Sunday’s Sermon Today: Finish Strong (Matthew 25:31-46)

Today, we’re going to look at finishing the race – finishing strong. We’ll look at Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and the goats, and consider the real-life testimonials of people who are running the race as best they know how.

I recently read the story of an evangelical Christian who opened up a coffee shop in the middle of a city, smack in the middle of the arts scene. It was in between shops he didn’t like and shops he wouldn’t shop in, but he hoped to bring in big-name Christian musicians and speakers. Previously, the building had hosted the biggest in-your-face art event of the year, every year.

You think you know where this is going, but I’ll bet you that you’re wrong.

One of the art organizers approached the new owner on the street to see how work on the building was going and mentioned that they’d obviously be looking in a different area. The man said that they were welcome to come and hold the event there again, much to the art organizer’s surprise.

The owner of the building went on to say that he’d provide the food and wine for the event, and that night, he dressed in a tuxedo, met the attendees at the door, and served everyone who came.

The end result was that neighbors and business people in the area came to see him as someone they could count on, even if they didn’t believe what he believed, because he showed them they mattered. That he wasn’t offended, that he even liked them.

What if running your race meant that everyone who ran into you knew that they were loved?

In our Scripture today, it says that Jesus will come and sit on the throne, and that Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats.

Now as a caveat, it’s the shepherd, Jesus, doing this. It’s Jesus the shepherd who knows and loves the sheep and the goats who does the separating. It’s not the sheep or the goats who do it.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we always got that in church? That we don’t get to decide what God lets in or keeps out? If we remembered that we were sheep, and not the shepherd?

In the Second World War, a group of soldiers was fighting in the rural countryside of France. During an intense battle, one of the American soldiers was killed. His comrades did not want to leave his body on the battlefield and decided to give him a Christian burial. They remembered a church a few miles behind the front lines whose grounds included a small cemetery surrounded by a white fence. After receiving permission to take their friend’s body to the cemetery, they set out for the church, arriving just before sunset.

A priest, his bent-over back and frail body betraying his many years, responded to their knocking. His face, deeply wrinkled and tan, was the home of two fierce eyes that flashed with wisdom and passion.

“Our friend was killed in battle,” they blurted out, “and we wanted to give him a church burial.”

Apparently the priest understood what they were asking, although he spoke in very broken English. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we can bury only those of the same faith here.”

Weary after many months of wars, the soldiers simply turned to walk away. “But,” the old priest called after them, “you can bury him outside the fence.”

Cynical and exhausted, the soldiers dug a grave and buried their friend just outside the white fence. They finished after nightfall.

The next morning, the entire unit was ordered to move on, and the group raced back to the little church for one final goodbye to their friend. When they arrived, they couldn’t find the gravesite. Tired and confused, they knocked on the door of the church. They asked the priest if he knew where they had buried their friend. “It was dark last night and we were exhausted. We must have been disoriented.”

A smile flashed across the old priest’s face. “After you left last night, I could not sleep, so I went out early this morning and I moved the fence.”–Mike Yaconelli, “Messy Spirituality”

In our Scripture today, Jesus moves the fence. Jesus re-establishes the boundaries for the race in a way that changes everything.

At first, it might not seem like it: he tells the sheep that they can come in, that they fed him when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, invited him in when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him when he was imprisoned.

Chris Hughes calls this the “Five-Fingered Gospel” (combining food and drink). To feed, to receive, to clothe, to cure, and to visit. Hughes says this is what Christians are called to do. That when we do these things we usher in the kingdom of God, that we finish the race.

But the beauty of Jesus’ parable is that the righteous, those Jesus welcomes in say that they don’t know when they fed, received, clothed, cured, or visited. They don’t remember seeing Jesus and doing those things for him because they don’t remember seeing him.

Jesus has just invited them into the kingdom of heaven and they are arguing that they are not worthy. They don’t have a frame of reference to see Jesus as someone they have already interacted with. These people, the righteous, were so focused on loving right now, that they missed looking ahead.

They were in the race, they were focused on finishing, they were not skipping to what came next, the reward.

And Jesus, the King, will say: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Man, if that doesn’t make you feel a little bit awesome, then I don’t know what will. Jesus is saying that when we serve other people, we serve the God of the whole, amazing, wonderful, powerful, universe. BAM!

Jesus doesn’t say, “you fools! couldn’t you recognize me?” No, he says, “Come in, because you faithfully loved others. Because you recognized their need and you fulfilled it.”

But here, here I get a little weak in the knees, and I think there’s some acid burning up the back of my throat, because I know what’s coming.

Here’s the flip side. Jesus turns to those on his left and says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

And those people didn’t even know they were blowing by Jesus – on the way to work, out of their house in the morning, past them in the parking lot in church, up from the bus stop back to the house.

There is a story of a monastery that had fallen upon sad times.  Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again ” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, “the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.–The Rabbi’s Gift

It says in Matthew that those turned to the left will say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ And Jesus will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

There’s no mention in either side of the story about:

– whether the people had money for food or drink and spent it on a cellphone bill or alcohol instead;

-whether the people had been evicted from their homes because they were disorganized and failed to pay their bills;

-whether or not they were sick because they failed to practice proper hygiene and healthcare;

-whether or not they were imprisoned as some fault of their own bad choices or innocent and falsely accused.

None of those things mattered to Jesus in his parable.

Friends, if we are going to run this race, we’ve got to kick our preconceptions to the curb. We’ve got to remember that God is God and that we are not.

If we want to see heaven, if we want to see the kingdom of God come upon the earth, then we must live like the kingdom of God so that we are fit for it.

It seems best summed up by Brennan Manning, the broken, barefoot ragamuffin of a theologian who loved like he lived:

“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.

‘But how?’ we ask.

Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’

There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”

Amen.

———————————————–

Communion Story:

A few years ago Tony flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. The way he tells it, he checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling.

He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He goes in and sits down at the counter. The fat guy behind the counter comes over and asks, “What d’ya want?”

Well, Tony isn’t so hungry anymore so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he says, “I’ll have a donut and black coffee.”

As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night’s work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him says to her friend, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which her friend nastily replies, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?”

The first woman says, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the fat guy at the counter, “Do they come in here every night?”

“Yeah,” he answered.

“The one right next to me,” he asked, “she comes in every night?”

“Yeah,” he said, “that’s Agnes. Yeah, she’s here every night. She’s been comin’ here for years. Why do you want to know?”

“Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?”

A cute kind of smile crept over the fat man’s chubby cheeks. “That’s great,” he says, “yeah, that’s great. I like it.” He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, “Hey, come on out here. This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes’ birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here.”

His wife comes out. “That’s terrific,” she says. “You know, Agnes is really nice. She’s always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her.”

So they make their plans. Tony says he’ll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he’ll make a cake.

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She’s stunned, her mouth falls open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost falls over.

And when the birthday cake with all the candles is carried out, that’s when she totally loses it. Now she’s sobbing and crying. Harry, who’s not used to seeing a prostitute cry, gruffly mumbles, “Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake.”

So she pulls herself together and blows them out. Everyone cheers and yells, “Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!”

But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if…I mean, if I don’t…I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry doesn’t know what to say so he shrugs and says, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want.”

“Oh, could I?” she asks. Looking at Tony she says, “I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I’ll be right back, honest.”

She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at each other. They look at Tony.

So Tony gets up on a chair and says, “What do you say that we pray together?”

And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation. Tony recalls, “I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.”

When he’s finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him quietly, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

Harry thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.” — Tony Campolo

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What I’ve Been Watching

Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts (5/12)- The Batman of Batman Unlimited finds himself up against a squad of animal villains calling themselves the Animilitia: Silverback, Cheetah, Killer Croc, and Man-Bat. Cleverly crafted with solid animation, it’s Batman versus the villains, but thankfully, he’s got Green Arrow, Nightwing, The Flash, and Red Robin to help him out. Simple, yet fun, I’d call this one a rating:borrow it for comic book fans (and their kids!)

The Cobbler (5/12) – Adam Sandler’s latest is more a modern-day parable than a slapstick comedy. As Max Simkin, he inherits a stitch machine that miraculously makes any pairs of shoes he works on into magic: when he puts on someone else’s shoes, they transforms him into the person himself in appearance and voice. When Max stumbles over this heirloom, he starts to explore the world around him from various lifestyles and perspectives, but it soon finds him in the midst of a criminal’s (Ellen Barkin) plot to takeover real estate. Max learns an adage of his great grandfather – “to know a man is to walk a mile in his shoes.” While the story is fun and even adventurous, the ultimate lessons about life and decision-making prove this one to be more than the average Sandler. rating: buy it

Cymbeline (5/19) – The second collaboration of director Michael Almereyda and Ethan Hawke on a Shakespearean adaptation, this one is more romance than the tragedy of their contemporary Hamlet (2000). But it takes the machinations of the court (or Game of Thrones) and mashes them up with some modern-day crime. Also starring Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich, John Leguizamo, and Penn Badgley, the film will appeal to the folks who like their Shakespeare and want their modern day genres, too. Less flashy than Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, this one still has enough pop to keep Shakespeare-phobes paying attention. I give this one a rating: rainy day it for those seeking something neoclassical.

Major Crimes: The Complete Third Season (5/26) – Captain Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell) leads a crack team of LAPD detectives to solve murders that are too hot for the regular police force to handle. Joining McDonnell in the ensemble drama are G. W. Bailey as Lt. Provenza, Anthony Denison as Lt. Flynn, Michael Paul Chan as Lt. Tao, and Raymond Cruz as Det. Sanchez. What was once a spinoff of The Closer has become a serious series in its own right. Here, you get all nineteen episodes from the third season, and some  Philip Stroh (Billy Burke) to really creep things out. But the truth about this show is that there’s more going on here than you’d expect, with commentary on aging, loyalty, justice, gender, and more. If you’ve never seen the show, start with season one, but this is better than the average summer fare. rating: borrow it

Tracers (5/12)- Taylor Lautner must wonder what he’s doing wrong. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson have both experienced post-Twilight success, and he’s stuck making movies like this. When a bicycle messenger with big debts to the Chinese mob can’t pay his bills, he jumps in with a parkour gang performing more difficult acts of… Aw, please, this is one you should just recognize the rating: skip it.

Welcome to Sweden (5/19)- Greg Poehler created this series about a sort of bumbling exec who leaves everything American to join his Swedish wife in her native land. It’s a fish-out-of-water story that is amusing at worst and clever at best, providing some romantic hijinks, clever misunderstandings, and more subtle critique of American subculture in its obliviousness to the rest of the world. For folks seeking a funny addition to a summer full of reruns, this one is definitely worth of rating: borrow it.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: Run Your Race (I Corinthians 9:19-27)

pain-is-temporary-pride-is-forever_1What’s the farthest you’ve ever run?

A marathon? A 10k? A mile for gym class? Out of the back door away from your mother?

My dad tells a story about doing something wrong as a kid – he can’t even remember what it is anymore – and his mother chased him around the house. Finally, he made a break for the front door and crashed through. He stumbled down the stairs and fell down, laughing so hard at his mother chasing him. She finally caught up to him and began to swat him over and over again with a plastic spatula, which she proceeded to break she was smacking him so hard. And my dad just kept laughing.

You can run but you can’t hide, right?

Paul says to us in I Corinthians 9:24-27 that if we’re going to follow Christ, we need to be ready to race. We need to be prepared to do what it takes to follow through. We need to be ready to run.

Now think about this for a minute: We don’t think of the people of the early church being really competitive. They were trying to stay alive and spread the kingdom of Jesus Christ! They didn’t have time for pop culture and such trappings, right?

But they would’ve known about the Olympics.

Think about what you know about the Olympics. An athlete shows up, maybe every four years after training and struggle, sacrifice and more. They arrive on the scene, whether it’s our Winter or Summer Olympics, and for about two weeks, if they’re lucky, they gain everyone’s attention – worldwide. For two weeks of glory, they’re willing to do… anything.

That glory, those two weeks, is nothing compared to the way that the Olympians of Paul’s times would’ve been received. They would’ve been lifelong heroes upon winning. They would’ve received financial support, special housing, and significant privilege within their city. They would’ve been elevated to the role of the superhero, the supreme. And Paul knows his audience would get the comparisons to the race of faith. He lays out seven points they need to know for running the race.

#1: Paul reminds his listeners that everyone in the race runs but not everyone wins.

Remember, he’s using racing as an allegory here. He’s not saying that everyone can’t win in the Christian faith, because God’s grace is available to all. But the focus here is on the effort, the striving. Think about the Boston Marathon.

When the first race was run in Boston in 1897, eighteen people entered. In 1996, thirty-five thousand people entered. Each year, approximately thirty thousand people run.

That means that approximately 29,998 people lose… every time. They don’t come in first in either the male or female category.

But they still run.

We’re going to lose, maybe even more often than we win. Our lives are littered with war stories, and missed opportunities, failures and mishaps. But we get back up. We keep running.

In 1992, Derek Redmond tore his hamstring in the finals of semi-finals. In great pain, he finished supported by his father who ran with him.

#2: Everyone prepares.

Have you ever heard of “slacktivism”? There’s research out of the University of British Columbia that shows that people who click on “Like” to something like “Help the Poor Children [Here]” are actually less likely to actually give than the people who just see the post and give! But I imagine that both of the groups of people think they’re doing good. Even if they don’t see actual difference in it. In their own minds, they are preparing.

The truth is, just like a group of students studying for a test, there’s studying and then there’s studying. Too often, we do things that don’t really matter and assume that it’s enough to be ready.

Ultimately, preparing for the race of faith means that we have to be truthful with ourselves. Are we really following what God is calling us to? Are we invested and involved in our own relationship with Jesus and growing in community with others in the body of faith?

#3: In a regular race, the crown is temporary. (Pain is temporary, pride is forever!) In the race Paul is promoting, the crown is forever.

When we run a race with a crown that lasts forever, our perspective on the way the race is run changes. I recently read the story of a doctor named Jerry who worked for CURE International in Kabul where he was shot and killed by a rogue Afghan police officer. The man telling the story admitted to absolute sadness at the thought of this good doctor and a friend of his being killed, meaninglessly.

But Jerry’s wife, Jan, forgave the killer the day that the murder happened. “We don’t know the backstory,” Jan said. “Jerry was there serving those people because Jesus loves the people of Afghanistan.” [as told by Brant Hansen]

Life and death and everything in between, it changes when we recognize that our relationships and choices here reverberate in heaven.

#4: Paul runs with purposeHe says, run to get the prize.

Brant Hansen tells about a time when he received an email from the wife of a man imprisoned in an Afghan prison. He was serving time in a country where Christianity had no apparent power because it was beaten down and abused by those in power. But someone had smuggled the man a phone, and the man and his wife were on the phone secretly. And the wife was playing Hansen’s radio show, a Christian one, to lift the man’s spirits.

So, here’s Hansen, on the radio, playing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God.” He can’t tell anyone why he’s playing it, because that would put the man in the prison in more danger and it would put the man who gave him the phone in danger. But he’s playing this song in several different languages, knowing that the prisoner and the jailer can hear it, and that God is using that song, in that moment, for good.

No one else knew, outside of Hansen, the man, and the man’s wife, why Hansen was doing that, and talking about the power of the song to change our lives. It had purpose – even if no one else knew why.

#5: Paul controls his flesh so that he can be spiritually on task.

There are plenty of times that we want to be better than we are, but we don’t actually do the things we can do to change.

We say we want to lose weight but we ate a fourth meal after 10 p.m.

We say we want to save money but we buy Frappucinos like Starbucks is going to run out.

We say we’ll make more time for our families but we never say no at work and we spend too much time checking Facebook.

We say we want to understand God better but we don’t read the Bible on our own and we don’t actually make time to pray.

Paul’s “race analogy” includes self-discipline, the stuff we can do to be better. Yes, we’re saved by grace, and yes, it’s through faith in Jesus that we receive that salvation. But don’t you think we have to commit to racing to be part of the process?

#6: Paul wants his “race” to match what he calls others to do.

There are stories that pop up from time to time about pastors who don’t quite live up to being who they’re supposed to be. Of course, none of us is perfect, but when you preach one thing and practice another, and you get caught… Well, it’s a long fall.

The latest story I’ve heard was about a male pastor who enjoyed a certain kind of magazine in secret. He knew he shouldn’t but when his wife went away, he brought them out of hiding. He became frustrated with his practice, and threw them all out in the dumpster behind their building. But hours later, he regretted his own repentance, and went to fish them out.

Realizing that they were still there, he decided to try and get them out of the dumpster. But on the way in, he slipped, fell, and broke his arm. Wounded inside and out, he was trapped inside the dumpster.

You know who had to help him get out, right?

If we are serious about our own lives, we’ll realize that we tend to struggle with practicing what we preach. Kindness. Self-control. Faithfulness. Generosity.

Rather than faking it, what would it look like if we fessed up to what we weren’t good at and pursued God’s grace? What if we admitted the parts of the race that we couldn’t stand or that we were terrible at? What if we admitted that we couldn’t run the race, without each other?

#7: We’re racing together. Next week, we’ll get to heaven and the kingdom of God. But we have to acknowledge that the race we run is a team sport. I spent a long time training in swimming, understanding that I was responsible for myself. Swimmers swim in lanes, focus on their own part, kick, reach, and pull on their own.

But the thing is, often swim meets come down to the relays. They come down to four teammates working together, leaning on each other. They come down to the surge of adrenaline from teammates cheering each other on, spurring each other on to victory.

It’s the point of the first few verses of Hebrews 12.

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. — Hebrews 12:1-2

We aren’t in the race on our own. We have each other. We should pray for each other, and call each other out, and cheer each other on.

We need to run the race toward the victory of the kingdom of God, recognizing that we are kingdom brothers and sisters together.

And the best news is that God has already secured the victory:

Keep running, friends, the race is already won!

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Retreat! (A Mustard Seed Musing)

I was on retreat, told I was supposed to be silent for thirty minutes! I wanted to ask if it was okay if I took a nap… Me? Silent for a half-hour?

I headed to my car and after the surreptitious checking of my email, I began to reflect on a scripture from Ephesians that I preached on last Sunday. But then a bird, a thrush, I think, landed on the hood of the car. I waved him off to no avail, and finally closed the door to frighten him off.

When did I become that person, the one who worries more about the bird pooping than about recognizing that I had a “bird’s eye view” of one of God’s magnificent creations?

I know it didn’t happen overnight. And it wasn’t even about the car. Maybe it was the breach in my schedule, or maybe it was the proximity to something new. But I’m afraid I’ve become like that about a lot of things – and I want to turn the tide.

See, as soon as I shooed away the bird, I wanted it back. What else should I be looking at with new eyes (or is it old eyes)?

What part of my marriage, or time with my kids, or my love of my job, do I need to get back?

What, in the stillness, with a bird, is God trying to tell me about time, space, and, well, eternity?

I know I don’t want to miss it. But I’ve got a long way to go to experiencing God’s presence and peace.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: In Training (Romans 12:1-21)

I’ll admit it (like many of you don’t already know): I’m a comic book geek. I love the stories of the superheroes in print and in the theater. For the release of the second Avengers movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, I re-watched the first one and both Captain America movies. He’s my favorite Avenger, because quite frankly, he’s the most normal.

Yes, Steve Rogers AKA Captain America has the Super Soldier serum coursing through his body. But he’s pretty much a regular dude. He can’t jump over buildings, or fly, and if bullets aren’t deflected by his American shield, he can be shot. The thing is, he has that serum that makes him stronger and faster, but he still has to train to make it active. In the first film, he goes through Basic training with the Army; in the second film, he laps the Mall in Washington while the Falcon runs with him.

Rogers has the potential inside of him, but he has to train to bring it to fruition. That’s a lot like us: we have the Holy Spirit inside of us, but if we’re not using it, if we’re not striving to be more like Jesus, we’ll never reach our potential.

Now, some of you are like Allen Iverson a few years ago, “practice, are we really talking about practice?” I thought we spent all of this time believing, having faith, you mean we have to do something?

The author of James said it pretty succinctly: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” It’s like swimming: you’re either pulling ahead or you’re drowning; you can’t be stuck in the middle. Yes, Jesus’ sacrifice saves you from sin, but if you’re not growing to be more like Jesus… you’re drowning.

Paul lays out some ways we train. First, he says we’re to offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God in the way we live (Romans 12:1-2). Some of you know from training for 5ks, half-marathons, ATV races, softball games – you have to sacrifice things if you want to get better. Eat less, eat right, get sleep, lift weights, save money. Whatever it is, you sacrifice something to get better.

Paul says to be more like Jesus, we need to figure out a few things about what it means to be like Jesus in the first place! He stresses humility (12:3), team building and gift identification (12:4-8), and finally, love.

Now, most of us have a friend, parent, spouse, or child who can pop our bubble when it’s getting too big, who can bring us back to earth, and remind us that we still wake up with bed head on most days. Humility seems to find us! But team building takes some work, and so does gift identification. Have you ever taken a spiritual gifts survey? Have you ever considered how you might be someone God wants to use for the kingdom of God? If you’ve never taken one of those surveys, see me afterward, and we’ll chat. You have gifts and God wants to use them.

But the second half of Romans 12 is all about the love. Not fake love, not puppy love, not “like.” But love.

Paul says love should be sincere. That we should recognize real love and hold onto it, as family, as friends, as children of God (12:9). He says we should be devoted – compelled by our feelings of love – to each other, to the point where others receive more honor than we do (12:11).

Do we love like that? Do we hold the elders (not the ordained, but the older people!) as so special that we seek them out for advice, and remind them of how much they are valued? Do we encourage the children and those in the midst of a struggle? Do we seek to bear each others burdens? Paul says that’s what real love does.

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (12:12).

That alone could preach – or drive us insane. I am not patient – I do not like to wait. My impatience can rob me of my joy and my hope, and rather than driving me deeper into prayer, impatience urges me to speed things up and take care of them on my own, rather than staying faithful… in prayer.

It’s like the Yoda quote I love: ““Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” When we fail to be patient, we lose hope and lack faithfulness. But if we’re patient, even in the midst of the struggle, God provides a way out of it.

But, wow, Paul is not done meddling. “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (12:13). Do you know anyone in need? I imagine you do – even if it would be easier to ignore it. I know a young couple who is homeless and looking for a job. I know a single mother of an infant who is looking for a car. I know people who are not sure how they’re going to find the energy to make it through the next week. And they all go to our church.

Paul didn’t need to tell his audience to go save the world. He wanted them to train by going and saving their brothers and sisters in church. Paul is urging us to train to be more like Jesus by loving the people we already know, let alone the Republican/Democrat, rich/poor, black/white/Hispanic, Muslim/Jew/Baptist/ISIS individual we see about on television and grumble about.

You thought all of that was personal, poke-you-in-the-chest kind of butting in? You haven’t seen anything yet! Paul wants to talk about ridiculous love. Crazy, spectacular, train for the kingdom of God kind of love. Stuff that is so ridiculous, it almost has to get under your skin and bother you if you’d let it.r

Paul says…

Bless the people who persecute you. Not just don’t be mean back but wish them well.

Don’t think you’re better than you are, and be friends with people no one else will be friends with.

Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If possible, live at peace with everyone.

If you have an enemy who is hungry, feed him, thirsty, give him a drink.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

That last one kind of sums it up, doesn’t it? Don’t let evil overcome you, but overcome it with good. Can we actually do that?

You can forgive your spouse, ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, child, parent for the harm they have caused you? Can you pray that God would love them so much that their lives would be blessed and successful?

Can you think of that person in your life who no one wants to talk to because they are so annoying/rude/mean/standoffish/unapproachable/uncool/fill-in-the-blank? Can you imagine a world where tomorrow you would walk up to them and intentionally bless them by being present?

We hear a lot about how Christians should be offended by this and that. We know there’s truth, and that the world can’t see the truth we see. So, we’re encouraged by the talking heads on conservative television (and some pastors) to “fight back”. And Paul shows up and says, “as much as you can control it, be at peace with everyone.”

Paul argued for the risen Christ, he died for him, too. But he didn’t fight people, he didn’t aim to hurt them. He trained to be the speaker and teacher he was so that he could tell even the people who would condemn him to death: “you are loved.” That’s radical training, my friends.

Back when I was swimming and running competitively, we swam and ran longer than the lengths of our competition. It wouldn’t do any good to just do the minimum of the race, because then our bodies wouldn’t have fine-tuned to the speed, distance, and stamina we needed. We had to exceed the expectations, to reach farther, so that our training would prepare us for the race. So that the competition itself would feel easier.

In our training, our membership vows as United Methodists, we promised to participate by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. That’s the bare minimum. Are we training for the event, for running the race of a faithful race, in a way that brings glory to God and prepares us for the kingdom?

Or are we chalking it up to “practice” and ignoring the instructions?

The race is upon us, and pulled spiritual muscles, and Holy Spirit-dehydrated souls will let us down in the long run. We need to prepare for the long haul, and trust that our training will be sufficient.

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What I’ve Been Watching

The stack has been growing on my desk – but I’m finally able to share about the plethora of films and television shows that publicists have been sending me lately. From the animated television (Teen Titans Go! Scooby-Doo) to dramas (The MentalistThe Missing, Halt and Catch Fire) to films that cover the spectrum (The Last Five Years, Lost River), there’s a wide range this week.

Halt and Catch Fire: The Complete First Season – The first ten episodes of AMC’s series about a creating competition for IBM in Silicon Valley in 1983. Lee Pace stars as Joe McMillan, who longs to reverse engineer the technology and make a name for himself in the business. Co-starring Scoot McNairy as Gordon, Mackenzie Davis as Cameron, and Toby Huss as John Bosworth, this is a period-piece about inventing computers comparable to Mad Men as a period-piece about advertising. This couldn’t more clearly be one that you’ll either love or hate, and your knowledge of computers may play a part. I’ll currently give it an “incomplete code” rating.

The Last Five Years – Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) sing their way through their relationship, or the pieces of it, shared back to us out of order and in various stages of crumbling. The songs reflect the insecurity, the highs and lows, the soaring pursuit and the crashing despair of the various stations along the way of their dating, marriage, and separation. Based on Jason Robert Brown’s Off-Broadway musical of the same name, it’s like Annie meets 50 Days of Summer. If musicals are your deal, this is classic. I’m not so much a musical guy, so I’ll leave it in the rainy day it category.

Lost River – Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut shows he’s had some thoughts since starring in films like Drive and Only God Forgives. Mixing in some trippy sequences, Gosling’s story follows a down-and-out family in Detroit (which made me think of Out of the Furnace for some reason, but seemed to be in a New Orleans-type setting). Ultimately, I think the point is that we are supposed to understand that this town, Lost River, could be anywhere in the U.S. since the economic collapse, that ‘the curse’ the people fight is extreme and life-depriving. Of course, there’s a villain, the bully Bully (Matt Smith), but our hero, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), refuses to back down while his mother (Christina Hendricks, who was also in Drive) fights for her family as well. Quirky, unsteadily shot, and nuanced, this one earns a rainy day it rating.

The Mentalist Season 7 – Patrick Jane (Simon Baker) and his CBI handler/lover Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney) are back at it for one final go-round with twelve episodes, culminating in a final, two-part case. This time, there’s a bit of nostalgia as the case resembles the one that saw Red John take Jane’s wife and daughter in the first place. There’s a serial killer who wants to communicate with his dead father who needs a psychic to do so – and Jane impersonates one, while also planning his wedding to Lisbon and new house plans as well. For fans who have ridden alongside the CBI for seven years, this is the send-off they’ve been waiting for. Of course, that means there are plenty of shadows and memories that have to be excised as they go. I give it a borrow it rating.

The Missing – James Nesbitt stars as Tony Hughes, a father who refuses to give up on his son even after he’s been missing for eight years. From STARZ and BBC One, the show works like a slightly longer movie, roping us in through a series of flashbacks and various locations, until we’re caught up in the grip of this father’s refusal to surrender his son. Of course, in a case like this, there are significant complications for his family and for the case itself. A plethora of characters (not quite Game of Thrones numbers) make the story work: Frances O’Connor plays Hughes’ wife, Emily, Matt Walsh plays a detective who ends up in a relationship with Emily, and Tcheky Karyo plays the lead detective, as some of the notables. Well shot, exciting, and moving, this one is worth tracking down, so borrow it.

Scooby-Doo 13 Spooky Tales: Surf’s Up Scooby-Doo and Scooby Doo and Scrappy-Doo: The Complete First Season– The first has thirteen stories; the second has sixteen. But both of them are full of the clean, wholesome adventures that decades of Scooby-Doo fans have come to expect. I’m partial to the ones with Scrappy, because his pint-sized, Napoleon complexed, “don’t judge the dog by his size but by the fight” just works for me. He’s the brave one, right, not Scooby? And he’s often the one who can put everything together while our hapless title character struggles to figure out which way is up. I’m a fan because I find them pretty entertaining myself, but I can safely kick back and watch them with my kids and not worry about it. rating: Buy it

Teen Titans Go! The Complete First Season Blu-ray Teen Titans Go! Appetite For Disruption (Season 2 Part 1) – If you haven’t seen the latest incarnation of the Teen Titans, the junior Justice League so to speak for DC’s superheroes, you’re really missing out. Whether you want the first fifty-two episodes on Blu-ray for nearly six hundred minutes of laughs, adventure, and team-building, or just the first twenty-six minutes of the second set, there are plenty of options from Warner Bros. to keep you on your toes. Robin, Raven, Beast Boy, Starfire, and Cyborg fight their way through villains, insecurities, teenage problems, and troublesome scenes that only teen superheroes can find themselves in. I’m all in on this one, so give it for the win. 

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: Suiting Up (Ephesians 6:10-18)

armorofgod

You wouldn’t show up for a half marathon wearing golf cleats. Or an ATV race with only a scooter. You wouldn’t show up for a baseball game in your hockey gear, or for a basketball game with a golf ball.

So why do we so often show up for life unprepared?

Several years ago, I remember reading a story in Tony Dungy’s book, Quiet Strength. He told the story of disciplining two players who blew off a public service appearance at a local school, because they felt like sleeping in. He addressed their level of responsibility in a team-only meeting, and thought the episode was over. Then, five years later, while on a family vacation in Europe, Dungy ran into one of his former players, now a husband and father. The young man brought up the story of blowing off his responsibility and being ‘coached up’ about how he should step up into being a man. The lesson had stuck, because Dungy coaches for life, not just sports.

Sometimes, I think we approach church “stuff” as if it’s just for Sundays, or just for church. Like maybe the pieces of advice and ‘coaching’ we receive throughout the Bible are just good advice or directions we can take or leave. [Seriously, when’s the last time you made something complicated to eat but ignored half of the instructions? How did that taste??] Too often, we think we can get by on our own, and dial up the Christian-based resources of prayer and faith when we need it.

We’re going to look at our lives as a competition for the next four weeks, and today, I want to focus on the tools of our sport, the equipment, the armor as Paul calls it, that we’re supposed to use to enter into the daily grind of life.

Before he gets to the equipment, the “full armor of God,” Paul tells the church at Ephesus to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (6:10). None of the pieces of equipment that follow are about us; they are all about the power of God! Romans 13:12 says, “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” I like that imagery: the armor of light. It glows, it shines, it reflects the power of God because Jesus is the light of the world! Friends, if you are wearing the armor of God, you shine.

The armor of God is what we need to stand against the devil’s schemes (6:11). I do not usually talk about our battle with the devil – I think we’re tempted, and we struggle, and I admit that sometimes the struggle seems complicated. But Paul says that our struggle isn’t just against someone else but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (6:12). Yikes! Paul seems pretty confident that what we’re up against is more powerful, more complicated, then “just” our temperaments, issues, addictions, family dynamics, and everything else. Sure, all of that is tough, but Paul says that we’re really up against it because there is a spirit of evil and discontent. Call that original sin, call it the devil, but Paul wants us to recognize that every day, we’re battling, competing, striving, against things we can’t even see.

Paul says again to put on the full armor of God, not just picking and choosing the pieces we want – a little prayer here, a little light Bible study there, a couple of church visits a month – but to get all of the armor on. To put on all of these things not just the helmet, or dusting off the shield, all of it.

Most of us wouldn’t set out for a hike without the right shoes, or a night of camping without a tent and a lantern. But Paul wants us to take seriously what it looks like to be ready for battle, ready to compete.

Paul reiterates that we should have on this armor so that “when the day of evil comes”, not if the day of evil comes, get this, “you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

Lately, I’ve been enamored with Netflix’s Daredevil miniseries, the story of a boy who is blinded saving an old man’s life, who grows up to be a superhero. His senses are strengthened because of his blindness, and he trains vigilantly to fight evildoers, to protect the innocents. But he doesn’t have super strength, or some special healing power. He gets beaten up, he gets bones broken. But his dad was a boxer, and he taught his son Matt that he was going to get knocked down, he was going to lose, but he should always stand back up.

Paul knows we’re going to get knocked down. We’re going to lose sometimes. We will draw our line in the sand and stand up for truth and justice, and we will still get knocked down. And Paul says, “after everything, you must stand because you have the armor of God, the power of God behind you.”

Our purpose, the purpose of this armor, is to stand. Because when we stand, we exhibit faith in God’s grace in the face of everything against us.

Friends, you don’t have to win, you just have to stand. God will do the rest.

So, let’s get to the actual armor.

The belt of truth. We need belts, right? They keep our pants from falling down. They keep our shirts tucked in. They are essential for cosmetic and, er, social customs. Belts keep us put together.

Now, consider truth. Truth is the thing that levels the playing field of life. We work hard to hide the truth sometimes, about say our age, our weight, or our mistakes. But when the truth comes out, it can be freeing, and it can defuse situations where lies and deceit are running rampant. Truth, like belts, aren’t necessarily the “coolest” part of our outfit, but without it, we’d be in trouble.

The breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate was the piece of armor that covered a soldier’s chest, where many of the vital organs are. The breastplate of righteousness shows off the way we’re protected from evil by the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are not righteous on our own, but because we are cloaked, armored, protected by the sacrifice of Jesus, our “vital organs” are defended.

Paul wrote in Romans 1:17, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith,'” and later, in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.'”

I have to admit, I’ve seen a lot of baseball lately, helping to coach my son’s team. We watch games on television sometimes, too (go, Red Sox!) The people facing the pitcher most often, the catcher and the empire, have their most serious equipment covering their chests and upper body. The sound a fastball makes hitting that padding sounds… loud. I can only imagine what it would feel like taking a pitch to the chest, or a foul tip, with no padding.

That’s what sin would be like into our hearts, if we didn’t have the death and resurrection of Jesus. We can’t earn the breastplate, but if we don’t accept by faith that Jesus died for us on the cross and rose again, if we don’t believe that, then we’re left fully exposed, regardless of what other parts of the armor we have on.

The feet fit with readiness (from the gospel of peace). But not all of the armor is defensive. Paul says that our feet should feet fit with readiness – our shoes should be tied! I imagine it like the little wings on the feet of Hermes, the symbol for speed on the ankles, sometimes the logo of cross country teams. Paul says we should be ready to travel with that energy, that speed, because we have the good news. We should want the armor for ourselves, but we should want it for everyone else, too.

We should be motivated by the gospel of peace to the point that we are willing to do whatever it takes to share the good news.

Peace. It can be so fleeting. I think of the people who represent peace in my life, the people I have emulated. The people I want to be more like in the midst of a culture that says you should fight back.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the people who comes to mind. The power of his story is conveyed pretty powerfully in Selma, where MLK led protesters to march for the right to vote. It’s hard to watch sometimes, because you know what’s going to happen from a historical perspective. But MLK taught his followers that the best way to convey their truth, to promote peace, was to not fight back but to stand. To stay strong, but to not fight evil with evil.

As MLK himself said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The shield of faith (which extinguishes arrows of the evil one). But while we’re running, while we’re sharing, we’re going to take shots. We’re going to be “fired on.” I’m always impressed by those people who run into burning buildings or rush out to attend to the wounded during a war, sometimes carrying simply a plexiglass shield to protect themselves. They have to trust the shield; they have to believe that the shield itself will hold up under fire. Because their focus has to be on the mission, on the person they’re aiming to help or the job at hand. They need the shield to do its job.

Faith works like that, too. Have you ever felt like when you were on the verge of doing something good, or maybe in response to a decision you made that was the right one, suddenly things seemed to make the decision more difficult? Minor distractions, problems you didn’t see coming, things rise up to cause a problem.

But if we hold on, if we have faith, if we stay focused, we can see that God has a plan and that God has not abandoned us. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

The helmet of salvation. Just about every contact sport – except basketball – requires that you protect your head. Baseball, check. Hockey, check. Football, check. In football, you get a penalty if your helmet comes off before you leave the field! Our heads are important.

Paul wants us to recognize that our faith, our hope, our love, our everything – it’s all second to the salvation we have in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, when we believe.

I don’t necessarily mention it as much as some – but do you know you’re saved? Not in a guilt-you-into-an-altar-call kind of way, but do you know in your heart that this is the way God loves you? Do you know that you have an eternal place in God’s kingdom if you believe in Jesus? It’s pretty simple, and yet, we make it so complicated.

The sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God). Finally! We get an offensive weapon, right? I mean, from sword fighting to playing soldier to cowboys versus Indians, everyone needs a weapon. I mean, I even got chased around the house by a laser gun-toting four year old last week!

But… the sword of the Spirit isn’t our weapon. It’s not even really a weapon if we think about it long enough. It’s the word of God for our inspiration. And if we understand that the word of God is really Jesus, the word made flesh (John 1), the word in which God spoke the world into being (Genesis 1), then the only good offense is… to love. To be like Jesus. To know the Bible in a way that it comes to us when we’re struggling, to grip us and hold our hearts, to comfort and support.

And pray, Paul says. Pray with all kinds of prayers and requests, Paul says. Be alert. Wake up! he says. And keep praying.

So I ask you, are you suited up? Do you know your spiritual equipment in a way that you’re prepared for what the next moment brings? Do you know what tomorrow brings? I don’t. But if we’re submersed in truth, and love, and faith, and peace, then we’ll be ready.

Put me in the game, Coach, I’m ready to play.

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