Monday, June 30, 2014

It's Not About You: Sermon on Matthew 10:34-42

    There is a scene in the movie “The Avengers” where things are beginning to fall apart.  All of the heroes of the story have been drawn together because of a threat to earth, but they are unable to work together.  Huge egos find it difficult to cooperate, and this is illustrated almost perfectly during a particular scene when everyone starts throwing accusations and blame around at each other.  At one point, Captain America blames Tony Stark, otherwise known as Iron Man.  Tony abruptly turns to Capatin America and says, “Since when did this become about me?”

    Captain America retorts, “Isn’t it always?”

    Isn’t it always?  In some ways, it is, or at least we like it to be.  We tend to want to know how things impact me.  How is a new law going to impact me?  How is construction on a road going to impact me?  Why do I care what is going on in other parts of the world if they don’t impact me?  How is a new business coming into the community going to impact me?  I could go on and on with this train of thought.  All too often, when it comes to discussing things, we place ourselves right in the middle of it as if we were the main consideration.

    We like to do that with faith and belief as well.  I remember vividly going through seminary and hearing over and over and over again, “We need to make the Christian faith relevant to what is going on in the world today.”  As we discussed this statement, it became more and more clear that what was really being said was, “We need to show how the Christian faith affects people in the midst of their daily lives or they won’t see any use for it.”  Do you hear one of the underlying things in this statement?  There is an assumption that the Christian faith must be found useful to a person or to a group in order for it to be relevant.  I remember a colleague once quipping to me, “So what are you going to offer folks to get them interested in Christianity?”  The assumption here is that we need to show that Christianity works–that it is necessary for someone’s life or that it will improve someone’s life.  The assumption is that people are the object of the Christian faith and that the Christian faith is all about people.  Taken to its smallest component, Christianity becomes all about me and how it affects me and how it works for me.

    It’s the wrong assumption.  Why would I say that?

    Well, let’s start by looking at our Gospel lesson this morning.  Let’s look at this text as if this text were all about us–the focus was our lives.  Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to bring peace but a sword.”  If we just stopped there, you might have a few folks whose eyebrows are raised.  Those who want peace will turn Jesus off right here. Those who like to fight will be saying, “Preach on brother!”  Immediately, we get division.  Immediately we have some folks thinking, “Christianity is not for me!” while others say, “Tell me more.”  That’s just the first line.

    Jesus goes on, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  Now, for those who do not have great relationships with their family members, Jesus sort of gives them justification for keeping their distance from their families.  They might rejoice and say, “This Jesus is great!”  However, if there are those of us who have great relationships with our families, Jesus’ words aren’t exactly comforting.  We might say, “Jesus, I love my wife and my kids tremendously.  I cannot choose between them and you.  I cannot follow you.”  If Christianity is all about me, then if something in Christianity affects me poorly, I walk away from Christianity.

    But let’s keep going and head to the last few verses.  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  If Christianity is all about me, well, then if I seek to follow it, I have to get pretty worked up about this particular teaching as well.  I have to ask myself, “How do I welcome Jesus?  How do I welcome a prophet?  How do I welcome a righteous person?  How can I make sure to give a cup of cold water to the least of these so that I obtain my rewards and do not lose them?”

    For you see, if Christianity is all about me, then I am using it to receive rewards.  I am using Christianity as a means to an end.  I am trying to make my life better, do the things that bring about my happiness, my joy, my peace.  I am using Christianity to get the rewards and avoid the punishments.  I am embracing Christianity because it works for me, and if Christianity stops working, then I can disregard it and stop adhering to it.  After all, it’s all about me.

    In my estimation, and in the estimation of many others, this is not why Christianity is to be followed.  Christianity is not to be followed because it works, it is to be followed because it is true.  And Christianity is not followed because it is about me; rather Christianity is to be followed because it is about Jesus.  And it is through Jesus, and through Jesus alone that I finally find peace, joy, happiness and meaning.  I cannot get those things as long as I am the focus.  They only come when Jesus is at the center–when Jesus is the focus. 

    This is an important thing to remember because all of Scripture is colored by what Jesus has done.  “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 not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.”  Remember, this was done not because we were exceptionally good people–not because we were righteous people–but while we were still sinners.  While we were still unlovable, Christ came and died for us, and this shifts the focus from what we have to do to what Christ has done.  Knowing this, let’s now take another look at what Jesus says in our Gospel lesson today.

    “Do not think that I have come to bring peace but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  Looking at this from the perspective of what Christ has done for us, it makes more sense for oftentimes, our family members become the center of our lives.  We seek to make our family members happy.  We seek their approval.  We want them to love us, and we will oftentimes do anything and everything we can to stay in their good graces.  When Jesus becomes the center of our lives, we don’t stop loving our families–not in the least.  We continue to love them, but we no longer seek their approval. We no longer try to make them happy as if that is our sole responsibility in life.  When this happens, someone gets upset.  Not us, but those who once were the only focus of our attention.  Division takes place, but not because we want it–it’s because we are no longer giving the attention we once were.  Yet, we don’t stop loving our family.  In fact, we grow to love them even more because we know that Christ died for us when we were unlovable, and because of what He did, we know we can love our parents, spouses, our in-laws, and our children when they are unlovable.  When Jesus is the center of our lives, there is division, but we are moved with love despite this.

    Moving on further down.  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.  Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  Remember, this isn’t about you and what you have to do.  Remember, it’s about Jesus.  Whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes the one who sent Him–God the Father.  Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet receives a prophet’s reward.  Let me ask you: who is the ultimate prophet?  Who do we name as prophet, priest, and king?  Jesus.  Whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.  Who is the only person who has ever been totally righteous?  Is it you or me or any purely human being who has ever lived?  No.  None is completely righteous before God except Jesus.  The reward of the prophet is the reward Jesus came to bestow freely.  The reward of the righteous is the reward Jesus came to bestow freely.  And that reward can never be taken away from you.  God loves you too much to take it from you. 

    How do I know this?  He sent Jesus to be the prophet, the righteous person that we were supposed to be.  Jesus lived the life we were supposed to live and has given us that merit.  Furthermore, Jesus received the punishment we should have been given.  He died the death we deserved so that we no longer have to live in fear of punishment.  We now know that because of Jesus we have life forever.  We have satisfaction.  We have peace.  We have joy.  All because of Jesus.  It’s all about Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Daddy, Why Do You Try to Make Them Laugh?"

I admire the folks who work on cruise ships.

They have to put up with an awful lot.

They are trained to serve the guests on ship and cater to those guests' every whim.  They greet you with a smile.  When you complain or point out things, they graciously listen and seek to make you happy--even if you may be wrong.  They bend over backwards to provide you with a fantastic vacation so that you will come back--and spend a whole lot more money, BTW.

And there are some who take advantage of this.   There are some who whine, gripe and complain to the staff a lot.  There are some who treat the staff as beneath themselves--as indentured servants or even slaves.  There are some who look down their noses at the staff of the cruise ship and believe those folks must not have much drive, education, or what have you to have to work as they do.  And I know this hurts those staff folks deeply.  But they buck it up.  They do their jobs.  They smile to your face, but in the privacy of their quarters and with others, I am sure they have to let loose.  I would.  I did when I worked in a service industry many years ago.

I am cognitive of this whenever I deal with folks who work in public service: cashiers, waiters and waitresses, my cabin steward on the boat, the maintenance man working to fix a busted air conditioning unit, the head waiter, the waiter's assistant, the guy busing my table, the guy handing out towels at the swimming pool, and the many, many others.

On occasion after occasion, I try to offer a good word.  I try to offer a word of humor and laughter.  My kids noticed.

"Daddy, why do you try to make them laugh?  Why do you try and make them smile?"

"Because, there are people who do not treat them nicely.  There are people who look down upon them and the work they do, but they are working hard to make a living.  They are just like us.  We don't like being treated badly, so we don't want to treat others badly.  In fact, we like laughing, so I want to make them laugh to.  I hope to bring a smile to their day when there are others who don't."

In some ways, I can see this beginning to rub off on my children.  They treated our cabin steward like gold.

"Dorla, the towel animals are awesome!"
"Dorla, you are AWESOME!"
"I'm going to miss you, Dorla!"
"Thank you for the monkey, Dorla!"

Dorla's smile radiated each and every time my kids thanked her and hugged her.  She was calling them her precious children by the end of the cruise.

I just smiled.

It's too easy to look at others as our servants; as those who are here to meet our expectations and do the things we want them to do.  It's awful easy to think that other people are responsible for our happiness, our joy, our success, and when they do not perform up to our expectations to become angry and frustrated with them.

But as Aung San Sun Kuo said, "I see people as people instead of performing beings."

I haven't always been so thoughtful.  There are times when I still falter, but knowing better God's grace has helped me become more humble.  It's helped me understand the golden rule.  "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Why do you try and make them laugh?

Because everyone likes to laugh and smile.  They don't want to be treated like hired help.  They want to know you see them as a fellow person, a person who wants to be treated as an equal.  And we equally share laughter and smiles.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A "Psychological" Crutch

I just got back from the Caribbean.  My father-in-law celebrated his 70th birthday by taking his family on a seven day cruise, and it was a fabulous time.  I have several reflections regarding this cruise and will take a little bit of time to visit them in the next few days/posts.

My kids never have been on a cruise.  This was my third.  To say that my children were a little overwhelmed would be a slight understatement.  They were absolutely amazed by the experience, and my joy on this cruise was simply watching them as they experienced new thing after new thing after new thing.

Of course, there were a few not-so-new things: like swimming.  We swam every day of the cruise whether on ship or at the beach.  The kids love swimming.

My son; however, is not a strong swimmer.  He's still in the beginning of learning, and for the first couple of times we went to the pool, we did not take his swim jacket.  Instead, he spent his time jumping from the edge of the pool into my arms.  Over and over and over again, he would jump and have me push him to the side.  He never tired of this little game.  Of course, I got a little tired of it.  You can only get splashed in the eyes with salt water so much before you need a break--much to my son's chagrin.

"Daddy, catch me!" he would say as I stopped for a breather.  And before you knew it, he was hurling himself toward me knowing I would catch him.  He never feared going under because he knew I was there to lift him up and get him to safety.

Sigmund Freud said that humankind invented God to be such a safety net--at least psychologically.  In our despair; in our times of frustration; in our times of unknowing; in our times of a felt need of assistance; we could turn to a heavenly "father figure" who would emotionally help us through certain situations.  He believed a sign of maturity was getting past this need to the point which we could rely upon ourselves and face situations without the need of such a psychological crutch.

There are many who have argued, I think successfully, that one could turn Freud's argument around and say that atheism could also be seen as a psychological crutch in facing reality--a crutch in the sense of not having to deal with some sticky questions in the moral arena.  But at this time, I do not want to go down that road. 

Rather, I would like to ask a couple of questions:

1. Are there times when "crutches" are required?
2. Do we ever reach a point when we do not need a "crutch"?

To the first, I would argue--absolutely.
To the second, I would say--probably not.

My son definitely needs my help swimming at this point.  If I, or someone else does not help him, he would drown.  Period.  He requires my presence to get him through this stage of swimming. 

But what happens when he learns to swim on his own?  Will he need me any longer?  No.  He won't.  This is a step in maturation for certain.

But I do not think you can compare the maturation in achieving the ability to swim with the maturation in living what I would call the good life.

That last term deserves some defining, I think.  I define the good life as a life lived to a particular moral standard: one who does not cheat, steal, kill, destroy--who seeks the greater good for his or her self and for others as well.  Who is compassionate, kind, understanding, and respectful of others no matter how one is treated to the contrary.  Who does not think only of one's self, but readily and willingly seeks the betterment of one's neighbor and tries to paint all one's neighbor does in a positive light.  I could probably add a few things, but let this suffice for now.

Can anyone achieve this kind of life?  Can anyone perfectly attain it?  Can we as a species overcome our own, instinctive self-interest to become such people without assistance?

I personally do not believe so.  I personally believe we need guidance, assistance, a crutch to lean on when we fail over and over and over.  Other humans are inadequate in helping us achieve the good life, for in some way or another, no human being can live the perfect, good life.

But there was one who took on human flesh, lived among us, and achieved this kind of life.  Christians call Him God incarnate: Jesus.  He lived the life we should live, and rather than hold this achievement over our heads and look down upon us as inferior beings, He loved us and called us to follow Him.  He looked upon our brokenness and our failings; He endured our misdeeds--misdeeds that cost Him His life, and rather than call for revenge, said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do."

I know my own misdeeds.  I know my own brokenness.  I know I cannot achieve the good life on my own.  I know I fall far short of it.  It would lead me to despair if I didn't know I had a crutch to lean on--a crutch of forgiveness; a crutch of grace. 

I don't think it is a psychological one.

I think it's real and an absolute necessity for anyone who seeks to live the good life.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Vacation Time

The "Country Preacher" will be heading out on vacation next week.

No sermons will be posted.

No words of "advice".

It's time to allow the mind and heart to rest a little bit while spending some precious time with family members.

I am not one who ascribes to the "work hard / play hard philosophy.  I will not be playing hard.  Instead, I will simply be playing.  It's much more fun that way.  I see no reason to come back from vacation more tired than when I left.  Some people do.

There is a reason these things are called a break.  Our bodies.  Our minds.  Our hearts need a break from working.

The LORD created in six days and rested on the seventh.  If God needed rest, so do we for we are must less than God.

May those of you who are fortunate enough to get a time to break, truly break.  May your hearts and minds and bodies be restored that you may find yourself at peace--even if it is for a short time.

Until a week from now!!!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Simply Singing

I was blessed today with the opportunity to simply sing at a funeral service.

My deepest and sincerest condolences to out to the Severen family at the loss of Arlie Mae.  May God's loving arms surround you during this time of grief.

But I thank you for the opportunity simply to lend my voice in worship.

It's not often that I get to do things simply when it comes to worship anymore.  Usually, I'm heavily involved in the planning and implementation of said worship.  Usually, I'm having to sweat a million details to make sure it all comes together. 

But this time, I just had to sing.  "In the Garden."  "How Great Thou Art."  Worship.  Praise God and pray that through my singing, others may be touched with grace.

There is something about singing and listening to others sing which does this.  I cannot tell you how many times I have been surrounded in worship with voices raising all around and felt the goosebumps arise.  I cannot tell you how music has helped the message of Christ's love sink in.

A precious memory of childhood:

Before my home congregation moved from downtown Robstown, TX to its current location near Calallen, my mother was asked to offer special music to the congregation during the offering.  She played the piano and sang, "What Wondrous Love is This?"  I can remember that moment clearly.  The final verse exclaims:

And when from death I'm free, I'll sing on, I'll sing on
And when from death I'm free; I'll sing on
And when from death I'm free, I'll sing His love for me
And through eternity, I'll sing on, I'll sing on
And through eternity, I'll sing on.

I remember the pastor standing after mom's solo and saying, "I just wanted you to keep singing on."  And I agreed.  Mom has a beautiful voice.

More and more, though, I tend to see people believe that you need a beautiful voice to sing.  You need to be able to put things together perfectly--like all those singers on television; the radio; on MP3 players.  If I don't sound like that, I shouldn't be singing.

First off, no one sounds like that.  You don't need talent to sing anymore.  They have something called autotune.  Most of those folks parading around up there these days don't have all that much talent--they have a look.  The talent is supplied by computer enhancement.  (There are some really good singers, though.  Hello Pentatonix!)  I think this is detrimental to those who want to sing but feel inadequate.

Second, you learn to sing by singing.  Your vocal cords will not get in shape until you stretch them, and stretching comes by using.  They will begin producing better sound the more you use them and train them.

Third, I know that doesn't mean squat when you are self-conscious.  Believe me, I am right there with you--or at least I was.  Another memory from long ago:

On more than a few occasions, my mother tried to get me to sing in church.  I wouldn't.  I absolutely refused.  I was too self-conscious.  I didn't want to make a fool out of myself because I didn't think I could sing.  Mom would literally elbow me right in the middle of church and say, "SING!!"  So, what did yours truly do?  Mouth the words. Yep, lip sync.  Lips moved, but no sound issued forth.  I thought I was clever.

But I missed out on an opportunity.  I missed out on training the vocal instrument God had given me.  And it's taken more time than it needed to discover, I've got a pretty good instrument--an instrument I can use to God's glory.

Which brings us back to that whole fear and self-conscious thing.  I know the standard argument is, "It doesn't matter what others think, you should just sing."  That argument never worked on me.  Never.  I'm pretty sure it won't work on anyone who reads this snippet.  So, let me try something else.

Singing is integral to worship.  All through scripture, people raised their voice in singing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.  Why?  Well, they knew what God had done for them.  They knew that God had created them; provided for them; delivered them; loved them; nurtured them.  We know that God took on human flesh and died for us while we were still sinners.  We know that God took on human flesh and reconciled the world unto Himself.  When that news sinks in, it produces great joy--a joy that cannot remain silent.  That joy wants to be let out.  It wants to be expressed.  It wants to find a voice.  And that voice wants to sing.

I'm not going to argue with you and tell you to sing.  I want you to know God's great love for you.  I want you to know just what He did for you because of that love for you.  I want that to penetrate your heart. 

Once it affects your heart, it will impact your vocal cords.

Once it affects your vocal cords, you will do what I got to do today at a funeral.

Simply sing.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Proclaiming God's Deeds of Power: Penetcost Sermon

    There’s an old joke that has gone around and around and around that still bears some truth.  What do you get when you cross a Lutheran and a Jehovah’s Witness?  Answer: Someone who goes around knocking on doors but doesn’t know what to say.

    That’s a shot at those of us who have a hard time with evangelism.  When it comes to telling the story of faith; when it comes to introducing others to Christianity, many of us become silent.  Many of us don’t know what to say or how to proceed.  We know we should tell others about Jesus, but when the rubber hits the road and we come across someone who doesn’t attend church or who doesn’t believe in Jesus, we find ourselves tongue tied.  We find ourselves strangely silent.  And then we feel guilty because we didn’t say anything to this person.  We’ve fallen down on the job, so to speak.

    And, of course, we pastors haven’t exactly been all that helpful when it comes to equipping everyone to share the story of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, we haven’t exactly done a very good job of sharing that story ourselves.  We too are often afraid to engage people and invite them to consider becoming a follower of Jesus.  We too are concerned about offending others.  We too are concerned that we might not say the right thing.  And the advice we often offer isn’t all that great either.  We pastors will oftentimes either say, “Don’t worry about what to say, the Spirit will just give you the words.”  And if you are engaged in a conversation and you know you should say something but don’t, did the Spirit forget you?  Or, we tell you, “Just be an example of what it means to live a Christian life.  If people see how you live and how you love, they will want to be just like you and seek Jesus.”  That’s kind of a stretch for us to say something like that, isn’t it?  It took me quite a few years to realize this myself, because for most of the fourteen years I’ve been a pastor, I’ve said exactly this.  But I finally realized something–it is an impossibility to be an example of Jesus.  It is an impossibility to live out what Jesus taught.  It is an impossibility to do the things Jesus did.   Anyone here ever fed a multitude with five loaves of bread and two fish?  Anyone here ever walk on water?  Anyone here ever give up all their possessions, roam around the countryside, depend on everyone for food and drink and shelter while criticizing the religious authorities and telling everyone to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand?  Didn’t think so.  None of us even come close to being an example of Jesus.  None of us.

    And yet, we are called to proclaim Jesus Christ.  Before He left this world and was taken up into heaven, Jesus looked at His disciples and said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Yes, this is the calling of each and every Christian–to make disciples of all nations.  But how do we do this?  How do we do this when we don’t know what to say?  How do we do this when we cannot be a great example?

    Let’s look at our first lesson from this morning to perhaps get the beginnings of an answer to these questions.  Our text lifts up the events of the day of Pentecost.  We see that the followers of Jesus are gathered together praying.  As they prayed, a huge rush of wind blows through their midst.  This is the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised them–the Advocate.  Tongues of flame were seen on their heads, and then something marvelous happened!  The followers of Jesus began speaking in different languages!  Words rolled off their tongues in a manner they had never experienced before!

    And we know why they started speaking in all these languages.  We know, according to Luke, that there were Jews from all over the Roman Empire who were in Jerusalem that day to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Weeks.  These Jews were part of the Diaspora.  They had been living throughout the Empire, many of them for their whole lives.  They had adopted the languages of their various cultures and lost their native tongues.  But on this day, God wanted to make sure they would understand. God wanted to make sure they would be able to know about His great deeds of power.

    And so the message is clear for each and every one of us, right?  The Spirit made the followers of Jesus talk in different languages, so we should all go out and purchase Rosetta Stone software right after worship this morning.  This part of the church can get Spanish; this part can get Czech; this part can get German; this part can get Arabic; and I’ll get Gaelic, just for the fun of it.  This is the whole meaning of Pentecost, right?  No.  I don’t think so.  The point of Pentecost isn’t for us to simply go learn other languages.  We can most certainly do that if we choose, but I think the point is stated by Luke in verse 11, “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

    Let me narrow that down a little more, “We hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  It’s all about God’s deeds of power.  Which deeds of power?

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

    In fact, if we actually had the entire story before us this morning from Acts chapter 2, we would see that this is exactly what Peter gets into right after he makes those comments about the prophet Joel.  Here are some of Peter’s words verbatim:

    22 ‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

    I’ll skip down a little more and read what happened when the crowd heard Peter’s words and testimony

    37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ 38Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

    Well, you might say.  This all sounds well and good, but how does that help me with evangelism?  How does that help me in this day and age?  What does this mean for the church in its present form?  I don’t see us adding three thousand people to the church in this day and age. 

            And you are right.  We don’t see this, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen again.  And I think it could, but we are going to have to look at how we proclaim the Gospel–the good news.  For God’s deeds of power are good news.  What am I trying to get at?
    Just this: there is a difference between good news and advice.  I need to acknowledge that the following

comes from a lecture I heard given by Timothy Keller.  There is a big difference between good news and advice.  Advice givers are a dime a dozen these days.  They are all over the place.  I’ve personally been one for a long time, but I am trying to be a bearer of good news.  I am trying to be a herald.  What is the difference?

    Think of it in this fashion: a foreign army invades a country, and the king heads off to do battle.  If the king wins the battle, he sends back heralds–messengers who proclaim good news.  “The battle is over.  The enemy is defeated.  You did nothing to win the victory, but your king has conquered.  Live in the freedom of victory!”  This is proclaiming good news!!!  But if the king loses, he sends back military advisers.  “Put up the breastworks here!  Calvary over here!  Archers over here!  Prepare to fight for your lives!!!”  Big difference, right.  Big difference.

    Just about every philosophy in the world; just about every religion in the world; just about every particular political institution or club that you will join in this world sends military advisers–this is how you should live your life.  These are the things you should consider important.  These are the habits of highly effective people.  These are the things you should do to become really, truly happy.  These are the things you must do to please God.  Every one of these things is advice.  Every one of these things tries to tell you how to live; and there are many in the broader church who have taken this tract.  There are many in the church who spend a lot of time trying to tell us how we should live and the things we should do.  I’ve spent a lot of time in that camp, and it makes evangelism hard.  Because when you try to tell someone how to live and give advice, you are better off sending an example–being an example.  Living the right way.  Doing the right things.

    And none of us can do it.  None of us can be that kind of example, but the good news is that God wins the victory for us despite the fact that we are poor examples of what He would like us to be.  God wins the victory through the cross and the grave–He defeats sin; He defeats evil, and He promises resurrection while we are still sinners.  He showers His love down upon you and me even in the midst of our brokenness.  This is not advice.  This is good news! 

    And what do you do when you get good news?  What do you do when you have a piece of information that is so fulfilling; so exciting; so life changing?  You share, not because you are trying to tell someone what to do or how they should act or how they should live–you are sharing because it has made a difference in your life, and you know it could make a difference in other peoples’ lives as well. 

    God has performed great acts of power.  He has reconciled the world unto Himself.  He has died for you and for me despite our brokenness.  We are not perfect, but God loves us and He redeemed us.  This is good news!  May it be heard and shared!  Amen.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

I Have No Freakin' Clue

    For the last 10 years, I have wondered in my monthly newsletter article, “What is God Calling Us to Do and Be?  For 10 years every month I’ve tried to answer that question.  But I’m going to be bluntly honest now: I don’t have a clue anymore.

    Oh, don’t get me wrong, I do know there are certain ways we are supposed to act as people of God.  I know there are certain things God expects out of His people.  Any one of us can plainly read about these things by picking up a Bible, reading what Jesus says, reading what Paul writes in his letters, and browsing through all the other writings.  There are plenty of things we are supposed to be doing.  There are plenty of ways we are supposed to be acting. 

    But we don’t.  We just don’t.

    And it’s not that we just don’t.  It’s also because we can’t.  We cannot do all the things we are supposed to do.  We cannot be the type of people God wants us to be.  If we could, there would be no need for grace.  There would be no need for the cross.  There would have been no need for Jesus to come and reconcile the world unto God. 

    But, we need grace.  We need the cross.  We need Jesus.  We are completely and totally dependent upon God for our salvation because we can’t go out and accomplish it by ourselves.

    Which now makes things a little interesting.  If we realize we are totally and completely reliant upon God for our salvation–what do we have to do?  What do we have to be?  Where is God calling us? 

    Who really knows the mind of God? 

    Then why did you spend so many years trying to answer the question, pastor?

    Well, I thought I could.  I thought I could grasp the answers.  I was arrogant enough to think I could get it; I could understand it; I could brazenly give forth the answers.  But I can’t.  I realize that now.  I have no freaking clue.

    So where does that leave me?  Where does that leave us?

    Well, I won’t speak for you.  I have to let you decide what that means in your own life and in the life of this congregation, but I know what it means for me now: simply trusting in God.

    In many ways, I feel like Abram when God first called him (Genesis 12).  God said, “Go to a land that I will show you. I will bless you so that you will be a blessing and the whole world will be blessed through you.” 

    Abram didn’t know where he would go.  He had no idea what the future held.  All he knew was God’s call.  All he knew was God’s promise.  He left all behind and trusted God.  The future took many twists and turns, but we know that God kept His promise.

    This is my last column under the heading “What is God Calling Us to Do and Be?”  I have no idea anymore.  I won’t pretend to know God’s plan.  He doesn’t necessarily want us to.  He wants us to trust in Him and be satisfied with that.  Here’s to a mysterious future; a time of adventure; a time of being blessed to be a blessing.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Unexpected Moments of Grace: Bear Hugs

Sitting down at a local restaurant, my wife pointed out some folks who have worshiped regularly with us for some time as they entered.  They have talked to me about joining the church, but busy schedules have prevented a time to meet and talk.  Like many families in this day and age candles are being burned at both ends.  On this occasion, it was mom, three year old daughter, and husband's family visiting from Oregon.

Mom introduced me to her guests as the three year old grinned at me and waved.

We both resumed our conversations and meals with our respected families.

My wife, mother-in-law, and father-in-law finished first.  We had two engagements at the elementary school--a son who was doing a dramatic reading of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" with his class and a daughter who was playing piano in the third grade talent show.  It was time to leave, but I wanted to make sure and say goodby.  In these parts, a pastor does not just get up and walk out without at least taking a moment to do such things.

There were brief moments of conversation punctuated by a moment of grace.

The three year old, stands up in her chair (not too sure the restaurant folks were all that keen about this), turns around and locks her arms around my neck, and proceeds to squeeze.  It wasn't just a little squeeze.  It was one of those down home--use all your strength--squeeze the snot out of you--bear hugs: from a little girl who has only seen me at church 10 or so times.

It was unexpected.  It was joy full.  It was a moment of grace.  It filled my heart.

May you run into such a moment this day.

Monday, June 2, 2014

What We Do Divides Us; What God Does Unites Us: Sermon on John 17

    Jesus prayed that His followers may be one. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”  So, how have we done as the Church, as Jesus’ followers, at being one?

    Not.  So.  Good.  Not so good at all.

    There have always been divisions in the Church.  All you need do is read through the book of Acts.  Read through Paul’s letters.  Take a look at history, and you will see that after Jesus’ ascension, those who followed Jesus often argued about how to follow Jesus correctly.

    Let’s take this snippet from the book of 1 Corinthians.  St. Paul is writing to the congregation chastising them for becoming divided:

    10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’  13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

    Mind you, Paul was working and writing only a decade or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  These divisions surfaced in the church early on.  Very early on.  Why?  Why such divisions?  Where do they come from.

    Let’s fast forward a couple of thousand years to get a handle on this question.  I firmly believe there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to human behavior and interaction.  The things the ancients were dealing with are the same things we modern or post-modern folks deal with.  We just have technology.  That’s the only difference.

    There was an interesting Yahoo! article that came out about a week and a half ago titled “Don’t blame college kids for intolerance.  Blame us.” written by Matt Bai.  I would like to read a few snippets from this article and see if it resonates with you as it did with me:

    We'd grown up with TV news that tried to get at complicated issues (Ted Koppel's "Nightline" was the single most influential news program of the era) and op-ed pages that crackled with competing arguments. I remember meeting William Colby, the former CIA director, at a symposium. A lot of us were disgusted by the role he had played in Vietnam, but it never occurred to us that he shouldn't speak or that his beliefs weren't at least defensible.

    It was reasonable to hope, with the sudden explosion of what we called cyberspace a decade or so later, that this kind of exchange would become more commonplace and more enlightening, rather than less so. Only that's not what happened. Almost from the moment the first iteration of political blogs appeared, not long after the 2000 presidential election that exposed a deep cultural rift in America, like-minded activists began to wall themselves off from any version of reality they didn't like. They set about building ideological silos in the space where virtual town squares might have thrived.

    Our political leaders and our media might have recognized the danger here and done their traditional duty, which was to ignore all the noise, and focus instead on explaining the complex realities of a country in social and technological transition. With some notable exceptions, that didn't happen, either. Instead, politics in the past 10 years has become a perennial contest of the already converted, a constant pursuit on either side of "base strategies" and data sets that tell you exactly which voters you need to turn out in order to get and hold power...

    What's happened is that we've effectively left behind the Age of Persuasion and ushered in the Age of Confirmation. It sometimes seems the whole world exists to re-affirm our conceptions of it; you can get through days, even weeks, without being at all discomfited, if you know which sites to visit and which channels to watch.

    Let me repeat one of those last sentences, “What’s happened is that we’ve effectively left behind the Age of Persuasion and ushered in the Age of Confirmation.”

    If Matt Bai is correct, and I think to a great extent he is, what does it mean that we are in an age of confirmation?  What does it mean that we can go days even weeks at a time without encountering a differing point of view?  What does it mean that we can go on and on and on without our beliefs getting challenged and having to argue with merit our particular stance? 

    I think it means we are curved in on ourselves.  I think it means we become self-satisfied with our positions.  Our egos never get bruised because we never find out that we could be wrong.  And if we never feel like we could be wrong, we become self-righteous in our particular stance and belief.  We believe everyone else is the one with the problem and that we are safe and secure and absolutely correct in what we believe.  And if everyone else is the one with the problem, then they are the ones who have to change.  I don’t.  I don’t change.  I don’t give.  I don’t budge.  I am right.  You are wrong.  And if you don’t agree with me, then I will just go find someone else who does.

    And this happens over and over and over again in society.  Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided pulled to the extremes in their respective parties.  Liberals and Conservatives have their own radio shows, television channels, and websites to frequent; and they rarely mingle other than to take shots at each other.  Our churches are not immune to this.  In fact, they often mirror society.

    I mean, think about how things often take place in churches.  Things might go along swimmingly for a time.  Most congregations have periods of harmony when everyone gets along with everyone else, but then something controversial comes up.  Sometimes, it’s a matter of doctrine.  Sometimes it’s a matter of what color floor should be placed in the bathroom.  Sometimes its whether or not the church should hire or fire a particular person.  Lines get drawn.  People become assured of their own beliefs and thoughts.  People begin to believe they are being persecuted for righteousness sake.  And before you know it, a new congregation is being formed.  A new denomination starts.  People stop coming to worship because those people over there fight, and we are better than that.  People attend other churches where they find others who share their particular beliefs.  In fact, if you don’t like what I say this morning in church, you can easily go turn on the television and find someone who tells you exactly opposite of what I say.  That may make you comfortable and happy, and it should.  It should because it’s all about you. 

    And if it’s all about you.  If it is all about each and every one of us as individuals.  If Christianity is all about each and everyone of us as individuals–if we believe Christianity is all about us and what we believe and what we do, then we will continue to see congregations split.  We will continue to see new denominations form.  We will continue to argue about which one of us is living the correct form of Christianity. 

    Remember Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth?  “12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’” If we continue to focus on what we do–if we are doing Christianity the right way, we will continue to be divided.  For it is what we do that divides us.  Let me say that again–it is what we do that divides us.

    But it is what God has done that unites us.  Let me say that again.  It is what God has done that unites us.  And what has God done?

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him may 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.

    Listen to Jesus prayer once more.  I know it can be a bit heady to work through, but listen to verses 1-8 once more, “‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.  6 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

    You see, Jesus has completed the work the Father sent Him to complete.  Jesus has completed the work of reconciling the world unto God.  Jesus has completed the work of salvation for each and every one of us.  It was not something you and I accomplished.  It was not something you and I were able to do.  None of us here sitting in these pews this morning could ever live the perfect life–the life required by God.  Jesus did.  None of us here this morning sitting in these pews could pay enough through our actions or our death to rectify the debt incurred by all the violence, sickness, suffering, and death caused throughout history by the human race.  None of us could, but Jesus did.  Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and He died the death we deserved.  And He did this for each and every one of us here this morning.  He did this for each and everyone who calls upon His name. 

    You and I could argue all day about what we are supposed to do and how we should follow Jesus.  We could spend all day pointing out each other’s faults and how we don’t measure up.  We could spend all day calling one another to account and pointing out the flaws in each other’s logic.  And we would be right in doing so.  We would be absolutely correct in telling each other that we don’t measure up.  And at the end of the day, we would probably walk away angry at each other.  No one likes his or her faults pointed out like that.

    Unless it is done by someone who is willing to point to his or her own faults first.  Unless it is done by someone who says, “I am broken.  I am a messed up sort of person, and I will tell you exactly how.  I will show you how broken I am because I know you are broken too.  I know deep down you know you are not perfect–that you don’t measure up to even your own standard of how to live.  We are broken people, but there is one who was not broken.  There was one who walked this earth and lived and died so that our brokenness could find healing.  Our brokenness could be redeemed.  There was one who loved us when we were still sinners and who still loves us in such a fashion.  There is one who has given us eternal life, not because of who we are, but because of who He is.  We could spend a lot of time pointing out each other’s faults or we can give thanks to the One who works to heal our faults.”  One of these things will divide.  The other will unite.  In a world as broken as ours, I vote for unity.  Let us proclaim what God has done. Amen.

Not As the World Gives: Sermon on John 14:15-21

(Note: I did not post this sermon last week because I ended up changing the last portion of the sermon drastically on Sunday morning.  What was written was not exactly what was proclaimed.  The sentiment is basically the same, but how one arrived at the final destination was quite different.  A member requested that I post the sermon, and I will do so with the above disclaimer.)

    Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

    I’d like to take some time to unpack this statement this morning, because in all reality, I think many folks’ hearts are troubled.  Many folks are afraid.  I mean, I know Sean Hannity oftentimes tells his listeners, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” but then he goes on and on and on about why your hearts should be troubled and you should be afraid, particularly of one political party.  And of course, those on the other side of the aisle point the fingers right back and say, “Actually, you need to be afraid of them!” They are the ones causing all the problems.”  I’d better stop there before I offend too many other folks.  While this saying of Jesus I think speaks to such matters, there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid before we go too far down this rabbit hole.

    So, therefore, let’s begin with Jesus.  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives.”  Let’s start by wrestling with this, “What does Jesus mean by giving not as the world gives?”  To grasp this, I think we need to try and see how the world gives.  And to do this, I’d like to read a few snippets from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  The scene I will read from is about one of the characters named Edmund who has an encounter with the White Witch.  I think you will see its relevance.

    “It is dull, Son of Adam, to drink without eating,” said the Queen presently.  “What would you like best to eat?”

    “Turkish Delight, please, your Majesty,” said Edmund.

    The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle onto the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight.  Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.  He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.

    While he was eating, the Queen kept asking him questions.  At first, Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive.

    Let’s skip down a little bit.

    At last, the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more.  Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves. But she did not offer him any more.  Instead, she said to him,

    “Son of Adam, I should so much like to see your brother and your two sisters.  Will you bring them to see me?’

    “I’ll try,” said Edmund, still looking at the empty box.

    “Because if you did come again–bringing them with you of course–I’d be able to give you some more Turkish Delight.”

    I’m going to stop reading and just brush through the highlights.  At this point, the White witch begins laying it on thick telling Edmund that if he brings his brother and sisters, she will make him a prince.  She will give him a crown and riches.  She promises him the moon and all the Turkish Delight he can eat.  Of course, if Edmund doesn’t deliver, he won’t receive this stuff or anymore Turkish Delight.  But Edmund is almost beyond thinking.  He has tasted something very sweet, and he wants more.  How badly?  A few short pages later, Edmund is reunited with his sister, Lucy, and he finds out the Queen he ran into was actually the White Witch.  He finds out she is dangerous, but what is his state of mind?

    Edmund was already feeling uncomfortable from having eaten too many sweets, and when he heard that the Lady he had made friends with was a dangerous witch he felt even more uncomfortable.  But he still wanted to taste that Turkish Delight again more than he wanted anything else.

    I want to ask you, do you see any parallels between this work of fiction and the way the world gives and what the world promises?  I hope you do.  I personally can’t help but see them vividly. 

    The world beckons to each and every one of us offering satisfaction.  The world says, “Eat of this fruit.  Taste and see that it is good.”  And it is.  I mean, let’s just take one example.  How many of you, like me, were extremely proud of your first paycheck?  I remember receiving it while working for the Banquete Grain Coop.  I had worked long hours, and the check was rather large.  I was happy.  I had tasted the fruits of my labor, and I liked it.  I liked it a lot.  Holding that check offered me promise: I could buy CDs of my favorite music.  I could take someone out on a date.  I could afford to drive my parents’ car to the places I wanted to go.  I could go to movies.  A whole new world was opening up.

    How many of us become delighted with such a thing?  And so we strive to get a better job so that we can get more of that precious commodity of money.  As we earn more, we spend more.  Our standards rise with our income.  Never satisfied, we long for more, and the world offers us more and more promise.  We stuff our faces with the Turkish Delight of such things, but we aren’t satisfied.  We always want more.

    And we oftentimes aren’t aware that there will come a day of reckoning.  There will come a time when the world sees that we are enamored with what we have, and it will use that to its advantage.  Later in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch demands Edmund’s life.  The world oftentimes demands ours.

    “How so?” you might ask.  Oh, it starts innocently enough.  “Make yourself invaluable to your company so that you have job security.”  And so we work hard–oftentimes harder than we have to.  “Can you stay a few hours late this week?  This job really needs touching up, and you are the best one we have.”  And so we stay.  “Can you work half a day on Saturday?  We really need this project completed.  Don’t worry, we will take care of you.”  The extra money rolls in, and we rejoice.  It will help us pay down a little bit of debt and perhaps go on a vacation.  But who then pays? Do children miss their parent?  Does a spouse or best friend have to cancel a date?  The corporate ladder gets climbed, status gets added, a sense of self-importance rises.  The world demands more and more.  We pay it.  Working and slaving as we see that one day retirement can take place–we will have a nest egg.  But we are never sure that it is enough.  We’re never quite peaceful about it.  There is still that nagging hunger to get more.  Finally, we are too worn out to work to get more.  We’re too tired and weak, so we stop.  We try to rest.

    But then what does the world do at that point?  Here’s what I have begun to see–the world gives, and then it does its best to take it all back.  The world robs you of your family and personal time to pad your bank account and then seeks to drain it dry leaving you penniless when you die.  Don’t believe me?

    How many of you who worked for many years find medical bills eating up your income?  How many of you know someone who slaved for years who are now spending almost everything they have on nursing homes or home health care?  Prices of food, fuel, and shelter continue to rise.  Taxes continue to go up.  When you die, your family has to pay for funeral expenses, and then the government will come in to collect its share from those who inherit whatever you had left to pass on.  Yes, the world gives, but then it wants a whole lot in return.  It wants to dominate you and take you for all that it once gave to you.  And it never leaves you at peace.  Never.

    “My peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

    Jesus stands in stark contrast to how the world operates.  At first, it may not look like it.  In fact, when you first look at Jesus and look at all that He says, it is quite frightening.  The world offers the sweetness of Turkish Delight–it looks appealing; it tastes sweet, but it never satisfies.  Jesus offers death.  “Let anyone who wishes to follow me deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  For anyone who wishes to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will find it.” 

    These are not comforting words.  They seem a very bitter pill to swallow.  The Turkish Delights come in a pretty box; the food Jesus offers comes dressed in a cross.  “Come and die,” Jesus says.  “Die to everything the world says you should have.  Die to finding your self-worth in your job, in your bank account, in your possessions, in your race and ethnicity and all those other things the world says give you satisfaction.  Do not eat of the sweetness of the world, feast on me.”

    It sounds crazy.  Completely crazy.  It’s impossible for us to do such a thing.  Literally, it’s impossible for us to die to these things because they are our default settings.  We’ve been taught to be productive citizens.  We train our children to be good producers and consumers.  We buy into the system to the very core.  And we can’t escape it.

    So Jesus says, “You can’t live the life you are supposed to live.  You can’t die to yourself, so I will die for you!”  And He does.  On the cross, He dies and pours Himself out for the world.

    “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 to save it!”

    And we may say, “Yes, I believe this!  Yes, I believe that Jesus died for me.  I believe that Jesus is the Savior.  I believe that Jesus lived the life that I couldn’t live, but why don’t I have peace?  Why am I still so hungry for what the world gives?  Why do I still have the emptiness inside?”

    Think about the deepest desire of your heart.  What is it?  Be honest with yourself.  What does your heart dream about?  Safety?  Security?  To be admired?  I told you before, mine was to be seen as a great pastor and to receive recognition.  If these things are at the center of your heart, then you are simply trying to work out your own salvation.  You are simply trying to justify yourself and rely upon yourself.  You may cognitively believe that Jesus died for you, but it hasn’t sunk into the deep recesses of your heart, and that’s why you still hunger.  You are still pursuing the things of the world.

    “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not be afraid.”  How can we reach this point?  How can we reach the place where we are not afraid of the future or our hearts are troubled?  Not by anything we can do, but by what Christ has done.  He has already accomplished all.  He has already justified you.  He has already given you worth.  He has already prepared a place for you.  He has promised to take care of you.  It is finished.  Put your trust in Jesus, and He will pour Himself into you.  He will fill you.  He will give you peace, and unlike the world, He will never, ever try to take it away.  It’s yours forever.  Amen.