Sunday’s Sermon Today: Romans 8:28 (Romans 8:28-37)

Have you ever had a really bad day? A day when nothing seemed like it was going your way?

Maybe you’ve heard the story about the guy headed somewhere who gets on the plane to get there. Unfortunately, the plane starts to crash and he runs for the back of the plane. Fortunately, there are parachutes. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough for him. Fortunately, the he sees a haystack in a field below and he jumps. Unfortunately, as he gets closer, he sees that the haystack has a pitchfork sticking out of it. Fortunately, he misses the pitchfork… and the haystack, too.

Doesn’t our life have a cyclic pattern to it sometimes, where we can see God moving after we see something unfortunate/terrible/bothersome?

The truth is, most of us would avoid bad things happening if we could. A few years ago, Steven Spielberg made a film called Minority Report where some special cops (led by Tom Cruise) stop crimes before they’re committed. The whole idea is that if we had the ability to know the future, most of us would edit our futures. 

But what if there’s a purpose for the bad stuff? 

Frederick Buechner writes, “God’s coming is always unforeseen, I think, and the reason is, if I had to guess, is that if he gave us anything much in the way of advance warning, more often than not we would have made ourselves scarce long before he got there.”

I’m not sure I’m ready to call everything from Romans 8:28-37 a “miracle” but I think that too often, we fail to see when God shows up because we don’t have the right attitude.

Lou Holtz tells a story about a man who was late for a job interview at a big corporate meeting. He’s been circling the parking lot for ten minutes and prays, “God, if you’ll help me find a parking space, I’ll quit drinking, go to church, and be a good Christian.” Almost instantaneously, a parking space appears in front of him and he darts into the building, tossing back over his shoulder, “Nevermind, God, I found one!”

Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Now, I’m sure we could have a field day with Romans 8:31 “If God is with us, who can stand against us?” or Romans 8:35 “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” or Romans 8:37 “no, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

This is a wonderful portion of t-shirt slogans and inspirational moments for the church in this little portion of Romans. But 8:28 stands out because I think it’s the most troubling… and the most foundational.

Paul says that we know – do we know, or are we being reminded? – that God works for good in all things for those who love him.

Paul doesn’t say that God works some of the time in some things.

Paul doesn’t say that God works, but only in the good things.

Paul says that God works all of the time in all things for all who love him.

John Ortberg tells a story about an older woman who locked her keys in the car and prayed to God that someone would help her. As she opened her eyes, she looked up to see a tattooed, bearded, burly man approaching her in biker’s leather and a do-rag. “Really, God?” she asked under her breath. “Um, sir, can you break into my car?” She asked. “I’ve locked my keys in the car.”

The man took her the rusted hanger she’d unsuccessfully tried to pick the lock with, and within seconds, he was holding open the door to her car.

“You’re such a nice man!” she cried, jumping to hug him around the neck.

“No, I’m not,” the man gruffly replied, “I just got out of prison for auto theft.”

“Oh, thank God!” she replied. “I prayed and God sent me an expert!”

I have to admit: I have a hard time seeing the tough moments as blessings sometimes. I think that’s why I like the juxtaposition of Matt Redman’s verses in “Blessed Be Your Name”:

Blessed be Your name
When the sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s ‘all as it should be’
Blessed be Your name

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

It’s should be relatively easy to see God’s plan when the road is easy, and the material, emotional, and spiritual blessings are flowing down, but what about in the bad stuff?

Buechner writes, “The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilty recrimination and retreat that makes us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead.”

Studies have proven that we most of us have “negativity dominance” (Richard Beck). We have a tendency to see the bad, to even let the bad overwhelm the good. The example used is that if a cockroach falls into lemonade, the lemonade is corrupted because of the cockroach – no matter how much lemonade we might be dealing with (a glass, pitcher, ocean). One cockroach can spoil the whole thing. It’s why “disgust” is considered to be “psychologically promiscuous,” because through that learned behavior, we tend to focus on the bad stuff.

[For the record, my wife says I should write a book called The Power of Positive Thinking, which is (of course), sarcastic.]

But what if we didn’t see that “bad” sometimes had to happen for “good” to result?

A seed has to die to fall to the ground and grow into a tree.

Jesus had to die on the cross to be resurrected from the tomb.

We have to die to ourselves to become more like Jesus.

And in the midst of it all, God works good in both what we consider good and bad. God doesn’t create the bad, but God can certainly use it.

So, wise readers/listeners, I did what any preacher would do — I asked my Facebook friends to share their stories about how something bad was turned into something good. I didn’t specify whether God was in it or not: listen to what happened.

My colleague, Glen Riggs, shared with me that he was let go from a job and learned that if he had not been prepared, his family would have been in deep trouble. “I learned that with government assistance, you cannot buy many needed things including toilet paper, diapers, paper towels, laundry detergent soap, and disinfectant spray,” Glen says.  “It motivated me to start a project through my old church to supply those things to families in need and that project has now been going for six years and serve over five hundred families.

Glen adds, “Then I decided to listen to God more, and after seven years of not answering…now I am a preacher.”

A pastor friend, Ben Horrocks shared that checking out a suspected hernia lead to the discovery of cancer. He’s been in remission for four years now. He still doesn’t know if he had a hernia or not, but he knows that checkup saved his life.

Rachel Hundley, a young adult and social worker, says, “Well, of course there are the ways that my personal faith was developed following the sudden death of family members. My grandparents drowned when I was 17, 6 days before I went off to college, and now I look back on it and know that I might not have made it through that first semester away from home if it weren’t for the countless number of people that didn’t forget about me and my grief even though I was away from home.

But also, and more recently, I had (have) a really hard time with my Dad and Stepmom being so far away in California. But I believe that it was no accident that they moved to California and Dad was diagnosed with Lymphoma 3 months later… and they live 1 mile from one of the best cancer centers in the country.”

Lawyer and baseball coach, Joe Moore, has a daughter named Macie who was diagnosed with leukemia. “After Macie was diagnosed with leukemia, an entire group of teachers from her daycare showed up at church the following Sunday,” he says. “Some had never been or not been in a while. Several of them are still coming to church and serving on a regular basis!”

The mother of one of my good friends and the first person to respond to the “What If All The Children Had Coats?” blog, Dawn Lee shared a story about her family’s struggle… and resilience with God’s help.

We were in the midst of trying to finish our Cape Cod’s second floor by ourselves, SLOWLLLLLY, and a horrendous thunderstorm came through, with lightning hitting our house. The 2x4s that were starting to frame the rooms upstairs provided evenly spaced kindling, and the attic went up in flames FAST, and then the ceiling started to break through.

Water and smoke destroyed almost everything we had, but thanks to an eight–year-old neighbor who saw the flames, we got out before it was too late. The good that came from that was an appreciation for what’s really important in life, a knowledge that ‘stuff’ is just ‘stuff’, an outpouring of love from neighbors, friends, and strangers. One church friend went out that very night and bought each of us the basics—-shoes, underwear, and toothbrushes, so we could get through the first night/day. Others brought food, furniture, toys. It was an awful time, but we ending up being blessed over and over, and were able to even hire the contractors who were rebuilding the downstairs to finish the upstairs for us.

Some years later we were able to walk alongside another family as they spent their first day digging through the “debris” in their yard that had been their life. Leaving that house even twenty-two years after the fire was difficult, because we learned so much there about home.”

Another pastor shared, “I left ministry in 2006 because, I said, if the [denomination] wanted to die, it would have to do it without taking me along with it. That led to a move out of state, which led to being geographically in a new [denominational] [area], which led to me exploring possibilities there, which led to me becoming a new church planter. Which would have never happened in the first place had I not become so frustrated with the dying [denomination] to leave in the first place” (Matt Meisenhelter).

Rick shares, “I planned to attend to Mary Washington College. I had a few deadhead friends there and an old girlfriend. I did not get in. But I got into Longwood and met wife and loved the college. Next week, our oldest daughter applies to Longwood. In August my wife and I celebrate twenty years married. And happily.”

Bambi shared, “How about, the absolute alcoholic rock bottom I hit in the summer of 2011? The night I was blindingly intoxicated, and missed formation and combatives (Army reserve training) the next morning. I sent an email to someone, who in turn sent someone to help, someone I would later find I couldn’t live without, I found God again. and three years, ten months and twenty-eight days later I am STILL sober.”

A friend from seminary, Shannon Fredres shares, “I was married and lived hundreds of miles away from my family. My husband decided to walk away and I was devastated. Now I am able to be where my family is, spending time with my nieces and nephews (which I could never have done in Chicago) and I even met a man who is a MUCH better fit for me than my ex ever was. I know everything always happens for a reason.

Pastor Tom Lester says, “The economy was not good when I graduated college and I, a committed homebody, moved three hundred miles from my real home, and went through three to four years of what I can only call hell without the handbasket at my job. Did I mention I’m a Meyers-Briggs off the scale introvert? But I met MJ. Tah dah! Her version will be much different!”

Another friend from seminary who has worked with kids in some tough settings, Jenny Williams shared, “Because of my parents’ divorce, and living through that nightmare, I’m better able to understand/minister to the students I work with who are divorced kids. It’s only through the grace and love from God that brings something good out of something horrible. Out of the rape that occurred in college has come a passion to help others through similar situations. When I share that part of my testimony to girls and female college students, many are able to break their silence and share their own abuse stories which opens the door for God’s healing.

A contractor, and newly-minted licensed local pastor, Jay Harrison shares, “I lost my job two weeks before my Emmaus walk and because I had nothing to worry about God spoke to me and I could finally hear His call to ministry since all “background noise” was gone. Now I have my own business and it supports my ministry in ways my old job could have never allowed.

Another pastor (and baseball coach), Russ Mason, shares, “In April 2014 I was on the scene of a fatal car accident where an eighteen-year-old, young man was killed on the night of his sister’s birthday (it was a Friday evening around 11 p.m.). That Sunday, we returned to the scene to bring granola bars and water bottles to those who were visiting and paying their respects. At that moment, we met the sister and one of the other young men who was sitting in the back of the car during the accident.

The next day I found myself standing in the living room of the young man who died where I spent two hours talking with the father of the young man and praying with a group of twenty to thirty teenagers. That same night I found myself in the hospital room of the young man who was driving the car that tragic night. In the coming weeks and months, one relationship led to another and by the summer, Shari and I had fifty to one hundred middle school, high school, and college students who were in our lives on a regular basis. All of the families and all of the young people who knew the young man killed in the accident handled this tragedy with great grace, love, compassion, and spiritual understanding. One family even invited us to lead a Bible study in their home! There’s more to the story but that is how one horrific night had many happy endings in the following days, weeks, and months.”

The mother of two wonderful little boys, Shannon Davis shared: “Well for us with Joshuas diagnosis with type 1 diabetes, it was horrific. The doctors told us we were with in 3 hours of him dying, our entire lives changed those five days in the hospital. Everything about it is awful, but because of this horrific disease we have met people we never would have, created amazing relationships, and Joshua testified in the VA senate and house to introduce legislation for type one care in the schools. We have grown as a family, and have stepped into a place we never dreamed of being in. At the age of four and five Joshua was on a first name basis with Senators and Delegates. He has developed a personality that will hopefully help lead change in lots of things in the future. While we HATE this disease and what it has done to our child we are thankful for all it has brought us.

Joanne’s coworker and friend, Brandy Hobbs shared:

You know the bad.

The good…. I know that Dean bumping his head changing air filters was a God thing. I remain grateful for the 16 months that we had together after the diagnosis. I am so glad that we were here in Virginia. The friends that we have made here are our new family. They are the reason that the kids and I have no intention of moving back to NC. I have continuously been overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness, kindness and generosity of others. I have never understood like I do now the powerful connection of the human spirit from one person to another. I could never eloquently explain the gratitude that I have in my heart for all of the kindness that people have shown me since Dean got sick. Although I continue to grieve Dean’s loss, my journey through this makes me want to teach my kids about resilience. I feel like everything we have experienced makes me want to repay kindness to others. Right now, I am more grateful for my life than I have ever been. There is still much uncertainty ahead for me but I have great faith that despite all of the tragedy, the kids and I without question have been blessed beyond measure by the people in our lives. God definitely has favor on my life.

I forgot to mention how much I appreciate all that the doctors, nurses, and health care workers in general did for us. I do not have any regret about the care Dean received and although I prayed for a different outcome, I would not change a thing. Dean loved everyone that was part of his journey and we are grateful to them all. The compassion they showed us was remarkable. Part of the reason Dean was in clinical trials was not only to save his own life but to also hopefully help others. It gives me great peace to know that he did. Hospice nurses should wear capes. Surely, they are everyday heroes.

In my experience, people with deep faith can handle the hurt. It might take awhile, but somehow, they find a way. Eric Metaxas writes, “if he is actually the God who loves us beyond anything we can imagine, even the bad things can ultimately be a blessing. In fact, God wants us to know that, because our sufferings will be easier to bear if we know that God is with us in the midst of them, leading us toward something ultimately redemptive and beautiful.”

But how we deal with it, how we receive all things, has a lot to do with our attitude, and the way we turn to God and our faith community in both the good and the bad. Somehow, there’s something greater at work, right? Somehow, if we could just hold on … if we could just see the “why” of the situation…

Because, Viktor Frankl says, “in some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment that it finds meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice. Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost many ‘how.'”

I don’t know how you’ll make it through your next struggle, test, temptation, or resistance, but I know why you can.

Rest in the power of Christ Jesus, and know that in all things, God works for good in those who love him.

Amen.

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View From The Shore #3 (2.0): Dangerous Current

During my beach walk, I came across a posted sign that said “Dangerous Current.” There were lifeguards working and people were in the water, but in this posted area, swimmers were warned that something was different than normal.

When I worked at the beach, we called this a riptide: defined by Wikipedia as “a strong tidal flow of water within estuaries and other enclosed tidal areas” or “a fast narrow current running offshore and cutting through breaking waves.” When I worked as a lifeguard, we tried to keep people out of the area, especially if we could tell they weren’t such strong swimmers.

See, in a riptide, you can easily make it out into the water, but when you attempt to come back to shore, you have to fight like mad to make it in. [I’ve always found that diagonally approaching the shore was the way to get out; when people panic, they attempt to get to dry land by going in a straight line.] Most people were reasonably cautious around the riptide, but every once and awhile, someone would think they could do it. The only time I ever had to go into the water after someone, it was when another guard was on the stand near the riptide… and let a tourist go in too far!

Those dangerous current signs are there for a reason. They’re supposed to help us. We have signs in our lives that are supposed to remind us of danger – fight or flight indicators; we have the counsel of family and friends; we have the writings of those wiser than we are, and even the writings many would call spiritual (like the Bible). Too often, we plunge in and ignore the warnings, and then flounder. Then someone else has to pull us out.

What if we acknowledged the signs and steered clear of the more troublesome areas?

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View From The Shore #2 (2.0): Fear the Shark(nado)!

Full disclaimer: I’ve never watched Sharknado or either of its sequels. But the reality of the world today means there’s another kind of shark storm in the world: the fear of entering the ocean because of shark sightings and attacks up the east coast. It appears to have had an impact on the sheer number of people who are at the beach and the number of people in the water.

And yet, are there actually an increased number of “shark attacks”? Is our chance of being bothered, bitten, or eaten actually greater than say… a year ago? [You can read more here. I’m no shark expert, and I do think you should be cautious.] That said, I think that we tend to respond to people in ways pretty similar to the way that many people are treating their knowledge of shark attacks.

We hear a specific situation, say, “shark attacks surfer off of South Africa,” or “man bitten by shark off of California pier,” and we assume all kinds of things. We assume that the headline is factually correct (like my use of Sharknado…) or that it actually applies to us in our situation. We apply the fear of the situation, the danger assumed in the situation, and apply it to every situation.

And we do it to people.

One person “X” who has “A” and “B” characteristics, suddenly represents all “As” and all “Bs”. Pick a characteristic. All men, all African Americans, all gays, all Red Sox fans, all Buddhists, all Republicans, all… whatever. We let the media – and our gross generalizations, and even prejudices, drive us to fear.

And yet, there’s Jesus showing up, poking us in the chest, telling us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Aw, c’mon, Jesus, take it easy!

Jesus didn’t want fear. He knew it wasn’t good for us. And he wasn’t much for generalizations either. He met each person where they were, and dealt with them in their situation.

I wonder what it would look like if we lived a bit more like that?

It’d change our world, right?

Then again, when Jesus walked on water, it didn’t say anything about dealing with sharks.

Yesterday’s View From The Shore #1 (2.o): Wavelength & God’s-eye.

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View From The Shore #1 (2.0): Wavelength & God’s Eye

Another year, another trip to the beach. Not much changes for me because I love the beach.

The thing is that not everyone sees it that way, because (gasp!) not everyone likes the beach, or the water.

My youngest is not one of those people. He’s like me: he loves the beach. And the sand. And the other kids. And … the waves.

The thing is though, he’s not ready for every wave. Some of them buffet his little body and send him flying. And this year, even though he’s a stronger swimmer than he was a year ago, he reacts differently than he did a year ago. Granted, it’s only the first day but the thing is, he has a greater understanding of the water’s power.

[Editor’s note: Last year, I posted a series of musings from the beach that I called “View From The Shore.” This year, I intend to do the same… if I don’t fall asleep under an umbrella somewhere!]

He’s all of two and half, maybe three, feet tall. And the onslaught of oncoming waves seems tremendous. So he runs up and asks me to go in with him, he wants me to grab his hand, and lift him up, when the waves seem too big for him. And, throwing my copy of Ready Player One down [seriously, how have I never heard of this book? It’s a book every child of the 1980s or arcade games should read], I enter the water to realize…

every wave seems too big for him today.

Not just the waves that might knock him down, but even the ones that end up rippling at our feet, that dissipate before they get to us.

And I realize that to us, every wave, every storm, every seems like one we can’t overcome. And the thing is, God wants us to cling to him the way that my little buddy clings to me but God recognizes that not every wave is capable of knocking us over, not every wave is a tragedy or a threat to our footing, even if they all look that way to us.

God sees the big picture, just like I could see the pattern of the waves and recognize that not all of them were typhoons!

Now, if only I could take the God’s-eye view, the long view, when it comes to the waves in my life…

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What I’ve Been Watching

A diverse blend of animation, drama, documentary, and more await you in my breakdown of new and upcoming films on DVD and digital.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters

I am always down for what DC has to offer, whether it’s in comic form, on TV, or as a film… except with their alternative universes. While the latest in the direct-to-home video market is well-animated and cleverly scripted (as an original story from Bruce Timm), I just couldn’t get into the alternate universe displayed here where Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are basically over-the-top, violent, crime enforcers. I’m sure someone will dig this – as well as the two bonus cartoons from the vault, but it just wasn’t my favorite. rating: rainy day it

Patterns of Evidence: Exodus

Director/writer/archaeologist Tim Mahoney tackled the Israelites’ escape from Egypt found in the Old Testament and Hebrew scriptures. Did that really happen and what does it mean if it didn’t? He’s a storyteller, but his research took him to some pretty fantastic places for consideration. Fans of historical/Biblical documentaries will dig this, and even though I don’t love those, I was intrigued. rating: buy it

Scooby Doo & KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery

Remember when every Scooby Doo ended with a person wearing a mask? Well, those days are over with Warner Bros.’ animated series of feature-length movies, but that will keep you (ahem, your kids) guessing as to how the Gang will stop what is going down. Fortunately, there are enough funny moments that adults and kids can sit around and enjoy what’s going on with some pretty harmless fun. Unless you’re really worried about Gene Simmons. rating: borrow it

Any Day

A film with Sean Bean? You’ve got my attention. But this wasn’t typical Game of Thrones/LOTR stuff. Instead, it’s a touchy-feely film about a boxer who spends twelve years in jail for killing a man while angry and drunk, and tries to figure out which way is up when he ends up back in the real world. It features some decent acting chops by Kate Walsh, Tom Arnold, and ex-Mrs. Tony Parker (aka Eva Longoria), but it is a bit too slow to actually give us that Rocky-like excitement that I was hoping for. rating: rainy day it

Catching Faith

Alexandra Boylan’s Stepford Wife, Jezi, loses her father and ends up in a tailspin where she recognizes that life isn’t what she thought it was. When the masks come off, emotions and relationships get real, but her whole family finally faces the need to be true to each other and themselves. Bill Engvall has a few funny bits as the football coach, and I found myself moved in spite of myself! rating: borrow it

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: Sin Harder (Romans 6:1-10)

Romans has proven to be a pretty heavy chapter of the Bible. No, it doesn’t actually weigh more than any of the others (a chapter like Genesis is significantly longer), but Paul is swinging away for the fences, holding nothing back.

In Chapter 6, Paul introduces one of my favorite emotions, tactics, etc.: sarcasm.

“Should we go sinning more so that we would get more grace?”

[You can almost see Paul raising one eyebrow a la Sheldon Cooper or Phil Keoghan.] “No, duh!”

But the thing is, Paul wants his hearers, his readers, his church to understand that because they were baptized into Jesus Christ, that they were baptized into his death. Because they were baptized into his death, then they will also be raised with him.

We are baptized into the teachings of Jesus.

We die with Jesus.

We live again with Jesus.

Paul says, “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:9-10). And Paul adds, we get to live again, too!

It’s not quite flamboyant but it’s powerful. It’s almost taunting. That’s the way John Donne took it in Sonnet X:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Or, the 21st century American translation: “Nani Nani Boo Boo! ‘Death, we’ve got you!'”

Many of us here today have been baptized. Maybe we remember it, or maybe we don’t. We, or someone on our behalf, embraced the teachings of Jesus, and said that we would do our best to live and grow in the ways that Jesus taught. And Paul says we should be empowered to live boldly.

It’s the equivalent of the superhero motif where we find out our secret powers and we then undergo a transformation to doing good, fighting crime, dodging bullets, and leaping tall buildings in a single bound…

To love our neighbor.

To fight anger, evil, and oppression.

To sacrifice of ourselves for the good of others.

Easy enough, right? [Note the raised eyebrow – SARCASM!]

But when it comes to the three steps Paul lays out, baptized, dying, and rising again, the baptized part sounds easier.

How many of us want to die? It’s not a normal human inclination. Tomorrow, a bunch of us will go see a film, Self/Less, about a guy who wants to live forever, who wants to perpetuate his own pleasure. We use products and operations to make our faces seem younger, exercise to make our bodies last longer, cut foods out of our diet to extend our lives. We want to live.

And yet, Jesus and Paul both show up and ask us… to die. In fact, they tell us that we would be better off if we would die. That by dying to ourselves, we would find true life. So, today, I want us to consider what it would look like for us to die to ourselves.

Welcome:

We come today to celebrate the life and faith of Blandford United Methodist Church. We come to reflect, to remember the times of laughter and joy we shared, and to embrace the hope we have in the resurrection of Jesus. Let us reflect on our lives and what Jesus means to us. 

Moment of Silence

Prayer:

O God, who gave us birth, You are more ready to hear than we are to pray. You know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking. Give to us now your grace, that as we shrink before the mystery of death, we may see the light of eternity. Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that in living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

A Reading from Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

A Reading From Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place,
 Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
 for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
 where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
 Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
 they are ever praising you. Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion. Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty.

Better is one day in your courts 
than a thousand elsewhere; 
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
 than dwell in the tents of the wicked. For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
 the Lord bestows favor and honor;
 no good thing does he withhold
 from those whose walk is blameless. Lord Almighty,
 blessed is the one who trusts in you.

Now, normally, I would share some words about the person who had passed away, or family members would share. I hope that we will take some time to reflect on our own lives, and to consider how faithfully we are living out our lives in prayer, presence, gift, service, and witness through our church.

[Moments of Silence]

The truth is that our lives are a mixed bag. Sometimes, we get it right; sometimes, we don’t. A church made up of people is obviously going to be a mixed bag, too. We often fail to bring our best to church because we expect that everyone else here has it all together. We don’t have to ‘fake it’ here, because shouldn’t those other people have it together, too?

Of course, we shouldn’t fake it! But that doesn’t mean that in church, we should stop working to extend grace to everyone, including ourselves.

As I reflect on the church we have, I see a place where those who are ignored elsewhere are welcomed, where children are valued, where the hungry are fed. But I often wonder, if we reflect over these last moments as our dying ones: are we living like we are free from sin and death because Jesus died for us?

That’s the funny thing about movies about people who have died but who hang around. They see the way they impacted people’s lives for good or bad. Whether it’s Scrooge seeing the world with the Ghost of Christmas Present or some contemporary romantic drama about a teen lying in a hospital bed, examining the world around her, it’s a narrative possibility for change provided by the story.

So, how would you live differently?

What difference would you make with your time, your money, your energy, your affection?

Are you living a life that shows God how much you love God? With, again, your worship, and your gifts, and your tithe, and your witness?

Ironically, I’ve prepared quite a few sermons for people I never met before. Often, their family wants (very badly) for me to know how much their deceased loved one loved God. But you know what’s sad? The number of people who want a minister to do the funeral who want to convince me that their loved one was good.

Paul says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” It’s not because they were good.

I’m not good.

You’re not good.

But too often we settle for subjective variations on good (or better, best) instead of considering the amount of time that we really spend in relationship with the God of the universe.

That takes faith, hope, and trust. Which makes me think of the committal of the deceased into the ground. In our order of worship we read:

 

Almighty God, into your hands we commend ourselves, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amidst things they cannot understand, help them to trust in your care. Bless us and keeps us. Make your face to shine upon us, and give us peace.

Now to the One who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of God’s glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Whoa! Those are words of comfort, but they’re also a battle cry, a modus operandi, a reminder that God has us, God has sent us, and we are to live … fearlessly.

Think about that. You’ve been forgiven. You’ve been baptized. You’ve died. You rise again to a new life now and later.

Paul says we should rise to live full lives of service and love, and await the resurrection in confidence and courage.

How will you live? Amen.

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

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.

gethard

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

WhileWereYoung-poster

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 

71

’71 

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

maggie

Maggie

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

virtuosity

Virtuosity

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 

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