“Sport Fishing for Jesus” Mark 1:14-20 (February 8, 2015)

catch-and-release

Some of you know that last week I started taking three classes
through Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary.
As I was getting ready to travel back to Evanston,
I remembered something that happened to me on my way home
from Garrett a few years ago.
At that point in I had been serving in ministry and walking with Christ
for over a decade, I had finished two degrees in Biblical Studies,
and was working on my M.Div.

Shortly after I left campus a blizzard hit.
I could have turned back but I was anxious to get home and
see my family so I pressed on, all-be-it very slowly and carefully.

When I finally crossed back into the proper time zone and proper state
I decided it was time to pull over for a while and get some dinner.

As I entered the restaurant, another gentleman was leaving.
I held the door for him and he stopped, cocked his head at me, and said, “Hey, aren’t you the guy that sold me my car?”
I chuckled and said no.
He said “OK, well you must have a twin out there somewhere.”
And he left.

I called Bri to check in and waited for my food to arrive.
As I began to eat the gentleman who thought I was a car salesman,
lets call him Joel, re-entered the nearly empty restaurant.
I thought nothing of it at first.
He could have forgotten his cell phone or misplaced his wallet.
There are any number of legitimate reasons would bring someone
back into a restaurant they had just left.

I knew something was up however because he walked in,
looked around, and headed straight for me.
Had he dinged my car in the parking lot?
Did I leave my headlights on?

Joel started by saying,
“I’m sorry. I know you are not the guy that sold me my car.
You see, I am a Christian, and God told me to talk to you,
and I thought that might have been a way to start a conversation.
I have been sitting in my car praying,
and God still told me to come back in and talk to you.”

At this point I knew what was up.
He was about to tell me how God loves me and has a
wonderful plan for my life.

And sure enough, that was what he said next.
He asked,
“Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?”

I answered, “Yes. Of course.”

He said, “Really? You know that?”
I replied “I’m actually on my way home from a seminary,
where I’m preparing to become a pastor”

Apparently that was not enough to convince poor Joel so he asked
about my denomination. Methodist, I said.
That was the wrong answer I guess because he went on;
he would not be detoured.
God had told him that he had to talk to me
so he had to figure out how to save my soul.

He asked, “If you were to die today,
do you know if you will be spending eternity in heaven or hell?”

Heaven, I replied.

He followed up with, “Why?”
I knew the answer he wanted,
so I decided just to end the interrogation with the words
he needed to hear,
“Because I believe Jesus paid the full price for my sins
by his suffering on the cross and rising on the third day.”

This wasn’t going according to his script at all.
In fact, Joel actually said, “This isn’t going according to my script at all!”

He said, “ I just don’t get it. God told me to talk to you.
If you are already a Christian,
why would he have told me to talk to you?”

I offered, “Well, perhaps God wants us to have a different conversation?
How are things in your life? How is it with your soul?”

The man looked at me and said, “Well, we all have our struggles.”
And he quickly excused himself.

It was a strange and surreal conversation –
but it got me thinking about how, as Christians,
we try to share our faith – with pretty mixed results.
Here was a man who had a lot of courage to approach a stranger,
and even some basic tools for sharing his faith –
but he spent his time trying to convert a man who was already
so full of faith he was entering the ministry.
It feels to me like, maybe, we might be missing the point.

I remember another time I was attending a Crusade.
Do any of you remember those? Not the kind with kings and knights,
but those big televised stadium events where Billy Graham or
another big name evangelist preaches.
At they end they always have these huge altar calls.
You don’t see that type of thing much in Methodist Churches these days. But what happens is they take some celebrities or athletes on stage
and each tells a gut retching story that ends with them coming to faith
in Jesus and everything in life just getting better from there.
Then they call everyone to come forward and to be prayed for and with,
anyone who needs to give their life to Jesus.
At this particular event the gospel that was proclaimed
was not a gospel I was familiar with.
The message runs something like,
“Come to Jesus, and be spared from hell! But wait – there’s more!”
The preacher told people to come forward and give their lives to Jesus
right now before they marry the wrong person,
or chose the wrong college, or begin the wrong career.

He was telling everyone that faith in Christ
made all of our potential bad decisions go away.
That if we came to faith in Christ the stars would align
and life would be nothing but blessings and peace from there on out.

I couldn’t believe it.
This was not a facet of the gospel that I could find anywhere in the bible. In fact the bible promises the opposite.
Jesus tells us that if the world hated him it would hate us, his followers.
That is a far cry from the gospel they were slinging that day.

Now I am not going to tell you that the boldness of Joel at the restaurant
or the preaching at a gospel crusade never bears fruit –
because I know that they have.
Many good, committed, disciples found their faith in such ways.
But I am going to tell you that this is probably not what Jesus had in
mind when he called Peter, Andrew, James, and John
to lay down their nets and fish for people.

No, the type of fishing we see in Joel the restaurant evangelist
and the Gospel of the perfect life crusader
is what my father-in-law calls “sport fishing for Jesus.”

I don’t know how familiar some of you are with fishing.
Sport fishing is about competition.
It’s about who catches the most and the biggest fish.
Sport fishers often debate the best kind of bait
and the most effective lure to reel the most fish in.
Most importantly for our purposes here,
sport fishing is catch-and-release.
You catch the fish, hold it up for a picture,
and then put it back in the water.

When you sport fish for Jesus,
you are hoping to find some attractive bait
to lure a person to a point of deciding to follow Jesus,
pray with them as they decide, and then you walk away.

Had I been in need of salvation that day in the restaurant
I would have left with a budding faith but no direction.
The masses that respond to altar calls at rallies and crusades
are the same. This is not, as we discussed two weeks ago,
making disciples.
This is catch and release evangelism
where you take no responsibility for the future faith development
of another.

But the call that we have is not a call to catch-and-release,
it is not a call to sport fishing for Jesus.

The call that we have, the call passed down through the centuries,
to fish for people, to make disciples, is about so much more
than simply getting peoples ticket to heaven stamped,
and it takes a whole lot more effort than simply telling
someone about Jesus and leading them in a sinners’ prayer.
In those days, they didn’t sport fish.
Fishing was life-or-death; it was a way of life.
And they didn’t use a hook and bait, like we think of fishing today;
fishing meant using a net – throwing a net out into the water,
and reeling the net in.
Some days there were a lot of fish in the net;
some days there weren’t any;
some days there were good and bad fish all mixed together. Regardless, you just keep casting the net in again and again…
and if you’re not catching any fish, you find another spot on the water,
and you throw your net in again.

Jesus didn’t use bait to catch people
and he didn’t just take a picture and let them go.
He invited people to come and follow him.
Our job is to just keep “casting the net”
and let God worry about what comes in.
Our job is to keep inviting people, sharing God’s love,
and drawing them in.
We do that by modeling faith, by investing in the lives of others,
by inviting them and including them,
no matter who or where they are in journey of faith.

We discussed last week that before we can make disciples
we must first be disciples ourselves.
We must be about the work of growing our own faith
learning from those who have gone on before us
while clearing the path and showing the way for those behind us.

Assuming that we are there,
that we are seeking to be disciples ourselves,
to make disciples there are three things we need to do.
We need to invest, to invite, and to include.

Investing our time and resources in others,
those outside our church, outside of our faith community.
This goes along with the saying that no one cares what you know until they know that you care.
As you make the time and the effort to invest yourself in other people
you let them know that you care about who they are and
how their life is going.

Those that you invest in you also have to invite.
Invite them to church, sure, but also to birthday parties,
and bar-b-que’s, and breakfast out, and game night with your friends.

And finally we need to be inclusive.
And this is one of the tough ones.
Because if I were to ask you to close your eyes
and picture in your mind the people that you want
to invest in and invite to become part of our community
I can almost guarantee most of what you picture
is going to look very similar to who is here now.
Every church says they want to grow
and have new young people in them
so long as the new young people are
simply younger versions of themselves
who will want to do things exactly the way we always have.

We need to fight against that tendency.
We need to seek out those who do not look like,
talk like, act like, think like, or even believe like ourselves
and include them, invite them, and invest in them.

We need to keep casting the net,
sharing the love that God has given us,
sharing what we believe (even if we don’t have all the answers)…
we need to be authentic and earnest about our faith,
so others might see the love of Christ, made visible, in us.
Amen? Amen.

“Only a Glimpse” Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (October 26, 2014)

image

Our scripture this morning thrusts us to the end
of the story of Moses. And while it holds a powerful lesson for us
to discover that lesson we have to go back and remember
who Moses really was.

Moses’ story begins, as most stories of great people do,
with his mother: a Hebrew slave, a woman of faith,
who – when Pharaoh ordered all Hebrew baby boys to be killed –
chose instead to set her son adrift in a basket with nothing more
than a prayer that he would survive and be found and cared for.

Her prayer is answered as her son is found by
the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in the palace
as a prince of Egypt.

As a young man, despite his royal upbringing,
when he sees a guard mistreating one of the Hebrew slaves
he takes action but ends up killing the guard.

In fear he flees Egypt and takes up residence in Midian,
where he spends 40 years tending sheep
– until one day he spots a burning bush –
only it’s not your typical burning bush;
this bush is on fire but not being burnt up at all;
oh, and this bush… well it SPEAKS to him.

It turns out the bush is a representation of the God of Israel…
a God that Moses really doesn’t know at all except, perhaps,
through a few stories he heard the Hebrew slaves tell..
a God that has an important mission for him.

After some hemming and hawing and negotiation,
Moses does as God asks and heads for Egypt
to ask Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people
so they can go to the land that God has promised to them.

And this is where we really get to begin to see
what kind of person Moses is.
He could have stayed where he was.
He was happy in Midian.
He has a wife and is part of a prominent family.
Yet like Abraham before him, he pulls up stakes and
goes to do what God has called him to do,
to free a people that he doesn’t really know,
a people that, at first, have a hard time trusting him…
And then he leads them to a land that neither he nor they
have ever seen, all on the say so of a God whose voice
he has only just come to know.

Here we discover the tremendous faith of Moses and his
extraordinary love for the community into which he was born.

So he heads to Egypt to free his people.
You probably remember that Moses’ meeting with Pharaoh
doesn’t go too well. Pharaoh is not real happy with these
demands and tells Moses to take a hike.

That is when stuff gets really weird and fantastic.
Pharaoh says “no,” and God, through Moses,
unleashes 10 plagues in an effort to get Pharaoh to relent
and let the Israelites go.

Folks, it rained frogs. Frogs! Real hippity hopping frogs.
And locusts covered the land,
and all the waters turned to blood. It was a living nightmare.

After the final plague, of course, Pharaoh relents, in grief,
and allows Moses and the Hebrews to leave.
They make it to the Red Sea before Pharaoh has a change of heart
and sends the army after them.
Moses, with some power from on high,
parts the Red Sea like Charlton Heston,
and the Israelites walk on dry land to the other side.
When their pursuers try to cross after them,
the Red Sea snaps back together,
claiming the armies of Egypt for its own.

And that is where we yell cut and roll the credits
because there is nothing left to see here. Right?

Well, maybe there is a little more to the story.
Only about 40 years of wandering, complaining, warring,
complaining, powerful and diverse miracles,
oh, and did I mention, complaining?

Indeed, there are more than enough stories of
Moses and the Israelites after they cross the Red Sea,
but we just don’t have the time here today to name them all.
But I want to encourage you to read up on Moses.
You will not be disappointed.

In our reading from Deuteronomy this morning,
we hear the story of the death of Moses.
He doesn’t die on the battlefield.
He doesn’t die from a fall while climbing one
of the many mountains he climbed.
And he doesn’t die after leading the Israelites triumphantly
across the Jordan River and into the land of promise.

No; instead, Moses hikes up another mountain to meet with God.
The mountain overlooks the promised land,
and Moses is allowed to see it all,
to glimpse the promised land in its entirety.

Then God tells Moses that, after all he’s gone
through to get the people to that place
– he doesn’t get to enter into the promised land himself.
And then Moses dies, right there,
within sight of the land promised to his ancestors,
the land that the Israelites had dreamed about for 40 years.
Moses dies and is then buried somewhere unknown to everyone,
and Joshua takes over.

While this seems unfair we are,
at least, given a reason for it, sort of.
And to find that reason,
we are going to take a look at one of those many stories
from Israel’s years of wandering in the wilderness.

As I mentioned earlier the Israelites would often complain to Moses,
“Moses we’re hungry.
Moses we’re thirsty.
Thanks for the bread, Moses, but we want meat too.”
They would cap off most complaints with:
you know “we were better off as slaves in Egypt.”

So Moses would go and bring the complaints to God.

And God, in God’s awesomeness, would provide in miraculous ways.
In the book of Numbers chapter 20 a complaint comes to Moses.
This one is about fresh water.
Moses goes to God with the request,
and God is specific in his answer.

In Numbers 20:8 God told Moses
“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation…
and COMMAND the rock before their eyes to yield its water.”

And he does just that, sort of.
The rock gives the Israelites plenty of water to drink.
It is a great miracle.
Except Moses doesn’t follow the directions
exactly as he was supposed to.

Moses takes the staff and goes to the rock with the people assembled
and commands the rock to bring forth water,
all in accordance with what God had said,
but then Moses calls an audible,
he decides to add some showmanship,
and he hits the rock with the staff, twice.

To us this doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Moses adds a little razzle dazzle to the whole thing.
In fact this is not the first time that God
has brought water from a rock.
Earlier in their wanderings God commanded Moses
to call water from a rock and to hit it twice with the staff.
But apparently, this time, God was not amused with the rock hitting.

In verse 12 God says to Moses;
“Because you did not trust in me…
therefore you shall not bring this assembly
into the land that I have given them.”

Now we could discuss until we are blue in the face
why it is that Moses hitting the rock with the staff this time
would exclude him from entering the promised land
when it didn’t the first time.
Honestly though, scholars and teachers and preachers still debate
and try to make sense of what exactly made this
such a terrible sin but for the sake of time,
let’s take it on faith that God had a good reason.
So now this is the part I want us to really pay attention to
concerning the type of person Moses is.

Moses knows that he will not enter the land.
All the way back in the wilderness, while they were still on their way,
while he was still dealing with the daily whining
and complaining of the Hebrew people.
Moses already knows he isn’t going all the way.
He knows that he will not live in the land
that is flowing with milk and honey.
He knows that his life of obedience and hardship
will not end in a triumphal crossing of the Jordan River.

He knows all of that, but he doesn’t get bitter.
He doesn’t run off to herd sheep with his father-in-law again.
He doesn’t waver at all in his commitment to lead his people.

He continues on, because he knows that the promised land
was not promised to him alone, but to the people of Israel.
Moses knows that the community is what is important.
He knows that Abraham was promised that his children
would number as the sands on the sea shore,
but Abraham did not live to see it.

He knows that Isaac and Jacob were inheritors
of both the promise of the land that flows with milk and honey
and the promise of being fathers of a great nation.
Yet they did not live to see it.

Moses knows what they knew.
All of their life, all of their toil and their struggle was not
so they could see the fulfillment of the promise,
but so that those who would come after them,
their descendants, would receive the promise.
They were a part of a much bigger story,
one that had started before they were born,
one that would continue long after they were gone.

It wasn’t ever about Moses entering the promised land
and leading the nation of Israel.
It was about Israel reaching the promised land.
It’s a story, not about a few chosen people
whose names we remember, but it’s a much bigger story,
a story about the faithfulness of God to a whole people,
and the few instruments that God used along the way.

The patriarchs and Moses were tremendous people
that God used to better the lives of those around them,
to help to nurture and push and teach the generations
that would come after them,
so that those future generations would one day
be able to claim God’s promise for their own and enter the land.

Have you ever had people like that in your life?
The kind of people who take the time to help you
get better at being you?
The kind of people who knew their lives were about more
than themselves and so were willing to invest in other’s lives,
in your life, to plant seeds and dream
of a future they themselves might not get to see?

When I look back over my nearly 35 years of life,
I come across a lot of those people.

I remember the husband of my first boss at a McDonald’s I worked at,
who spent time teaching my angry teenage self
how to work on cars while processing life and
why it was that I was so angry at it.
Instead of writing me off as another bitter teenager,
he chose to invest in me as a person
and made me better because of it.

And the kind man who I barely knew who GAVE me my first guitar when he saw that I was struggling to learn on my roommate’s old
busted guitar.
That kind soul could never have imagined how,
from those first chords,
music would become such a huge part of my life:
as I led worship, made friends,
started a band that would help me meet my future wife,
and even played guitar for my future children in living rooms
and hospital rooms alike finding comfort and power in music,
in the best times and the worst.

I remember the husband and wife who
ran the teen center in my home town,
who walked with me through the deaths of my grandfathers
and helped me to find true faith and to keep it in difficult times.
They could never have imagined that the road
would have led me here – to a pulpit – but everything I do in my
ministry is at least in part thanks to everything
they were willing to do in theirs.

We all, with a little bit of reflection,
can think of those people who influenced and motivated
and helped us throughout our lives.

Where would we be without them? Who would we be?
How much longer would I have hung on to my anger?
Would I have given up on playing guitar?
Would I even be a pastor or love God today
if it were not for the energy and time and love
that these people poured into my life?

I never asked them to.
I didn’t seek them out or pay them for their gifts.
No one did. They didn’t know who I would grow up to be.
They just knew, as did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses,
that it was their job to help motivate and guide those around them
to help them grow closer to God, to grow closer to each other,
to try and help those who follow after them
to engage and enjoy faith and life more.

We United Methodists have a mission statement.
Do any of you know what it is?
Our mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the
transformation of the world.”

And how do we accomplish that mission?
By pouring our time and talents and energy into those around us,
into those who are coming up after us.

If we want to transform the world then it has to start here:
by investing in each others’ lives,
by encouraging and teaching each other,
by seeking those who need our love and encouragement
and giving it to them generously.
Even if we don’t see the end game,
even if we don’t know if or how or when those seeds we plant,
those gifts we offer, might take root and bear fruit
still we keep reaching out, investing,
generously, hopefully, faithfully, trusting God to do the rest.

There are people that we work with or
go to church or school with or
that we see in the coffee shop that need to hear from you,
that need to learn from you or simply to know
that you care about them.
That’s where it starts: that’s how we bear witness to God’s love
by loving just as freely, just as generously,
just as extravagantly as God in Christ has loved us.

If we want to transform the world, to make it a better place,
well, then we have to start doing it.
Start investing time in each other and in those that we meet.
And then we will start to see disciples being made and
even if we ourselves don’t get to see it all the way through
we can know that God is still in the process
of making this world a better place,
that God still has the power to bring people
to a tomorrow that is better and brighter than today.
Amen? Amen.

“Imago Dei” Matthew 22:15-22 (October 19, 2014)

image

When I was a kid, I really wanted a pair of Air Jordan high tops.
The only problem was that they cost over $100,
and my mom had a rule about shoes.
She would never spend more than $25 on a pair of shoes
because we went through them so fast and really,
she would say, “Really, if you are paying more than $25
for a pair of shoes, you are just paying for the name.”

I didn’t care. I wanted a name brand of shoes.
All the cool kids in my class had Nike Air Jordan’s
or Reebok Pumps.
My mom being the kind soul that she is scoured the aisles
in all the discount shoe places and found an
off-brand pair of “Jordan’s” that had
an approximation of the iconic “Air Jordan” emblem on them.

Just before my freshman year of High School,
my aunt got married, and my new uncle came
to pick me up to bring me shoe shopping.
He did not care about my mother’s moratorium on expensive shoes.
He was new to the family and wanted to make a good impression,
so he was going to pay any difference.
He brought me to a real shoe store,
the kind where $25 might get you a pair of laces.
The problem was, unbeknownst to him,
none of these shoes actually fit my feet.
They were all, at best, about half a size too small,
and none of the ones I liked came any bigger.
But I was going to have a pair of Nikes my first day
of high school if it killed me.

So I lied. I told him the pair I liked best fit just fine.
He purchased them, and he brought me home.
I spent the rest of the weekend before school started
trying to stretch them out so that they didn’t hurt so much,
but nothing worked.

But I would not be deterred.
I wore those Nike high tops to my first day of high school.
I wore them with pride knowing they were name brand,
knowing that they would help bring me to
the inner circle of the popular kids,
and my life would be so much better
because of that little white swoosh on the side.

By lunch my feet were screaming at me.
My blisters had blisters, and I could not wait for the day to end.
When I got home I took off the shoes my uncle had bought me –
those expensive, name-brand, long yearned for,
long desired shoes – and I put them in my closet,
and I never wore them again.
After all that longing, I found myself gladly going back
to my old worn-out off-brand shoes and realizing that,
at least when it comes to footwear,
there are more important things than the logo on the side.

It baffles the mind to think about how much value we attribute to the
images stamped on things.
The Nike swoosh, the Air Jordan silhouette,
the apple with a single bite taken out of it –
these images become symbols of success and
pride and rarely allow us the room to question why.

We find Jesus, in our scripture this morning,
dealing with an issue of such an image.
Once again the religious elite are trying to trap Jesus.
One group wants him to look like a Roman sympathizer
and the other wants him to look like a rabble rouser.

So they ask him: Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor?

I am sure that we are all very familiar with
what it means to pay taxes and all the different kinds of taxes
that we are obliged to pay.
We are subject to income tax,
sales tax, property tax, estate tax, and many more.

Taxes in Jesus’ day were pretty much the same.
There were taxes that people paid to the temple in Jerusalem in
order to be allowed to worship;
there were taxes paid to the Roman Empire
that were used to pay the soldiers and
governors to keep peace across the land.

There was one tax in particular that the Hebrews
would have had a big problem with,
and that would be the tax that all those within the Roman Empire
were required to pay to the gods of the Roman Empire.
In particular, the Jewish faithful struggled with the tax to the emperor,
who was considered to be the manifestation of god on earth.
It was possibly this tax that the questioners of Jesus had in mind. There was even a specific coin with which this tax must be paid,
and it was a coin with the image of the emperor stamped upon it.

If Jesus approved of paying the tax to the emperor then the Pharisees,
the strictest keepers of the law, would be able to speak against him. Since the coin required for payment
held the graven image of the emperor,
he would be in violation of the second commandment.
In addition, because the tax honored the emperor as a god,
it would put Jesus in violation of the first commandment, too.

Likewise, if Jesus were to answer “No” – don’t pay the tax –
then he would be seen by the governing authorities as
another subversive who needed to be dealt with
before he could disrupt the peace.

They thought they had him trapped.
But Jesus, in his fashion, confounds them by examining the coin
and asking about the name and image inscribed on it.
Whose name is here? he asks. Whose face is this?
When they answer, the only answer available –
“Caesar’s,” he simply responds:
then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Having Caesar’s name and image on the coin,
in the view of Jesus, demonstrated Caesar’s claim on the coin.
If that coin is what Caesar values, then give it to him. (delitcates)

When we put our name on something we are saying that it
has value to us. We are claiming ownership of that thing.

Think about the things that we put our names on.
It starts early – when our moms and dads would write our names on
lunch bags and inside every piece of clothing we took
to summer camp – that simple act that says:
this belongs to me, and if it’s lost, I hope you’ll help me get it back.

As we grow, that act of labelling and naming goes even deeper.
In our relationships, for example:
Do you remember letting your girlfriend wear your football jersey
or receiving an I.D. bracelet from “Things Remembered”
with your girlfriends name on it?
Or on a much bigger scale – it’s a big act of love and oneness
when two people choose not only to take their vows
but to share a common name.

We monogram our towels and
personalize our phone cases and
do whatever we can to distinguish the things
that we put value on from everyone else’s things.

Even more valuable than the things we put our name on
are the things that famous people put their names on.

As soon as something is endorsed by someone famous,
it automatically goes up in price –
just like the Nike Air Jordan’s.
Nike Air tennis shoes were $60,
Nike Air Jordan’s $120, and the only difference
was that little silhouette of Michael Jordan. It is incredible.

And we buy into it for the most part.
We tend to choose the name brand over
the generic when the only difference is the packaging.

We think: if Michael Jordan or Bobby Flay or the NFL has put their
name and logo on this thing, it must be good. (Gordon Ramsey Toaster)
As much as we would like to think that we are smarter than that,
more often than not, we find our selves choosing
the branded image.

What we put our names on –
and what names and images we carry with us – matter.
That’s why this question, this trap for Jesus,
is such a powerful one:
because of course God does care about the names and
images we carry with us through our lives.
The fatal flaw in the plan of the religious elite to discredit and
debunk Jesus, however, is thinking that God cares about
their shiny bits of stamped metal.

Now I will tell you that there is a message in this passage
to us about our responsibility to pay our taxes.
It’s a part of how we participate in the calling –
as imperfect as the system may be –
it’s about our calling to respect authority and more importantly to
care for one another.
Romans chapter 13 bears this out.
We are supposed to respect the laws of the land in which we live
until they cross the line of making us disobey God.
But I think there is a greater message here that we might miss.

After Jesus tells the crowds to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,
he then goes on to say that we should render to God what is God’s.

And while some may view that statement as cryptic,
I assure you it is anything but.

For the listeners of Jesus in that context,
this entire conversation is overflowing with meaning.

Jesus tells them to give the denarius to Caesar
because it bears his image.

If Caesar’s image on the coin gives him ownership of that coin,
then we have to see that –
in order to give God that which belongs to God –
we must give God that which bears God’s image.

What is it that bears God’s image?
In all of creation, what has been made specifically in God’s image?
That’s right. You and me.
All of humanity has been stamped with the image of God,
the Imago Dei. And if we are to give to God what is God’s,
then we are to give God nothing less than all of ourselves.

We are the image bearers of God in this world.
Our whole self bears God’s image, and so our whole self –
our whole life – belongs to God.

In our modern culture we like to play games.
We like to compartmentalize our lives.
We have our work lives and our home lives
and our spiritual lives.
Each has a different hat that we wear,
and we act differently depending on which hat we are wearing
and we do our best to not let any of the distinct areas of our lives
cross over and contaminate each other.

But friends I am here to tell you that this just isn’t the way it is
supposed to be.

We can separate our work and home lives.
In a lot of ways that is smart and healthy.
Bringing your work home with you can cause all sorts of problems.
But we are created in the image of God,
created to be image bearers of the divine,
and that is not something that we should be trying to
isolate or suppress.
That is not something that just comes out on Sunday morning.
Every molecule of our existence is stamped with God’s image,
and therefore every instant of our lives, at home, at work,
in our recreation time, and even on vacation,
we are bearing the image of God to the world.
Everything we have, everything we are, is God’s.

A big part of the reason why,
if you look at your life and are not as
satisfied with it as you thought you would or should be,
may be because you are denying who you are in some part of it.

Maybe at work you choose to never let your faith be seen,
or at home you choose to never enrich your faith
beyond Sunday morning.
You neglect to have conversations of a spiritual nature with
those you love and care for because you think those
things are supposed to be private.

Well, stop it! Stop denying that you are an image bearer of God.
Stop denying that God is present and interested in
every aspect of your life.
Stop withholding your spiritual journey from those around you.
Just stop.

Now I am not saying you should become the person at work
who is trying to evangelize everyone.
Or that every single conversation you have has to be about God. I am saying it is time to stop pretending that
God is only interested in you on Sunday morning.
Start sharing your fears and dreams with your family and friends.
Start letting those in your life see that you have struggles and
that your faith helps you.
And, by all means, start letting your faith help you with
your struggles.

One of the biggest mistakes we make is forgetting whose
image we carry, the true brand that is stamped on us.
Our value comes from that image,
from the name that we carry on our selves.

The greatest example of an image bearer of God
doing what an image bearer of God should do is Jesus.
Somehow, between the creation and the coming of Christ,
something happened to the image of God in us.
Through the ravages of sin and time and disobedience,
the image of God in humanity was marred – though still there,
it was tarnished, it was forgotten under the
layers of filth that humanity was coated in.

The life and teachings and miracles of Jesus
were intended to remind humanity of whose
image they were created in, to remind us of the
potential we have as image bearers of God.

The death of Jesus blasted away all of the gunk that
was clinging to and distorting the image of God in us.
And, by our seeking to be like Christ, in our sanctification,
we begin to polish and restore the luster of the image of God
that is unique in all of us.
We begin to realize and access the potential with
which we were all created.
But that cannot happen in a vacuum.
Iron sharpens iron my friends.
We can only realize our potential as individuals
when we are working together in community.
When we struggle and wrestle with our faith and
our understanding of God together.

We are the image bearers of God.
God loves us, and values us deeply enough, to put his image –
his name – on our lives.
We are called to give to God what is God’s…
that means we are called to give God all that we are.

God is at work in the world and at work in you and
it is up to you to make sure that you do not miss what God is doing.

The community of faith is where that happens,
where callings are considered and affirmed,
where compassion is tested, where grief is not borne alone,
where love is practiced and perfected before
it is let loose in the world.
When we come together to remind one another whose image and
whose name is on our lives – when we come to remind one another
who and whose we are – then together, we learn to live and love
and walk as Christ walked, as image bearers of God. Amen? Amen.

“Asking The Right Questions” Matthew 21:23-32 (September 28, 2014)

image

To my memory, every question I had for my parents
from the time I was 12 until I went away to college
ended with one of them summarily ending the exchange
with the nuclear bomb of all parental responses to such questions.

It would always go a little something like this:
My initial question: “Dad, can I go to the movies with
my friends this weekend?”
Response from Dad: “No.”
Follow up question from me: “Why?”
Dad’s nuclear bomb response: “Because I said so, that’s why!”

I could never understand the reason for such a short answer.
I couldn’t wrap my head around why it was that they
never gave me reasons for some of their decisions.

It should have been easy enough to say:
“No, because your grades have been slipping” or
“No, we can’t afford that this week.”
I would have been able to stomach those responses
a lot easier than the “because I said so” response.
I just never understood it.

Until Michaela started asking questions, that is.
A four year old wants to know the whys and hows
of everything in the universe.
And all those questions can wear you out…
especially when every answer is met with another question.
Sooner or later, most of us parents reach the end of our rope –
either the end of our patience,
or the end of our knowledge,
or the end of our explanations… and so we say:
“Because I said so.” It’s an answer that works – sometimes –
for parents… but it’s not a very compelling answer
when it comes from a pastor, from a priest, or from a church.

For a good chunk of the church’s history,
unwanted questions and questioners were just done away with.
The authority of the church and its teachings were absolute;
there were so many questions that “good Christians” just didn’t ask.
You were allowed to ask the right questions –
which means, the questions to which you had already
been given the answers.
But follow-ups were right-out.
In fact, prior to the Reformation, people posing questions
that went against church teaching were often excommunicated.
They were forced to leave the Church,
they were not allowed to participate in the life of the church
or even to be buried in holy ground.

One of the strengths of the Protestant Reformation
is that it pushed those limits… the first Protestant, Martin Luther,
didn’t ask questions to cause trouble;
he asked questions that were born out of his
sincere struggles with his faith.
When the Church of that day told him to stop –
he left, and a whole new kind of church was born:
a church where people were encouraged to read the scriptures
and wrestle with the hard questions for themselves.

Of course the Protestant Reformation didn’t entirely solve the problem. Many people wrestling with many questions
meant many different viewpoints and answers might emerge –
and they don’t always agree.
When disagreements arose in congregations
over questions of doctrine one congregation
or denomination became two or sometimes three separate ones.

Now-a-days we have a mix of both models of dealing with questions.
If it is a large group within a church that is questioning something
that the church believes or doesn’t believe,
splits can occur within that group.

If it is simply an individual or two raising the questions,
many churches will, delicately, kindly,
or rather rudely and directly ask the question bearers to leave.
It takes a very courageous congregation –
and a very courageous leader –
to allow the space for everyone,
even those with difficult questions and different answers
to work and worship together.
It’s hard. It’s threatening. And it’s downright uncomfortable.

When it comes to faith, the general assumption
is that if you have a question that doesn’t fit in to the narrow,
shallow, box of answers that we possess,
then you are just trying to cause trouble.
If you don’t accept the answers that are given,
then you must not have enough faith…
and if you don’t have enough of the right kind of faith,
well, then you just aren’t welcome here.

People often use passages like this -our scripture for today-
to say that it is not a good idea to ask God any questions.
Even my “go-to” set of commentaries on this passage
uses this opportunity to say that we really don’t want to start
asking God questions.
The chief priests and elders asked questions,
and look where it got them,
entering the kingdom behind the tax collectors and sinners.

Personally, however, I could not disagree more with the notion
that our questions about life, the universe,
and everything are to be avoided.
There are no wrong questions when it comes
to our questions of faith and of God.
There are, however, wrong attitudes and motivations.

The questions raised by the chief priests and elders in our passage
don’t have anything to do with the wrestling of their souls
or the struggles of their faith.
Instead, they are trying to trap Jesus,
to find a way to shut him up and shut him down
and in doing so protect their own power.
They wanted to find out if Jesus was going to be the type of guy
that towed the company line and fit in with them
or if he was going to make trouble and bring their
own power and authority into question.

They had to have had an idea of who Jesus might be.
A large part of the belief structure of the Israelites
was waiting for the coming Messiah.
They had theories and time tables and
all sorts of ideas around when and how
and who the Messiah would be.
They were the first century equivalent of the folks
who always predict when Jesus is coming back
or when the “rapture” will happen.
As teachers of Israel you would think they could come up
with a better question for a potential Messiah than
“Where does your authority come from?”
All this question did was reveal their true motive, holding on to power.

As we study the gospels we find that
Jesus doesn’t always react in this way to questions.
Jesus answers a lot of questions – sometimes with parables,
of course, but still he answers them.

He doesn’t rebuke the questioners,
but invites them to think and consider even
more deeply the question at stake.
The only time he gets upset is when he can see
the ulterior motives at work.

Earlier this week I put out a question on Facebook
in order to see what kind of questions
were on peoples hearts to ask Jesus if we had the chance. Amazingly, not one single question was about
where Jesus gets his authority from.

There were many who want to know why people suffer,
or why babies get cancer, or what happens after we die?
There were questions about how we might feel truly
set free and forgiven from our past,
or how we might better follow God in the days ahead.
The questions we have are questions that relate to our lives and
to how we move and live and breathe in the world.
They are not about us trying to maintain our power.
They are about us figuring out how to live in the world
with our beliefs and how those beliefs
shape the way we live with each other.

For God, questions are never the problem;
the problem is the motivation and attitude behind them.

Questions about God and about faith and
how everything holds together are not signs of a lack of faith but
signs of a faith taken seriously.
If we really love God, if we really want to follow God more closely,
to better understand how God is at work in the world
and in our lives – then we will struggle,
and we will wrestle along the way;
just as in any other area of our lives,
in faith, questioning is a part of how we grow.

If you are looking for a loop-hole to justify sin,
or to prove that God is a just a giant cosmic jerk so
that you can do what you want,
or for an answer that somehow exempts you from
the journey and struggle of faith,
you are asking questions with the wrong attitudes and motivations
and you need to stop, consider that attitude and change it.

However, if your questions are real, and honest,
and seeking to deepen your relationship between
yourself and God or yourself and others
then you can ask all the questions you want and search for those answers freely.

This, my friends, is how our faith grows by asking the hard questions
and seeking the answers. Don’t hear me incorrectly.
Just because you are seeking the answers doesn’t mean
you will always find the answers.
But by seeking to answer them we might get to
understand the question better,
or to know ourselves more,
or to catch a clearer glimpse of who God is.

Finding the answer to life, the universe, and everything
is probably not going to happen in this life.
We will not find all the answers.
The point is not finding the answer
but continuing in a dialogue for our journey of faith.

Our questions and our searching create
a conversation that needs to be maintained.
When I was in Bible College I had a friend named Dave.
Dave was my roommate and, I thought, my BFF.
But after those two years together
we went in different directions.
We sent letters and emails for a while
but somewhere along he way we just stopped connecting.
We became too busy,
too caught up in whatever we were doing to
do the work to maintain that friendship and that relationship died. I couldn’t even tell you what country Dave is living in now or
if he has a family. I don’t even know where to start
asking those questions because we are
no longer in relationship and apparently he doesn’t Facebook.

Maintaining that conversation with God and with others,
communicating the good and the bad and the ugly is
how we all grow in our relationship with God and with each other. Without it, without the work to maintain the relationship,
asking the hard questions and seeking the answers
the relationship dies.

When we take the time to question our faith, to study it,
to search out the answers, that’s when we start to find out
what our faith is really made of,
what kind of pressure it will hold up under.
If it’s just a superficial and shallow thing that
we do on Sunday morning,
we will find out in time of crisis
that our faith is not going to sustain us.
If your faith can’t handle questions,
your faith is not big enough.
If your God can’t handle your questions,
then you need a bigger God.

You need to be willing to ask the questions,
to dig the deep roots, to water and test your faith before
the storm comes – so you can weather that storm
when it shows up; because it always does.
When we’ve tested our faith, put it through its paces,
formed deeper bonds with God,
then when tragedy strikes we have a faith that can sustain us. Even if we find an aspect of our faith lacking in that crucial moment,
we will have equipped ourselves with the tools to repair it,
to seek out where we were wrong and
figure out how to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

So this morning I want to challenge you to start asking
the hard questions, but I want to encourage you to not do it alone.

In a couple of weeks we will be starting our small group study.
That would be a great place to start, to begin to wrestle with
the deeper questions of faith.

If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea
we will be starting membership classes as well.
Even if you have been a member of this church since
before the foundation was laid I promise you there
will be great conversation and opportunity to deepen your faith.

And if the group stuff is too much for you to handle right now then
please pick up your bible and read it some more.
Find the questions that your heart is asking.
Then give me a call; we can get a cup of coffee,
and at least try to understand the question a little better.

To have faith friends, is to have questions,
but not just questions, rather questions whose answers may
be outside of our reach but still we believe.
This is faith: believing even in the not knowing;
being honest about the questions at the heart of our lives;
and the way we grow our faith is by living into those questions,
and trusting that, even in the unknowing,
even in the wrestling, we are not alone,
but God is with us. 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.

“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.

 

“It’s Not Despair; It’s Deliverance!” Psalm 91 (August 17, 2014)

Suffering. Decay. Entropy. It is a universal constant.image Like death and taxes suffering is an inescapable part of our human experience. At some point we all experience it. A child who falls out of a tree and breaks her arm suffers. A parent who loses a child suffers. When marriages end there is suffering. When a teenage romances fall apart there is suffering.

People suffer from the ravages of time. People suffer from improper ratios of chemicals in the brain. People suffer in war. People suffer loudly and people suffer silently. When I received this scripture from Betty I wanted to run in the opposite direction. I wanted to ask her to pick something else, anything else because this scripture seemed too difficult for me to preach on. And I know what you may be thinking. Why? What’s hard about this scripture? Its all about how God will protect us and keep us safe and sound. Well, that’s exactly why it is so hard. Because we see good, God fearing people, suffering every day. Because good people who love God suffer calamity and catastrophe. Because innocent babies get cancer. Because my baby got cancer. Because when we turn on the news it is obvious that suffering and evil run rampant in the world and it seems at times that God has forgotten all about the promises of Psalm 91. I wanted to run so far away from this passage. But then I had a thought, suffering IS universal, since we all experience it every day, even if a lot of it is only through High Definition screens, perhaps I am not the only one who finds this scripture difficult. I do my best not to over burden my sermons with big flashy theological words but on this occasion, for this scripture it is warranted. Plus expensive theological terms are fun to impress your friends with at parties. The theological word we are talking about today is: Theodicy. Go ahead, say it with me: Theodicy. Very good! Essentially theodicy is a theological math problem. We run into when it comes to the existence of suffering and evil in the world. We believe that God is good. We say it every Sunday. God is good (all the time) and all the time (God is good). Another belief that most hold is that God is all powerful. God created the heavens and the earth. God is God because God is the most powerful being in existence. So theodicy begs the theological math question: If God is all powerful, and God is always good, then how come suffering and evil exist? And now that I have planted that in your head I have to apologize because this math problem does not have any good solution that I can give you today. If I could give you one I would. But this is a question that has been debated by theologians smarter than me for centuries. Most have theories, but none that really answer the question of why suffering and evil exist. In the light of this problem Psalm 91 can come across as false. God’s protection against enemies, and physical pain, and even internal pains like terror can’t possibly be true because we all experience those things. If we are to take Psalm 91 at face value then there are only two conclusions. Number one: none of us are successfully living, dwelling, or abiding in God’s shadow, or God’s fortress. We are not staying put under God’s protective wings as we should. In short, perhaps, we don’t believe hard enough. We suffer because we don’t posses enough faith. The second possibility would be that the promise of God’s protection for those who, live, dwell, or abide in him is simply not true. We suffer because, in fact, God is not good God doesn’t, or can’t, or won’t take care of us, no matter what Psalm 91 says. I don’t know about you, but I find both of those answers difficult to swallow. Since we believe that God is good, and therefore not lying in Psalm 91, then perhaps we have to dig a bit deeper into what this Psalm is actually talking about. Before we dig too far it is important to realize that the Psalms are essentially the United Methodist Hymnal of the ancient Hebrews. The Psalms are not a covenantal or theological text. They are more like a book of songs or poetry and therefore not meant to be entirely literal. So, just as we should be careful before building our worldview on the notion that, so long as we keep rowing our boats, “life is but a dream” or before we start to literally believe that “hope is a thing with feathers” or before we find ourselves disappointed because, although we wished on every star we could find, anything your heart desired didn’t come to you, and your dreams didn’t come true. We recognize that poetry sometimes uses images and language to talk around an idea, to make a point, rather than making literal promises or statements about how the world works. A lot of scripture is like that too, especially the psalms. These are poems, songs of faith, intended to convey the same kind of hopefulness that comes with singing, say, “When you wish upon a star” or “Somewhere over the rainbow” a longing and a belief that things can work out, that life can be better than it is, that all isn’t lost, but there is always hope, no matter what our critics may say. But taking those words literally can get you in trouble… if you spend your whole life trying to fly “over the rainbow,” you just might miss out on all the beauty and love and joy in the world where you actually live. It’s the same with the Psalms. In fact, When we read the story of the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness we see Satan try to trip up Jesus with a verse from this very Psalm. “Throw yourself from the top of the tower Jesus, God has given his angels so that you won’t even stub your toe.” The tempter said, “Take it literally. Jump off the tower.” But Jesus knew better and so do we. Jesus knew that putting God to the test was a fools errand. Not only that but Jesus knew that suffering was part of life. And we certainly can’t accuse Jesus of not having enough faith! No matter how much faith I have in God I am not going to stick an apple on my head and let someone shoot an arrow at me. I am even less likely to try walking over lions or sticking my legs anywhere near snakes. It just isn’t going to happen. So as we start to look at Psalm 91 as poetry then we need to begin to look for what theme or overarching point the poet is trying to make. In this case I see the theme of the poem as being able to find a refuge in God no matter what circumstances we may be encountering. When we abide in God’s shadow our souls will find refuge from the storm. I remember towards the end of Carl’s life I was finding it extremely difficult to pray. I was angry because, on some level, passages like Psalm 91 were how I believed God worked. It wasn’t fair. I’m a pastor, my wife is a pastor, we are most definitely on God’s team. This shouldn’t be happening to us, or anybody. But it was. And it didn’t matter how many thousands of people were praying for a miracle. It didn’t matter how much any of us believed that God could heal Carl. Carl was dying. My son was slipping away and there was nothing I could do about it. All I knew was that my compulsion was to pray, but at that moment I didn’t know how. I had no words other than to beg for my sons life. To make desperate bargains with God that I knew were going to be fruitless. In desperation I reached out to a seminary professor of mine asking if there were any books that could help make sense of this all for me. That could help me learn to pray in the midst of all the suffering. We spent a couple of hours on the phone all the while I cried and cursed my inability to fix the situation. I poured out my heart and my pain to my professor and when it was over he told me “Now, go find a quiet place and tell God what you just told me.” And I did. And I still do. Because in that moment I was reminded of the truth of prayer, of why we pray. It is not to curry God’s favor. It is not so that God can grant my wish like some kind of divine genie. We pray because prayer is a real, tangible, expression of our connection to God. In prayer we connect with the divine. The finite touches the infinite and in that ability to touch and connect with God we are blessed. The connection is the blessing. The connection is the miracle, because in it we realize what the poet who penned Psalm 91 was trying to get across to us: that regardless of how the world may be collapsing around us, God is with us. All we have to do is speak and we are connected to God. And if we cannot speak all we must do is think, focus our thoughts on God and we are connected. When we pray we are embracing the reality that we are not alone in our suffering or in our joy. We are recognizing that when we hurt God hurts with us. When we cry, God cries with us. When we suffer, God suffers too. We are still going to hurt, and suffer, and grieve, but we never have to go through any of it alone. That night, in Carl’s hospital room, as he slept one of his last peaceful nights of sleep I prayed. And I didn’t pray for God to save my son, or to lessen our suffering. I poured out my pain and my fear. I poured out my anger and despair. And I found deliverance. I found relief in finally understanding that I was not alone, that God was with me in my suffering and God could handle any pain or blame I had to throw. One of the terrible things pain does is isolate us. We struggle to see beyond our hurt; we have a hard time imagining things can get better… and when we look around us, it’s very easy to feel like we are very much alone. No one else can feel what we’re feeling. No one else can walk the road for us. No matter how loved we know we are, suffering still makes us feel like we are very much alone. This is where we need to lean on the refuge spoken of in Psalm 91. This is where we find the protection of God. We can rest in our faith, in our prayer and connection to the divine knowing that God has suffered in all ways that we can suffer, and more than that God is with us in our suffering. We are not alone. Even when we suffer, we are not alone; God has not abandoned us, but God is still with us and will keep us in his loving-care, no matter what we may face. And, for whatever reason, when we realize that we are not alone in our suffering, that suffering diminishes, even if only for a short while, we find relief. We find deliverance. We find hope. Suffering and evil are part of life. And I cannot give you a good answer as to why the good and powerful God we serve does not wipe suffering and evil off the face of the planet. I have my theories, we can talk about them some other time, but they bring little comfort. What I can tell you is what the poet of Psalm 91 is telling us: God is with us. When our world is crumbling around us. God is with us. In our most intense moments of joy. God is with us. In our most tremendous suffering. God is with us. We are not alone. God is with us! Amen? Amen.

“Blinded By The Light” Matthew 7:1-5 (August

There was a young couple who moved into a new neighborhood. image
Each morning they would eat breakfast together
and look out the kitchen window.
And each morning, while they ate their breakfast,
their neighbor set about hanging her wash on a clothesline to dry.

The young wife commented to her husband one morning
saying “That laundry isn’t very clean.
Either she doesn’t know how to wash it correctly
or she needs to change brands of soap.”
Her husband looked on but didn’t say anything.

This same scenario played itself out a few more times
with the young wife making the same comments
about her neighbors not so clean laundry.
Until one morning when it all changed.

The young wife came to breakfast and remarked
“Look at that! Her laundry is so clean.
I wonder who taught her how to do that?”

“No one” replied her husband.
“I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”

Passing judgment is a dangerous thing, isn’t it?
The words we hear from Jesus this morning are familiar ones.
Even people who do not associate with any form
of Christianity know this passage,
or at least the part that is fun to quote “Judge not lest ye be judged” they even like to throw in the “ye”s of the Old King James for effect. Most of the time thought this quote from Jesus is taken completely out of context, even in Christian circles.

Addicts, when confronted by friends about their additions
will often spout the “Judge not” of this passage to try to get their
friends to back off.

Or if someone within the church is living in open and flagrant sin
and they are confronted by a pastor or church leader
will often pull out the good old “judge not”.

The truth is, We all judge things every day.
We make judgments about whether we like certain restaurants
or certain foods at those restaurants.
We make judgments about
who it is we are going to spend our time with
and what we are going to spend our time doing.
We make judgments about where to go to school,
or church, or to the doctor.
It is simply not possible to go through life
without judging things in one form or another.

Jesus is not trying to tell us
to give up on making the judgments that are necessary in life. Rather Jesus is giving us the tools to exercise good judgment.

The judgment that Jesus wants us to avoid
in this passage is the condemnation kind of judgment.
The kind of judgment where we decide
that because a person doesn’t look like, talk like,
dress like, act like, or believe like us that they are no good,
condemned, cast out into the outer darkness,
or at least further away from our awesome light.
The kind of judgment that says: I am better than you;
or even – thank god, I’m better than you.

This judgment of condemnation hurts
not only the person being judged
but the person or church doing the judging.

Let me give you an example.

A long, long time ago on a peninsula far, far away
I was young and stupid and freshly graduated from my ultra
conservative bible college.
I returned to my home town and began working in churches
with youth and young adults.
At one of our gatherings another young pastor
from another church in the area showed up.
I determined quickly that this pastors theology
was nothing like my own,
and according to what I had been taught
in my ultra conservative school, it was heretical. It was WRONG.

I immediately started pulling away
from any ministry event or opportunity that would
expose my youth or young adults to this pastor and his horrible,
heretical theology.
I did not want them influenced or seduced by the dark side.

After a couple of years of growth on my part
and realizing that the world does not function well
when we are all polarized by our
differences I ran into this pastor at a coffee shop.
I still didn’t want to associate with him
but I felt I owed him an apology
for being so judgmental towards him.
Several cups of coffee and miles of conversation later
we became friends.
We did ministry together. He wasn’t a heretic.
He loved Jesus just like I love Jesus.
Some of our peripheral beliefs were different sure,
but that didn’t mean we couldn’t worship together
or be in community with one another.

My condemnation of his theology

nearly lost me one of my best friends from that period of my life.

A friend who could challenge me
and help make me a better follower of Christ.

Jesus doesn’t want us to judge like that.
It is far too easy to surround ourselves only
with people who think and live and look and act just like us
but when do that, when we sit smugly
in our comfortable little bubbles,
convinced that we already know all we need to know,
certain we have it all right
– and happily condemning all those folks getting it wrong –
well, it is very hard for our faith to grow.

And that isn’t the kind of life Jesus calls us to,
nor is it the kind of life Jesus modeled himself.
Instead, when we see something that doesn’t seem right,
or seems like sin,
or simply something we don’t completely understand
– before we spout condemnation –
Jesus wants us to first judge ourselves,
do some self examination.
We are to discover our motives and our reasons
for thinking the way we are thinking
about that person or situation.

Judge not, lest ye be judged
– it is a reminder that ultimate judgment belongs to God,
a reminder that – as like as not –
we ourselves might be the ones getting it wrong.
That’s why Jesus says,
before you try to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye,
better take care of the log in yours.
He doesn’t say, if you see a neighbor sinning, run the other way.
He doesn’t say, if you see a brother or sister
going the wrong way, hit them upside the head with a bible,
make a lesson out of them,
make sure they know they’re going to hell.
He doesn’t say, wash your hands and steer clear.
He says – well, he implies – that part of how we love our neighbors
is by helping them put right what is wrong in their lives
by helping them take care of their “speck,”
whatever it may be.
But we have to do so humbly,
realizing we ourselves are just as dependent
on God’s grace as they are
– we have to start from a place of honesty and humility…
before we go about fixing every body else,
we’d better take a good look at our lives first.

The reality is that none of us are as pure as we think we are.
None of us has their entire act together.
None of us are in a position to judge someone else.
That is why we must always be looking
for the log in our own eye especially before we
try to dive in and clear the speck out of our neighbors eye.

Consider, just for a moment, our polarized political system.
Each side so entrenched in their rhetoric
that neither even stops to question whether
what the other is saying has value or not.
If the opposition said it then we have to disagree with it.

Both sides try to play the Christian base like a fiddle.
Democrats shouting at Republicans
calling their views unchristian and
Republicans striking back with the same.
Neither of them stopping for a single moment
to truly consider their own positions in the light of Christ
nor giving any real thought to the other side through Christ’s eyes.

Such is the state of our political world in recent days
and it just seems to be getting worse.
Both parties with giant logs in their eyes yelling
about the others specks.

No one is right all the time;
no one is purely good or purely evil.
The truth is seldom black and white
our lives are lived in the gray area in between.

It is easier to judge others, to condemn them,
than it is to look to your self and take care of your own issues
because that means admitting that you have them.
Admitting to yourself and to others that you are not perfect.
That, like the rest of humanity, you have imperfections
that you would rather cover up and forget about than deal with. Or better yet throw someone else’s imperfections
into the spotlight to take away from your own.

The brilliance of Jesus, in this case,

is that when we actually do what he tells us to,
when we take stock of ourselves,
examine our imperfections,
deal with the logs in our eyes,
then, and only then, will we possess the humility and the grace
to truly be able to help our neighbor with their specks.
We will understand the pain and frustration associated with
removing these things from our lives
and be abler and better guides for them.

It is not for us to condemn others.
It is for us to examine our own hearts.
To work, and toil to rid our lives of the debris
that clouds our view of Christ.
In doing that we will free ourselves.
Free ourselves from distorted vision.
Free ourselves from misjudging others.
Free ourselves to see the pain and suffering
of our neighbors and actually do something to help.
Amen? Amen.

“Trust Fall” Psalm 62:5-12 (August 3, 2014)

Once upon a time, in jolly old EnglandUnknown
there was a gameshow called, I’m not even joking, Golden Balls. There were several rounds between multiple players.
Each round added money to the pot and eliminated
opponents until it got down to the final two going
for all the prize money.

The very last round is called “split or steal”.
It’s based on an old psychological experiment,
designed to see whether people would trust each other
to work for the common good,
or whether people would look out first and only for themselves – if, instead of sharing, they would adopt an
“If I can’t have it, no one can” attitude
even knowing their greed might mean no one
gets anything in the end.

In the game, the contestants each have two
golden balls in front of them.
One has the word “split” written in it and the other “steal”.
Each contestant will choose to split or steal the prize.
Once they choose the ball
the contestants reveal to everyone their choice simultaneously.
If both choose to split, then the prize money is split between them.
If one chooses split and the other steal,
then the one who chose steal gets the entire prize.
If both contestants chose steal – if both tried to take everything –
then no one wins anything.

The tricky part is before they choose
they are given the chance to talk to each other openly.
Remember these are complete strangers.
Each contestant tries to convince the other to choose split
because – they promise – that is what they are going to do.
This happens in every episode.
Both parties emphatically beg each other to choose split
so that they both win. On occasion it happens.
Both are trustworthy and honest and walk away
with half the prize money.
But it wouldn’t be an entertaining show
if that was how it always happened.
Let me show you a clip from one episode where
100,000 pounds or about 170,000 dollars was on the line.

The second clip I want to show from the game has
received some internet buzz.
There is about $22,000.00 on the line and
one of the contestants employs a strategy
that has never been done on this show before.
You can tell by the reaction of his opponent
just how odd this strategy is.

When we chose to trust someone we are always taking a risk.
We can laugh and cheer at games like Golden Balls
because all that is really on the line is prize money.
At worst you walk out with what you had walking in
and perhaps a little embarrassment.
But what if there was more at stake?
When we see someone taking advantage of trust,
it can cause us to harden ourselves against trusting others. Strangers, friends, church members… it doesn’t matter;
every time we experience a break in trust,
it gets a little bit harder to trust again.

How many times are we out driving to go to the store
or to work and we see a stranger on the side of the road
with a cardboard sign asking for money?
How many times do we feel compelled to stop and
give them something?
I can tell you, for me, it’s very tough to convince myself
that that person is being truthful about their situation.
The trouble is most of the time we fail to realize
that we are basing our judgments on our own past experience
not this individuals current situation.

Trust is tricky when it comes to strangers.
We do well to be careful… but we also do well to, when in doubt,
err on the side of generosity and good faith… because:
Times are tough and people are in need.
Jesus wasn’t joking when he said
“The poor you will have with you always.”
We cannot ignore the possibility that the person seeking
our help is truly in need.
I don’t know about you but I can live with being fooled;
I couldn’t stand being cruel.

Sometimes it is even difficult to trust the people that we know –
sometimes it’s actually even more difficult, isn’t it?
We develop specific comfort levels with the type of personal
knowledge that we are willing to share with one another.
I will share only this much about my life and no more
because it is too painful,
or too embarrassing,
or people would think less of me if they knew this.
To a very select few your life may indeed be an open book,
while to others there are entire sections of your life
that you deem off limits,
because you don’t feel you can trust them with
that kind of personal knowledge.

The church is a good example of this as well.
We are good about sharing surface things or good things,
but when it comes to admitting that there
are messy areas of our lives that we need prayer for
or accountability for, we shut people out.
We all want to pray for and support each other
but we are certainly wary about airing our own
dirty laundry or accepting help even when
it’s help we genuinely need.
We don’t want people to look too closely
and realize that our lives are just as messy as the next person.

We come into church thinking that we need to look
like we have it all together or people might think
we aren’t good enough to be here.
We fail to trust each other with our burdens,
because we think those burdens are unique and ours to bear alone.

This kind of thinking, however,
does not even come into play when we are talking
about trusting God which is what the psalmist
is writing about in our scripture today.

When we speak of trust – in people or in God –
we are really talking about faith.
Not faith as in a list of specific beliefs
to which we give some form of intellectual assent,
but rather faith as that in which we place our fullest confidence.

When we place our confidence or trust in people,
or money, or stature, or power, we are eventually, assuredly,
going to be disappointed.

When we place our confidence in God, however,
we are never disappointed.
In fact we find that God is with us in the good times and bad.
God walks with us through the valley of the shadow,
and draws us toward realizing our full potential in Christ.

Our confidence, our faith in God means
we can trust that in our darkest hours
or in our moments of profoundest joy, we are never alone.
We are forever connected to the only one worthy
of our absolute trust and confidence,
the only one who will never let us go or let us down.

We do not have to strategize and plan
to find a way to get God to be on our side.
We do not have to play split or steal with God,
to hide our true motive, to hold ourselves back,
or to try to “get” God before God “gets” us.
Because we know that God has proven who God is
and what God is willing to sacrifice to be with us.
God chooses us. God places confidence in us.
Even though God knows that we are going
to choose to “steal” on occasion, God chooses us,
and God forgives us, and God loves us all the same.

We all have plenty of reasons to mistrust strangers.
We have all been betrayed by friends.
Even the church, for all its good intentions,
has let us down at times and sometimes in really big ways. But we must remember that none of those are God.
None of those are the Creator who chose
to come down and dwell with us and die for us;
proving God’s love for us.

Our trust in God is never misplaced.
No matter how vulnerable we may feel,
no matter what we are facing,
no matter how much pressure we feel to keep
putting on a happy face – we can be real with God.
God is big enough for our questions;
God is big enough to handle our failures and our doubts;
God is big enough to take even our anger, our grief,
and our heartache – to let us be ourselves,
our real selves, exactly who we are,
with all our fears and all our scars,
with all our hopes and wildest dreams
God loves us, just as we are, so whoever, wherever we are,
we can trust ourselves fully to God.

Trust is still a struggle,
especially when we have been hurt before.
Forgiveness is never easy, but you find,
when you do forgive, it’s not about excusing the other person
it’s about setting yourself free,
giving yourself permission to let go of the hurt they caused. And on behalf of the churches who’ve hurt you,
on behalf of the pastors and church people
and neighbors and friends
who’ve meant the very best and yet
betrayed your trust in painful ways, let me say:
I’m sorry. We’re sorry. We are only human, too, and sometimes –
sometimes we get it wrong.
But please, don’t let our failures in God’s name
keep you from trusting the God who loves you,
always, who forgives us and welcomes us
and loves each one of us – failures and hurts and all.
And so this week, may you find your heart softening
to the plight of strangers as you begin to forgive
the broken trusts of your past,

may you find your openness to friends increasing
as you trust in God as the champion and protector of your heart,

and may you find your faith in God growing
as you step out in faith as children of God,
confident in God’s love. Amen? Amen.