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.

Divided

God has always chosen and used broken and imperfect people to build the kingdom of God. There never was and never will be a perfect group of spotless Christian people. But every time we gather, we remember that God has always invited us to be the hands and feet of Christ. God has always empowered us to be salt and light. God has always chosen us to be the vehicle through which God will love and transform the whole world.

2/12/17

1 Corinthians 3:1-9
3And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul can be kind of a condescending jerk. I know you’re not really supposed to talk bad about high, holy, church leaders like Paul, but it’s true – he can be a condescending jerk sometimes.  “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” Paul, the great leader of the faith and the planter of many churches, writes this in his first letter to the Corinthian church. “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”

The nerve of that guy! I know it’s probably easy to hear Paul’s words in a more hopeful sense, “don’t worry, you’re young. You’ll get there, keep going and growing!” That treatment of Paul’s tone comes from the same place that leads us to assume the most angelic dispositions of everyone in scripture. But it’s also quite wrong. Paul is no better or worse than us, just like every other leader and author and writer but Jesus. And Paul comes off like he’s talking to a bunch of little petulant children who can do nothing right. It’s hard to read the whole letter and not see some condescension from Paul come through here.

3 years ago I preached for about 6 weeks in a row on this letter to the Corinthian church and the title of that series of messages was Being Church – it was like a 101 course for how to be church well. And what you find any time you study that much of this book is that a better title for the way Paul actually talks would be “Y’all are terrible at this game.” To preach about 1st Corinthians as a church 101 manual requires us to learn almost exclusively from their mistakes. The letter reads much more like a point by point checklist of what they got wrong; then Paul offers various kinds of correction and encouragement to do it better. Leadership, the Lord’s Supper, Spiritual Gifts, marriage, lawsuits, care for the widows, diet and idols, authority, resurrection – all of it was handled poorly in the Corinthian church. And Paul didn’t hold back in telling them so.

You were infants when I brought the faith initially. You are infants still. I fed you milk. I gave it to you the easy way. And still you didn’t get it. You’re still infants now, you’re still not ready. Paul sure knows how to be a buzzkill. It’s a good thing we’ve solved all those problems they were facing back then………

That was sarcasm, if you didn’t catch it. It’s actually a little depressing to read on and see the specific thing that Paul is calling out at this point. He continues – “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you.” “are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?” Division over leaders – some in Corinth choosing Paul who started the church. Others choosing Apollo who stayed behind to keep things going. Factions forming around one personality set up against another. I belong to Paul… I do not belong to Apollos. I belong to Apollos…I do not belong to Paul. Sound familiar to anyone?

I don’t know what you see, but I swear every day it seems to get worse – we seem to retreat further and further into the right or the left and never the two shall meet. It’s not always conservative vs liberal of course, but it is I choose one and NOT the other – it’s rich against poor – rural against urban – Texan against Cowboy…maybe that’s not too bad – here in our town there’s a tension between the long time small town residents and the just moved out here big city transplants – there’s people who want everything to go back to the 1950s glory and some who want to completely wipe away the past. The divisions are there, I know you feel them in at least one arena of your lives. If churches are any better it is usually because they’ve run off those who don’t look and think and act alike.

Why are divisions so deep? That’s clearly the rhetorical question on Paul’s mind as he continues. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” That’s a beautiful reminder from Paul. Paul’s job was to come and plant the church, to get things off the ground. Apollos’ job was to stay and nurture and work in Paul’s absence. But God gave the growth. God did the hard part. God did the only part that really matters.

So, Paul concludes this part of the letter, “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” It’s not about the credit or the factions. It’s not about the leaders or the best ideas or the most important stage of church growth. Paul and Apollos – everything they did was about working together to see the growth that God would bring about.

That’s a message much easier said than implemented. The leaders and groups you care most about – they don’t really matter. We’re just in it together, trust God in all things! The sentiment is nice, but I don’t imagine you’ll change the world and end the division just by saying it.

I’m not going to solve the world’s divisions by the end of this sermon, but I do want to offer 1 reason division is so hard to overcome, 1 reason to be full of care  in how you respond when you hear the words of whatever side you don’t agree with, 1 reason it’s OK to admit that we’re still infants in Christ, and 1 reason to stay hopeful in spite of it all.

First, 1 reason division is so hard to overcome. When people say “I believe” what they really mean is “I am.” Modern society doesn’t foster the kind of families and communities that accept and encourage and uplift each other in strength and through weakness. It’s super easy and common to equate the things I choose to believe or the people I choose to follow with my deepest identity. So when someone challenges the things I say I believe, it feels like they’re saying I’m not good enough or I’m not OK. No matter how intellectual or analytical we may think we are, what’s at stake runs a lot deeper when we try to talk across the dividing lines.

Second, 1 reason to be full of care when responding to the other side – no matter which side that may be. The words we say often hide the things we feel. I’ve had to learn this the hard way, but you can figure out a lot if you really pay attention. The best example I can offer of what I mean were words spoken by a clergy colleague a while back. This colleague was a fairly calm introverted guy. He told me that he had felt a deep calling to be a new church start pastor and it was his passion to make it happen. I could see the passion as he spoke. Then he began pontificating on the stats and the probabilities that every new church start pastor would be an energetic extrovert. He said calm introverts are rejected from those positions.

Can you hear what he was saying? My greatest passion in life and ministry is to start a new church. Introverts don’t get to do that. I don’t get to do that. I am being rejected from fulfilling the passion God has laid on my heart. You can hear a lot if you’re willing to actually listen. I want to suggest two particular phrases for you to hear differently, one more for the right and one more for the left – I’ll hopefully get myself in trouble with everyone this way.

Black lives matter has become one of the rallying cries for a variety of protests within African American communities. It’s especially common in response to incidents in which a black person is killed by a police officer, but the roots of racial tensions and protests run a whole lot deeper. I’m sure you’re aware there have also been similar phrases popularized as a response to that movement – blue lives matter expressing support for police; all lives matter expressing that it’s a mistake to focus on any one group. I’m not going to wade too deeply into the waters of whether the initial word choice was the best because I’m the last person who could understand all the dynamics in play.

I’m not going to tell you whether to support any of the response movements, but I am asking you, again, to listen more closely to the words that started it. Black lives matter. You don’t choose those words because you’re a little upset or something bothers you about society these days. Movements like this don’t catch fire unless they touch a deep hurt down inside a lot of people. You only choose those words when you’re ready to say I don’t feel like my life matters to you. I don’t feel like you actually care if I live or die. And if you have no idea why a black person in America today could possibly get to the point of feeling that way, then before you say something in response, talk to someone who knows. Have an actual conversation to hear the experiences and understand the words behind the words.

Most of the time, our rhetoric is a shield so that we can say just enough to hide the depth of the fear or pain or anxiety that really lives down deep inside. On the other side of the aisle, the most catchy polarizing phrase has been “Make America Great Again.” Implicit in the promise is the anxiety that America is not great and is in desperate need of revival. Again, I would say, if you don’t understand why that slogan would catch fire in someone’s heart, you need to hear their story before you can hope to bridge the divide. If we don’t create the spaces where we can know and be known by people on opposite sides of the aisle, then we’ll never really hear what other children of God are trying so hard to say. If we don’t listen first, nothing we say in response will benefit anything.

Third, I offer 1 reason it’s OK to admit that we’re still infants in Christ. I’ve just said that people equate the beliefs and words they profess with who they are. And I’ve argued that some of the more well known movements represent deep hurts and fears and anxieties. The easy response is to say I must be wrong. Life is really not that bad. I didn’t do anything to cause this. Those other people need to get over it and grow up like me. You can deny the seriousness of the brokenness people feel, but to do so is to deny the heart of the gospel message.

While we were sinners, Christ died for us. We say those words in our communion liturgy all the time; but we could just as easily say while we are still infants, Christ died for us. Christ paved the road that we never could. Christ brought healing and wholeness and life itself through His life, death, and resurrection. The point was never for us to be good enough so that we could get through life without God. We are not in control. We are made new only when we submit to the grace of God that goes before us long before we even know God is there.

And finally, 1 reason to stay hopeful in spite of it all.  God has always chosen and used broken and imperfect people to build the kingdom of God. There never was and never will be a perfect group of spotless Christian people. But every time we gather, we remember that God has always invited us to be the hands and feet of Christ. God has always empowered us to be salt and light. God has always chosen us to be the vehicle through which God will love and transform the whole world.

What is milk today is the easy self help, God loves all, kumbaya faith that we sometimes need to hear. Solid food is the radical kind of choice Jesus actually made to risk his life in order to love the unloveable; his choice to tear down so many walls that God’s people had built. Moving to solid food starts with finding our identity in God and in this community of support and encouragement. It spreads when we are willing to listen to our neighbors, to hear their words, and to embrace their stories, no matter how uncomfortable we get. Turning to solid food is possible only by the grace of God and it reminds us that by God’s grace, we are becoming more than we could imagine on our own.

Paul can be a condescending jerk sometimes, but Jesus Christ humbled himself because we weren’t strong enough to do so. As far as anyone could look down on us, Christ lowered himself farther to heal our deepest divisions. None of us is the author of this story, God alone gives the growth. Seek out the solid food, and be willing to change the world.

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