Tuesday, April 15, 2014

There is no Sugar Coating Life

There just isn't.

Plain and simple.

There is no doubt in my mind that life is good...at times.

And there is no doubt in my mind that life is really rotten...at times.

What astounds me is how oftentimes, folks stay at either end of the pendulum without naming life for what it is.

Martin Luther once remarked, "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is."

This past week has been rough for the community I serve (and for me as well).  A well liked church member suffered a massive stroke, and the prognosis isn't good.  He is on hospice and will meet his eternal glory soon.

Another church member and fellow musician in our church band expedited his meeting with Christ by committing suicide last week Wednesday.  A life-long struggle with depression finally ended, but the shock and grief hit a whole lot of people.

It was quite the double whammy for many, and there is no sugar coating it.  You can't put a good spin on things and say, "Oh, everything is just peachy-keen.  God is in control and is orchestrating all of this stuff to bring on bigger and better blessings!  Just have enough faith and everything will work out fine!"

You can take this train of thought and shove it where the sun doesn't shine.

As I have written before, I do not believe God orchestrates such events.  These events take place because of the brokenness of our world--they are a direct consequence of Sin--separation from God--not because of God.  It is during and after these events that God really and truly rolls up His sleeves and goes to work.  It is during and after these events that God works to bring good from evil; peace from turmoil; healing from suffering.

It is hard for me to fathom that many folks still cling to the idea that if one commits suicide, one is eternally destined for hell.  It is hard for me to fathom that some still cling to the idea that we are struck down with illness, disease, stroke, or cancer as some sort of punishment for the wrongs we have committed.  This works-righteousness theology sometimes runs very deep.

But God is a God of grace.  Christ revealed that unequivocally through the cross and resurrection.  St. Paul expounded on it through his letters.  For those who believe in Christ, we are not judged by what we do.  We are not judged by our actions for our righteousness does not depend upon our righteousness, but on Christ's righteousness.  We are not saved because of what we do, but because of what Christ has done.

As I remarked in conversation yesterday:

You know, if we were judged based upon what we do, we would all go to hell.  Jamie committed suicide.  He killed himself, but if I get angry with someone, according to Jesus, I am committing murder.  I am doomed if I am judged by my actions.  But I am not.  Jamie was not.  We are judged according to Christ's actions.  Period.

This doesn't sugar coat life.  It allows us to be frank about life.  It allows us to name all the pink elephants in the room.  It allows us to be honest about the circumstances of life and death.  It allows us to name the brokenness of life--call darkness for what it is--call pain for what it is--cry and wail and weep in the midst of that pain.

But it also allows us to live without despair.  For the theology of the cross leads straight to the resurrection.  Despair turns to hope.  Death turns to life.  Darkness turns to light.

In the midst of the messyness of life, I have come to realize I have a powerful, humbling privilege: to proclaim the gospel--to remind people that God is working to transform their brokenness into wholeness; to turn mourning into dancing.  I have the privilege of telling people that though Jesus died, He now lives, and because He lives we shall live also.  And neither life, nor death, nor things present, nor things to come--nothing in all creation--can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

There's no sugar coating life.

But in the end, there is transformation.  There is resurrection, and that, my readers, is sweet.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Behold Your King! Palm Sunday Sermon

    I remember vividly back in 2008 when Barak Obama was elected president of the United States of America.  I know this was not a popular choice here in Texas or in Austin County, but in the scope of the nation, at the time, this was a minority position.  The newly elected president had somewhere around a 71% approval rating even before his first act in office.  The senator from Illinois had burst on the scene with outstanding rhetoric and capitalized on the extreme unpopularity of President Bush.  He cruised to victory in the presidential election, and his victory party was a sight to behold.  So was the inauguration.  The president drew thousands upon thousands of people.  Shortly after entering office, he drew thousands to a speech in Germany.  He won the Nobel Peace prize.  Millions of people around the world celebrated Barak Obama’s ascension to the highest office of leadership in the United States–arguably the most powerful seat of authority in the world.

    Most new regimes are welcomed in such a fashion.  If you study history, you know this well.  For whatever reason, people usually grow tired of the old leaders.  Countries and nations become stuck in a rut.  They hear the same tired old speeches.  Their lots in life never seem to change.  Corruption enters the picture.  Friends of those in power get rewarded.  The rich get richer.  The poor get poorer.  Those in power enjoy the perks of the office, and there often is a growing perception that those leaders are out of touch with the reality of common folk.  Before you know it, people are clamoring for change.  People are clamoring for new leadership.  And when it comes, they welcome it.

    Case in point, let’s look at a snippet from Jewish history.  Long ago, the Greek armies under the Selucid empire invaded Israel.  They overran the country side, but as the Greek empire became stretched thin, some rebellions became successful.  The Jewish Hasmoneans rebelled against this empire and briefly issued in a time of independence for Israel.  Briefly.  Please know I am painting in large brush strokes here.  The details are much too intricate to get into in this sermon.  The Jews were all to happy to rid themselves of foreign rule; however there was also dissension.  As time passed, the people became less and less appreciative of the Hasmoneans.  They became disenchanted with their corruption, and supposedly, when the Roman empire began asserting itself in Israel, instead of offering resistence, the people of Jerusalem opened the gates of the city to welcome the Roman armies in.  Interesting historical note there, isn’t it.

    Of course, the Jewish folks then resented the Romans who governed them.  All to happy to welcome them to begin with, they were more than ready to overthrow them and become independent once again.  They were all to ready to have new leadership and new governance.  The seeds of rebellion were indeed planted, and all they needed was some energy to begin germination. 

    This is one of the reasons for the crowd’s enthusiasm on that day when Jesus made his way into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey.  This is one of the reasons the crowd placed palm branches and cloaks in His path.  They had all heard about Jesus.  They had heard about His deeds of wonder and power.  They had heard about Him healing the sick, making the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk.  They had heard of His feeding of the multitude.  They had heard of Him calming the storm.  They had heard about Him raising the dead.  They knew He claimed a special relationship with God–the Son of God; the Son of Man.  Here was, they felt, the one who would now lead them; who would defeat the Romans; who would usher in a new Jewish dynasty.  And he was riding on a donkey to prove it!

    This act of Jesus was intentional.  It was no act of humility.  The people knew that the prophet Zechariah had foretold in a vision long ago that the king would come to them in such a fashion.  You can read the prophesy yourself in Zechariah chapter 9 verse 9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Jesus knew that prophesy.  The people knew that prophesy.  The King was coming!  Regime change was on the way.  Celebration ensued! 

    But, you know, there is something that must be said about Kings.  There is something that must be said about political and religious leaders who rule over others.  These folks demand obedience.  These folks place demands upon their followers.  There is no king, no ruler, no prince, no president, no despot, no monarch, who does not give their subjects complete and total freedom.  None of them.  Zip.  Nada.  Zilch.  All of them, yes, all of them expect something out of their subjects.  This is probably one of the reasons people long for regime change after so many years.  They begin to reject the rules imposed by their king or leader.  They begin to rebel against the things that they perceive to be an imposition upon their lives.  Subjects begin to want to do what they want to do–even if they know the King is looking out for their best interest.

    It didn’t take long for people to rebel against Jesus.  For Jesus made demands, and He still makes demands of His subjects.  His teachings are clear, and He continued to make those demands after He entered Jerusalem on that day long ago.

    “Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you.”

    Jesus, do you mean I have to pray for those Roman soldiers up there?  Do you mean I have to ask God to bless them?  Yes.

    “Your neighbor is the person who is in need.  Even an infidel who acts in kindness is doing the will of God–if your enemy is neighborly, He is fulfilling the command of God.”

    Jesus, do you mean that God approves of and loves those outside of the Jewish faith? Does God look down upon them with kindness?  Yes.

    “If anyone wants to become my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me.  For you cannot be my disciple unless you give up all of your possessions.”

    Jesus, do you mean I have to give up everything to follow you?  Do you mean that I have to die to follow you?  Yes.

    “Give to anyone who begs.”

    Jesus, do you mean anyone?  Really anyone?  What if you know they are taking advantage of you?  What if you know they have plenty and are using you?  You still want us to give?  Yes.

    Is it any wonder why people rebelled against Jesus?

    Is it any wonder why we rebel against Jesus today?

    The obedience He asks for is simply too much.  It is an unobtainable reality.  We simply value our freedom too much.  We value our time too much.  We value our money too much.  You want everything from me, Jesus?  It’s too much to ask.  I can’t give it.

    Is it any wonder that the very crowd crying “Hosanna!” began yelling “Crucify!”?

    And here is a most interesting twist–a most interesting twist indeed.  For usually, when people rebel against their rulers, their rulers react swiftly and harshly.  Violence is usually the order of the day.  Imprisonment is certainly an option.  Fear of arrest, of marginalization, of being audited by the IRS, and a host of other such methods is usually the rule of thumb to keep people in line.  Kings throughout the ages have come up with nasty ways of keeping populations in line and in control.  Gas chambers, bombs, tanks, tear gas, you name it.

    But what was Jesus response?  How did this King handle our rebellion?

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through Him.

    Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested.  He allowed Himself to be beaten.  He allowed Himself to be condemned, and He willingly stretched out His arms and died.  He died for His rebellious subjects so that they may see His great love for them and then moved by His love, they may strive toward obedience–not out of fear, but out of love for their King.  A King who willingly dies that His subjects may have life; abundant life; eternal life.

    Behold, this is your King!  Amen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

You are Working Too Hard

It's never happened in my 14 years of serving as a pastor.

It broke the mold, and I am very thankful for it.

After worship this past Sunday, a congregation member caught me as I was tuning my guitar in preparation for Sunday School opening.  The following conversation is not verbatim, but I think it is a very close reconstruction:

"Pastor," the member said, "I am doing all of the things you said in your sermon.  Why don't I have it (peace and fulfillment)?  What is wrong with me?"

I stopped to ponder that question for a moment.  This was shaky ground.  Too far to one side, and you've crossed into that territory where you blame someone and their lack of faith in that they haven't found peace.  Too far to the other side, and you come across as self-righteous--with an "I've got something you don't have" attitude.  Too often, because of our weakness, this happens--even to the best of those who seek to help others grow spiritually.

"I don't know," I replied.  "Let's think about it for a minute."

"I've quit my job.  I spend a lot of time sitting and reflecting, and I still don't have peace.  I still am hurting.  I still am empty."

I paused once again.  Everyone's spiritual path is a little different, but there are still some similarities.  If there were none, the saints' experiences of old would have no meaning for us today.  As someone who has recently been converted by the gospel and been given a sense of that peace, I began working with this congregation member with mine.

Me: I know you read my blog.  I know you know all about my ordeal with burn out.  I know you heard the story of my grandfather's words to me.  "I haven't accomplished much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."  That statement hit me down deep and helped bring about transformation because it set things in perspective.

Congregation Member (CM): I understand that, and I understand that quote.  But it's still not there.

Me: And, something happened to me when I went away to my property out in Rocksprings.  I don't know exactly what it was.  I was away from everything; from television, internet, cell phones and technology.  I was completely reliant upon others when my truck broke down.  I came back different.

CM: I see that, and I'm doing a lot of the same things.

(light bulb!)

Me: Wait a minute.  You are doing?

CM: Yes.

Me: Think about that a moment.  You are doing all this stuff to achieve peace and healing.  You know, I once thought I had to do an awful lot to make this congregation grow. I thought it was my job to motivate people, to save the church, to get people to come here.  I thought it was all up to me.  Don't get me wrong.  I mean, I said all along that God's Spirit had to bring people to faith and bring them to worship and change their hearts and motivate them.  I said all the right things about grace and salvation and growing into discipleship, but down deep in my heart, it wasn't there.  I had it in my head, but it wasn't down in my heart.  I had to let all that stuff go.  Last Sunday, when I quoted the words of Amazing Grace, I almost didn't make it through the song.  I have always believed the words of that song, but it became really real, if you know what I mean.

CM: Trust me, as I left last week, I was bawling my eyes out.

Me: Maybe, the problem is that you are trying to get this peace and healing on your own efforts.  You are trying to do all the right things, but it isn't about that.  It's about God's grace healing you.

CM: Maybe that's the case.

This member began shedding tears once again.  My own lips trembled.  (Hey, I had to hold it together.  Sunday School was about to start!)  We embraced.

Later in the afternoon, I checked Facebook.  One of the status updates was a group I had liked--a group following C.S. Lewis quotes.  The quote read, "Your real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it.  It will come when you are looking for Him."

I quickly texted this quote to my congregation member.

I thought about what C.S. Lewis said.
I thought about my conversation with my congregant.
I thought about my own journey and sense of peace within.

And I said, "Amen."

Whenever a sense of self-peace, self-fulfillment, self-contentment, and self-joy is our goal, we are still being self-centered.  We are still at the center of our own universe and pursuing a false god.  It is not pursuit of God.  It is not pursuit of Christ.

Pause: Before anyone jumps me for not being theologically correct from a Lutheran standpoint, I understand deeply and appreciatively that I cannot "find Jesus" or "find God" through my own efforts and strength.  Christ coming to us is a tremendous gift which comes sometimes despite our best efforts often to avoid it and rely upon ourselves.  Yet, if our goal is seeking self-satisfaction, it clouds our relationship with Christ and ultimately does not allow Him to do His work.

When Christ becomes the center; when the understanding of grace takes root--that salvation comes from the Lord; when my own ego is shattered and self-righteousness is beaten back (but not fully conquered); when I realize Christ loves me despite my flaws and does not forcibly try to change those flaws and that I am called to extend that same courtesy to others; then the by-product is peace, joy, fulfillment and understanding.  I do not get those things without Christ being center.

Are you working too hard to find peace, fulfillment and contentment?  Are these things the end goals in and of themselves?

I think that if they are, you will not find them.  They must be cast off as false pursuits.

Pursue Christ; seek first His kingdom, then all these things will be added as well.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Happy Birthday, Boy!

"It will take a miracle."

I remember the words vividly as the reproductive endocrinologist spoke them to my wife and I many years ago.

Dawna had just undergone multiple tests in regards to infertility.  The results were conclusive.  There are many reasons couples are infertile.  Ours had a particular name: polycystic ovarian syndrome.  Basically, my wife has a major chemical imbalance in her body which prevents it from releasing an egg during ovulation.  Instead, the egg becomes stuck and forms a mini-cyst on her ovary: hence poly (many) cystic (cysts) ovarian syndrome.

"Your testosterone levels are among the highest I've ever seen.  You can try injections, but there is no guarantee."

I am a pastor.  I am not made of money, and spending close to $10,000 (at the time) was beyond my financial capability for a chance.  Insurance didn't cover the procedures.  We made the choice shortly after to adopt.

It took several years after that point, but we did adopt two wonderful little girls.  We were happy.  We were content.  We were satisfied as a family of four.

Then, something happened.

"I'm having to go to the restroom all the time, and parts of my body are swelling that haven't swelled since puberty.  I've done some research, and either I have cancer or I'm pregnant."

"Well," I replied, "Either way, you have to go to the doctor, so we might as well check on one."

Pregnancy test: positive.

"It will take a miracle."  So be it, and it came to pass.  Today, that miracle brings all sorts of joy, frustration, laughter, and amazement to our lives.

I do not know why we experienced this little bundle of joy.  I will gladly say that it wasn't because my wife and I did anything extraordinary.  We are not extraordinary or super Christians.  We don't have a special kind of faith.  We weren't doing the right things, saying the right prayers, or having hundreds upon hundreds of people praying for us.  It wasn't anything we did or were doing.  In fact, we had given up.  There was a glimmer of hope that maybe, possibly something could happen, but we surely didn't expect it.

One could say, "Well, that's the key then, just don't expect a miracle, and then it will happen."  No.  I don't think that works either.  It's not about what works.  It's about God's action and not our own.

Sure.  I know that may make some folks uncomfortable because then all those uncomfortable questions arise: Why does God do something here and not over here?  Why does God act for this person and not that one?  Does God go so far as give people prime parking at grocery stores when they ask for it?  O.K. maybe that last one isn't too uncomfortable, but I've heard non-believers ridicule believers over that one.

The uncomfortableness can easily be solved by saying that there is no supernatural intervention in this world.  There is a definite scientific explanation for all events.  In my case, a egg just happend to break loose, and my wife and I just happened to time things just right that the egg became fertilized.  (For those who know anything about polycystic ovarian syndrome, you already know there is no such thing as timing on these things.  There is no such thing as a regular cycle.  You literally are shooting in the dark and hoping to hit a moving target.  Try that sometime and see how "lucky" you are.)  One big cosmic accident?  Sure.  You could think that.  It solves the uncomfortable God question, but puts you at odds with simple mathematics and probability.

I come back to the scientifically trained, highly specialized person who told us, "It will take a miracle."

It did.  I'll live with the uncomfortable questions.  I don't have good answers to them at all.  I'm o.k. with that.  I don't mind ambiguity.

Joy overshadows it.

Every day when I look at my son.

And especially today.

His birthday.

Happy birthday, Kevin, Jr! 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Set Free from Our Modern Masters

    I know we cherish the thought that we are free.  I phrased that sentence very carefully.  Listen to it again.  I know we cherish the thought that we are free.  I mean, no one wants to be told or to think that one is shackled.  No one wants to be told or think that one is a prisoner.  No one wants to be told or think that one isn’t in control of his or her own life or destiny.  “I govern my own thoughts and my own life and no one tells me what to do!  I AM FREE!”  Or so we like to think.

    But are we really free?

    A couple of chapters before this story, Jesus confronts a group of Pharisees, and he tells them, “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’

    Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

    Now, you may say to me, “Well, pastor, I know that I sin, but I’m hardly a slave to it.  It doesn’t control me.  I ask God for forgiveness, and I continue on in doing the things that make me happy.”

    And so I ask you, “Are you then a slave to happiness?  By your own words are you not a slave to your desires?”  I do the things that make me happy.

    And I am sure you are happy–for a time.  But do you have joy?  Do you have peace?  Do you have a sense of fulfillment about you?  If you do, then congratulations, but do you think this is what I hear most people say about their lives?  Do you think when I ask people about how their lives are going, they say they are at peace and have contentment?  Not a chance.  In fact, I cannot think of anyone who has ever answered me that they are at peace.  Of course, everyone first says that they are doing fine, but in a matter of moments, if you really engage them in conversation, they begin telling you how busy they are.  They begin telling you how they are chasing after their kids, or their commitments, or after volunteer opportunities, or at work or what have you.  Our conversations constantly revolve around all the stuff we have to do or get done, and time and again I hear the stress and the strain.  “I’m tired.”  “I’m stressed.”  “I don’t want to deal with all of this stuff anymore.”

    And if I got up here this morning and said, “Just walk away from it then,” what would you tell me?  Many would say, “I can’t.”  Others might say, “Well, I’ll just stop coming to church because that’s a place where I can cut some time.”  Let me offer you this.  First, if you say you can’t stop doing the things you are doing, then I submit to you, you are not free.  You are a prisoner.  Second, I submit to you that if you decide to cut out going to church and coming into contact with the living God, then you are actually leaving the one place where you can be assured to encounter the one who can make you free.

    Let’s turn to our gospel lesson this morning from the 11th chapter of the book of John.  It’s the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus.  We see how Jesus is made aware early on that Lazarus is very ill.  Jesus purposely procrastinates in going to his friend’s side knowing full well Lazarus will die.  When Jesus does finally head to Bethany, He is confronted with the human condition–our bondage to sin and death.

    Upon His arrival, Martha runs out to meet him.  Martha tells Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Interestingly enough, this is not the first time we will hear this statement.  It will be spoken again later.  “Lord, if only you had been here...but nevertheless, I know that God will grant you what you ask.” 

    Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise again.”

    Martha says, “Of course he will at the resurrection.”

    And Jesus snaps back, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

    Do you believe this?  Jesus confronts Martha with the Truth.  In the midst of our struggles and stresses and anxieties, we usually become so overwhelmed that we leave the Truth behind.  We focus on all the stuff of the world, but neglect the source of our strength and hope.  We neglect the source of true freedom.  “I am the resurrection and the life!” Jesus says, “Do you believe this?”

    Martha says, “Yes.  I believe you are the Messiah.”  Are we so bold as to say the same thing?

    It’s interesting that the story doesn’t progress from here straight to Lazarus’ tomb.  There is more, and this time, Martha’s sister Mary is involved.  Mary now comes to Jesus, and she says the exact same phrase Martha said earlier.  “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

    But this time, Jesus’ response is vastly different.  This time, instead of appealing to the Truth, Jesus responds with tears.  Seeing Mary’s grief and the grief of those surrounding her, Jesus is troubled deeply.  Actually, that’s not the proper term.  The proper term is brought to a place of roiling anger.  It’s an anger that causes Jesus to weep.  Why?  Why does Jesus weep?

    Let’s take in three more sentences of the text.  36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’  Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed (billowing with anger!), came to the tomb.

    Remember when I said Jesus was confronted with the human condition?  Jesus is confronted with the reality of death, and His first encounter is with Martha who says, “Lord if only you had been here, this stuff wouldn’t have happened.”  There is both a statement of trust and condemnation in that statement.  Martha trusts that Jesus would have healed Lazarus, but she also has a hint of chastisement, I think.  Not just if you would have been here, you should have been here.  How often do we think the same things of God–you should make my life better.  You should take away my problems.  You should take away my anxiety, my fear, my guilt, my shame–if only you were here! 

    Mary offers another aspect of the human condition to Jesus.  She falls on her feet in front of Jesus and with tears says, “Lord if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  She is consumed with grief; with pain; with frustration; with agony.  Jesus sees this pain–pain brought on by death and suffering.  And He gets angry about it.

    Finally, Jesus knows the hearts of those who are saying, “Well, He opened the eyes of the guy born blind.  Surely taking care of a cold would have been pretty easy.”  They are doubting Jesus.  They are doubting that He is the Messiah.  Confronted with death, grief, illness, and suffering, they doubt that Jesus is who He says He is.  And Jesus gets angry once again.

    What is He angry at?  Is He angry at Martha and Mary?  No.  I don’t think so.  Is He angry at those who were expressing doubt?  No.  I don’t think so again. He was getting angry before their statement.  Is He angry with Himself for not getting there?  No.  He engineered this situation from the get-go.  If He’s not angry with any of the players in the play, then who or what is Jesus angry at?

    The human condition.  He’s angry at the whole situation of brokenness that we face when it comes to facing death.  And where did that brokenness come from?  Where did it all start? 

    Long ago, in the garden when man and woman chose to be like God instead of depending on God.  The sin of Adam once again rears its head.  Selfish desire strikes out showing just how we are trapped.  We are in chains.  Death holds sway, and many of our pursuits of life are efforts to deal with the fact or to avoid the fact that we will die.  We rush and hurry and scurry to get as much in as we can because we are going to die.  We enslave ourselves to our jobs and our possessions and our plans and our desires so that we can die having done and seen as much as we possibly can.  We end up stressed out burning the candles at both ends with no peace and no joy because we are afraid of death.  And Jesus sees this.  He’s angry about it.  Deeply and passionately angry about it because He knows, He knows this is not the way it is supposed to be.

    He knows that we are meant to have peace.

    He knows we are meant to have fulfillment.

    He knows we are meant to have joy.

    But we will not find them pursuing all the stuff we think will give it to us.  We will only find such things in Jesus.  He knows He must show us, and in the raising of Lazarus, we get a foreshadowing of why Jesus came into the world.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.

            “Show me where you buried him!”  Jesus exclaims.  “Roll the stone away!”

    Lazarus is raised from the dead to the astonishment of all.  Jesus shows that He has power over death.  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Abundant life.  Fulfilled life.

    And Jesus’ last words in our lesson today are, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

    Unbind him, and let him go.  On Calvary, Jesus stretched out His arms and died to reconcile the world unto God.  Three days later, another stone was rolled away and another tomb became empty, and the freedom released wasn’t just for one man.  It was for the world.  It was for you.  It was for me.  By grace, you have been set free, and it was and is through Christ alone.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Frozen" in Fear

Maybe I'm the last parent in the U.S. whose seen "Frozen."  Maybe.

My wife took the kids to see the movie long ago, and everyone loved it.  Can't remember what yours truly was engaged in at the time.  Probably work related.

Of course, the movie came out on DVD and BluRay a week or so ago.  The kids haven't stopped begging me to buy it.  (Before anyone gets the bright idea I'm a stingy old coot about buying the movie, please realize two of my children have birthdays this month.  Guess what at least one of them is getting.  Thank you.)  The kids found out my secretary owns the movie, and they conned her into loaning it to us.

Family movie night was Sunday evening.  Everyone was actually hoping I would be surprised by a couple of plot twists.  (I wasn't.)  And they were a little miffed that I figured out the act of true love that melted a frozen heart--before that act was actually revealed.  All that aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

Being the pastor and (ahem) theologian that I am, I cannot help but make all sorts of connections between faith, ethics and such movies.  "Frozen" offered a very, very good one in my estimation.

If anyone hasn't seen the movie, stop reading.  Spoilers ahead!

Elsa is blessed/cursed with magical abilities to bring about a perpetual winter.  If she can't control things, she freezes someone.  She hits her sister, Anna, in the head early in the movie (in the heart later).  Elsa's parents rush Anna to the trolls for healing.  Fortunately, the fix is quite easy, but the king  troll offers an ominous warning, "You must learn to control it.  Fear will be your enemy."   As a result of the accident and this warning Elsa's parents decide that she must be kept away from everyone, including her sister. 

What they don't realize is that they have just helped Elsa and fear become constant companions.  "Don't let them in, don't let them see, Be the good girl you always have to be. Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know." becomes Elsa's mantra.  It's a mantra of fear, and this fear literally keeps Elsa frozen--frozen in loneliness, frozen in relationships, frozen in emotion, frozen in stoicism.  How can she escape this prison?

She tries running away, but her problems follow her.  And not only do they follow her, they get worse and worse and worse.  Soon, Elsa's life is in danger, Anna's life is in danger, the kingdom's life is in danger.  Who or what can break them free from this bondage to fear?

The troll actually offers us the answer.  "An act of true love can melt a frozen heart."

Anna eventually provides that act of true love as she sacrifices herself for her sister.  (Don't worry, there is a happy ending.  It's Disney after all.)

Through her sister's self-sacrificial act--a willingness to become frozen herself for her sister--Elsa's own heart is set free.  She realizes that love drives out fear, and for the first time, she is no longer afraid of her power.  She embraces it, learns to control it--not out of fear, but with love.  She is no longer frozen.  She let's go of her fear.  (Yeah, now go listen to that song again and realize why it should have been sung at the END of the movie!)

I know fear.

I felt it deeply.

My fear was wrapped up in how my congregation grew or didn't grow.  It was wrapped up in how many people were in worship.  It was wrapped up in proving that I had the right way of doing things as a pastor.  It was wrapped up in proving that Christianity was true.  It was wrapped up in thinking that I was completely and totally responsible for making my congregation grow and stick together and thrive.  If anything threatened any of those things I just listed, I became anxious, fearful, worried, distressed, angry--you name it.

"An act of true love can melt a frozen heart."

When I realized I couldn't make this congregation grow, I became even more depressed and anxious.  I wanted to make my mark on the world.  I wanted to make a difference and receive the adulation and praise that came with making that difference.  Call me selfish.  I deserve it.  I was and maybe still am to an extent.  But something's happened.

"An act of true love can melt a frozen heart."

I told the story of the encounter with my grandfather this Thanksgiving.  Just a reminder.  His words still haunt and empower me to this day.  "I may not have accomplished much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."

That only happens by grace.  That only happens by the death and resurrection of Jesus--an act of true love.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Twas blind but now I see.

I spoke those words in my sermon this past Sunday, and I almost didn't make it through them.  My voice trembled.  Tears began welling in my eyes.  I'm not sure too many people saw or heard.  I don't know.  What I do know is the true impact in my heart.  Freedom.

Free from fear.
Free from anxiety.
Free from feeling like I had to do it all to make a church grow.
Free from thinking everything rested on my shoulders.

It doesn't. 
No longer frozen in the way things always were.

I can say at this point that this freedom has now allowed me to love the people of this congregation more deeply.  I don't know if they know that.

I can say at this point that this freedom has now allowed me to be more at peace within myself and with others unlike at any other point in my life.  I don't know if folks see that.

I can say at this point that this freedom has now given me a deeper passion to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ because I know, I know that which almost cannot be conveyed by words.  I don't know if folks can sense that.

But in many ways it doesn't matter what folks can or cannot see or sense.  I can't change them or make them come around.  Only the Gospel can do that.  Only an act of true love can do that.  Only Christ can do that.

When you encounter Him, you will know.  You will know peace.  You will know love.  You will know joy.  You will not be frozen in fear.  You will be able to let go of everything that once held you captive and kept you frozen.  Let it go.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Filling in the Blind Spot (Sermon on the Man Born Blind John 9)

    I want to begin this morning by doing something a little different.  In your bulletin this morning on the insert, you will see something quite strange.  On one side, you have all the announcements and stuff, but on the other, you simply have the letter “X” toward one of the ends.  I’d like for you to take that piece of paper and look at the side with the “X” on it.  Hold it out in front of your face at arm’s length with the “X” either on the right or on the left hand side.  Close the eye opposite the “X” so that the X remains on the side with your opened eye.  Now, stare at the center of the page and slowly move the paper toward your face.  Keep staring at the center and move the paper toward you until you see the X disappear.  If you didn’t quite get it, keep practicing.  Eventually, it will happen to you.  The X will be gone, and all you will see is the blank piece of paper.

    What I have just done for you is illustrate something we all have in common.  We all have a blind spot.  Yes, you heard it correctly.  Everyone has a blind spot on each eye.  Furthermore, did you notice that when you were looking at the paper, only the X disappeared?  Did you notice that there wasn’t a hole in your vision?  Do you know why?  Your brain fills in the blanks.  Yes, that’s right.  That wonderful organ laying between your ears literally fills in the blanks and puts into place what it is expecting to see.  Now, you can believe me or not, but if you don’t I suggest you do a bit of research.  Google the blind spot.  Look it up on Youtube.  Talk to your optometrist.  It’s there.  I promise you.  And it is quite startling for those of us who have believed all along that our vision is totally reliable.  But that’s not necessarily true.  You aren’t necessarily seeing what you thought you were seeing.  Your brain is constantly filling in the blanks.

    I think we need to process this reality for just a moment.  I mean, the implications of this can be a bit disconcerting.  What is reality?  What is the nature of reality if our brains are constantly filling in the blanks?  What is the nature of truth?  Can we ever believe that we have the full picture of things if we all have a blind spot?  These are tough questions.  Tough questions indeed.

    And there are many who believe the answer is no.  Many people say, “Well, everyone has a piece of the truth, but no one grasps the whole truth.”  That’s a fashionable thing to say in this day and age.  Usually, they refer to a well-known parable to illustrate this thought.  It’s the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  Perhaps you have heard it before.

    A group of blind men encounter an elephant.  Each wants to figure out what the elephant “looks” like, and so each begins to feel a particular part of the beast.  After each touches a part of the elephant, the blind men hold a conference and argue about what the elephant “looks” like.

    The first argues the beast is like a hose.  He felt the trunk.

    The second argues the elephant is like a spear.  He felt the tip of the tusk.

    The next argues the animal is like a brick wall.  He felt the torso.

    The next argues the beast is like a tree stump.  He felt the leg.

    The last guy argues the elephant is like a rope.  He grabbed the tail.

    The men argue and argue and argue, each convinced he has the truth of what the animal looks like, but none have the total picture.  Each is right.  And each is wrong.  Oftentimes at this point, someone will say this is the way religious people are.  Each religion has a part of the truth–each religion gets some things right about the nature of God, but none grasps the whole truth.

    The argument sounds good on paper.  It seems to grasp the nature of reality.  It seems to level the playing field when it comes to religious pluralism and doesn’t allow anyone to have any sort of superiority when it comes to beliefs.  Right?

    Well, wrong, actually.  I mean, this parable only works if someone else can see the whole elephant.  No one knows the blind guys are both right and wrong unless he can see the whole beast himself.  In other words, how can you say that these folks are all blind unless you yourself can see?  How can you say that everyone has a part of the truth but no one has the whole truth unless you yourself know the whole truth?  Either you have the whole truth or your are just as blind as everyone else.  Which is it?

    I’ve just shown you through a simple illustration, we all have a blind spot.  So guess what the reality is?  We are all blind.  We are all grasping at reality.  Who really knows what the truth is?  Who really knows who God is?

    This would pose a massive problem for us IF, and I want to emphasize that IF for a second, IF we as humans had to try and discover God all on our own.  IF we had to work our way up to God and try to discover the nature of God using our own devises, we would never, ever arrive at any sort of understanding of the Truth.  We would never, ever come to understand who God is and how God cares for us.  We would never be able to grasp the total reality as our brains would keep filling in the blanks putting stuff in that we want to be there instead of what is actually there.  If it were all up to us, this would be the case.

    Fortunately, it is not completely and totally up to us.  Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem.  Since we could not discover the nature of God on our own.  Since we could not grasp the reality of God because we are blind, God came to us to reveal Himself to us.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that the world may be saved through Him.”  Jesus Christ entered the world to help us see.

    Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the 9th chapter of the book of John.  The story begins with a man who was born blind.  The disciples look at this guy and say, “Jesus, who sinned that this man was born blind?  Did he sin or did his parents sin?”

    Remember, at this time, the prominent belief was that if you had some sort of malady, God was punishing you for your sin.  This belief is still strong in some folks today because it is all about works-righteousness.  If you aren’t doing the right things, God will punish you.  If you are doing the right things, God will reward you.  Jesus wasn’t about the works-righteousness narrative.  Jesus operated and still operates by grace.  The disciples haven’t gotten there yet, so Jesus uses this as a teachable moment.

    Jesus responds, “Neither this guy nor his parents sinned, but his blindness is there as an opportunity to show God’s might.”   This is a radical statement.  Illness?  Disability?  Pain?  Suffering?  As opportunity to show God’s might?  Yep.  As Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.”  That’s what grace is.  God’s light breaking into the darkness.

    Jesus places mud on the man’s eyes and then tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.  The man does, and low and behold, he can see.

    You would think that this would be an occasion for great celebration and joy.  You would think that people would take note and go crazy that someone had experienced such a miraculous healing.  But they do not.  They become skeptical.  You know, there are those who say that ancient people were ignorant and believed in miracles because they didn’t know anything about the laws of nature and physics.  I submit to you exhibit A that they actually did.  People didn’t fall on their knees praising God and celebrating when they saw this guy now able to see.  They were terribly skeptical and started asking all kinds of questions.  Is this really the guy who couldn’t see or is it someone else?  If this is really you, who made your eyes open?  Question after question after question.

    And the guy is dumbfounded.  I mean, really, he’s dumbfounded.  He couldn’t see and now he can, and everyone is asking him 20 questions.  He knows the guy who healed him was Jesus, but he’s never seen Jesus.  He hasn’t seen anyone until this point.  There is no way he would recognize Jesus at all.  All he knows is that Jesus healed him.

    This fact actually gets him into more trouble.  The religious leaders catch wind of what has happened.  Jesus is a threat to these religious leaders.  Jesus is breaking through their facade of works-righteousness.  Jesus is telling folks they don’t have to earn favor from God but that God loves them–even sinners.  When your power is threatened, you react.  The scribes and Pharisees do just this and question the man who was healed, and then the man’s parents, and then the man once more.  You can go through and read this for yourself again if you like later.  What is interesting to me is how they blatantly refuse to see what is right in front of their faces.  Do you remember when I said that everyone had blind spots?

    The Pharisees rant and rave and even say they don’t know where Jesus comes from.  They are blinded by their own position, and in an interesting twist, the guy who was once blind strives to help them see.  “32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

    And what was the Pharisees’ response?  They cast him out.  They threw him out of the synagogue and forbid him to worship with them any longer.  So, let’s look at this for just a second again.  When the blind guy has an encounter with Jesus, Jesus heals him.  And what happens?  Everyone is skeptical of him.  He is questioned thoroughly by the religious authorities, and he is excommunicated.  So much for your life becoming perfect when you have an encounter with Jesus.

    And the guy may have thought just that until his eyes were opened a second time.  The man who was once blind has one more encounter with Jesus.   35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

    Grace does that.  God in human flesh does that.  When the Word became flesh, the nature of God became known.  God revealed Himself to us.  The truth either opens your eyes, or it makes you want to purposely close them.  You will either embrace the truth and enter into the peace that it gives, or you will go to war with it choosing to remain in your blindness.  But thankfully, because it is all about grace, the truth will not fight against you.  It will wait patiently for you embracing you though you may not embrace it. 

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found
Twas blind, but now I see.  Amen.