Things Jesus Never Said: “Some Sins Are Worse Than Others”

I recently read a story told about a pastor who advertised his sermon titles several weeks in advance. One title was “How To Be Poor” and no one showed up. But one week, he advertised that the sermon would be “The 752 Worst Sins”. Surprisingly, on that Sunday, he arrived to find the parking lot packed and every seat in the sanctuary taken. Some people came to find out which sins were in the top five, and some wanted to find out which sins they were missing out on in their quest to have a complete list!

The truth is that we are used to evaluating our world in stages. We receive(d) grades in divisions, from A to B to C… and maybe a few Ds and Fs. Our legal system assigns certain weight to various crimes, including whether these crimes were committed knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally. And the way that we blend our situations, the metaphors of our lives together, all in one mentality – we apply the same thing to sin.

In 1973, comedian Don Novello created a character that looked at what it means to sin; some of you know him as Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live. Sarducci explained that when we arrived in heaven, God would hand out our ‘pay,’ the amount of money we had earned – everyone would receive the same amount of money for each day that they had lived. But then things would get interesting.

Sarducci, in Novello’s skit, would propose that God would then open a roll of the many sins we had committed, and collect back an amount of money assigned for each crime. Murder? $10,000. Lying? $5. Hilarious? Yes. But the faulty factors in our math open us up to seeing life through the lens of the first servant in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

Jesus tells the story of a servant who goes to his king with a debt of a lot of money. He is told that he, his wife, and all of his children would be sold into slavery so that his debt to the king would be paid. But the servant begged the king to be patient and his debt would be paid. In an act of great mercy, the king forgave his debt and sent him on his way.

Leaving the palace, the servant found another servant outside, who owed him much less. He threatened the man, no, he took it a step further and had him imprisoned until he could pay back the debt. The other servant’s cries went unheard.

Other servants watch the two servants interact, recognize that the first servant has failed to pass on the grace he received, and report back to the king. So the first servant is brought before the king again – and this time he is handed over to be tortured until he could pay back the debt. This is the final word on that first servant – he is condemned to lifelong imprisonment and pain, because he judged himself to be better than another human being, another servant.

Today, in our look at Things Jesus Never Said, we look at “Some Sins Are Worse Than Others.” We arrive here in our human look at how things operate. We recognize that we would place murder with the loss of life above stealing a candy bar. We wouldn’t worry about lying to the degree that we would embezzling millions of dollars.

But Romans 3:23 says “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Everyone’s sin has them short of what God wants, what God expects, what God desires for our lives.

This isn’t a new idea. Ecclesiastes 7:20 states that “there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.” (Of course, that was before Jesus, but it’s beside the point.)

The truth is that when we acknowledge that we’re all separate from God, it changes how we see sin.

A sin is a sin is a sin if we tweak Gloria Steinem a little.

When we recognize that we have done is the sin that Jesus died on the cross for, it kind of takes the luster off of gauging someone else’s sins. But too often, we assume that if we’ve never broken the ‘big ones,’ the Ten Commandments or something similar, that we’re really doing okay.

Check out those Ten Commandments again – not the Ten Best Options – but what God based the whole rule of life for the Israelites in Exodus 20. They’re basically establishing guidelines for God/human relationships and human/human relationships.

Keep the Sabbath and honor the name of God.

Honor your parents to engage in strong family dynamics

Don’t murder, don’t take what’s not yours, don’t break marital bonds, don’t be deceptive.

These were serious guidelines for people who had spent generations as slaves and were now facing a freedom they didn’t understand.

This was God’s way of laying out what would help them grow as a society, and as the people of God. This would help them stay in “okay.”

But with God, it’s not a matter of okay. God wants the best for us, so he sent Jesus. Jesus said over and over again, “you have heard it said but I say…” when he took the laws of the Old Testament a step further.

Don’t murder became don’t hate anyone in your heart.

Don’t steal became broader than taking the cookie out of the cookie jar, and embraced a life of sharing what we had with those in need.

Don’t sleep with your neighbor’s spouse became don’t look at a person with lust in your heart.

God’s Ten Commandments had told the people how to live, but Jesus showed them that the law was just the baseline, not the best.

Jesus showed them that even the best of them broke these laws all of the time, and that they couldn’t be made right by what they did.

That being right, being the best, took grace.

It’s a matter of repentance and forgiveness. It’s a matter of acknowledging that God is God, and we are not, that to be more like Jesus, we need God’s grace.

We can’t do this on our own.

Before this sounds like doom and gloom, consider this breath of positive fresh air from I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

That’s the good news here. No matter what you’ve done, you can be forgiven. No matter what you’ve forgotten to do, failed to do, or even done intentionally, you can be made faultless by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

It does say that we must confess what we’ve done.

So what does that look like? What does confession really look like?

None of us know, apparently. I recently read about a situation where a new priest was trying to get his mind wrapped around confession.

The new priest is nervous about hearing confessions, so he asks an  older priest to sit in on his sessions. The new priest hears a couple confessions, then the old priest asks him to step out of the  confessional for a few suggestions.

The old priest suggests, “Cross you arms over your chest, and rub your chin with one hand.”

The new priest tries this.

The old priest suggests, “Try saying things like, ‘I see, yes,  go on, and I understand. How did you feel about that?'”

The new priest says those things.

The old priest says, “Now, don’t you think that’s a little better than slapping your knee and saying ‘No kiddin’?!? What happened next?'”

Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about receiving confessions because of the Protestant Reformation – you can ask me about that later! But we do have to acknowledge our reality.

Too often, we want forgiveness without acknowledging our fault. We want to gloss things over and ignore that there’s real hurt in a broken relationship, too often, we don’t face our real reality about our own decisions. But God knows that we need to acknowledge who we are and what we’ve done.

God wants us to acknowledge that we need forgiveness ourselves – and that should open up the well of forgiveness we can share with others.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and discuss forgiveness with a man named Chris Williams. His story was being made into a movie called Just Let Go. His wife and several of his children were killed in a drunk driving accident, and standing up in court, Williams forgave the killer. In explaining why he forgave this young man, he shared that as a teenager, he’d been involved in a fatal automobile accident. Williams forgave because he knew that he had once needed the same forgiveness.

Williams confessed his mistake and was forgiven, and then he forgave what seemed to many to be unforgivable.

We need to confess – and too often, we fail to stop and reflect over our day and our decisions. Too often, we fail to recognize the way our past impacts our present.

I want to encourage you, actually all of us, to take a moment and consider the sins we’ve left unacknowledged. Write it down, pray over it, and then… confess it to God.

And let it go.

Today, I want to encourage you to leave judgment to God. Judgment of yourself, and judgment of each other. Today, I hope you’ll recognize that no matter what –

No matter how serious –

No matter how frequent –

No matter how hurtful –

If you confess your sins, you are made whole, and forgiven.

That’s the good news. No math required.


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Things Jesus Never Said: “You Should Only Pray When…”

I’ve used this before – some of you will groan – but it always presents me with a look at how prayer must look to God.

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbor came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No, thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No, thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No, thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room, he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes, you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

Prayer is a funny thing, isn’t it? It’s hard sometimes to know what exactly it’s doing and what kind of impact it has. I admit that I never feel like I pray enough, but lately, my attitude about prayer – and my discipline for it has been changing.

So, why don’t we pray sometimes, enough, or ever? Maybe it’s because sometimes we’re too busy and too lazy to pray. Because sometimes we’ve been told that we should do it- overcome all of our obstacles – on our own, that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Because sometimes we don’t get the answers to prayer that we want or hope for. Because sometimes we think that God might not really care about the things that matter to us.

Sometimes, we believe that God only cares about the big stuff.

I think we couldn’t be more wrong. But that’s my opinion. I wanted to get to the bottom of what the Bible really says about prayer, to see what we might piece together to figure out what prayer is supposed to mean for our lives.

Check out these scriptures, and consider what they mean, what God is saying to all of us, and what God is saying to you.

The first “prayer” I could find in the Bible – note, I’m not counting the conversations that God and Adam have together “vocally” as they’re presented as “prayer” per se – was in Genesis 4:26. It’s ‘broader,’ not specific:

Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord.

We don’t know what caused this or why they thought to do it, but at this point, as people  were spreading out through the Earth, some of them recognized that there was a higher power, that they should call out to.

A little while later, we discover a man named Enoch who had things in the right order – it says that he “walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 5:23) and that God took him away. Again, what did prayer look like here? No matter what it did, Enoch’s life pleased God so he was brought up to heaven sans death. Sounds like a substantial prayer life.

Later, in Abraham’s story – now, here’s a guy who talked to God quite a bit – it states that “Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelek, his wife and his female slaves so they could have children again” (Genesis 20:17). Here’s a direct correlation between a person praying and God healing from the Old Testament. It seems like Abraham’s involvement in conversation with God had a profound effect on Abimlek’s family!

Peppered throughout the Old Testament are examples of people who prayed for different things and received different kinds of results. But the ‘man after God’s own heart,’ David, prayed in ways that show it wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t necessarily flowers and rainbows all of the time. When David prayed it was usually less about a checklist and more about a state of mind.

In David, we see a guy who is in the middle of it quite a bit. He’s running from his best friend’s father, King Saul, or facing down the Philistine giant, Goliath; he’s wrestling with an unhappy wife, Michal, or fleeing God’s wrath when he’s been unfaithful with Bathsheba. He is not living a pleasant, calm, day-to-day situation. Yet, when he prays, he finds a resting place.

This is one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 40, but there are so many more times listed in the chronology of David’s narrative from I and II Samuel that you can explore. In Psalm 40, David writes:

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.

He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us.

I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart. Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord; may your love and faithfulness always protect me.

For troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me. Be pleased to save me, Lord; come quickly, Lord, to help me.

May the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; you are my God, do not delay.

David is pretty direct here – he’s in trouble, and he needs God’s help. He hasn’t been perfect or even good, but he knows his whole salvation rests in God’s power. It’s one of those situations I sometimes marvel at: even when he’s done wrong, David’s first response is to call on God. More often than not, it seems that when we do wrong individually or corporally, our first reaction is to try to hide our guilt or make excuses.

Here, in the Old Testament before Jesus, we have an expectation by David that God is always listening – even when we’re sinful. David believed we should call on God all of the time – especially when we were in the wrong.

So, fast forward a few hundred years. What did the New Testament say about praying?

In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells The Parable of the Persistent Widow to illustrate the way in which we should pray without ever giving up. Here, it’s specifically about injustice being done to those who follow God, but it’s a reminder that we’re supposed to “keep at” prayer even if we’re not receiving the answers that we want. Jesus urged us to be persistent in prayer, even when we didn’t hear an answer … or get the answer we wanted.

In Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus addresses the kinds of response that we should expect to prayer, apparently again addressing the kinds of concerns people had about what God wanted to hear in prayer, or when God wanted to hear from them:  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

Bread and fish were basic building blocks of the diet, they were day-to-day parts of what a son or a daughter, or anyone, would have needed to eat. Jesus points out that while there might be other things that would not get the same answer, that no parent would deny their child sustenance. Jesus urges us to call on God like a loving father.

This is shared by a man who didn’t always get what he asked for – his most basic desires – in prayer, but he kept praying anyway.

Remember, Jesus prayed daily, getting up early and often in isolation (Mark 1:35). Jesus spent time giving thanks for what God had given to him (even here, at the hour that he was to be arrested -Matthew 26:26). Jesus prayed that his friend would be raised from the dead in John 11.  But when Jesus asked for help for himself, that the pain of trial and crucifixion would be taken away from him if it was God’s will (Luke 22:42), well, we know how that worked out.  But instead of ceasing to pray because he didn’t get what he asked for, Jesus prayed this on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:14). Jesus prayed for his enemies even when it didn’t change his situation!

I believe Jesus prayed in big moments because it was his natural action day in and day out. Jesus defaulted to praying. (Seriously, what’s your ‘default setting’?)

If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I sometimes feel like preaching from the example of Jesus gets dismissed, like, ‘but, of course  he did, he was fully God, too!’ Well, that’s true, but the teaching of the early church implies that Jesus’ teaching took deep root. Acts 2:42 says that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Prayer was a basic building block to who the church was and what they were doing in the days and months after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.

What follows in the writings of Paul and the other New Testament authors shares an even stronger understanding about prayer, and about prayer’s importance in the life of the Christian.

Paul understood that through prayer, we would begin to take on the mind of Christ – that we would know better what God’s will for our lives was when we engaged in prayer regularly. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

John the Apostle instructed his disciples to ask according to the will of God “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14).

Paul didn’t limit us on what we should pray about but also encouraged us to pray on behalf of others. “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Ephesians 6:18).

Paul says we should pray instead of being anxious, mixing our prayers with requests and thanksgiving. (Do you remember to thank God?) “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phillipians 4:6-7).

The author of James insists that the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective:”The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16b). Before we start making excuses about our prayers, consider that Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). And even if we don’t know how to pray? Paul writes in Romans 8:26, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”

So how should we pray?

That’s a lot to wrap your head around, isn’t it? It’s like Prayer 101 but it still doesn’t give you a prayer to actually pray. There’s rejoicing, continually, with thanksgiving, with the mind of God. Sure, there are formulas you can use – like the ACTS prayer or a rosary – but I’ve always preferred this basic prayer when looking for a model. It’s from Matthew 6:9-13 – you’ve heard it before (wink). Jesus lays out the Lord’s Prayer, and it incapsulates so much more of this than we sometimes acknowledge.

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one“.

The next time you pray, I hope you remember this.

The next time you’re thankful, I hope you remember.

The next time you know you’ve sinned, I hope you remember.

The next time you wish you had more or felt a need, I hope you remember.

The next time someone you know or hear about is in trouble, I hope you remember.

The next time you just want to acknowledge that God is God and we are not, I hope you remember.

God wants to be in conversation, to be in relationship, with us. Not simply sitting on the other end listening, or doing all of the talking either. Not taking notes on a to-d0 list, or simply hearing about the great things. God wants to be in every moment of our lives, the good and the bad and the ugly, the big and the small, the loud cries and the tiny ‘Amens.’

Try riding in silence in the car. Try praying with a break between each line in the Lord’s Prayer. Try praying over your food, remember your baptism in the shower.

No matter what, remember: God wants to be with you – and prayer is a good place to start.

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Things Jesus Never Said: The Bible Says It And I Believe It!

I’ve been reading a book lately called The Dinosaur Lords. Now, some of you who are scientifically organized are probably thinking, “oh, he must be learning about the T-Rex.” Actually, the book is about an alternative universe where humans and dinosaurs co-exist… and the humans are running the joint.

Seriously, have you ever seen a picture of a T. Rex? Pretty ridiculous!

The truth is, that we have plenty of things that are ridiculous that we accept on a regular basis. There are more than a few ideas we banter about that we don’t really mean but we say regularly – defying reality!

Like, “oh yes, this tastes great!” when the food is horrible.

Or, “I’ll call you,” when we have no intention of calling.

How about when someone, usually Southern, says “bless your little heart”?  Beware, they don’t really mean it.

The sad thing is that many of the subjects of our sermon series, Things Jesus Never Said, fall into that category of defying reason. But none is quite so egregious as “the Bible says it and I believe it.”

Let’s consider some things the Bible says. We’ll start with Leviticus because it’s easy pickings.

Leviticus 19:19: Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

Okay, so the mule is out – but who would notice. What about this injunction about two kinds of seeds? Does that mean that Carter’s Mountain is living in sin because it has several kinds of apples?

The reality is, if you’re wearing any piece of polyester or artificial fabric, you’re in big trouble per Leviticus 19:19.

Leviticus 19:27: Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.

So, I’m good because I can’t grow facial hair – it comes in pretty spotty — but that whole hair thing? I’ve been shaving my head since I was in high school!

Leviticus 19:28: You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.

Have a tattoo? You’rrrrrrre out!

Leviticus 11:10: But whatever is in the seas and in the rivers that does not have fins and scales among all the teeming life of the water, and among all the living creatures that are in the water, they are detestable things to youBut all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean.

Good to know: don’t eat bats.

Leviticus 19:30: Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary.

Ouch. Suddenly, Leviticus isn’t so ridiculous or funny, but we still have a hard time embracing it as our favorite verse. It’s not to say, ‘hey, there’s Sabbath over there!’ To ‘observe’ Sabbath means that we’re all in on worship – that it’s the most important thing about our day and it supersedes everything else. How many of us struggle to get to church on a weekly basis – and how many of us push the sovereignty and sanctity of God to the side? Isn’t it easier to embrace the way that Jesus was ‘fully human’ than it is to focus on how awesome God is?

But the awesomeness of God can sometimes get caught up in some of the material from the Old Testament that doesn’t jive with the absolute compassion and grace we’ve read about in Jesus. What do we do with all of the material where God said, “Go and kill all of these people?” Are we just giving God a pass, do we think God is bipolar? Check out this verse from Samuel:

I Samuel 15:3: This is what the Lord Almighty says… ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’

What are we going to do with that? I’ll admit that I have some thoughts on what to do with it but that’s not the point of this sermon. I don’t think any of these verses should be brushed aside – let me stop and make this clear: I hope this sermon will make you stop to pray and reflect on what it means to be a faithful follower of God.

But maybe you don’t have any problem with the image of God’s holy fire and brimstone. [My sermons about grace must really rub you the wrong way. But I digress…] Let’s get to the comic relief…

Paul makes this sermon ten times more entertaining, because he has some superior comments directed toward women. [Note: Paul was single. Maybe it was one of the following comments that helped him stay that way?]

I Corinthians 11:6: For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

As United Methodists, this isn’t a line we pull out much. Of course, Mennonites, the Amish, and Quakers take it very seriously. Maybe less amusing…Apparently, Paul was really into fashion though:

I Timothy 2:9: Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments.

Now, I’m presenting some of these with raised eyebrow, but I’m going to assume Paul didn’t want appearances or money to distract people in church. That’s great. But I don’t want us to get too caught up on fashion.

I Timothy 2:12: I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

I’m not going to roll out the couch here and put Paul on it, discuss his mommy issues, etc., but wow! For a guy who believed that sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ was so important, he’d actually reduce those who could share the gospel because of their gender?

Ephesians 5:22: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.

Moving along, nothing to see here.

All jokes (or not) aside, it’s not like we can say, “but all that was true except for Jesus.” Check out some of the more “did he really just say that moments?” from the lips of Jesus.

Luke 14:26: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Matthew 18:9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

Matthew 10:34-36 Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.

As an English teacher, I’ll break in and say that Jesus had a strong sense of himself – and hyperbole. Jesus knew that what he was promoting was countercultural and he was willing to say so. Jesus knew that the gospel would be divisive because people were so used to doing things on their own. Let’s face it: Jesus came to shake things up.

Jesus said we needed to lose our life to find it (John 14:26).

Jesus said that if we were angry, that we were headed to hell (Matthew 5:21-22).

Jesus said it was adultery to get remarried (Mark 10:11-12).

All of those rub us the wrong way, but too often, we fail to stop and think about what the ramifications are, and what God wants from us in the long run.

Because Jesus also said,” Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).Wait, what? Give to the beggar and the guy who borrows but never gets back? Now, he’s not just messing with our relationships or our expectations but our money.

But I’ll tell you this: no matter how annoyed or frustrated or even apathetic these verses made you feel, it boils down to Jesus trying to teach how to behave, based on the main thing.

In his interaction with the rich young ruler, Jesus tells the man that there’s a main thing he should focus on, that none of these other peripheral things matter. “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).

Whether you like football, or polyester, you’ve been divorced, or you struggle with anger, whether you forget to show up for church or you withhold money you should be giving to God, Jesus boils it down to this one thing (well, one thing in two parts): Love God and love others.

That’s my baseline for evaluating Scripture. You can take the Wesleyan quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason). I’ll take the Jesus filter.

Jesus, the Word of God in the poetic Gospel of John, is literally God’s word personified. He’s the word that God uses to create in Genesis, he gives life to all things, he’s the light in the darkness that illumines and inspires. Jesus, the Word of God, is the name by which we can be saved from our sin.

Jesus. That’s the bottom line for me.

Jesus, the one who took all of the theology packed in the Bible and all of the do’s and don’ts and lived them out. Jesus, fully God and fully human.

That’s where I am when it comes to understanding the Bible. The Bible was compiled by Councils of faithful Christians who worked to discern what God wanted to be in the canon, to be included. Some things were excised, some things were kept.

If we’re going to live out the fullest life we can to the glory of God, I think we should adopt Jesus’ greatest command – to love God and to love others. We need to read and study the Bible. We need to wrestle with it and pray over and seek to understand it. We need to go back to trying to live each day to be more like Jesus. To follow.

I’ll stake my life on that.

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When Christians Become Irrelevant (A Mustard Seed Musing)

One of my students challenged me this week. He wanted to know why I thought that seeing movies about real-life events, specifically the civil rights movement, mattered.

‘Why do you care? What difference does that have to me?’ he asked.

I’ll admit: I was shocked. But the thing is, I shouldn’t be surprised. We have an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude; we assume that everything that exists was just so when we arrived.

The civil rights movement matters because it’s about progress, about change, about people being treated correctly. And it’s ongoing. But to someone like my student, the world works for him so why should it matter how it got there?

Unfortunately, I think there are more and more people looking around the world who don’t see the church as relevant either. Sure, the people can see the suffering in the world, but they don’t think that Christians are doing anything to make a difference. They only see the world that says it’s against this or that, rather than acknowledging what the church is for. What do we do when the world around us only evaluates church as it appears today, not in the way it was once understood to matter, not in the position it once occupied in society?

Christians are not making news because of the good we spread. We’re not making ourselves (broadly speaking) relevant in the world today, even as people see suffering around them.

[Some of you are nodding – don’t let your heads pop off!]

Some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. So here goes…

When we fail to see that every life matters, whether it’s an aborted baby, a convicted murderer, a black or white life, or someone who is gay, straight, or transgendered, we’ve failed to be Jesus.

When we think we’re persecuted because we’re jailed for not doing our elected job, and instead hold back our responsibilities instead of choosing to step aside or consider a positive witness, we’ve failed to be Jesus.

When we ridicule the beliefs of others or fail to consider someone else’s worldview, and think we’re smartest because of what we believe, we’ve failed to be Jesus.

When we find comfort in someone else making mistakes, getting caught, or being ‘outed’ on television for their addiction or other sins, we’ve failed to be Jesus.

Personally, I’d like to believe that Jesus was funny, mike-dropping, passionate, courageous, compassionate, articulate, and open-minded. To those of you who think I’ve lost my moral compass: yes, I have non-negotiables.

I believe he was fully God and fully man, that he died on the cross for my sins, and that because of those previous things, I am forgiven of my sins by faith. They might be different (or fewer) non-negotiables than yours, but I’m a simple guy.

In the end, I believe Christians are called to live out their faith boldly, but let’s consider how we do that. Let’s be bold in our grace, our love, and our service. As a friend pointed out to me this week, when someone asks something of us that challenges us, let’s give them two. Let’s be so fundamentally, mindblowingly (I made that up) grace-filled that we are the new relevant.

Let’s be the followers of Jesus- and stop letting someone else say who we are.

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Things Jesus Never Said: God Wants Your Team To Win (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

footballplayersprayingThis fall, I’ll be looking at perceptions that (some) Christians have about faith that seem popular but flawed. In some cases, they will obviously not be literal things Jesus said, but ideas or concepts that we have adopted or internalized to the point where we think they’re canonical. Like… assuming that there were three wise men who came to visit the baby Jesus. We’ll stretch our understanding of what God wants for us and what God’s kingdom looks like, while challenging our own misconceptions about the world we live in. 

Football is in the air! Or on the ground if you’re fumble prone.

Speaking of fumbling…

Two boys are playing football in Central Park when one is attacked by a rabid rottweiler. Thinking quickly, the other boy rips a board off of a nearby fence, and fended off the dog.

A reporter strolling by sees the incident, and rushes over to interview the boy.

“Young Giants Fan Saves Friend From Vicious Animal,” he writes in his notebook.

“But I’m not a Giants fan,” the little hero replies.

“Sorry, since we are in New York, I just assumed you were,” says the reporter.

“Little Jets Fan Rescues Friend From Horrific Attack,” he writes in his notebook.

“I’m not a Jets fan either,” the boy says.

“I assumed everyone in New York was either for the Giants or Jets. What team do you root for?” the reporter asks.

“I’m a Redskins fan,” the child says.

The reporter starts a new sheet in his notebook and writes, “Little Redneck Maniac Fights Off Beloved Family Pet”.

It’s fourth and one on the goal line, with the clock ticking down to zero. One team is backed up to their end zone, heels pressed to the end line, struggling to maintain the defensive focus that they’ve shown throughout the game. The other team is shouting changes to their last play, a final chance to score a touchdown and rip victory away from the other team. The game, the season, their career could be at stake.

And then you see it: players kneel on one sideline, sometimes holding hands, with their heads bowed. They are praying for victory, imploring God to allow them one more chance to Tebow in the endzone. While across the field, on the opposing sideline, players are doing …. the exact same thing.

So what exactly is God supposed to do? I mean, these players are praying so shouldn’t God do something?

On sports teams and Christian athletes huddles up and down the east coast, I’ve heard people pray for victory while heading into a sporting event. We seem to be so caught up in what we want sometimes, that we fail to see that the moment in front of us is … just a game.

Now, I’m just as competitive as the next guy (some might say, more competitive…) but I think we’re looking at this all wrong. I think we’ve missed the point of battle, and the point of what God holds to be important.

We have two major options when we consider what it means to battle Biblically. We can look at the example of Jesus or we can consider some other player in our stories.

Today, let’s consider David in I Samuel 17:34-50, as David battles Goliath. We can see that the Philistine Goliath, a giant among men, thinks of David as unworthy, and so he insults him and derides him. This is pretty standard behavior and we know that it has worked against the grown-up army of Israel.

17:8-11 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

Goliath’s size and words were enough to reduce the Israelites to nothing, crying, sniveling weaklings who were convinced of their own mortality. The Israelites saw that Goliath was their enemy and that he was powerful. They looked at themselves and their own weapons, and counted them worthless.

The Israelite soldiers thought that it was all about them. And then there was David.

David keeps the perspective of a faithful person. He still sees Goliath’s sword, spear, and javelin, but he knows that’s not what the battle is about.

17:45-47 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

David recognizes that the battle is not for him or for his glory, but that he is merely a messenger, the hands and feet of God. David knows that Goliath might be emotionally his enemy, geographically his antagonist, but it’s not about David and Goliath.

Ephesians 6:12 states “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Paul’s awareness of a bigger picture shows that the sides aren’t us/them, but God versus evil. It’s not a team versus team battle that God cares about but a God’s side versus not-God’s-side, a reckoning of God’s kingdom in the world.

Of course, some of you are saying, ‘well, of course, that’s true! I don’t pull for the Hokies or the Wahoos. Frankly, I don’t care about sports, so this is all pretty pointless. I don’t need you clarifying that God doesn’t care about football, because I certainly don’t care.”

So let me put football in a perspective you’ll understand then, with football terms:

Blocking: Talking endlessly to the pastor at the church door and keeping everyone else from exiting.

Illegal Motion: Leaving before the benediction.

Interference: Talking during the prelude.

Draw Play – What many children do with the bulletin during worship.

Staying in the Pocket – What happens to a lot of money that should be given to the Lord’s work.

Sudden Death – What happens to the attention span of the congregation if the preacher goes “overtime.”

End Run – Getting out of church quick, without speaking to any guest or fellow member.

Flex Defense – The ability to allow absolutely nothing said during the sermon to affect your life.

Two-minute warning: The pastor’s wife looking at her watch in full view of the pastor.

Now, wait, that wasn’t the point I was supposed to make…

It’s not just sports that God doesn’t decide, intervene, or justify based on …

Contemporary or traditional.

Methodist or Baptist.

Left or right.

Conservative or liberal.

Fox News or MSNBC.

Republicans or Democrats.

Gay or straight.

Pro-life or pro-choice.

God’s kingdom is God’s concern.

Paul unravelled this spool as far as he could when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” in Galatians 3:28.

I’ll admit the other ‘big button issue’ this sermon represents is that Jesus never said that America was a Christian nation. (Of course, Jesus wasn’t alive when America was formed. Work with me.) But the truth is that people are running around expecting a) that we’re going to return to the good ole days (Woodstock? Salem Witch Trials? Presidents who cut out the parts of the Bible they didn’t like) and b) that God is going to bless America more than somewhere else.

What if God has blessed America? What if God does want the American church to be down on its knees on the sideline?

What if God is hoping that we will begin to see that the people on the other sideline, across the aisle, in situations we don’t agree with, are our brothers and sisters?

2 Corinthians 5:15 says, “And he [Jesus] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

David didn’t win because his team was the best or because he was the strongest or the most valuable.

David beat Goliath because David put his faith in God and believed that God would decide the battle.

Today, I believe we’re called to stop worrying about whether we have enough, or who is on our team, and instead focus on building the kingdom of God by putting our efforts, our gifts, and our graces to work.

For too long, we have worried about the wrong things, heard the wrong emphasis, and missed the point. We have run the ball toward the wrong end line, tackled our own players, and made too much of things that are not that important.

If we the church are to become who God wants us to be, it’s time we put down the things that divide us, and embrace the truth that we all have the opportunity to embrace God’s love and forgiveness. That was Jesus’ message. “Repent and sin no more.”

That’s the goal, the end zone, the home run: embrace forgiveness and live free.

We’re called to fight for those things, for everyone, to be a blessing. We’re called to end sex trafficking, poverty, racism, violence, child neglect, hunger, and more. It’s the underlying attitudes and powers we’re to fight not each other.

There’s nothing wrong with competing on the playing field because it builds bonds and helps us to be healthy. But competing isn’t the main thing. It’s remembering that we are all the children of God, sanctified by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

On the field of life, we have the opportunity to show each other how we’re loved and why we play. It’s for the glory of God and the love of the game. That’s why I love a different image of football players praying.

It’s of two teams at midfield after the game, clasping hands and praying together. For safety, for healing, for comfort, and for strength.

As Isaiah the prophet said,

Those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

May it be so with us. Amen.

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The First Day Of School, A Stolen Purse & The Hands Free Life


The first day of school brings a whirlwind of change, upheaval, sweat, tears, and … awesomeness in my house. This year, it’s a four-school year for us: we’re sending our eldest off to a school that isn’t where his mom works, we’re preparing for four days of preschool with our younger bundle of energy, my wife is tackling her fourteenth year of elementary education (as a teacher…), and I’m teaching a pair of classes at the local junior college in addition to pastoring a local church.

After days (or is it weeks or months?) of preparation, the perfect outfits are on, the lunches are packed, the pictures are taken, and … we discover that someone has stolen my wife’s purse.

Credit cards … gone.

Brand new jewelry… gone.

License …. gone.

Sense of security… poof!

What are the options in the moments that follow, when credit cards need canceling and customer service acts like it’s your fault? How do you respond when you feel punched in the face by someone else’s laziness, by their decision to take from you rather than commit their own efforts to working hard?

Anger? Grief? Defeat?

The night before, as I read through Rachel Macy Stafford’s second book, Hands Free Life, I’d come across and tweeted out this line: “There are moments in between life’s obligations when we are in the presence of our loved ones that can be made sacred.” It actually starts with the word “But” which I had subtracted for tweeting – and yet, today was a “but” kind of day.

This hurts but …

We spent the day thanking God no one was hurt.

We realized that credit cards (and even licenses, at the DMV) could be replaced.

We spent extra time shared in the riding around to accomplish the corrections of the theft, eating Frosties, hearing about stories from ‘first days,’ and taking selfies in the DMV. All sacred moments in the midst of life’s obligations.

I was sure that this attitude (one of many Stafford proposes in her book) was just for me, God’s little nudge to suck it up and move on. And then the magical time that makes me cringe (at times) and cry happened: good night prayers.

With sleep heavy eyes, my eldest thanked God for the school day, and friends made, seemingly immune to his parents’ unease (thank God). And then he said, “Thank you, God, for forgiving us. And please forgive the people who stole Mom’s purse.”

Like it was no big deal.

Like those moments along the way matter more than they hurt.

Like we don’t have to worry about who stole it because God has it covered.

It’s then that I realized something: to have a hands free life, to make a difference with my kids and my world, I have to be prepared to adopt these attitudes everyday. Some days, you fake it until you make it.

Because every moment can be sacred.

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Sunday’s Sermon Today: Paul’s 7 Rules For Church People (Romans 14:1-15)

Having spent nearly a week in Canada this summer, I have become interested in Canadian history in a way that I was not before. To be perfectly honest, I’m pretty ignorant of the history of the country just north of us, and some of it is stunning.

In the 1750s, as the United States was moving toward independence from Britain, the British and French were fighting over the Canadian territories. A British commander, Admiral Philips, was sent to hold the port of Quebec. He was not to engage in active confrontation but to wait until the army of British soldiers arrived, having traveled over the land to approach Quebec.

As his ships lay anchored in the harbor, the admiral became irritated somehow by the statues of saints atop the nearby French church, so he ordered his men to fire at the statues to knock them down. It’s unclear how accurate the ships’ cannons were or how many of the statues were actually damaged, but when the army arrived for the attack, the admiral’s ships were powerless to help.

The ships had fired of all of their ammunition at “the saints of Quebec.”

Today, in our scripture reading, we are warned not to ‘fire at the saints.’

Now, Paul is often accused (and rightly so) of being hard core in the way he diagnoses problems. He’s passionate about the love of Jesus Christ, and he struggles at times in his writings with people who don’t get it. But periodically, a shift in his tone seem to show us a different way he is considering things, and we see his compassionate side.

Paul lays out a series of points about church dynamics that make sense thousands of years later, even if we might put them differently.

#1 Accept those whose faith is weak. For all of Paul’s talk about standing strong in the faith and pursuing what God is calling us to, he seems to be acknowledging that not everyone’s faith will get to the same point. We might think that someone who just met Jesus for the first time would not believe in the same way, or as strongly, as someone who has known him for a long time but Paul’s reflection on the strength of faith isn’t about chronology. No, Paul says that those who ‘get it,’ who are fully bought into what Jesus is calling us to, should do everything we can to support and encourage those who are not there yet. Isn’t that mentorship? Isn’t that walking alongside someone who is asking questions about faith and serving as a friend and guide? Of course, that means we have to find people who aren’t Christians and befriend them…

#2 Don’t argue over disputable matters. What do we argue about in church? Which of those things are non-negotiable? Which ones are debatable thanks to Scripture and experience? Which ones are … ridiculous? It hasn’t happened in quite some time but I remember when we used to debate things like what music we could use in service or whether someone was a member or not. It’s like getting in an argument with your spouse about something, even when you know that they’re at least a little bit right. But what do we see happen on television in someone else’s worship and assume they’re doing wrong? Hands in the air during prayer? Talking back to the pastor? Incense in worship? Paul is basically pointing out here that we all become accustomed to our way of doing things and we assume it’s the “right” way. On the other hand, if you want to tell Paul that Jesus isn’t the Son of God or that he didn’t die on the cross for our sins, well, then you’d have a problem.

#3 Don’t judge others – they, like you, are servants of God and he is the master. Maybe the whole thing could boil down to this, right? Don’t judge. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that we’re all guilty, all behind the eight ball, all in need of someone’s mercy (God’s, at the very least). All of these could boil down to this but it’s interesting that Paul goes out of his way to say it directly. Maybe it’s because he judged others as a Pharisee for so long, or maybe it’s because he’s being judged constantly by Christians and Jews alike. Paul knows we don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to critiquing someone else.

#4 All Christians stand/exist/succeed because God makes them stand. None of us is ‘doing life’ on our own but we exist and survive because God makes it so. You can breathe, eat, talk, walk, limbo, jog, work, love, etc. because God says so. Paul says that should give us a whole, new philosophy on life.

#5 The things we consider sacred are things we are convinced of in our own mind. Nothing is ‘not sacred’ by itself but it may be for someone else. What does that look like to us? Some people become torn up over space or a way of doing things; some people get caught up in the way that music is performed in church. It’s a lot like point number three, but it asks a bigger question: what if everything God made is holy? What if we’re supposed to recognize that we should see God in all things? What would happen if you tried that for a week?

#6 None of us live or die for ourselves alone, but we live for God and are accountable to him. The life we live isn’t ours but Paul says we actually owe God for how we use it, that God will judge what we’ve done with our lives. Whew, that one is heavy! I recently had a moment – I was on the treadmill at the gym – and I realized that I had become caught up in a way of looking at my life that wasn’t the best way. I was concerned with the wrong things, worried about the wrong perceptions and ideas. And on mile 4 of the workout, amidst sweat and heavy breathing, I thought, “You’re supposed to do everything for the glory of God.” In this chapter of Romans, Paul is reminding us that we should do everything for God’s glory, not our own, and that we should use our gifts to the best of our ability because they are God’s gifts in the first place!

#7 Don’t cause someone else to stumble. Hey, you’re a role model! No matter what you think, you are watched by someone else who is taking cues from you. Somehow, Paul ends up back at the beginning. What you do shouldn’t be for other people, but you have to remember that you’re in community and your actions influence other people.

Paul’s “Seven Rules For People In Church”? I hope we’re grading on a curve!

What points do you think Paul makes? What does he miss? 

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