindergarten all the way to senior citizens would answer me, “Jesus loves me like that.”  You would get the answer right.  BUT would you get the conclusion right, as well?

For example, if I said Jesus loves you more than anyone on earth can ever love you, what would that mean to you?

Does that mean God will place an invisible shield around you and those you love and that nothing bad will ever happen to you or to them?  Intellectually you say, of course not, but some of you haven’t really confronted the truth. 

Bill Hybels, pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL tells about a friend of his who has a brain-damaged daughter.  Sometimes the sadness this friend feels over her daughter’s condition overwhelms her, as it did recently.  She wrote Hybels a letter and gave him permission to quote from it:  “… I can hardly bear it sometimes,” she writes.  “My most recent wave of grief came just last year before he sixteenth birthday.  As the day approached, I found myself brooding over all the things that she would never be able to do.  What did I do?  What I’ve learned to do again and again:  I did what I believe is the only thing to do to conquer grief, and that is to embrace it… I cried and cried and cried, and faced the truth of my grief head on.”

Some of you may have encountered such grief.  Were you able to face it head on?  How did it affect your faith in God?  Did it drive you away from God?  Or were you able to hold on to your knowledge of God’s love for you even in the midst of terrible tragedy?  It takes a mature faith to do that.  You see, we know God loves us more than earthly person loves us, but what does that mean?  It doesn’t mean that God will place an invisible protective shield around us and those we love so that nothing bad can hurt us.

Indeed, some of us have learned about God’s love in the midst of great tragedy.  Tragedy is a great teacher.

Years ago Dr. James Dobson, President of Focus on the Family had some interesting things to say about the great astrophysicist, Dr. Stephen Hawking.  Dr. Hawking has been called the most intelligent man on earth.  He has advanced the general theory of relativity farther than any person since Albert Einstein.  Unfortunately, Hawking is afflicted with ALS Syndrome (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  It will eventually take his life—though he has already lived longer than anyone ever dreamed.  He has been confined to a wheelchair for years, where he can do little more than sit and think.  Hawking has lost the ability even to speak, and now he communicates by means of a computer that is operated from the tiniest movement of his fingertips.

“When one’s expectations are reduced to zero,” Hawkings said, “one really appreciates everything that one does have.”  Stated another way:  contentment in life is determined in part by what a person anticipates from it.  To a man like Hawking, who thought he would soon die quickly, everything takes on meaning—a sunrise or a walk in a park or the laughter of children.  Suddenly, each small pleasure becomes precious.  By contrast, those who believe life owes them a free ride are often discontent with its finest gifts.

You see, it’s easy to provide the right answer, but to draw the wrong conclusion.  We say, I’m God’s child, then think to ourselves, therefore the future will be completely rosy.  People whose lives are completely rosy are often the most miserable people in the world.  Look at the lives of many Hollywood stars who seemingly have it all but end up destroying their lives in an endless quest for more.  And here is Stephen Hawking reduced to practically none of the world’s pleasures and yet he’s grateful for the little that he has.

Peter has just proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah immediately rebukes him when Jesus announces he must suffer and die.  Peter has provided the right answer, but had drawn the wrong conclusion.  We can do that too.  Jesus is the Messiah.  He’s the Son of God.  Jesus does love you more than anyone else will ever love you.  Trust him.  If you go through a time of trial, trust him.  If you go through a time of suffering, trust him.  If you stand at the door of death, or if someone you love stands at that door, trust him.

He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  What that means will someday be revealed to us.  For now, we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12).  Until then, here’s what we can do—trust him.  He will see you through.

September 6, 2015

Blessed Are the Abnormal

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17

Everyone knows the name Vincent van Gogh.  Van Gogh is best remembered as a troubled, but highly talented post-impressionist painter who died at the age of 37, perhaps at his own hand.  His best-known work is titled, “Starry Night.”  But let me tell you some things about Vincent van Gogh that you may not know.

Did you know that van Gogh was drawn toward the Christian ministry at an early age?  In the winter of 1878, van Gogh volunteered to move to an impoverished coal mine in the south of Belgium, a place where pastors were usually sent as punishment.  He preached and ministered to the sick, and also drew pictures of the miners and their families, who called him the “Christ of the Coal Mines.”  As a missionary to these miners, van Gogh identified with them in a powerful way.  He lived as simply as they did.  He gave away his good clothing to the poor and dressed in shabby clothing.

One day, a baker’s wife with whom he had boarded saw him and asked why he had given away his good clothing.  Vincent replied, “I am a friend of the poor like Jesus was.”

Not impressed, the baker’s wife told him, “You are no longer normal.”

Van Gogh’s governing body in the church agreed with the baker’s wife.  They disagreed with van Gogh’s lifestyle and refused to renew his contract.  He was forced to find another occupation.  And so, I suppose, it was then Vincent devoted himself to art.

The baker’s wife was correct, though.  Vincent van Gogh wasn’t normal.  He was a troubled young man whose life was filled with sorrow.  But what does it mean to be normal?  She said he wasn’t normal because he tried to follow Jesus.  Is that bad?  Well, if you truly try to be all that Christ calls you to be, I suspect that she was right—you will be anything but normal.

Isn’t this basically what the majority of us seek—to be considered normal, to fit in, to be accepted?  Perhaps the meanest thing you can say to another person in our super-conformist culture is, “You’re not normal.”  I wonder, however, if the world will ever be changed for the better by people whose greatest ambition is to fit in, to be accepted—in other words, to be normal.

Being abnormal isn’t always bad.  Do you think Albert Einstein was normal?  It’s said that Einstein shuffled in the streets of New York in his bedroom slippers and communicated intelligibly with only a few close acquaintances.  He was so absent-minded, it’s said, that his wife had to cut his food at dinner to keep him from slicing off a finger.  His memory was so bad he couldn’t remember names, dates and phone numbers.  He had no car of his own and never learned how to drive.  He didn’t like to wear socks.  And yet he’s one of the most celebrated scientists who ever lived.  Is it bad to be abnormal?

Do you think Warren Buffet is normal?  Buffet is, of course, one of the richest men in the world.  Listen to how Dan Miller described Buffet in his 2008 book, No More Dreaded Mondays:  “He runs his $136 billion company, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., from a small office in Omaha with the notable absence of a computer.  He shuns meetings and spent most of a recent Wednesday working on new lyrics to “Love Me Tender” for a birthday party for his friend Bill Gates.  Despite having substantial stakes in Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, American Express, and countless other companies, Berkshire has no public relations, human resources, or legal departments.  Its headquarters is staffed by just seventeen employees.  Mr.  Buffet occasionally carries a cell phone but doesn’t use one when he’s in his home city.  He keeps no calculator on his desk, preferring to do most calculations in his head…”

Is that normal behavior for a business person—no computer, no calculator, and Heaven forbid, no cell phone?  Some of us would just die if we didn’t have a cell phone.  Is Warren Buffet normal?

Do you think Mother Teresa was normal?  That would be easier for you to answer.  I think most of us agree that no normal person would make the sacrifices this little nun made.  That’s why she’s a saint.  So is it bad to be normal?  Not if you’re willing to pay the price.

Would you agree with me it’s all right to be abnormal if in doing so you change the world?  Let’s go one step further.  Would you agree with me that it would be all right to be abnormal if it meant you left your little part of the world a better place?

Let me share with you about an ordinary man who was at the same time abnormal.

Many years ago when author Steven Mosley was teaching at an English school in Japan, he met a young woman named Yasuko.  Yasuko’s family had a history of abandonment and broken relationships.  Her father died when she was young, and her mother, who had never experienced love and security in her life, wasn’t able to pass on these qualities of love and security to Yasuko.  After Yasuko became a Christian, she struggled to understand and accept God’s love for her.

One day, Yasuko ran into one of her father’s old friends.  He began sharing with Yasuko one very special memory.  Her father had often thrown wild parties when she was a child at which he became quite drunk.  Whenever he got drunk, he would start giving away whatever food he found in the pantry.  This was right after the war, when jobs were scarce and hunger and poverty stalked their town.  Most of the men at these parties would’ve starved if it hadn’t been for Yasuko’s father’s drunken generosity.

After the man left, Yasuko’s mother told her the truth:  her father never drank alcohol.  In Japanese culture, accepting charity is a form of dishonor.  If her father had given his friends food, they would’ve been too ashamed to accept it.  But under the guise of his “drunken” parties, he was able to help his friends and keep them from “losing face.”  He’d made himself look foolish in order to protect his friends’ pride.  In her father’s sacrifice, Yasuko began to understand the love of a God who gave up His own power and died to save us from our sins.  If her father had acted normally, many of his friends would’ve gone hungry.  Let me ask again:  Is it so bad to be abnormal?

Our lesson for the day comes from the Epistle of James.  It reads like this:  “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.  Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters:  Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”

Now wouldn’t you agree what James is describing is quite normal behavior in our society, and even, heaven forbid, in the church?  Wealthy folks are treated differently than poor folks.  The top 1% is catered to unmercifully; the bottom 1% is shunned, called irresponsible, blamed for their misery.  The top 1% live lives of opulence; they are worth millions and even billions of dollars, yet are taxed less, proportionally, than the rest of us.  Meanwhile those at the bottom of society are criticized as welfare queens when they live on a little more than nine hundred dollars a month to provide for their families.  When a wealthy person comes into the room they get the best seat in the house while the poor person is left out in the cold.  Wouldn’t you agree this is considered quite normal behavior in our society?

Now I need to be careful or some of you will accuse me of promoting class warfare.  I’m not.  I’m simply stating what’s considered normal in our society.  I’m very much aware that many at the bottom of society act irresponsibly with their resources.  That’s one reason they have a problem rising through the economic ranks.

Retired seminary professor Fred Craddock tells about the first church he served as a student.  They had a fund called the Emergency Fund that had about $100 in it.  They told their young pastor he could use it at his discretion, provided he dispensed the money according to the conditions which the governing body of the church had set.  So, he asked, “What are the conditions?”

The chairman of the committee said, “You are not to give the money to anybody who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness, or poor management.”

Craddock asked, “Well, what else is there?”  Then he adds, “Far as I know, they still have that money.”

Do you understand that it’s not the poor who’re on trial, but those who follow Jesus?  The author of James isn’t writing to the government about its attitudes toward the poor.  He isn’t writing to the poor to chastise them about how they use their money.  He’s writing to us in the church and he’s asking us whether we pass judgment on people according to their economic status, a practice that, regrettably, is quite normal.

Lutheran pastor Ed Markquardt tells about two people from their church that went to the social service office.  One person was dressed very middle class; with a middle class hair style, a middle class dress on; and with middle class shoes on.  He says the shoes and the hairstyle were a dead giveaway as to her economic status, or, at least, so he was told.  This first woman gave off the aura of being middle class.  The second person from their parish didn’t have very much money and her dress, hair style and shoes revealed that she was financially poorer.

Then, the clerk from behind the counter addressed the middle class woman from their church, and the clerk’s face lit up, her smile lit up, her voice lit up and she spoke softly and politely, “It’s so nice to see you today,” as if she knew the middle class woman from their church.  The clerk behind the counter obviously had a preference for the woman who was middle class and also had an obvious disinterest toward the person with a look of poverty.

Pastor Markquardt sums it up this way, “Money talks.  Threads talk.  Clothes talk.  People treat you differently when you’re dressed in a certain way.  You experience that every day and so do I.”  And we do.  It’s normal in our society.  We have two different standards.  We assume that people who have wealth deserve it, even if they inherited their wealth or they started their work life with a Harvard education and the financial backing of their family.

What James is saying to us this day is that following Jesus calls us to an abnormal attitude toward people.  We’re to see all people as Jesus sees them—as loved, as worthy, as important in the Kingdom of God.

This morning in closing I would like to share a story about a woman named Violet.  In 1932, in the heart of the depression Violet married a union organizer and within a few years had four sons.  When she was pregnant a fifth time, gangsters moved to take over the union, and her husband left, feeling his family was safer without him.

Violet and her sons moved into a tiny apartment, and a few months later, a daughter was born.  To feed her family, Violet worked days at the National Silver Company and nights at a drugstore.  She would work, have bouillon for lunch, finish her first job, pick up a kidney for twenty five cents and make soup.  She’d tell the children not to mind the taste, go to the second job, come home and wash out the children’s socks and shirts, catch a couple of hours of sleep, and begin her next day.  On days off, she waited tables, and holidays, she worked at a department store.

Over the years she worked in a cracker factory, hawked ice cream, labeled medicine bottles, cleaned offices, and pushed a coffee cart.  In 1959 she became an orderly in a home for the aged, and seventeen years later she retired with a pension of $31.78 a month.  For the first time since 1946 she had a week off.  Thomas, her son, perhaps paid her the highest tribute possible, saying he had only “happy memories” of his childhood.  As he put it, “We didn’t even know we were poor until years later.”

Violet and her family are part of the “working poor.”  A few of you, particularly among our older members may have come from families like that.  Be careful when you say the poor are undeserving, irresponsible, and lazy.  Many of them, even today, are just like Violet—working two shifts, trying to do the best they can to take care of those whom they love.  They deserve our admiration, not our scorn—and, where possible, even our help.  James writes, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism….If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters:  Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”  That’s an abnormal way of looking at life, but that’s the Jesus way.  But think of it this way:  it’s not normal for the Son of God to give his life for our sins.  Thank God, Jesus was abnormal.  If he was, we wouldn’t have a chance.

Let us pray.  Holy Lord, maker of us all, you call us to love our neighbors as ourselves and teach us that faith without works is dead.  Open us to the opportunities for ministry that lay before us, where faith and words and the need of our neighbor come together in the name of Jesus the Christ, our Savior.  Amen.

August 23

No Turning Back

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; John 6:56-69

Former heavyweight boxer James (Quick) Tillis is a cowboy from Oklahoma.  Tillis fought out of Chicago in the early 1980s.  A deeply religious man, Tillis is remembered as the first boxer ever to make Mike Tyson go the distance in the heavyweight division.

Tillis had his disappointments as a boxer, but evidently they didn’t rob him of his sense of humor.  He still remembers his first day in the Windy City after his arrival from Tulsa.  “I got off the bus,” he says, “with two cardboard suitcases under my arms in downtown Chicago and stopped in front of the Sears Tower.  I put my suitcases down, and I looked up at the Tower and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to conquer Chicago.’  When I looked down…the suitcases were gone.”

What a way to begin a boxing career.  But Tillis didn’t quit.  He didn’t accomplish all he set out to accomplish, but he was no quitter.

Some of the people who followed Jesus were disappointed.  As we’ve noted before, they were expecting one kind of Messiah, but Jesus introduced them to a different kind of Messiah altogether.  Let’s think for a moment about the background of today’s text.

A few weeks ago we learned about the feeding of the 5,000.  Actually 5,000 was the number of men who were fed.  There were children and women who were there as well, bringing up the number of persons that Jesus feed upwards of 10,000 people.

But how did Jesus have that many people following him in the first place?  Well, he’d been healing people—like Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the issue of blood.  And he had been sending his disciples out with power and authority and they were casting out demons and healing the sick (as told in Luke 9:1-6).  And consequently his ministry was going viral, if you can say that about a movement that’s being spread person-to-person.

People were following him because he was meeting their needs, including the need to be fed.  This made him so popular with the people they wanted to make him king.  This wasn’t what Jesus was sent to do.  He wanted to be King of their lives, not king of their country.  That would’ve been a mistake.  We see time and time again what happens when people take over countries in the name of religion.  They’re more apt to fulfill Satan’s goals than God’s goals.  Again, Jesus wants to be King of our lives, not king of our country.

And so we come to our lesson for the day.  The writer of the Gospel of John explains the situation like this:  “From this time, many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”  Notice that it doesn’t say that many in the crowd turned back or many that he fed turned back.  We would expect that.  Like many people today, there will always be people who church hop.  They will keep shopping until they find a church that gives them exactly what they want.

Now, we could understand it if John said that many of the 10,000 turned back, but what he says is, “From this time, many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”  This means some the church’s [elders, deacons, session members Sunday school teachers, choir members and ushers] turned their backs on him.  The ship was taking on water and in danger of sinking.  At least, that’s how it would look to the casual observer.

What it was, though, was a right-sizing of Jesus’ followers.  Sometimes in order to have a body that’s moving in the right direction, you need to chase a few people away.  It’s true!

We don’t admit that in church.  But some people are actually a detriment to the kingdom of God.  It’s impossible for any church to move forward if the highest principle it has as an organization is to keep everyone happy.

Can you imagine?  Jesus catches you grumbling, complaining, murmuring like the Israelites in the desert and he calls you on it.  “Does this offend you?” he asks.  A more literal translation is, “Does this scandalize you?”  What exactly is the “this” that offends?  Could it be the teaching about chomping on flesh and drinking blood?  Perhaps it’s the undercurrent of this entire chapter that Jesus is even more important than the all-important Moses?  Maybe it’s the scandal of the gospel itself:  that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God.  Jesus follows his question with another one that seems to say that if you’re offended now, you will be utterly appalled by what’s yet to come.

“Does this offend you?”  It’s a question worth asking ourselves.  How are we scandalized and offended by Jesus?  If the answer is that we aren’t, then I think we’re not paying attention.

Are we offended by the people Jesus gathers around him?  He seems to not only attract, but welcome those whom decent people avoid.

Are we offended by what Jesus requires of disciples?  Sell all you have, give the money to the poor and follow me.  Hate your mother and father.  Let the dead bury the dead.  Take up your cross.  Isn’t it scandalous?

Are we offended by Jesus’ priorities?  Welcome the children.  Touch the lepers.  The last shall be first.  I desire mercy and not sacrifice.  Love your enemies.  Love.  Your.  Enemies.  Just sit with that one for a while and list some tangible implications of loving our enemies.  

Today may be a come-to-Jesus meeting with Jesus if we stick close to the text.

Ask yourself:  Do the teachings of Jesus offend you?  Why?  Consider that, too.  Why do these things offend us?  Well, because pretty quickly it becomes clear that God’s ways aren’t our ways.  There’s a radical other orientation required in following Jesus and often (if not always) we’d like the world to be about us.  The teaching is hard, but following Jesus is about putting God’s ways before our own.

Every believer is precious to God.  But even Jesus couldn’t keep everyone happy.  He didn’t try to.  He wanted only those who were committed to the cause for which he was sent.  When he started talking about the cost involved his broken body and shed blood, and calling them to take up a cross, his words fell on unreceptive ears.  But those who stayed with him, those who were committed to the end are still celebrated to this day.  Without them there would be no church 2,100 years later.

It hurt Jesus to see many who had been with him for much of his ministry turn their back on him.  They’d been with him when he healed the lame, gave sight to the blind.  They were there when he fed the 10,000.  Could they not see that he was the One who was to come?  Even if he didn’t meet their expectations of what a Messiah ought to be, couldn’t they see that he was the Savior of the world?  Couldn’t they see there never had been another like him?  But I’ve got to ask us another question:  Can’t we see who he is, as well?

Researchers tell us that, nationally, every week over 53,000 people leave the church never to return.  But even among those who remain, only about twenty percent are really committed to their faith.  Why is that?  Is it that there are many casual worshippers who come a few times a year out of mere tradition and not because they really believe that Christ is the Savior of the world?  Is that why there are so few who’re willing to serve him?

Christ said (as it is written in Mark 10:45), “For even the Son of Man, came not to be served but to serve others, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

An unknown writer quoted on the Internet tells of visiting a fast-growing church in Minnesota to learn from their staff.  It was a privilege, he reports, to witness their passion for doing high quality ministry in Jesus’ name.  He left with some new insights and a renewed passion for the Gospel.

One of the phrases that he heard while he was there visiting was, “We want our members to wear aprons, not bibs.”  That’s an interesting phrase—“aprons, not bibs.”  Here’s what they meant:  Bibs are for people who only want to be fed.  Bibs are for those who’re not yet ready or willing to feed themselves.  Bibs are for those who’re more interested in being served than in serving.  Bibs are for those who insist the church exists for them and their needs.  Bibs are for babes in the faith, those who haven’t caught God’s vision for the church, or those who are not yet of the faith.  On the other hand, aprons are for those who have a heart to serve others in Jesus’ name.  Aprons are for those who know they are the church.  Aprons are for those who don’t mind getting their hands dirty.  Aprons are for those who take the time daily to feed their spiritual hunger.  Aprons are for those who’re growing in faith, and hunger to help others grow.

Church growth consultant, Win Arn, interviewed thousands of Christians in America several years ago and asked them what they thought the church existed for.  Eighty-eight percent said, “The church exists to serve my needs and the needs of my family.”  In other words, 88% of Christians in America are still wearing bibs.  They believe the church exists to serve them…not so they can serve the world.

On the night when he was betrayed, just hours before he was crucified, the very Son of God took off his outer garments, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciple’s feet.  When he was done he said, “I have just given you an example to follow.”  In other words, Jesus called his disciples to wear aprons, not bibs.  In Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying, “For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”  He also said, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give it up for me, you will find it.”

Jesus calls us to wear aprons not bibs.  The people came to Jesus to be fed, but when he challenged them to feed others, they weren’t interested.

It hurt Jesus to see many who had been with him for much of his ministry turn their back on him.  He turned to the twelve who were left and said rather sadly, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”

And of course, it was Simon Peter who answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  And that is why we linger here too.  That’s why so many of you have exchanged your bib for an apron; why you have decided that a casual involvement in the life of the church isn’t enough.

You are part of that inner circle that’s come to believe and to know that Jesus is the Holy One of God.  There’s no way to be casual about such knowledge.  If Jesus is the Savior of the world, how can we possibly give anything but our best?  If he’s the Son of God, how can we not give him our all?  Only his most committed disciples remained.  Are you part of that group?

Let us pray.  Gracious God, although we once were strangers, you receive us as friends and draw us home to you.  Set your living bread before us that, feasting around your table, we may be strengthened to continue the work to which your Son commissioned us.  Amen.


August 16, 2015

No Longer Strangers

Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11- 22

Let’s turn our attention to the 19th verse of today’s lesson from Ephesians.  We read, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…”

“No longer foreigners and strangers.”  Reflect on those words for just a moment.

I’ve heard it said that a child is born untrusting.  Perhaps that’s why life begins with a cry.  The infant is apart from its mother for the first time.  It has become a separate human being.  But also at that moment, to a certain extent, the newborn becomes a stranger.

Some of us have strangers living in our own house.  We don’t always understand one another.  We love and treasure our children, and watch them grow, but we can never completely understand them.  And our parents—seen from the perspective of their children—are always doing strange things.  We love them and respect them, but we don’t always understand them.

A man and woman can be married to each other twenty years and yet remain strangers to each other in many respects.  According to the Scriptures, two people become one flesh in marriage, but that isn’t altogether true of our personalities.  There’s a separateness that no power in this world can ever bridge.

So when the Apostle Paul writes that we’re no more strangers, that Christ has destroyed the wall that separates us from each other and from God, when he says we’re no longer strangers—that’s truly a mighty affirmation!

Have you ever been alone in a crowd of people that you didn’t know?  Even when you don’t know anyone, something in you wants to relate to someone.  And this idea of relating to a stranger in a crowd has been a romantic influence throughout the centuries on literature, art, and music.  The Rogers and Hammerstein song says that, “Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger across a crowded room, and somehow you know, you know even then, that someday you’ll see her again and again.”  No longer strangers—there’s suddenly that bond between you.

And St. Paul tells us there can be a bond that tears down the walls, that establishes an instant relationship between us and everyone else in the world, and with God himself.  No longer strangers to anyone.  Isn’t that good news?

The eminent theologian of the mid-twentieth century Paul Tillich was the one who first made the term “estrangement” popular.  He said the tragedy of our time is man’s estrangement from himself, from others, and from God.

But let’s look more deeply at this concept of being strangers for a moment.

We can be strangers to ourselves.  We can live a lifetime and never even know ourselves, much less anybody else.  Probably the most bizarre example of this was the man who thought he was dead.  He was a very wealthy man, intelligent, and also well-educated.  But there was just that one thing wrong with him:  he thought he was dead.  After some amount of tribulation, his family and friends finally prevailed upon him to talk to a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist recognized this man was intelligent and well-educated, so he tried to use reason to convince the man of his error.  He asked him, “Do dead men eat?”

And the man said, “Well, as a matter of fact, maybe they do.  In many cultures, in the Orient for example, they put food in the tombs so the dead can come back and consume it.  Apparently dead men do eat.”

Then the psychiatrist asked him, “Do dead men talk?”

The man said, “Well, maybe they do.  You know, Houdini, for example, had a telephone put in his coffin so he could call back from the other world, and people apparently talk through mediums.  Yes, dead men do talk sometimes.”

Next, the doctor asked him, “Do dead men walk?”

The man said, “Well, sometimes they do.  There are documented cases in England, for example, of haunted castles, where the former occupant comes back and walks through the night rattling chains.  Yes, dead men do walk.”

In desperation, the psychiatrist finally asked, “Do dead men bleed?”

And the patient said, “No absolutely not.  Dead men do not bleed.”

So the doctor said, “Roll up your sleeve.”  The man rolled up his sleeve and the doctor took a scalpel and made a small incision in the man’s forearm.  The blood began to roll down his arm.

The man put his finger on the blood and raised it to the light and looked at it and said, “Well, what do you know.  Dead men do bleed.”

No amount of reason in the world was going to help that man overcome his estrangement from himself.  This is an unusual case, of course.  But there are examples to be seen in front of each of us every day.  But why, that’s the question.  Why are we estranged from ourselves?

Some of us are estranged from ourselves because we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves.  Have you ever known anyone who was afraid to be just human?  It’s a miserable state to be in—always being so afraid of making a mistake, or saying the wrong thing, that we can’t function.  Those of us who’re this way must realize that nobody’s perfect.  That’s an awful cliché’, I know.  But it’s true, and we need to be reminded of it.  No hitter in baseball, no matter how good they are, ever bats a thousand.  We think a hitter is pretty good if they hit the ball three times for every ten times at bat.  That would only be hitting .300.  We tend to forget that the great Babe Ruth, who once held the record for the most home runs, also holds the record for the most strike-outs.

Nobody’s perfect.  But sometimes we forget this and develop unrealistic expectations of ourselves.  We forget that we’re just flesh and blood.  When this happens, people think we’re stuck-up, that we’re snobs—they don’t know that we’re simply afraid of making a mistake, afraid of being real.  Or in the case of the man who declared that dead men do bleed, we’re afraid of being alive.

Negative self-evaluations and unrealistic expectations estrange us from ourselves, and make our potential go unrealized.  No wonder we feel like strangers all the time.  We never completely channel all our energies, all of our creativity, all of our imagination, all of our inner strength and power into what it could be.  Because we don’t know ourselves, we never completely give ourselves to anything.

Now, you and I—if we’re no longer strangers to ourselves—could perform also at our maximum potential, as husbands and wives, as parents, as active participants in our community, and at everything we do.  But we need to be the best US that God created.  We must no longer be strangers to ourselves.

And we must no longer be strangers to one another.

It has been said there is only one man-made structure on earth that is detectable by the human eye from space, and that one structure is the Great Wall of China.  I think that notion has been disproved, but somehow it seems to fit.  The one structure in the entire world that’s grand enough to be seen from space is a wall.  Many of our lawmakers believe the only way to manage illegal immigration is to construct a wall along our southern border.  If you wanted to define human nature, a wall might be a good place to start.  There’s a tendency in humanity to shut others out, there’s a desire to remain aloof and separate from other’s predicaments.  Unfortunately for the human race, though, such separation always leads to unhappiness because we’re made for community, for fellowship, for oneness.  We’re not created to be strangers from one another.

Sometimes even in a church we can be strangers.  And what a great joy we miss!  Do you know what the greatest thing that can happen to any church is?  It’s not having a successful building fund drive, or increasing membership by 25 percent in one year’s time, though those things are wonderful.  The greatest thing that can happen in a Christian church is that it becomes a true fellowship, a community of faith, a family whose members are no longer strangers.

We all make the mistake of failing to reach out to understand another.  We tend to forget Edwin Markham’s words:

There’s a destiny that makes us brothers.  None goes his way alone.  All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.

Now, each of us has different needs.  I recognize that some of us have a need for privacy.  There are some of you who would say to me, “The greatest thing I cherish is my privacy.”  I can understand that.  Everybody needs space, to be alone at some point or another.  Even Jesus needed privacy.  There are those places in the Scripture where he says things like, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place…” ~Mark 6:1 and the disciples go to a lonely place with the Master.

But we should also realize that, throughout the Gospels, Jesus reaches out to people.  No one was a stranger-the demoniac, the Samaritan woman, the wretched woman with the issue of blood, or the leper.  There were no strangers in Jesus’ world, and by his help there need be no strangers in our world.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could give that gift to the next generation?  Have you ever noticed what happens when someone goes into a group of people they’ve never met before?  They feel so uncomfortable, and so alone, that it’s hard to reach out and communicate with them.  Now wouldn’t it be great to be able to give our young the gift of not seeing others as strangers?  Wouldn’t it be great if we all had that gift?

Christ can do that.  Christ can give us that gift.  He can help us see other people as human beings, and not as strangers.  We’re not perfect, but neither is anyone else.  We’re not beyond redemption, but neither is anyone else.  Some of us are estranged from ourselves, and we’re estranged from others.

The greatest tragedy of our lives is when we’re strangers with God.

J.B. Martin, in his early years of writing, found it necessary to be gone from home for long periods of time doing research for his articles.  When his children were small, they memorized his face from a picture so they would recognize him when he came home.  That’s somewhat like our relationship with God, isn’t it?  Our picture of God is Jesus Christ.  And I’m not speaking of the pictures of Jesus that we see on the wall, I mean the picture of his life that’s painted in the Gospels of the New Testament.  We don’t have to be estranged from God we’ve seen God in Jesus!

The Apostle Paul puts it beautifully beginning with verse 13 of today’s lesson:  “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…”

What great news.  We no longer need to be estranged from ourselves, from one another or from God.  Christ has broken down the wall.

Let us pray.  Holy Wisdom, fill us with such understanding and knowledge that we may act as instruments of your loving desire for creation, working with you to transform our conceit into concern for others, our fear into love, our violence into peace, and our brokenness into wholeness.  Amen.


August 9, 2015

Dealing With Cantankerous People

Psalms 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2

There’s an old, old story about a cantankerous, crabby old man.  His neighbors avoided him.  His four boys moved away from home as soon as they could.  You get the picture.  His poor wife stood by him, but it wasn’t easy.

One night he went to bed and just slipped away.

His four boys were called in.  What should they do?  “He was hard to live around,” one of them said, “and no one could get along with him, but he was our ‘Pa’.  We owe him a decent burial, out in the meadow beyond the field.”

So they went out to the barn and found some boards and made a casket.  They put the box on their shoulders and carried it out past the barn.  As they passed through the gate, one of the boys bumped into the post and this caused them to drop the box.  The casket broke open and the cantankerous, crabby old man sat straight up.

He was alive!  He’d only been in a very deep…sleep!

Well, life got back to normal.  He lived two more years, just as ornery and mean, cantankerous and crabby as ever.  The boys could go back to their homes, but his poor wife had to stay and put up with him.

Then one night he went to bed and just slipped away…this time for good.

His four boys were called in.  What should they do now?  “Well,” said one of them, “he was hard to live around, and no one could get along with him, but he was our ‘Pa’.  We owe him a decent burial, out in the meadow beyond the field.”

So they went out to the barn and found some boards and made a casket and put the old man in it.  They put the box on their shoulders and started out of the house.  And as they did, their mother—the old man’s wife—said sternly, “Boys, when you get out by the barn…BE CAREFUL GOING THROUGH THAT GATE.”

That cantankerous old man should’ve read our lesson for the day:  “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Do you imagine that bitter, cantankerous people have no idea their attitude is an offense against God?  That’s what the writer of today’s lesson is saying:  “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice…”  Is there anyone you’re bitter against?

Oh, I’ve run into a few cantankerous folks in church—you know who you are, I’m just kidding, of course—but on the whole, church people are loving caring decent human beings.  As for those who have a problem with bitterness and resentment, all we can do is keep on loving them until God changes their heart.

“Be angry but do not sin…” vs. 26 is a quotation from Psalm 4:5 in the Greek translation used by the author.  “Do not let the sun go down…” vs. 26, the author says anger itself isn’t necessarily sinful, but nursing grudges disrupts and poisons the life of the community.

Paul says that followers of Christ are to get rid of six vices.  These six vices are:  1. Bitterness, 2. Rage, 3. Anger, 4. Brawling, 5. Slander and 6. Malice.  Sounds like a session of Congress, doesn’t it?  Do you have any problems with any of these six vices?  If so, then you need to work on them.  We all know that, don’t we?  For our own good we need to get rid of these destructive emotions.

Reader’s Digest had an article recently on what the author called the “Angry Heart.”  According to this article, anger can lead to real heartbreak.  A person’s risk of having a heart attack increases nearly five times within two hours of having an angry outburst.  That’s what a recent Harvard University review of more than 6,000 people who experienced a cardiovascular event showed.

But it just isn’t heart attacks.  The risk of stroke increases by more than three times.  Anger causes a rise in your heart rate and blood pressure and makes blood stiffen, straining the cardiovascular system.

We know each of the six so-called vices—bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander and malice are our enemies.  But how do we get rid of them?

We begin by choosing the right role model.  If the person you choose to follow, listen to, pattern your life after is an angry, bitter, hate-filled individual, then you probably will be too.  We don’t say to our children, “Don’t hit your brother/sister,” unless they’re hitting their brother/sister, right?

Who is your role model?  Your choice of a role model tells a lot about you.

Legendary motivational speaker and writer Zig Ziglar tells about his role models.

Zig’s father died when he was just five years old.  His mother had a fifth grade education and still had six of twelve children at home too young to work.  Because of the kindness of Mr. John R. Anderson, who ran a local grocery store, Zig and his younger brother went to work before they were really able to be much help.

Mr. Anderson was a successful businessman of impeccable character, says Zig, and he had such a huge positive impact on him that he named his first son after him.  By “successful,” says Zig, he doesn’t just mean materially.  He was the kind of man a young boy could model his life on.

He goes on to say that Mr. Anderson and his meat market manager, Mr. Walton Haining, were both godly men who showed him what it meant to be a person of character—to be honest and accountable and hardworking.  Zig believes that God provided these men in his life at a time when his own role model, his father, was taken from him.  He says he doesn’t know how he would’ve turned out had these two men not impacted his life so deeply at a young age.

Role models are important for young people, aren’t they?  Of course, their best role models should be their parents.  But adults need role models, too.

Who’s your role model?  Whose life would you choose to emulate?  If you choose a spiritual role model, it will have to be Jesus.  No one else comes close.  As the Apostle Paul writes:  “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

“Be imitators of God…” vs. 5:1.  The specific point to be imitated is God’s forgiveness, but the instruction presupposes a wider perspective.  Christian life involves patterning our behavior toward others after God’s.  There’s no specific call to imitate Christ, but to imitate God’s behavior, as Jesus did.  As also was the case with the Apostle Paul, the author’s ethic doesn’t involve a call to imitate Jesus’ conduct; the details of the earthly life of Jesus aren’t the author’s model for Christian life.  Rather, it’s the life of Christ as a whole, summed up in his going to the cross that represents his unselfish sacrifice for others.  This isn’t something different or distinct from the love of God.  Christ’s love for others is God’s love.

The best way to rid yourself bitterness, anger and resentment is to make a conscious commitment to pattern your life after Jesus.  Learn to imitate Christ.

“It seems to me,” writes Rev. Mike Hayes, “that imitation is written right into our DNA.  Young moms know what I’m talking about.  When things get real quiet in the house mom knows it’s time to investigate.  When she begins her search for her little girl she finds her in the bathroom with her little feet stuck deep into her mom’s shiny high heels.  She’s leaning into the mirror, just like mom, while she smears lipstick on her little lips.  The ‘imitation gene’ doesn’t go away with age.  Paul tells us, in Ephesians 5:1-2, there’s no higher goal, no greater aspiration, for the people of God than to imitate God.”

And where do we best see God except in Jesus Christ?  And what was Christ like?

He was the man for others.  The only malice, anger, or bitterness he ever showed was toward wrongdoers, and he even forgave them.  What was Christ like?  He never looked down on anyone, never called anyone a sinner, he welcomed all into his family.  He was never exclusive, always inclusive.  He was a friend like no other.  To be in his presence was to be in the presence of love, healing and hope.  As a friend, he lay down his life for those he loved.  No greater love has any person for his friends than to lay down his life for their behalf.  What was Christ like?  Use your imagination and try to see pure unconditional love walking among us.  That’s how we’re to be.

That’s our challenge for the day.  Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander and malice says the Apostle Paul.  Replace them with kindness, compassion and forgiveness.  Let Christ be your role model.  Live and love as he did and begin a new life with him.

Let us pray.  Bread of life, you taught us to put away bitterness and anger, and with tenderhearted kindness to share the fruit of our labor with the needy.  Strengthen us by your grace, that in communion with you, we may forgive one another and live in love as Christ loved us.  Amen.  

August 2, 2015

Don’t Forget the Bread

Psalm 78:23-29; John 6:24-35

The wonderful author and pastor Max Lucado tells about a time his wife Denalyn called as he was driving home.  “Can you stop at the grocery store,” she asked, “and pick up some bread?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Do I need to tell you where to find it?”  She asked.

“Are you kidding?” Max asked.  “I was born with a bread-aisle tracking system.”

Like a knowing wife, Denalyn said, “Just stay focused, Max.”

“She was nervous,” says Lucado.  “Rightly so.  I’m the Exxon Valdez of grocery shopping.  My mom once sent me to buy butter and milk; I brought buttermilk.  I mistook a tube of hair cream for toothpaste…I’m a charter member of the Clueless Husband Shopping Squad.  I can relate to the fellow who came home from the grocery store with one carton of eggs, two sacks of flour, three boxes of cake mix, four sacks of sugar and five cans of frosting.  His wife looked at the sacks of groceries and lamented, ‘I never should have numbered the list.’”

Knowing that Denalyn was counting on him to carry out this simple task, Lucado parked the car at the market and entered the door.  In route to the bread aisle, he spotted his favorite cereal, so he picked up a box, which made him wonder if they needed milk.  He found a gallon in the dairy section.  The cold milk stirred images of one of God’s great gifts to humanity:  Oreo cookies.  As Lucado put it, “The heavenly banquet will consist of tables and tables of Oreo cookies and milk.  We will spend eternity dipping and slurping our way through…”  He doesn’t finish the thought, but you get the idea.

He grabbed a pack of Oreos, which happened to occupy the same half of the store as barbeque potato chips.  What a wonderful world this is, he thought, cookies and barbeque potato chips under the same roof!  On the way to the checkout counter, he spotted some ice cream.  Within a few minutes he’d filled the basket with every essential item for a happy and fulfilled life.  He checked out and drove home.

His wife Denalyn looked at his purchases, then at him.  Can you guess her question?  It’s an obvious one, isn’t it?  “Where’s the bread?”

He went back to the grocery store.  He forgot the one thing he went to get.  The one essential product.  He forgot the bread.

Last Sunday we studied the feeding of the 5,000.  At the end of the story, the crowd is so excited about Jesus they want to crown him King.  This, of course, was not the purpose for which he was sent.  So he withdrew to a nearby mountain.  Today’s lesson occurs just a little while later.

John tells us that, once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there at the site where he fed the multitudes, they got into boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.  When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”  From the very first, the questions, where is Jesus?  And how did he come here?  This is important for John’s theology.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.  Do not work for that food spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

Remember we learned last week that John always uses the word “sign” instead of miracle when he was describing the wondrous things that Jesus did.  John sees these signs as evidence that Jesus is the Messiah.  The signs are intended to point to the saving act of God in the Christ event.  The feeding of the 5,000 with the fishes and the loaves is a sign pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus says to the crowd, “You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill…”  Jesus is trying to point them toward a spiritual reality rather than a physical one.  All they’re interested in is having their bellies full.

This was obviously frustrating to Jesus.  From verse 32 on Jesus tries to correct the crowd’s perception of what just happened in the feeding of the 5,000.  He wants to point them back to God.  He begins with the manna given in the wilderness to the children of Israel, one of the watershed events of their life as a people.

For many Jews, Moses was the greatest of all the prophets.  It was he who gave the Israelites manna.  Jesus corrected their perception of that event in three ways:  First, he reminded them it was God, not Moses, who provided the manna.  Two, he wanted them to see that God is still giving manna now, not just in the past.  And finally, he tried to make them understand that he, Jesus, is the true Bread from Heaven.  Manna was food for the body, but Jesus is God’s full provision for the soul.  Jesus himself is the Bread of God.

The contrast is between what Moses did in the past (what God did through him) and what God does in the present (in the Christ event, which through the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit didn’t remain an isolated event of the past).

The crowd didn’t understand what he was talking about.  Just like the woman at the well who didn’t understand about the water that Jesus was offering her, the crowd didn’t understand Jesus when he said the food which he offered was better than the manna with which Moses fed the children of Israel.

Both water and bread in scripture are used in reference to that which gives life.  Jesus called Himself both bread and water—for truly he’s the giver of life.

The true bread in John’s expression, “true” means “real, ultimately real”; its opposite isn’t “untrue,” but “unreal”.

“I am the Bread of Life…He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Certainly, Jesus wasn’t referring to the bread and water that only fills and satisfies for a while.  The true bread that sustains real life is neither the manna of the Old Testament nor the miraculous bread Jesus has just supplied, but Christ himself, the gift of God from heaven who gives eternal life.  And now, in our lesson for today, he was offering this crowd bread that would satisfy them forever.

You see, Jesus was making a profound point in the statement, “I am the bread of life,” that, as Westerners, we may not fully grasp.  For us, bread is optional.  We may enjoy it, especially the variety of breads we can purchase in our supermarkets today.   We can get our bread as white bread, whole wheat bread, multigrain bread, cornbread, flatbread, cinnamon bread, rye bread, buckwheat bread, Italian bread, yeasted bread, unleavened bread sourdough bread, etc.  We can get our bread as a biscuit, a roll, a waffle, a bagel, a bun…and the list goes on seemingly forever.

However in Palestine, bread wasn’t looked upon as an add-on to a meal.  Bread was the essential staple.  You might have nothing else to eat, but as long as you had bread, you could survive.  Bread was seen as that which provides life.  Jesus was saying to the crowd and is saying to us today, “I am the one who provides life abundant and everlasting.  I am not an option, if you really want life.  I am essential.  I am necessary.”

Because we’re not as dependent on bread as Jesus’ original listeners, we may not appreciate as much as they what he meant when he said that he’s the bread of life.  He’s saying, in effect:  “You cannot live without me.  I am essential to your life.”  This may be why the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer is, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

For many people historically, life without bread was impossible.  People in less affluent lands have a much greater appreciation of this idea than we do.

A story of Sadhu Sundar Singh, a converted Sikh, who became a Christian missionary in India many years ago.  Singh was distributing Gospels in the Central Provinces of India and he came on to some non-Christians on the railway train and offered a man a copy of John’s Gospel.  The man took it, tore it in pieces in anger and threw the pieces out of the window.

That seemed to be the end of the story, but it so happened, in the Providence of God, there was a man anxiously seeking for truth walking along the line that very day.  He picked up a little bit of paper as he walked along and looked at it.  The words on the bit of paper were in his language.  They said simply, “the Bread of Life.”

He didn’t know what that meant; but he inquired among his friends.  One of them said:  “I can tell you; it is out of the Christian book.  You must not read it or you will be defiled.”

The man thought for a moment and then said:  “I want to read the book that contains that beautiful phrase, the Bread of Life.”  He bought a copy of the New Testament.  He was shown where the sentence occurred in today’s lesson, “I am the Bread of Life.”  As he studied the gospel, light flooded into his heart.  He not only became a follower of Jesus Christ, he became a preacher of the gospel in the Central Provinces of India.  “That little bit of paper through God’s Spirit was indeed the Bread of Life to him, satisfying his deepest need.”

Pope Francis writes in his book The Joy of the Gospel , “Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone.  Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and who invite others to a delicious banquet.  It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’”.

This brings us to the essential truth we need to take away with us this day:  Christ alone can satisfy our deepest need.  Pastor Ronnie Floyd puts it this way:  “People will do anything to be satisfied in life.  In fact, people are searching for life and meaning in life.  The drunkard is looking for life.  The drug addict is looking for life.  The adulterer is looking for life…The corporate climber is looking for life.

“In each person, God has created a void.  The void is the desire for meaning and fulfillment in life.  Even though all persons are looking for life, many are searching in all the wrong places.  Jesus is the life people are looking for in life.  I believe firmly that all persons are in the process of searching for Jesus.  On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 standing for an atheist and 10 standing for conversion to Christianity…everyone is searching for Jesus.  Each person here today is in the process of coming to Jesus.  They think they’re searching for the meaning in life, but they’re really searching for Jesus.”

In the Lord’s Prayer, the first petition is what?  “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Of course that’s bread for the body, but do we need to seek daily for bread for the soul?  That bread is Jesus.  Who else loves us as much as he?  The bread of life has come so that we can have life!

Let us pray.  God of hope, when your hungry people longed for the slave food of Egypt, you opened the doors of heaven and rained down manna.  Feed us with the bread of life at your table that we may taste the freedom of eternal life and lead lives worthy of our calling, through Christ our head.  Amen.

July 26, 2015

The World’s Largest Church Potluck Dinner

2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-15

The Rev. Paul Brunner tells a wonderful story about a young man named Jeff.  Jeff learned one Sunday morning that his church was holding a picnic that afternoon.  He hurried home from church to pack his lunch and get to the picnic grounds.  But, lo and behold, when he opened the refrigerator door, he discovered only a small amount of Spam and two stale pieces of bread (one of them a heel).  And to make things worse, there was barely enough mustard to color his knuckles when he tried to scrape the bottom of the jar.  Nevertheless he made his sandwich, wrapped it in waxed paper and placed it in a large paper bag (so it would look as if he had a great deal more than a single sandwich) and set out for the picnic.

When he arrived, the grounds were already crowded and the only empty spot he could find was at the end of a table next to the Lawson family.  As he took his sandwich from the bag and began to unwrap it, the Lawsons began to spread their feast as well.  They had a warm, red checkered tablecloth, heaps of fried chicken, potato salad and baked beans that smelled like heaven to Jeff.  To top it all off, Mrs. Lawson brought out two of the biggest chocolate cream pies Jeff had ever seen!

He glanced at the bountiful feast and then back at his own meager meal when he felt a hand on his shoulder.  It was Mrs. Lawson, “Why don’t we pool our food?”  She was asking.  “And we can all eat together!”

 “No, I don’t think so,” Jeff embarrassingly told her.  “I’m not really all that hungry, so I only brought a sandwich,” he said, hanging his head somewhat.

“Oh, please!” she smiled.  “We just love Spam; we’ll cut it into pieces so everyone can enjoy it along with some fried chicken and all the fixings, and of course, some chocolate pie."  And so, says Rev. Brunner, Jeff came to the picnic that day as a pauper and stayed to feast like a king.

Some people say this is exactly what happened when Jesus fed the multitude with five small barley loaves and two small fish.  The people shared with one another and there was more than enough to go around.  Whether that’s a sufficient explanation of this miracle or not, it always amazes me how much food is left over at potluck meals.

Today’s story is one of the best known stories about Jesus.  This is the only miracle story that occurs in all four Gospels, with Matthew and Mark each having two versions of the story (five thousand, four thousand).  In fact, it’s the only he went, miracle, apart from Jesus’ resurrection, which is recorded in all four Gospels.  The Gospel of John reflects elements from all the other versions.  That alone makes it important for us to study.  We know from last week’s lesson that people were following Jesus wherever he went, in boats and on foot.  There was no place to hide.  And Jesus was moved with compassion by the crowd’s great need.

In today’s lesson from John’s Gospel, seeing the great multitude, Jesus asks Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”

Philip seemed surprised by the question, and with good reason.  Philip was from Bethsaida which was the closest town and would have known of the local resources.  He answers, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

He was saying there was no earthly way they could feed that many people.  From a human standpoint that was correct.  There were no restaurants or supermarkets nearby, and even if there were, they didn’t have near enough money to buy food for a crowd numbering in the thousands.

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

That’s a good question.  The needs are so great.  Our resources are so few.  From whence will the necessary help come?  So often in ministry, we’re faced with needs and all we see is the insufficiency of our church’s budget and the impossibility of meeting those needs.  The early church in Acts had that very same problem on the very first day it all began.  Three thousand Jews were converted and the young church had to find a place for them because they were now seen as traitors by their families and abandoned.  That’s why we read in Acts 2:45:  “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”  Jesus had compassion on people and so did the early church.

Before they could meet the people’s needs, however, they needed to get organized.  Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.”  Here was the man with a plan.  There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down.  About five thousand men were there, John tells us.  Add in an unknown number of women and children and you come up with a crowd that could’ve numbered 10,000.

Jesus told them to sit down.  Then he took the loaves, gave thanks, and, says, John, distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted.  He did the same with the fish.  When they all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over.  Let nothing be wasted.”  So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

All the Gospels point out the people ate their fill and there was much food left over.  In the modern affluent West, we must remind ourselves that “eating all you want” has been an extraordinary event in the lives of most of the human race for most of its history, and thus served as a symbol of ultimate salvation.  In John’s picture, the satisfaction of this universal human hunger is already present in Christ.  “So nothing may be lost;” John emphasizes that Christ loses nothing of what has been entrusted to him.  The twelve baskets of fragments testify to the extravagance of the messianic banquet.  The bread supplied by Jesus enables more than survival.  The leftovers are gathered and preserved.  The manna read of in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11 couldn’t be preserved.  So the next day the manna was spoiled.

It’s an amazing story.  Jesus fed 10,000 people with five small barley loaves and two small fish.  How was this possible?  As we noted, some theologians say he did it by getting the people to share what they had.  Like the Lawsons sharing their fried chicken and chocolate pie with Jeff in our opening story.  Like people at a potluck dinner sharing what they have and there’s always plenty left over.  It’s a good explanation, though, again, I’m not sure it’s a full explanation. 

Notice what John says next:  “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”

John calls this event a “sign.”  Scholars tell us that John’s record of the life of Jesus is very specific in its purpose:  “…that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in his name”.

John refers to all of Jesus’ miracles as “signs”—signs that Jesus was the Messiah.  This particular sign was a spectacular one, for it made Jesus wildly popular with the crowd.  They even wanted to make him king.  I’m not sure that just getting the crowd to share with one another would make that large of an impression.  Of course, none of us knows how he performed this miracle.  Or how he changed the water to wine in another of John’s stories.  Or how he healed the blind or raised the dead.  All we can do is agree with John this is a sign that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, by believing, we may have life in his name.

There’s much to see in this story.  First is Jesus’ concern that people’s needs be met.  You give of your generosity for:  “Change for Change”, “Fill the Gazebo”, “The Breaking Bread” meal, “Bread for the World”, H.A.V.E.N. and the Christmas family.  Jesus saw the people and their need and he felt compassion toward them.  That’s why he had so much to say about caring for the poor.

Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion on them.  Jesus taught us this is what the kingdom is all about.  Sometimes we can ignore people’s needs, but not Jesus.  He was moved with compassion by the people’s needs and he sought to help them.  He viewed them as sheep without a shepherd, lost and helpless, without guidance, nourishment, or protection.

Jesus not only had compassion on the crowd; he was also moved to help them.  Many people look on others in need with compassion; only a few are moved to help them in their need.

“What a pity,” we say when we see a person on the street in rags, asking for a handout.  “How sad,” we think when we see a child in a magazine with their stomach bloated and covered with flies—as if feeling sorry for people was the same as really helping them.

Jesus wants us to be compassionate and caring as he was compassionate and caring.  And don’t worry about resources.  We in the church are always worrying about where the money is going to come from, as if God can’t provide for His people.  When Jesus fed the multitude with five small barley loaves and two small fish, there were twelve baskets left over.  Act with compassion and let God provide the resources.  That’s what this story says to us.

Let us pray.  “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen.


June 21, 2015

 It Was a Dark and Stormy Evening

Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; Mark 4:35-41

Welcome on this Father’s Day.  We know that not every Dad is a great Dad.  And yet we know that some of the men in this church have committed themselves to being great Dads, and we want to give them the recognition they deserve.

According to one expert, children go through 4 stages of dealing with their fathers.  In one stage, they call you Da-Da.  In stage 2 they grow and call you Daddy.  As they mature and reach stage 3 they call you Dad.  Finally in stage 4 they call you “collect.”

A certain mother tells about her two daughters who were having a discussion about family resemblance.

“I look like Mom,” said her nine-year-old, “but I have Dad’s eyes and Dad’s lips.”

The six-year-old said, “And I look just like Dad, but I have light hair.”  Then the six-year-old turned to her mother.  “Mom,” she asked, “what does Dad have to do with us being born anyway?”

Her older sister jumped right in.  “Don’t be stupid, Christina.  Dad is the one who drove Mom to the hospital.”  Well, Dads serve one vital function anyway.

Hilding Halverson, a gospel musician, overheard his son one day talking to two other boys.  The boys were bragging about their fathers—which Dad was more powerful.

One boy bragged, “My Dad knows the mayor of our town!”

The other boy said, “So, my Dad knows the governor of our state!”

Halverson’s son was the last to speak and he said, “That’s nothing, my Dad knows God!”  Upon hearing this Halverson quickly slipped away to his room and with tears in his eyes he prayed, “O God, I pray that my boy will always be able to say, ‘My Dad knows God!’”  Let’s pray that one day all the boys and girls in this church will be able to say that about their Dads, “My Dad knows God!”

Those of you who were fans of the late, great cartoonist Charles Schultz remember how Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy was often pictured on his doghouse with his trusty typewriter.  He was a would-be writer who always seemed to begin his novels with a certain phrase.  Does anyone remember what it was?  “It was a dark and stormy night…”  Today’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel takes place on a dark and stormy evening.

It has been suggested the vivid details in today’s lesson indicate the writer of Mark, who was not an immediate disciple of Jesus, must’ve gotten his account from one of the disciples who was an eyewitness.  This was most likely Simon Peter because, according to tradition, Peter was a mentor to mark.  Let’s take a few moments to reflect on this story.

Jesus had been teaching all day.  Some of you who taught in the classroom know how exhausting that is.  Imagine teaching to hundreds of people all day without a microphone—a daunting task, indeed.  It was now evening and Jesus decides to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee with his disciples.  

Now up to this point, Jesus has conducted his ministry exclusively on the western, Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee.  He now leads his disciples into a predominately Gentile area, prefiguring the later move from a purely Jewish-Christian group of Jesus’ disciples to a predominately Gentile church such as Mark’s own.

Though it’s not stated, it may be assumed that Jesus desired to rest, away from the crowd and from teaching.  This wasn’t an easy undertaking.  Verse 36 tells us there were people in other boats who wanted to remain with Jesus.  When he shoved off, they tagged along.  No rest for the weary.

The voyage was interrupted by a sudden storm.  We read, “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.”  A storm such as this was common on the Sea of Galilee, which was surrounded by high hills and narrow valleys that acted as wind tunnels.  i.e. Lake Winnebago or Koshkonong.  An evening storm was especially dangerous.  And on that evening, the waves were raging so they kept spilling over the boat.  Yes, the same boat with Jesus in it.  Let’s pause again for a moment.

Sometimes in our lives we face situations that threaten to overwhelm us.  Despite the fact we’re people of faith, these storms come into our lives so suddenly and with so much fury that we’re not prepared for them.  The storms of sickness, disease and even death; relationship issues; parenting issues; employment woes.  These storms come, no matter how faithful we are in our service to God.  They come no matter how perfect our attendance in church may be.  They come no matter how well we know our Bible.  In fact, we read in the first verse of the Epistle of James, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m in a storm that’s threatening to overwhelm me, I rarely feel joy, pure or otherwise.  Joy comes when the storm has finally passed.  I’m like Jesus’ disciples.  You remember their reaction to the storm.

Get the picture.  Jesus, exhausted from a full day of teaching, decides to take a nap in the stern of the boat.  When the waves begin lashing the boat, his disciples, some of whom were professional fishermen, are so terrified they decide to wake him up.

“Teacher,” they cry, “don’t you care if we drown?”

This isn’t an informational question, but an anguished prayer-like cry to Jesus, who now assumes the role of God.  The disciples seem to assume that Jesus can do something about the storm but is sleeping rather than acting.  But prayers aren’t made to rabbis.  God is the one who commands the sea.  The figure of Jesus modulates into that of God, the human Jesus functions with divine power.

When we’re in our storms, we, too, wonder if God cares about us.  When tossed about by the storm, we often call out to God; not out of surrender; not out of knowing that he’s there and able to deliver us, but because we feel abandoned.  Our call is, “Where are you, God?  Why have you abandoned me?  Am I not your child?”

I enjoy the way Pastor Ray Pritchard tells the story.  He says the disciples woke Jesus with questions that we’ve all asked in moments of desperation:

“Lord Jesus, don’t you care that my child is sick?

“Lord Jesus, don’t you care that my marriage is falling apart?

“Lord Jesus, don’t you care that my friends have deserted me?

“Lord Jesus, don’t you care that I have no money?

“Lord Jesus, don’t you care that I feel so all alone?

“Lord Jesus, don’t you care that I want to give up?

“Lord Jesus, don’t you care that my husband has died?

“Lord Jesus, don’t you care that I lost my job?

“We’ve all asked [these questions] in a million ways a million times.  We never question the Lord’s compassion when things are going well.  But,” says Pastor Pritchard, “God’s compassion isn’t measured by our circumstances nor is His kindness limited to our understanding.  God cares just as much when the tempest is raging as when the seas are calm and the sun is shining.  His mercy isn’t limited to the sunlight nor to the stillness of the waves.

Though his studies led him to become an Anglican cleric, John Wesley didn’t at first have a vibrant spiritual life.  While in route to the colony of Georgia as a missionary, his ship lost its mast in a violent storm.  Witnessing the Moravian passengers sing and pray peacefully through the storm, Wesley realized that he lacked “the one thing necessary.”  After his heart was “strangely warmed” in a moving conversion experience, Wesley became a popular preacher among the working class of England and led the movement now called Methodism.  

In verse 39, “[Jesus] got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet!  Be still!’  Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.”

What an amazing statement:  “Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.”

Jesus can still the storms in our life.  This is the message of today’s lesson:  Jesus cares and he can still the storms.

“Jesus got up,” says the writer of Mark.  Thank God for that.  The Lord who keeps us won’t let the storms overcome us. Says the Psalmist, “He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”  Jesus got up and rebuked—literally ordered—the wind and the waves and made them behave!  At Jesus’ command, the winds and waves became completely calm.

Do you possess the Spirit of Christ?  Then be calm.  “Greater is He that is in you” than any force trying to overwhelm you.”  ~1 John 4:4.

He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”

We all know what it’s like to be afraid, don’t we?  It’s the most common of all human emotions.

Most of us are like the little boy I read about.  He was visiting the local zoo and somehow was separated from his parents.  They were in an attraction known as the “House of Night,” where nocturnal creatures crawled and flew about.  All of a sudden the exhibit was plunged into total darkness.  Almost immediately, the little boy grabbed the hand of a woman standing nearby.  “And who do you belong to?” she asked.

The little boy spoke in the darkness, “I’m yours till the lights come on.”  I can relate to that, how about you?

Jesus said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”  Jesus was disappointed in his disciples.  Despite all his teachings, they were still ruled by the spirit of fear, not faith.  “Do you still have no faith?” he asked them.  The same question could be asked of us.  After all that God’s done for us through the years, do we still have no faith?  Hasn’t God come through for us before?  Though they called Him “Rabbi,” meaning teacher, his disciples yet didn’t understand his teachings.  And we make the same mistake.  Though we call him Savior (which means Deliverer), when our back is against the wall, we despair instead of trust.  We murmur instead of praise.  We forget how many times he’s brought us through the storm in the past.  We forget in the dark times of our lives what he’s said to us in the light.

I’m always amused by how this story ends.  Jesus has stilled the storm, the wind and the waves.  Now, Mark says, the disciples are really terrified and ask each other, “Who is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey him!”  Before they’re terrified by the storm; now they’re terrified by the knowledge they’re in the presence of One who has the power over the storm.  We can appreciate that, can’t we?

In calming the storm Jesus assumed the authority that can only be exercised by God.  He demonstrated his divine nature and power over nature.  The disciples recognized from such authority and demonstration of power, this was no ordinary man and so they became terrified asking, “Who is this person that even the forces of nature obey him.”  The word “terrified” (taken from the Greek, “phobeomai”) means to have awe and refers to a reverence that overtakes people in the presence of divine power.

We should be in awe and reverence of who Christ is as well.  And we ought to trust him when we face crises.  He can calm the storm.

A song from the 1942 Broadway musical Carousel says it beautifully:  “When you walk through the storm keep your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark…Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.  You’ll never walk alone.”  I don’t know what kind of storm you’re going through today, but you’re not alone.  The One who has the power to calm the storm is with you.

Let us pray:  Your hand is upon your people, O God, to guide and protect them through the ages.  Keep in your service those you have called and anointed, that the powers of this world may not overwhelm us, but that, secure in your love, we may carry out your will in the face of all adversity. to edit text

June 14, 2015

Hamburgers Don’t Grow on Trees

Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34

A father tells of taking his four-year-old son, Josh, out to McDonald’s for dinner one evening for a “guy’s night out.”

As they were downing their hamburgers, Josh asked, “Daddy, what are these little things on the hamburger buns?”  Dad explained they were tiny seeds and they were okay to eat.

Josh was quiet for a couple of minutes and his Dad could tell that Josh was in deep thought.  Finally, Josh looked up and said, “Dad, if we go home and plant these seeds in our backyard, we will have enough hamburgers to last forever.”

That’s not a bad guess from a four-year-old.  However, we know that hamburgers don’t come from sesame seeds.  But Josh was sure right about one thing—tiny seeds can produce a bountiful harvest.

Jesus often compared the Kingdom of God to seed sown in the ground.  In today’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel we discover two such parables of the Kingdom.  The first one reads like this:  “This is what the Kingdom of God is like.  A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he doesn’t know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Now, remember this is a parable about the Kingdom of God.  What’s the Kingdom of God?  It’s God’s reign in human life.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  In other words, the day is coming when, on this earth, God’s love will reign in every heart.  At that point, the world will leave in peace.  There will be no more pain, no more hunger, no more war.  The Kingdom came into the world with Jesus and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it’s been growing ever since.

Notice in this parable the farmer doesn’t plow the seed under nor does he irrigate it.  He simply scatters the seed on the ground.  Then says Jesus, “Night and day, whether [the farmer] sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he doesn’t know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.”  All by itself, the earth produces grain and the grain matures in successive stages.  The soil does this automatically.

In the Greek translation, scholars tell us, a better rendering would be that the seed does this “without our help it’s coming.  Hitler couldn’t stop it.  Communism could not stop it.  Isis can’t stop it.

This is the amazing thing about seed.  It will often grow with or without our help.  Not only that, it will often grow with great abundance.

A certain gardener decided to count the seed pods on a medium-sized mustard plant.  There were 85.  The average number of seeds in each pod was eight.  Since two crops in a given year could be matured, this gardener figured that it was possible in their interim between February and mid-October to produce a yield of 462,000 seeds, all from one original plant.  Here’s what’s amazing.  Many other species of plants far exceed that increase.  Nature is bountiful beyond all imagining.

The Kingdom of God is like that.  We may not see it.  It may be hidden by the maddening follies of humanity.  That doesn’t mean it is not at work.

I like John Beukema’s analogy of the century plant.  The century plant is native to the desert regions.  It’s so named because it’s a notoriously slow grower.  For decades, the century plant will show no signs of growth.  It will just look like a scrubby, ugly little bush.  Then one day, it will suddenly start growing.  It may grow half a foot per day and reach up to forty feet.  And after it has reached its full growth, the century plant suddenly produces flowers.  Its bright yellow blossoms last for weeks at a time.  It’s a spectacular sight for anyone who has the patience to watch for it.

The Kingdom of God is like that.  We may not see any signs of it at work, but suddenly without warning God does a wondrous new work and we look with delight at what God has done.

Jesus, of course, uses the analogy of the mustard seed in our second parable:

“What shall we say the Kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?  It’s like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.  Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches the birds can perch in its shade.”

The common black mustard seed was the smallest of all the seeds sown in the fields of Palestine.  It took about 760 mustard seeds to weigh ONE gram.  How small is one gram?  Well, it takes 28 grams to equal one ounce.  That’s how small mustard seeds are.  But growing from such a small seed the mustard shrub becomes the largest of all garden plants.  It reaches heights of 12-15 feet in a few weeks.

This parable highlights the insignificant beginning of God’s Kingdom, embodied in Jesus.  He was born in an obscure village of peasant parents, working until he was thirty in a carpenter’s shop.  Gathering around him a motley group of men and women, most of whom were drawn from the lower tiers of society in wealth and prestige.  And yet, like that insignificant seed quickly outgrows all the other plants in the garden, so too will the Kingdom of God surpass all the earth’s kingdoms in power and glory.

So what can we learn from these two parables.  First of all, we learn that God works through small insignificant acts of life to build His Kingdom.  That’s because one small act of leads to another, and then another, and so on.  Let me give you an example of that.

Do you know the name Rick Ruzzamenti?  I didn’t think so.  Not too long ago, Rick Ruzzamenti, a native of Riverside, CA made the news with a radical act of kindness for a stranger.  Rick gave one of his kidneys to someone he didn’t even know.

Now you and I might donate a kidney for a family member.  Maybe even for a good friend.  But a complete stranger?  Rick was inspired by a friend who had donated a kidney to help someone.   Rick’s kidney ended up in a man in Livingston, NJ.

What makes this story more wonderful is that Rick’s act started a chain of donations.  The niece of the man who received Rick’s kidney made a donation, giving one of her kidneys to a stranger, and so on.  Within a relatively short time, 30 people have received kidneys as the result of the chain of giving set off by Rick’s act,  Donald Terry, a man in Joliet, IL, was the most recent recipient.  He was expecting to have to wait five years or more for a transplant.

Whether he knows it or not, Rick Ruzzamenti planted a seed for the Kingdom of God where he donated a kidney to a stranger.  Anytime one human being does a loving act for another human being, the Kingdom comes closer.  It’s even more obvious when a follower of Christ performs such an act in his name.  What a witness that is!

Just a few years ago Richard Lischer wrote a book entitled Open Secrets.  It’s about his first year of ministry.  “Fresh out of seminary and full of enthusiasm, Lischer found himself assigned to a small conservative church in an economically depressed town in southern Illinois.  This was far from what this overly enthusiastic and optimistic young man expected.  The town was bleak, poor, and clearly not a step on his path to a brilliant career.

“It was an awkward marriage at best, a young man with a Ph.D. in theology, full of ideas and ambitions, determined to improve his parish and bring them into the twenty-first century.  Often he doesn’t understand his congregation, and sometimes they don’t understand him.”

It’s only later that Lischer begins to see what he couldn’t see while he was striving to be the perfect pastor of that conservative congregation.  The Kingdom of God was happening in that small parish even though he was blind to it.  He asks the question:  “Why couldn’t I see the Kingdom of God happening in our little church?...People in our congregation every week, volunteered to exercise the legs of a little girl with cerebral palsy, so that her muscles wouldn’t grow weak.  People helped one another put up hay before the rains came.  When a neighbor lost their farm, we all grieved with him and we refused to bid on his tools at the auction.

“Weren’t these all signs of the Kingdom of God,” Lischer asks?  “Why couldn’t I see them?”  Those were signs of the Kingdom.  Every act of kindness to a neighbor or a stranger, every effort no matter how small to improve our world, every act of witness to the presence of God in our world is used by God as a building block for God’s Kingdom.  There are three simple truths we need to take away when we leave worship today from these two parables of Jesus.

The first is that God is at work in our world.  I like the way Meghan Feldmeyer put it in an address in the Duke University Chapel sometime back.  Feldmeyer reminded her audience of the Bette Midler song, “From a Distance” which Midler recorded in the early 1990s.  It won a Grammy.  The song talks about how “from a distance, the world looks blue and green, and snowcapped mountains white…and from a distance there is harmony, and no guns or bombs or disease…and God is watching us from a distance.”  Remember that song?

Feldmeyer notes the song is so lovely with its images of peace and harmony that you almost find yourself believing it…that is until you realize it is totally FALSE.  It’s heresy!  Theological [rubbish].  The parable of the mustard seed tells us that.  “God is not watching us from a distance…God is not some pie in the sky God [who] looks down and glosses over suffering, and who doesn’t deal in the reality of our lives.  [The God of the mustard seed is a] God who comes to earth to be among us…who reduces Himself to the scant, insignificant life of a poor carpenter…who enters into the dirt and mud, pain and suffering…and who gently but persistently cracks open new life.

“If you were to pick up a handful of dirt and soil, the mustard seed is so small, you probably can’t even distinguish it.  It’s hidden, out of sight, and hard to find even if you are looking.  But it doesn’t mean it isn’t there…the mustard seed awaits, concealed and invisible, until the time is ripe to unleash its mighty re-birth.  Just because we can’t see the mustard seed doesn’t mean the mustard seed isn’t there.  In the same way, our inability to see doesn’t affect God’s ability to be.”

The second thing we need to see is this:  the attitude of the believer should always be one of hopefulness.  So many people are being stirred to despair today by the constant barrage of bad news carried primarily by cable news networks.  Just remember, these networks have a tremendous amount of time to fill.  Bad news always sells, and since, in any portion of the world you can find something disturbing going on, it may seem to the undiscerning viewer that the whole world is coming apart.  It’s not.  The truth be known there’s less bad news in the world than ever before.

God is at work in the world.  The attitude of the believer should always be hopefulness—not because of what human beings may do, but because of God’s plan for the world.  The Kingdom of God is coming, God will prevail.

This brings us to the final thing to be said:  Let’s make certain we’re on the winning side.  We certainly don’t want to be standing in God’s way when His Kingdom comes.  We want to be on the side of hope, peace, love, healing and faith.

The only way you can be certain you’re on the winning side is to be faithful in serving God and in serving humanity.  Like seed planted in the ground, even if it’s as tiny as a mustard seed, the Kingdom will spring forth eventually as a blessing to all.

Nancy Leigh DeMoss, writing on “The Law of the Harvest,” put it this way:  “For better or for worse, most of the patterns in my life today are the fruit of choices I made years ago.  The books I read, the people I spent time with, the way I responded to authority, the way I spent my free time, my study habits—all those things affect me now.

“In the same way, the choices we make today will affect us down the road.  Every sinful, selfish, or indulgent act is sowing a seed that will reap a multiplied harvest.  But every act of obedience is [also] a seed that will bless us and those around us.”

God is at work in the world.  The attitude of the believer should always be hopefulness—not because of what human beings may do, but because of God’s plan for the world.  God will prevail.  Let’s make certain we’re on the winning side.

Let us pray:  O God our ruler and shepherd, you anointed Jesus as the king and servant of your people.  Make us attentive to your word, that we may accept your reign over us and serve you alone.  Amen.

June 7, 2015

Don’t Give Up Now!

Genesis 3:8-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Have you noticed that some people can’t catch a break, no matter what they do?  It’s like the lady I heard about.  It’s a true story.  In 1957 Richie Ashburn was the center fielder for the Philadelphia Phillies.  He swung and hit a foul ball that went into the stands and struck a fan named Alice Roth.  As she was being taken away on a stretcher, Ashburn hit another foul ball…and hit her again.  Poor Alice, I guess it just wasn’t her day.  I’ve had days like that, haven’t you?  

Pastor Alan Carr tells about an advertisement that once appeared in the newspapers in New York City.  The ad was sponsored by the Hayden planetarium.  It was an invitation for anyone who would like to make the first journey to another planet to submit an application.  Within a matter of days, over 18,000 people applied.  These applications were then given to a panel of psychologists, who upon reviewing them concluded the vast majority of those who had applied wanted to start a new life on another planet because they were so discouraged by life on this one.

I wonder if anyone here today can relate to that?  Are you so discouraged with life that you would like to go somewhere—even another planet—and make a new start?

The loveable loser Charlie Brown in the Peanuts cartoons often felt that way.  Once he told Linus, “Sometimes I feel like I want to run away from everything.”

Overhearing the conversation, Snoopy reflects, “I remember having that feeling once when I was at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm.  I climbed over the fence…but I was still in the world!”  That’s the problem with running away from your problems, isn’t it?  You’re still in the world.  And your problems seem to always follow you.  And, of course, the real problem is that you’re still you.

The Apostle Paul had as many problems as anyone—and more than most people.  He never had the comforts of family life.  He spent years traveling under the most primitive conditions.  He was persecuted, shipwrecked, beaten, thrown in prison and martyred for his faith.  He made enormous sacrifices for the cause of Christ and yet he was constantly criticized by people both inside as well as outside of the early church.  And yet he never seemed to get discouraged.

Paul was like the guy Larry Olsen cites in his book, Outdoor Survival Skills.  According to Olsen this guy had been out of food and water for days.  His lips were parched and bleeding.  His tongue was swollen.  His legs were bruised and his feet were raw.  Some of his bones were almost peeking through his skin as he dragged himself across the desert.  He was scraped from the rocks and the blowing sand had scoured his back and arms.  He was insect bitten and tormented by cactus needles.  His skin was blistered by the merciless sun.  As he crawled over the little rise, he propped himself up on one bleeding elbow, looked across the burning wasteland and said, ‘You know, a few days like this and I might get discouraged.’”

St. Paul could relate to that and yet Paul never got discouraged, never gave up, never felt sorry for himself.  Why?  Because he had an enormous faith in God.  Listen as he writes in today’s lesson from 2 Corinthians 4:  “therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands…”

What a magnificent statement of faith.  II Corinthians is an intensely personal letter written by Paul in response to the reports he’d received from Titus about the Corinthians’ response to his first letter.  Though many in Corinth had repented of some of the behavior that had Paul so concerned, there were some false teachers who tried to undermine Paul’s efforts and sought to discredit his ministry.  Paul shared his heartfelt love for the church and some of the trials and sufferings he’d endured for the sake of Christ.  The passage we’re looking at today gives some insight into Paul’s ability to handle the setbacks that were a major part of his life.

What empowered Paul to endure in the face of his suffering?  It was his immovable faith in God.  Paul was an amazing man.  Most of us, if we had experienced all the setbacks that Paul experienced, would be whining and complaining for all the world to hear.

We’d be like Tevye in the wonderful Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof.  Tevye kept up a running dialogue with God, giving God credit for the good things that happened to him but also lamenting everything that went wrong.

In one scene his horse goes lame.  There Tevye sits dejected by the side of the road with his lame horse.  “I can understand it,” Tevye says to God, “when you punish me when I am bad; or my wife because she talks too much; or my daughter when she wants to go off and marry a Gentile, but…What have you got against my horse?!”

Some of us can identify with Tevye, can’t we?  Be honest about it.  Paul wasn’t like that, however.  No matter what happened to Paul, he seemed to be able to roll with the punches, as we say.  He was able to go with the flow.  How?  Paul had an amazing faith in God.  It’s the kind of faith you and I need.  People who have faith when battling against overwhelming odds inspire the rest of us.

I’ve mentioned before the inspirational former basketball coach at North Carolina State University, Jim Valvano.  Sports fans remember him simply as Jimmy V.  Valvano was diagnosed with terminal cancer in June 1992.  Just eight weeks before he died he gave a speech for the ESPY Awards presented by ESPN.  You can find that speech on YouTube.  It’s an amazing speech.  While accepting the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award, Valvano announced the creation of The V Foundation for Cancer Research, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for cancer.  He announced the foundation’s motto would be, “Don’t Give Up…Don’t Ever Give Up.”

That was certainly true of this coaching legend.  During his speech the teleprompter stated he had 30 seconds left.  Valvano looked at the teleprompter and then at the crowd and he said, “They got that screen up there flashing 30 seconds, like I care about that screen.  I got tumors all over my body and I’m worried about some guy in the back going 30 seconds.”  His speech included this statement:

“To me, there are three things we all should do every day.  We should do this every day of our lives.  Number one is laugh.  You should laugh every day.  Number two is think.  You should spend some time in thought.  And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy.  But think about it.  If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day.  That’s a heck of a day.  You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

Valvano’s memorable ESPY acceptance speech became legendary.  He closed by saying:  “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities.  It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.  And those three things are going to carry on forever.  I thank you and God bless you all.”  He could’ve been rephrasing St. Paul’s words, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day…For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands…”

Here’s something we need to see:  Paul’s confidence was founded on the resurrection of Christ.  Because he knew Christ is alive, he knew life conquers death, hope conquers despair, and love conquers hate.  This is an attitude that we need when we are tempted to give up on life.  It’s the sure hope that because Christ lives, tomorrow will be a better day.

The well-known Bible student and preacher Vance Havner once noted the Christian experience has three levels.  First, there are the “mountaintop days.”  These are days when everything is going well and the world looks bright.  We’re grateful for these mountaintop days, but truthfully they don’t do much for us or for those around us spiritually.  If we’ve lived charmed lives and are continually boasting about how good God has been to us, we will only hurt those around us who’re going through difficult times.  And such good fortune will probably leave us with a shallow faith that has never been tested.  A charmed life will ultimately be to our detriment.  But sometimes life is like that, mountaintop to mountaintop.

The second part of life consists of “ordinary days” when we work at our humdrum, everyday tasks.  On these days we’re neither elated nor depressed.  This, of course, is where we spend most of our time.  When we’re young, such days are boring.  As we grow older, such days are reassuring.  How many of you—you don’t need to raise your hands—have gotten to the point when you think boring is good?  “No news is good news,” or so they say.

Finally, there are the “dark days” of life when we trudge heavily through confusion, doubt, despair, and discouragement.  Sometimes these days string out into months or even years before we begin to experience a sense of relief and victory.  Eventually all of us will experience dark days.  These are days that test our faith.  Nevertheless, these days offer three valuable benefits.

First of all, they offer the greatest opportunity for spiritual growth.  When we have been through a time of testing, it gives us confidence that we can handle the next test.

Some of you have been through difficult times—more difficult than some of us will ever know.  Rather than making you bitter, by God’s grace, those times have made you better.  You look at those days and say to yourself, “I made it through that, I know I can handle the next test that life sends me.”  Dark days give us confidence.

But there’s a second benefit.  Dark days offer us the best possible opportunity to witness to our faith.

Many years ago an architect planned that the walls of the Royal Palace in Teheran, Iran be covered with sheets of beautiful mirrors from Paris.  But when the shipment of glass arrived from Paris every mirror had been smashed in transit.  The entire shipment was destroyed!  The grand entry couldn’t be completed.

Just as the workmen started gathering the broken pieces together to discard them, the architect said, “Wait a minute.  I’ve got an idea!”  He then took a hammer and broke some of the larger pieces into smaller pieces.  He gathered them up in his hands and walked over to the entry.  He then put some glue on the wall and arranged the small pieces.  He did this several times until he had an enormous montage of broken mirror pieces.  At no point were the mirrors broken alike and at no point was the angle exact.

Today, the Royal Palace in Teheran is a dazzling display of prisms, reflecting light!  One visitor stood in awe and described the result like this:  “Broken to be more beautiful!”

At some time in our lives we might give that same testimony.  “Broken to be more beautiful!”  Anybody can handle the mountaintop days of our lives.  It’s when we can handle the dark days that our lives become a living testimony to our faith in God.  As we sometimes say, God will use our mess as a message and our tests as a testimony.

And finally, when you go through life’s dark days, you’re better able to empathize with others who’re experiencing dark days.  Your experiences bond you to one another.  In such a setting, you’re better able to share the love of Jesus Christ.

Paul knew about dark days.  He writes, “Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day…”

This is the believer’s hope.  It’s that hope that caused Stephen to look up into the face of those who were about to murder him for his faith, and rejoice.  It’s the hope that caused believers in the early church to willingly allow themselves to be hauled into coliseums and be fed to lions and wild beasts and be set on fire and used as streetlights—all because they wouldn’t recant their faith in Christ.  Hope says, “Though I walk through the Valley of Death, I will fear no evil.”  Hope says, “This, too, shall pass.”  Hope says, I will not give up or despair, for all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.”  Don’t Lose Heart!

This is our witness to an unbelieving world.  It’s a life full of the love of Jesus Christ whether life has us on a mountaintop, in a deep valley or on the level plain.  Wherever we are, God is with us.

Let us pray:  God of judgment and mercy, when we hide ourselves in shame, you seek us out in love.  Grant us the fullness of your forgiveness, that as one people, united by your grace, we may stand with Christ against the powers of evil.  Amen.  


May 31, 2015

Do You Know Who You Are?

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:14-17

A hitchhiker was trying to get a ride one night in Los Angeles.  A car pulled over to pick him up.  When the hitchhiker got into the car he saw the face of the driver and recognized him.  The driver was film star Michael Douglas!  The hitchhiker was shocked and all he could think to say to Michael Douglas was, “Do you know who you are?”

That’s our theme for today:  Do you know who you are?  I’m thrilled to be able to tell you by the authority vested in me as a minister of the Gospel who you are.  You are a child of God.

“When I found that…I was a child of God,” Maya Angelou once told an interviewer, “when I understood that, when I comprehended that…when I internalized that, I became courageous.  I dared to do anything that was a good thing.”

That’s a wonderful statement, isn’t it?  “When I found that…I was a child of God…I became courageous.  I dared to do anything that was a good thing.”  If you truly come to believe that you’re a child of God, it will change your life.

William J. Bausch in one of his books tells about the eminent African-American scientist George Washington Carver.  Carver, of course, was the scientist who worked miracles with the lowly peanut.

In January 1921 Carver was brought to Washington, D.C., to describe his work to the Congressional Ways and Means Committee.  He wasn’t prepared for the disrespect he was shown as a black man by some men in that committee hearing.  In 1921 attitudes toward people of color were far different than they are today, and there was far less restraint on the part of persons who were openly racist in their language.  It was almost enough to cause George Washington Carver to turn around and go back home.  But Dr. Carver had something that many people today lack.  He had a deep faith in God.  As he wrote in his autobiography, “Whatever they said of me, I knew that I was a child of God, and so I said to myself inwardly, ‘Almighty God, let me carry out your will.’”

Bausch describes the scene when Carver finally had a chance to speak:  “He got to the podium and was told that he had twenty minutes to speak.  Carver opened up his display case and began to explain his project…So engaging was his discussion those twenty minutes went all too quickly and the chairman rose and asked for an extension so Carver could continue his presentation, which he did for an hour and three quarters.  They voted him four more extensions so he spoke for several hours.  At the end of his talk they all stood up and gave him a long round of applause.  And all because he knew who he was and because he refused to be defined by the labels of his culture.”

George Washington Carver knew who he was.  He was a child of God.  It’s a powerful thing when a person discovers that he or she is a child of God.

Some of you were thrilled as young people back in the 1960s and 70s when you discovered that famous poem Desiderata written by Max Ehrmann.  Do you recall the message of that poem?  In his poem Ehrmann declared grandly, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.  And whether or not it’s clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should…”

Many of you felt liberated by those words.  You felt affirmed.  But, friends, those words, no matter how grand, are a pale imitation of the words of the Apostle Paul when he writes in Romans 8, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.  The Spirit you received doesn’t make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.  And by him we cry, Abba, Father.’  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we’re God’s children.  Now if we’re children, then we’re heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

You need to know that you’re not simply the child of an impersonal universe.  You’re the child of a loving God who watched over you from the day you were born.

That insightful writer Kurt Vonnegut, put it so beautifully in one of his poems:

“God made mud…God got lonesome…So God said to some of the mud, ‘Sit up!’  ‘See all I’ve made, said God, ‘the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.’

“And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around…Lucky me, lucky mud…I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done…”

Think of what it means to be a child of God.  It means, first of all, that God will forever watch over you.  There will never come a time when God will ever stop loving you.  Even if you are prone to wander far, far away, God’s love for you is secure.

Jesus makes that clear in his parable of a lost son in Luke 15.  The son’s real indictment was not going away from his father but in the great disrespect he showed his father.  He didn’t want to wait until his father was deceased to get his inheritance.  He wanted his inheritance now!  This was almost the equivalent of saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.”  In the Jewish culture of that day, this would’ve been unheard of.  Despite the boy’s waywardness, however, the father never stopped looking for the son’s return and there was never any question he would welcome his son home.  Can’t you see him at the door each afternoon, gazing out searching the horizon?  “Do you think he’ll come back?” he asks with both sorrow and hope in his heart.  “Is he safe?”

Being a child of God is a permanent relationship.  We say that our love for our own children, if we are so blessed, will never end.  Imagine how much love God is capable of.  It’s so much that John declared in one of his epistles, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Love defines God’s very nature.  This is such a profound truth.

Many of you are aware that one of the fastest growing Christian movements in the world is the church in communist China.  Much of this is due to the tireless efforts of a twentieth century Chinese Christian teacher named Watchman Nee.

Nee once told a story about a new convert, who came in deep distress to see him.  “No matter how much I pray,” said this new convert, “no matter how hard I try, I simply cannot seem to be faithful to my Lord.  I think I’m losing my salvation.”

With much wisdom, Nee pointed to the family dog nearby and said, “Do you see this dog?  He is my dog.  He is house-trained; he never makes a mess; he is obedient; he is a pure delight to me.  Out in the kitchen I have a son, a baby son.  He makes a mess, he throws his food around, he fouls his clothes, he is a total mess.  But who is going to inherit my kingdom?  Not my dog; my son is my heir.  You are Jesus Christ’s heir because it is for you that he died.”  Nee, of course, was referring to our lesson for the day:  “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we’re God’s children.  Now if we’re children, then we’re heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ…”

Paul writes of our adoption by God.  But it’s not the kind of adoption we’re familiar with.  Not only did adoption in Roman society give a child the full rights of a biological child but, because of the vulnerability of the adopted child, the new parents could NEVER abandon that child.  They were perpetually responsible for that child from the point of adoption.  No wonder Jesus could promise his disciples, “I’ll be with you always…” (Matt 28:20b).  We’re children of God and the Holy Spirit testifies to this fact.  As children of God we’re heirs of God, beneficiaries of all of His power and resources (Ephesians 1:3) and joint heirs with Christ.  In many families children inherit their parent’s estate; each child is an heir and the children together are joint heirs.  So with all fellow believers we’re joint heirs of all that God has to give.

I am convinced the biggest problem in many peoples’ lives today is they don’t know who they are.  Their true identity is a mystery to them.

Father Greg Boyle is a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in East Los Angeles.  Father Boyle has put together a team of physicians trained in the laser technology of tattoo removal.  The team is part of a program that takes tattoos of ex-gang members and wipes the slate clean.  For many, it’s as crucial a service as it is merciful.  To a former gang member, the gang tattoo fosters the attitude that the gang’s claim on that person’s life is permanent.  It’s a mark of ownership as much as identity.  The process of tattoo removal is extremely painful.  Patients describe the laser procedure as feeling like hot grease on their skin.  Yet the waiting list grows of those who will put up with whatever pain it takes to be transformed, to receive a new identity.

You see, if you don’t know who you are, you are apt to take on a false identity.  You take on the identity of any group that you’re with.  And before long you define yourself by that new false identity.  All too often you become enslaved by that identity.  A gang banger, a drug user, an adulterer, a racist, a materialist, a narcissist—there are a host of enslaving tendencies in our society.  Physical tattoos may be the easiest of the signs of slavery to remove, for they’re simply removed from our skin.  What about the signs of slavery that are tattooed on our souls?

Do you know who you are?  The day you understand that you’re a child of God is the day you learn what true freedom is all about.

Most of our children have probably seen the Disney Studio’s animated movie Toy Story.  Two of the characters are Woody, a toy cowboy and Buzz Lightyear, a “space ranger” action figure.  Early in the movie Woody confronts Buzz Lightyear with the fact that he’s not really a space hero.  Woody shouts, “You’re not a space ranger!  You’re an action figure—a child’s plaything.”

After failing in an attempt to fly, Buzz realizes the truth of Woody’s statement.  Grief-stricken and disillusioned, Buzz hangs his head in resignation, declaring, “I’m just a stupid, little, insignificant toy.”

  Later in the movie Woody tries to undo the damage he’s done.  He seeks to comfort his friend by underscoring the love of the boy who owns them both.  He says to Buzz, “You must not be thinking clearly.  Look, over in that house, there’s a kid who thinks you’re the greatest, and it’s because you’re a space ranger; it’s because you’re his.”

As Buzz lifts his foot, he sees a label affixed to the bottom of his little shoe.  There in black permanent ink is the name of the little boy to whom he belongs.  Now seeing the image of his owner, Buzz breaks into a smile and takes on a new determination and confidence.  He knows the little boy who owns him treasures him deeply.

As we leave this place today, I hope that we’ll do so with a new determination and confidence because of the One who has adopted us as His own children.  “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.  The Spirit you received doesn’t make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we’re God’s children…”

Let us pray:  Holy God, the earth is full of the glory of your love.  May we your children, born of the Spirit, so bear witness to your Son Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, that all the world may believe and have eternal life through the One who saves, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.  

May 17, 2015

Jesus Prays For Us

1 John 5:9-13; John 17:11b-19

A visiting preacher in a small town in Kentucky was concerned when he began the first night of a revival meeting and noticed all of the men were wearing guns.  Although rattled, he did the best he could with his sermon.

When finished, his anxieties heightened as several of the men approached the pulpit with their guns drawn.  In panic, he turned to the chairman of the deacons, sitting next to him.  The deacon calmed his fears:  “Don’t worry,” he said.  “They ain’t coming after you.  They’re looking for the cuss who invited you to preach.”

Well, sometimes the pastor needs a place to hide after a sermon.  But, at least none of you carry guns to church.

In today’s lesson, the Gospel of John captures the closing days of Jesus’ life and ministry here on earth.  In this chapter, Jesus prays for himself and for his disciples.  Basically he prays for three things for his disciples.  He prays for their protection, their preservation and their perseverance.

Let’s begin with Christ’s prayer for his disciples’ protection.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, his disciples lived in a world in which it was dangerous to be one of his followers.  You and I are so fortunate.  We face no such persecution.  We may be ridiculed for our faith.  People might call us naïve.  But that’s hardly persecution.  It always amuses me when some Christians in our land complain about being persecuted for their faith.  If we lived in the Middle East, perhaps, or parts of Africa.  In fact, in this land, Christians are more apt to persecute than be persecuted.

However, Jesus knew that, when he was no longer with them, the hostility which fell on him was going to fall on his disciples.  And it did.  Almost without exception they were imprisoned, tortured and slain in terrible ways.

But not this.  When Jesus prays for their protection, he doesn’t pray for their safety.  The last thing he wanted them to do was to go around armed to the teeth.  When we pray for protection, we pray that nothing painful or harmful will happen to us.  Jesus knew better than that.  He knew that we live in a world of pain.  Some pain is unavoidable.

Christ’s disciples would experience pain because of their devotion to him.  There was no way to avoid that.  So rather than pray they would avoid pain, he prays for their UNITY.  Now, why would he pray that?

There’s strength in unity.  When you have friends and family and fellow church members to whom you can turn in times of trouble you can bear almost any pain, any turmoil in your life.  The church at its best provides that kind of support, that kind of oneness.

That wonderful preacher Barbara Brown Taylor gives us a picture of a church where unity provides comfort and security.  She writes, “Like the brain-damaged young man who shows up one Sunday and asks to become a member of the church.  As carefully as he tries to hide it, it’s clear that he’s out of everything—out of food, out of money, out of family to take him in.”  How does her church respond to that young man’s needs?  She describes it like this:  “No one makes a big fuss.  Very quietly, someone takes him grocery shopping while someone else finds him a room.  Someone else finds out what happened to his disability check while someone else makes an appointment to get his teeth fixed.  And do you know what?  Years later he’s still there, in the front pew on the right, surrounded by his family, the church.”

But Taylor isn’t finished:  “Or like the woman with a recurrent cancer who’s told she has six months to live.  The church gathers around her and her husband—laying hands on them, bringing them casseroles, cleaning their house.  Someone comes up with the idea of giving the woman a foot massage and painting her toenails red, which does more for her spirits than any visit from the pastor.  [This woman with terminal cancer] gives her jewelry away, she lets her driver’s license expire, she starts writing poetry again.  She prepares to die, but instead, she gets better.

“On Christmas Eve she’s back in church for the first time in months, with her oxygen tank slung over her shoulder and a clear plastic tube running under her nose.  After the first hymn, she makes her way to the lectern to read the lesson from Isaiah.  Her tank hisses every five seconds.  Every candle in the place glitters in her eyes.  ‘Strengthen the weak hands;’ she reads, bending her body toward the words, ‘and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.’  When she sits down the congregation knows they haven’t just heard the Word of the Lord they have seen it in action…”

Do you see the healing in such unity?  Do you see the security?

Parker Palmer, in his book A Hidden Wholeness reminds us that “the journey we are on is too tough to be made solo, the path is too deeply hidden to be traveled without company, and the destination is too daunting to be achieved alone.”  He reminds us that all of us need places where we can be safe enough and courageous enough to face our brokenness and discover our wholeness.  He calls them “circles of trust.”  He says, “We need more and more circles from which we can return to the world less divided and more connected to our own souls.”

This is the protection the church has always provided for threatened souls—the knowledge that we’re not alone.  The knowledge that people are praying in our behalf.  It’s the protection of a loving community.  It’s a circle of people who will pray for us and stand by us.  It’s a safe place where people accept us even though they know we’re flawed.  At least, that’s what the church ought to be.  I pray that we’re that kind of church.  Jesus certainly prays for us to be.  Jesus prayed for our protection.  He prayed that we would always have that kind of unity.

Secondly he prayed for our preservation.  That is, he prayed that none of us will be lost from the fellowship of believers.  He prayed that none of us would ever slip away from our faith in God.  I enjoy the way the Psalmist put it:  “For He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways.  In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone” (91:11-12).  Christ prayed for his disciples’ preservation.

Kathleen Lowthert described a special conversation she once had with her granddaughter.  This was a critical time in Kathleen’s life.  She was scheduled to have an operation in several days. 

As she was having her daily devotions Kathleen was joined by her granddaughter, two-year old Shanice.  After reading her Bible and praying, Kathleen began reading some information about the anesthesia she would receive prior to surgery.  The more she read, the more she realized how nervous she was about the operation.

Shanice was standing nearby.  Suddenly Shanice looked at her grandmother and said, “Grandmom, show me the angels.”

“Angels?” Kathleen asked puzzled.

Then Shanice pointed to a photo of three figures clothed in white on the cover of the brochure Kathleen had been reading.  “No, Honey,” Kathleen said, “That’s a doctor, a nurse, and a patient.”

“Yes, Grandmom,” Shanice replied, “angels.”

Her granddaughter’s simple misunderstanding proved to be a powerful reminder to Kathleen that God would indeed give His angels charge over her.  She decided right then and there she wouldn’t waste another moment worrying about the operation.  Peace flooded over her as she thanked God for the loving care she knew God would provide during her stay in the hospital through His “angels.”

We’re surrounded by a company of angels.  Jesus himself holds us in the palm of his hand.  He will not let us go.  He will preserve our soul says the Psalmist in another place (121:7-8).  He will preserve us to the very end.  As the Good Shepherd, Jesus took care of the flock entrusted him.  He allowed none to be lost (except for Judas who had to be, in fulfillment of Scripture).

Shepherds know that sheep are prone to stray.  Good shepherds leave those sheep that are safe in the fold and goes in search of the one that has gone astray.  He doesn’t let it perish.  He will always be there for us, no matter how far we may stray.

Christ prays for our protection.  He prays for our preservation.  Finally, he prays for our perseverance.  He prays that we will be steadfast in the faith.

You can see why he prayed for those early believers’ perseverance—the whole world depended on them.  If they hadn’t done their duty to witness to Christ and his resurrection, we wouldn’t have the faith we have today.  And this would be an entirely different world.

It’s impossible to overstate the difference the coming of Christ made in the world.  Look at the barbaric behavior in so much of the non-Christian world today and imagine what our world might be like without the influence of Jesus Christ.  Jesus taught us compassion and understanding and acceptance.  He taught us mercy and forgiveness.  He taught us to love our neighbor as he first loved us.

We respect people of all faiths, but it’s horribly naïve to say that all faiths and all philosophies are the same.  No other faith, for example, teaches people to love their enemies.  Think what a difference it would make in the world today if all nations, including our own, adopted that creed.

We wouldn’t have the Gospel today if those early believers hadn’t persevered.  But here’s what we desperately need to see.  THE FUTURE OF THE FAITH TODAY DEPENDS ON US JUST AS SURELY AS IT DEPENDED ON THEM.  Indeed the future of the world may very well depend on us.

The world around us is changing very rapidly.  Some wonderful things are happening, such as unbelievable advances in medical technology.  We’ve talked about these before.  The twenty-first century will see advances in every field.  But one thing remains the same—the heart of humanity.  We’re flawed creatures.  Our basic instinct is to look out for No. 1, even if the result of that instinct is cruel to the well-being of others.  It’s simply what the Bible calls sin.  And because we remain flawed, the future is uncertain.  We can have heaven on earth, or we can turn this earth into a living hell.  It’s really up to us.

However, I say to you with all sincerity, this world won’t be saved unless the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed throughout the earth.  And that means we must do our part.  This is our purpose—to proclaim Christ and his love to the end until the Kingdom of God comes on earth—a kingdom of peace and love for all people.

I believe we’ve forgotten why the church exists.  It exists to proclaim to the world that Jesus is the light of the world.  Where his love is unknown, there’s nothing but darkness.  We must persevere in our work of witnessing to Christ and his resurrection.  The future of the faith is at stake.

But, even more important to Christ, the future of the world is at stake.  Will the world one day live in the light of Christ’s love or will we be plunged into prolonged and perilous darkness?  It’s up to you and me.

Let us pray:  Mighty God, in whom we know the power of redemption, you stand among us in the shadows of our time.  As we move through every sorrow and trial of this life, uphold us with knowledge of the final morning when, in the glorious presence of your risen Son, we will share in his resurrection, redeemed and restored to the fullness of life and forever freed to be your people.  Amen. 


May 10, 2015

When the Golden Rule Isn’t Enough

Mother’s Day

1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

Today we honor our moms.  Not everybody can be a mom, but everyone at sometime in their life has had a mom, and at that time our mom was the most important person in our world.  Some of us had moms who made great sacrifices in our behalf.  We’re profoundly grateful for that.  So today we honor our moms.

It’s not easy being a mom.  Some moms have great wit and maybe they might have said:

Christopher Columbus’ mother:  “I don’t care what you’ve discovered, Christopher.  You still could’ve written!”

Jonah’s mother:  “That’s a nice story but now tell me where you’ve really been for the last three days.”

It’s not easy being a mom.  I always find it interesting whenever Mother’s Day falls on the Sunday when our lesson for the day is this one from John 15:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  My command is this:  Love each other as I have loved you…”

Let’s begin here:  We love because God first loved us.  That’s the “take-home” message for the day.  In this passage, Jesus goes beyond the Golden Rule.  The Golden Rule says what?  That’s right… “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

In this passage, Jesus trumps the Golden Rule.  We’re not simply to love our neighbor as we love our self; we’re to love our neighbor as Jesus loves us.  That’s a different and much more difficult standard.

You see, our own human love is always conditional, transient, and selective.  Today we may love someone because he or she’s simply lovable or perhaps because they act lovable toward us.  But then we withdraw our love when we feel wronged or cheated.  And suddenly, love is replaced by a need for vengeance.

  Just as damning, often we only love those who are like us—who share our background, our status, our values; who are talented and gifted and dress appropriately.  Jesus’ love, on the other hand is for all people.  And it’s sacrificial.

A young lady was a writer for a magazine, and Valentine’s Day was approaching.  Her editor asked her to write a poem for the magazine.  “But before you do,” he said, “tell me what you think love is.”

She got starry eyed.  “It’s looking upon a lily pond,” she said, “with the closest to your heart, by the light of the moon, while the lilies are in full bloom.”

“Stop!” her editor said.  “Let me tell you what love is.  It’s getting out of a warm bed on a cold winter’s night and filling hot water bottles for sick children.”  That sounds like the voice of experience.

But her editor was right.  Love is sacrificial, even though we may not feel we’re sacrificing anything at the time.  None of us, if we’re healthy emotionally, love our children as we love ourselves.  We love them far more than we love ourselves.  The Golden Rule is insufficient for the relationship of a parent and a child.  We love our children as Jesus loves them.  Our love can never measure up to agape love, God’s love, of course, because we’re mere mortals, but it does approximate that love.  We love them far more than we love ourselves.

But here is the real test of Christian love:  can we love all God’s children with a love that approximates the love we have for our own children?  That’s what Christ is asking us to do.  Love others as he loves others.  Wow!  That’s hard.

One morning in 2012, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, city transit bus driver named Kris Doubledee, made an unscheduled stop on a busy street corner.  The passengers all watched him as he got off the bus and approached a man on the sidewalk who was barefoot.

Doubledee asked the man if he had any shoes; the man said no.  So the bus driver removed his own shoes and handed them to the man.  “Here,” he said.  “You need these more than I do.”  Then Doubledee returned to his seat—wearing no shoes—and continued on his route.

A passenger asked him why he’d done that.  Doubledee explained that he’d seen the man standing there before and just couldn’t bear the thought that he didn’t have any shoes.

Gee, we say, that’s the sort of thing Jesus would do.  Yes, and that’s the sort of thing a follower of Jesus might do.  After two thousand years of Christian history, that shouldn’t be such a radical thought, but it is.  We claim to follow Jesus, but we have very feebly sought to live as Jesus commanded us to live, and that’s to love as he loves.

As we look at this passage from the Gospel of John we see that actually, Jesus gave us two commands in this passage.  The first is to remain in his love.  Where do we find the power to love as Jesus loved?  We find it by remaining in his love.  We read in verses 9 and 10:  “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”

In verse 12 Jesus gives us that second command.  It’s that we’re to “love each other as he has loved us.”  This command is linked to the first which is to remain in God’s love.  When we remain in God’s love, that love will motivate us and give us the power to love others.

Mark Buchanan, in his book Hidden In Plain Sight, tells about a time a number of years ago when he was struggling with his attitude toward a certain man.  He says he fed his resentment and bitterness to the point where at times he hated this person.

One day, when he was thinking nasty thoughts about this man, he heard his son come in the basement, slam the door, go to his room, and start crying.  Buchanan went to his son and asked what was wrong.  It seems his son had been playing goalie in a game of road hockey with some school friends, and he’s let the other team score a rash of goals.  His teammates started taunting him, mocking him, telling him he was useless, telling him to go home.  They’d stand a better chance with an empty net than with him guarding the net, they said.

This isn’t something a father wants to hear.  Mark Buchanan says he was furious.  He was outraged.  He started putting on his shoes to march down the road, call those boys to account, give them all a hard drubbing with his tongue.

It was then he heard an inner voice.  “Mark,” God said, “where are you going?”

“To straighten this matter out, Lord,” Mark answered.  “No one treats my son that way.”

“You have a father’s heart,” God said.

“Yes!”  Mark replied.

“You hate it when someone hurts one of your children.”

“Yes!”  Mark said again.

“I hate that, too,” God said.

And, at that moment, Mark Buchanan says he understood in the most visceral way, and for the very first time, that he couldn’t claim to love God and hate his brother.  “If I love God,” Buchanan writes, “I’ll love what [God] loves.  I’ll love [God’s] children, all of them… Or else, break [God’s] heart.”

Think about that for a moment.  It makes you angry when someone threatens to hurt one of your children.  Do you feel that same anger when children are hurt… any place in the world?  If not, then you still have some growing to do spiritually.  We’re to remain in Christ’s love and we’re to love others as Christ has loved us.

Let me say it again:  We love because Christ first loved us.  And unless we have Christ’s love in our hearts, we simply can’t love others who are outside of our circle of intimate relationships.  We simply don’t have the power to love as Christ loved us unless we have Christ’s spirit within us.  Then and only then can we fulfill his command to love others as he has loved us.  That is what the cross is all about.  We see his love poured out on the cross of Calvary.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not says the longest love letter ever written was written in 1875 and it was written from a Parisian painter by the name of Marcel de Leclure.  The letter was addressed to Magdalena de Villeray.

The painter was so in love with Magdalena that he wanted to write, Je t’aime “I love you” in French a thousand times for every year on the calendar.  This was in 1875, so he decided to write “I love you” one million eight hundred and seventy-thousand times.  Of course, he didn’t want to write “I love you” that many times himself.  So he hired a secretary to do it.  But, he didn’t want to diminish his expression of his love, so he didn’t tell her to write the sentence one million eight hundred and seventy-five thousand times. Rather, he dictated each “I love you” to her separately.  So he said “I love you” one million eight hundred and seventy-five thousand times and she wrote it one million eight hundred and seventy-five thousand times.

Ripley describes this feat like this, “Never was love made manifest by as great an expenditure of time and effort.”

It’s an interesting story, but Ripley got it wrong.  There was once a time when love was made manifest by a greater expenditure of effort than that of this Frenchman.  It was when our Lord Jesus hung on a cross to show us how important we are to God.  “Greater love has no one than this:  to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command… This is my command:  Love each other.”

The Golden Rule, as wonderful as it is, is insufficient for this task.  We’re not simply to do unto others as we would have then do unto us.  We’re to do unto them as Christ has done unto us.

Let us pray:  Living God, long ago, faithful women proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, and the world was changed forever.  Teach us to keep faith with them, that our witness may be as bold, our love as deep and our faith as true.  Amen.

May 3, 2015

Tarzan He Was Not

1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

The Week magazine often contains quirky news items collected from periodicals around the world.  Back in 2005 they carried a story about a Romanian man who was recovering in the hospital after trying to escape from his wife by swinging from tree to tree on a vine like Tarzan.

Stefan Trisca—a 66-year old man, of all things—had wanted to join his friends for a night of carousing, but his wife locked him in his bedroom.  This didn’t stop Stephan.  He was on a mission.  He climbed through the bedroom window and grabbed a tree vine.  He managed to swing to another tree.  Great, only one more tree to go.  Only this time, he missed his mark, sending him plummeting to earth—breaking an arm, a leg and an ankle.  All this while he was sober.  Imagine what he might have attempted once he had a few drinks in him.  Who says that rednecks are only found in the U.S.?  “It was more difficult than it looked in the Tarzan movies,” said Trisca.”  “I forgot to take into account that Tarzan was a lot younger.”  Well, they say there’s no fool like an old fool.

Our lesson today from John’s Gospel isn’t about a vine suitable for swinging.  It’s about a vine that’s absolutely essential for life—at least our spiritual life.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he used many parables to illustrate his teachings.  His lessons were tailored to suit his audience.  He didn’t talk over people’s heads and he used things which were familiar to those he taught so they could understand.

Vineyards were plentiful in Palestine.  Visualize Jesus holding a grapevine as he says thoughtfully to the people, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

God acts in and on every branch of the vine.  Those that are unproductive are removed; those that are productive aren’t congratulated or left alone, but “pruned” or “cleansed” so that they will bear more fruit.

The Greek verb for “prune” also means “cleanse.”  The cleansing of which Jesus speaks takes place in encountering the Word of God that he speaks and is.

Beautiful illustration, but what’s he saying?  It seems quite straightforward.  Jesus is the vine, God is the gardener and we who are Christ-followers are the branches.  Our task is to bear fruit.  And sometimes, according to this passage, God prunes us to make us more fruitful.

Many sermons have been preached on the ways in which God prunes people.  I don’t know about you, but this idea has never been very attractive to me.  Pruning seems like a painful process.  When we prune a plant, we cut back its branches.  This makes it more productive, but who wants to experience the heavenly pruning shears cutting back the dead spots in our lives?

Then I noticed there’s another way to interpret this passage.  Bible scholars tell us the Greek phrase for “He prunes,” also means “He cleans.”  This makes so much sense when we continue reading the next verse.  Let me read the two verses together substituting “cleans” for “prunes” so you understand what I mean.  Christ says, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he cleans so that it will be even more fruitful.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.”

By putting the two sentences together, it’s obvious this is the meaning that Christ intended:  “Every branch that does bear fruit he cleans so that it will be even more fruitful.”  Now, what does this mean—he cleans?  Stay with me.  This is good.

Author Bruce Wilkinson tells about a man who approached him at a pastor’s conference once on the west coast.  The man asked, “Do you understand John 15?”

“Not completely,” Wilkinson answered.  “Why?”

The man said, “I own a large vineyard in northern California, and I think I have it figured out.”  Wilkinson says he offered to buy the man a cup of coffee on the spot.

As they sat across the restaurant table from each other, the man began to talk about his life as a grower—the long hours spent walking the vineyards, tending the grapes, watching the fruit develop, waiting for the perfect day to begin the harvest.

“New branches have a natural tendency to trail down and grow along the ground,” this vineyard owner explained.  “But they don’t bear fruit down there.  When branches grow along the ground, the leaves get coated in dust.  When it rains, they get muddy and mildewed.  The branch becomes sick and useless.”

“What do you do?” Wilkinson asked.  “Cut it off and throw it away?”

“Oh, no!” the man exclaimed.  “The branch is much too valuable for that.  We go through the vineyard with a bucket of water looking for those branches [growing along the ground].  We lift them up and wash them off… Then we wrap them around the trellis or tie them up.  Pretty soon they’re thriving.”

This is what Jesus is talking about.  He’s the vine, we’re the branches.  But sometimes we’re like those low lying branches trailing along the ground.  Our leaves are coated with dirt.  When it rains we get coated with mud and mildew.  At such times we’re incapable of bearing fruit.  What does the owner of the vineyard do with us?  Does he cut us off and throw us in the fire?  No, we’re too valuable to him for that.  Instead, he tenderly washes us off and lifts us up with his gentle, nail-scarred hands and places us up higher where we can thrive again.

Isn’t this a magnificent picture of what Christ does in our lives?  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener… Every branch that does bear fruit he cleans so that it will be even more fruitful.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.”

But how does this happen—that we’re cleaned and lifted up?  Listen carefully, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.  No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.  Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

Our task is to bear fruit, but how?  We can only be what Christ has called us to be by remaining in constant fellowship with him.  “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.”  That’s to say that, if we quit bearing fruit, it’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to become detached from him.

Let’s use a different kind of analogy, one we’re familiar with.  An Anglican missionary in Africa depended on a small generator to supply electricity for his small church and rectory.  There was no utility service in the rural area where he served.

One evening some tribesmen came to visit this missionary.  They noticed an electric light hanging from the ceiling of his living room.  They watched wide-eyed as he turned the little switch and the light went on.  One of the visitors asked if he could have a bulb like the one in the light fixture.

The missionary, thinking he wanted it for a sort of trinket, gave the man one of his extra bulbs.  Sometime later the missionary stopped at the hut of the man who had asked for the bulb.  Imagine his surprise when he saw the bulb hanging in the center of the man’s hut from an ordinary string.  Of course there was no light coming from the bulb.  The missionary patiently explained to the man who owned the hut that one needed to have electricity and a wire to bring the current to the bulb and to cause it to glow.

No electricity, no light.  No vine, no fruit.  No Christ—no Holy Spirit—no life-giving power for the believer.  We cannot bear fruit apart from him.

Some of you may know the story of a Hollywood actor named Stuart Hamblin.  Hamblin was one of the original singing cowboys in early motion pictures—appearing in movies with such household names as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

However, Hamblin didn’t cope well with the pressures of his high profile career and, even though he was the son of a prominent Methodist pastor, he sought relief in alcohol.  Many times, his drinking landed him in jail for public brawling and other destructive behavior—until something life-changing occurred.

In a 1949 Billy Graham Crusade Stuart Hamblin committed his life to Christ.  Almost immediately he was fired from a lucrative job in radio because he now refused to sing commercials for one of his sponsors—a beer company.  Nevertheless Hamblin stayed true to his new life of faith.

Sometime after his conversion Hamblin ran into actor John Wayne who asked him about the rumor around town that he’d changed his ways.  Hamblin told John Wayne that it was no secret what God had done for him and that God could do it for Wayne, too.  Wayne said that sounded like a song and suggested Hamblin put it to music.  Hamblin obliged.  And his song became an enormous hit.  Some of you will remember it.  It went like this:

“It is no secret what God can do.  What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you.

“With arms wide open, He’ll pardon you.  It is no secret, what God can do!”

Yes, it is no secret what God can do.  But only if we’re connected to Christ like a branch is connected to a vine or a light bulb is connected to a power source.

There’s a time-honored story of the boy flying the kite so high the clouds hid it from view.  “How do you know that your kite is still there?”  Someone asked him.

“I can still feel a tug on the string,” he answered.  Who among us doesn’t need to feel that tug from time to time?  It’s fine to say that God is out there somewhere in the cosmos, but most of us need to know that He is here closer—within our heart.

We have that only when we keep fresh a connection with Christ.  That, of course, is the purpose of prayer.  Prayer keeps us connected to our source of life, our source of power.  So many people have an immature understanding of prayer.  In their mind, prayer is the way to get God to give us what we want.  We want a new job, we pray for it.  We want better health, we pray for it.  Mature Christians understand this is a most inadequate view of prayer.

There’s a wonderful story of a boy who went to the Pinewood Derby sponsored by the scouts.  It was one of those events where the contestants are supposed to do their own work but most of the fathers help too much.

At one such event, a youngster with no dad showed up with a racer he had obviously made with his own unskilled hands.  The contest pitted boys in pairs, one against another with the winner advancing to the next round in a series of eliminations.  Somehow this one kid’s funny-looking car won again and again, until defying all odds, he was in the finals against another scout with a slick-looking, well-made racer.

Before the championship race, the boy with the funny-looking, homemade car asked the director to wait a moment before they began, so he could pray.  The crowd, now enthralled by the unlikely story unfolding before them, stood in silence, loving the boy and secretly praying with him that he might win; he seemed so deserving.

After the boy won the race and was awarded a trophy, the director said, “Well, I guess it’s a good thing you prayed, so you could win.”

“Oh, no!” the boy protested, horrified to have been misunderstood.  “I didn’t pray to win.  That would’ve been wrong.  The other scout had as much right to win as I did.  I couldn’t pray that God would make him lose.  I just prayed that God would help me keep from crying if I lost.”

That young boy had a better understanding of prayer than most adults.  Prayer isn’t about asking God to fulfill our desires.  Prayer exists for the purpose of nourishing our relationship with God.  Prayer is about keeping the lines of communication open to God’s leading.  In Christ’s metaphor of the grapevine, it’s allowing God to give us spiritual nourishment so we can bear fruit.

Now, what is this fruit that we’re to bear?  In Galatians 5 the Apostle Paul gives us a partial list which he calls the fruit of the spirit.  These fruit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  We might be tempted to add other fruit like generosity and acceptance, but, of course, these are at least implied by the first of the fruit which is love.

If you would be a better spouse or a better parent or a better employee or a better citizen, then keep spiritual nourishment flowing into your life from your connection with Christ.  Time invested in his presence is guaranteed to make you more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, and so on.

All of this and more is what Christ was saying to us in the example of the vine.  He’s the vine, we’re the branches.  Without him we can bear no fruit.  It’s important that we maintain our relationship with him so that when we have fallen he can clean us and lift us up again.

Let us pray:  Mighty God, in whom we know the power of redemption, you stand among us in the shadows of our time.  As we move through every sorrow and trial of this life, uphold us with knowledge of the final morning when, in the glorious presence of your risen Son, we will share his resurrection, redeemed and restored to the fullness of life and forever freed to be your people.  Amen.