What I’ve Been Watching: Summer Surprises To Rule Them All

A full gauntlet of films is available for your extended Fourth of July celebrations. They’re diverse, with comedy, action, and thought-provoking power intertwined, thanks to turns by old favorites (Will Ferrell, Denzel Washington, Ben Stiller) and new ones (Jack O’Connell, Jeremy Irvine, Abigail Breslin). There’s a little something for everyone here.


Get Hard

Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart couldn’t be more different, or more funny, so pairing them together seemed to be the twenty-first century version of Laurel & Hardy, or Penn & Teller. But this mismatched comical duo isn’t so much funny… as insightful. The truth is that while you’d come expecting the laughs, what you get is a reasonably spot-on exploration about how race continues to be misunderstood and divisive in our country today.

When rich hedge funds manager James King (Ferrell) is accused of blatant fund mismanagement, thanks to his father-in-law/boss (Craig Nelson), he has thirty days to get his life in order. But King figures that there’s no use proving his innocence: he might as well spend the time learning how to adapt to prison life. So, he goes to the only black man he knows, the owner of the car wash, Darnell Lewis (Hart), and asks him how to get ready for prison life, assuming that Lewis is well-schooled in life behind bars.

All of this seems like it could be funny, but it ends up squarely on the nose. King’s outward and innate racism speaks to the problems we can see today in the violence throughout our country, and the disregard for human life. Sure, you can laugh at King and Lewis clowning around (outtakes, anyone?) but ultimately, Get Hard points us toward real problems that our country is facing today. rainy day it


While We’re Young

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are an average, middle-aged couple with a free-living lifestyle, in part thanks to their inability to have a child. When their longtime friends have a baby, it forces them to consider what their purpose is and how happy they are because “everyone” is having children except for them. Then they meet a twenty-somethings couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who treat them like they’re still cool, and suddenly, they’re trying to adapt to a world that they thought had passed them by.

Again, like Get Hard, this one didn’t make me laugh out loud… but it did make me think about the way that we value (or don’t value) people.  We assume that people should fit into a box (college age, marriage worthy, parenthood, retirement, etc.) and folks outside of that fit don’t make much sense to us. Ultimately, the couples converge in a series of events that demand they explore their own trust level with their spouse; typical rom-com ideas take control for a bit, but it’s no less intriguing given what they have built up here so far. For couples, and those experiencing a midlife crisis, this one almost felt like therapy! borrow it/buy it

LAST KNIGHTS - 2015 FILM STILL - Bartok (Morgan Freeman, left) and Raiden (Clive Owen, right) - Photo Credit: Larry Horricks  © 2015 - Lionsgate

LAST KNIGHTS – 2015 FILM STILL – Bartok (Morgan Freeman, left) and Raiden (Clive Owen, right) – Photo Credit: Larry Horricks © 2015 – Lionsgate

Last Knights

We have a fascination with the tale of 47 ronin – the knights of a master who vow to avenge his death, Japanese samurai-style. We’ve seen it in different variations (Tom Cruise’s Last Samurai, Keanu Reeves’ 47 Ronin), and Hollywood keeps pumping out more iterations on the theme. This one seemed to be a no-brainer: it stars Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen, but sadly, this is no King Arthur.

Stylistically, the filming, costumes, and backdrop provide the necessary nuances, and those two stars can act their way out of a paper bag. But the overall pacing and delivery of the plot are way too slow to keep us properly engaged, or entertained. Once you’ve seen the tale of the ronin, you need some way to re-up it and make it more emotionally powerful or provide a different angle. Sadly, Last Knights never breaks any new ground. burn it 



The least-heralded of the next two weeks’ offerings, ’71 might be your favorite film of this batch. While you might need a history lesson in what was going on in the drab streets of Belfast, it’s abundantly clear that Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell knows how to play a soldier. He’s a newly-minted British soldier in the British Army who leaves his younger brother behind, and ventures out into the life of a peacekeeper/maker. Like Noble, it paints a grim picture of the way that people are separated by religion, politics, and social underpinnings, while also sharing the view of one soldier’s experience behind enemy lines.

If Lone Survivor and Noble had a cinematic baby, it might be ’71. Powerful and compelling, the film thrills as an action flick, while also showing us what it takes to survive in the middle of a war: it takes community. Rather than painting the Catholics or the Protestants as evil in broad strokes, Yann Demage’s directorial debut strives to keep the facts straight while also forcing us to sit, cringing, on the edge of our seats. Like other ‘non-traditional’ war movies (Unbroken, To End All Wars, Zero Dark Thirty), it doesn’t show us a celebratory side of war, but rather, one that might cost us our humanity. It’s a tour de force kind of film, and one I could see watching again. buy it



Potentially an even bigger surprise than ’71Maggie proves that Arnold Schwarzenegger can act. In a film that shows a more sensitive side of our favorite Terminator, Arnold’s father figure, Wade Vogel, pursues his recently-infected daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), and brings her back to his home. One would consider that to be par for the course, a father loving his daughter enough to take care of her, but the fact that Maggie is infected with a zombie virus takes the film to a whole new level.

We have been over-zombified of late, have we not? The power of The Walking Dead in all its glory has done for the horror genre what nothing short of Twilight did for vampire flicks. Somehow, even though you might say that the wave has peaked and broken for those zombie films, Maggie shows up with something fresh and powerful to make us consider a father’s love.

I would be remiss to say that this film could be a “Parable of the Prodigal Son” remix, the zombie version. How far would a father, God or human, go to save his child? What would he be willing to overlook, to accept, to wrap his arms around? It’s a powerful story, and one that bears our consideration – do we extend grace the way we should? buy it



What a blast from the past! Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as young men, thanks to virtual reality. No, wait, they’re young because this is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Virtuosity, a film that hit twenty-five million dollars on a thirty million dollar budget. Is it the best film either of these men have done? No. (It can’t top Cinderella Man or Remember the Titans). But it can certainly provide you with a few hours of entertainment.

Parker Barnes (Washington) is serving time for killing the murderer of his wife and child, but he’s deemed to be the only one who can catch a virtual reality killer who finds his way into the real world, SID (Crowe). Matched up with a profiler, Dr. Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch), the former police lieutenant sets out to track and trap SID. William Forsythe, William Fitchner, Kaley Cuoco, Traci Lords, and Michael Buffer add some spice to the casting process, and show off a film that combines special effects with some of the best of this generation’s actors.

Revenge is on Barnes’ mind, but the audience will be most tickled by the way the reality and virtual reality battle each other. What is real, and what isn’t? In a world that’s even more cyber than it was twenty years ago, this film has plenty to say about what truly makes us moral, or even human. borrow it

BEYOND THE REACH - 2015 FILM STILL - Michael Douglas - Photo credit: Clay Enos

BEYOND THE REACH – 2015 FILM STILL – Michael Douglas – Photo credit: Clay Enos

Beyond the Reach

Michael Douglas doesn’t make the needle of popular opinion jump the way he once did. But he still has some acting chops given the right script (The Game is still my favorite). Beyond the Reach is just right enough to make the process work correctly, and Jeremy Irvine is game to be the counterpoint to Douglas’ sleaziness.

John Madec (Douglas), a cutthroat businessman, ‘rents’ hunting guide Ben (Irvine), even though it’s out of season and he shouldn’t be hunting in the Mojave Desert. But when Madec causes mortal harm, he snaps, transitioning Ben from guide into hunted. It’s like The Most Dangerous Game played out in stark one-on-one, cat-and-mouse ways, with the lines between the two crossing back and forth throughout the film.

I was surprisingly entertained (I saw the trailer and figured I’d give it a shot), and figure you will be, too. Is it abundantly deep? No. But it’s a few hours worth of the dangerous Douglas charm. rent it 

Posted in Movie Reviews, Pop Culture, Reviews, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today: Are You “Right” Justified? (Romans 5:1-11)

My name is Jacob, and I have a problem.

(All say, “Hi, Jacob.”)

I have a real problem with being right. It’s one of those tendencies I have had since I was a child.

If the rules are there, they should be enforced.

If A is true for some people, it should be true for everyone.

If Kid #1 gets this, then Kid #2 should get the same thing.

It’s usually about “fair.”

As always, the best example of my own stupidity (near stupidity?) comes from a driving experience. It was one of those swimming nights, you know, a swim meet that gets delayed over and over again for thunder, lightning, or … whatever. We’d sat there for four hours and they were finally telling us to come back the next day to resume the meet. So everyone is leaving at once, some of whom didn’t want to be there at nine p.m. anyway… and no one is feeling too charitable.

After several false starts to get out of my parking space, yodeling children in the background, I finally bull my way backward to get in line. I watch as two sections of the parking lot carefully alternate merge (a friend of mine calls it “the zipper method“) and then, it’s finally my turn!

When the minivan next to me starts to go. So like a good New Englander, I honk, and proceed to go. Because that was fair. Because it was my turn.

Because, my wife tells me, because I’m an idiot who put the car and the family behind “fair.”

As much as I hate to admit it, she’s right. I have a “fair” problem.

Thankfully, God does not.

Paul writes in Romans 5 “since we have been justified through faith” and he could’ve just hit ‘enter’ a few times and moved on to the next chapter.

You know what justified is, right? All of us with computer typing skills, even typewriter typing skills, know that you can set the line of your paragraph to be “justified.” You can set it to be lined up correctly so that everything falls into place. So that you can be in the right spot.

Paul says we’re justified by faith. We’re not justified, put in the right spot because we are integrally good. We’re not in the line because we know the right thing, or we do the right thing, or because we’re trying to be good people.

Paul says we’re justified because, when, at the time, that we have faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ Paul highlighted in Romans 1:16 – that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again so that we could be forgiven of our sins.

Now, that’s certainly not fair, is it? Jesus, who had done nothing wrong, Jesus, who didn’t break any of the rules, Jesus, who loved everyone, served everyone, and sacrificed his godhead for everyone, died on the cross for me? 

Whoa! “Fair” just got kicked to the curb.

But Paul says because God through Jesus provided grace through faith, we can hope (5:2).

Hope is that thing that evil, injustice, persecution, bad days, black nights, sad endings, and all of the junk you see on the nightly news cannot destroy.

Hope is that thing that says that little glimmer of hope is so radical, that the pitch dark better watch out.

Hope is that thing at the bottom of your soul that refuses to give up even when the rest of you has fallen to the floor in defeat.

Paul isn’t done with hope though… Paul says we can:

glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance (5:3)

recognize that perseverance produces character (5:4)

recognize that character produces, you guessed it, hope, again (5:5)!

We don’t get hope because we do enough or know enough or even pray enough; we get hope because we have faith in Jesus, and when we have faith we persevere, and when we persevere over time, our character grows, and when our character grows, our reserve of hope increases!

Paul backs up for a minute in Romans 5:6-8, some of the coolest verses in a chapter full of powerful one-liners, filled with nuggets that shine a little light on what it means to be faithful:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Jesus died for you while you were messed up, stuck, down in the dumps, selfish, conceited, broken, neglected, unrepairable. Jesus died for you before you knew Jesus needed to die for you to be saved. Jesus died for you for the moments in which you are at your worst.

Jesus died for you even though He knew what “you’re really like.”

Jesus didn’t die for you because you helped the old lady next door, or you forgave your spouse, or because you sent some money to take care of orphans in a Third World country.

Jesus died for you because there was no other way that you could be saved from your own mess.

While you were powerless. While you were not even good, let alone great.

While you and I were still sinners.

Jesus died for you, even though you’re going to sin today, maybe before you even leave church. He doesn’t have to keep dying; Jesus’ death once and for all is enough. (That’s why we don’t rebaptize you – you were saved by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. He ain’t dying again!)

Did you need to hear that today? Do you need to stop and think about it? Does it give you hope?

You’re forgiven. You can make it. Not because of anything you’ve done, but just by believing, having faith, that Jesus’ death and resurrection is enough.

It hardly seems fair, does it? In a country where we tell each other to work harder to get ahead, in a time when we emphasize that you should put in more hours, save more money, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, these words of Paul seem pretty countercultural.

“Since we have been justified by faith… while we were yet sinners.”

That’s the truth of the gospel. It’s true last week, next week, and on a Sunday when we celebrate our country’s independence.

No war could make us free from sin. No battle could be fought for our souls.

Instead, God sent his son to die on the cross so that those who would have faith would be saved. God wants everyone to be saved. God wants us to be justified by grace.

And, I believe, God wants us to get over ourselves.

See, one of the truths that I’m sure someone brought up when they got to arguing about whether Gentiles could be in the church or not was a little story from the Book of Ruth – about a Moabite woman (a Gentile) who married Boaz, a Jew, who had a baby named Obed, who grew up to be Jesse’s father, who was David’s father, all the way down the line to Mary’s, the mother of Jesus, father.

Jesus, who was raised a Jew, but who wasn’t even 100% Jewish.

Think about that one for too long… and your mind will be blown.

God wants us to get grace and faith, but it’s not simple.

We just have to let go of our preconceived ideas about how life works, about what fair is, about the alternate merge and umpires and taxes and doing the right thing.

We can’t save ourselves. We can only hope.

And believe.


Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

What I’ve Been Watching

Two and a Half Men: The Complete Twelfth and Final Season

The final season of the long-running Chuck Lorre (Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly, Mom) sitcom finds Walden (Ashton Kutcher) and Alan (Jon Cryer) doing their thing, with Berta (Conchata Farrell) cleaning their house and Evelyn (Holland Taylor) occasionally showing up as ‘mother.’ But here, the two men, who can’t seem to find love or success, foster a child (Edan Alexander) and discover Charlie’s daughter (Amber Tamblyn). Ultimately, it’s the same sort of humor as what we’ve come to expect since Kutcher replaced Charlie Sheen, but the fire wasn’t always there the way it was early on (how could it be, when Kutcher seems so much more ‘normal’?)

This time around, D.B. Sweeney, Mimi Rogers, Aisha Tyler, Michael Bolton, John Stamos, and Christian Slater pass through the scenes with folks we’ve come to know and love (Ryan Stiles!) as Lorre wraps up this particular world. Fans of the show will appreciate the wrap-up; new fans looking for some bawdy humor should check out the earlier seasons first to get the flair of the show overall. rating: borrow it

The Forger 

John Travolta hasn’t done much of late except botch Idina Menzel’s name, but here he tackles a slow-boiling drama about an ex-con grifter released to do “one last job.” The truth about Raymond’s one last job isn’t nearly as interesting as the way he juggles his real reason for getting out of jail: reconnecting with his dying son, Will (Tye Sheridan). The elder Cutter drags his estranged ex-wife (Jennifer Ehle) back into the mix, while his disapproving father (Christopher Plummer) looks on. Sure, there’s some complication introduced by the criminal pushing him back into a life of forgery (Anson Mount) and the cop hot on his tail (Abigail Spencer), but the film just isn’t all that exciting.

While I’m not a huge Travolta fan, it was an interesting familial set-up that director Philip Martin (mostly a TV director) used. It’s not terrifically engaging but it’s better than average for DVD fair in the middle of the summer. rating: rainy day it

The Last Ship (Blu-ray/Digital HD)

Just in time for the latest season of TNT’s The Last Ship, Hank Steinberg’s (The Nine, Without a Trace) thriller about a viral pandemic arrived for review. On the USS Nathan James, a fictitious guided missile destroyer, Eric Dane’s Commander Tom Chandler fights for respect, purpose, and the freedom of those who are unaffected by the virus. He’s joined in his efforts by Rhona Mitchell’s paleomicrobiologist, Adam Baldwin’s Mike Slattery (cop-turned-naval officer), and a host of others. Fans of World War Z and Battleship will probably dig the mashup of the two, but this is one of those breath of fresh air shows to arrive in the midst of the summer doldrums. rating: borrow it

Posted in Reviews, TV | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today: By Faith (Romans 4:16-25)

In today’s Scripture, Paul goes old school. Sure, Paul is old by our standards, clocking in at nearly two-thousand years ago, but his audience would’ve known the story of Abraham well. It was part of their common understanding of the faith, in the ways today that we k know the story of Jesus. Paul wants to make sure he has their attention, so he brings Abraham to mind for them – using everything they’ve known before to build on this idea of faith.

Opening Romans 4, Paul says that if Abraham was considered faithful by what he did, “justified by works,” then he would be worthy of praise but it wouldn’t be that he was righteous before God (4:1-3). Think about that for a minute: everything Abraham did was great, Paul says, but it’s not what makes him special.

Seriously? Abraham did some pretty amazing stuff. Let’s investigate:

Abram is born about four hundred years after The Flood (Gen. 11:26). He’s in a time after God said he wouldn’t destroy the world again by flood.

At seventy-five years old, God shows up and tells Abram: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Sure, God says, “I’ll make you a great nation; and you’ll bless everyone on earth” (12:1-4). And Abram goes.

Abram survives that little trip through Egypt where he claims his wife, Sarai, is his sister so the Egyptian king won’t kill him (Gen. 12:10-20). Apparently, some cowardice, some ‘less than what we hoped for’ behavior doesn’t make you unfaithful.

Abram rounds up his men to rescue his nephew lot from the tribes who kidnapped him (Gen. 14: 8-17).

At this point, God appears to Abram again, and reminds him of the covenant that he’s going to bless the world through, and Abram says, “How can I be the head of a nation when you haven’t given me any sons” (Gen. 15:1-10). He also challenges God on how he [Abram] could take over the land that is currently occupied by fierce warriors? Apparently, asking God questions, challenging God’s promises doesn’t make you unfaithful.

Sarai gets a bit edgy about God’s timing – she and Abram are closer to one hundred than young and footloose, and she sets him up with her slave, Hagar, to, ahem, create an heir (Genesis 16). Apparently, God’s grace extends beyond distrusting God so much that you take matters into your own hands.

At ninety-nine, God comes to Abram and tells him that he’s going to give Abram a son to start this whole family line, that he will be given a new name (Abraham), and he’ll be the father of many nations (Genesis 17). Remember, now, that Paul was Saul first. Paul would’ve understood what it meant to get a new name from God.  But the covenant doesn’t just come with a new name; it comes with the instructions to be circumcised. Now, without going into great detail: there’s a reason this normally happens to infants who are drugged up and won’t remember. The newly-minted Abraham is circumcised, and has his whole male household circumcised. But that’s still not the faith Paul is talking about – it is still “by works,” right?

Next up, Abraham pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah to be saved (Genesis 18:16-33). God agrees that he will spare these two, sinful cities if he can find just a few good people (which ultimately, he doesn’t). Abraham’s faithfulness – especially after the whole circumcision deal – seems to be growing, and he’s willing to bank on God’s good graces to intercede on someone else’s behalf. That’s prayer, right?

Abraham and Sarah encounter Abimelek, and brave soul that he is, Abraham says Sarah is his sister again, hoping to avoid conflict (Genesis 20). Seriously, this guy might be bold when it comes to Travelocity, but when it comes to Christian Mingle, he’s a boldfaced chicken!

Abraham’s son, Isaac, is born, and because of the friction with Sarah, he sends away his other ‘wife,’ Hagar, and her son, Ishmael (Genesis 21:1-20). In the next chapter of Genesis, Abraham is called to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on an altar to God, which he prepares to do faithfully (Genesis 22:1-19). Now, Abraham is faithful, even when God calls him to sacrifice the gift, the blessing, his one and only son, who he has waited over a hundred years for, but we’re talking about a guy who inhumanely rejects and abandons a woman whose only ‘problem’ is being used her master. But God still counted that master faithful…

Abraham’s life is kind of a mixed bag, isn’t it? He isn’t particularly kind, particularly strong or courageous, particularly good. But he is a guy who went where God told him to go, who is willing to sacrifice everything he really wants because God tells him to, and who goes through significant pain to follow God.

So, let’s go back to Paul. What did he have to say about Abraham’s faith? First off, Abraham’s faithfulness credits all who believe because of the covenant God made with him (Romans 4:16). Second, Paul makes it clear that the God of the Old Testament, the one his listeners would consider to be the “Jewish” God, was the same one who raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 4:17). This isn’t two gods Paul is talking about, but Abraham and Jesus are part of the same story. Abraham and Jesus are connected.

Third, Paul says that Abraham hoped, that he continued to believe even though everything seemed bleak (Romans 4:18). Paul said, and this is one of my favorite lines, “since he was as good as dead,” that Abraham did not waver in his faith but gave glory to God (Romans 4:19-20). Abraham is understood as faithful by Paul because, even though it seemed mathematically and physically impossible, he continued to believe that God’s covenant would come true.

And Paul says, fourth, that Abraham’s righteousness isn’t just something he had, but something we can have, too. Abraham hoped in something he couldn’t see (the birth of a child at an old age); we hope in the resurrection of all who believe in Jesus Christ, something we can’t literally see. Paul says that Jesus “was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 5:25). Paul believed in the power of Jesus’ resurrection having seen Jesus as fact, while believing in hope in his own resurrection from death. And Paul’s faith was strengthened by knowing the historical struggles of Abraham before him.

I wonder sometimes who we look to as our spiritual role models. Who are the people who we know that speak into our lives, or whose stories inform us on what it means to be the children of God we’re called to be? Whose stories help us understand, in the midst of the darkness and struggle, that we are not alone, that God is watching over us, that resurrection is a real hope?

I hope today that you’ll consider who those people are, and consider telling them. Abraham never knew the complete impact of what his faithful decisions did for the world; we may never know what kind of impact we’ll have on people either. But we need to hold onto hope and push forward faithfully, knowing that we’re saved by the grace of God and not by works.

Posted in Sermons, Theology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today: Are You Guilty? (Romans 2:1-16)

Have you ever heard of a compliment sandwich?

A compliment sandwich is when someone puts something ‘nice’ before and after something terrible or … true.

“Dear, I love your tie. Your zipper is down. Nice shoes!”

Or, “Hey, you really sing loudly, but you’re way off key, thanks for being enthusiastic!”

I’ve got to tell you: Paul never ate or delivered a complimentary sandwich of any kind. Paul is straight up meat and potatoes.

In the second chapter of Romans, Paul is quick to clear things up: God is not nice and therefore, Paul is not worried about being nice. Paul laid out the good news of the gospel in Romans 1: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” The good news to Paul is that you can be saved. But there’s no mention of a carefree, purposeless life.

To Paul, life is absolutely intentional. Paul wants to cut straight to the heart of what the Romans need to hear. And somehow, the story of Paul is about taking the passion of the guy who was convinced of the Jewish “rightness” and pointing it toward knowing and loving God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So Paul wants to make major points about what it means to be loved by God, and to show God that you love God back.

#1 We can’t judge anyone else because by judging them, we compare ourselves to them and to God and we come up short (2:1). We come up short because God knows what we’re really like (2:3). When we judge others, we deny God’s grace, turn aside his kindness and patience, and miss the point of God’s kindness toward us: it’s not to make us happy but to show us how we need God’s forgiveness in the first place.

Think about all of the people we judge on a regular basis – and I don’t mean because we’re watching American Idol.

We judge people who don’t look or dress like us. I’ll admit it, at one time or another in my life, I have judged people for their actions, their tattoos, their using of various substances I didn’t use at the time, their grades, their sense of humor, their dress or lack thereof, their beliefs or lack of belief…

And somehow, I remember a moment in the car that brought it all clear to me. I was driving somewhere, I think the mall, and someone stupidly, crazily, idiotically, offensively pulled out in front of me! How dare they!?! I was steaming along, headed toward a place where I was going to eat or shop or …whatever, the point is that it doesn’t really matter, when I turned the corner to get there and recognized that I had just stupidly, crazily, idiotically, offensively pulled out in front of someone else who had to slam on the brakes to not rear-end me. 

I wonder if Paul doesn’t wish we could get a real close up on our own judgmental behavior. Whether it’s thinking less of the person who we think doesn’t make the same parenting choices we would even though we don’t know how hard they work or what they hope for their children, or the way we figure that the other church must not really be into Jesus because they don’t do things the way we do.

Paul’s first dose of meat and potatoes in chapter 2 is this: Don’t Judge. Because we’re all guilty, we’re all stuck and only God can get us out.

#2 Still, even thought he’s telling us not to judge, he knows we will but he encourages us to consider our actions.

Paul tries reasonably often to point out that he doesn’t get everything right, that he’s trying to explain the heart of God but he (Paul) gets in the way sometimes. Paul knows that he judges and he knows that a problem among the members of the early church. So he wants to lay out the consequences of continuing to judge others, the results of conditioning ourselves to think that we’re better than we really are: we are actually banking a deposit of God’s righteous judgment.

You must think, if you’ve been tracking this for the last few weeks, that Matthew 25:31-46 is my favorite Bible passage. It is one of them, but consider this: Paul keeps harkening our attention to the recognition that we must consider what we do to other people as being done to Jesus.

When we judge others, we judge Jesus. Now, that is ridiculous! But we put ourselves in a place where we act like we’re bigger and better than we are. And Paul says “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done'” (2:6). So we have a choice: pursue glory, honor, and immortality in doing good to receive eternal life, or, we can embrace judging, our own self-interests, wrath, and anger to receive “not eternal life” (2:7-10). Paul wants to be clear that we’re reaping whatever it is we’ve pursued because “God does not show favoritism,” Paul says, but gives us exactly what we have proposed that we actually want.

#3 If we get too carried away by our understanding of right and wrong (the law), then our own pattern of right and wrong will be what our lives are finally evaluated by. But that doesn’t leave much room for grace, does it? It doesn’t matter that we know the law, if we don’t obey it, and it doesn’t matter if we follow the law if we don’t recognize the grace of God.

Paul digs into that a bit deeper in Romans 2:17-24. He wants his hearers in Rome, who considered themselves to be Jews first and Christians second, to understand that their head knowledge of the law could not save them from the judgment of God. He wants them to recognize that while they can say they do one thing, that they often do another, that they are hypocrites whether they like to think so or not.

Paul asks a series of questions that wrap up our scripture today.  “You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law” (2:21-23)?

Remember that opening bit about not judging? Paul wants us to ask ourselves how much we really know outside of the grace of God. He wants us to ask ourselves if we really have the place to challenge the position or morality or decision-making of others, knowing that we ourselves fail to be morally good when something challenges us.

Are we generous with our time but hold back our money?

Are we kind to others but miserable to our families?

Are we gracious in our interactions with others, but malicious in the way we talk behind their backs?

Are we quietly pious at church but failures when it comes to choosing Godly ways in our midweek decision-making?

Paul’s letter to the early church at Rome may appear pleasant enough, but it is blistering in its criticism. Again: Paul wrote to the Romans about issues that he knew they had in their midst so that they would get “sorted out” by their religious leader, even if he was absent.

Again, Paul’s points: Don’t judge. Make sure your actions match what you say you believe so that you don’t betray yourself. Don’t rely on your actions but embrace grace.

So, how do we lives this out? How can we make sure that we are turning away from judgmentalism and judgment itself to embrace the grace God extends through Jesus?

I believe – and it follows the example of Paul – we must seek out those who push our buttons, those who make us uncomfortable, and love them the best way we can.

I recently discovered an organization that is serving eighty-eight churches in twenty-seven states and two countries. It’s a program founded on the belief that single mothers who make the conscious decision to have a child by themselves shouldn’t actually be alone. It wasn’t that long ago that the church, broadly speaking, wouldn’t have received those single women with open arms. Some churches still wouldn’t.

Somewhere along the way, the people behind the organization saw that it was more important that the women and their children were more important to God than judging what decisions had lead these women to have children outside of marriage. Somewhere along the way, someone realized that it wasn’t there place to judge those women or those children, but that it was up to them to extend grace. To embrace the grace of God, and to embrace those women and children with grace, too.

I don’t know what it is that you need to let go of, whether it’s judging yourself or someone else, but it seems that Paul’s warning for the church of Rome still speaks wisdom to us.

Don’t judge. Fear the Lord. Embrace grace.

Each of us must focus on God’s call on us and recognize that grace. Ultimately, it’s about that relationship, between us and God, that will make all the difference.

Mother Teresa wrote a poem, “Anyway,” to chronicle how that love might change our lives. I leave it with you today to reflect and to pray:

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.


Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today: The Gospel Revealed (Romans 1)

Do you know your purpose?

It seems that when we know our purpose, when we accept it and pursue it, we are happier. When we don’t know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, we drift aimlessly, like a ship without a rudder.

When we explore the life of Paul, we see a man convinced by his purpose. He knows who he is, what he is, and what he’s here for. And he’s not afraid to tell us.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. (Romans 1:1-5)

In Paul’s first letter, in his introduction, he lays out that he’s an apostle, that he is called specifically by Jesus Christ himself – not by any earthly person or group – to share the gospel. Paul grounds his understanding of himself in the Old Testament but he takes it a step further. Paul says that the God of the Old Testament, who sent Jesus to die on the cross, wants to broaden the relationship past just the Israelites to every, single, individual person who would believe in Jesus.

After Paul introduces himself, he addresses the letter: it’s to the church in Rome, the people who have converted to Christianity there. His letter would be read out loud to the community of faith, maybe even several times, as the church was primarily meeting in a “house church” setting (1:7).

Paul tells his listeners – remember, they’re hearing it orally – that he prays for them regularly, constantly even. And he expresses again his desire to come and visit them. He wants to come and visit them, which would mean he’s before the emperor, pleading his case, professing before the highest human power in the known world. Paul even apologizes that he hasn’t returned to see them yet, that it has been too long that he left them as ‘baby Christians’ without their father figure.

But while Paul knows that he is called to preach to the Gentiles, he tells them that he’s called to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone (1:14). Imagine for a moment that you knew you were supposed to do something, so great that it would make you willing to go anywhere, everywhere, even give up anything to make it happen. What do you feel that strongly about?

Paul knows, with certainty, what he believes in and what he would sacrifice it all for:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).

Paul believes that this news that God has shared with him in the person of Jesus on the road to Damascus (check out last week if that sounds like Greek to you) is worth dying for. But he also believes it’s worth living for as well. Do we get that?

Do you live each and every day, asking what does the gospel of Jesus Christ ask of you today?

Do you wake each morning, recognizing that your purpose is for God to be glorified in your life? That what you’re called to do is live differently and to speak the truth into the lives of others?

Paul gets it. Paul recognizes that it must be pretty important for the God of the universe to appear before him, to go through the effort to turn his life around. Paul knows if God would invest so much in shaping the life of one man, that God must care about humanity an awful, awful lot. If God cared enough to live and to die for the good of humanity, than Paul thinks he should, too.

I think Paul feels so strongly because he sees the flip side. The opposite of the beauty of God’s love is the absence of goodness, truth, and grace. God’s grace is there, of course, because God’s grace is everywhere, but some people choose not to accept it.

Some people are ashamed. Some people know the truth of the gospel but they don’t believe or hold onto it. They let other things contradict them or embarrass them or hold them back because they don’t recognize the power. 

Instead of judging, Paul doesn’t say anything about people who don’t know, but he stresses that “God has made it plain” to us, and that God’s “invisible qualities -his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen… so that people are without excuse” (1:18-19).

The gospel has been put out there – Jesus came and lived and died – it’s historical fact, and some people even get the theological undertones. But Paul is very clear that even though some people ‘get’ the gospel, they choose not to believe:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (1:21-23).

Paul isn’t going after people who don’t know God, who don’t believe or haven’t heard the gospel. Paul is starting off the letter to the Romans with a warning to those who have heard, who have believed, and who have abandoned their belief. He’s talking about people who were raised to believe but who chose to think that their success was the end result of their effort and that their lives were for their glory.

It’s the kind of life Paul lived before he met Jesus – when he thought he knew best, and that his way was the right one. Paul doesn’t want his hearers, the Jews or the Gentiles, to believe that they are better than they are and turn away from the gospel they know. They “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (1:25).

Now, Paul lays out some steep consequences to their turning from God to ‘not god’ in Romans 1:29-31. He says that these people, who knew God at one time and chose to follow something else become full of things like “wickedness, evil, greed, depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice,” that they can be classified as “gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful” that “they invent ways of doing evil,” “disobey their parents,” and have no faithfulness, no love, and no mercy.

Sounds terrific, doesn’t it?

When we put something else above and beyond the love of God, when we assume that science or reason or experience somehow is more valuable than God’s love itself, we open ourselves up to all kind of evil, Paul says.

With all of that before us, the purpose of Paul’s life and his warning issued here in Romans 1, we must ask ourselves: why would Paul write this to this baby church? Why would he lay down such egregious scare tactics, and fear?

Paul wasn’t much for pointless chatter – so we must assume that he thought this letter, and this opening salvo of the letter was important to the growth of his baby church. Consider his opening: “You are loved by God. Don’t turn away from that love, or else…”

I’m left with one proposal: that the church at Rome was threatening to fall away and revert back to previous beliefs because of the suggestions of others. Paul doesn’t want to scare his church, but he wants them to have a suitable fear of God. He wants them to recognize the consequences, and know that the God of the universe is calling them to something better.

Church in Petersburg, I ask you: what causes you to falter, to lose sight of the glory of God and the hope to which he calls you to? What keeps you from fulfilling your mission and purpose, to be the people that God called you to be?

We have a mission. We are known and loved by the God of the universe. We are called to recognize that we are saved by grace, and set apart for the purpose of sharing God’s vision for the kingdom of God. It’s why we’re here, it’s what we’re for.

So what are we going to do about it? Over the next twelve weeks, Paul will lay out a plan by which we can be those kinds of people. He’ll call us to follow Christ, by grace, through faith. He’ll call us to be the church.

Are you ready?

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today: The Story Of Paul (Romans (Intro))

On Facebook, I saw someone talking about a movie they saw.

The first person said they were watching a movie: “It’s about a guy’s wife who is brutally murdered by a serial killer who leaves his son physically disabled. In a twisted turn of events, the guy’s son is caught up in the killer’s net, and he must track and chase the killer thousands of miles with the help of this mentally deranged chick.”

The second person said, “oh yeah, what movie was that?”

Finding Nemo.”

Sometimes, what we expect isn’t what we get. It’s all in the ‘hook.’

Today, I want to introduce you to one of the heroes of the church: the Apostle Paul.

I could’ve called the sermon “Crazy Guy Who Murders Christians For Fun Ends Up Knocked Off His Ride By A Blinding Light, Meets Jesus, Snakes, Shipwrecks, Ends Up In Prison, And Helps Start The Early Church.”

A little wordy, I admit, but seriously…

When we first meet the apostle Paul, he’s no apostle. He’s the cold-hearted, rule-following Pharisee named Saul who holds the coats of the men who stone Stephen do death (Acts 7:58). By Acts 8, it says that Saul approves of Stephen being stoned, and that while godly men buried Stephen’s body, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:3). You might be confused if you never heard this story before: seriously, this is the guy who wrote his fair share of the Bible?

It’s truly amazing the way that God works, constantly turning zeros into heroes. But the conversion of Saul is one of the spectacularly life-changing experiences anyone has in the Bible. To understand the kind of faith involved in the Epistle to the Romans that we’ll start looking at next week, we need to understand the author first – the man who rose up as a persecutor of the Christians and became their strongest advocate.

In Acts 9, Saul is on a one-man mission to destroy the Christians. Jesus has risen into heaven and his disciples are sharing what they have experienced with others, but to Saul, Christians are just heretics, people who are watering down the Jewish law and belief system. And they must be eradicated, destroyed.

Saul is so fired up about what he believes that goes to the high priest in Jerusalem, and asks for letters condoning the arrest of Christians in Damascus. Having received those letters, he sets out on a journey for Damascus that doesn’t go the way that he thought it would at all.

On the road, before he had arrived in Damascus, “a light from heaven” flashed around him. Can you imagine what made that happen? Can you imagine what that would’ve been like to see and experience? I imagine today that people would say that they’d been abducted by aliens or something!

But Saul falls down – and we know that his eyes are closed – as a voice asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Now, think back to Matthew 25:31-46 where the shepherd, the king, separates the sheep from the goats, and neither the sheep or the goats remember ever interacting with him. Here, Saul has no idea who this voice speaks for or why the light has shone down from heaven. He doesn’t understand, and so he asks, “who are you?”

Unlike the answer that Moses got from God (“I AM WHO I AM”), the voice says that it is Jesus whom Saul has been persecuting. Right away, Saul knows that what he has been doing to Christians is associated with the voice from heaven. When he opens his eyes, he’s blinded – and the people around him are stunned. It’s implied that Saul somehow saw Jesus but the soldiers with him only heard him fall to the ground amidst the blinding light.

After three days of waiting, not eating or drinking, Saul is visited by a man named Ananias who God sent to him. Ananias is wary of going to see Saul because he knows what he is really like, and God says, “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Think about that for a minute: God sent a faithful person to instruct an unfaithful person about how God was going to use him!

Ananias prays over Saul and he’s miraculously cured of the blindness. Actually, Saul is cured from his blindness as God fills him with the Holy Spirit and he is baptized. He thought he could see clearly as he followed Jewish teaching, he couldn’t see when he was blinded, and now he can see again physically but he can also see spiritually as well.

Now, we’re going to look at the short version of Saul’s life from here on out.

Saul begins to learn more about the early church – and even preaches about Jesus as the Son of God to the surprise of everyone who knows what he used to be (9:19-22). There’s plenty in Romans to unpack, but think about that moment in Saul’s life for a moment. Is there ever a time when people who know you before you met Jesus or maybe before you got “serious,” look at you and go, “But, but, but, I know that guy…”

For Saul, who grew in his ability to communicate the gospel, who had been trained as a Pharisee, who knew lots of head knowledge before God filled him with heart knowledge, having met Jesus on the road to Damascus meant he had to share. But it says that enough people saw him preach and still remembered what he was like, so a plot to kill him originated among the Jews, and he had to be let down through a hole in the wall out of the city (9:23-25). Saul made it back to Jerusalem and those disciples were too afraid of him – they thought he was part of a sting operation! But Barnabas shared Saul’s story and the Jerusalem church welcomed him. Still, he had to flee again when the Hellenistic (or Greek) Jews tried to kill him, all the way to Tarsus.

Because of Barnabas, Saul ended up working with the Greek Jews in Antioch, sharing his story and teaching them about Jesus (Acts 11). Soon enough, Saul is helping to disciple John Mark, and the Holy Spirit sent Saul and Barnabas out to share the good news with those who had not heard. They were the first missionaries of the church, blazing a trail of the gospel into a world still holding to the legalism of Judaism without understanding the grace of Jesus.

Along the way, Saul makes a stand boldly, having been captured by Jesus’ love but possessing the personality of a fighter, an orator, and a person of deep conviction. He talks down a sorcerer who was preventing others from hearing the good news, he presented the gospel as important to both the Jew and the Gentile and was kicked out of city after city for doing so, he healed a lame man (14:8), he was left for dead after a stoning (14:19), and he and Barnabas kept planting churches.

That’s when it gets really interesting. Some of the Christians who were Jews first went to some of the churches formed by Gentile Christians (those who weren’t Jewish first) and said that they had to be circumcised – they had to become Jewish first. This obviously concerned those churches, and they sent Paul and Baranbas to Jerusalem to speak on their behalf.

Paul argued, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (15:7-11).

Ultimately, the final ruling came down to the viewpoint of someone who had lived with Jesus, and heard him preach. Jesus’ brother, James, said, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

By Acts 16, Paul and Barnabas have parted ways, but Paul has taken another mentee, Timothy, under his wing. When Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia, begging him to come and help, they got up and went there. They ended up in Philippi (where we get Philippians) and Paul befriends one of his best supporters, Lydia. But things weren’t always kosher. After casting a spirit out of a girl who others were using to make money, Paul and his other mentee, Silas, ended up in prison.

It says that Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns, that the other prisoners heard them, and that the result was a violent earthquake that freed the prisoners. But Paul and Silas stayed so that they could minister to the jailer and his family, and all of them were baptized. When they were ordered freed, Paul showed his feisty personality – he refused to leave until they apologized for falsely imprisoning them.

In Acts 17, in the midst of traveling to Thessalonica and Berea, Paul gave his most famous sermon. He was debated by a group of Greek philosophers, who said that they wanted to understand what it was Paul was saying. They weren’t necessarily saying but they wanted to test out these theories. So Paul stood up, and this is what he said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Of course, like any sermon, some people got it and some people didn’t. In fact, some of them made fun of Paul to his face!

Along the way, Paul made some great friends (Aquila and Priscilla), who were part of the church of Corinth. And God continued to encourage him, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”

Paul’s preaching influence grew as he influenced people to understand the Holy Spirit, and to recognize the kingdom of God. It says that for two years he preached to Jews and Gentiles in Asia so that all of them heard. Seriously. He traveled everywhere he could, like the early church’s version of John Wesley, preaching and teaching anywhere that he could be heard.

Now, I promised that this would be the highlights of the story of Paul. I would be remiss to ignore that one night while Paul was preaching, a young man fell asleep as (the NIV says) “Paul talked on and on” – he literally bored someone to sleep! But Eutychus, the young man, was sitting in the window, and as he fell asleep, he slipped out of the third story window and fell down, and died. What a tragic ending to the sermon! Thankfully, Paul threw himself on the young man and raised him from the dead. Whew.

After Paul was arrested for stirring up the people – for basically becoming a threat to the Jewish status quo – he kept telling the person in charge that he wanted to speak to the emperor about Jesus. The official would say something like “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.” Paul would not give up, would not back down – he believed that everyone, even the emperor, should know.

But even on the trip to Rome, to meet the emperor, Paul was trying to save everyone else. He knew that the ship they were on was not meant for the season of sailing and he told the captain of the centurions, but the man wouldn’t listen (Acts 27:23-28:2)

A terrible storm rose up, and they tied ropes underneath the bottom of the ship to keep the boat together. But soon they had to throw cargo overboard, and finally, the tackle was abandoned. When they finally had gone for days without food, Paul first said, “I told you so,” and then worked to build up their morale. “Now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. “

At the end of the second week, they ran aground on a sandbar, and the centurions intended to kill the prisoners to keep them from running away. But Paul’s life was spared, and he was safely ashore to ready for his trial… and he was bitten by a viper(28:3-6). Everyone expected that he would die, but he never showed any ill effects. For two years, Paul wrote many of his letters from chains, under the watchful eye of the Roman centurion (28:16-31). He was even allowed to preach while in chains, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.

Next week, we’ll get into the first of his Epistles, Romans. But as we do, I hope you’ll reflect on the life of Paul. A Jesus-hating, Christian-beating Pharisee who saw a vision, realized his mistake, and pursued his calling to share the good news no matter what it cost him.

If Paul isn’t a Pharisee first, then he doesn’t know the Bible well enough to argue it before scholars and religious leaders.

If Paul isn’t a Roman, then he never ends up before the emperor, as his right to appeal.

If Paul isn’t an outsider first, then he probably never understands the importance of sharing the good news with the Gentiles.

If Paul doesn’t meet Jesus, then the early church, the Bible, and our lives are forever changed.

But Paul had to accept all of those if/thens to be the person he became, what about your life is God willing to use to be a blessing to others? Even if it feels like a burden, or a curse, right now.

What are you willing to give up in the name of following Jesus?

Have you had that moment where God has grabbed your attention, or are you just skating by?

How can your life be used by God to share the good news of forgiveness and grace found in Jesus Christ with people you haven’t even met yet?

The good news of the gospel, the message of the kingdom of heaven, was the real deal for Paul. He knew he was putting it all, even his life, on the line.

Are we willing to do the same?

Posted in Pop Culture, Sermons, Theology | Leave a comment