God is Speaking!

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Last Saturday, Brandon and I cuddled up on our gigantic couch in the family room, turned on Netflix, and proceeded to binge watch an entire season of a new show.
There was no waiting to see what would happen next… the episode played automatically.
There were no spoilers, because the series, Altered Carbon, had just come out and there wasn’t any buzz about it yet.
We just curled up, stuffed our faces with popcorn, and had the opportunity to experience the entire wild ride.

That is very different from how we used to watch television.
I can still remember in seminary how obsessed I was with Grey’s Anatomy. On Fridays, a girlfriend and I would meet for coffee and we would recap the previous nights episode. There had been one particularly harrowing cliff-hanger and to spend an entire week waiting to see what would come next felt brutal. We spent most of our time debating whether or not we wanted to go online and glimpse at the spoilers on the fan sites to get a clue as to how the situation might turn out.
In the end, we decided we wouldn’t be able to concentrate on our class work if we didn’t know if the character lived or died… We were invested in the story, in the people… as ridiculous as it sounds, we needed some kind of hope, some glimpse that things were going to be okay. So we sought out every single spoiler alert we could find.

Over these past few weeks, we have ever so briefly followed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In reality, we’ve only scratched the surface, living mainly in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. And already, we’ve encountered God, watched ordinary people become disciples, and have witnessed any number of miracles of healing.
The gospel of Mark moves so quickly from one moment to the next… just like those episodes on Netflix play automatically and keep you engaged for just one more…. In fact – I bet if you went home after worship today and opened your bible you’d find that reading through Mark is a breeze and it would be over before you realized it.
We find out Jesus has the power to not only cast out demons and heal, but to calm the waters and miraculously produce food out of crumbs. Like any great season of television, the energy is building towards triumph and freedom and release over the first eight chapters of Mark’s gospel.

And then we get to chapter 8.
As we reach the very end, Jesus begins to teach the disciples that the path towards victory and life and God’s salvation for all people was a journey through death.
He began to warn them about the suffering and rejection and brutal punishment that awaited.
And it was not an easy message to swallow. Peter even had the audacity to scold Jesus for saying such things.
Yet, this was the path before them.

Imagine, for just a moment, that you are in the very last episode of the season and THIS was the dialogue that was taking place.
You begin to realize that the next part of this story was going to look very different than the first. What was full of joy and celebration and miracles is going to be darker and more dangerous.
You are now invested in this journey, you’ve left everything you have to follow Jesus and now the path looks so different…
How are you going to make it through to the next season?
How are you going to manage the wait and the anxiety and the unknowing?

And so before this part of the story ends, Jesus shares with a few of the disciples a gigantic spoiler alert.
He takes them up the mountain and as they reach the summit, Jesus moves a few paces ahead and then turns around to face them.
And as he does – he changes before their eyes!
His whole body seems to radiate with an inexplicable glory and even his clothes shine brighter than the sun.
Just as the three disciples begin to adjust their eyes to this brilliance they see two figures appear beside their Master… two figures who could only be Moses and Elijah.
As Peter and James and John cower in fear and trembling before this amazing visage – the three figures have a conversation.
Now, if I’m Peter, if I have been learning at the feet of Jesus for a few months, if I have been a part miracles that have taken place, and if I’m led up to the top of a mountain where my teacher suddenly begins to glow and radiate glory… and if I am terrified to face a path of suffering and rejection… then I might grab a hold of this moment and think that THIS was what they had been preparing for.
He interrupts them, offers to build shrines and temples, essentially trying to re-direct the entire journey and turn season two of this story into a show on top of the mountain.

But that is NOT why they are there.
A cloud overshadowed the trio of disciples like a fog rolling in. The glory of Jesus, Moses and Elijah was concealed by the dense cloud and in a rumble of thunderous glory the voice of God spoke to their hearts: This is my Son, This is my Beloved! Listen to him!
Just as quickly as the cloud moved it, it dissipated, and the three bewildered and terrified disciples opened their eyes to find their teacher Jesus, standing before them alone. With hardly a word, apart from telling them not to talk about what they had seen until after the resurrection, Jesus leads them back down the mountain.

I can vividly remember pouring over still images on websites with my friend, trying to guess what was going to happen next in our favorite show based on a few glimpses. We would speculate based on the characters or where they were standing or what else was present in the background and try to make meaning out of the signs so we had something to hold on to.

In many ways, this brief moment on the mountaintop was that kind of spoiler alert, giving the disciples something to hang on to.
The voice of God rang out, shaking them to their very core, and reminded them that God’s power and purpose was present in their teacher, Jesus.
The presence of Moses and Elijah, affirmed that the law and the prophets were being fulfilled in the ministry of the Son of God. Everything they had been taught and believed about the restoration of Israel… of all creation… would come to pass.
And, it was a reminder that even though the next part of this story would look different, they had a glimpse of the light and the glory that would give them hope on dark days.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus has now set his face towards Jerusalem. They were leaving behind the healing and the teaching and were heading straight towards the seat of power… not to be a force that would overthrow it violently, but through a display of righteous love.
They didn’t quite understand what the resurrection meant… but they saw a glimpse, a spoiler, of the things to come, that they could hold on to when the going got tough.

We were never called to build tents and tabernacles to enshrine these moments forever.
This story is not yet finished.
We have to keep working.
We have to keep seeing what changes need to be made.
We have to keep hearing the voice of God speaking into our lives.
And that means coming down from the mountain, rolling up our sleeves, and getting to work.

After all, that is what Jesus did.
The light of glory revealed on the mountaintop was meant for the world.
And Jesus knew that for that light to dwell within each of us, he was going to have to shine even in the darkest places of the world.
He was going to have to confront evil powers.
He was going to have to withstand betrayal and abuse.
He was going to have to carry his cross and enter the grave of death.
But he did it all so that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God could shine on us.

Unlike the disciples, we know how this next part of the story ends. We’ve seen our way through Jerusalem, through the cross, and have watched countless generations listen to God’s call to let their light shine.
What we sometimes forget is that we can’t stay on the mountaintop either.
This is not simply a story we curl up on our couches to experience.
Our season, our part of this journey is still being written.
And God is still speaking and still calling us to follow Jesus.

So as we enter the season of Lent, we, too, will set our faces towards Jerusalem.
This Wednesday, we will remember our mortality and our own journey through death with a cross of ashes on our foreheads.
We will once again have the opportunity to redefine ourselves in the light of the one who came to save us.
Over these coming weeks, we’ll explore what it means for Christ to be our hero and our savior and perhaps we will discover all over again what it means to be a disciple.
Friends, let us come down from the mountain where we have tried to wrap up our faith with a neat and tidy bow. A whole new season is beginning and this time you are ones God is calling to let your light shine.

Sometimes… God’s will can kiss my @$$

This week started out rough.  I thought I had an inkling about something very amazing about to happen – but it was going to bring a whole lot of added stress into my life as well.  I spent three whole days psyching myself up about it – so much so that I had pretty much accepted it was going to happen and was excited.

I had a moment however on Monday night when I realized I should pray about it.   I realized that just because I, personally, wanted this to happen, did not mean it was the best thing in the world for me or my ministry or my family.  And that’s kind of what I preached about on Sunday, so I figured I had better take my own advice.  or Paul’s advice.  whichever.

So… I committed to not only praying about it, but that the next morning I was going to ask the small group at the church to pray with me that God’s will would be done in said situation.

Tuesday morning at 8:45, the news came.  It wasn’t going to happen.  The thing I had suddenly been excited for wasn’t going to work out.  End of story.

(I know I’m being cryptic here… but bear with me… sometimes we can’t tell all of our secrets!)

 

I wrestle at times with making firm statements about God’s will.  John Piper has recieved a lot of flack this past week for claiming that the tornadoes that ripped through the lower midwest and southeast were God’s will.  I tend to hesitate when making proclamations about nature.  I hesitate when one person who prayed fervently was spared and another who prayed fervently was killed.  I do believe that God acts and moves among us.  I do believe that God is present with us in every situation.  But do sometimes things just happen?  Does nature just run its course sometimes?  Our sinful decisions have consequences and sometimes we have to blame ourselves rather than God.

But then there are all of these places in the scriptures where God brings out the battering ram and thunder and lightning and seems to lay the smack down.  I would not for one minute say that God doesn’t have the power/ability/just reasons to unleash holy terror.  Heck, I try to be benevolent and good and sometimes I want to call down a thunderbolt or two upon my youth!  (just kidding… I love you guys… most of the time!)

All of that to say, I never know what to do about God’s will.  I don’t know when to claim something was God’s will or not.  I am not always sure how to discern God’s will.

In our weekly lenten study, I shared that one the greatest tools we have available to us in the Wesleyan tradition are the means of grace: prayer, bible study, christian conferencing, communion, tithing, visiting the sick and in prison, etc…  But we have to DO them in a way that really focuses our attention to God.  We can’t go through the motions.  For an example: When I put my money in the offering plate, I have to say to God – I’m giving this to you… I’m trusting you with it… I’m trusting that you will help me to be faithful with it and all of my resources.  It’s not just about doing our “duty” – its about learning to truly depend upon God.  It is about aligning ourselves with God’s will.

And I have been trying to do that.  I have been trying to trust and pray and listen a whole lot more intentionally lately.

So when I decided Monday night that I truly wanted God’s will to be done… I meant it.  And I meant it that I was going to ask others to pray with me.  I truly wanted to know God’s will.  I wanted that to be the guide for this situation.

And on Tuesday morning… I didn’t like the answer I got.

In other times in my life, I wouldn’t have even thought about God.  I would have thought about how dumb the situation was. I would have had a little pity party for myself.  But because I was trying so hard to listen, the simple reality of God’s will smacked me upside the head.

I don’t like it.  I’m not sure I completely understand.  I wish the answer would change.  And part of me really does want to say, “kiss my @$$,” and go do my own thing.

But if anything, this time of Lent has taught me, personally, that our lives are not our own.  If I want to follow Jesus – I have to follow him all the way.  And that means there are some really good things in this world that I don’t need.

Tonight, we sang in worship a really upbeat version of  – “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  It can be sung SO slow, but Lent has been all about joy, so we just owned it and sang it with some gusto.  It was a reminder that I may not like God’s will, but I have decided to follow.  I have decided to keep the cross before me.  And I’m not turning back.  I can do this with God’s help.  I truly believe that God will help me.  So be it.  Amen.

Narrowing our Focus

This week, we continue our journey with the Corinthians. As we learn together from their mistakes, we can overcome some of the roadblocks and realities we face as a church.

Last week, we talked about how mishandled conflict can divide the church and even in seasons of peace… like we are experiencing now… past conflict can still leave residue on our lives… it can make us timid to engage, it can leave us tired and worn out, and it stifles creativity within the church.

We talked about how in a culture of winners and losers, we are called to be neither – we are called to be foolish. We are called to let the Cross of Christ guide our lives.

Today – we continue with that idea of holy foolishness.

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1:18)

As Paul continues to write to the Corinthians, he notes that there are a whole lot of ideas floating around in the world.

In Paul’s day, some were calling for miraculous proof for truth in the world. Some looked to philosophy and wisdom as the basis for their life.

But God doesn’t work in either of those ways, Paul writes. God turns each of them upside down and it’s God’s weakness – not his power – that saves… it’s his folly – not his wisdom – that gives life.

Let’s read between the lines a little bit in this letter.

Let’s try to imagine what was going on in Corinth that made these statements necessary.

Those who first responded to the call of God there established a little faith community for themselves.

And then they looked out upon their friends and neighbors, family and business acquaintances and they wanted to figure out how to share this message of God with them.

Now… this big group of people were not all the same. Some were men, some were women. Some were Jewish, some were Greek. Some were rich, some were poor. Some were young, some were old.

And I think what happened, is that everyone disagreed about who was most important to reach out to first.

They did not have a shared vision or understanding about what God was calling them to do…

Kind of like this church:

Those Corinthians each had their own idea about what was going to work, and so they went out into the world and started sharing this amazing Good News about God.

In many ways – each of those ideas discussed around that building committee table were good ideas… Each person had a group in mind that needed to hear the gospel and so they were planning on building this sanctuary, or gym, or coffee shop… whatever it took to reach that specific group of people.

But I think that what we have to do is stop and back up a second.

What happened when the Corinthians tried to do this?  What happened when they made assumptions about their neighbors and tried to custom tailor the message for everyone?  What happened when each person went their own way and they tried to do a thousand different things at once?

They thought… If the Jews want signs, maybe we’ll put on big spectacles! That will draw them in.

They thought… If the Greeks want wisdom, we’ll have long conversations and ignore the the gospel.

Everyone went off and did their own thing and the Good News became torn into pieces and watered down and no longer had any power or punch. It started to look exactly like what everyone else was doing.
Everywhere they went, the message failed.

The people were discouraged.

Someone realized that Jesus was no longer being preached… and they wrote to Paul for help.

I can imagine in this letter to Paul that we have never seen, that someone writes: We give up. We wanted to share the gospel with people, so we came up with all of these ways of reaching out and we started doing what everyone else was doing… but it’s not working.  People keep turning us down and we are exhausted.  We give up.
What is Paul’s response?

He reminds them that they are called to be foolish. They are called to be laughing-stocks of the community.
They aren’t called to change their message with every shifting wind that comes along.
What they are preaching doesn’t make any sense to the people of the world… but they are supposed to keep preaching it anyways.

What Paul does here is he gives them a common, unified vision. He gives them something to stand on, something to be unified with.

The world may not understand you, Paul writes, but you need to stick with the message of the gospel anyways. You need to figure out what it is that you guys really stand for and are about and let that guide you.

You see, its not just division that comes by throwing our lot in with specific people that gets us into trouble… saying, “I’m of Paul” or “I’m of Apollos”… it’s also the fact that we can’t agree on who we are supposed to reach out to and how we are supposed to do it.

Paul keeps telling them to be foolish, because he is asking them to make the cross of Christ the center of all that they do.

He is asking them to believe in their future, to believe in the direction God is pushing them, to hold fast to the vision of what awaits them.

Hold fast to the cross… because it is there at the cross that life and death meet. And it is there at the cross that life wins.

Hold fast to who God has called you to be, no matter what the outside world thinks.

Hold fast.

Paul is asking the church in Corinth, and Paul is asking us to articulate a clear and compelling vision.

Without a vision to unify us, we will always react to everything the world throws at us. We will try to build gymnasiums and coffee shops just because everyone else has one. We will buy into the latest fad and sell off Jesus just to get a few more people in our doors.

That is not our goal.

Our goal is faithful living to the gospel of Christ.

Our goal is to live the kingdom life right now – even if it isn’t fully here yet.

Our goal is to love and forgive in a world where it is popular to get revenge.

Our goal is to sacrifice for others in a world where people think only for themselves.

Our goal is to gather around a table and eat the bread of Christ and the cup of heaven and as we do so to participate in a heavenly banquet. All of that is complete foolishness to the world… but it is who we are called to be.

A colleage from an online preaching forum wrote: We are willing to believe practically anything on Sunday morning in church, but we aren’t likely to keep acting on it come Monday because it’s so foolish by the world’s standards. (Betsy)

And she is right. When we do not share a vision. When we do not let that vision guide everything that we do, we’ll change as soon as we step outside of those doors. We’ll go back to the ways of the world. We’ll change with the winds. We’ll lose who we are supposed to be.

In these next few months, our church is listening for what that vision is. We are joining together in prayer and study to hear God speaking. To hear what specifically God wants us to do.

Not what some famous author wants us to do.

Now what the culture says we should do.

But what God wants us to do. Right here. Right now.

May God speak. And May we hear.

The Winners, The Losers, and The Foolish

A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did moved toward solving the impasse.
Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue’s 99-year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles.
“So tell me,” he pleaded, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?”
“No,” answered the old rabbi.
” Ah,” responded the younger man, “then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?”
“No,” answered the old rabbi.
“Well,” the young rabbi responded, “what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream.”
“Ah,” said the old man, “that was the tradition.”

As we reflected together at our Conference on the Past back in October, and as I have been in conversations with many of you… conflict was the tradition of this church as well.

For many years… even when the pews were filled… there was a sense of competition, tug-of-war, a sense of unease as this congregation was pushed and pulled from one end of the political spectrum to another and back again… from laity empowered ministry to pastor-in-charge ways of doing ministry to times without a pastor altogether.
How many of you have felt like this church has sometimes been on a roller coaster?
I cannot speak for our past Bishops or our leadership or the Holy Spirit… because I know very well that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways… But I do want to say that no matter who has been sent to lead this congregation what really matters is not the pastor up front, but each of you.
That was one nugget that a few of you shared with me over these past few months. That in spite of everything that this congregation has been through – maybe because of everything that this congregation has been through – you have realized that the people sitting around you are who really matter.
Like that Jewish congregation of sitters and standers, no matter what your differences, you still get together and you still come together to worship and serve.

I think what we can all admit about the past, however, is that there have been times of winners and losers, folks who have gotten their way and those that didn’t, people who stayed and people who left.

As we continue on this “Come to the Table” journey, we are entering a time when we want to find out just what is on our plate. We want to discover what’s going on here in this church right now, but also what is happening out there in the world.

As we walk with the church at Corinth, they will help us to understand that many of the problems we face today are problems people of faith have been facing for thousands of years.

There may not be much comfort in that… but at least we have good company!

The first reality we must face, the first course on our dinner plate, if you will… is conflict.

As soon as Paul finishes praising God for all of the potential that this congregation has, he launches into a plea that the people of Corinth would stop fighting with one another.
“In the name of Jesus,” Paul writes, “you must get along with each other! You must learn to be considerate of one another and cultivate a life in common.” (message paraphrase)
He sees among them a whole lot of folks vying for their piece of the pie, wrestling for the spotlight, people who believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong. He sees people who really do want to be faithful… but they are putting all of their eggs in the wrong basket. They think that to be faithful they have to be on the winning team.
So they pick sides. They follow Apollos or Cephas. They throw their lot in with Paul. Some of them even go around saying, “to heck with all this division… I’m following Jesus!” And in doing so, they only stoke the fires of competition even more. It’s like playing a trump card.
Photo by: Philippe Ramakers

But you know what… they aren’t using that trump card in order to actually be more faithful to Jesus… they are doing it to put others down. “I’m a Christian and you’re not” they seem to be saying.

In the worldly realm of politics, we understand how this works. There are winners and losers on each issue, there is competition for money and time and we don’t care who gets run over in the process. We don’t care who our words hurt or what we do to our nation in the process.

And it is sad to say that sometimes that spirit gets into our churches as well. Paul saw it happening in Corinth… and before it got too bad, he wanted to set things right again.

Paul was aware that this continuous practice of win/lose behaviors ends up exacting a high cost. Listen and see if any of these sound familiar:
  •  Sometimes it causes people who actually do have great leadership skills to sit in the background and keep quiet. They simply do not want to enter the fray.
  • Sometimes, we are so hurt by past conflict between winners and losers that we are afraid to disagree with anyone, and so a diversity of opinion is lost.
  • Sometimes, confidence disappears.
  • Sometimes, anxiety that comes from past hostility seeps into our current conversations and tiny differences are intensified and exaggerated.
  • Sometimes, we are unable to discern creative solutions to our problems because we are afraid of trying something new and failing.

Even when a church finds itself back on healthy ground… even when the fruits of the spirit and running rampant in our midst… the residue from those past conflicts can stick around for a while. We are so tired of having winners and losers, that we simply choose not to participate… or when we do, we are timid, and afraid to say what we really think.

 I think the first thing we need to see when we confront this reality that is before us is that conflict… in and of itself… is not bad.
Jill Sanders once told me that conflict is simply two ideas co-existing in the same space. Whenever you have community, you will have conflict. You will have differences of opinion. You will have perspectives that offer different solutions.
Conflict is not bad. It is necessary. It sparks change. It leads to growth. We can’t learn without conflict.
How we deal with conflict is a completely different story. If we quickly chose a side and fight to the death, we are repeating old patterns and will lead to our ruin.
God gives us another way. God has formed us as the church by the Holy Spirit so that we can show the world how to be a people of truth, peace, wholeness and holiness. We can show the world that you can have conflict, without competition, violence and war.
The second thing we need to see, confronted with this reality, is that we have a standard by which to judge all of our conflicts. It isn’t the side of the winners… it isn’t the side that has the most money… it isn’t the side that is even right.
As Paul writes to the church of Corinth:
The good news that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer foolishness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation… it makes perfect sense. (message paraphrase).

The cross is what unifies us. The cross is our standard. The cross of Christ, his life, death and resurrection, should be the focus of all of our decisions.

So faced with a conflict, faced with difference, we are called to look to the cross. We are called to love as Christ loved… sacrificially. We are called to die to our old ways and take up the ways of our resurrected one. We are Easter people. We are people of hope. We are people who love the unloveable and forgive the unforgiveable. We are called to find a way through the chaos… and we do it through the cross.
And sometimes that makes us look like fools by worldly standards.
But it is what we are called to.
We are called to not just follow in name only- but to actually become the name of Christ… to let the cross of Christ transform us. To make ourselves different. To be the crucified and risen body of Christ in the world… to go to those who suffer and suffer with them, to bring healing and hope through Christ’s love and to share the good news of the salvation of the world…

Are Ye Able?

I have just two simple questions for us to wrestle with this morning… First – what do you want? And second – are you willing to do what it takes to get it?

What do you want? And are you willing to do what it takes to get it?

Now – let’s be honest with one another… how many of you first thought of something you really want like a new car or a new house or retirement to come early? Show of hands =)

I hate to disappoint you all this morning, but I’m not one of those fancy television preachers that can promise fame and fortune and personal success if you just pray hard enough. Sorry.

No, I’m asking these questions – not because together they are the key to unlock a world of personal gain… but because they ask us if we are willing to lose everything.

What do you want? And are you willing to do what it takes to get it?

Some time ago, I had my congregation make a list of the five most important things in their lives. I asked them to write them down and to number them in order of importance.

I think that all of us found the task very difficult. While it might be easy to list those things that are really and truly important to us – our families, our work, our education, our faith – to place one of these things above the other, to make those kinds of choices is hard. It is hard because it means that some things in life – some things that we truly love – have to be placed second. Or third. Or stop becoming a part of our lives all together.

This morning, we are talking about allegiances, about priorities, and what we do when those priorities conflict.

As much as we love to talk about freedom here in the United States, the truth is, we are always, every day, constrained by choices. We are always, every day, limited in our ability to do one thing, because we have chosen to put another thing first. Whether it is our jobs or our families or a certain value like freedom itself – we live our lives so that that thing determines all of our actions.

Our courageous men and women in uniform understand this choice. Just as they are working tirelessly to defend the freedoms of others – they must sacrifice and put their own families on the back burner.

New moms and dads can attest to this fact – when a baby comes into your life – everything else stops. That infant child becomes the highest priority in the world to you… above work, about yourself, above everything.

And for most of us, we do that, we prioritize one thing over another because we truly love it. We love it so much that we would be willing to do ANYTHING for it.

We understand the word “sacrifice” when it comes to our jobs or our families…

But how often do we understand the word sacrifice when it comes to our faith?

I was driving around recently and caught a segment from BBC World News on the radio. It was a story about how the peace talks between Israel and Palestine are being perceived in Israel itself. One of the men being interviewed said very adamantly – I want peace, but I don’t want to surrender.

As I kept listening to him say those words: I want peace, but I don’t want to surrender, I found myself so frustrated by this attitude that says the only peace that is acceptable is the one that comes on my terms.

And I realized how often God must be frustrated with us… because we make the same choice. The only faith that is acceptable to us is the one that comes on our terms.

We want to be Christians, but we don’t want to surrender the things of this world.

Today in Luke’s gospel, Christ teaches us that we can’t have it both ways.

We can’t hang on to our own desires or hopes or dreams or things and also follow Christ.

We have to answer the question – What do you want? And are you willing to do what it takes to get there?

Do you want to be a disciple of Jesus? And if so, are you willing to do what it takes?

Photo by Michaela Kobyakov
Jesus looks out upon the crowd and asks us some questions. If you were going to build a house, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out the supplies you needed and how much money it would cost? You don’t want to be stuck with a building you can’t complete? If you were a president going off to war, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out how many troops you needed and how much money it would take? And if it was a fight you didn’t have the resources to win, wouldn’t you go to the other leader and surrender?

Take stock, Jesus tells us. I know you want to be my disciples – but are you willing to do what it takes to be one? Count the costs. Are they burdens that you are willing to bear?

Are you willing to hate your father and mother and spouse and child? Are you willing to give up your job and your security? Are you willing to give up your citizenship and your rights? Are you willing to lay it all on the line to follow me?

Hesitantly, we say yes – I want to be a Christian… but we wonder about where that line is.

You see, we draw our lines in very different places than Jesus would draw lines.

We draw lines around our family and say – I’m not willing to sacrifice this. Or we draw lines around our jobs – and will sacrifice it all for the next paycheck. We draw lines in the sand and say that this particular issue – whether it’s abortion or animal rights or Islamic religious centers or the creation of a Palestinian state – this issue is the most important thing and that we will never give up until we have gotten our way and if you stand outside of that line then you are the enemy. We refuse to surrender. We refuse to give in. And in the end, I think we loose it all.

Because you know what – Christ draws a line. He doesn’t draw it around our houses or cars or children or institutions or issues – but he draws it right down the center of our lives.

Remember, Christ turns the world as we know it upside down. To save your life, you must lose it. To be exulted, you must be humbled. To be first, you must be last.

Nowhere in the gospel does it say that if you go to church on Sundays and the rest of the week work really hard at your job and raise a good family then someday after you die you’ll go to this happy and wonderful place called Heaven. I wish it did, but it simply doesn’t.

No, the gospel tells us that we must hate our parents and our spouses and children and put it all on the line and bear our crosses – and then we will be his disciples.

Just bear with me for a second…

Because alongside all of those hard demands on our lives, there is the good news… Because the gospel also says that the sick will be healed. The gospel also says the poor will be lifted up. The gospel also says the oppressed with go free. The gospel also promises Emmanuel – God- with-us.

Those are the words and the promises that I find in scripture. I believe in the God that will set all things right… and that includes my sorry, screwed up life with all of this messed up priorities. I believe in the God that went to the cross to experience the agony of human suffering and who rose victorious on the other side. And I have to trust that if God says – turn it all over to me and I will make something beautiful of your life – that God means what God says.

Priorities and allegiances matter. What we want more than anything in the world matters. And Christ says that if we choose to be his disciples… if we chose to be known as his followers, then we are in the palm of God’s hand. We should not be afraid, because we have life in Christ. We will find our lives and our fullness, when we follow him.

Today – we are challenged to turn our lives over. We are challenged to surrender all of those things that we think we want and that this world tells us are so important. Here our lives are, Lord. Here we are, Lord. Use us to feed the hungry. Use usto heal the sick. Use us to lift up the brokenhearted. Use us to speak the truth in love to those who preach lies. Use us to stand with the oppressed. Use us to say “no” to a world obsessed with more. And if by chance the world turns against us – so be it. We will know who stands beside us.

My prayer is that we as a community can stand up and say to the world – We want to be Christ’s disciples – and we know what is asked of us. We are ready to live God’s kingdom in this world. We know what it asks of us. And we are not afraid. Amen.

Hebrews Part 3: Milk First, Meat Later

Milk First, Meat Later

[SLIDE] As we continue in the book of Hebrews today, we come crashing into the heart of the letter’s Christology.

Christology? That’s a pretty big word, you might be thinking. If we break it apart, we find first Christ, and then ology – Christology is what we understand about Jesus Christ.

[SLIDE] Already the book of Hebrews has told us some things about who Jesus is. He was with God before the foundations of the earth. He is the Son of God. And for a time, he was made a little lower than the angels – took human form and lived among us. He took on our life and because of what he has done for us, we are now children of God.

Last week, we recalled how easily we forget what God has done for us. Like the Hebrew people in the desert, we wander and grumble and always want something else than the rest, the grace, that has been prepared for us. But Christ cuts through all of our excuses and denials and speaks to our heart, shows us the right path, if only we are willing to listen.

So what are we listening for? What is it that Jesus wants us to accept? What has Christ done for us?

The answer begins with chapter 4 verse 14. Jesus is the great, high priest and we are invited to approach the throne of grace with boldness to find mercy and grace in time of need.

We need to turn our lives around, approach God in Christ and accept the grace we find there.

Seems simple enough doesn’t it?

[SLIDE] Hebrews doesn’t think so. Because immediately after these phrases, we have a whole series of explanations about what it means for Jesus to BE the person waiting there for us – what it means for him to be the high priest… what exactly Jesus is doing there on the throne of grace?

For just a moment, lets skip through a few more verses and go to verse 11, this time in the Message translation – “I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening. By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one—baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago!”

We’re going to stick with the milk today – and next week we’ll tackle the more difficult stuff about what it means for Jesus to be the priest.

So beginning with the basics. We need to repent from our past lives and turn with faith towards God… Or as we put it all through the month of August – God keeps telling us, I love you, I forgive you, and I have a job for you.

[SLIDE] For most Protestants – Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists – our focus is on the “I forgive you” part. We know who God is, we know who Christ is, through what Christ has done/accomplished for us.

That is Christology. By looking at what Christ did, we have a better understanding of how we are forgiven, how we are justified, how we are saved.

Think about this in another way. If a new person comes to town, we get to know them by asking questions about what they have done in the past. We ask where they lived. We ask where they studied. We ask what their job was. And we continue to get to know if they are a good person or not, if they are trustworthy, not by what they say, but what they do – how they treat us once they become a part of our community.

The same goes with Jesus. Once we understand what Jesus has done for us, we understand how we can put our lives in his hands.

There is a bit of a problem however. There isn’t just one answer to that question.

[SLIDE] In fact, in the Western world there are actually three different understandings of how Jesus saves us.

This word at the top, atonement, is basically a fancy way of saying just that. How we become at-one again with God – how we make amends, how we are reconciled to our creator.

Looking at why Jesus went to the cross, three major theories have been laid out.

1. Christus Victor – in the battle for good and evil, we are held prisoner to sin, held captive by Satan. In Jesus’ victory over death, evil is defeated and we are set free
2. Satisfaction – problem is that we have broken the covenant and a penalty must be paid. Jesus knows we are guilty, but his action on the cross bears the punishment for us.
3. Moral Example – the cross is the natural outcome of the life of Jesus – who spoke truth to power and dared to love those who society turned away. In his life and death, he shows us how we should also live.

How many of you knew there was more than one way to understand why Jesus went to the cross?

We’re going to look at each one a little bit more in depth.

• Christus Victor – We are captured, not free; imprisoned to Satan and sin; evil has control over us
 Addiction is a sort of prison – we can be imprisoned and homeless and not even know it
 How can we be set free? Christ the resurrected one rescues us, defeats sin and death.

• Forensic – we are in the defendent’s seat – we have broken the covenant and must face the consequences
 Satisfaction (Anselm) God’s honor has been destroyed by our sin & we have infinite debt to God. Only the God/Man can make our satisfaction
 Penalty Satisfaction (Aquinas)Our offense against God disrupts order, God as a just God must keep the righteous order and justice must be recieved. Christ pays the penalty to restore the balance.
 Substitutionary Justification (Luther/Calvin) God’s work in Christ is enacted in us – we are acquitted, pardoned and our record is cleared.

• Moral Example (Abelard) – we have lost the understanding of and ability to love and Christ’s life, death, and resurrection shows us what true faithfulness looks like

All three of these are at play in Wesley and should be in ours as well
• if we respond to this pardoning love and allow God deeper access to our lives, we will be liberated from our captivity to sin and the transformation into the fullness of our lives… penalty/satisfaction emphasis with a moral element and a ransom effect.

We too heavily emphasize just the judicial understanding of sin – that claims we must be tried, found guilty, and punished for what we have done wrong.

In my understanding of God, it is through judgment that we are free to recognize we need the grace of God, repent of our sins and live lives worthy of the calling of God. Punishment is not required. Because Christ already restored us. The moment Christ became human, we were reconciled to God. The moment Christ rose again, the powers of this world that plague us were defeated. But then Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit so that we could also participate in that resurrection, so that we could be made new.

the redemption of creation


Over the next few weeks (months probably) I want to go back through my notes and blog a bit about some of the amazing things I have brought back from the Moltmann conference.

The first one that has been really chewing in my soul is the idea that creation needs redemption.

I guess this has always been in the background of my theology. I think about Paul writing that the creation is groaning. I think about how all of the earth suffers under the sin of humanity and our greed and destruction. But for the first time, I started thinking about how this planet itself has also fallen and committed acts against God’s will and needs to be redeemed.

Now – I don’t think that the oceans have a will. I don’t think that the skies and the clouds do things intentionally – but in many ways neither do we. But this world is not as God created it. And when a tsunami strikes land in southeast Asia and 225,000 people die – I don’t think that is God’s will. Moltmann said time and time again that God is with those who suffer, not the cause of the act. He said time and time again that an act against creation is an act against God.

So, in putting various pieces together, we could talk about an ecological soteriology. That as Christ redeems us, Christ redeems the world. That all of creation is taken through the cross to the promise of the resurrection.

We spend so much time worrying about theodicy, looking for God as the cause of these events, instead of thinking about God as the one who will ultimately redeem even the world from the suffering it has caused. God in Christ through the power of the Spirit bears all of these things through to the new creation. And that is an amazing thought to behold

Wisdom of the Cross

Why do you follow Jesus? And how far are you willing to go?

This past week, I got to spend some time with one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century – Jurgen Moltmann. At the age of 84, he traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to come and have a conversation with the 100 or so of us gathered in Chicago.

I had known parts of his story before and I had read at least one of his books. I knew that he was the mentor, a father-figure really, to one of my most important professors in seminary. But to sit before him and hear his story in his own words was absolutely stunning.

The center of Moltmann’s theology is the hope of the cross and the resurrection. Everything else in the world is futile if we don’t see hope there. And our journey of faith must travel through the cross to the love that awaits us on the other side.

The cross is a very difficult thing, however. It has become much easier in our lives to minimize it’s importance, to minimize its call, to polish it up and paint it beautiful colors and let it become merely the symbol of our faith.

But time and time again, this statement of Jesus’ comes up in the gospels:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34, NRSV)

Why do we people follow Jesus? Are we willing to go to the cross?

Peter certainly thought he wanted to follow Jesus. As one of the disciples, sure he didn’t always get things right – but he tried. And when Jesus and his band stopped just outside of Caesaria Phillipi to refocus their mission, Peter was ready.

Jesus asked, “who do you say that I am?” And Peter got the answer right – “You are the Messiah!”

But he didn’t understand the depths of the word that he was uttering. He heard a word that was full of power and justice and victory – when Christ has a much different sort of path in mind.

And I think that is true for many of us as well. We too balk at the idea that of a suffering Christ. We like to quickly pass over the parts about his death and get to the resurrection. We, like Peter, are eagerly waiting for the victory of Jesus to be shown in the world!

And when we are focused on victory and power and success, then we get sidetracked by other things.

The cross that we are called to take up becomes a status symbol. We wear beautiful crosses around our necks… but aren’t willing to give all we have to the poor.

The cross becomes an excuse to flaunt our difference before others. We wear the cross all over our clothes on pins and hats and backpacks… but we aren’t willing to go the extra mile for someone in need.

The cross becomes excitement and entertainment as we flock to the biggest churches with the most charismatic preachers… but we aren’t willing to see the least of these on the street corner.

The cross makes us feel good and we show up for church once a month to get our fix… but then we turn back out into the world and leave our faith in the pews.

Wisdom cries out in the streets; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34, NRSV)

Peter needs to be shown another way. He needs to have his simple story of success and victory with little or no cost altered. He needs to hear the truth. We need to hear the truth.

This week, I believe I heard the truth.

Jurgen Moltmann decided to follow Jesus as a Prisoner of War during WWII. As a young man, he had sort of found himself joining the Hitler Youth movement – not really for any good reason, and then he was drafted into the German Army. During his time of service, he witnessed the Allied bombing of his hometown of Hamburg – where over 40,000 civilians were killed – mostly women and children. He saw his best friend torn to pieces by a bomb right next to him. The two questions that lingered in his mind for years were, “Where is God?” and “Why am I not dead like all the others?” He was later captured by British soldiers and sent to a POW camp in Scotland.

It was only there that Moltmann began to hear about what had happened in the concentration camps. It was there that he began to be wracked with shame and grief and agony. And he had absolutely nothing from his experience that could get him through his pain and suffering. He had grown up in a secular home, and humanist philosophy had no words to describe his loss and guilt and grief.

But in Scotland – as a prisoner of war – as a German soldier and as a man who carried upon his shoulders the guilt of a nation – he found grace. The guards in Scotland looked at them as human beings, not demons or enemies. One of the chaplains handed Moltmann a bible – and with nothing else to do, he began to read.

Moltmann talks about how his life was completely desperate and desolate – that all the prisoners in the camp were trying to conceal their wounded souls with this armor of untouchability. But as he read through that bible from cover to cover, he was deeply moved by two things in particular: The psalms of lament and the death cry of Jesus – “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He found in these words a fellow sufferer who understood what true sorrow was like.

Moltmann dove into the study of scripture and theology because God was the only thing that could save him from his despair. And out of his experiences and out of the scriptures, he shares with the world a new understanding of the cross.

While we tend to emphasize the cross as this cure for our sins – this simple and singular act that washes us clean, Moltmann began to see it as a complex and messy and passionate and painful understanding of the cross.

At the intersection of the cross all sorts of separate things fight for one another: live vs. death, hope vs. despair, the godforsaken and the godless collide.

And Christ bears these tensions – all of them, and takes all of these struggling forces to the cross and comes out on the other side with only victory: there is only life, there is only hope, there is only God.

But first, God suffers with us.

We look at the sin in our own lives, and yes – that needs to be dealt with – it needs to be redeemed by God. That happens on the cross, as Christ takes our place on the cross, and in doing so, brings us through to the resurrection.

But Moltmann also talks about Christ suffering with us. Because while there needs to be forgiveness for the sinner, there also needs to be justice for the victim. The victim needs to find peace also.

In his experience, this happened as the stories of the victim were presented to those of the perpetrators.

After the war, Moltmann said, we listened to the stories of survivors of concentration camps- because we didn’t know what happened in the death camps. We listened to their stories and looked into the eyes of the survivors and became aware of who we the Germans really were. Same took place in the truth commissions in Africa – the victims must tell the stories, perpetrators must listen to the stories, or they can’t become aware of their guilt. Sacrament of repentance! Confess the truth, change your mind, make good where you have done evil as you can”

What does it mean to take up this cross of Jesus? To really take it up, to really follow in his footsteps.

Moltmann says that we must not become apathetic. He said that we shy away from love because we believe it will only bring us pain. “If you love no one, you will feel no suffering – if you don’t love yourself you will not feel your own death b/c you don’t care. I saw soldiers who became so apathetic that they don’t care about death b/c they were completely resigned and no longer in service of life, but in service of death.

If you love life again, you risk disappointment, you must be ready to suffer on behalf of your compassion for another person and you must be ready to feel their dying.”

When Christ asks us to take up his cross, he asks us to go to those places where life and death meet. He asks us to go to those places where the victim and the perpetrator meet. He asks us to go to those places where the rich and the poor meet. And we are to listen to their stories. We are to heal their wounds. We are to love them. And by loving them, we open ourselves up to feel their pain. We open ourselves up to be hurt. But we also open ourselves up to God.