Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sermon: Snake Bites

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

There are several types of sermons that a pastor can preach: encouragement, education, challenge to action, condemnation of sin, and so on. But all of my sermons do have one thing in common, they start from a scripture passage or two, and I let them set the tone. So in other words, sometimes the bible passage seems encouraging and lends itself to a sermon that is encouraging. Sometimes the scripture passage challenges us and it leads to a sermon that is challenging. When I read the first of today’s scripture passages though, I was not initially encouraged or challenged. In fact, if anything, I was left with lots of questions. This may not be a passage you are familiar with. The setting is that the Israelites have followed Moses out of Egypt. They have crossed the Red Sea, they have been fed with Manna, they have made a golden calf and had God get angry with them about it, they have been given the 10 commandments, and through it all they have bellyached and griped, groused and whined.

Today’s passage is no different. Listen to Numbers 21:4-9

They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.

The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.

As I said, my first reaction to the passage was not encouragement nor challenge, but questions. Perhaps as you listened, you may have had some questions too. If not, I will share mine with you! You see, we have this passage where the people of God have escaped slavery and are now marching through the wilderness complaining with great gusto. So God sends poisonous snakes to bite them.

Now, as a human being I get that. Complaints are annoying. Although I can’t say that there has ever been a time when I was frustrated enough with someone that I wished for a poisonous snake to bite them, I might wish for a non-poisonous snake to bite them. But this is God. God is supposed to be above that kind of petty emotional response. And yet God sends poisonous snakes.

I was watching a show on Dangerous Animals on TV this week, and it was talking about the bite of the Fer-de-lance in Central America. Its bite is seldom fatal anymore because of anti-venom, but people who are bit still experience severe pain, oozing wounds, swelling, internal bleeding, gangrene, amputation, and usually post traumatic stress. When fatal it is due to internal bleeding and kidney failure. This is no fun way to die. So what kind of God does this? This does not sound much like the loving Father that Christ talks about.

And then, the very same God who ordered them not to build idols, who in fact nearly killed all of the Israelites for making a golden calf, now orders them to make a bronze serpent on a pole so that everyone who looks at it will be cured from the poison. So bull idols are wrong, but snake idols are okay? Doesn’t this all strike you as a bit odd?

So as I read the passage, I had many questions. What do we do with passages like this? What do they tell us about faith in our time, faith in our life? Should we be worried that God is going to send a poisonous snake to bite us if we complain too much? Should we build a golden snake idol in each church for people to look at and be healed?

Probably not. In the end this passage reminds us that there is a complicated relationship between sin and suffering, between blame and shame, and between God’s love and redemption.[1]

We live in a world were love is real and pain is real, where cancer is real, and healing is real, where war and abuse and brutality are real, and where compassion and friendship and peace are real. And God is working within that complicated web to bring about our healing, wholeness and redemption.

So sometimes it is hard to tell whether God is punishing us or the world around us is just unfair; sometimes it is hard to tell when God is rewarding us, or we are just lucky. And the biblical writers struggle with that too. They try to interpret events of their lives from God’s perspective. So when a rash of snakebites happens, they wonder if their complaining caused it. Just like you might wonder when you are diagnosed with heart failure if a sin in your life led to God’s punishment. That is part of being human trying to make connections between what is happening in our life and our faith. We ask, is it my fault? And if so, what did I do?

Most of the time though, when bad things happen to us, although we might have a little responsibility (like we forgot to check for poisonous snakes before we reached into that woodpile), it is probably not true that God is punishing us. For example, the flooding recently in Buchanan and Niles. God wasn’t punishing us. There was no particular sin that the people who had houses closer to the river had done that others had not. Rather, bad things happen, that is part of what it means to live in an imperfect world, a world that is still in need of God’s redemption.

So in general, while the answer to the question of “does God cause us to get snakebites because we have done something bad” forces us to think seriously about our responsibility – that isn’t the answer to the problem. The real answer always comes later, when God reaches out with ultimate healing and restoration. God does not leave the people in the predicament of suffering but offers them a way out. You see, while we may question what we have done to find ourselves suffering, God is busy saying to us, “Stop worrying about that, and come to me for healing and protection.”

So in this passage, although people are being bit by snakes, God gives them a way out. God wants them to know that God is the answer to their problems. In other words, when we worry about what we have done to deserve this, when we wonder if we are being punished we are caught up asking questions when we should instead be looking to the answer – God.

Now, I admit, this is a weird passage, but Jesus actually talks about this passage at one point in his ministry. In fact, he talks about it right before he utters one of his most famous of teachings. This is from  John 3:14-17

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

What do you think of that? So Jesus says, that he is like the snake idol, being lifted up before the world so that they can find healing and restoration when the snakes of the world bite them. If they feel like they are being punished, or they are suffering, rather than looking at the cause, rather than trying to figure out what they did or didn’t do to deserve this – they should look to him and they will find eternal life.

God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, not to punish the world, not to send them all to hell, but that the world might be saved through him. He is there to offer a way of healing for our hearts, minds and souls.

The one who suffered is ultimately the answer to our suffering. The one who died is ultimately the answer to our death. He shows us that innocent people do suffer, innocent people do die, and yet there is also a way to overcome that. By looking to God through Jesus Christ, by opening ourselves to the healing of God, we are saved. Snakes may bite, their poison may actually kill us; but they cannot destroy our soul. And we know that through our trust in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it is well with our souls. He has made sure of that for us. We need not worry!

So today’s passage started out as one that was full of questions, and yes, it is even a little disturbing, because it deals with people striving to make sense of suffering (when life is a little disturbing).

What we learn through Jesus’ teaching, is that God cares about our suffering, and in fact, God cares so much that God does something about it. In Moses’ day, it was a golden snake, but then later, it was the gift of God’s son who came to show the depths of God’s love, who is willing to reach into our world and bring us help and hope. In other words, the passage ends up being one of encouragement! Who would have guessed that from where we started! I surely didn’t. But God did!

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2018

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sermon: Beautiful Laws

Psalm 19

I know that for many of you, when you are outdoors, walking in the woods, or hunting ducks, or out on a lake, fishing for bluegill, you find yourself close to God. And most days, I would agree. There is not much better than standing in an old growth forest, or looking down from a mountain top, or kayaking down a river with a heron on the shoreline ahead of me for connecting me with God. I love sitting out at night and looking at the stars and the moon.

And so does the writer of our Psalm – “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky is God’s handiwork.” Or the lines about how the Sun is like a warrior, that thrills at running its course through the sky. Clearly the writer enjoys nature.

But the psalm also has this sharp turn in the middle of it. It switches suddenly from talking about creation and nature, and then speaks about God’s instructions, laws and regulations. “The Lord’s Instruction is perfect, reviving one’s very being. The Lord’s laws are faithful making na├»ve people wise.”

Some scholars have said this shows that they were originally two different psalms, and that somewhere along the line they got stuck together.

Actually, that isn’t as crazy as it sounds. We stick songs together all the time, we call them medleys. Not quite like a vegetable medley like on the screen, but a song medley. You know how they work, you start out singing Beyonce’s Hold My Beer, and then in the middle switch to Brittney Spear’s Oops I Did It Again. And somehow the two make sense together. So some scholars think that in the psalms along the way, these two very different songs – one about creation and one about the law got stuck together.

But other scholars suggest that these two seemingly very different things aren’t a medley at all, and that they actually started out together for a reason. This second set of scholars say that the ancient Israelites understood that what God taught us through nature is very much the same thing that God teaches us in the law. They come from the same source, and they are both beautiful and enlightening.[1]

In fact, according to the Jewish Virtual Library

“in rabbinic literature, it was taught that the Torah” (or law) “was one of the six or seven things created prior to the creation of the world. According to Eliezer ben Yose the Galilean, for 974 generations before the creation of the world the Torah lay in God's bosom and joined the ministering angels in song . . . Rav” (a famous Babylonian rabbi) “said that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect builds a palace by looking into blueprints.”[2]

That is such a totally different view of the connection between the natural world and God’s law. The beauty of a sunset and the human need for rest are related to each other. The fact that predators kill prey and the command that humans shall not murder are intended to stand as contrasts. The strong bond between a newborn and the mother is supposed to naturally imply the command to honor our parents. And so when the writer of the psalms moves from talking about the beauty of nature to the beauty of God’s law – it isn’t like switching songs – it is just the next verse of a song about how beautiful the works of God are. As we admire the palace, first we sing about the builder and then we sing about the architect. As we praise God, first we sing about the world, and then we sing about the laws that made it what it is.

So for just a moment think about it. How often have you thought of the instructions of God as beautiful? How often have you sat and read through the book of Leviticus which is generally agreed upon as one of the most boring things you could read, with its list of law after law, and thought – that is so beautiful? How often has it given you goosebumps? Probably never.

But let’s try, Here is Leviticus 6:1-7

The Lord said to Moses, If you sin: by acting unfaithfully against the Lord; by deceiving a fellow citizen concerning a deposit or pledged property; by cheating a fellow citizen through robbery; or, though you’ve found lost property, you lie about it; or by swearing falsely about anything that someone might do and so sin, at that point, once you have sinned and become guilty of sin, you must return the property you took by robbery or fraud, or the deposit that was left with you for safekeeping, or the lost property that you found, or whatever it was that you swore falsely about. You must make amends for the principal amount and add one-fifth to it. You must give it to the owner on the day you become guilty. You must bring to the priest as your compensation to the Lord a flawless ram from the flock at the standard value as a compensation offering. The priest will make reconciliation for you before the Lord, and you will be forgiven for anything you may have done that made you guilty.

I could see your eyes glazing over. You were not thinking, “This is beautiful, I am getting goosebumps.” You were thinking, “Lord, please make it stop!” And yet really it is beautiful.

This is about justice and making wrongs right. Rather than allowing the ugliness of fraud and cheating, robbery and lost property to go on unchecked, this law talks about restoration. Not just punishing the person who committed the evil. It is about making amends, not only with the person that was harmed, but also with God. And quite honestly that is beautiful.

So if we look over the whole scope of the law. Think about how beautiful the world would be if we actually heeded the law of God.

Add that to the natural beauty of the outside world. If we imagine a world that truly loved their neighbors as themselves, if we imagine a world that loves doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God; if we imagine a world where swords are beaten into plowshares; if we imagine a world where the teachings of Christ are lived out in our daily lives; it is beyond beautiful. Just like a sunset with a thousand colors, or a night sky with a billion stars, it is beautiful.

Out of curiosity, as you think about it, with this new frame of mind. Considering the beauty of the law – what is the most beautiful law of God to you? Would you be willing to share? [open it up for discussion]

The law of God describes an ideal for what should be. It describes a way of treating others and relating to them. It is the kind of world I want to live in.

[repeat some of those that were brought up in discussion]

That kind of world is one which brings peace to my heart, mind and soul, just like standing at the beach watching the waves roll in does. It is pure and good. This is how it should be!

So maybe you don’t get goosebumps when you read God’s instructions, but maybe you should. Maybe you don’t sigh and feel the deepest peace when you open this book of God’s laws, but maybe you should. Because there is beauty here, more pure than gold, and sweeter than honey.

As we meditate upon these things, our hearts and our lives are shaped into those which are pleasing to God. God becomes the creator of the heavens, and the savior of salvation of human hearts. Or in the final words of the Psalmist God becomes our rock and our redeemer.

So I don’t know if this psalm was originally a medley or not. But clearly as it stands today, it reminds us that what God does is beautiful, and we should admire it. All of it.

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2018

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sermon: Generational Covenant

There are not a lot of places where as many generations of people interact as happens at church. Here we have children, youth, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and sometimes even great-great grandparents. It is a wonderful gift! Church is a place where each kid has lots of grandparents, and each older adult, lots of grandchildren. It is a place where the knowledge and love of God are taught by those with lots of life experience to those who are still wide-eyed and excited by ants crawling on the sidewalk and the shape of snowflakes. It is a place where the joy of life is taught to us by children who remind us of all the goodness that God has created and how often we take the wonders of the world for granted.

And all of this is quite intentional.

The passage in Genesis is a powerful moment in God’s relationship with humanity. Here we have the creation of a covenant, “Walk with me. I will bless you and you will be the ancestors of many nations.” Right away, the blessing is not just for them as individuals, but it is meant to be a multigenerational blessing. It is a blessing for Abrahm and Sarai, but also for their kids, their grandkids, their great-grandkids, down through the generations to us.

It is a reminder that our work has never just been about me or even my generation. It has always included the future and those who will come after us. That God has in mind our spiritual heirs, even as God had us in mind in the days of Abrahm.

This type of generational blessing and covenant will be repeated at other times in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 29:29

 Moses tells the people, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God. The revealed things belong to us and to our children forever: to keep all the words of this covenant.” David will hear God tell him that one of his descendants will reign in Israel forever. These types of promises from God remind us that God remains faithful throughout time, not just yesterday, and not just today, but that God will also remain faithful in the future.

In today’s passage, as signs of that blessing God changes Abrahm’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah. Remember, these are not young people receiving a new name, but older adults. Imagine at 99 taking a new name, realizing that God is doing something so new in your life even in your old age, that you feel like a new person, a different person. I must admit, that it hard for me to imagine. I can’t think of what it would take for me in my life to change my name. I wouldn’t be Rob anymore but Robraham or something like that. As though part of me, the essential me is still the same, and yet there is also something in my identity that is wholly new and changed because of the promises yet to come. Again, God seems to be saying this isn’t about who you have been or even who you are right now, but more it is about what is yet to be. That the days ahead are going to be different than the days that are behind.

So how do we deal with that sense of the future practically? How do we react to God’s promises about future generations while we are living in the here and now? Are we all supposed to change our names?

I think we do it by being that intergenerational church. One of the favorite phrases in the bible is the command to take care of the widows and the orphans. In many ways that command reminds us to look for the suffering across the generations and be a blessing. We could say, that we are responsible in passing down the faith to the next generation, and we must also responsible for honoring the generations before us. The vulnerable in each generation should be the objects of our blessing.

But often in our world, that doesn’t happen, because as George Orwell says: “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” True? We think that way.

There is a video by AARP which challenges us to rethink that.

The advantage of the church is that we are a place with multiple generations and if we do our work right young adults will learn from older adults; older adults will learn from younger adults. Rather than being a conflict between generations or a generation gap, church can be the place where God is working on blessing us across all generations.

So for example, Christine Ross points out the following ways that intergenerational life in the church is beneficial.

“Children need interaction with adults who can be trusted role models as well as with adults who will both teach children about the faith and live out their faith among children. As teenagers disengage from parents in preparation for adulthood, they need non-familial role models to show them the variety of ways that Christian adults live out their faith. Young adults need older mentors, older Christian friends who will walk with them as they move into adulthood and whose enthusiasm for life can be shared as they begin mentoring younger persons. Middle adults need to teach, and older adults need to share life experiences with younger generations.”[1]

“Intergenerational Ministry helps bridge the “generation gap.” Bronfenbrenner asserted that a society in which the generations do not relate to one another will experience social discord and eventually its demise. He also wrote that parents need to be supported in raising children, and that children and youth need opportunities to serve the community.”[2]

I think Christine Ross is pretty wise.

So here is the challenge for each of us as individuals today. What are you doing to fulfill the intergenerational promises of God?

Are you teaching the children (maybe not in Sunday School) but are you being a role model for them and talking with the after worship? Are you caring for the frail and shut in? Maybe not by being nurses or caregivers, but are you calling them, encouraging them, asking if they are okay? Are you praying for the children of today, not that they would be more like your generation was, but that they would be more like citizens of the Kingdom of heaven? Are you praying for the great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers that they would not be left behind by uncaring families?

In other words: Our God is the God of our ancestors, and of those of whom we will be the ancestors (whether literally or spiritually), so what is our role in honoring those who have come before us (like Abraham and Sarah), and also in preparing a world which blesses those who come after us? What are you doing to be a part of it?

[1] Being An Intergenerational Congregation, Christine Ross,
[2] Being An Intergenerational Congregation, Christine Ross,

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sermon: Rising Waters and a Rainbow

Genesis 9:8-17

I read recently that the Arctic ice is melting at the highest rate in at least 1500 years. ͞Not wanting to accept one group’s assessment of the issue, I looked at the Nation Snow and Ice Data Center, who state that arctic sea ice in 2017 has been declining 3.7% per decade since 1978 when satellite imaging began. NASA’s estimate is considerably higher, suggesting that arctic sea ice is decreasing at 13.2% per decade. The Pentagon has argued that we need to update our defense strategy to deal with the diminishing ice levels.

As our global climate changes, rising seas, superstorms, and devastating floods are a very real and ever-present threat.͟ I am not trying to be political here; rather, what I want to observe is that we live, like Noah, on the edge of a world with dangerous waters. Noah received a warning that a flood was coming, and he was the one who listened, while others mocked him. While we may not be worried over a worldwide flood, we do know that the changes in our world have resulted in more frequent flooding, with water and storm damage devastating people’s lives.

I personally have never experienced the true horror of a flood. I have been caught in storm runoff that stalled our car when the water became over a foot deep, and we have experienced the flooding of our church basement here.

But I have never experienced what Mike and Michaelann Hammods experienced.

“As darkness descended one May evening in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, rain fell in sheets on the ranch-style house where the Hammonds family lived. Around 10 p.m., Mike and Michaelann Hammonds went downstairs to check the basement and found water seeping under a window along the basement’s south wall. The couple began to push boxes of clothes, toys, and household items toward the center of the room.’

“Minutes later, without warning, the basement’s west wall gave way, and a flood of cold, muddy water rushed in, engulfing the room and the couple and covering the stairs. By the time the surge ended a few seconds later, Mike and Michaelann were caught in eight feet of water, pinned in place by debris on opposite sides of the room. They had to hold their faces just above water. The smell of natural gas permeated the room.’

“Go get Don!” Mike yelled to their kids, Emma, 14, and Matthew, 13, who were standing at the top of the basement stairs. Don Molesky, 49, a long-haul trucker, and his mother, Helen, 75, lived across the street.

“Don was mopping up water in his own basement when he heard the kids yelling for help at his back door. He waded with the kids across the street, where they led him to the basement stairs. When Don saw what was happening, he called to Matthew to dial 911, then ran back across the street to get a saw.’

“John Underwood, 29, vice president of a development and property-management firm, had stopped his truck behind a disabled car at the flooded intersection just outside the Hammondses’ home. When he got out to check on the driver, he heard a girl scream, “My parents are trapped!”

“John, a retired Marine, ran toward the house. Once inside, he realized that he’d have to cut a hole in the floor to reach the couple. He sent Matthew to grab an ax from the garage.’

“Where are you?” John yelled through the floor.

“Here!” Michaelann responded from an area under the front door.

“John pulled up carpet and yelled out a warning to Michaelann, then swung the ax and hacked a line across the living room floor. Don returned with his circular saw, and the two men cut out a rectangular panel. John pulled back the wood and heating ducts and thrust his hand into the water. Michaelann grasped it, and John and Don pulled her out. Then Don wrapped Michaelann in a coat, and a neighbor ushered her out of the house.’

“The men were dizzy from breathing the gas, but they went back for Mike, who’d been in the freezing water for about 45 minutes.’

“John called down to Mike, who was found in a space under the hallway between the living room and kitchen. As John and Don began to cut, three firefighters arrived; together, the five men broke through and pulled Mike to safety. “I couldn’t stop saying thank you, ” says Mike.’

“Three days later, city authorities condemned the Hammondses’ house. The couple didn’t have flood insurance, but county officials agreed to buy the house for the amount the family owed on their mortgage. They’ve relocated to a furnished rental house close to their old neighborhood for the time being.’

“John and Don didn’t consider for a moment that their lives were in danger,” Mike attests.

“As for the heroes, they were simply happy to help their neighbors. Says John, “Now we’re all connected.”[1]

And here perhaps is the greatest similarity with this story and the story of Noah. You see, Noah experienced the flood and then the rainbow.

It wasn’t until after the storm, after the flood that he knew that God deeply and truly was committed to creation and saving it. Like Mike and Michaelann, Noah first had to face the horror and devastation of the flood itself. And he must have been worried in the midst of it. It isn’t until after going through the deep waters that he is shown the promise of the rainbow and God’s promises for the future.

And how symbolic is that of our lives regarding how troubles in our life occur? Most of the time we face the deep waters, the problems, the heartaches of school shootings before we ever experience any of God’s promises that it will be okay. The pain and the trauma come first, and then the hope.

And yet, one of the things that we often forget is that we live in a world where the rainbow promise has already been made. We already can trust that God is going to protect us, even in the midst of the storm. We shouldn’t be worried. As one commentary says, we know that ͞”The rainbow reminds us God is the saviour, not the one from whom we must be saved. Always. Because – more than anything else – God is love. Full stop. And that love is mightier than a raging river and deeper than a roiling chasm. It pierces the night like a bolt of lightning illuminating the cloud filled skies. It rumbles over the face of the earth shaking the ground with its message – a message not of fear, but of love; a message not of judgment but of grace; a baptismal message, a covenant promise.”[2] ͞

Noah did not have the luxury of the covenant until after the flood. As the waters rose and the torrents rushed about, as the waves tossed the ark, would he have known that he could trust God? Probably not. God hadn’t made any promises to anyone else at that time. There was no Abraham who God told he would have descendants as numerous as the stars, there was no David whose Son would reign forever over Israel, there was no Christ with his promise of eternal life – no rainbow in the sky – just a warning from God that a flood was coming and he should get ready. Could he trust this God? We know he could, but he didn’t. In the same way Mike and Michaelann had to trust that their kids would find help, that these neighbors that they had never had to rely on in an emergency would be the kind they could trust. And fortunately, they could.

And I could end my sermon there with the basic message that we live in a time when we know we can trust God and we can hold on to that. However, that isn’t really enough.

There is also a challenge to us from that passage. We must be people who also claim responsibility for that promise that God made to creation.

God said the earth would not flood again, and we have a role in being the flood preventers, flood responders, and rainbow rememberers. Alongside God, we are meant to be ones who are protectors of the promise. As followers of God, we have always been co-workers in God’s history of salvation, we are the Noah’s who build arks, his children who collect and preserve animals, and in the process sharers of God’s love. We should be the Johns and the Dons who cut through floors to save our neighbors, we should be the people who respond to cries for help, we should be people who help those who are in the horror of the floods of life, and are searching for rescue. Like I said, we are the flood preventers, the flood responders and the rainbow rememberers.

The rainbow reminds us that God’s intention is not to destroy through flood, it reminds us that God is the savior not the one from whom we must be saved, but it also reminds us that we have a role in that – just as Noah did -- a calling to hard work to bring salvation not just to other people, but to all of creation.

There is a call to action in this story. A call to action based upon the hope that God gives us, that God is a God who saves. God is a God who can be trusted, and often we are the eyes, hearts and hands of God in the world who make God’s salvation real. So when the storms hit, and they will; when the floods come, and they will; be people of the rainbow. Bring healing, bring hope. Be agents of God’s goodness even in the face of rising waters.

Sermon: Who Am I Following

Mark 9:2-9

Imagine for a moment that you are Peter, James or John. You were fishermen, and you gave up your lives fishing to follow this man, Jesus. You gave up everything: not just your jobs, but your family, your friends, your homes, and everything you knew in life to do it. And day by day as you followed him you saw amazing things.

If you glance at the book of Mark, since joining Jesus, they have seen him heal people with unclean spirits, cure those with paralysis, withered hands, make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and even bring back a to life a dead girl; they have witnessed miracles as he stilled a storm while they were sailing in it, fed huge crowds of people twice, and walked on water; they have heard him teach with many parables, explain spiritual life and predict that he would die and rise again. They have witnessed a lot.

But if you are anything like me, always in the back of your mind there would be little nagging thoughts like, “These are not normal things that he is doing. Is he safe? Who is this man? Because if I can’t answer that question, why am I following him?” You see, I am really good at second guessing my decisions.

Like the decision to ask to move this year. I know that for the church and its finances it is a good idea, and yet, I am terrified by the thought – I haven’t had to adjust to a new place or a new group of people in almost 12 years. I know you, and I love you anyways! So there is a part of me that says, you shouldn’t have requested a move, even though I know deep down that it will be for the best.

I know myself well enough to know that if I were one of the disciples, there would be moments when I would be missing my family, or missing the days going out and fishing, when I would ask, “Did I make the right decision to follow him? Should I go back to my family and the life of safety and security I knew? Or should I continue following? Fishing made sense, but this, this new life often doesn’t.” I know there would be a part of me, if I were Peter, James or John that would wonder if I had made the right decision.

And then comes this day, this day where we are on a mountaintop and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, and the a cloud of the presence of God settled on the mountaintop and proclaimed, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”

Well, now what would I feel?

This moment would certainly help answer my questions about who Jesus is, and whether I had made the right decision in following him. If you are going to follow someone, the Son of God seems like a good choice among all the options out there. I mean, follow a politician or a teacher or a pastor or the Son of God. Hmm, seems pretty easy. So I would be more confident that I had made the right choice in following Jesus. But this experience on the mountain which we call the transfiguration still leaves me with questions – what does it mean for Jesus to be the Son of God? And what is expected of his followers?

These are not easy questions. When a person applies to be ordained in the United Methodist Church, one of the questions we have to answer at great length is, “What does the Lordship of Christ mean?”

In other words, what does it mean for Jesus to be the Son of God, and what is expected of his followers. Sound familiar?

For me, I summarized Christ as the love and wisdom of God in human flesh. Christ is God’s love put on earth, in motion, and at work in the world. He is also God’s wisdom and word, that teaches us and instructs us what we are to do and be as the people of God. For me that is what it means when I say that Christ is the Son of God, but clearly that is only how one person answers that question. Each of us perceives it slightly differently, explains it with different emphasis, and struggles with the question in our own way. If we all understood it the same way, we wouldn’t have to ask the question.

“Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale University wrote a remarkable study of the significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ titled Jesus Through the Centuries. Dr. Pelikan demonstrates how Jesus has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture. Each age has made Jesus relevant to its own needs. Jesus has furnished each new age with answers to fundamental questions as every generation has had to address new social problems that tested the more fundamental questions of human existence. The world had to take note of Jesus as a rabbi, as the Cosmic Christ, the Ruler of the World, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Son of Man, the True Image of Man, the Great Liberator. In many other ways Jesus furnished the answers and the images that affected society in positive ways.”

“Dr. Pelikan's thesis is that Jesus did not and does not belong to the churches and the theologians alone, but that he belongs to the world. None of this is to say that we can make Jesus what we want Jesus to be. Quite the opposite. It is to say that the Christ is adequate for all our needs and that Jesus transcends culture in such a way that he is able to belong to each age and to address the issues of all time.”[1]

Whew, that’s pretty heavy stuff.

It reminds me that even after reading great theologians, and personally writing a many page paper on the Lordship of Christ, I still must confess that like Peter I am still somewhat ignorant.

There is still mystery and confusion about the nature of Christ, and that leaves me a little out of sorts so that I don’t quite know what to do.

Thus Peter wonders aloud, should we build things to honor God? A question we still ask. Is it important to have shrines where holy encounters take place? Or is there other work that is more important? See, Peter doesn’t look quite so foolish when you realize we struggle with the same questions.

I like what one commentary says about this, “As we stand with the disciples, we share with them their ignorance for fully comprehending these events. Yet we are not left purely baffled. The voice of God gives us definite insight and directions: Jesus Christ is God’s beloved son, and we are to heed his words. Under the authority of Christ and in obedience to his teaching, we are called to live our lives.”[2]

Or in my own words, when we walk with the disciples we realize that we also are confused by what we have seen.

But we also hear the voice of God telling us that our primary job as a follower is to listen to Christ, to experience his resurrection from the dead and then to be witnesses to what we have seen.

Listening to him is not just hearing his words. When someone commands us to listen to them, they aren’t asking us simply to hear them, but they usually want us to actually heed their words. It is more than using our ears, but also our hearts, minds and hands. We must absorb his words into ourselves so that they are our very way of life. Listening to Christ means living out his teachings.

Experiencing his resurrection is not just arguing about the historical accuracy of the biblical account, but it is seeing how Christ continues to bring life to the world around us today. It is understanding that he is able to overcome hatred and death with the power of God’s eternal love – not just for himself, but that he leads us all to that victorious place. It isn’t just reading about it, but it is seeing it as it happens, in our lives and in the lives of others.

Witnessing to what we have seen is not simply seeing it and recording it in our memories, but it means being willing to tell others about our experiences. A court witness who had seen the crime but could not testify about it would be no use. To be witnesses to Christ means striving to tell the truth about our experiences of him in our lives. It means sharing what we have learned: the good, the bad and the ugly. It means passing on what we have heard and what we have experienced.

That’s really a summary of our job as followers. Listen, experience and witness. Or in words that are closer to our church vision statement: See, love, serve. Use your eyes, your hearts and your hands.

So as we follow Christ, we realize that what is possible with God is miraculous, and mind-stretching. It can leave us feeling ignorant and foolish. Despite that, God’s expectation of those of us who witness such miracles is relatively simple. Sit at the feet of Christ, learn from him, discover the death-challenging power of resurrection, and then show and tell others the good news.

[1] CSS Publishing Company, Which Way to Jesus?, by Harry N. Huxhold
[2] Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary by Soards, Dozeman and McCabe

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sermon: Even Eagle Scouts Grow Weary

Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39

In a combination of the scripture and scout Sunday – my title is in some ways a play on words. But it is also a reminder of the truth. No matter how awesome we are, all of us as human beings grow tired. Even a scout is tired after backpacking 15 miles in one day with a heavy pack through the Smokey Mountains – I know from experience!

Or watch a marathon runner. They get to the finish line and their legs start to give out, they wobble, they fall down, they collapse in physical exhaustion. 2012 Olympic marathon runner Desiree Davilla says that it takes her a full two weeks off from exercise to start to recover. Then she takes two more weeks very lightly. That’s one month.[1] As great a condition as these peak athletes are in, they hit the wall following this event, and their body has to recover.

The same is true even if we aren’t marathon runners or backpackers. In life, there will be times when we stumble, when we are tired, when we feel burnt-out. When we simply can’t go another step and we have to stop and rest. It doesn’t matter how amazing we are, it can happen. Nobody can go 100% all the time. Eventually we will collapse.

And we haven’t even talked about the other thing that Isaiah talks about, getting old. That happens to us all if we live long enough too. It is part of life. And as we age, our bodies eventually wear out. Our knees need to be replaced, our elbows hurt, our energy is less than it used to be, and we take more naps. Isaiah is reminding us, that no matter who we are: youths will grow weary and tired, young men will stumble. Given enough time – it will happen. That is part of being human.

Isaiah then contrasts us with God. You see, God’s strength is not like ours. God’s strength is everlasting.

God has been around from the beginning crafting and shaping the universe. Isaiah reminds us that every day the sun rises and sets without fail. That seeds are planted, root and grow because the breath of the Lord blows upon them. God’s strength is unending.

Isaiah then goes on to say that when we are confronted with this dichotomy: our weakness and God’s strength it is tempting to say “My way is hidden from the Lord, my God ignores my predicament.” In other words, we may think we shouldn’t grow tired if God is with us, and so if we do grow tired, God must be ignoring us. That is what the Israelites are saying in their troubled times when this was written. But it isn’t true –even if we feel abandoned and worn out, we are not ignored and unimportant. It is simply part of being human that we need rest. God doesn’t work by taking away our human limitations; rather, God works by restoring us through rest, through healing and through wholeness. God reminds us of our humanness, reminds us that we are not like God, and helps us to be at our best again.

So God’s strength is not one that takes away the struggles and the difficulties of life. God doesn’t make it so we can run a marathon without getting tired; instead God uses that strength to bring us healing and wholeness. God uses that month of rest to do miracles within our body, healing the bones, the cells, and restoring our strength.

The hardest part of this for us as humans is that oftentimes this healing and recovery do not happen until after we have already hit bottom. God’s timing is often not our timing. And yet the message of Isaiah to a people who have given up hope is of God’s ability to renew and restore, to bring about refreshment even after they have collapsed.

Just to help us understand that, let’s look at another passage. This is from the gospel of Mark, and it is about Jesus and his healings.

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James, and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick or demon-possessed. The whole town gathered near the door. He healed many who were sick with all kinds of diseases, and he threw out many demons. But he didn’t let the demons speak, because they recognized him.

Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they told him, “Everyone’s looking for you!”

He replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons.

Listen to this quote from Bruce and Katherine Epperly, “Jesus was a pulsing center of divine power and energy. Like an electrical transformer, the energy of love flowed from Jesus toward persons in need of physical, relational, emotional, and spiritual healing. The power that emanated from his touch and presence was akin to the power of the big birth and the first light of creation, the primal energy that penetrates the darkness and brings forth life from God’s womb of creativity. Grounded in his unity with God, Jesus was the connective “vine” through whom God’s life-giving energy flowed abundantly to everyone he touched.” (SOS)

But he still needed to get away. His human body could only take so much. Even Jesus had to rest, he could only heal so many people, only put in so many hours of work, before he would collapse. Then what restored him was that connection with God, his time of prayer.

We also should be seeking that connection with that renewing and restoring power of God, especially when we are exhausted. Because that connection with that energizing touch of Christ is still available to us –

When we grow weary, tired; when we are in need of healing physically, emotionally or spiritually, we can reach out and be connected through the vine to our very creator -- the one who made the grasshoppers, the redwoods, and the stars in the heavens.

I can certainly give personal examples. There have been many times in life when I have been exhausted. There are days when I need to go home early. Days when visitations at the hospital, or when funerals and grieving families start to weigh heavy on my soul. There are days when I personally am struggling with depression. There was one stretch, one summer here when I did 10 funerals in 8 weeks. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I needed rest. But God didn’t leave me there. Over time with prayer, and with reconnection to the love of Christ, and allowing his love to refill me, and flow through me again, I was restored. It probably took days and weeks, perhaps even months to completely feel restored, but eventually it came. Vacations help! (That’s why I went away last week, I was feeling exhausted). That is part of being human. We run and we do fall down. We do grow tired.

But God does not abandon us. We can find ourselves renewed in strength, so that we can fly like the eagles, run and walk with growing weary (at least for a while).

God gives power to the tired, and revives the exhausted, brings healing to the sick, and hope to the downtrodden. When we hit bottom, when we collapse, that help and power is available to us. And we need to take advantage of it. We can connect to that life-giving energy, that primal power of the divine, and while it will not make us gods, it will revive us and give us renewed strength. Yes, it can take days, weeks, even months.

So when you are tired, it is okay. God hasn’t abandoned you. Rather, it is part of being human. Even Eagle Scouts Grow Weary. But know that God can restore you. And when the day comes when your body ultimately gives in to age and needs its final rest, God will restore you then too. Giving strength to your soul, healing to your spirit, and allowing you to mount up with wings like angels into the heavenly realm.


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Sermon: Some Assembly Required

Mark 1:14-20

Jesus begins his ministry with the words, “Now is the time. Here comes God’s kingdom!” As though he is saying today is the day. Too often we talk about the kingdom of God as something that is not yet here, that is still to come in the future. And I confess I have done that too. But that isn’t how Jesus starts his ministry – he starts it saying, “Now is the time.”

I remember one of my professors asking the very provocative question, “When does eternal life begin?” He was trying to get us to think about whether we had to die before it started. Is it a future reality or are we even in this life beginning that time of eternity? Jesus’ statement is much the same, “Now is the time.” The kingdom is here, eternal life has begun, you are already stepping into the new.

Of course, we also still have a foot in the old. This world is not yet perfect. There are still tears and death and grief. There is still evil and violence, hatred and rejection. We ourselves still have bodies that grow weak, and spirits that are capable of sin. But even so we are also stepping into the new. It is here, just not finished.

It is like at Christmas when you were a kid, and you unwrapped the present that was just what you wanted. You were so excited, there it was, it was really yours. But when you opened the box, there were those words you hated to see – some assembly required. And so you had to wait while dad or mom got out the screwdriver, the wrench, the hammer, the arc-welder, whatever was required and put it together.

Funny story. Have you heard about the man who ordered a tree house over the internet?

When the box arrived, it had printed on the top the words that have become every parent's nightmare: "Some assembly required." I didn’t know Ikea made treehouses.

The man began to assemble the tree house (but would you believe it?) as he laid out all the parts on the floor and began reading the instructions, he realized (to his dismay) that the instructions were indeed for a tree house, but the parts were for a sail boat!!

The next day, he sent an angry e-mail message to the company complaining about the mix-up. Back came the reply:

"We are truly sorry for the error and the mix-up and the inconvenience. However, it might make you feel better to consider the fascinating possibility that somewhere today there is a man out on a lake trying to sail your tree house."[1]

Fortunately, with the kingdom of God, we know that we have the right plans, and the right parts, but what we need are the workers. I think that is what Jesus was saying that day, “Now is the time. Here comes God’s kingdom. Some assembly required. And I am recruiting assemblers.”

Now I know that Jesus uses a very different metaphor in the scripture passage. He talks about recruiting fishermen and women. But the idea is the same. Jesus is recruiting people to do the work of the Kingdom. In my example, rather than fishers, Jesus is looking for assemblers who can put together the gift that God has planned for us. And that’s what the disciples were, people who started putting the kingdom together. And you and I are the next generation that has been hired for the job, to keep the work going.

You see, some buildings take longer than others to complete. Construction on St. Peter's Basilica began in 1506 and was not completed until 120 years later in 1626.

That means that it is very unlikely that the workers that started on it were the same ones that were there on its completion. Unless you had some kid who started at six helping carry tools who was still there in at 126 putting finishing touches on the decorations. In fact, during this time of construction there were 17 popes. So the vision for the project and the person in charge of the fundraising changed frequently.

We also know that the original architect was Donato Bramante, but when he died just 6 years into the project he was replaced by Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, who was also a famous painter. Raphael died in 1520. Worked stalled for a bit, until Antonio da Sangallo the Younger became the chief architect and proposed several changes, including strengthening the supports which had already begun to crack. In 1547 Michelangelo became the superintendent of the building program at St. Peters. He eventually handed the work off to Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana. And I am going to quit there because I quit trying to pronounce all those Italian names!

As you can see, popes changed, architects changed, building supervisors changed. I would also suspect there were many changes in the construction supervisors, the work team leaders not to mention the building crews. The fact is, such a large and complex work required handing off the responsibilities to the next generation in order to complete the work. How did they do that? Well, they left a few drawings, explanations and details, but the most helpful method of keeping the final goal in mind was a large wooden model of the finished product. It was understood from the beginning that the project was going to take longer than one person could bring to completion. And they knew they needed to pass on the information.

With the kingdom of God, That is what you and I are called to do and be as well. We are the ones who have been handed the work, job by job and role by role from the very hands of the disciples.

We are the current assembly crew, and we are also the one’s training the next crew that will replace us in the task. It is a little humbling to realize that each of us will be replaced, that our plans may not be the final ones, and that our names will probably be forgotten. (I mean who remembers who cut the stone that is the 5th from the left and 6 up in St. Peter’s basilica?) But we still do the work to the best of our ability, to the best of our knowledge of what will work best. At the same time we teach the next generation how to use the tools of the trade.

And we have a model, in the form of the teachings of Christ, and we have the work that has been done in the twenty centuries since Christ, so we aren’t building from nothing. Yet we also know the project is far from completion. And sometimes there are cracks in what has been done before us, and we have to patch and fix it along the way. But still Jesus says, “The kingdom is here.” He didn’t say it is coming, but it is here. The gift is sitting on your floor like the Christmas gift you’ve opened.

And like those before us, we must pull the pieces out of the box, and strive to put it together. Thankfully the master has given us instructions on how --  but he still expects us to use our hands for the work. As he says, the time is now!

So just for a moment consider, what is your role in the assembly of God’s kingdom? What is your contribution? Are you a designer with an eye for beauty? Are you a nuts and bolts person who understands the practical parts? Are you the organizer who helps bring people together to get the work done? Are you the financier who helps pay for it? Are you a little of all of these things?

As I was driving this week, I was listening to a book on church leadership, and I heard to story of Hal and Gus. These two men attend church together every week. Hal is in a wheelchair, and Gus is blind. Gus pushes Hal, and Hal tells Gus which way to go, where to turn, etc. Together they are a great example of the church. We each have limitations, but we also have abilities that we can share with others. Alone we might not get where we are going, but together we can. So your skills are important, each of us is needed to assemble the Kingdom. Designers, construction crew, organizers, and financers.

Because Jesus is calling all of those kinds of people to keep doing the work. And he needs you. He can even train you to be the next link in the important chain that brings the kingdom of God to completion.

[1] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., ChristianGlobe Illustrations, by James W. Moore