“A Day’s Pay for an Hour’s Work” Matthew 20:1-16 (September 21, 2014)

Quotation-Sgt-Bilko-work-Meetville-Quotes-204628

One of my favorite comedy actors of all time is Steve Martin.
Back in the mid 90’s he was in a movie
that was an update of a 50’s television show called Sgt. Bilko. Steve played a fast talking con-man of a Master Sergeant named
Ernie Bilko. At one point, during a dressing down
from another officer, Steve delivers a line
that I always think about when I read this
passage of scripture.
He says, “All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay
for an honest day’s work.”

This is one of those parables that makes a lot of us uncomfortable,
because the story that Jesus tells in this passage
slaps our western, capitalistic natures right in the face.
Those who work hard should get paid more than those who do not. Those who only worked an hour shouldn’t get paid the same
as those who worked hard, all day, through the blazing sun.

While the parable specifically speaks in terms of money,
I think it is obvious enough that what we are really talking about
is inclusion in the Kingdom of God;
it’s a story about those who have labored long for God
and those who are only just beginning to discover a life of faith.

History is full of people waiting until the last possible moment
to make peace with God
And history is also full of Christians who have struggled
to accept that God’s grace is available even for “those” people,
the ones who tarried, the ones who waited until
it was almost too late.

Jesus, if you remember, was hung on a cross between two thieves,
one who mocked him and one who recognized
Jesus for who he was and asked for mercy.
He received it, mere hours before he passed into the next life.

Back when kings were more than figureheads,
they led men into battle and had to deal brutally
with other kings and their forces…
and, to be honest, being a king had its perks, too.
So it was not uncommon to see a king wait until
he was on his deathbed to be baptized.
They did this to “assure” that they would enter heaven
in a state of “innocence”, having just been cleansed through baptism.

Even today we hear of death row inmates,
living on borrowed time, making professions of faith
with full confidence that their faith has made them whole
and fit for the kingdom of God.

It just seems wrong, doesn’t it?
The idea that people who know and believe
that there is a judgment to come and yet choose
to live lives of debauchery anyway and then accept
salvation when their time is running out.

A Christian philosopher and author named Peter Rollins
wrote a collection of parables that are rather brilliant.
One of those parables does a good job of helping us
to see the reality of these late hour faith professions.

Rollins tells the story of two brothers who embraced faith together at an early age.  One of the brothers took his commitment very seriously and wrestled diligently with the Scriptures.  When he became a man, he gave up all of his worldly possessions and went to live in the poorest and most dangerous area of the city.
Many friends deserted him, and, because of his uncompromising dedication to the oppressed, he lost the one woman he truly loved, forsaking the possibility of marriage for the sake of his work.
The pain of this separation haunted him all his days.  And because of the conditions in which he lived, he was frequently ill.  When he died, no one was present, and only a handful of people showed up for his funeral.
In contrast, the other brother never took his faith seriously at all.  As a man he became very settled, satisfied, and influential.  He married the woman he loved, had many children, and lived in a beautiful home.
As his satisfaction grew, his thoughts of God dissolved to nothing.  He gave little to charity, unless it was prudent to do so for the sake of his reputation, and paid little heed to those who suffered around him.  After a long, happy, and successful life, he died in the arms of his loving wife with his children and grandchildren surrounding him.
In heaven God called the two brothers before him, embraced them both warmly, and to each gave an equal share of the kingdom.
As one might expect, the brother who had been faithful all his years was surprised he had given up everything to live what turned out to be a torturous life of hardship.
However, instead of being bitter, his surprise was a joyous one.  He turned to his brother, smiled deeply, and said, “Today my joy is finally complete, for we are together again.  Come, let us break bread together.”  In response, his brother said nothing, but began to weep over the wasted life that he had led.
In the end, both brothers ended up in the same place. Both are standing at the feet of Christ. The one is overjoyed while the other is weeping weeping because of the realization that his life could have been so much more than it was.
It’s not the brother who lived a hard life for his faith who has regrets in the end, but the brother who realizes how much more he could have done. His life could have made a greater impact on people, and a greater impact for the kingdom of God.
The point of this scripture, friends, is not that some people get what they don’t deserve. We might say that, in fact, the point is that none of us gets what we deserve – and that’s a good thing. That’s what we call grace.
The point of this scripture is that God’s grace is for everyone, and it doesn’t matter whether we come to it early or late whether we toil for God all our days or we repent on our deathbed, because none of us, ever, deserves God’s forgiveness, and none of us can earn God’s love.
The miracle is that God doesn’t leave us all to perish in the dust. The miracle is that we receive grace at all.
It still seems wrong in some way, doesn’t it? There are good, faithful Christians who work hard day in and day out, striving to be better people, to follow Christ every day.

The life of a Christian is not an easy life. There are personal struggles and persecutions. There are things that we are called to do that we would rather not do but we do them because we are followers of Christ.

It is not fair that others can live a life of comfort while we struggle and
get to make peace with God in the end.
But lets take a closer look at the alternative the life of constant searching, longing to have that purpose and that peace. St. Augustine famously said,
“You have made us for yourself O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Others talk about a God-shaped hole in our lives
a hole that keeps us striving and searching,
because it is a space that only God can fill.

For those who don’t know God,
who haven’t found peace in God’s love,
life is an endless searching for that missing piece,
that missing presence that can make us hole.

Imagine living that way:
As life goes on you spend time seeking the peace
you know your heart desires.
You try filling that space with career, family, possessions.
Around every corner, just when you think you might
have found that peace, it disappears…
until one day, through wisdom, through persistent searching,
through grace, long overdue, you find Jesus.

You find faith. You find mercy and grace.
You find the good news that you don’t have to earn God’s peace,
that you don’t have to search for God’s love
because God has loved you all along.
Finally, you find the peace you’ve been searching for.

If we are being honest, most of us, if given the choice would much
rather have the struggle of faith than the struggle to find faith.
The life of faith isn’t easy
but the life of the unsettled soul is so much harder to face.

When we read this parable,
many of us feel a sense of righteous indignation
because we see ourselves on the side
of those who have worked long and hard all the day,
only to find that all those Johnny-come-latelies
receive the same wages as ourselves.

But we fail to imagine this story from the other side:
to consider those who waited all day, hope fading away,
waiting to be hired, losing hope that it will happen today…
looking at the possibility of going home empty handed,
unable to provide for ourselves or our families that night.
This wasn’t a day of laughter and leisure;
this was a day of hard waiting and despair…
that is, until the landowner showed up at the eleventh hour and gave us a chance to have something, anything, to show for that day.

I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have been hired on early in
the morning, to know my day would mean something, and to know
that I’d be able to provide for my family at the end.
None of us wants to feel like our life was wasted.
We all want to have some peace of mind and to feel
like what we do makes a difference in the world.
The idea of forgetting our responsibilities and sowing our oats
and doing whatever we want may seem like a fun idea
every now and then…
we may be tempted sometimes to go and live the easy life,
and plan simply to come back begging forgiveness
when the clock starts to run out
but the truth of the matter is we never know
when the end is going to come,
and what should scare us most is,
having been given this great gift of life,
coming to the end and finding that
we didn’t infuse it with the level of meaning that we could have.

My wife and I are very different people.
She was raised in the church by good Christian parents
who gave her the room to grow into her own faith.

I was raised Catholic… and not by choice. Don’t get me wrong here;
I have nothing against the Roman Catholic church as a whole
we may disagree on some theological points,
but the Catholic church has been life-giving and grace-filled
for a great many people. I just wasn’t one of them.

My parents made sure that I went to services
but didn’t always attend themselves.
I spent more energy in my youth trying to get out
of going to church than I did trying to understand
the message that was being preached.

I remember when I was allowed to walk to the church on my own.
It was the greatest thing ever because I discovered something.
I discovered, that when I got home,
the only proof I needed to convince my parents of my attendance
was the bulletin!
So on those Sundays that I went to church on my own,
I would sneak in the back a little late, grab a bulletin off the table,
and then go commune with my friends
who were also skipping church via the bulletin loop hole.
I did not come to understand or appreciate faith
and the message of Jesus until I was 17 years old.
Many of those teen years were spent in
well, let’s just say, less-than-holy pursuits.

But when I came to faith,
when I experienced the grace that God had been offering me,
it was like I had been living in the dark
and someone had turned on the lights.
It was like realizing I had been blind up until that point,
but now I could see.

Bri was born into her faith and nurtured in it. I struggled against it and, for a while, wanted nothing to do with it.
But, by God’s grace, Bri and I are now both in the same place. We are both serving God and our congregations to the best of our ability. Sometimes she thinks she would be a more understanding pastor if she had a little bit of my experience. Sometimes I think I would be a better pastor with a little more of hers.
Regardless of how or when we come to faith, the important part is that we do. And when we do, we understand that the grace we are given, the grace we experience from God, is not just for ourselves but for everybody. It doesn’t matter if you are a pauper or a king, a saint or a serial killer. The grace of God is given freely, and when we receive it, it will change our souls forever.
It is not for us to judge who is worthy of the grace that God gives. We do not get to call God’s generosity unfair. The only thing that is unfair is that we get grace at all.
We are allowed the opportunity to live a life of grace and love today.
Remember the story I shared a little earlier, about the two brothers? The brother who worked in poverty and illness and strife did those things, not to earn passage to heaven and not to secure a greater reward in the hereafter. He worked and toiled because early on he discovered what it meant to love God. He discovered that “the only remedy for love is to love more.”
For those of us who are blessed to walk with Christ, we must understand that that is the blessing. That is the reward: peace with God in our lives, now. We don’t have to spend our lives wondering and wandering and waiting to discover the truth. We have it now. We don’t have to spend our lives searching or empty or afraid. Our toil is not for reward. Our toil is the reward. We are rewarded with the privilege to walk with and work with God in this life. We are blessed indeed… and we are blessed to be a blessing.
The challenge for us is to let go of the idea of what is fair or unfair.
The challenge for us is to accept people wherever they are at in their journey of faith… or on their journey to faith.
The challenge for us is to make the grace and love of Christ visible in this world so that those who are still searching can find their way home. Amen? Amen.

“You Don’t Have to Wait for the Resurrection” Mark 1:29-39 (September 14, 2014)

Waiting

As most of you already know, both my wife and I are pastors.
We have been since before our children were born.
After our kids were born, it was a great thing,
because our kids have been consistently loved
by at least two churches full of wonderful people their entire lives.

It is a sad reality, however,
that the vast majority of children who have one or more parents
that are members of the clergy
rarely remain active in a church once
they are allowed to make the choice for themselves.

Some of it has to do with a lifetime of unrealistic expectations
sometimes folks expect pastors’ kids
to be more perfect than everybody else’s kids,
and frankly, that’s a lot to live up to.
But it’s not just the churches’ fault.
Mommy and Daddy Pastor play a role as well.
Sometimes those parent pastors get so caught up in their calling,
so caught up in proclaiming the good news,
so caught up in offering love and grace to their church members
and all the strangers who pass their way
that the same love and grace are rarely ever seen
at the dinner table or dance recital, at baseball games or at bedtime.

Bri and I certainly aren’t perfect,
but as parents, we work very hard
to try to make sure that our kids will never have to say,
“You were always there for everybody else;
why weren’t you there for me?”

Before we became parents we made a decision.
We decided that the church would be a fun and enjoyable place
for our children. Running, and noise, and
controlled chaos were ok with us and would have to be ok
with our churches.
Dance recitals and play-off games trump council meetings,
and at the end of the day, no matter how much work is left
on our plates we need to remember to go home,
to love our kids, and to share their lives.
Our calling as pastors starts in the exact same place
as everyone else’s calling as followers of Christ.
It starts at home.

Home. It sounds so easy and yet home is the absolute,
hardest place to begin.
I don’t know about you, but my family, the people I am closest to,
are the ones who know how to push my buttons the hardest
and get under my skin the deepest.

Imagine what this situation must have been like
for Peter in our reading this morning.
Apparently he lived not only with his wife and possibly children
but his brother and, of all things, his mother-in-law.
Think about what that must have been like:
the nagging and the nit-picking and the criticism.

Perhaps there were mornings that Peter overheard
his mother-in-law say to his wife,
“I don’t know how you can handle the smell of fish
on this husband of yours.
You know you could have married that
handsome blacksmith right?”

To be certain, there must have been a lot of days
when the house felt too small,
when no one could take a step
without stepping on each others’ toes.

Regardless, Peter seems to love his mother-in-law,
and when she falls ill, he brings into his home
the only person he knows who can help her to be healed.

And what’s amazing about this story
isn’t just that Peter tries to help his mother-in-law
and what’s amazing isn’t just that Jesus heals her…
but what’s remarkable is what happens next.
This woman comes into contact with Jesus;
he touches her and she gets up and starts to serve;
she gets up and starts seeing to the needs of others.
She doesn’t waste a moment of her new found health and vitality.
She, essentially, pays forward the gift she had been given.
She was blessed, and then she became an instrument of blessing.

That one encounter with Jesus, that one touch,
brought blessing to Peter’s household, and then it spread.
The good news about Jesus spread into the neighborhood,
and people were blessed.
It found its way to the country side,
and people were blessed.
It found its way around the world,
bringing blessing with it all the while.

For many of us the idea of showing love to our neighbors
is a lot easier when we are talking about a neighbor
who lives half a world away.
It is easier just to send money than to spend time.
It is easier to make a donation to someone on another continent
then it is for us to walk across the street.
And hear me when I say this:
sending money to help those in need in other countries
is a good thing! But it is not the only thing.
We are called to share God’s love with all creation.
That includes our brothers and sisters all around the world…
but our world starts here, in our homes,
in our neighborhoods, in our towns and our villages.

Jesus makes it clear, home is where we have to start.
Loving our neighbors starts with our actual neighbors,
with the people who are close enough to see our warts,
close enough for us to see their scars.
Loving one another starts right here,
with our families, our friends, and our neighbors.
These are to be the primary recipients
of Christ’s love pouring through us.

So what are we waiting for?
What is holding you back?

I have been in ministry all of my adult life,
and I have heard a myriad of excuses for why people aren’t serving.

I’m too old. I’m too young. I’ve put my time in already.

I once knew a man, who we will call Burt.
Burt worked most of his life a lineman for the phone company,
climbing up phone poles and hanging telephone line
that kind of stuff.
Burt went to church and taught
Sunday School in his younger years.
When I met Burt, I was 22 years old;
Burt was in his late 70’s or early 80’s.
I did not meet Burt in church. I met Burt on a basketball court.

When Burt saw that a bunch of the
neighborhood kids were getting into mischief,
he set out to do something about it.
But he did not call the police or patrol the neighborhood.

Instead Burt went to the neighborhood school
and secured both permission and a key to their gymnasium.
He opened up the gym every Wednesday evening so the kids
had a warm and safe place to go and play some basketball.
But Burt didn’t just sit and watch.
He laced up his sneakers and played with them as best he could.
That is where I met Burt
he was nearly 60 years older than me,
and Burt could trounce me on the court.

At the close of every basketball night,
Burt asked the kids to sit on the bleachers.
He bent down to his gym bag and
pulled out his old battered pocket bible
and shared a short scripture passage
with the kids and young adults in attendance.
He didn’t have a theological degree;
he wasn’t a trained preacher
but he spoke from the heart.
Everyone was quiet and respectful.
Everyone listened as Burt talked
about the love of Christ and the difference
Jesus had made in his life.

Burt kept playing basketball with those kids for years and years.
He kept playing right up until the week before he died,
and not once did he regret making the effort to bless those kids
and along the way, he blessed me, too.

That basketball game is still happening.
In fact, it is now played two nights a week instead of one.
The kids who are coming in now
never had the opportunity to know Burt in this life,
but the love of Christ, poured out through Burt,
is still touching their lives.
And those running the program now
are not shy to talk about Burt and his love for Christ
and for the neighborhood kids.

Burt wasn’t a pastor or a missionary;
he was a man who saw a need,
and who decided to do something about it.
He invested his time and his energy in the kids around him;
he started right there, in his own neighborhood
and through those who found in him a good friend
and a great role model,
the love of Christ has spread and spread.

We are not all called to start playing basketball with youth.
But if we have breath, folks, we have a purpose and a calling. Age means nothing to the God we serve.
That old man did more good for youth in that community
than many of the youth pastors who were a quarter of his age,
my self included, because Burt met people on their terms,
where they were at, and took their needs seriously,
and loved them sincerely.

Friends, I love you all very much.
And I know that change and new endeavors in faith are scary.
But I also know that life has a reason and a purpose,
and if you are breathing,
then your purpose has not yet concluded.

We have some awesome kids growing up in our church,
and do you know what?
They need you to teach them something about the love of God.
They need good people just like you,
taking the time to tell them about Jesus
in Sunday school or in the Nursery;
they need good people just like you to listen
as they share with you what’s important in their lives
and to share with them what’s important in yours.

Friends there are young adults here who need you to speak up
and share your wisdom as we explore faith together
in our small groups.

And young adults, and slightly less young adults,
you are not off the hook either. Your faith is important to you.
I know that because, at the very least, you are here.
But I want to encourage you to look at the priorities in your life.
What things are taking up time that you might better apply
to the deepening of your faith
and the enriching of the faith of others?

If you take half a minute to ask some of our older members
about the importance of faith in their lives,
they would tell you that as you get older,
as time keeps moving, faith becomes so much more important.

Time with family and friends,
time spent serving others,
becomes so much more important than the things
that occupy your time now.

When I was younger, before marriage, and kids, and real life
nothing was more important to me than being in a band
and writing music.
Even after marriage I wanted to play in a Christian band
and tour the world.
But what is important now,
what life and time, and tragedy have taught me
is that my family, my faith,
the people around me that I can invest in
and help to experience God in a deeper and more profound way,
all of that, is far more important than playing
in an awesome band.

If you are alive and Jesus has touched your life,
then get up and serve. I really don’t care what it is,
but find a way to be the instrument of Christ’s blessing
like Peter’s mother-in-law, and like Burt.
It starts at home. It starts here. And then it spreads.
It grows. It impacts and touches thousands.
But it cannot do that, if it doesn’t start here.

If you need an idea come see me. We can talk about it.
We can find a ministry for you to be a part of that is in line
with your gifts and abilities.
But don’t pretend that because you are too old or too young
or too whatever, that it’s ok to sit back and let others do the work.
John Wesley, one of the Father’s of Methodism used to say:

“Do all the good you can.
By all the means you can.
In all the ways you can.
In all the places you can.
At all the times you can.
To all the people you can.
As long as ever you can.”

And if you know anything about our beloved John Wesley
you know those were more than words to him.
They were a prescription for a life well lived,
a life that honored God and displayed the love of Jesus Christ
for all to see.

So may you feel the healing touch of Jesus this day,

May you rise up and transform that blessing into blessing for others,

may you find ministry to be passionate about,

and may you discover that the resurrection power of Christ is yours

today, right now, and for the rest of your life. Amen? Amen.

“I.O.U.” Romans 13:8-14 (September 7, 2014)

i-o-u-love

Henry, who was very elderly, was unhappy
because he had lost his favorite hat. Instead of buying a new one,
he decided he would go to the local church and
steal one out of the coat rack when the worshippers
were busy praying.

When Henry arrived at the church however
an usher intercepted him at the door and showed him to a pew
where he had to sit and listen to the entire sermon
on ‘The Ten Commandments.’

After the service, Henry met the Pastor in the doorway,
shook his hand vigorously, and told him,
‘I want to thank you Pastor for saving my soul today.
I came to church to steal a hat and after hearing
your sermon on the 10 Commandments, I decided against it.’

The Pastor answered,
‘You mean the commandment ‘ Thou shall not steal’
changed your mind?’
‘No, ‘retorted Henry,
‘the one about adultery did.
As soon as you said that, I remembered where I left my old hat.’

All kidding aside The Ten Commandments are a pretty big deal.
Thousands of years after they were written,
we are still using them as a moral compass and
we even fight with passion to have them displayed in our
courthouses across the country.

Usually, when we are thinking about the Law of Moses,
what comes to mind are the Ten Commandments.
We either don’t know about or don’t care about
the other 603 commandments that Moses
brought down from Mt. Sinai.

When we do start to study and get into the particulars of the
613 commandments, we tend to think that
God is being a bit too demanding
a bit too interested in the nitty gritty workings
of our day to day lives.
Beyond the top ten, we also get laws about what to wear
and what not to eat and how to wash
and other commandments that come across as a bit of overkill.

The rules are overwhelming, confusing,
and to our modern ears especially
out of touch, barbaric, and unnecessary.

Often we look at the Law and the Prophets,
the Old Testament as we call it,
and we see a completely different picture of God
than the one Jesus shows us in the New Testament.

It’s like something happened in the intervening years
between the Old and New Testaments that caused God
to go from being obsessively meddlesome,
wrath-filled and blood-thirsty to being forgiving,
full of true love and true light.

It is disconcerting, and it is because of this apparent discrepancy
that many preachers tend to stay away
from the Old Testament in their preaching.
The God of the Old Testament
is grouchy and demanding and embarrassing;
the God of the Old Testament is just not like the God of the New,
and we like the God of the New because that God sent Jesus.

Maybe you’ve heard that reasoning before.
But what we often forget, what we fail to consider is
how the world worked prior to Moses laying down the law.

For instance, Moses tells the Israelites,
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
In our world that seems barbaric and mean,
but understood within the context of the previous system,
this eye-for-an-eye law is bold, progressive, and merciful.

Before the Law of Moses, vengeance was the name of the game.
If one person killed another,
the family of the deceased would seek to kill the murderer
and his or her family, and his or her servants,
and seize their livestock and land.

The idea was, Don’t just get mad
but get even and then some.

It’s a feeling we’ve all had at one time or another.
If I take a moment to really think about what would happen
if someone punched me in the face,
I can guarantee you that my first impulse would be to return fire
only harder and with added blows.

As a Christian I hope, of course, that I would be able to deny that
impulse and turn the other cheek,
but the point is, as human beings,
our gut reactions tend towards not merely vengeance or justice
but escalation.

So when we read laws like “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,”
we find that, in many respects, the law of Moses was not intended
to condone violence but was rather an act of mercy,
to restrain them from seeking
too much vengeance from escalating in their retaliation.

All of the laws in the Old Testament have a purpose.
Sometimes that purpose will seem ridiculous or barbaric
or sexist to us. And, compared to where we are now,
many of them are.
But in the context in which they were written,
they were a piece of mercy.

The laws of God given through Moses
were not given because blind obedience to them
would somehow make us holy.
This was not the plan or the goal in these commandments.

In the commandments was the desire of God
for humanity to begin to climb out of the muck and mire of violence
and vengeance and idolatry.
In them was the hope of God for us to grow as a people
to the point where we would understand
the truth that binds the universe together,
the truth that was demonstrated in the life, death,
and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That truth of the law of love.

As we read through the gospel of Matthew,
we find Jesus tweaking his listeners’
interpretations of the law of Moses.
During the Sermon on the Mount,
Jesus repeats time and again,
“You have heard that it was said,” followed by, “But I tell you.”

In these teachings Jesus doesn’t get rid of the laws per se,
but he tries to help his listeners see beyond the laws
to the intention behind them:
it’s not about meticulously following rules,
but it’s about mercy and love.

For instance, Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye,
and a tooth for a tooth”.
Remember, when this was given it was in mercy and love
to keep retaliation from going too far.

Jesus continues, “But I say to you…
if anyone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also”.

So what we have here is a progression:
from open, unrestrained, retaliation
to a merciful form of vengeance
to sacrificial love in the face of hurt and offense.

In our reading this morning the Apostle Paul
summarizes well what Jesus was teaching.
The entire law is summed up in Love.
Love your neighbor as yourself. If you do this, you will fulfill the law.

And this is where even I start to roll my eyes and think,
“How many times is this guy going to tell me to love my neighbor?
I get it already.” Right?
Well, for the most part I live by the old adage
of a dear friend of mine: “Say it ’til it sticks.”
But loving our neighbors is not our full focus here this morning.

There is part of this passage that often gets glossed over.

Love your neighbor… AS YOURSELF!
AS YOURSELF – two words packed with problems for us.

For some people the difficulty comes in that we love ourselves A LOT.
There are some people who believe the Lexus commercials
that say, “Treat yourself. You deserve it.”
For that type of person,
to love neighbor as self is an expensive,
and probably impossible proposition.

I would wager for most of us today we have the opposite problem.
I think possibly in Paul’s day the problem may have been similar.

We don’t love ourselves enough,
or rather we just don’t love ourselves properly.
We become our own worst critics.
We develop low opinions of ourselves.
Or we believe that we are not worthy of love,
even from ourselves.
We only begin to love ourselves, even a little bit,
on the good hair days and the good mood days
and on all the days in between,
we beat ourselves up for every little thing.

When we try to love our neighbors as ourselves in that state,
it comes across as something less than love
or perhaps a form of love that is tainted
with self loathing and reeking of joyless obligation.

Paul writes, “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”
Love is a debt that we all have,
and one that we need to be continually paying forward.
But before we can do that, before we can love our neighbor,
we have to love ourselves.

Maybe that begins with forgiving ourselves.
Can you think of something you need to forgive yourself for?
Have you been beating yourself up about a mistake at work?
or over a misspoken word to a loved one?
Whatever it may be it is okay to forgive yourself.
Let go of the guilt and the pain.
God has forgiven you. You need to forgive you.

Or has something in your past caused you to believe
that you are no good, that you are unworthy of love,
even love from yourself?
You want to love others and connect with God,
but every relationship is stunted because
you do not think you are worthy of anyone’s love,
especially God’s.

Friend, if that is where you are, hear me:
Love is not about being worthy.
Love is an act of the will decided by the one
who is doing to loving.
God’s love for us does not depend on anything we do or have done.
God’s love is God’s choice.

I like to compare it to how we love babies.
We don’t love babies because they have earned our love
or because they deserve it.
Babies are selfish little beasts.
They only care about their own needs being met
and being met exactly when they need them.
But we love them anyway.
We love them because we love them.
It is a choice we make.
God’s love for us is a choice that God has made.

Loving yourself is a choice you make.
Not in a narcissistic sort of way but in a what that says,
“I will not beat myself up over the past.
I will not push others away because
I think I am unworthy of love and relationship.”
You may have to work hard to ignore the ghosts of the past
that shout at you and make you think you are unworthy.
But give yourself the same kind of grace
you would give a close friend:
you don’t have to be perfect; you are worthy of love,
just the way you are, just the way God made you.

When we chose to love ourselves,
to care for ourselves, we are opening the door to accepting
that God loves us,
and there is nothing anyone or anything can do about it.

Whatever the reason for our love deficit towards ourselves,
we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors to get it sorted out,
because the longer that we avoid loving ourselves,
the longer we are caught up in our own messes,
the longer that we are busy criticizing ourselves,
the longer it will be before our neighbors
will be able to see Christ’s love in us.

We get to see Christ’s love. Here, today. In the bread and the cup.
We get to see what love looks like:
a decision made to love humanity, to love us no matter the cost.

We get to see Jesus,
sitting at the table with his closest friends.
The very same friends who would, before long,
let him down, deny him, and betray him.
Still he breaks the bread, still he shares the cup,
offering love, and connection. That my friends is grace.

God came, in the flesh, to demonstrate the law of love.
Christ made it visible in his life, his teachings,
his care for stranger and neighbor and friend alike.
He showed us God’s love in the breaking of the bread
and the sharing of the cup.
He showed us God’s love in his death and in his resurrection.
And now, Christ seeks to show God’s love through us,
through our love of friend, and stranger, and neighbor.

But it all starts here.
In this place and at this table.
With a decision to love ourselves,
so we can love others, and by doing so, truly love our God.
Amen? Amen.

“Hunka Hunka Burning Love” Romans 12:9-21 (August 31, 2014)

burning-love

Our “Favorite Scriptures Series” is officially over,
and we are going to be following the lectionary for a little while. Unlikely as it may seem, though,
Romans 12 happens to be one of my favorite scripture passages.
Of course if you ask any of my former youth group students,
they would tell you that you could open the bible
and point to any passage at random,
and I would probably tell you that it’s one of my favorites.

The reason I like this passage in Romans 12 so much
is because of how, in a few short verses,
it gives us an accurate look at what Christian behavior looks like.

In verses 9 through 21, we receive roughly 29 statements or directives
about Christian interaction with each other,
with strangers, and with our enemies.
And it all begins with, “Let love be genuine”.

Sometimes though,
even with all the specific behaviors listed in these verses
and all of the examples that we have from Jesus,
there are still people who just don’t get it.

I am sure by now all have you have read about
or seen a news story about a little church from Topeka, Kansas
called Westboro Baptist.

These are the folks who first made headlines
as they began protesting at soldiers funerals
holding signs that say things like
“Thank God for Improvised Explosive Devices”
or – and I cringe to even use this language in the church –
“God Hates Fags”.

I trust that the idea of protesting at a funeral
or toting signs that carry those hate-filled messages
is as distasteful to you as it is to me.

But, if you have ever seen an interview
with someone from Westboro Baptist,
you will have heard them say that their message
is a message of love.

They believe that through their various protests and their message
that they are helping to bring us to repentance
and save us from the wrath of God.

These actions and the message they are proclaiming,
to them, is an act of love.

And yes, there is a time and place
for offering correction to one another…
but I’m not exactly sure that,
when Paul advised the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love,”
this is exactly what he had in mind!

Let love be genuine we are told.
Demonstrate real, authentic love.
But what is love? Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more!

If you have ever been to a wedding
you probably know rather well what Paul’s idea of real love is,
from 1 Corinthians 13.
Love is patient, and kind, not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude. Love doesn’t get irritated. Love rejoices in truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, and endures all things.

We see much of the same ideas mirrored in our reading this morning.

Love each other with mutual affection.
Outdo each other in showing honor.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering,
take care of the needs of the saints
and be hospitable to strangers.

I was truly touched this week when I saw a news story that shows
some real genuine love being expressed to strangers.

Apparently a church in Southern California saw a need
and decided to do something about it.
They did not have a lot of money,
but they had some money and they had some time.
They started renting out their local laundromat one evening a month
and doing laundry, free of charge,
for the homeless and less fortunate in the area.

Relationships were formed. Connections were made.
The ministry eventually expanded to include a meal
along with helping people find ways to meet their other needs. This simple idea, to do people’s laundry,
has grown in the last 10 years to over 100 locations
across the country and
includes people from many different faith traditions.

It’s so simple: washing clothes.
We all know how to do that.
And yet, that act – that gift – has grown to so much more.
That, to me, is a phenomenal example of showing hospitality
to strangers,
of making the genuine love of Christ visible in the world.

But Paul doesn’t simply stop with asking us
to show genuine love to other Christians and to strangers.

No, like Jesus, Paul wants to kick things up a notch.
From verse 15 on, Paul is talking about
what genuine love looks like
as we extend it towards our enemies.

Let’s be honest: in our modern western culture,
most of us are hard-pressed to find anyone
we would call our “enemy.”
We aren’t being persecuted.
We aren’t caught up in a daily cycle and struggle of violence.
We aren’t looking over our shoulders in fear all the time.
If there were comic book versions of our lives,
there would be no super villains threatening our Gotham City.

Even if we don’t have literal enemies
this scripture is vitally important for us.
Because there are always people who rub us the wrong way,
people that know how to get under our skin
and make us lose our minds.
Can you think of any people like that?
The kind of people who, if they showed up
at the same party you were at, you would avoid.
The kind of people who,
while you may not long for their destruction,
you would hide from in order to not have to see them.

These are the people that Paul is referring to in your life:
the ones who are, for one reason or another,
especially hard to love.
And sometimes, they are even Christians.

I was in my last youth pastor gig for about 3 months
before the church went nuclear and split.
I assure you it was not my fault.
They had been on that path for some time.

It was a difficult time
for those that remained in the church I was serving.
They didn’t want to split.
They felt abandoned and betrayed by people they loved.

The folks that left started a new church the very next week.
Going through the split and the new church starting
was bad enough, but add to it the fact that it was a small town –
the kind of place with only one grocery store
and one Walmart – and it was horrible.

You could not help but run into someone
who left our church for the other one when you went out anywhere.

I once saw someone from my church
abandon a cart full of groceries and head for the exit
in order to avoid any interaction
with someone from the other church.
I am sure there are still people in that church today,
nearly 10 years later,
who still won’t make eye contact with anyone
who associates with the other church.

It was a painful situation
and it could have been made so much less painful,
if not avoided all together,
if those church members had remembered that what matters most
isn’t our personal agendas or priorities
what matters most, within the church and without, is love.

The world already does a good job of dividing us from one another,
splitting us into parties and camps, teaching us that
if we don’t agree on everything then we can’t get along at all.

But the church is supposed to be different!
What would have happened, I wonder,
if those Christians had taken seriously the challenge
to outdo one another in giving honor
to put their own egos aside,
and honor one another’s voices instead?
What if they had loved each other with mutual affection?
And what if, even when things started to fall apart,
they had committed to love one another all the same
to feed one another, to care for one another,
to bless one another even in the midst of conflict?

What if they had remembered that as much as it depends on you,
live at peace with everyone.
That idea alone may be the most difficult aspect of genuine love.
Because it means that sometimes
you have to choose love and peace with others
over being right. And Lord do we LOVE to be RIGHT!

This is why Paul goes on to remind us that vengeance
is not ours to dole out.
If any vengeance is going to come to anyone
it is going to come from God, not from us,
because God is the only one
in a position to understand the whole situation.
God is the only one who can meet out justice and have it be truly just.

I did have to laugh this week though
because in my study of this passage
one of the commentators I was reading
suggested avoiding the last part of this passage,
the part having to do with heaping burning coals on the heads
of our enemies.
The commentator suggested that this phrase
may not align itself to well with the idea
of not seeking vengeance. I, of course, disagree with that notion.

Folks God knows that when we are wronged or slighted
that our gut reaction is to strike back,
to make the other person feel the way they made us feel.
In God’s utter brilliance we are given a way to strike back in love.
If you can’t let it go, if you have to do something
then get even by loving your enemies.
Get even, not by hurting them, but by loving them more.
Get even by refusing to play the game by their rules;
get even by throwing your “enemies” off their game
by heaping burning coals of love onto their heads.
But this love too has to be genuine.

When we pray for our enemies
we really need to pray for them, not at them.
We should not pray like the Psalmist prays for his enemies:
“Dear God… Go get em’!”

And we should not pray for our enemies like the Pharisees do:
“Dear God… I am so glad I am not like so and so.”

Instead, we pray for their true blessing,
we seek to show them Christ’s true love,
and we will find that the coals of burning love we heap on them
will bring blessing to us all.

It’s easy to love those who love us,
to love those who are like us.
It is much more difficult to love strangers,
to love our neighbors whose names we may not know,
to love even those we would consider our enemies
but friends, that is what we are called to do.
That is how Christ’s love is made known,
is made manifest in the world,
when we love those who do not love us in return,
when we serve those who cannot return the favor.

When our concern for self is turned into care for the stranger,
the neighbor, the enemy,
then we will know the truest love of our lives,
then heaven will collide with Earth,
and Christ’s love will be visible to all. Amen? Amen.

“A Secret You Can Share” Colossians 1:15-29 (August 24, 2014)

1950s secret ladies ref
I am horrible at keeping secrets – well, secrets about gifts anyway.
As soon as I have my Christmas shopping done
and the presents wrapped,
I am asking Bri if she wants to open one.
She usually responds with something like,
“Are you kidding me? It’s not even Thanksgiving yet!”
Its not that I can’t keep the secret so much
as I am anxious to see the surprise on her face.

My parents were the best at keeping secrets,
when they wanted to be.
I remember when I was 12 years old
my parents got my brother and me all excited about our family
vacation to the Wisconsin Dells.

For those who have no idea what the Dells are
all you need to know is it is a very nice and scenic
vacation destination in Wisconsin that,
for the purposes of this story, had some of the biggest
and most epic water parks of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Back then there was no internet,
and so when commercials came on the TV
they would say things like,
“Can you imagine a vacation like that boys?”
And “That looks like so much fun!”

Then we started getting Wisconsin Dells catalogs
and my brother and I would argue about which days
we should go to which park
and how awesome this trip was going to be.
Our mom took us to the store to by new swim trunks
and activity books to keep us occupied in the car;
after all it was going to be a four hour drive.

Then finally the day came.
I hardly slept at all the night before
and when my mom came in to wake me up
I threw off my covers and was already dressed
with shoes on ready to go.
I was already writing my “What I did last Summer” essay in my head.

We piled into the family car and set off down the road.
It didn’t take long however for things to get
a little off of my schedule.
About 45 minutes in, my Dad says,
“Oh shoot! I forgot. Boys we have to stop at the airport
and pick up a package for my Aunt Mary.
It will only take a minute.”
I didn’t care.
A couple of minutes was no big deal.

My Dad walked into the airport and came back out
and informed us that the package was due
in on a plane in about an hour,
but it was ok ’cause while we waited we could
go and play in the arcade.

My little brother and I were in heaven.
My mom kept pumping quarters into the games
while my dad was strangely not around,
but we kept playing anyway.

When my dad finally came back he told us there was “bad news”.
The package was in Chicago, it missed the flight,
and so to make up for the delay the airline was going to fly us to
Chicago to pick it up personally.
That was not such bad news to me.
I had never flown on a plane before.
This vacation just went from epic to legendary!

At this point I am going to ask you to remember, I was 12,
I hadn’t slept the whole night before,
yes, I was gullible,
but I still can’t be completely sure
that my parents aren’t some type of Jedi Masters.

When we reached Chicago my Dad started acting very strange.
He started asking us every couple of minutes,
“Boys, what do you think will happen if we get on the wrong plane?” I, in my pre-teen awesomeness, told him not to worry
because our tickets wouldn’t allow us to get on the wrong plane.

It didn’t take long before we were on another plane heading back to
Green Bay where our airplane adventure had begun.

But something was wrong. This was a huge plane.
And I was pretty sure that the captains announcement
said that this flight was non-stop to Orange County –
but we had flown out of the airport in Brown County.
When I told my Dad this, he said,
“Oh relax Mikey, he just got his colors mixed up. It will be fine.”

Four hours later we landed at
John Wayne Airport in Orange County California.
My brother and I were freaking out.
My dad was playing along.
I thought for sure we were going to be
spending our summer vacation in jail.
At least it would make for a compelling essay?

As we disembarked we were met by a man I had never seen before.

He was wearing a nice, new Brooks Brothers suit
and dark sunglasses. I was sure he was FBI.
He approached my Dad,
a study in contrast with his tie-dyed shirt, stone wash blue jeans,
and blaze orange suspenders.
The man in the suit approached my Dad and said, “Mr. Desotell?”
“Yes,” my Dad replied.
“Hello, I’m cousin Bob; nice to meet you!” said the man in the suit.

I was stunned.
I looked around at my parents
who were wearing the biggest grins I had ever seen.
I still didn’t get it. So my mom spelled it out for me.
“Oh, you really thought we were going to the Dells?
Well, how about Disney Land instead?!?!”

That was an awesome secret.
It was a secret worth keeping until the last possible moment
so that the surprise had maximum effect.

In our scripture this morning we are told that the mystery –
or in some translations “the secret” –
that has been hidden throughout the ages
has been revealed to us, to the saints.

For the first few hundred years of the church’s existence,
much of our beliefs were shrouded in secrecy.

You may remember that the first Christians were Jews;

Jesus himself was a Jew.
Judaism was an established ancient religion that,
at the very least, it was respected by most cultures of the day,
to the degree that when Rome conquered Israel,
the Israelites were not forced to worship the state gods
like everyone else.
They were exempt from paying tribute to the Roman gods
because their religion was ancient,
and the more ancient a religion was
the more it was not messed with.

Early Christians fought hard to be recognized
as the natural progression of the ancient Hebrew faith
or at least as a sect of it,
but the religious leaders in the temple and synagogues
would not allow it.

Those who identified as followers of Christ
were not allowed in Hebrew places of worship;
Christians found themselves “on the outs”
with their Jewish neighbors and the Roman authorities alike.
So Christians began to be a bit more secretive about their beliefs
in an attempt to avoid some of the persecution that would come.

As a result, little was known during that time about the beliefs
and practices of these Christians.
Neither the gospels nor the epistles were widespread
or for public view.
Speculation arose about these monotheists and their practices.
It was even rumored, amongst outsiders
who had heard whispers about
a celebration of Holy Communion,
that Christians were cannibals
because they eat the body and drink the blood of their Messiah.

At the same time,
those who did get a glimpse of Christians
when they were being themselves –
some of the Secular historians of that day,
tell of other strange behaviors amongst those
who identified as Christians.
While persecuted and hunted,
they showed genuine love and care for each other,
working together in community to meet each other’s needs.

That’s the secret: it’s not some secret knowledge,
secret handshake, secret prayer or secret magic words –
but the secret at the heart of Christianity
is the ability to demonstrate joy and love
even in the midst of persecution, suffering and fear –
because CHRIST IS IN YOU!

Christ is in you!
Four words that on the surface
may not seem like much of a secret to you.
Because you have heard this before.
You may be thinking “Duh Pastor Mike, I know this;
I “asked Jesus into my heart” when I was eight”…
but “knowing” something in an abstract way
isn’t the same as experiencing it as a reality,
as a fundamental part of your daily life.
We know the words, we go through the motions –
but do we really believe, do we really live like we believe,
that Christ is in us?

What does that really mean? To have Christ in us?

Christ.
The viewable image of the invisible God.
The firstborn of all creation.
All of heaven and earth, everything visible and invisible,
was created by and for him. And is sustained by him.
Christ, the firstborn from the dead,
the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to well.
Christ, the infant deity lying in a manger,
the missing adolescent found teaching in the temple.
Christ the obedient son
who at the request of his mother turns water into wine.
Christ who walked on water,
and healed the blind and the lame.
Christ who hugged the lepers,
and dined with sinners, and forgave adulterers.
Christ who called the fisherman,
and carpenters, and tax collectors to be disciples
and apostles and priests.
Christ who suffered on a cross and died.
Christ who is too mighty for the grave to hold.
Christ who ascends to sit at the right hand of God.

That CHRIST! The one and only Jesus Christ. That Christ… is in you.

But what does that mean?

“Christ in us” is not simply the idea that Jesus is close to us
and we are never alone or that we have attained salvation.
Don’t get me wrong Jesus is close and we are never alone
and we have salvaton.
But it is so much more and we forget it far too easily.

So often we run around trying to do ministry

out of our own reserves of energy. I am as guilty of this as anyone. We try to do everything we think we are supposed to be doing,
drawing from our own strength,
and we end up burnt out and disappointed.

The power, the energy, the inspiration of Christ, of God, is in us.
The chapter ends by declaring it plainly
“…I toil and struggle with all the energy that he
[Christ] powerfully inspires within me.”

This is the secret I am sharing with you.
This is the secret we must all share.
The secret is: it’s not about us at all.
The secret is: Christ is in us, giving us strength,
giving us hope, empowering us to bear up in suffering
and in all things to make Christ’s love – God’s love –
visible in the world.

It doesn’t matter how old or young we are.
It doesn’t matter if we dropped out of high school
or have doctorates on our wall.
It doesn’t matter if we’re tired from chasing after toddlers
or tired with the weariness of many, many years of life…
Wherever we are in life, wherever you are in life, Christ is in you,
and God is not finished with you yet.
If we have breath, we have purpose,
and Christ is in us ready to inspire and energize
and make his love known to the world through us, through you.

For instance, in less than a month we are putting on another
Community picnic.
You may not feel like you have the energy
or even the ability to contribute to the picnic,
but I promise you, we need your help and you can help.

Even if all you are able to do is show up on the day of the event
and visit with those who show up.
Perhaps you can provide financially for the event
or bring some baked goods or prizes.
Even if you can’t give, and you can’t come
– can you commit to praying for us,
in the weeks to come and on the day itself –
praying for us, and for our neighbors,
that God’s love might be made visible right here, where we are?

We all have different gifts, different strengths, different abilities
-and that’s a good thing.
When we work together,
when we come back to Christ for our strength,
when we ground our work in prayer and grace and hope
then the secret is going to get out:
God is love, and God is with us, and Christ is in us
and for others who are searching for strength,
searching for hope, the good news is: Christ can be in them, too.

God has given us everything that we need:
the message, the power source, and the inspiration.
We just have to be willing to act, to move,
to share the good news at the heart of our lives
the secret of the ages. Christ is in us! Amen? Amen.