Great Expectations – A sermon for the start of #gc2019

2/24/18

Exodus 16:1-5
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’

What do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? That might just be the single most important question that we should explore at every age and stage of life. When expectations aren’t met, we rarely have better answers to give others than dramatically oversimplified sayings. It starts with small things. I remember back in 2010 being so glad to be an adult. I was out of seminary and in a career where I could support myself for the first time in life. It was going to be this pristine time where I had life under control and no longer had to save allowance for months to get what I wanted – and then the house and car broke down in the same month. And my dad was ready with his quite helpful answer – Welcome to adulthood!

He meant it as a joke… mostly… and Sallie and I recovered fine. But too often that simplistic kind of throw your hands in the air answer seems to be about the best we can offer, especially when life isn’t as easy or predictable or simple as we expected. Baby won’t stop crying? That’s parenthood! Boss being a jerk? At least you have a job!

And when we don’t simply shrug our shoulders and say too bad, it’s often because we want to give clear purpose and meaning to the struggles of life. I have to admit, there are few things I personally find less helpful when something bad happens, than for someone to say, “don’t worry, it’s all part of a bigger plan.” Whether or not it is part of plan, it still hurts. And that knowledge does nothing to help. More often than not, I’m better off recognizing how often things just sort of happen. And how present God is in the midst of it all. I know God is present every step of the way and that God’s heart breaks every time any one of ours does. Being held when things are not what I expected makes far more difference than being able to name some sort of master plan or purpose behind them.

The best answer we can offer when little things don’t turn out as we expected is usually the simple gift of presence. We can show up for our loved ones and be willing to sit with the pain or anger or grief or betrayal or whatever else they are feeling. No pithy words needed. No attempt to reveal some greater puzzle being laid out in time. No rush to fix the problem and move on to the next thing. Just the gift of presence and the willingness to hear whatever needs to be said. Patient presence is often the greatest gift we can offer when reality falls short of our expectations.

But still that question remains, what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? A pastor friend of ours told us a story that I will never forget. Unmet expectations nearly derailed his marriage. He had been married for a while at the time and things were going alright as far as he was aware. Then came a Saturday morning that started just like so many others, but eventually changed everything. He was playing video games on the living room TV. She was busy rushing around the house cleaning and getting other chores done.

At some point, the chores came to a halt and she’d had enough. She was angry and gave him a piece of her mind. She was busy doing all the important work around the house and he was lazily playing his pointless games and doing nothing to contribute. That’s the way their first real fight began. He had some choice words to say in response and everything just escalated from there. It turns out, in his family growing up, Saturdays were reserved for doing whatever you wanted. So if she was doing chores, that’s because she wanted to do so and it wasn’t his fault.

In her family growing up, Saturdays were always the day for cleaning and laundry and whatever else needed to get done. She figured he was just being a jerk by making her do everything. We all bring expectations from our childhood, many of which we don’t even realize are unique to the way we were raised. And if we never voice our expectations to the people we love, we’ll almost always wind up fighting over things they may not even know about. Even what it means to fight is dramatically shaped by our expectations.

For my friend telling the story, this first real fight brought him to life. His parents fought all the time growing up and this felt like the first time his marriage was actually real. She, however, was distraught by the whole thing. She was convinced that their marriage was pretty much over. They had both lost their cool. They had yelled and screamed. Her parents had never said a cross word to each other in front of the kids in her whole life. She expected that every married couple was happy enough not to fight and with one real fight all hope was lost.

Of course not all couple fight all the time; his parent’s fighting just gave them plenty of work to do to find forgiveness and healing. And there are no couples who never get upset with each other; her parents just had their fights in private. But we only know what we know and our expectations naturally flow from what we’ve experienced. Being aware of our expectations is one of the single most important skills for learning to cope when life doesn’t live up to them. If my friend and his wife hadn’t figured out their expectations and figured out how to make their own kind of life together, they wouldn’t still be married so many years later. When marriage didn’t live up to their expectations, they had to compromise on the things that don’t matter…  and build on the things that do.

They made the changes that make a marriage. But still that question remains, what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? Sometimes it’s not just a relatively small thing like a broken down car. Sometimes it’s about even more than a marriage. Sometimes everything about your day to day life can change completely. And the weird thing about being human is that change can feel very wrong, even when change is absolutely for the best.

God’s people named Israel were confronted with one of those jarring challenges to their way of life. For them, it was an incredibly positive change that had them questioning everything. Our reading for today finds God’s people on the journey toward Mount Sinai, halfway between slavery in Egypt and the giving of the law. The people complain that they are about to starve and God responds by raining down manna from heaven.

A little background to understand what’s going on – all the way back in chapter 12 of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God sets this whole story in motion. God called Abraham to go to the land that God promised to show him. So Abraham left his homeland and went. The rest of the old testament revolves around the promise of this land. Sometimes God’s people are faithfully living in the land. Other times, they are in exile, meaning for one reason or another they are kept far away, unable to know the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Exodus represents one stage of that journey. At the start, God’s people are enslaved in Egypt. By the end, the people are on the verge of entering the land once again. Through mighty signs and wonders, God frees the people from slavery in Egypt. Along the way, God hands down the law at Mount Sinai. The law may not sound all that exciting to our ears. Law sounds like restrictions that we’d rather avoid at all cost. For God’s people, the law was what gave shape and meaning to their lives. It was the reminder that God would never leave them. It was one of the single most important ways for God’s people to feel close to God.

We catch up with this story halfway between that moment of freedom from Egypt and the law being handed down at Sinai. God’s people are complaining in the desert, as they have done multiple times on the trip already. Halfway on the journey, as far from Egypt as they are from Sinai, this is where the people are confronted by the fact that freedom isn’t living up to their expectations. What to do? Keep moving toward the fulfillment of all that God has promised? Or go back to be slaves again in Egypt? The choice should seem obvious. Go forward! Seek the promise!

And yet, for the umpteenth time, we find God’s people complaining instead. Through signs and wonders they’d been brought out of Egypt and through the desert. They’d already been given water from a rock and sustained for weeks. But again they complain. “At least in Egypt we had food to eat. Why did you bring us out to die in the desert?” God’s response is both more beautiful … and more disappointing than you could possibly expect. God says I will rain down manna from heaven each and every day. I will give you precisely what you need to sustain you for the journey until my promise is fulfilled.

This is such a beautiful and intimate moment. God will daily supply the people’s need, like a parent feeding an infant who could not survive otherwise. God gives this free gift of sustenance for the journey and will ensure that nothing can stop his people from arriving at their destination. This is an amazing and beautiful moment!

But I have to say this is not exactly the ideal response I would have hoped for if I’d been on the trip. Ideally, a bus with air conditioning would have pulled up and finished the journey by nightfall. Instead, for the next 40 years, every… single …day… their food for every…single… meal would be mostly tasteless flaky bread-like stuff called manna. It filled their stomach, but had to get old quick. And they walked through the desert over the course of an entire generation, 40 years just to arrive at the doorstep of the promise.

Their journey through the desert was BOTH a great reminder of God’s faithfulness and power, AND a harsh reminder that the journey from here to the promised land is neither easy nor instant. It was a great blessing to be free! But surely nothing like what they expected when they were praying for freedom in Egypt. When their expectations weren’t met, they complained against Moses and against God time and time again.

So we come back to that question – what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? Small change, big change, for better or for worse, it doesn’t really matter. Every change in life, no matter how good and beautiful, comes with the loss of what we previously expected to be the case. When our expectations about tomorrow are not met, there’s always at least some small part of us that has to grieve the loss of those expectations. To live well is to embrace the art of grieving.

I recognize that’s probably a strange thing for a pastor to say. We’re often trained in church to keep the focus on the glory of heaven; to recognize that we are made new in Christ and all is set right; to praise and give thanks for the assurance of salvation because the battle is already won. On some level, that future focused hope and joy is absolutely at the heart of our faith. But life is actually lived in the tension between our expectations for the future and the reality of our present. No matter how joyful and hopeful and positive life is, we can be weighed down by disappointment when what we get is not what we expected. A life of faith requires us to lean into that tension, both maintaining hope in what God has promised to do AND finding joy in the daily bread that we are given.

For us, adopting Hutch has been the clearest experience of this dynamic I can imagine. We brought Hutch home almost three months ago. He is the perfect child and we both love him more than life itself. But 5 years ago when we started trying to get pregnant, we never could have imagined, much less expected that adoption would be how a child would come into our lives. If we didn’t learn how to grieve the loss of what we expected, then we would have never been able to appreciate the incredible blessings of the gifts we actually received.

I suspect that there is no more important lesson for us today as a church and denomination than this. Today begins a called General Conference at which delegates from around the world will try to make decisions that affect the future of our denomination. One of the central divisions facing the church, is that the church and world do not look like the church or the world of our childhoods; and we don’t know what to do with that change. As a 34 year old I can point out a hundred things that are fundamentally different than they were when I grew up. Some big, some small. Some for the better, others for the worse. I can only imagine how much different things are from 30 or even 60 years before that.

As children in the faith, whether we’re 9 months or 90 years old at the time; as children of the faith at some point we each take our first step on the journey to the promised land before us. And I’m willing to bet that for just about all of us the journey winds up feeling much more like wandering in the desert than arriving in the promised land. Change will happen and life won’t be what we expected.

If you find life in the church to be a pristine and perfect embodiment of the love of God, I guarantee you’ve never served on the interior design committee for a new sanctuary. I have. It’s not pretty. It’s just one small reminder that life in the church is not as pretty or perfect as we might have expected. If we don’t learn how to grieve change and imperfection, if we don’t learn the lesson from God’s people on the journey; then we might just wind up doing more harm than good to the church we love. We might do what the helicopter parent does to mold their child’s life into the life they wish they had, no matter what is best for the life of the child.

We are assured that the victory is won in Christ. The joy and hope of salvation are crucial promises that give life to our broken bodies. But change happens. People fall short. If we don’t learn to grieve the reality of unmet expectations, we’ll be miserable along the journey; we’ll be blind to the daily gifts that God rains down. As someone once said, church is often focused on what happens after we die. But at its core, Christianity is about what happens when we learn to truly live. In other words, where we’re going matters, but our entire life is lived on the journey from here to there.

I don’t have any idea what decisions will be made this week if any, but I’d offer one bit of biblical wisdom for the journey ahead. You might expect this will be the moment our denomination finally gets free from the cultural wind and doubles down on our foundation. On the other side, you might expect this will be the moment we break free from ancient rules that should no longer apply. You might expect anything in between or nothing at all to change. But whatever happens, God will still be faithful to His promise, AND our future will not look exactly like you expect. If we don’t learn to grieve the loss of expectations, we’ll never be able to experience the beauty of the daily gifts God will continue to rain down in our life together.

So what do you do when your whole world looks nothing like you expected it to look? We have to put in the work to grieve the loss of our expectations. And then learn how to receive the immense blessings of all that God will continue to do. There are signs and foretastes all around of the amazing work God has promised to fulfill. There are a thousand moments a day through which we can be reminded of God’s continued faithfulness – even when all the world seems blind to the good work of God.

In our own lives as well as in the life of the church, our challenge is to trust in the faithfulness of God; to embrace the reality of daily bread; and to remember that there is nothing we can do that would separate us from the love of God. Take joy in the manna along the journey; take joy in the daily blessings that God is offering; and know that the promise of God is assured no matter how far we fall short along the way. Remember that God is with us, we are never alone. And God will be faithful to the very end.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

All Saints 2018

Revelation 21.1-6
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

God is making all things new! There is no season of life, no experience, no event, no challenge we could face where God is not by our side, working to renew, sustain, and transform our lives and relationships into something beautiful. Revelation might very well be the most misused and misunderstood book of the bible, but if there is one consistent theme throughout, it would be this – God is making all things new. And no matter what we see around us, no matter what tomorrow brings, no matter how helpless or hopeless we might feel at any given moment; God is making all things new. God’s love cannot fail and never ends. These words are trustworthy and true.

Most of the popular stories and retellings about Revelation are fantastical portraits of the end times. They tell stories of war and tragedy and rapture and disease and dramatic events all leading up to God’s triumphal victory. I can’t do justice in a single sermon to all that’s going on in Revelation and I can’t break down all the many problems with how the message is so often portrayed. For today, I will simply challenge you to hear the words of Revelation 21 as a clear reminder of the point that runs throughout the pages of scripture; the point that is made with laser focus as Revelation ends. No matter what we face in every season of life, God is at work; God is faithful; God will be faithful to the end, making all things new. God’s love cannot end and never fails.

I’m not going to argue at all about what Revelation tells us to think about the end times. The more important point is not to get excited about what may or may not happen at an undetermined time in the future. The far more significant message is one of hope for the present moment. The far more significant message is to be overwhelmed by the presence, the faithfulness, the love of God that cannot end and never fails. Because we are invited to love as God first loved us. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do. A little over 4 years ago Sallie and I started to experience the true risk of love in a profoundly new way.

I don’t really know why, but for the first 6 or so years of our marriage we didn’t think kids would be in our future. It wasn’t that we didn’t like the idea of kids or being around them…we simply didn’t see parenting as a part of our future. We figured we would be a different kind of mother and father to all the kids in our lives. I’m sure plenty of you know that there is something beautifully simple about getting to be the cool aunt or uncle. You get to play and have fun and spoil the kids with gifts and with love; and when something goes wrong you get to hand the kid back to mom and dad. We knew we’d at least play that role in our churches and families.

I’ll never forget the moment a little over 4 years ago when everything changed. There was no discussion, no grand plan or carefully reasoned argument that changed things. Shortly after our third niece was born, Sallie and I were simply sitting alone, and without any build up or lead in Sallie looked at me and said, “I think we should have a baby.” And I said, “Me too.” And that was pretty much it. We went from contentment with our life to the pursuit of parenthood in about 5 seconds.

In a very real way, the decision to try and get pregnant was the beginning of loving our unborn child. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do. For us, it hasn’t been an easy journey. We knew there were some potential medical hurdles that we might face. Sallie was diagnosed with PCOS or Polycystic ovarian syndrome. Plenty of women with PCOS get pregnant, but it is often a difficult journey to do so.

For the first 8 months or so, our doctor recommended a focus on getting healthy to give ourselves the best possible shot. So we did. For the next 8 months or so we started trying on our own just to see if there was any chance that it might happen easily and naturally. It did not. After that, it was on to the fertility specialist. There was still no reason why we couldn’t get pregnant, but the doctor told us it was best for us to go straight to the specialist given the PCOS diagnosis.

We each did some tests to be sure nothing else was wrong and then came about 5 months of working with the fertility doctor. We had at least weekly appointments for much of that time. When I say we, of course, I almost exclusively mean Sallie. I didn’t actually do anything more than drive and support her throughout the process. They monitored everything and prescribed medication and did everything possible to help us conceive in the old fashioned way. Still nothing happened.

Along the way, every failed pregnancy test hurt just a little bit more. It reminded us that we still had that much longer to wait to meet this child. Our child. The child who didn’t even exist, but was already loved more than words could express. Every time we tried and every moment we failed made us realize that we loved our unborn child just a little bit more. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do.

About 2 and a half years ago, we got the worst call we’ve ever received from a doctor. We had just finished our final monitored cycle and we were still…not…pregnant. There was no reason why we couldn’t get pregnant, but it hadn’t worked. IVF was the next and only real option with the fertility specialist. By this point we were so crushed by the endless cycles of hope and disappointment that we needed a few weeks to decide what to do next. We didn’t and still don’t have any problem with or objection to IVF, we just had to decide what was right for us.

It was at a gathering of clergy spouses where Sallie had another moment of clarity that changed everything for us. We had talked from the time we were dating about the possibility of one day fostering or adopting a child. We have always felt it is our calling to be a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. We still don’t know exactly what that will mean for our future, but that’s always at the very least meant that we are more than capable of welcoming and loving a child who does not share our DNA.

The clergy spouses prayed with Sallie for peace and for strength to figure out what came next. I was waiting in the car to drive her home when their meeting finished and as soon as she got in, Sallie looked at me just the way she had 2 years before and said, “I think we should adopt.” And in that moment I had the exact same sense of peace and resolve that I’d had 2 years before. I said, “Me too.” Our love for our unborn child simply shifted from a biological child to one that will join our family through adoption instead.

Without skipping a beat, our love for the child who did not even exist, grew that much more. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do. If you’ve never adopted a child, the most important thing you probably need to know is that the process is one big roller coaster ride of emotion, excitement, and waiting. We did our initial application in the Summer of 2016 and were placed on a wait list. Our agency tries not to keep too many prospective parents on the list of those ready to adopt.

Once you get off the initial wait list, the vetting process is extensive and the cost is enormous, so we appreciated their reasoning even though we hated waiting. We were told to anticipate a full year or two at that stage, but in the spring of 2017 we got the call to move forward. I won’t bore you with all the details, but just a few months and a few hundred questions about everything we’ve ever done and everyone we’ve ever met and everything we’ve ever thought about parenting later, we were approved.

Generally, the way our adoption agency works, you provide a basic profile sheet. You then get a call when a mother is shown profiles around her third trimester and she decides she wants to meet and learn more about you. It is, however, possible to get a call that a baby has already been born and is in need of a home. So we were both on the edge of our seat, ready to go at a moment’s notice, and also trying to prepare to wait for what might feel like an eternity. Every day and week and month that passed brought with it the feeling that we still had no idea who this child would be, but we loved him all the more. And to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do.

A little over two months ago, we finally got the call we were waiting for. It was a Monday when we found out a mother had entered the program and was ready to look at profiles. The agency was supposed to meet with her Friday, so we were preparing to find out something in a week or so. Thursday morning I found out the meeting was cancelled, but they were emailing profiles. Thursday at 4:45, I got a call that mom liked our profile and wanted to meet us on Saturday for a meal in San Antonio. So we dropped all our plans and wound up meeting for lunch. About 15 minutes after lunch we found out she picked us and that in as little as 8 weeks we might bring a baby home.

It only took 6 days to go from wondering if anything was ever really going to happen to being chosen for adoption. Talk about a whirlwind of a week. Just over 4 years after realizing that we wanted a child; after 4 years of our love growing for this unknown child who didn’t yet exist…we finally knew he was on the way. To say we already loved him doesn’t even begin to express what was growing inside of us. And to love is most risky thing we can possibly do.

On October 19th at 9:01pm, Hutchinson Kyle was born. 7lbs. 21inches. There is a fear in plenty of people considering adoption that they will struggle to attach to the child in the way they would to a biological child. In the process of learning about adoption, we were reassured along the way that we would fall in love with our child over time. Many new parents can relate no matter how their baby was added to the family. Several have told me it was just a few hours after arriving home that they looked at their child and thought “OK, kid, it’s been fun. Where are you parents? When are they coming to pick you up?” The process of a child expressing a need and us being able to meet that need is at the heart of how attachment happens and love grows. Feeding, clothing, holding, changing, loving.   

I don’t know if it was just the path we took to finally meet Hutch, but we didn’t have the problem we were warned about. We were warned to expect that we might not feel the love on day one. That is totally normal. We were completely unprepared for how it actually felt to hold Hutch for the first time. Sallie would tell you she felt it in her body the moment she held him in her arms. Every ounce of love that had been building in our hearts hit us like a ton of bricks. No words could possibly express what it was like to finally hold our child in our arms.

That is the moment in my life that more than anything else expresses what it means to say that God makes all things new. All the hope and disappointment, all the effort and the failure, all the ups and downs, all the doctors and the paperwork later – all of it led to this moment. I could say that it was all part of some divine plan. I could pretend like the path didn’t really hurt because of how it turned out. But doing so would be running from the truth.

God does not ask us to put on a brave face or to hide from the trials we encounter. God invites us to experience real, authentic, risky love. God invites us to love in the way God first loved us. Instead of ruling from a distance or orchestrating some grand plan in the background, God came and lived by our side. God chose to experience all that makes us human. God gave His very life to make all things new. God loved us with abandon. And to love is most risky thing we can possibly do.

We got to spend most of that first Saturday taking turns holding Hutch at the hospital. It was an experience we’ll never forget. But now we’re back to the waiting game again. I won’t go into specifics, but the legal situation means that we have to wait at least 31 days before we know if we’ll actually get to bring Hutch home. There is a chance, that day may never come. Throughout the process of adoption, we’ve always known that nothing is final until it’s final. That is part of the roller coaster. We told ourselves we would not get too attached before we had assurance. That goal ended the second we held Hutch in our arms.

In reality, no matter what we tell ourselves about what love is or how it works, to love is the most risky thing we can possibly do. To love is to open ourselves up to the possibility of loss. To truly love is to give up control of all that we are and trust in the hope of our future. On this All Saints Day, we celebrate the lives of all the people who took the risk to love us and make us what we are. We remember those whom we have dared to love and lost. The hope we have in this celebration of their lives is that they each now rest in the arms of the Lord; the one who makes all things new. They are now seated at the great banquet table of grace and love. At the table of grace we find the abundance of God’s love that cannot end and never fails.

At the table of grace, we find a tangible, concrete reminder that there is nothing we can face that God has not already faced before. In every season of life, in every joy and challenge, no matter what tomorrow brings; God is with us, we are never alone. In the face of every long wait and every challenge, is the assurance that God’s love remains steadfast. God took the risk to love us with abandon. And God invites us to love one another in the way that God first loved us.

I can say with absolute assurance that if something happens and we never get to bring Hutch home, it will crush us more than anything we’ve faced thus far. I could try to sugar coat it, but I’d be flat out lying. The hope we hold on to is that God does not plan for our pain or desire to test us. But God does make all things new. If the worst happens, God will be by our side. God’s love cannot end and will never fail. And we will still be invited to risk loving others in the way God first loved us; to risk loving in the way we have been loved by the saints who have gone before us; to risk loving in the way that makes all things new.

John 3:14 Christianity

A life of faith is truly lived when we refuse the glass bottom bridges and look right into the face of what terrifies us most – we are not in control of our lives and our world; we aren’t strong enough or smart enough or faithful enough to fix it all. But even when the storms of life are raging, God invites us to boldly step out and walk upon the water.

God invites to look over the edge, without a net, and learn to trust in the Lord. Look upon the cross of Christ, look right into that sign of all our fears and failures, and live! For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

John 3:14-21

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

As we get older, something happens that enables our brains to start saying “Hey, jumping off this roof into the pool is a REALLY stupid idea.” The younger we are, the more invincible we usually feel. In college, I helped lead a week long mountain biking camp in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. It was me, the guy in charge who knew what he was doing, and 4 junior high boys – out on the trails, up and down the mountain side, 8 hours a day, for a whole week. I can assure you, I had a much healthier fear of injury than any of the junior high boys.

The climax of the week came when I followed the group down a 1 foot wide trail that dumped us out onto the paved road. The last 10 feet was about as steep a hill as I’d ever been on and the trail made an ever so slight turn to the right as it met the ditch on the side of the road. One by one our leader went down, then each of the 4 boys. I brought up the rear to ensure no one got hurt. I took my turn, riding the back break the whole time, down the last 10 feet, to the small jog to right where the trail met the roadside ditch. And somehow I didn’t make the right.

I’m not exactly sure what happened next, but as I reached the height of my jump, staring straight ahead into the blue sky above, no longer attached to my bike……. I remember thinking for just a split second – It’s OK. I had a good run. 20 years was a good life. For the record, I landed flat on my back, arms flailed out and not trying to break the fall, which was the best possible outcome. Nothing broke, and I was able to get right back on the bike and finish out the week. But that was a defining point in my life – after that moment,  I never again had trouble understanding why so many adults had such a healthy fear of doing stupid stuff.

In high school, I remember multiple rock climbing trips and rappelling walls. Rappelling is where you stand on the edge of a mountain or a tall tower, rope and harness attached, and let yourself fall backwards, often straight down, with just the rope in your hand to keep it from being a free fall. It was so awesome in high school. And my feet are tingling right now just talking about it. My father in law has had a healthy fear of heights at least since I’ve known him. In elevators with a glass wall, he always stares straight ahead at the metal doors. I used to tease him about it, but the older I get, the more I understand.

Gazing over the edge is a morbid curiosity for me now – I feel the fear inside, but can’t help wanting to look. The desire to look over the edge of the cliff, or the hotel railing, is at least exhilarating, and sometimes crosses the line into terrifying. There are countless tourist attractions that play on this tension inside of us. Glass bottom bridges at the Grand canyon. Observatories on the roof of the tallest buildings in the world. Amusement park rides. All giving the illusion that we are in immense danger, while also being some of the safest structures ever built. We are hard wired to love the excitement of being in danger, while at the same time making sure we are as safe as humanly possible.

We do the same kind of thing with the Christian faith all the time. Faced with the terrifying reality that there are problems in the world and that we cannot quickly solve them all, we make up simple moral codes, clear lines in the sand that act like a glass bottom bridge. We say things like Christians don’t drink, smoke, or cuss. We say being good means never doing all those things that all those other people do. We say just trust in the Lord and life is all sunshine and roses. Or we say what happens on the outside doesn’t matter – faith is just between me and Jesus.

We do just enough to feel like we’re making a difference, just enough to acknowledge that we feel like we’re not good enough, that we feel the need for something more in life. And as long as I’m trying to fix the little things – to be nicer, to stop getting angry, to never lie – as long as I try at these things and repent when I fail, that’s all that is asked of me. But when the problems seem too big, when we don’t have a simple solution or black and white moral requirement beforehand, we stay far away from the edge. What if I’m really not enough? What if pain or struggle or poverty or hunger can’t ever end? What’s the point of facing such huge questions if I may not ever get to an answer?

Rather than face our deepest fears or confront our limitations, we build glass bottom bridges. We get just close enough to the edge to feel like we’re making a difference, but we always keep our safety nets in place, we resist ever facing the dangerous conclusion that we might not know how to fix our lives or world. We offer simple moral guidelines and refuse to look too far beyond ourselves so that we never have to look over the edge, never stare into the reality that we don’t have all the answers and there are no quick fixes to all that’s wrong in the world.

One of my greatest personal fears is that I’m not good enough. I like to be able to fix problems and finish projects. I struggle a great deal when I can’t get my head all the way around the outcome before beginning. Marriage has been a wake-up call and a profound blessing. It has broken me of the lie that I can fix everything in an instant. Just one example – I have this habit of holding on to anything that goes wrong. I’ll beat myself up for it and work and press and try until I finally make things better. I used to think beating myself up means I care; I thought the greatest sign of love is the refusal to cut myself slack until everything is perfect. What I’ve discovered time and again is that I’m really just terrified to give up control.

The tighter I hold on to my mistakes the less I have to look at the reality that I have hurt someone I love. Refusing to let go until I have fixed the problem is my own kind of glass bottom bridge. I would get just close enough to confronting my fear that I’m not good enough that I feel like I’m making progress. But I would never leave open the possibility that I really am not perfect. I could not bear the fact that no matter how hard I try, from time to time I really will hurt even the people I love the most.

Recognizing my need for control has been one of the hardest and most profound blessings of our marriage. I don’t remember the first time it happened, but somewhere along the way I finally had a moment in which I let go of my need to control the outcome of a mistake I made. I usually beat myself up internally so much that I forced Sallie to forgive. But this time I apologized and let go of the outcome. That was the moment I felt what it is like to stare over the edge of the cliff, to face my deepest fear that I am not good enough – and to be caught and held all the more for it.

These are the moments, when there is no glass bridge to pretend like I’m still in control, but I simply look over the edge, look into the heart of my greatest fear that I’m not good enough, and I find Sallie waiting for me there; more than willing to forgive, even if it takes a little time; more than wanting to remind me that I am loved no matter how many times or how far I fall short. These are the moments when everything changes. What makes our marriage work is not that everything goes right. What makes it work is that we are always standing at the edge for each other, ready to catch each other when we fall.

It is terrifying to look over the edge without a net. It feels like all that I am and all that I have is on the line. But looking over the edge is the only way to open ourselves to love and relationship. Giving up control is the only way to know what it feels like to trust. And giving up control is exactly what we are invited to do each time we look upon the cross of Christ.

“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life…For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness is an obscure reference to a scene from the exodus story. God’s people, recently freed from slavery, were complaining as usual. But this time, it seemed like God had enough of their complaining. God sent poisonous serpents among the people and each time someone was bit, they died. God’s people realized their mistake in complaining against Moses and against God and repented. So God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of bronze and put it on top of a pole. And when a serpent bit someone, they would look upon the serpent of bronze and live.

There isn’t nearly enough time to explore what we’re supposed to do with a strange story like this. Poisonous serpents sent by God? Looking at a bronze serpent provides healing? What? For now, I’ll simply say this – assuming the bible is a simple, clear, specific set of obvious, spiritual, moral instructions requires that we ignore a huge portion of what actually happens in the bible. The bible is not a pristine, clear cut justification for all that you already think and feel. The bible is way more than that. The bible is our invitation to let go of the white knuckle control we like to hold on our lives; and learn to trust in the Lord.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. The serpent in the wilderness was the very sign of the people’s failure. The serpents were a constant reminder that they had sinned and fallen short, time and time again. They were not good enough, strong enough, holy enough, trusting enough, and the consequences could not be more awful.  The cure was as strange as it was simple. Look upon the serpent and live. Stare right into the face of death, look upon the most terrifying reminder of their fear and failure…. and live. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. That whoever looks upon the cross may have eternal life. Whoever steps right up to the edge of the cliff and stares into the heart of our deepest fears and most shameful failures, receives new life.

The cross of Christ is God’s clear and unmistakable statement that a life of faith is not lived on glass bottom bridges. Faith and life are found when we are willing to come before God and one another, bearing our deepest wounds, admitting our worst mistakes, embracing that we will never be good enough to fix every problem on our own – and for that we are loved all the more.

I wish there was a formula I could offer – maybe a simple prayer to say that would guarantee that you experience the overwhelming power of trust in the Lord. But any formula or words I could offer would just be a glass bottom bridge. Christians are quite often some of the most risk averse people in the world. When life doesn’t fit inside the neat and tidy boxes we’ve drawn, we’re like the dad shaking his head at the stupid things his teenager did on a mountain bike. God invites us to stand at the edge; to give up our need to control the outcome…. to look upon the cross, and take the risk of trusting in the Lord.

A life of faith is truly lived when we refuse the glass bottom bridges and look right into the face of what terrifies us most – we are not in control of our lives and our world. We aren’t strong enough or smart enough or faithful enough to fix it all. But even when the storms of life are raging, God invites us to boldly step out and walk upon the water.

God invites to look over the edge, without a net, and learn to trust in the Lord. Look upon the cross of Christ, look right into that sign of all our fears and failures, and live! For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. In Him, everything will be alright. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

One Word

Whether we’re concerned with technical theological terms or popular seasonal greetings, the words we use matter because the God we worship lives. Our words are either an aid or hindrance to seeing the living God; the One Word Who changed everything.

One word is the difference in our life together. One Word is the difference between love and hate, between light and darkness, between life and death. One Word makes all the difference.

John 1:1-5

Fools In Love – 2018 Easter Sermon

Fools In Love – 2018 Easter Sermon

A follower of Jesus looks a lot more like a fool in love than a professional in control…

We are invited to be fools in love with the Lord, living in the knowledge that all is set right in Christ, even when all the world seem to be more broken each day. We’re invited to embrace our weaknesses when the whole world seems to assume that might makes right. When the world tells us to lie and to hide our true selves behind possessions or jobs or trophies – we’re invited to be vulnerable, sharing our stories, exposing our wounds because through the wounded body of Christ, the whole world finds healing.  

4/1/2018

Mark 16:1-8

16When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

A follower of Jesus looks a lot more like a fool in love than a professional in control. A guy named Paul wrote letters to the churches he helped start in Rome, Philippians, Corinth, Galatia, and several other places. These letters make up a significant part of our Bibles and deeply shape the way we think and talk about the Christian faith. Paul was a deep and philosophical thinker who wanted to work out a very precise definition of who Jesus is and what it means be a faithful member of the body of Christ.

So often, when people talk about Christianity and what it means to be Christian, Paul’s letters are quoted. And it is his deeply academic and systematic ways of thinking that shape our approach to learning and growing in Christ. We like to have our precise belief statements and moral systems – we like to have a verse, usually from Paul, to back-up our precise and everlasting conclusion.

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” Paul says in Romans – therefore if we really believe Jesus is Lord and say the right prayer, we’re guaranteed to get into heaven. Or from Philippians – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” Therefore, we might think, I will score the winning touchdown in my next game because – Jesus. “Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. Therefore, no 4 letter word should ever leave your lips.

It is so natural and so deeply human to love acting like we’re professional Christians, completely in control, knowing all that there is to know about what to do and not to do, totally ready to condemn all those others, over there, those pagans and sinners who flaunt the clear and obvious words of scripture. And when we inevitably fall short of our clear and precise understanding, there is always forgiveness and grace, ready for us after we knowingly fail to be the perfect professionals that we have decided God must want us to be.

But, a follower of Jesus looks a lot more like a fool in love than a professional in control. We so often try talking like Paul and refining our systems and building our little boxes into which we like to fit all of life. And when we do that we forget that long before any attempt at putting words on a page is a profoundly absurd and nonsensical claim – that not only did God come to this earth to live our life and be one of us, but that God in flesh was killed on the cross, condemned like a criminal, and on the third day, he rose from the dead, and left an empty grave for his followers to find.

The cross of Christ is the ultimate reminder that we are not in control of our lives and futures – we are loved beyond measure and invited to trust in the one who calls us His own. It’s strange the way we so often treat a relationship with Christ more like a pop quiz than a friendship. I’ll admit when Sallie and I got engaged, I had her take a test. I made sure she knew and agreed about when I was born; and she had to believe that I won not one, not two, but three tennis tournaments in my life. And last, I wrote a 90 page thesis paper in college – so I made sure that she read the whole thing and could quote at least 5 or 6 of the most important sentences. Needless to say, she passed with flying colors, and the last 10 years together have been flawless.

Now…….No…I didn’t really do any of that. She might have passed most of it, but I’m fairly confident Sallie would not be with me today if I had really made her read my thesis paper. It’s absurd to think that reading a book and memorizing a few of my accomplishments and basic life history has any real impact on the relationship we share. Obviously, we find out new things about each other every day – we could probably answer just about any question about each other anyone else knows. But that knowledge comes from building a life together – not the other way around.

Only after we experience life together do we start to form the stories we tell. Facts and figures are woven together into memories that give shape and meaning to life. Everyone has a few stories that define their life and relationship more than any others. Some of these are the stories that we tell at every family gathering, year after year. Some are the stories that we only share with small groups of our closest friends. Some are the stories we keep locked hidden inside our hearts, afraid to tell anyone at all – maybe 1 or 2 people in the whole world know. As we experience life and relationship, more and more of these memories and stories form who we are and how we love one another.

[Most often referenced story is – Corn Dog.

Another often quoted story – Don’t know anything about my life.]

These are the fun stories we tell all the time in my family. We laugh, we remember, we get in a few playful jabs and we bond as a family or group of friends just fine. Closer to home are the struggles and challenges we go through – sometimes with beautiful endings, sometimes with no resolution.

[For me, it would be the story of the one and only question I missed on an english midterm – in 9th grade. The reading was the cask of amontillado – the correct answer was dramatic irony. I still can’t quite let that go.

Even more present than that – the rollercoaster of infertility – so many ups and downs but mostly just indescribable stuff that doesn’t exactly feel good or bad, but it sure does feel a lot – helped when so many others shared their stories too]

Then there are those stories that I’m tempted to keep deep inside, the feelings that are so hard to admit to myself, much less anyone else. These are usually the stories of the fear or guilt or hurt or unmet needs that lay beneath the surface of the stories we tell others.

– I can’t quite let the english midterm go because there is a part of me that is an unrelenting perfectionist. Every once in a while it still happens that I make one mistake and fear that I’ve broken the whole world. The english midterm is the kind of story I used to have to laugh about because if I admitted the inadequacy I really felt I’d cry instead.

Then there’s the devastation of dealing with infertility for months and really years – and getting that one final negative result. I’ve let Sallie down. I’ve let my parents down. I’ve failed to do the one thing our bodies seem most programmed to accomplish in life. How do I love my life if it can’t be what I’ve desired so deeply for so long?

These thoughts and questions become the lens by which we view our life and choices – they become the stories that we repeat over and over again to tell us who we are.

The sum total of all these stories does far more to shape how I see myself and the world than anything else possibly could. No amount of academic knowledge; no clear and definitive statement of beliefs; no amount of practice pretending to be happy – will ever change a thing. We cannot change our past any more than we can control our future. But control was never the point. Our knowledge and strength and force of will were never meant to be strong enough to control the outcome. A follower of Jesus looks a lot more like a fool in love than a professional in control.

What changes everything is when we finally experience the love of Jesus Christ that never ends and cannot fail. When the story of God’s love and acceptance becomes the most important story we tell about ourselves, nothing will ever be the same. Even when the whole world around us seems to be devolving into a chaotic mess of fear and division, we know that God is faithful to the end. God will set all things right and make all things new because Jesus Christ is risen.

The story of Easter redeems and transforms each of our stories in the image of God’s love. Christ came to tell the story of God’s love and redemption to anyone who would hear it. He set aside a group of 12 friends to live life together. These were the 12 with whom Jesus shared almost every struggle and challenge throughout the course of all that he did on Earth. And upon the cross, we even receive a brief glimpse into the very depth of Jesus’ soul as he cries out My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.

The story of Easter is all our story – the sure foundation upon which we all stand. The empty grave is that moment when God packaged up all the stories we tell about ourselves – from the funny stories we love to tell to the more impactful memories we share with friends to the fear and doubt we try to hide – all of it is wrapped up in the cross of Christ and transformed on Easter morning. The empty grave is God’s absolute declaration that we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Through Jesus Christ, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God. And when we know what that feels like – when the story of God’s unimaginable love and unbelievable grace becomes the most important story we tell about ourselves, we start to look an awful lot like fools in love.

That first Easter morning, three women went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus for a proper burial. Their Lord and friend had been beaten and flogged and crucified on Friday. Now, it was Sunday and they didn’t even know how they would get into the tomb, but they knew they needed to go. When they arrived, the stone had been rolled away and the grave was empty. A young man dressed in a white robe told them, “Do not be afraid. Jesus Christ is not here, he has been raised. Go tell the others, Jesus will meet you in Galilee!” Mark tells us that the women ran away in terror and excitement and said nothing to anyone.

This is where the earliest copies of Mark’s gospel ended. An empty tomb. Terror and amazement. The women running away with no idea what they’ve just witnessed or what any of it means. At the core of the Christian faith is this absurd claim that God came and died and was resurrected to new life. You can work your whole life to try and figure out the details – there are entire fields of research set up to prove exactly what happened and how we can know with certainty – and yet the spread of Christian faith begins with this group of fools in love – the three women at the tomb and the 12 disciples right after.

It wasn’t structured beliefs and academic pursuits that convinced them to give their lives to the spread of the good news. It was knowing the power of a love that defeated even death itself. It was experiencing the life of the risen Lord that changed everything. The story of the empty grave is our story, and it touches and transforms every part of who we are.

We are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us. The cross of Christ reminds us there is no shame, no hurt, no brokenness, no fear, no failure that God does not embrace within himself. The empty tomb reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, the love that takes each part of the stories we tell against ourselves and offers new life instead.

We are invited to be fools in love with the Lord, living in the knowledge that all is set right in Christ, even when all the world seem to be more broken each day. We’re invited to embrace our weaknesses when the whole world seems to assume that might makes right. When the world tells us to lie and to hide our true selves behind possessions or jobs or trophies – we’re invited to be vulnerable, sharing our stories, exposing our wounds because through the wounded body of Christ, the whole world finds healing.  

Be fools in love this Easter season. Open your heart to the Lord and trust that whatever scars we bear or wounds we cause, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. We are embraced by the love that conquered the grave and no one can ever take that away. It doesn’t matter how much you know or how well you can articulate the faith – what matters is that we are held in the outstretched arms of the one who knows our names and has called us his own. Jesus Christ is Risen!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

King? Jesus

King? Jesus

At the heart of our faith is a God who has a really annoying habit of doing just about everything the wrong way. God doesn’t give prepackaged answers to life’s most challenging questions. God rarely, if ever, wraps things up in a nice and tidy bow so that we always know the one, right, only way forward. At the heart of our faith is a God who said I love you so much that I will die for you. I am powerful enough that I will lay down all that I am and all that I have to be by your side through all that is to come.

 In a world without simple, clear answers around every corner, there is no other sure foundation than the love and acceptance of King Jesus. Without that foundation, fear is all we have left. Upon that foundation, there is no challenge or problem or unknown pathway too daunting. Embracing the cross of Christ means embracing the challenge to give up control and learn to trust in the Lord.

3/25/2018

Mark 11:1-11
11When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

God has a really annoying habit of doing just about everything the wrong way. In a time when being the firstborn meant you were the one who gets to carry on the family name and inherit the lion’s share of the wealth; God chose the second born to give birth to God’s people. In a time when physical size and strength was the primary mark of a true leader; God chose the musical pretty boy to be anointed king. When the kingdom was falling God sent prophets with a message instead of soldiers with a weapon. When Jesus picked the 12 most effective church planters of all time, he went with uneducated tradesmen who never understood what he was doing and always questioned his every move.

When God was supposed to take His place as king of all and overthrow the Roman government once and for all – instead God carried his own cross in the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus was supposed to be the last best hope of God’s people to escape from oppression – instead he was crucified a criminal. Jesus was supposed to come and fix it all; to restore God’s people to life and relationship; to end the brokenness and division; to raise up a new leader who would sit on the throne forever more – instead he wound up hanging from the tree with barely a word and certainly not a single battle fought, much less won.

God has a really annoying habit of doing just about everything the wrong way. Of course, the cross is not the end of the story, three days later Jesus rose from the grave to raise us up to new life and defeat even death itself. The Christian story is absolutely one of triumph and glory and victory in Jesus. But there is no line from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday without the cross in between. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey with the crowd chanting and waving palms to declare that he is the Messiah, the King – and there is no pathway from this moment to the empty grave without the humiliation and execution of that king.  

God has a really annoying habit of doing just about everything the wrong way. Holy Week is a week each year in which we focus on this very pathway from triumphant entry with palms to the joy of Easter morning. The week ahead is a challenge to Christians all over the world to refuse all the easy answers that the world wants to offer – to resist thinking that God is just here to approve everything we already think and do and believe – to reclaim this profound statement of faith that at the heart of Christianity is the claim that God died.

If I were the one in charge of all the universe, I struggle to imagine a weirder way to be king than the way God chose. The setup was perfect for Jesus to take over as king. That first palm Sunday, Jesus sent two of his disciples to go and get a colt that had never been ridden. And Jesus said if anyone asks why you are taking it, tell them, the Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.  And just like you would expect in a perfect fairy tale, the disciples find this colt, someone asks why they’re taking it and when the disciples say “for the Lord” it all works out.

Jesus rode the colt into town and the people gave him a royal welcome. Palm branches were a symbol of victory and peace. It was like the crowd knew the battle was over before it was begun. Some scholars even argue that Jesus entered town around the same time the Roman ruler would have entered on the other side of town. This was so profoundly and obviously a way for Jesus to say without words that he was the alternative to the ruler of Rome. The people had a choice – to bow down to the Roman emperor or to bow down to king Jesus.

The stage was set. The stakes were clear. Nothing short of life and freedom were at on the table for whichever side wound up winning the war. But God has a really annoying habit of doing just about everything the wrong way. Jesus didn’t sweep through the towns and across the countryside like a supercharged version of Thor, destroying armies and rulers in his wake. Jesus didn’t so much as lift a finger against the soldiers who came to take him away, or Pontius Pilate who sealed his fate, or the crowds who pushed him up that fateful hill.

Tensions had been building for generations. God’s people were primed for the Messiah, the chosen one, the next and final king who would restore God’s kingdom here on earth. There were revolts and minor revolutions all the time in those days – no one came close to getting rid of the Roman army but plenty of people tried. Jesus had the perfect opportunity to accomplish what so many others failed to do. The setup was there, the expectations were high…and the son of God died.

God has a really annoying habit of doing just about everything the wrong way. The idea that Jesus is king has to challenge just about every notion we have over what it means to be a king and how one gets to take the position. If crucifixion were a requirement before becoming king, Game of Thrones would probably look a lot different. All the values Jesus upholds, the way he goes about claiming victory and asserting authority is the polar opposite to everything we’re usually taught in life. Just look at the models of power and authority we have in the world today.

It’s hard to even conceive of a world in which it makes sense for a country to try and influence the world without at least the threat of military strength. The threat of going to war looms large in our divided and terrified world. We’re perhaps even more at war with each other at this point. Right vs left, city vs rural, red vs blue – the goal of so much of the verbal war seems to be not only victory against each other, but as much humiliation and destruction as possible along the way. We live in a world that wants these kinds of victory – we see the struggle for power over one another played out all the time.

And if I controlled the universe, I think I’d probably lay out the uniforms for my side and start raining down warning shots of fire and brimstone to give everyone the chance to choose the obvious winning side. But God has a really annoying habit of doing just about everything the wrong way. Jesus isn’t on the winning side. Jesus is on the side that never lifts a weapon. Jesus is the one who is humiliated relentlessly; his body is the one that is destroyed in the process. What it means to say Jesus is king has nothing to do with the way power and authority are so often used and abused.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, it should come as no surprise that God doesn’t work by simply pushing us to vote Republican or Democrat. We humans have a profound way of dividing ourselves and picking sides even within the sides of the battles we’ve already picked. The story of palm Sunday is very short in Mark, but it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the kind of cranky, divided people there were on Jesus’ side of town.

The crowd on Jesus’ side of town made a decision for Jesus over and against Rome as the one to whom they would pledge their allegiance. It was a joyous celebration and a triumphant ride into town, but I can still picture the side conversations. “Why are we wasting these palm branches – they could have been sold and we could have done some real good with that money.” OR “Great, now all the blankets are dirty, I just washed them. What a waste of time and effort.” AND I just know there was someone in that crowd saying, “Why is he on a donkey? Those colors are hideous. I should have been on the parade committee and I would have made so many better decisions.”

If I’m being honest, on most days I would not be the guy faithfully and joyfully waving the palm for King Jesus. I’d absolutely be the guy thinking to himself “is this really the best use of our time? What’s the point of this march if Jesus isn’t going to actually do anything to take on Rome afterward?” Power and authority are so often used as opportunities to take control. But the message of a king on the cross is exactly the opposite.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. And whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Real power and authority are not found by asserting control over our lives. The power to change the world comes through trusting in the one who gave his life for us all. The authority to speak and act and live for the sake of the gospel comes when we give up thinking we can control the outcome.

There is nothing more frustratingly beautiful than realizing that a cross shaped faith leaves no room for control. There is no point to keeping a white knuckle grip on the way things used to be or the ways we know God really ought to act. God has a really annoying habit of doing just about everything the wrong way, and then inviting us to place our trust in Him.

I would venture to guess that our greatest cultural sin at the moment is refusing to live as though it’s ok when we don’t have all the answers. Over 800 marches took place this weekend to save children from gun violence. And what bothers me the most about the response I’ve seen is our readiness to stick to the preapproved talking points of our teams. “Marches are useless, what’s the point?” OR “You can’t take my guns.” OR “You can either support guns or you can care about children’s safety, but you can’t do both.”

None of the talking points help. None of our attempts at taking white knuckle control over our future lead anywhere good or productive. It is way beyond time to do something, try anything to stem the tide of violence. We act like we have to have THE one God ordained answer or nothing at all. What I hope you hear more than anything else in this cultural moment, is that children are afraid. And the adults that want tighter gun regulations are afraid. And the adults that want easier access to guns to fight back against the guns that are already out there… are afraid. And most importantly, responding to fear with your favorite talking point does nothing but breed more fear.

At the heart of our faith is a God who has a really annoying habit of doing just about everything the wrong way. God doesn’t give prepackaged answers to life’s most challenging questions. God rarely, if ever, wraps things up in a nice and tidy bow so that we always know the one, right, only way forward. At the heart of our faith is a God who said I love you so much that I will die for you. I am powerful enough that I will lay down all that I am and all that I have to be by your side through all that is to come.  

In a world without simple, clear answers around every corner, there is no other sure foundation than the love and acceptance of King Jesus. Without that foundation, fear is all we have left. Upon that foundation, there is no challenge or problem or unknown pathway too daunting. Embracing the cross of Christ means embracing the challenge to give up control and learn to trust in the Lord. That doesn’t mean we’ll have all the answers or that we’ll have any idea what we’re getting ourselves into all the time – if anything, it means just the opposite. Jesus Christ is king. But he’s not a king without a cross.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Restored

When forgiveness gets down deep inside to that place we’d rather hold on to, that place where we hide our failures, that place we push down our insecurities; when forgiveness gets that deep inside – that is the moment when Jesus Christ lifts us up to healing and wholeness.

4/10/2016

John 21:15-19

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

I suspect it’s easy for most mainline Christians in America today to name one of the most essential parts of what Jesus did on Easter Sunday. Jesus Christ forgives my sin. I am forgiven, alleluia! That’s not something to hard to rattle off and that is something I suspect most people with any knowledge of the church at all might name as the point of Christianity.

What is sin? That’s a harder question. What does forgiveness do? Maybe I could say it gets me to heaven, maybe it sets me free…but what I’m free from and for is a harder question; what heaven means for me here and now is not self evident. Who is the I that is forgiven? It would take days for me to even scratch the surface of who I think I am and there’s no telling what all Sallie could name that I might miss.

And in the face of the uncertainty and the ambiguity of definitions, it’s easy to retreat back to that simple foundational truth of our faith – Jesus Christ forgives my sin. Period. End of story. And in a sense it is the end of the story, in those five words is the essence of the faith. There’s a reason so many people might name that fact as the essential part of what Jesus did on Easter Sunday. It’s not wrong; but there is so much more depth and meaning to the abundant life Christ is and makes possible if we are willing to drill a little deeper and ask the harder questions. Not just what is sin, but how have I sinned? Not just what does forgiveness do, but how does forgiveness change me? Not just who am I, but what is my place in the body of Christ?

To ask these questions is to begin to probe the mysteries of God and of salvation. These questions require a certain amount of self awareness and submission. Being self aware isn’t easy because it forces us to consider those parts of us we’d rather deny; the parts we’d rather not be there and would do just about anything to get rid of or at least not have to deal with. For me, one of those parts is the voice that says you’re not good enough. I sometimes start strong! I’m a pastor. I can start to spin the drain thinking I just made a mistake. That mistake hurt someone’s feelings. I’m stupid for doing it. I should be better than that. I’m a pastor. And it gets worse. I’m a screw up. I better keep it all inside. I don’t see why anyone would want to hear from me, I’ll probably just make the same mistake again. I’m a pastor… That voice can be so defeating when I think about it that I’d rather just deny it’s there. But denial only lets the voice grow stronger under the strong person becomes the weak person becomes the sad and dejected mess. Self awareness is hard.

Submission is no easier for me. Submission is a four letter word when I’m having a bad day and I’ll bet it is for some of you too. You are free to be anything you want to be – we are told early and often by our culture. Whatever is holding you back from being free is a problem to be overcome. Don’t submit to anything, we are told. Pull yourself up and you can get through anything, you can become anything you want to be. Submission can be treated like that thing that happens when I am defeated and I fail to reach my potential and I just give up and let go of control and get defined by someone or something in my life.

Self-awareness and submission are difficult to embrace and difficult to sit with. Both require us to let God in and to give up control of what happens next. As appealing as it might be to think that I can decide who I’m going to become and simply take control and make that happen, so much more is possible when we encounter the love and the life that God desires for us. The kind of love that makes possible a new kind of life is shown to us through the story of Jesus and Peter by the fire in John’s gospel. Peter takes a moment to sit with the Lord and through the Lord’s embrace Peter is restored to a life he never could have created for himself.

Our reading from John’s gospel comes to us from the very end of the book. The life and Ministry of Jesus has already happened. Good Friday has come with all its confusion and chaos and hurt and brokenness that led Jesus to the cross. The tomb was closed for 3 days. And on that first Easter morning the women had found the empty tomb and went and told Peter of the good news. Here we find Jesus sitting with the disciples around a fire by the lake just a few days later. And after breakfast, Jesus turned to his disciple named Peter and began to question him.

“do you love me more than these?’” Jesus asked him. He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ ok, so far. Jesus asking Peter to affirm his love, no big deal. And then a second time Jesus asked, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ I don’t know if Jesus wasn’t listening the first time. It’s a little weird since I’m sure Jesus knows the exact depth of Peter’s love, so it’s odd that he’s asked again. But he’s Jesus, whatever. He gets to ask what he wants. But then it happens a third time. “do you love me?” Jesus asked. Peter felt hurt this time. And he said to Jesus. ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.”

It is strange that Jesus would ask Peter 3 times. It feels almost cruel to keep pressing deeper and deeper and deeper. But to understand this moment between Jesus and Peter we have to go back to another campfire just a few days before. Peter, The Rock upon which Jesus said he would build his church, was standing around a fire at the same moment Jesus was being put on trial and questioned leading up to the crucifixion. Jesus had told Peter he would deny Jesus three times. Peter was adamant that he would not. He would go to the cross with Jesus if he had to, he would never deny his friend and his Lord.

But standing around that fire a young woman asked him, aren’t you one of his disciples. And Peter said no I do not know the man. And a short time later he was asked again aren’t you one of Jesus’ disciples? And again Peter said I do not know the man. That’s not me. You must be thinking of someone else. And a third time he was confronted. He was asked are you not one of Jesus’ disciples? Peter knew the consequences of saying yes, he knew the fear inside of him holding him back. And so again a third time he denied it. He said I do not know that man. And as Peter said this the rooster crowed. What Jesus told him had to come true. He had denied his Lord and his friend three times.

And so we move back forward in our story, back to the disciples sitting around a fire after the resurrection. Jesus questioned Peter 3 times. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? Each time Peter felt the question go deeper and deeper and deeper inside of him. Lord, you know I love you! Feed my lambs. Lord, you know I love you! Tend my sheep. Lord, you know I love you! 

In this moment Jesus guides Peter to experience his forgiveness. When forgiveness gets down deep inside to that place we’d rather hold on to, that place where we hide our failures, that place we push down our insecurities; when forgiveness gets that deep inside – that is the moment when Jesus Christ lifts us up to healing and wholeness. Jesus was offering the chance to be restored. Forgiveness is not complete in the words we say. Forgiveness isn’t finished when you accept my apology. The forgiveness of Jesus restores Peter back to relationship. Forgiveness overcomes the betrayal and the broken promises Peter made. Around this campfire, all that Peter had done wrong as he stood by a fire just a few nights before, it all was washed clean by the forgiveness of Jesus.

In this story of deep forgiveness and restoration I invite you to look deeply into yourself. The good news, is that through the grace of God we are offered the same chance to be forgiven as Peter. What is it that sits deep within you, what is it that you want to hide from me and from God? What is it that you hold so tightly inside that you just can’t let go? Jesus tells us to look deeply inside of ourselves and see that, that is the person I love. Jesus says submit your life to me and follow where I lead. It is you that I love, imperfections and all!

[Closing meditation]

You are a beloved child of God, wonderfully made, relentlessly pursued. You are restored by the grace and love of our Lord.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, you are forgiven. Amen!

Encounter Love

As followers of God, we can never settle for a world of the haves and the have nots. There is too great a chasm between the two, too great a separation to be left alone. That’s not a call for you to give all you have to someone else, but a challenge for you to live all you can with someone else – with someone who doesn’t look and act and think like you – someone who needs the gifts you have to offer; and someone whose gifts you didn’t even know you needed to receive.

If we do not work to overcome the divides; if we do not encounter the love of God that heals our wounds and overcomes our brokenness – then we might as well be the rich man eating sumptuously every day. And if we do not commit to being good stewards of the many blessings God has given us, we cannot hope to transform the world.

9/25/2016

Luke 16:19-31

19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke provides some of the most powerful and fascinating imagery in all of scripture. Never one to mince words, Luke directly and concretely challenges us to recognize the practical nature of discipleship. Following God is in no way relegated to some spiritual, ethereal, other realm for Luke. I’d argue that we dramatically over spiritualize most of scripture, but Luke leaves no room for that at all. Matthew records Jesus saying blessed are the poor in spirit – Luke records blessed are the poor. There are 11 parables told by Jesus that are unique to Luke – at least 9 of them are directly about our relationship to money in the here and now – and all 11 have very concrete implications for how we relate to God’s children – whether through service, or second chances, or compassion.

Today’s reading is one of those parables unique to Luke’s gospel. And it leaves an unforgettable impression about the urgency and importance of God’s call toward practical, concrete, and present focused discipleship. I have to take you back through the imagery of the passage here, because it is meant to push you and challenge you and deeply motivate you.

[Rereading the passage with a focus on the details]

Yikes. That is not a message to be taken lightly. The consequences and the dangers of failing to heed the warning of Jesus in this parable are as severe as they come. This is one of those few passages in Scripture in which the imagery of Hades as a place of torment and fire actually has legs. Almost all of that imagery that we find so popular today actually comes from later writings, like those of Dante. But here we are confronted by the possibility of severe torment if we do not change the way we live. Do good in life, care for those who need it, embrace the practical, concrete, specific call to live a life of discipleship in the here and now. Do not dare live like the rich man, the message goes, or your fate may be like his.

……………………

Welcome to our 2016 stewardship campaign. 🙂 I know what you’re thinking, bear with me a minute. Stewardship is that time of the year when we renew our commitment to God and one another. Church is the place wherein we work to fulfill our part of God’s mission and we cannot possibly do so without making a commitment each year to various types of ministry and service. Our mission here in this congregation is Encounter Love. Grow Together. Inspire Change. So each of the next three weeks, we’ll be focusing on one aspect of our mission before tying it all together and making our commitment on October 16th. Today’s focus is on the first part of the mission – Encounter Love.

I have to imagine that many of you are wondering what on Earth the fire-and-brimstone imagery of our Parable from Luke has to do with encountering God’s love. That’s a fair question to ask. It comes to mind so readily because of how easy it is for the overly emotional, powerful, dramatic, scary imagery to actually mask what the underlying call to action looks like in practice. If your focus remains on avoiding torment and if you think that simply shouting out warnings about the dangers of Hades will change the world, then you’ve missed the point.

Warnings and consequences are most of what Moses and the prophets had to offer. If the world hasn’t changed yet, it’s not going to do so just because you take it up a notch and add in the imagery of a rich man in flames. I love the way the parable ends. The rich man wants his brothers to change their ways – but Abraham says, if Moses and the prophets haven’t work, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. It’s like Jesus and Luke know something that the listeners and readers need to know – someone will rise from the dead. That someone will change everything by ushering in the new life God promised through Moses and the prophets. That someone will have quite literally raised a man named Lazarus from the dead not long after telling this very parable. But none of that will convince the stubborn.

We could stop here and just leave it a hopeless mess. I guess we better hope for bad things in life so that the after life will bring joy. Luke does say blessed are the poor and blessed are the hungry and those who weep. Let’s get that out of the way now. But at least two details should remind us that hopelessness about the present is not the point of the story; one detail from the story and one detail about the story teller. Jesus, the storyteller, was never one to shy away from people on any side of a spectrum. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, one of the more wealthy and more despised people of his day – Jesus called him out of the Sycamore tree and said I’m going to share a meal with you today. On the far other end of the spectrum, countless sick and poor and destitute people found a generous friend through the presence and the healing touch of Jesus.

To think that this life is supposed to be awful requires that we ignore Jesus’ desire to be in relationship with people on all sides of life and to empower them to live abundantly. It’s the same reality that was at play in our scripture about the table a few weeks ago – Jesus says the one who is seated at the lowest end of the table will be exalted to sit in the place of honor. And we sometimes take that as a call to brag about being the most humble person ever. Jesus is not giving a formula – for every bad thing now you get one good thing later and vice versa. No, Jesus desires that we find abundance when all God’s children are seated at the table together, no one more valuable and comforted, no one more disposable and broken – than the rest.

And one detail regarding the story itself – it is odd that in Jesus’ parable, the poor man is given a name and not the rich man. How many stories can you come up with, in the bible or in the news, in which it is the poor and powerless character that is named? The disciples are seated around a table – and an unknown woman comes and washes Jesus’ feet. Pontius Pilate holds the power to take Jesus’ life – and Pilate’s wife without a name is afraid of what might happen next. The headline reads “such and such multimillionaire CEO defrauds a bunch of unwitting and unnamed people.” In this scandal with an athlete or a politician, there’s also some nameless victim out there.

There are, of course, good reasons to hide the names of the poor and powerless in many situations. But in doing so we run the risk of dehumanizing and silencing the very people who may never have the opportunity to be heard. We like to think we know all there is to know about the big name – and we can then mourn the loss of potential or chalk it up to a mistake in judgement. All the while, the person most affected, the person whose life may be upside down forever, is treated like a number in the stats, or even worse, treated like the downfall of a hero. That’s why it strikes me as deeply significant that the poor and the powerless man, not the rich and the powerful man, is the one given a name by Jesus in the parable. The poor guy isn’t some throwaway figure just used to make a point – he is humanized and valued and made into the more unforgettable character in the story. That’s why the parable is referred to as Lazarus….and….some rich guy. The poor in this life is lifted up, even as the rich in this life is brought down a notch.

Jesus never shied away from people on either side of life and his parable powerfully lifts up the poor as the rich is brought low. The point of the parable is not to make you see the risk of being happy in this life and therefore try to delay any joy for the next one. The point is to recognize the giant chasms that exist between us in so many different aspects of life and to experience the urgent call to end them. The chasm between Lazarus and the rich man in the afterlife is no more real or wide than the chasm that existed on earth; no more real or wide than the chasms that exist between us now. Economic lines. Racial lines. North against South. Conservative against Liberal. The wrong side of town. The wrong ethnicity or nationality or family of origin. I could go on for hours naming all the divisions we see so present in our world – and not a single one of those chasms is desired by God. One body, one people, one kingdom – that is the vision God has for God’s creation.

As followers of God, we can never settle for a world of the haves and the have nots. There is too great a chasm between the two, too great a separation to be left alone. That’s not a call for you to give all you have to someone else, but a challenge for you to live all you can with someone else – with someone who doesn’t look and act and think like you – someone who needs the gifts you have to offer; and someone whose gifts you didn’t even know you needed to receive.

If we do not work to overcome the divides; if we do not encounter the love of God that heals our wounds and overcomes our brokenness – then we might as well be the rich man eating sumptuously every day. And if we do not commit to being good stewards of the many blessings God has given us, we cannot hope to transform the world.

If you are a part of this church family, that means God’s love has started the process of transformation in your life. If you are not a part of this church family yet, it is my hope and prayer that you would encounter God’s love in our midst. That’s why we are focusing this week on our commitment toward the first portion of our mission. I am asking you to make two, simple, practical commitments this year. Attend worship when you are in town and able, and also pray for the people of this church this city and all God’s creation. You’ll also have the chance to share any new commitment that you’d like to make, but that doesn’t fit neatly in a check box.

I’m asking you to make these commitments so that this would be a place in which all God’s Children are invited and embraced to encounter the love of God for themselves. You’ll notice in each area of commitment this year, but especially in this first week, there is a shift in the focus of our commitments. I’m not asking you to make these commitments for the sake of your own spiritual life and health – I’m asking you to make them for the sake of the person sitting beside you and especially for the sake of the person who may never step foot in this building, but so desperately needs to know the love of God. Encounter Love in our life together – be the place in which all God’s children encounter that life changing, bridge building, love that leads to abundant life. There is no chasm too wide. No division too deep. We are one in the love and grace of God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.