Sunday’s Sermon Today: Gideon – Perseverance

 

No one wakes up in the morning and prays, “God, please increase my perseverance.”

It just isn’t in us to want more perseverance – because the only way to grow perseverance is to be tested – over and over again – and continue to rise. We know that we should persevere, that we should stick to the plan and follow it through:

-when it comes to working out and eating right.

-when it comes to taking our best attitude into school or work.

-when it comes to overcoming physical, emotional, financial, or familial hurdles in relationships.

-when it comes to living out the life that God has called us to exhibit.

But perseverance just isn’t any fun!

Think about the most impressively perseverant people you know. They are all people who faced hardship, often for years, and somehow stayed focused, hopeful, and unwavering to accomplish what they set out to do.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t fun. But they achieved that perseverant tag in our minds because they overcame.

For me, perseverance is often physical. Whether it’s Peyton Manning overcoming neck surgeries and being kicked to the curb by the Indianapolis Colts to take the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl twice, or my friend Tim Hightower who was cut by the Redskins after injuring his leg, who fought back to start in the NFL after four years on the sidelines.

I remember breaking my leg playing soccer. I remember the doctor putting me in a cast up to mid thigh, inclined down so that I couldn’t stand on my right leg. He put a boot over the cast and sent me out for six weeks. I asked him what I was supposed to do; he told me to walk until I couldn’t take the pain. So every night after school, I walked to the reference section of the library where I could touch the stacks on either side, and I limped. It was slow going – but getting out of the cast meant I had to push – I had to plod – I had to persevere through.

Many people have been through worse: they’ve persevered through cancer or apartheid or job loss or divorce. But they have proved that going through is better than giving up, that sitting down doesn’t get you anywhere.

Friends, in exploring what it means to be a Christian, for our Character Counts series, we would be remiss to ignore perseverance. Now, some of you are wiggling in your seats – did he just say that perseverance comes from hardship, and that we should be pursuing perseverance? [Like a bad SAT question, that means we’re supposed to find joy in… the  bad stuff.]

Two times in the New Testament Epistles, one of the early disciples writes about perseverance – and both times, it’s in response to suffering and testing.

“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

 

Over the last two thousand years, Christians have faced suffering – and many have persevered. But sometimes, we get caught up in things that don’t matter, or we think that all suffering comes from being Christian when it’s really the result of our bad habits, poor life skills, and terrible driving. We don’t “get” perseverance – and sometimes, we don’t really want to – which leads me to the story of Gideon and the three ways perseverance shows up.

A little back story on Gideon: When Gideon comes along, the whole nation of Israel is in hiding. I’m not talking about when you put a hand over your face or look away when you see your nosy coworker in the store. I mean that the Israelites had fled their lands to hide in caves and mountain locations because the neighborhood bully, the Midianites, would burn their crops and steal all of their property. The Midianites have literally reduced the Israelites to starvation.

But when the people of Israel called out to God, God sent an angel of the Lord to appear to a man named Gideon. In our scripture today, Gideon is hiding out in a winepress, a sort of man-made cave, trying to hide his grain from the Midianites. Ironically, the angel of the Lord addresses Gideon as a “mighty hero,” even though Gideon doesn’t exhibit anything either mighty or heroic… at first.

Gideon doesn’t show surprise, fear, or disbelief when addressed by the angel though – hinting that there is more to this man than hiding out in a winepress. Instead, he cross-examines the angel about why God hasn’t showed up earlier because it’s obvious that Israel needs God.

Of course, when the angel directs Gideon to head up the army and fight off the Midianites, he asks the same question that Moses did – “who am I and what do you expect me to do?”

Ah, yes. While Gideon is happy to point out the problem – that Israel needed God – he wasn’t prepared at all to do anything about it. He didn’t see himself as part of the solution; he didn’t see the plan.

And that’s where we come to perseverance #1 in our story today: the perseverance of God to love and nurture us into the people we are meant to be.

Rebuffed once, the angel of the Lord tells Gideon the same things that he told Moses, Joshua, Joseph, Zechariah, and others.

“I will be with you. I’ve got this.”

Gideon shows us perseverance #2 because he proceeds to ask God for signs of God’s plan and vision for what will happen.

First, he cooks a young goat and bakes some bread, presenting them to the angel as a meal. The angel tells him to put them down, and immediately deep fries (well, he causes them to be consumed by fire) all of the food Gideon brought.

Now, momentarily, Gideon is stunned into obedient submission – he goes and cuts down an idol and makes a sacrifice to God. But the attention he received was almost too much for him – he worried that somehow he was just being tricked. So he asked for another sign from God.

Second, he lay out a fleece on the threshing floor – presumably where the angel first found him hiding out. He challenged God to make the fleece wet from the dew, while keeping the floor dry. It was just as he proposed in the morning. Pretty cool, right? God went along with his “show me a sign moment”?

Gideon still isn’t satisfied. Third, he asks God to reverse it the following night – dry fleece and wet ground – and God makes it so.

Three times, Gideon asked for confirmation. Three times he persevered in asking God for a sign. Three times he pushed back in his relationship with the Almighty God of the universe.

To be fair, Gideon’s perseverant request of God led to Gideon’s perseverance for God. In Judges 7, Gideon is told to go and battle the assembled armies of the Midianites and their allies. They are outnumbered and out-armed.

But God says they have too many soldiers with 32,000 men. He sends two-thirds of them home, before discerning which way the soldiers lapped water up from a stream and sending all but 300 of them home.

I can’t imagine being Gideon, sneaking into the enemy camp as he did, and seeing the size and mass of the opposing army. I wonder what went through his mind, and what his men thought about dismissing the majority of their soldiers.

Do you think he persevered because he’d seen God persevere in pursuit of Gideon?

Do you think he persevered because God had met him at his point of needing a sign over and over again?

I wonder sometimes what I would accomplish if I believed – if I remembered all of the times God had pursued me – and all of the times God had shown me signs.

What difference would that make in your life?

Would it change how you saw suffering? Would it give you hope for the future?

Would it make you choose to take the more challenging path, and know that God would see you through?

Would it help you persevere?

Today, I’ll close with a gentle country reminder about perseverance – and aim us out the door for our fundraising in food and fellowship.

One Sunday morning at a small southern church, the new pastor called on one of his older deacons to lead in the opening prayer. The deacon stood up, bowed his head and said,”Lord, I hate buttermilk.”

The pastor opened one eye and wondered where this was going. The deacon continued, “Lord, I hate lard.” Now the pastor was totally perplexed. The deacon continued, “Lord, I ain’t too crazy about plain flour. But after you mix ’em all together and bake ’em in a hot oven, I just love biscuits.”

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

“Lord help us to realize when life gets hard, when things come up that we don’t like, whenever we don’t understand what You are doing, that we need to wait and see what You are making. After you get through mixing and baking, it’ll probably be something even better than biscuits. Amen.”

May we believe that with all our hearts – and persevere until we see it all come to completion.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today: David – Compassion (Character Counts Series)

David was a man after God’s own heart. He was also a courageous boy with a hand full of rocks, an outlaw and fugitive, a singer, an adulterer, a king, and a seeker. But in Second Samuel 9:1-12, he was something more. Here, David shows compassion; here, David is grace.

I want to encourage you to consider what grace you receive regularly – and what grace you have experienced that you know changed the course of your life. Did you know it then? Or has it taken you years to acknowledge it?

For Mephibosheth, his whole life changed in the course of a single invitation.

Mephibosheth, which means “out of the mouth of shame,” was the last remaining descendent of King Saul and Jonathan. Ironically, we know that Saul was one of David’s greatest enemies but Jonathan was David’s best friend as a youth. When David was established as the king, he sought out one of Saul’s old servants, and asked if there was anyone left because he wanted to show God’s kindness to them.

This man, Ziba, knew of Mephibosheth – a son of Jonathan’s who was crippled in both feet. Mephibosheth was living in the home of another man, at Lo-debar, which means “place of no pasture.”

David and Mephibosheth haven’t even met yet, and we know several things about him. We know that this man has lost his father and grandfather.

We know he’s lost his place in the world and doesn’t even own his own home. He is dependent on others to feed him and house him because he holds no status in society, and owns nothing to change his place.

We know that he’s crippled (some apocryphal understandings say that it’s because his nurse dropped him as a child, upon discovering the death of Saul and Jonathan).

We know that where he lives – Lo-debar – has its name because nothing grows there. It’s the wilderness, the desert, the outskirts of common society and community. It’s ostracization personified.

Now, it says that when David had Mephibosheth brought to the palace, that Mephibosheth bowed low in respect. To be clear, Mephibosheth must’ve been terrified. It would have been considered nothing to a conquering warrior king to cut off all descendants of the previous king. This would establish his absolute sovereignty and reduce the potential for an uprising or coup rallying behind the remaining family member. This would also incline some of David’s enemies to believe David weak – it could even cause some of his governmental allies to question his leadership abilities.

Compassion on David’s part is as risky to David as Mephibosheth’s trip to the palace is for Mephibosheth.

 

David knows this and so he says, “Do not be afraid.”

David promises kindness – and demonstrates it in two ways. He turns over all property that had previously been Saul’s, and he assigns Mephibosheth a seat at the king’s table.

What difference would this make, you might wonder? I remember as a college student when we assembled a Random Acts of Kindness day. For four hours, we stood in the commons as our classmates came through, offering lollipops and ‘free hugs’ to everyone who came through. Some people recoiled – others smiled shyly and didn’t stop. But for the majority, a lollipop and a hug was worth the moment’s pause. The kindness mattered.

So what difference does it make where this man eats? Consider the response of Mephibosheth: “Who am I that you would show kindness to a dead dog like me?”

A dead dog. No longer bearing life, or purpose. Disposed of and no longer remembered.

This is what the grandson of the first king of Israel believes about himself and his self worth.

Isn’t this the state of much of the world? Isn’t it true that for some people, self-esteem is so low that it is non-existent, that they do not believe they matter to God or anyone else?

David doesn’t reply. He has no time for low self-esteem, only fixing problems and establishing his kingdom. David wants his kingdom to be one of compassion – even in the face of conventional wisdom.

David calls Ziba – the servant who had known where Mephibosheth was in the first place – and puts him in charge of the property once owned by Saul. In one invitation, David has reestablished a family, including all of Ziba’s family as well.

But more than property, David re-establishes that the first king of Israel’s family would always have a seat at the table.

David saw weakness and made it a strength. David saw tragedy and made it a triumph.

David saw his own power, and he made it a gift to be shared not clutched for himself.

David saw an opportunity and he chose compassion.

 

In Rumors from Another World, Philip Yancey wrote, ”

I found myself reflecting…on the sharp contrast between how Jesus treated moral failures and how the church often does. Jesus elevated sinners…He appointed a Samaritan woman as his first missionary. He defended the woman who anointed him with expensive perfume…He restored Peter to leadership…

Grace is irrational, unfair, unjust and only makes sense if I believe in another world governed by a merciful God who always offers another chance…When the world sees grace in action, it falls silent.

Have we as a society embraced grace? Have we as a church?

I must admit that I can quickly fall into the pattern that demands #winning rather than mercy, that makes life about competition rather than collaboration.

I can buy into the American myth that all of life can be boiled down to survival of the fittest, not Charles Darwin’s last thought but his most famous.

And yet, to follow Jesus means that we are to choose compassion. We are to recognize that the weak are often the strongest in the kingdom of God, and that we are called to reach out to the least, to the last, and to the lost.

David understood the kingdom of God – as the youngest, smallest, and least ‘noble’ of all of Jesse’s sons. And he knew that God chose him anyway.

I wonder, what it would look like if we chose compassion.

What would the church look like if we accepted people as they are, rather than as we expected them to be?

What would happen if we took slights and mistreatment and responded to them with kindness and mercy?

What would happen if we found someone who didn’t deserve or earn or benefit us, but who could use our reckless compassion?

Isn’t that what happened when we were saved by grace? That God looked down and had mercy on our plight – on our being stuck in our sin – and sent Jesus?

Like forgiveness, compassion seems to be a Christian trait because we recognize that God already treated us this way. We are not merciful or compassionate on our own, but ultimately, because we are loved by a mighty God.

Paul writes in Colossians 3:12: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Several of the words mean similar things, but it’s as if Paul wanted to make sure we didn’t miss it.

No matter what you call it – compassion, mercy, humility, etc. – we are called to live it out, to share it with others, and to bring the kingdom of God upon the earth.

One small act of service at a time.

Posted in Sermons, Theology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today: Joseph – Forgiveness (Character Counts Series)

One of my favorite modern movies is Warrior. It’s the story of two brothers, Tommy and Brendan, who have been estranged since their teenage years. They are separated by their anger, by the feelings of separation that occurred because of their alcoholic and abusive father. And they set out to settle their frustration and pain with each other in the ring of mix martial arts.

I don’t like fighting and I can’t watch boxing, but I find myself drawn to the film periodically because it’s a parable about what carrying a grudge looks like. It reminds me that these two brothers can beat on each other physically – the way we carry grudges, and verbally taunt and periodically emotionally damage our relationships — and yet, ultimately, it leaves both of these men spent, without a winner.

But forgiveness opens up. Forgiveness is a possibility…

“Forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” [Ephesians 4:32]

Paul made forgiveness a priority for the churches he planted. Maybe it was the way that that the early disciples heard Jesus say, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they’re doing” [Luke 23:34]. Or maybe Paul understood that no group of people would survive each other if they held onto the hurts they had received from one another.

Maybe to Paul it was common sense. Or maybe Paul got how Christianity was at the root of Christianity. That’s why today, I want to take a look at the first person credited with forgiveness in the Bible: Joseph.

Now, to be clear, Joseph was some kind of precocious, annoying, so irritating-that-you-want-to-smack-him teenager. He kept having dreams where he saw that he was better than his brothers; his father didn’t do anything to disabuse the idea, providing him with a special cloak that made him stand out even more.

In Genesis 37:12-25, we see how his brothers take some verbal and mental irritation and turn it into revenge worse than murder. Like something out of Quentin Tarantino’s works, Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, in an attempt to end the constant annoyance and to put their father in his place.

Joseph serves several people well in the Egyptian hierarchy before ending up as the Pharaoh’s righthand man. [You can read all about that in Genesis chapters 39 through 41.] But then Joseph’s brothers show up because there’s nothing to eat in their lands but because of Joseph’s quick thinking and interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, Egypt has plenty to sell and trade.

Unknown to his brothers, Joseph is powerful in Egypt – and unrecognizable to them. They arrive, begging for food for their family; he provides it, and draws them into a business relationship, but ends up revealing himself. He cares for them; he brings the rest of the family to Egypt where he can care for them. And still, when their father Jacob dies, the brothers assume Joseph is going to get violent.

It says in Genesis 50: 15 that the brothers have a family meeting without Joseph and ask, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us? What if he decides to pay us back for all the evil we did to him?” Maybe it’s because they assume Joseph would do what they would do; maybe they figure it’s only natural that their treachery deserved retribution and punishment.

So the brothers invent something their father supposedly said: “I’m begging you to forgive the crime and the sin your brothers committed against you. What they did to you was very evil. So now, please forgive our crime, because we are servants of your father’s God.” Ironically, all that Jacob asked Joseph in reality was that he not let his body be buried in Egypt.

But Joseph’s response is radical. Impossible even.

Joseph says, “Don’t be afraid! I can’t take God’s place. Even though you planned evil against me, God planned good to come out of it. This was to keep many people alive, as he is doing now. Don’t be afraid! I will provide for you and your children.”

One of my favorite lines in the whole Bible: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.”

God intended it all for good.

God brought me here so that I could make a difference.

It changes the whole perspective of the story, doesn’t it?

Not only does Joseph not put himself in the position to be judge, jury, and executioner; not only does Joseph not worry about carrying the weight of anger and pain; not only does Joseph change the game by being unexpected —

Joseph shows us that forgiveness is possible.

And in the process, he sees that all of his pain, all of his experiences both negative and possible, all of his struggle is actually for God’s glory to be revealed.

WHOA.

You’ve heard “Let go and let God” and “forgiving means forgetting” and a host of other trite sayings that may or may not work for you.

I prefer Romans 8:28 myself: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”

Too often, we hear others say and even we say, “but God isn’t talking about me and this situation.”

Sometimes, our perspective of the problem holds to only what we can see or understand.

Consider this: I read a story about a woman who bought a parrot for a pet. All the parrot did was treat her bad.

It insulted her and every time she tried to pick it up, it would peck at her arm. One day she got fed up with the parrot and as it was insulting her she picked it up, it continued with the insults like “you’re ugly! I can’t stand you!” and it pecked at her arm as she carried it. She opened the freezer door and threw him in and closed the door.

From inside, the parrot was still going on for about five seconds and then it was suddenly quiet. She thought, “Oh no, I killed it!”

The woman opened the door and the parrot just looked at her. She picked it up. Then the parrot said: “I’m very sorry. I apologize for my bad behavior and promise you there will be no more of that. From now on, I will be a respectful, obedient parrot.”  

“Well, okay,” she said, “apology accepted.”

The parrot said “Thank you. Can I ask you something?”

She said, “Yes, What?”

The parrot looked at the freezer and asked, “What did the Chicken do?”

But have you ever considered that if you forgive people who have hurt you,

that you ultimately set in motion a situation where the bad things can be used by God for good?

I want you to stop and consider who it is that you need to forgive.

Maybe you need to forgive yourself.

Maybe you’ve done something that you think is unforgivable, or maybe you lead a life up until this point that you just know God can’t accept. I want you to know that those thoughts are lies because God forgives us when we repent. I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

All unrighteousness — if you repent – if you admit you were wrong, God has forgiven you.

It’s over, done with, demolished, erased. By the death of Jesus on the cross, praise God!

But maybe you need to forgive someone else who has done you wrong, who has hurt you in some way, whether it’s in letting you down emotionally, mentally, or physically, or in having treated you in a way that still clings to you and holds you back.

Maybe it’s someone from a long time ago, a mother, father, aunt, uncle, or grandparent.

Maybe it’s your childhood nemesis, the bully at the bus stop.

Maybe it’s more current, like your neighbor, or your spouse, or your children.

I want you to consider taking a moment right now, to pray that God would help you forgive that person, that God would move in that person’s best interest. I want to encourage you to forgive them because God has forgiven you.

Friends, it might not feel different right away, but it matters.

God forgave you and God forgave them, so we have to let it go.

For them and for us.

Forgiving someone means that we become a bit more like Jesus…every time we do it. 

“Father, forgive us, for we do not always know what we are doing.”

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Sermon Today: Moses – Call (Character Counts Series)

I love the Old Testament. I know, it may be a little weird, with all of its rules, regulations, strange lists, and tough to pronounce names. Yes, I love Jesus, too, especially his parables about the kingdom of God. But every spring, at the conclusion of the Christmas season, I am pulled back into the stories of the Old Testament. It’s strange characters, misfits-turned-into-heroes, and every person-type misadventures resonate in my life.

The struggles of Abraham and Moses, Joseph and Jeremiah – those I can relate to in ways that I sometimes look at Jesus and feel far removed from his perfection and Sonship. But these guys? These human souls trying to interpret which way is up, these women trying to navigate a testosterone-dominated world, these people who fail and fail and fail… only to be lifted up by the grace of God? Those people I understand.

So for the next few weeks, from now until Easter, we’re going to examine some of my favorite OT stories and see how the character of these men and women reflect the life that Jesus wants for all of us.

Today, we’re going to look at Moses, specifically at the burning bush.

A quick recap: Moses has already been saved from the same genocide that saw the Pharaoh destroy a generation of Hebrew young men; he has avoided growing up in backbreaking slavery to the Egyptians because he’s rescued from that annihilation by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the palace; he’s killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew, and gone on the run; he has become a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks. Enough for a lifetime, right?

Imagine that’s your life though — you’ve been saved from certain death, raised in the household of the man who signed what would’ve been your death warrant, educated and treated like royalty, only to destroy all of that security with the defense of a stranger who is more like you than you could know. And here you are, tending sheep for a stranger in a strange land.

Does Moses feel stuck? Does he wonder ‘what if’? Does he wish things would’ve worked out differently? Does he have hopes and dreams and aspirations about what could be?

I’ve never had God show up in my life like he’s about to with Moses, but I have felt stuck. I have wondered what God was planning for my life, why after doing what I thought was the right thing – in Moses’ case defending a defenseless man- my life seemed out of control or pointless.

But God always has a way of showing up, of reminding me of God’s call and my purpose, of what it means to follow God and recognize that God’s plan for me is wider and deeper than my floundering … or my own plans.

Now, it says that Moses is on Horeb – subtitle: the mountain of God – but there is nothing to make us think that Moses is a) very religious or b) expecting God to show up. Think about some of the stories we’ve seen lately in the Christmas narrative. Zechariah is a priest in the Temple of God and an angel shows up — he’s afraid; the shepherds are tending flock (like Moses) and the angel shows up and they are “sore afraid.”

Moses? Moses sees that the bush is on fire and he goes closer to see why the bush is not burned up. With apologies to Ridley Scott, this is not deemed a Biblical hallucination. This is not the reaction of a coward.

When Moses approaches the bush, God calls out to him – by name – and Moses responds, pretty simply, “Here I am.”

So – here’s my big question for Moses later – was this the first time God called him? Or was it just the first time Moses was ready to listen? I don’t think God calls us once and then leaves us alone; I do think sometimes we have a hard time hearing.

But God is up to something here.

God points out that Moses is on holy ground because God is there. God introduces himself as the God of Moses’ father (an unnamed man from the tribe of Levi), of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob.

Now, Moses hides his face – because he was afraid to look at God.

God doesn’t seem to acknowledge that fear but announces that this outcast shepherd will be God’s instrument to lead his people out of Egypt.

Now, from this point out, we’re about to dive into some dialogue that is more discussion than lecture, but stop and consider for a minute what just happened.

A bush was on fire in the middle of the desert.

The bush was not burnt up.

Moses saw this and approached.

A voice called to him – which he would not have been able to identify because there’s no record that he heard it before, and God is about to introduce himself – and he responds.

Moses does not … fall down, cry out, run away, show fear.

Moses says, “Here I am.”

Friends, when in doubt, when recognizing that God wants your attention, I’d propose that the simplest response is, “Here I am.”

God is calling Moses and Moses doesn’t even know God yet, but he’s there – and he’s willing to listen. Moses’ fear doesn’t come until he knows it’s God! Moses is filled with holy fear – reverence even – but he still doesn’t run.

Instead, he stays to argue.

Now, I read last year that kids who are loved at home go to school to learn, and kids who desire more attention at home go to school to be loved. I don’t know if that’s true one hundred percent of the time or not.

But I do know that when you teach a kid that asking questions is okay, that the ‘Socratic method’ of learning is acceptable, you are not going to get them to stop asking questions – which can sound a lot like arguing.

Like – “But who am I to go to Pharaoh?” Or “What if the Israelites won’t listen to me?”

Do you ever wonder if God gets tired of our questions, or our doubts, or our arguments for why “not”? Whenever I do, I think of Moses – and God’s response.

Now, God has gone to the trouble of appearing in a bush that is burning but not burnt, and telling Moses what he has in mind, and Moses has the audacity to ask questions. Thankfully, though, God has answers.

God tells Moses that he will be with Moses – that Moses is not alone or in this by himself.

God tells Moses that God is “I AM,” a pretty declarative statement of being, purpose, and longevity. God assures Moses that all of the things that he’s worried about, that God has answers for them.

God calls Moses in a big way which seems impossible to Moses but which God has already figured out.

Months later, at the destruction of the Egyptian army, after Moses has led the people across the dry ground with the Red Sea piled up on either side of him, he sings with the people:

The Lord is my strength and my defense;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.
The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, Lord,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord,
shattered the enemy.

God called Moses to something and showed him the way. God made it clear  with his love, his strength, and his promise that his words to Moses at the burning bush were true. And now Moses could see it. Sure, Moses had more adventures ahead, and he didn’t always understand everything. But he had a deep, abiding faith that makes him one of the pillars of the Old Testament, that shows us what it means to be called and to answer.

God called people again and again through the Bible. Some of them answered, like Mary, and some of them ran, like Jonah. But God called them either way, and set them up for success with his love and providence.

I wonder sometimes what Moses would have said to them, whether he would ask questions or simply remind them of who God was and what faith looked like.

Faith in God’s call got Moses through some dark days leading up to the Red Sea, and afterward. Faith that God’s promises were true, faith that God sees the big picture even when we don’t.

I don’t know what God has called you to specifically but I know we’re called by God to follow. We look to these OT heroes; we look to Jesus. But each of us have a different call and sometimes it changes over time. So, ask yourself, when did God show up in your life? When has God called you? Do you know? Are you listening?

We’re called to be students or teachers, fathers or brothers or mothers or sisters, workers or those who support those who work. We may be one thing now and something different in a year. But God is calling us, using our experiences and our knowledge to make a difference – and providing the grace to fill the gaps in what we don’t already have.

God is calling you, in a whisper or in a thunderbolt. Ask questions, respond boldly, but no matter what, when God calls, say, “Here I am.”

Posted in Sermons, Theology | Leave a comment

Christmas Eve: The Church Awakens

It was May 4, 2012. For those of you not in “the know,” that’s the Annual Star Wars Day. But in 2012, it was the release date of the long-awaited Avengers film. The exact time doesn’t matter… But I was minding my own business, listening to music with my Captain America shirt on. An acquaintance of mine, who will remain nameless, walked up to me – I pulled out my headphones – and he said, “I can’t believe they killed Agent Coulson!”

I didn’t know it then, but my “friend” had ripped out the emotional heart of the film, and stolen the power of the film for me. He had spoiled the film.

For those of you who are worried that I will somehow blurt out the ending of The Force Awakens in a sermon called The Church Awakens, fear not! I don’t want to be that guy.

Still, it seemed awfully appropriate to tie in the power of the Star Wars saga into this year’s Christmas Eve. In a world where we watch ripped-from-the-headlines news and ripped-from-the-headlines-fiction-based-on-the-news, we could become awfully caught up in fear.

But Master Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

And from the Bible, we have that sweet verse from the Apostle John: “perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

That’s the story of Star Wars, is it not? The ones who choose not to fear embrace the Force for good – while the ones who are full of their own fear, whether it be for security or power or … whatever – they turn to the Dark Side.

In the narrative of Star Wars, that is represented in the juxtaposition between the light and dark side. It’s the echoing in our own minds about what it means to be “in the light,” to recognize that the shadows represent the unknown – and often the fear, to see that we are often chasing that sense of ourselves where we want to be the ones wearing the white hats. We want to be good but we sometimes forget how.

That’s why we have Christmas, I think. To remind us about what this is really about. With apologies to the comedian Bill Burr, who said he didn’t need to go to church because he’d heard all the stories before, I believe we need these stories because we need reminded who we are and whose we are. We need the light to break through – we need Jesus.

Enter the Gospel – not some amalgamation in George Lucas’ brain about good versus evil, but God’s version. Even before there was Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah foretells of his coming by establishing that there are people walking in darkness – but that they have seen a great light – that there is inspiration, and freedom, and hope in the turning back of the darkness.

Isaiah writes about it but he has not yet witnessed it; he can only tell of its coming.

And then Jesus comes. Then Christmas arrives, blooming and exploding in the most unexpected of ways – the most shocking of plot twists.

The God of the universe sends his son to be born to a working class, blue collar guy and his new bride. God sent his son to be born to a woman who conceived out of wedlock. God sent himself – Jesus – to be born into the meekest of all situations, homeless, tired, poor, refugee. God sent Jesus to be God in the flesh – not dressed up as human or something cheap – but to really be with us. To understand our pain, our triumph, our struggle, and ultimately, our joy.

But as if putting Jesus in such a vulnerable position wasn’t ignoble enough, God delivered the message of Jesus’ birth to … the shepherds.

Everyone knows that it takes awhile for an animal to grow on me. I’m just not wired that way. But the people who God announced Jesus’ arrival on earth to were people who were surrounded by animals, who were left out, who were the least of society’s power structure. Guarding someone else’s livestock, these men were outside of town, in an open field, keeping watch over someone else’s property.

God sent the angels to announce the birth of Jesus to people who were literally in the dark.

I have thought quite a bit of Linus’ King James version of Luke 2:9 this year, as I reflected on San Berdinho, Paris, and places around the world. “Sore afraid” seems to describe this world of darkness that the gospel breaks into – the good news that Jesus Christ is born – and yet it describes our world, too. But fear leads to hate and hate leads to anger and anger leads to… but I digress.

Here are these shepherds. Not who you or I might draw up in the plans of the Big Picture to be the harbingers of the good news. Not who you or I would expect God to make the bearers of the light…

Have you ever noticed – Star Wars friends – how the people who carry the light, literally the lightsabers, are rarely the people that everyone expects to be powerful or worthy of praise? Have you noticed how they seem to be the people who are overlooked or counted out, how their societal power is rarely the thing that stands out for them?

It seems to me that the shepherds and the Jedi have that going for them. They are not the greatest or the smartest or the ones voted most likely to succeed, but they are the ones who recognize the Force or the Gospel or the light, and they choose to bind themselves to it. Hold that thought with me for a moment as we duck back in on the shepherds.

Who, upon hearing that God has brought good news for everyone – peace for all humankind – they drop everything and go. They leave behind their jobs, their livelihoods, their security, and they rush to the presence of God among them.

Upon seeing Jesus, they become bearers of the light, running hear and there and everywhere, telling everyone what they have seen.

Do you know what is more dangerous than someone who has very important information? Someone who isn’t going to be quiet about it! These shepherds, rather than holding the information for themselves, rather than holding it as a priceless gift to be admired or to be bartered with, chose to share it freely – with everyone.

They’re not the last.

No, tonight on Christmas Eve, I have cheated. I’ve included the story of the Magi – these wise men not kings and not three (necessarily) who followed a Star – light again! – to the home of Jesus. They sought out the person in power – Herod – who they thought might tell them where this phenomenal, galactic event had taken place – and he knew nothing because he wasn’t interested in the history of Isaiah.

These Magi find the baby Jesus – more like three-year-old Jesus – and hightail it out of there because they’re warned that Herod is up to no good. In fact, we have it historically that Herod had a generation of young Hebrew boys executed to try and prevent the coup that he thought Jesus would lead.

Herod was filled with fear that Jesus was there to take his power. So he acted out in hate and anger.

Even after Jesus had been born, even as a baby when he was nine pound, eight ounces and purely huggable, not pushing buttons in the Sermon on the Mount or clearing the temple of fake worshippers, Jesus’ light wasn’t accepted by everyone.

Sometimes, I look around the world and I wonder where the light is.

Sometimes, I wonder whether the light of Christmas is so dim that it’s merely emblematic of something rather than actually active. I know it’s true, and I know it matters, but I wonder whether we get it.

And then I am reminded – in the forceful over singing of a children’s choir about Jesus’ love for them;

In the care of an adult child for the aging parent;

In the movement of a group to embrace “the other,” the left out, or the abused;

In the lyrics that remind me that God is not dead nor does he sleep;

In the donations to clothe children or provide toys to the underprivileged;

That the truth of Christmas, the good news of Jesus Christ that God is with us, that we are not alone, and that peace is God’s intention for all humankind –

That is real. It’s here and it’s not yet.

It’s present and it’s coming.

I’m reminded that the echoes of stories of good and evil, the call to those who get “it” to battle injustice and tyranny and oppression for all people, those are just stories.

The good news is real. Christmas is real. We either choose to bear witness to the light or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

For us to get it – for this to truly be a Holy Night – we must reflect it in our lifestyle tomorrow morning, and next Monday, on Sunday mornings and Friday nights.

Rather than letting the light of Christmas fade, rather than the fleeting joy of Christmas, we must let it change us if we are to truly be bearers of the light.

Back in the Star Wars universe, I see an ebb and flow of times within the saga when the Force was strong, when Jedis stood. Unlike Star Wars or The Avengers, the ending can’t be spoiled — we know that God has already won through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

That’s not a spoiler – it’s just true.

But over the last two thousand years, people have stood for God at times and pushed God to the background at others. I passionately believe that we are called to stand – that we are to be bearers of the light – that rather than a passive spirit of fear and anxiety, we are called to be the church awakened.

The church – where two or more are gathered. One person alone is not the church, but each of us must choose whether we will make worship, and study, and fellowship, and mission, and giving what we are or whether it will be merely something we do.

The allegory can only take you so far, but it works here.

In or out?

Peace or fear?

Light or Dark?

We all must choose.

Do or do not, there is no try.

Posted in Current Events, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture, Sermons, Theology | Leave a comment

Things Jesus Never Said: God Wants You To Be Rich (Mark 10:17-27)

“Christmas is not your birthday.”

That’s the tagline of Mike Slaughter’s Christmas series that saw Ginghamsburg UMC revolutionize their mission to the poor. Slaughter stood before the congregation and said, “I want you to have a slim Christmas this year . . . and whatever you spend on your family, bring an equal amount for hunger relief in the Sudan. Because Christmas is not your birthday; it’s Jesus’ birthday.”

The result was that the congregation raised gave three-hundred thousand dollars toward The Sudan Project in Darfur in Year One; by 2011, they had reached five million dollars. That’s gone toward sustainable agriculture, sanitation, and water as well as education for children.

Can you imagine spending half of your Christmas expenditures on people you didn’t even know?

In Mark 10:17-27, Jesus presents an equally … uncomfortable… proposal to the man we’ll call Josephus. No, that’s too proper – Joseph? How about just Joe.

Joe shows up while Jesus is out teaching and healing. We know he tracked Jesus down because it says that Joe ran up to Jesus and fell at his knees. Jesus already has a crowd, and this man broke through to the place where he could be directly at the feet of the teacher. Joe is showing Jesus respect – and deference, but we’ll see that it’s for a point.

Joe asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Let’s break it down: again, Joe is holding Jesus up as a person of privilege and power, of knowledge and assessment. But let’s be clear here, Joe is holding Jesus up on a pedestal because he wants Jesus to tell Joe what he wants to hear.

That’s right, Joe is kissing up to Jesus – buttering him up, assuming he’ll get the answer he wants so he can feel better about himself.

Man, isn’t that human nature? We have a tendency to surround ourselves with people who tell us what we want to hear, what makes us feel good, what justifies our behavior. Joe wants Jesus to be that guy.

Think about the number of people who flock to televangelists and others who preach the prosperity gospel. That is (per Wikipedia) “is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations (possibly to Christian ministries) will increase one’s material wealth”. You do what you’re supposed to, this ‘name it and claim it’ theology says, and you will be blessed with great riches.

That’s the kind of thought that Joe expects when he approaches Jesus – and that too many Christians have fallen into believing about life, and Christmas, specifically.

But Jesus provides the great rebuttal.

God alone is good, Jesus says to Joe. [Sidebar: now, wcan recognize that Jesus is God but Joe doesn’t know that. Joe thinks he’s doing the right things, and making Jesus like him. And Jesus instantly creates some space, pushing aside the superficial grandstanding by Joe.]

In a matter of seconds, Jesus restructures the conversation. He challenges what Joe thinks he’s done. He goes through the quick list of ‘thou shall nots’ and looks up at Joe.

Joe, still not getting how this is all going to play out, says, “well, of course, I’ve done those things.”

But here it says something a bit – strange. Jesus looks at Joe and, it says that he loved him. Was it pity? Compassionate? Forgiveness?

Jesus looks at him in love and says – this is out of love, mind you: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

And our friend, Joe, went away sad, because he was very rich.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very rich. I’m sure I’m not. But the statistics says that I’m richer than most of the world. But I don’t feel rich…

It’s easy, isn’t it? To see the exact issue that is listed in Scripture as being ‘not ours.’ If Jesus showed up and said, ‘don’t lust,’ then we could say we didn’t abnormally want anything we shouldn’t.

If Jesus said, ‘don’t take more than we should,’ then we would argue that we didn’t steal.

If Jesus showed up and said, “I didn’t say God wanted you to be rich,” we’d say, ‘well, good, because we’re not.’

But Jesus makes things pretty clear with his follow-up to the disciples, after Joe walks away. He tells his disciples – who are amazed that Jesus would say this – “it’s hard to enter the kingdom of God! It’s hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

So, then, this Christmas – if we want to enter the kingdom of God and it’s hard for a rich person to do that, is the outcome we’re looking for … poverty?

Opposite the response of our rich young ruler, Joe, is that of the real Saint Nicholas. That is Nikolaos of Myra, who I truly, deeply, madly love at Christmas. This is the rich man who was orphaned early, and raised by his uncle the local bishop. This man, eschewing the comfortable life afforded by his wealth, spent his life fighting off heresies of the church – rescuing young women from brothels, carrying for the unfortunate, and yes, leaving gifts in the shoes and homes of unsuspecting neighbors.

Ole Saint Nick proved that the challenge to the rich young ruler has many potential responses. It might be easier to run away and retain that safety and security, but what is the cost? Losing the kingdom of God?

Now, before you walk out of here, and write off your 401k, savings, and 2016 income, let me take from the drop down instructions of an inflight safety manual that says we should place the oxygen mask on ourselves first: we are obligated to take care of ourselves as to not be a burden to others – so that we can help others.

But there’s a difference between poverty and enough, between abundant extravagance and satisfaction.

Rather than seeking security, let’s seek salvation. Rather than exploring exceeding wealth, let’s explore our daily bread.

Jesus was well aware that Joe, our rich young ruler, had put his power, hope, and trust in his stuff rather than his relationships. He’d become reliant on what he could do for himself rather than on the good gifts graced to him by God. His checklist, his to do-list, himself – rather than relying on God.

This Christmas, God doesn’t want you to be wealthy – he wants you to be rich in relationships, in grace, and in faith.

This Christmas, God is calling you to peace and blessings, love and hope.

This Christmas, God is calling you to everlasting joy.

Christmas is not your birthday  – thank God! No, it’s the breaking in of love, joy, and hope to remind us that riches, health, and power fades, but the glory of God lasts forever.

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Things Jesus Never Said: The World Is Going To Hell

I remember the voice more than I can distinguish the man’s features as I look back into my college career. (It’s getting farther and farther away, you know!) He would appear in the spring, when the weather was warm enough that college students start to dress for the beach, and the library lawn would be littered with people sunbathing, reading, eating lunch, and chatting.

I don’t know what his name was, but I know that there are people like him in every city, in every community, that I’ve ever lived in.

This man showed up, in his forties or fifties, and shouted at the college students who dared cross his path, “Repent! You’re all going to hell!”

Before I go on, let me be clear –

I believe hell exists because I believe God gives us the choice to love him or not. Hell is the option for ‘not God’.

Repentance is necessary. Now, Advent is a season of repentance in the church – we should always be looking at our lives and examining who we are and what we’re doing – but I think that our seasonal visitor to the college campus missed the point.

But here come the caveats that I wished I had the fortitude to brace myself as a teenager and speak back to this man who set Christianity on my campus back every time he shouted.

None of us can know by looking at someone else whether they are going to hell or not. That’s between God and that person. We might identify their “fruits” but God alone knows their hearts.

“Everyone” is not going to hell and it’s possible no one will. Whether no one goes to hell or not doesn’t determine whether it exists, but it does show us something about God.

While the word hell is credited to Jesus in the neighborhood of a dozen times, I find myself recognizing that there’s a different kind of ‘hell’ that Jesus seems to highlight.

There’s the hell that the prodigal son finds himself in that causes him to run back to the father.

There’s the hell of the vineyard owner’s son when the people maintaining the vineyard decide to kill him and take over.

There’s the hell of the traveler, beaten and left for dead, who the Samaritan befriends, nurses, and cares for.

This Advent, I’m very aware that hell is real. I read about it when I see stories about human trafficking, when I hear about kids who don’t have enough to eat, when I recognize that people don’t have homes to live in – whether they are American veterans or foreign refugees. Hell is real – I’m sure of it.

At those moments, people feel far from God – they feel like they are alone, rejected, and hurt. But those are the moments when God longs to wrap them up in his arms and remind them that they’re not alone, that they are important, and that they are loved.

And God wants to use us to do it.

In our parable today from Luke 15:1-7, Jesus speaks to his audience, a mix of the best of the best and the worst of the worst as far as society was concerned. He has tax collectors (glorified government thieves) and ‘sinners’ on one side and the rich, powerful, educated, and self-righteous religious teachers on the other. Here’s Jesus minding his own business, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law complain that he is eating with sinners and welcoming them.

Here’s Jesus with ‘the world’ and he’s being most agreeable toward them – and the power, the ‘church’, rejects the outsiders and Jesus.

 

Sometimes, I wonder if we – the Church – don’t put ourselves out when we start discussing what ‘the world’ is doing. Sometimes, I wonder if we haven’t made ourselves far from the heart of God.

Consider Jesus’ parable again: He tells us to imagine we own a hundred sheep and we lose one. Recognizing that the ninety-nine are “safe,” would you not go to seek the lost sheep?

Maybe you would and maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe the ‘sheep in hand’ would be more than enough to let you neglect the ‘sheep in the bush.’ But consider this, the shepherd knows each sheep by name…

I’m no animal person. I like some, tolerate others, and have owned a few. But I remember when a parishioner who hunted bought a litter of dogs to raise as hunting dogs. At first they were kept separate from his pets, and he told his wife not to name them. These were tools to go hunting with – not pets. There would be no emotional attachment!

You know where this is going, right? Merely weeks later, I received a text that they would be late. Because one of the dogs – who was by then named – had run away and they had to return to the woods to find the dog. They had a dozen other dogs – all of whom were named – but this dog was missing and they had to find it!

Many of you have that kind of feeling about your dogs or cats. Many of you feel that way about your children!

But in Jesus’ parable, the set up is between those who are ‘found’ and those who are ‘lost.’ Everyone could be one or the other, but the movement is from lost to found and it is God’s desire in the kingdom of God that all would be found.

All means all, right?

 

While the media screams about what is wrong with the world, while other Christians complain about “that generation” or “those people,” let’s be countercultural. Let’s be like Jesus.

Let’s see each person as the individual creation of the God of the universe;

Let’s see each opportunity as a moment where truth, love, hope, joy, and peace can be proclaimed;

Let’s see problems as possibilities and troubles as testing for growth;

Let’s remember that the message of the angels shouted loudly to the shepherds below was good news of peace for all humankind.

IT’S ADVENT BUT CHRISTMAS IS COMING.

REPENT. TAKE HEART. GOD IS SEEKING YOU.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment