Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Holy Hot Sauce

Isaiah 6:1-8

Often when we think of encountering God, it is a rather peaceful encounter. God is the still, small voice. The one that brings us peace and calm. And yet, the encounter with God can be a violent, loud, and humbling experience. That is what Isaiah experiences here. He is overwhelmed by the power and majesty of God. The angels shout so loudly that the doorframes shake. Like being caught in the sound of a jet-plane taking off. And Isaiah’s reaction is: “I am a man of unclean lips!” That seems an entirely reasonable reaction given the situation.

To which God’s solution seems a bit harsh. Take a glowing coal from the altar and touch it to Isaiah’s lips. That sounds more like a method of torture than a means of conveying grace from a loving God. I mean, I like hot sauce, I like food that burns my lips sometimes, but not quite that hot!

One of the things this reminds us is that the same God who comforts us, who holds little lambs, like Jesus does in the stained glass windows back there, is the same God of power and might who shaped the mountains and the stars, and the same God who calls nations and kings to bow before the throne.

Sometimes God is silent and still, calm and peaceful, but sometimes, like in the days of Isaiah, God must blare the message in order to be heard over the noise of the time.

You see, in Isaiah’s day, the nation of Judah was under threat. Their neighbor Assyria was looking very scary. They were building their army, they were taking over Judah’s neighbors. So you can imagine what the people are feeling. They have a powerful enemy, and are worried about invasion.

The king, whose name is Ahaz, then does something that sounds politically wise, but is religiously very wrong. He starts to make an alliance with Egypt. Remember the history of Egypt? This is the country that made slaves of the Israelites, until Moses led them to freedom. So the king of God’s people is making an alliance with one powerful former enemy in order to protect themselves from another powerful current enemy.

And into this political turmoil steps God, on a throne, shaking the foundations of the earth, and reminding Isaiah, that they should be trusting the one with real power – not politicians, not kings, not other nations, not armies, but God and God alone. And God calls Isaiah to tell the people that. To remind the people that there is a different way out of this situation, that rather than living in fear, rather than consorting with one enemy to protect themselves from another, they can trust in God’s awesome and incomparable power.

It is a reminder that as awesome as it is to know that God is tender and loving, and that Jesus holds sweet little lambs. Sometimes what we need is the purely breathtaking, awe-inspiring, forcing you to your knees, worship-inducing strength of God. Because our world is also often a world of fearful situations, where there noisy voices shouting for attention trying to convince us that we are too weak or the situation too awful and we need something more than God to help us. The voices forget, and sometimes they make us forget that God is way more powerful than our problems.

As I was looking for ways of talking about God’s power, I ran across this wonderful children’s book, called Is a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is, by Robert E. Wells. –[read the book] http://a.co/3KvToeM

And we add to that our own ending – And we know – that God made all of this. So why do we act like God is so small, and that we need to be afraid of so many things in life?

So let’s step back for a moment and make this personal. In your life, what situation is like the situation of Judah?

Where are you overwhelmed or afraid? Where is the noise of life trying to tell you to trust something other than God? And what does God shout to you? What message must be blared loud to be heard over the others?

When Isaiah heard God’s message he immediately felt unworthy to heed this calling of God, so God makes him worthy. So keep thinking abour your situation, What is God calling you to that you do not feel worthy to pursue? And how does God address that?

I was reading the story of Linda Down. Linda Down “had dealt with the limitations of cerebral palsy all her life. One day, she got this crazy idea of running the New York Marathon. But Linda walked with difficulty, so running seemed out of the question? She used Canadian canes with arm clamps to steady her arms. On top of this she was 25 pounds overweight and jobless.”

“In a state of depression, she began reading in the scriptures about the power of God at work in people's lives.”

“She read Phil. 4:13, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." While training, she listened for God. She thought as she was running in the dark at night: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction about things not seen" (Heb. 11:1)

She thought about her limited dreams, her inability to see beyond the obstacles of life. Faith, she said to herself, was running in spite of the insurmountable obstacles.”

“As the NY Marathon began that cold morning, . . .she wore gloves on her hands to soften the impact of the crutches. It was windy on the bridge and uphill. She had not expected the beginning to be so difficult. As she finished the mile-long Verrazano Narrows bridge, there were no runners in sight ahead of her. Spectators were gone for the most part. But one little girl ran out into the street and cheered her on, "You can do it!" Others on the curb later applauded and cheered and shouted. They brought tears to Linda's eyes and helped her to keep going.”

“Ten hours later Linda was still running in the dark ... Some admiring spectators walked with her for safety. Then an ABC-TV camera crew showed up and followed the story of her courage. She continued to run. She wore a hole in one sneaker from dragging it across the ground; her hands ached and throbbed; her arms became black and blue and swollen; she couldn't speak to anyone because of fatigue, but she continued to run because she prayed: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me...I can do all things."

“Then two parks and recreation trucks in Central Park came by and stayed with her to light the way. After 11 hours of struggle and over 27 miles, Linda crossed the finish line. People were crying -- even the TV crew was crying --and Linda was crying at the response and support that she had received from God and these people. She thanked God for the power to do such a miraculous thing. Later she was invited to the White House and was pictured on the front page of the New York Times. Her story was not just a story of a noble effort, it was the story of the power of God at work.”[1]

God overcame her weakness, her inability, and gave her the strength. Just as God overcame Isaiah’s weakness and inability and gave him the words to speak.

God is loving and awe-inspiring, like a nurturing parent and thunderstorm over crashing surf. And God calls us in times of peace and in times of turmoil to be faithful in serving and leading. When God calls us, God also prepares us to be partners in that work, helping us to overcome our shortcomings, and strengthening us to the task!

Do not forget that the one we worship is not just the one holding the lamb, but it also the one that made the blue whale, Mt. Everest, the earth, the sun, the galaxy, and the universe. God’s strength is beyond imagination, and there for you to take hold of.

[1] Gary Ritner at Hillcrest UMC on April 17, 1994, Adapted by Brett Blair, ChristianGlobe, Inc.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Inept Uncle Peter

Acts 2:1-21

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
    Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Two of our greatest church holidays have become as much secular holidays as church holidays. Christmas and Easter. If you asked many children what Christmas is, it would be the day Santa comes. If you asked many children what Easter is, it would be the day that the Easter Bunny comes. So I wondered, if somehow Pentecost became a secular holiday, and you asked children what Pentecost was, who are what would they say comes? Obviously the religious answer is the Holy Spirit, just like the religious answer for Christmas is Jesus’ birth, and the religious answer for Easter is Jesus’ resurrection.

But if society were to claim this holiday, what sort of slant would it take? My deepest fear is that it would become like St. Patrick’s day an excuse for getting drunk. So our mascot for the day would be drunk uncle Peter with a flaming red alcoholic drink in his hand. I actually have an uncle Peter, and I must apologize deeply to him, because he certainly doesn’t fit this awful slur in his name, but my thought was that people would misapply the appearance of the Peter the disciple in this passage, and the idea that he was drunk on new wine as he speaks. Even though he isn’t drunk at all, but rather filled with the Holy Spirit.

I’m not entirely sure why I took that stupid jaunt down “how could we ruin Pentecost lane.” Except that it can be helpful to force ourselves to look at what a holiday is really about and not take it for granted. Every year, I preach on this passage, just like every year I preach pretty much the same passages for Christmas and Easter, and so we could get lost in the monotony. We could lose track of what is important.

Today reminds us that the disciples are transformed from lost, scared, and relatively clueless followers of Jesus – into preachers, teachers and leaders of the church.

When we listen to his sermon it can be easy to forget that not that long ago Peter was a fisherman. Not that long ago, Peter struggled to understand Jesus’ teachings. Not that long ago, Peter was rebuked by Jesus for trying to talk him out of dying on the cross. Not that long ago, Peter denied knowing Jesus – three times. Yet, on this day, Peter is confident, he is well-spoken, he is willing to talk about his faith in Christ, and he explains a confusing and strange miracle, and even is able to quote scripture to help that explanation. Peter is clearly transformed.

Pentecost reminds us, that we too can be transformed. Even if we start out being a people who struggle to understand Jesus’ teachings, who are utterly dependent upon Jesus, and still sometimes get it wrong; the Holy Spirit can transform us common folk.

I remember the first time I went to a bible study in college. The other people there all understood so much. They knew the stories of Jesus, they could quote chapters and verses, and could talk about their faith in ways that made sense. I couldn’t. I felt so unworthy in their presence. I felt like an idiot, or an infant in their midst. And yet, God did not leave me there. God was able to take that young man and put me in a pulpit, where every Sunday, I strive to bring the messages of God to you. That was transformation. At least I hope – maybe you still think I’m an idiot – but hopefully I am at least a more faithful idiot than I used to be.

Today reminds us that, like Peter, we are transformed from inept people who really don’t get faith, into a people who continue Jesus’ work. We are entrusted with carrying the good news to the world.  If God could use Peter, inept uncle Peter, to preach the good news, to heal a crippled beggar, and in fact to raise a girl from the dead. God can use us. I like the way one person said it: “God did all of this through a recently converted fisherman who struggled with his faith. The God who used Peter can do the same with every other believer. Like Peter, God saved you and he is transforming you. God can accomplish great things through you regardless of your background or personal struggles.”[1] Yes, that’s Pentecost!

In a sense today is about growing up, and become mature people of God, who join in the work. It is acknowledging that such a transformation is miraculous, as we watch inept uncle Peter become the rock upon which Christ builds the church. And that happens not just to the disciples but to the whole church. It happens to pastors as we mature from green youngsters who don’t know better, into elders who hopefully are wiser. It happens to church members as we grow from being well-meaning but somewhat clumsy leaders to true saints who are examples of faith to us all.

Think of it like this: One afternoon, a man, lying in a canoe close to shore, saw many beetles in the muddy bottom of the lake.

“He felt sorry for these lowly creatures which would never know any other world except gloom and mud and water. Then a big, black beetle came out of the water.” It “crawled up on the gunwale and sat there blinking at him. Under the heat of the sun the beetle died. Then a strange thing happened. His black shell cracked down the back. Out of it came a shapeless mass whose hideousness was transformed into a beautiful, brilliantly colored life. Out of that mass gradually unfolded four iridescent wings from which the sunlight flashed a thousand colors. The wings spread wide as if to worship the sun. The man realized that he had witnessed the transformation of a hideous” dragonfly larva that look so much like beetles “crawling in the mud” as it changed “to a gorgeous dragonfly soaring above the waters. The body that was left behind still clung to the gunwale of the canoe. While the dragonfly explored the wonders of his wings and his new world, the other” larva “were still crawling in the mud. He knew that he had seen a miracle of nature. Out of the mud had come a beautiful new life. The thought occurred to him, if the Creator worked such wonders with the lowliest of creatures, what must be in store for” humanity who are created in God’s likeness![2]

The good news is that God is always working on miraculous transformations within us, but we must be open to receiving the tongues of fire, the breath of the Spirit, the cracking of our shells.

It may not be quite as quick as that which happened on Pentecost, but God can work within us, we can find new gifts for ministry, new roles in the church that bring life to the world around us! So take hope from this day. If inept Peter can become the rock, you and I just might have a future in faith too!

[2] CSS Publishing Company, Inc., In Sure and Certain Hope, by O. Garfield Beckstrand, II

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Mother's Wisdom

Mothers are often, but not always, sources of great wisdom about life. It can be simple, it can be complex, it can be deep, it can be straight to the point, it can be confounding. I found a few online: 

“Treat others equally, be giving without expecting gratitude and stand up for what you believe in.”

“Saving up is hard, finding something to spend it on isn’t. Save up now and figure out what to spend it on later.”

“If it’s not butter, don’t butter — what’s point in eating anything if it doesn’t taste good?”

“Whether it’s that carton of orange juice in the fridge or a relationship, it’s always better to finish one thing before you start another.”[1]

That made me sit and think what the best piece of advice my mom had given me was. It isn’t easy. Dad was more the advice giver in our family. Mom was the common sense antidote when dad’s advice wasn’t so good. But as far as advice goes, I would have to say that she always told us to get outside and do our summer chores in the garden and yard before it got unbearably hot. Even when we were complaining, she tried to remind us that it would just get worse if we put it off. That encouraged me to get my work done as soon as possible and not to put it off.

My sister’s first response was that my mom’s most common piece of advice was wear sunscreen, which while not very deep, is after all pretty good advice if you are as prone to sunburn as our family is. After she thought about it more, though, my sister said that what she really learned from my mom was that she always said some form of I love you every time she left the house or the car or basically her. My sister has friends from childhood who told her that they learned to do that in their life from our mom.

So then I decided to ask my family members what the best advice they received from my grandmothers were.

My Grandma Lois had a tough life, and she wanted the rest of us to have it better, so her advice was get an education. Advice that I heard repeated and repeated in my house (especially since my mom was a schoolteacher).

My Great-Grandma Nellie was a pretty no-nonsense lady, and her advice was “If you are going to do something, do it right. Clean up after, clean your tools and put them away. A place for everything and everything in its place.”

My Grandma McPherson was a fountain of love, so it makes sense that her advice was “Love your job or get a new one. Love your in-laws. Love your adopted children and grandchildren as much as your own. Don’t discriminate against any race.”

Anyway. I decided that you could read Psalm 1 as mom advice. Think of this as something your mom wrote for you.

The truly happy person
    doesn’t follow wicked advice,
    doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
    and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
    these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
    and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds.

That’s not true for the wicked!
    They are like dust that the wind blows away.
And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of
justice—neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous.
The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed.

This psalm is what in wisdom writings is called the two paths types of advice. It is reminding us that in life we always have a choice. There are two ways to go. One way is good, the other is not. If you want to be happy, you must choose the good. In all things. So listen to good advice from good people. Read scripture, use it to build up your life. Bear fruit.

If we choose the second path, wickedness, we will not be happy. It may look like we will be, but in the end the result of wickedness is temporary. It is dust in the wind. It blows away. It doesn’t result in real justice, it doesn’t earn long term respect.

This psalm compares the two paths to a tree being planted in two different places. The first tree is planted by streams and water, where there are things that give life. The second tree is planted in a dry desert. Unlike trees, we can choose where we are planted, so the writer says be careful where you plant yourself in life. Since you have a choice, choose well. You can plant yourself in places that give life, near streams of water that keep you alive and give life to others; or you can plant yourself in places that steal life and destroy it.

It honestly is trying to boil our choices down to the simplest level, and show how attractive choosing the good is, and how unattractive choosing the bad is. In real life, it can be harder to tell the difference. There can be 32 choices instead of just two. And often there are things we don’t have control of, some roads in life we end up on without any choice at all of our own.

But the psalm is reminding us, if you boil it down to its simplest form: what we have control over, and what we have responsibility for: if you boil it down to that, when we do come to a crossroads, where we have a choice, the psalm says, choose the good.

Good choices lead to greater happiness than bad choices. Like the choice to butter or not to butter. Or the choice to clean up your tools. Or the choice to do your work now, or wait until later when it is 100 in the shade.

Do you see why I said the psalm is a lot like mother’s wisdom? Mom’s tend to teach us about choices, and try to help us make good choices. The same is true of God. God wants us to choose the good, not because God is an tough taskmaster or an angry school-marm, but rather like a mother, God wants us to have a happy life, a good life, a life that is like a tree planted by waters; and God knows that the way to such a life is often a result of our choices.

This does not mean we will not suffer. It simply means that in the midst of suffering we will be happier than one who chooses evil when they go through suffering.  It does not mean that we are on a difficult road because we chose to be there; rather, that while on the difficult road of life we can make our trip easier or harder. We can be like trees planted by water or we can be like trees planted in the desert. We can listen to mom, or we can ignore her. We can use the butter that tastes good, or the non-butter that doesn’t. We have a choice, to choose that which is good!

How do we do that? Amazingly the Psalm gives us some simple instructions.

Don’t listen to bad advice; instead, love God’s advice.

Don’t follow the example of others who make bad decisions; instead, follow God’s instruction.

Look at the long term. What will last, and what will pass away? What is temporary and what has eternal value?

Choose that which brings life like water in the desert, avoid choices which bring drought, death and destruction.

Do what will gain you respect in a gathering of good people; don’t do what will lose you their respect.

At least those are the things that I pull out of the Psalm. And I hope that they help you as you go about your day, your week, and your life.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

God As Our Friend

John 15:9-17

One of my foolish moments when I was a young pastor, probably 23 years ago, was while teaching an adult Sunday School class. We were talking about metaphors for God, of the names of God in the bible. Things like God is our rock, our shepherd, our father, and so on. In the class I asked people to name their favorite biblical name for God.

One of the women said, “Friend.”

And I being very sure of myself, said, “That’s not in the bible.”

There was an awkward moment and then she angrily replied, “Yes it is.”

Well, it didn’t take very long for me to discover that it was in fact in the bible, and I had to apologize for being wrong and assuming that I knew everything about God and the bible. Hopefully the woman forgave me for my arrogance.

Today’s passage is the one that most shows how wrong I was during that Sunday School class. You can count how many times I was wrong if you like . . . Listen, this is John 15:9-17

“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.

Clearly here, Jesus uses the word friend several times. I counted three. He explains that he is moving from treating us as servants who relate to a master, and that he now views us as friends. If he calls us friends, it only seems natural that we can turn it around, call him a friend.

So, as I was reading this passage, I began to reflect upon the word friend and further what does it mean to be a friend of Jesus, or a friend of God? Is it just someone we like? Or is there more to it?

Looking at the scripture, part of what Jesus seems to suggest is that the expectations for us as friends are different than those as servants.

George Hermanson says that, “The phrase "no longer servants" changes the dynamic of personal relationships. It is a concept of equality. In John's time, one was connected through kinship networks or institutional relationships like master/slave. Friendship as we know it - having the freedom to be friends across gender, class and ethnic barriers - did not exist. But the aim of God to love, the call to us to love one another, moves us into new ways of relating. It is a call to organize our world where we care for all, even those who are outside our familiar networks. It is to be friends in Christ.”[1]

So friends operate on a more equal basis, but that still begs the question, do you have higher or lower expectations of a friend than you do for a servant? Since they are equal with you, do you expect more of them or less? In other words, if Jesus sees us as equal with himself, does he expect more of us or less?

In some ways to be a friend requires more than you would expect of a servant, and in other ways it is less. I found this wonderful list of healthy and unhealthy expectations of friendship at LiveAbout.com.

Reasonable expectations in a friendship:

·         Your friend treats you with respect.
·         Your friend tries not to hurt your feelings.
·         You and a new friend get to know each other at a pace that is comfortable to you both.
·         You like friends who make you laugh or lift your spirits.
·         You appreciate friends who value you.

Unreasonable expectations in a friendship:

·         You meet someone and instantly think you have a bond that makes this person a best friend.
·         When you like people, you share your deepest darkest secrets and insecurities within a short time of meeting them.
·         When you click with someone, you expect to see them right away again so you can start hanging out.
·         When you need to vent, you expect your friend to listen no matter what.
·         When you're lonely, you expect your friends to be there for you no matter what's going on in their lives.[2]

The second list almost expects the person to be a servant who is always there for them, on their beck and call, and expects them to do a job without a sense of developing a relationship, without a sense of equality and mutuality.

So I started think about this list in relationship to God. At first that was hard. Why would it be wrong to see God as our instant best friend, our confidant for our deepest darkest secrets, the one who wants to spend every hour of every day with us, the one who lets us vent, and the one who is with us no matter what. Is it wrong to think of God that way?

As I thought about it, I looked at this scripture again. Does what Jesus says about his friendship with us suggest these are not the way to view God?

Yes and no. What Jesus says about friendship with him is that as friends we are expected to live in love, we are expected to keep the commandments. Love clearly wants to hear what another person has to say, love clearly is a safe place of sharing our hearts, and finding deep connection. Love wants to be with the other person. The relationship is much more complex than simply having Jesus at our beck and call at all times.

Also, love with obedience to the commandments has boundaries. If we use God just to vent our anger with others, we are not being loving toward those others. If God becomes our only friend with whom we spend all of our time at the exclusion of others, then we are not living fully the love we are called to. If we think God is always going to agree with everything we do, if we think God will not judge us or call us to accountability, then we have the wrong idea of God’s friendship. Sometimes friends are willing to challenge us.

Johnny Dean tells about the time when “Several years ago, a good friend and colleague in ministry came to visit me at the church I was serving in Memphis. After we exchanged greetings, he put his arm around my shoulders and said, "Johnny, you know I love you. That's why I have to tell you this." And he proceeded to gently, lovingly scold me for the way I had been handling a particular situation in the church. And he was absolutely right. I knew that the way I had been dealing with that situation was not the right way to handle it. My motivation was good, but my actions were wrong. And after he left, I knew that here was a friend who would stand beside me in tough times, because he loved me enough to risk damaging our friendship by confronting me with my mistake.”[3]

So as friends of Christ, he does have some higher expectations of us. He expects to be able to correct us and stay in relationship.

And so he actually expects a different type of obedience from us than he would from a servant. Rather than just doing what we are told, we are to be striving to please Christ because we love him, or we listen to him because we respect him and value his opinions. Our motivation for doing what we do as his friends is different than our motivation if we were just servants or followers.

Okay, so that was all interesting, but what are we supposed to do with it when we leave here. I think there are two things we can do with this knowledge that Christ is our friend.

First, it can change how we interact with God. It can change our motivations for obedience, for learning from God, and our expectations of God. God isn’t our servant subject to our whims, nor are we simply God’s servants, subject to the whims of God. We are beloved friends, who are valued by God and who value God, and our relationship with the divine starts there.

Secondly, our loving friendship with God has the potential to teach us to love as friends those who are our neighbors, our enemies, and all in between. As we discover the difference between treating God as a servant or receiving God as a friend; as we discover the difference between God treating us as a servant or receiving us as a friend, we begin to understand what it means to treat others as our friends – even those we might not immediately think of that way. We begin to remember that we are bound together by the bonds of friendship through Christ who is friends with both of ourselves and those others.

It really comes back to what George Hermanson said, “The phrase "no longer servants" changes the dynamic of personal relationships. It is a concept of equality.” That God would apply it to us is humbling and amazing. That we must likewise apply to others is the challenge of our lifetime and perhaps its greatest reward!

[1] Friendship by George Hermanson
[2] https://www.liveabout.com/what-are-your-friendship-expectations-1385629
[3] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., ChristianGlobe Illustrations, by Johnny Dean

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Sermon: Justice Was Taken Away From Him

Acts 8:26-40

The baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch reminds us that in Christ there is no room for racism, there is no room for oppression, there is no room for exclusion of people from the religious fellowship of our Lord and Savior. This African man is reading the book of Isaiah. Clearly he wants to know God, but he could not.

You see, the bible says a few different things about eunuchs. And I realize the topic makes us uncomfortable in many ways, but we need to get through it to understand the deeper message.

So, on the one hand the bible says in Isaiah 56:4-5, “For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” Unfortunately in another place it says in Deuteronomy 23:1 it also says: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” In Jesus’ day, the book of Deuteronomy held more sway and more importance than Isaiah and so that was the predominant view, eunuchs were forbidden from participating in religious life. So there is the first strike against this man who wants to know more about God.

Further, let’s be honest. There was a fear of foreigners in those days too. We didn’t start the foolishness of treating people differently because they came from a different place.

That has been around for a long time. Although evidence does suggest that the people of that time did not care much about a person’s skin color, they did care about their national origin. There are whole sections of scripture about not marrying foreign women, foreign people being forbidden from joining in the Passover and so on. But the whole idea of opening up religion to the gentiles, the non-Jews was on the cusp of emerging with the Apostle Paul. Unfortunately, it hadn’t happened yet. This passage is setting up the revolutionary ideas that Paul will bring over the next few pages of the book of Acts. So at this time, the Ethiopian would have been an outsider, a non-Jew.

So here he is: judged for being a eunuch and a gentile, and he is reading a passage in Isaiah, about a man who is humiliated, and who has justice taken away from him. My guess is that the man relates to him, and wants to know more about him. Who is this person who has an experience like mine?

Most of us, can on some level, understand what the Ethiopian eunuch is thinking and feeling. Most of us understand what it means to be the outsider, the one who is not welcomed, the one who is bullied or shunned, the one who is judged for things that are beyond our control. We have been there, we know what it is like.

Watch this video. [play Judged]

Most of us, can on some level understand what it means to be judged and excluded. Sometimes it is even at the hands of religious folk, people who are supposed to live their lives around the principles of love, that we receive the worst treatment. The video shows that well. But it is not how it should be.

In our biblical story what happens next for the man in the story is amazing. He is reading the passage aloud, and Philip overhears him. Philip immediately reaches out to him – this is new! A religious person who is crossing the barriers, who isn’t judging him. Philip then explains that the one that we as Christians follow, the Christ, was the one spoken of in the passage.

Sadly, we don’t get the exact explanation that Philip uses, but we can guess that he talks about how Jesus was unfairly tried, and yet how he gave himself up, like a sheep led to the slaughter, and then how God raised him from the dead. He probably explained further that in Jesus’ resurrection all of us who had no hope, all of us who did not find justice, all of us who were humiliated in this life are offered God’s love and acceptance. After all that is the good news.

So here is this man who has felt like he has never been treated justly by religious people, hearing for the first time that forgiveness is poured out, shame is erased, and new life is given to us. He can be welcomed in the assembly of the Lord. The words of the other passage in Isaiah are finally going to be heard for him – there is a place and an everlasting name for him. Hearing this from Philip, the Ethiopian man immediately wants to be baptized. And I don’t blame him. After being mistreated and cast out, here he is being offered a chance to belong and be a part of God’s people – of course he wants to join!

Like I said at the beginning of the sermon. This passage reminds us that the good news of Jesus Christ is that there is more than one way of reading the bible and it’s laws. It can be read through the lens of separation from God, of holy purity only available for a select few, like the Pharisees that Jesus often argued with.

Or it can be read through the lens of Jesus’ grace which welcomes the sinners and the outcast. This passage suggests that as Christians we are to read it that scripture the second way – that we are to open the doors of the assembly to all people who want to learn God’s ways, who want to grow in their relationship with God, who want to be in covenant with God. That there is no excuse for racism or exclusion of people based upon their nationality, nor are we to judge those who love God.

For those of us who have been humiliated at any time, for those of us who have been unloved, unaccepted, unwelcomed; this is what we refer to as amazing grace! Through Christ, who also experienced suffering, injustice and humiliation, there is a place for us in Christ’s church. This is the good news, and it should so inspire us that we immediately respond, “What is stopping me from being baptized?” What is stopping me from being part of the assembly of the Lord? To which Christ answers – “nothing”, not even Deuteronomy.

And that is a pretty radical statement. It is no wonder that the Pharisees did not like the Christians – they were challenging scripture itself by suggesting that we interpret it through a new lens. A lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection. A lens of grace rather a lens of law. It becomes the great foundation for Paul’s life work, for his writing, and quite honestly is still one of our greatest struggles in the church.

Yet, the death and resurrection should have the final word. When love and injustice collide, love should be our choice. When grace and law collide, grace wins. When we are caught being judgment and acceptance, Christ still accepts us. We are here only by love and grace, we must allow others the same. To celebrate that – we are going to sing about the one who sets us free, the chain breaker that Philip explained to the Ethiopian that day. The one who welcomes us into the Assembly of the Lord, our savior Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sermon: Through The Valley

Psalm 23

One of the most powerful phrases in the well-known 23rd Psalm is “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” Let’s talk about that valley of the shadow of death.

Kristin Cooper King tells a powerful story about how her husband was killed by a distracted driver.

“In December 2009, my husband, Chris Cooper, and I were in a car accident that took his life. Through the grace of God, I survived the accident, but am having to learn to live my life without Chris. This blog is about my journey - as a young widow, a single mother to a beautiful 2 year old girl, and a true believer that God's hand is directing my days.”[1]

In her blog posts she reflects on that first year and its struggles. She talks about the heartbreak and struggle of that time and how hard it is to put into words, how at times it is hard to believe that he is no longer with them. What she feels at one week from his death, one month, one year. At one month she also talks about God’s presence in that valley time.

Let me warn you, I cried as I read it the first time, so no promises here as I share this with you: “On Sunday, my parents took Colleen to run errands and left me here to rest. I ended up not sleeping, but here in the office - his room. I took that time to do something that I had been putting off. I spent almost 2 hours reading all of the Facebook messages that people have sent me over the last month. I went to Chris’ fan page, read all of the entries, and re-watched the video from the memorial service for the first time. I logged into his old hotmail account, and read a folder of emails that he had saved from when we were first dating – over 6 years ago. And I let myself weep. I wept for myself, for Colleen, for our families. I wept for his friends, who loved him like a brother. I wept for the life that we could have had.”

“As I wept, I was listening to a song that someone had reminded me of right after the accident. It’s a song that I have heard before, but have never really had the context to understand. The song is a prayer, and as I listened I prayed her words. I prayed that God would lead me through this valley, this fire, to the life that he has promised. I prayed and asked for strength, the strength to not to have to understand, but just to know that God’s heart is full of love, and that he will never leave me. As I write this now, I can’t help but cry – but I don’t feel alone.”[2]

I’m not done yet, because where I first heard about Kristin was through her Poem “Through the Valley”. It is deeply powerful, and expresses just how hard it is to walk through that valley of the shadow of death, and yet just how much hope God’s light brings us in those darkest times.

I’ve walked through the valley. I’ve seen the shadow
the death.
I’ve had my life ripped apart at the seams. Stolen from
me in an instant.

I’ve lived through the days when I could only take
one step at a time. One foot in front of the other. One
minute. One second. Without being able to think farther

I’ve walked through the valley. It’s an ugly place. It’s
dark and cold. The mountains are high on each side.
Tall and forbidding. Too high to climb.

The path is windy ahead. It curves where I can’t see.
Each day I make it a little farther. I sleep alone. I’m

But there’s a tiny flame inside my heart. A first it is the
tiniest flicker. From the first moment I can feel it. As
cold and scared and dark as it is I can feel the burn in
my heart.

The flame brings peace. Comfort. Light.

The flame leads me. Shows me the way to the green
pastures of my home and the still waters of my family.
The flame anoints me with the warmth of love.

I cling to the flame. I seek it. Tend it. And it grows.

It can’t carry me out of the valley. That job is mine. But
it lights my path. Guides my feet. Stays with me. Protects
me from my fears. And day by day, step by step,
it leads me.

Outside of the valley there is a life waiting for me. A
life overflowing with goodness. A life full of mercy and
love. It’s my job to take the steps. But I’ll never be alone.[3]

Kristin learned: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For you are with me.”

But let’s keep looking “Through the Valley” is also the title of a memoir by William Reeder Jr. He was a senior captain on his second tour of Vietnam, flying OV-1 Mohawks on secret missions. While providing support to forces, his chopper went down and he was captured and held as a POW. What he faced was unimaginable. His accounts are not for the squeamish. And yet, if you look at the title of his book, Through the Valley, it is meant to be a reference to the valley of death in the 23rd Psalm. You see, at one point he finds himself mentally reciting what he can remember from the psalm, and it is primarily this one line that comes to him.[4] It helps him so that through it all he never lost hope, his faith would not die. It reminded him that the darkest valleys still have light. His book is not primarily a book about faith, and yet he talks about this moment of faith inspires him, and that inspires his title. It is what reminds him that the shadows do not win.

When we walk through the valley’s, when our hearts are broken, God is there to walk with us and light the way. They valleys need not defeat us, the troubles of life need not overcome us.

No! Rather, as the psalmist says, “I will fear no evil”. It echoes what Paul says to us in Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God: not death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. (Romans 8:38-39)

Yes, the valleys are real, they are dark. There is very real evil in them, and very real danger. Our lives have these valleys, they are often unavoidable.

But they need not defeat us, for God’s love is stronger than the valley’s. God is not just God when things are going well, not just when we are on the mountaintop and we have joy and peace, but God is also God in the valleys, and God’s presence is just as real in the low points of life. And just in case we do not believe it, all we have to do is look at Christ. Even though he walks through the valley of death, not the shadow of death, but actually through death itself; God walks with him. God loves him, and that love is so strong that Christ’s death is not the end. There will be resurrection.

Likewise when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, whether because someone near to us has died, or because we are near death, or even when it feels like all of our dreams have died and hope is gone, or we feel like we are walking alone through a dark time in life – remember this psalm which begins by saying “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” At the very least remember this one line, like William Reeder Jr. did -- “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For you are with me.”

God is indeed with you. Always. Even through the valleys.

[1] http://kristinwcooper.blogspot.com/
[2] http://kristinwcooper.blogspot.com/2010/02/i-will-go-through-valley-12610.html
[3] By Kristin, Cooper King, Seasons of the Spirit, 2018
[4] p. 66 chapter 7.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Sermon: Grace Is A Quiver Full of Arrows

Mark 9:2-9

The title of the sermon is from a phrase I read in the Seasons of the Spirit commentary. One of the things that the authors of that commentary remind us is that the Greek word for sin is hamartia. This word is also an archery term for letting the arrow fly and “missing the mark.” This was not new to me, but it was worth reflecting upon again.

How often do we miss the mark in life? I do it far too often. I strive for perfection to hit that bullseye, and sometimes when I am as lucky as this kid, I do.

Other times, I am not quite so amazing, and in the archery metaphor, I hit the next ring out, close but not quite a bullseye. But then, oh, then there are those shots in life that I let loose, and everyone should be running for the hills, because I didn’t even hit the bales of hay that support the target. I have let go an errant shot, an oopsy-daisy, a total and completely bungled attempt. Remember we are not really talking about archery here, we are talking about sin – about messing up in life.

How many of you remember the story of Roy Riegels from the University of California Berkley football team? It was the 1929 Rose Bowl and well, here is the video.


Interestingly, ESPN doesn’t tell the best part of the story. And it is what happened at half-time. In the locker room at halftime Roy Riegels sat in the corner with his face buried in his hands. Riegels was so distraught that he had to be talked into returning to the game for the second half. Roy said "Coach, I can't do it. I've ruined you, I've ruined myself, I've ruined the University of California. I couldn't face that crowd to save my life." Nibs Price the coach said, "Roy, get up and go back out there — the game is only half over."

And after the game, Coach Price defended Riegels, saying "It was an accident that might have happened to anyone."

So back to the very beginning of my sermon: the title. Grace, according to the commentary I mentioned that talks about about sin as missing the mark, grace is not just that God forgives us for the bad shot, but that God gives us a quiver full of arrows and says try again. I had never heard it expressed like that before. It was like it was saying: Get back out there, the game is only half over.

Grace is God saying take another shot, and another, until you get it right. Grace is a quiver full of arrows, a quiver full of chances.

I thought that that was a powerful image. I may fail today, I may fail tomorrow, but with God’s help, one day I am going to get it right! And not just because I was lucky, but because God has been patient enough to lead me toward perfection.

That is how Jesus treats Thomas on this day. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the disciples and he simply refuses to believe that Jesus could be alive. His belief arrow flew sideways and was nowhere near the target. Not that I blame him. I probably would be the same way. It is rather hard to believe a group of guys isn’t pulling your leg when they say they saw someone risen from the dead while you were out. I mean, come on. But despite the fact that Thomas’ disbelief made complete sense, he was wrong. Jesus was alive, and Thomas couldn’t see it. It was like he was running the wrong way down the field, heading away from the truth. The resurrection had happened, and Thomas’ reaction was off the mark.

But Christ gives him another chance and appears again, this time while Thomas is present. He even invites Thomas to put his hands on his hands and feel the wounds. Christ is giving him every opportunity to correct his mistaken belief, and of course, Thomas gets it right. He believes. He realizes that he was wrong, he admits it, and he acknowledges Christ as his Lord and his God.

So if I think about my life, if I think of myself as the Thomas of this bible passage: I am sure that there are a thousand arrows that I have fired that have missed the target. Everything from the way I have treated people, to the things I have said, to the beliefs that I hold. What this passage tells me, is that despite the fact that I have been wrong, despite the fact that I am running the wrong way down the field, despite the fact that I have missed the mark: God isn’t finished with me yet. (Can I get an Amen?)

By grace God has given me a quiver full of arrows to try again. Thank you, Lord!

Although some of you may be so thankful, because here’s the thing, when I sin, I know that some of you get hit by my errant shots and hurt.

And I do apologize for that, I really never mean to harm anyone, it’s just I’m still not very good at this archery of life. I’m still working toward perfection, I’m not there yet.

And while Jesus grants us the grace to try again, and it can be hard for us to give people that same grace, especially if they have harmed us with one of their failed shots. I mean who gives another arrow to the person that just shot them? So it is really interesting, in this passage, that Jesus actually specifically addresses how we forgive others. He says, that what we forgive on earth, those sins are forgiven; but then he goes a step further, and says the sins we don’t forgive on earth, they aren’t forgiven. So you all have a lot of power. I am depending upon your forgiveness for my peace. Oh, I am not alone, this applies to us all.

Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that we are all still learners, still working on getting it right in God’s eyes, and that we all need a little patience and a lot of forgiveness until we get it right. Then he uses Thomas as an example for how we should deal with others – with patient correction and careful instruction. With a willingness to walk alongside them as they try to get it right. Without judgment or anger. Without taking personal offense at what they have done, but leading them to the truth.

In summary: This teaching from Jesus is wonderfully good news for us when we get it wrong, when we miss the mark.

He is offering us another chance, to get back in the game and to try again. But the teaching is also a challenge to us to offer the same forgiveness to others that Christ offers to us. To forgive 70 times seven times, to forgive the quiver of failures that others let loose, and to strive to help them get closer to the mark. To forgive as we have been forgiven, and love as we have been loved.