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It was a Monday afternoon, in Marengo, and a young woman walked into the church and asked to use the telephone.

Not a problem, I said.

And while she sat in the office dialing numbers and getting no response, I sat at my desk trying to pick out hymns for worship the next Sunday. Are you stranded? I asked.

I learned that Maria had just been released from the county jail, was far from home, and no one was coming to get her.

She finally got a hold of a friend or a neighbor… someone she thought might help and was chewed out over the phone.

She hung up in frustration. Maria had no options.

She was seven months pregnant, in Marengo with no vehicle or ride, and needed to get home to the Quad Cities to her kids.

In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet is moved to share God’s compassion for the people of Israel in exile. He gave them words of comfort in the midst of their trial and tribulation. And then Isaiah hears a voice:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

He was to tell the people that EVERY obstacle that came between them and their salvation and their home was being removed.

In this time of worship, let us listen once again for the cry of the prophets.

****

I think about that woman often.

I thought about her as a group of us gathered in Ankeny about a month ago for the “Right Next Door” Conference and as we were surrounded by all of these people.

They represented those we knew, and people we have yet to come to know, who are impacted by addiction, domestic violence, incarceration, human trafficking…

We were invited to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to see them… and us… in a new way.

Because, let’s be honest: we, too, have been impacted by these things.

We are not immune to the realities of alcohol or drugs, abuse, crime, or sex.

But we often leave those parts of our lives outside of the church.

Friends, those realities are deeply part of who we are and ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist can keep us from relationship with God.

Those people in exile saw an immense gulf separating them from their home and their God. Valleys of sin and mountains of guilt lie between them and the Lord.

We face those obstacles, but I’m increasingly aware that some of the mountains and valleys that keep people from the Lord include artificial barriers we put up to “protect” the church.

It is not just their past that keeps people like Michael or Maria from walking in the doors of the church.

So my question for us to ponder is this: What are the barriers we put up as a church? What keeps people who are struggling from having a relationship with God in this place?

 

****

A voice is crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord!

Make it easier for people to come to God!

Help clear out a path!

Make a smooth and straight road for the Lord to come.

 

Maria found the courage to walk across the street to the church and ask to use the phone.

And I’m going to be honest, there are all sorts of mountains and valleys that might have kept me from helping her.

  • I was there in the building alone and I had been fighting the suggestions that I keep the doors locked when it was just me there.
  • I was in the middle of trying to get some work done and I was really busy.
  • She had just been released from prison.
  • I didn’t know if she was feeding me a line or if she was telling the truth.
  • I didn’t know if she was safe to be around.

Prepare the way of the Lord!

The door was open and I invited her in. I sat with her as she made her phone call.

 

Make it easier for people to come to God!

I passed the box of Kleenex when she felt betrayed and abandoned by her friend on the phone. And, knowing she was at the end of her rope, I asked if she needed a ride.

 

Make smooth and straight the road for the Lord to come!

We gathered up her bag and I set aside my work, and on the way out the door, she asked if she could have one of the bibles on the shelf. We got in my car and drove 90 some miles to get her home.

 

Some of you might be thinking that I am incredibly naïve and too trusting.

But I think that we, as people of faith, aren’t foolish enough.

We are called to prepare the way of the Lord – and that means knocking down barriers and building up gaps in this world.

We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

We are called to take risks in order to care for the least and the last and the lost of this world.

We are called to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and to eat in the presence of our enemies.

We are called to be vulnerable with one another and admit our faults and our weakness.

Over and over again, we hear God tell us: Do NOT be afraid, for I am with you.

 

And perhaps what is more naïve is to imagine that sin and danger exists only outside the walls of this church.

There are people in this room who are in recovery or who love someone who is… just as there are people in this room who are in denial about needing help.

Some people in this church have experienced abuse as a child or a spouse… and there are people in this room are abusers.

Our congregation has members who have been in prison or who love people who are in prison.

In this room, there are those who have visited pornography sites and probably even men who have frequented prostitutes.

We just don’t talk about it.

 

We are entering the season of Advent and the first character we discover is a prophet named John the Baptist.

He wasn’t afraid of what others thought.

He wasn’t afraid of what might happen to his own life.

He wasn’t afraid to tell the truth.

And He prepared the way for countless people to let go of their old lives and embrace God’s love.

 

He prepared the way of the Lord by calling people out to the river… to a space carved out for people to be honest about who they are… a space where they could name and repent of their sins… a space where they could receive forgiveness and new life.

 

He carved out a clear path for all people… no matter who they were… to come and be in God’s presence.

 

Isn’t that what church is supposed to be all about?

Hungry?

Yesterday, I preached on Jesus and the fig tree.  It is such a strange pericope (aka story).  Both Matthew and Mark tell us (Matthew 21 and Mark 11) that Jesus was walking along, sees a fig tree, doesn’t find fruit, curses the tree and wham-o, it dies.

What?!?!

There is a broader point to the story, as I mentioned in the sermon: about prayer, about asking for what we want, and about the power of God to move mountains. [And as reminded by a commenter, there are broader symbolic connections with the nation itself.]

But, c’mon… what is it with this  fig tree?

This morning I sat down with my devotions and read from Albert Edward Day’s The Captivating Presence:

Sometimes the best of us have days when our dearest friend must say, “you are not yourself today”. That fact gives them a hard time and sends them away deprived of what they should have from us. BUT GOD IS ALWAYS GOD.

“You are not yourself today.”

That’s what I wish the disciples had told Jesus when he cursed that fig tree.  It wasn’t even the right season.  What was he thinking?

Well, probably, he wasn’t.

 

snickersHave you seen those Snickers commercials with Betty White and Joe Pesci and the like?

You know… the one where  they are handed a Snickers and transform back into their real selves with just one bite?

The tagline is “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry.”

This story is also a reminder that while God is always God, Jesus was also fully human.

And human beings get hungry.

The next day, after leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. (Mark 11:12)

Early in the morning as Jesus was returning to the city, he was hungry. (Matthew 21:18)

When I get hungry, I get grouchy. Seriously cranky. My head hurts. I don’t want to do anything. I’m a bear to be around and I often lash out at whatever or whomever might be nearby.

What if Jesus just really needed a candy bar?

 

I wish I had the answers about how Jesus could be fully God and fully human all at the same time, but to me it is a mystery.  And I’m okay with that.

I’m okay with the unchanging, holy, everlasting, eternal, awesome God becoming one of us.

I’m okay with the idea that Jesus can be totally divine and holy and merciful and good and loving AND that he was a human being who cried as a baby and learned and changed as an adult, and yes, got hungry sometimes.

It doesn’t have to make sense and it doesn’t change my ability to turn to God or learn from Jesus.

Well, maybe it does change my feelings… maybe it deepens my appreciation of God’s love for us.  That God would go so far to get to know us so well.

Defined by Generosity

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Our scriptures this morning show us what it means to be generous. They describe to us people and communities who went the extra mile, who dug a little bit deeper, who gave more than what was necessary or expected.

They gave more than what was necessary or expected.

To be completely honest, those words did not describe my life for a very long time. It took until I was about thirty years old before I ever thought about what it meant to be defined by generosity, before I thought about what it meant to be a generous giver.

When I was a teenager and had only part time jobs, I might have stuck a dollar or two in the offering plate at church. It was the last of my money… not the best.

When I was in college, I did not attend a church regularly on Sundays, but worshipped on campus Wednesday nights – and no one asked for a financial contribution. No one asked me to give, much less give sacrificially.

As a seminary student and low-paid church intern, I was spending more money on school and travel than I was making and piling up debt. I gave my time to the church and occasionally I put a check in the offering plate.

And then I went to my first church. I knew that I could not ask them, in good faith, to give faithfully to the church and to God, if I was not also giving. This was the first time in my life I had a steady full time job.

 

Looking back, I should have immediately started at the very least tithing.

But I didn’t.

I held back.

I looked at my student loans and a bit of debt from college… I looked at how much our cable bill was going to be… I thought about how we wanted to travel a bit… I knew that taxes would take a chunk of my wages… And so I started out small.

I gave to the church – but only a small portion. Maybe not even what was necessary or expected.

And then, I became comfortable with that level of financial giving. I was giving something, and I thought that was enough.

 

A few years back, I was in a teaching session led by a with guy named Ken Willard and he talked about how we make disciples in our church.

And he helped us to see that we almost never talk about discipleship. We talk about membership. This morning, we welcome new people into our church as members, but even in our preparation, we barely paint a picture of what it means to be a disciple. And when we don’t speak about discipleship in a concrete way, then you and I do not have clear standards to evaluate ourselves by.

 

And too often, that means that wherever you were on your journey of faith when you became a member of the church is where you have stayed. Not because of anything that YOU have done, but because we, as the church, have never helped one another to grow beyond that. We have not challenged one another to become disciples. We have not provided resources and tools to help one another deepen our faith.

 

If generosity is defined by what we give, in our time and money, beyond what is necessary or expected, then to be generous, we have to know what is expected!

 

But, truth be told, I didn’t know what was expected. I had never been taught about how my stewardship of my resources was part of my discipleship. Even as a pastor! I knew how to preach and pray and how to listen to my parishoners, but not once did any church leader or professor or pastor sit down and talk with me about how giving was an expression of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

 

Until three years ago, when I began talking with a friend, a fellow pastor, about the things we cling to… the things we hold close and refuse to give to God.

I realized in the midst of that conversation I had never willingly yielded my money to God. I had never thought about what God was asking me to give and then prayed about if I could do that.

There had been times when I had given out of guilt.

I have given because it was what I was supposed to do.

I have given out of habit as the offering place went around and each person in the pew pulled out a few dollars and dropped them in. Sound familiar?

But never had I prayerfully thought about what God wanted me to give. Never had I asked what was expected of me. Never had I searched my heart for what was necessary and then what I was willing to joyfully give up in my life for the sake of our Lord and our church.

I knew that a tithe was 10% of our income, but I hadn’t ever sat down and really thought about what God wants from us; what God wanted from me.

Your “Enough” insert for this week… the one on the green slip of paper… is just a glimpse of the scriptures that talk about money.

1) Tithe = traditional “first fruits”. When the people of God gathered to worship, they brought the first fruits of their harvest to the temple. The first 10% of their grain or livestock they gave to the Lord. This was a gift out of gratitude for the blessings of the harvest and helped provide for the ministry of the temple itself.

One question that is raised, however, is if Christians are supposed to tithe. If we don’t follow the dietary laws of the Hebrew Scriptures and we don’t make animal sacrifices any more, is this one of those things that was part of tradition and doesn’t apply to us?

I think we find in some ways, that Jesus relaxes these expectations on us.

2) Adjusted Title = where we render unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is God’s. One way of understanding this passage is that as citizens, we owe time and money to the rulers of our land. Everything that remains is God’s and we can offer a tithe of the resources we take home in our paycheck.

But as he often does, Jesus also takes those traditional expectations to give and challenges us to do even more.

3) Give Sacrificially = the widow’s offering from our scripture today. As Jesus sat in the temple and watched the people give, he saw a poor widow who put her last two copper coins into the coffers. She gave all that she had. She gave more than what was expected and necessary. And she is the one Jesus calls us to emulate. She was the one defined by generosity.

4) Giving what you have: At various times in our lives, our resources are limited so as to be non-existent. What is expected of us when we literally have no income? The fourth scripture listed describes a time when Peter and John are ministering and are asked to give to a person in need. They respond that they have no silver or gold, but they give of what they do have and are able to heal the person in need.

Even when it appears as if we have no financial resources, God has given us gifts of love and service and prayer and these, too, should be offered.

5) Non-Essential Tithe: Next week, when we celebrate what God has done in our lives and we offer up our commitment cards to God, we are going to be wrestling with the scripture associated with this form of tithing… God loves a cheerful giver.

And so this non-essential tithe invites you to prayerfully think about those obligations you have in your life, those places where you simply cannot sacrifice right now, those places and those bills that cause you stress and anxiety. This tithe sets you free to fulfill those essentials and then to joyfully give out of the remainder. To joyfully give out of your abundance.

 

There are countless other scriptures that describe our relationship with God and with money. But what I have learned in my own journey of stewardship is that taking the time to think about what you are going to give and why you are doing so are two of the most important things we can do. We need to prayerfully consider what is expected of each of us.

The people in the temple gave because they were supposed to. The amount they put in those coffers were minimal compared to what treasures they had stored up. And they probably gave the same amount, every year, at the same festival. It was a ritual. It was tradition. Nothing would change in their life based upon what they gave that day. They never thought about it.

When the widow, however, stood and gave her all, she had to think long and hard about that gift. Those two coins were everything she had left. Those coins represented food and shelter. They provided for her safety and security. Yet she gave them, freely, out of her gratitude for every breath of life she had ever recieved and every blessing that had been poured out. She thought about what she was doing.

I can’t tell you what to give.

I can tell you is what is necessary to keep the lights on and to provide the resources to do ministry here at Immanuel United Methodist Church. Each of our members should be recieving at home a giving guide that describes our current budget and it tells you very plainly what it takes to provide for our facilities and pay our staff and what resources we need to do ministry with children and youth and to support the missional work of our connectional church.

But even then, I know how much more we could do with greater resources for the Kingdom of God. I know that God is calling our church to do more in this world… to provide not just for our facility and our people but to give beyond ourselves in even bigger ways. God is calling us to be a church defined by generosity – out in the community and the world through love, service and prayer.

To think just about what is necessary to keep our church going isn’t big enough. What is necessary for this church, Immanuel United Methodist Church, to answer God’s call and move beyond these walls… to the children at Hillis Elementary and families served by CFUM, to flood ravaged neighborhoods and among people who are struck by illnesses like malaria. What is necessary to bring the Kingdom of God to our neighbors near and far?

 

When I actually sat down and prayed about what God was calling me to give, I began to joyfully give more. I began to increase what I put in the plate each week. In 2012, I began to give a full 10% of my income to the church.

And I decided to give that money to the church first… the money comes out of my paycheck before it ever comes home with me. I give God my first and my best, instead of the change in my pocket and whatever I might happen to have with me that day… instead of what is leftover.

It is probably not a coincidence that the same year I began to give joyfully to the Lord I was called to help others do the same through Imagine No Malaria. When I surrendered my resources to God, I also opened myself up to the moving of the Holy Spirit and was able to hear how God wanted to use me and what I had learned for the Kingdom.

In our passage from Acts this morning, we witness the results of the Holy Spirit moving among the disciples and the people of God. Filled by the Spirit, Peter gives an extraordinary sermon and three thousand people are converted on the spot.

But what is really amazing is that they don’t pray the Sinner’s Prayer and then go back to live as it was. They don’t experience the mountain top moment of a retreat and life as usual sneaks in… No – they actually commit themselves to living out the fullness of what it means to be the people of God. Their entire lives change. They become the body of Christ. They become disciples.

I believe that if we want a picture of generosity we need to look no farther than this passage from Acts. Filled with the Holy Spirit, these three thousand plus people were living out their faith in the best possible way. We are shown here a glimpse of the Kingdom of God… this is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be defined by generosity.

 

What does God want from your life? What does God want from this church?

And what would happen if we freely, joyfully, without hesitation, gave more than what was expected?

What could happen if we let the Holy Spirit loose in our lives?

Ships, Horses and Tongues

Jesus and the disciples were traveling along the road when he asked them a question: Who do you say that I am?

We heard how Peter spoke out, “You are the Christ!” … but we also heard how merely moments later, Peter began to speak again.  He was wavering in his faith, resisting the reality that was setting in, unwilling to believe what Jesus was saying about the work of the son of Man.  With the slip of his tongue in protest, Peter went from being the man with the answers to being stumbling block sent straight from the devil.

Our words matter.  They reveal who we are. They can be used for healing or chaos.  As James writes in his letter to the people of God:  A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it!

All of the carelessness of our speech, James embodies in our tongues.  He compares it to the rudder on a ship or the bit in a horses mouth.  Our tongues guide our futures, direct our paths, and lead us… whether we want them to or not!

If you don’t believe our tongues are important – talk to a politician.  They know, perhaps better than anyone, how every single word you utter can be taken out of context… or how the off-hand remarks you make can come back to haunt you.

If you don’t belie

ve our tongues are important – ask Ben Bernanke.  In coded terms and subtle turns of phrase, the entire global market reacts to the words that roll off of his tongue.

Our tongues are muscles – and the strongest muscle in our body at that.  In fact – a man once lifted a 24 lb. 3oz weight using ONLY his tongue.  But for being such a strong muscle, it is also extremely flexible.

But one interesting fact I learned about tongues is that out of all the muscles in our human body – the tongue is the only muscle not connected on both sides.  Think about it… our biceps connect at the shoulder and elbow, our calves do work through tendons connected to the bones in our legs.  In fact, the work of a muscle is to contract or release and thereby move our bodies.

But the tongue is only connected at one end.  With the other, it is free to roam.  Free to do great good or fantastic harm.  In fact, our tongue is the only muscle that can get into trouble all by itself.  Like a flame of fire it is wild and unpredictable and can easily get out of control.

 
photo by S. Braswell

As The Message translates the passage:  you can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue.

But really, when you think about it… just like the rudder of the ship is controlled by the captain and the bit in a horses’s mouth is directed by the hands of the rider, our tongues are not autonomous creatures… they are a part of us.  They are directed by us.  And it is our minds and our hearts that the words of our tongues reveal.

We heard this morning a rather challenging passage of scripture from the book of Proverbs.  Lady Wisdom, the Spirit of God personified, is standing in the middle of the street calling out to the people.  Unlike last week’s verses from Proverbs – which are the familiar short and pity sayings, today we hear a rather dramatic warning to those who will not listen.

Lady Wisdom seems to be distressed.  No one is listening to the voice of God and she is just about ready to give up all together.  In our General Board of Discipleship helps for this week, they write: “So she changes tactics, from calling people to wisdom and the fear of the Lord to making sure everyone knows the ruin they are heading for if they do not start paying attention.”

As parents or aunts or big brothers – certainly you have tried that tactic yourself.  When the children don’t answer when they are nicely asked, you pull out the big guns:  You had better do it right now OR ELSE!

We could read this whole passage from Proverbs 1 as a great big “OR ELSE” from God…

But what are we being warned about?  What have we done so wrong?

As the last two verses tell us:

Waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
But those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster. (NRSV)

Our Lord doesn’t want us to be wayward and complacent, going this way and that, controlled by nothing but the whims of the world and our hearts desires.

God wants us to listen to the Word, listen to the Spirit that speaks in our hearts.  God wants to guide our thoughts and actions.  Our meandering and wandering to and fro is dangerous to our souls.

Like the rudder of the ship needs a strong captain, like the bit of a horse needs a discerning jockey, so our tongue… and the brain connect to it… needs some wise direction.

The problem is, on our own we are wayward and complacent and that tongue isn’t going to tame itself.

As Lady Wisdom stands in the intersection, crying out, there are three particular groups she calls upon to respond and repent and receive the wisdom and the grace of God.  I think that these are three traps that we all have fallen into from time to time… but if we see them and understand them, perhaps we can also avoid them and turn back to our Lord and Savior.

The first of these traps is ignorance and naïveté. 

Too many of us are wandering about aimlessly because we have never stopped to look at the map.  We haven’t opened our bibles.  We don’t spend time every day in the word of God.  And because we don’t know the Word… we haven’t passed on that saving Word to our friends and family and neighbors and children.

This is one of the most biblically illiterate times in the history of the United States.  In many cases, we can’t fault people for not doing God’s will – or for not knowing how to listen to God – because they have never been taught.

To use another sort of metaphor of the tongue – they are like children who are starving.  They do not have good food set in front of them, if any food at all.

What goes into our bodies past our tongues is not healthy and so why are we surprised when it does not lead us in good directions?

The best remedy for the trap of ignorance is to seek out knowledge and to share it.  Once we realize how hungry we are… how much we have been missing… and how much abundance of knowledge and wisdom is at our fingertips… we will realize that we never need to starve our souls again.

Sometimes, it is difficult to find a place to start when you didn’t realize how much you didn’t know.  This year, on Wednesday nights, there is a bible study that is doing an overview of the entire bible.  Each week they will cover the story of one book of the bible.  This is an excellent place to start for those of you who are looking for your first taste of bible study!

The second trap we fall into is cynicism. 

When our cynical sides come out, we doubt that God’s word will have any impact on our lives. We look out on all the problems of the human race and we have little hope that things will change.  Sometimes, we even begin to be skeptical about God.

We read the scriptures that are before us and laugh – yeah, right, like anyone is actually going to live that out… like someone could actually choose to abide by the rules and regulations and lifestyle the bible proscribes. It’s just good poetry, words to make us feel better, nothing more.

If the ignorant were starving children, then the cynic is a picky eater.  They move around the items on their plate, but only eat a small amount.  They complain about what they get and want something else.

And so our faith is cold and stale, picked apart and unbalanced.  We do not delight in the law of the Lord, but look upon it as a burden that is getting us no where.  We let the pain of the past dictate our future.

Katherine Kehler wrote:  the only cure for cynicism is to cultivate a habit of thankfulness.  Thoreau wrote about reviving his senses by walking.  In fact, as Wen Stephenson writes about Thoreau in his article “A Walk and a Talk” he says that the remedy for cynicism is action, engagement, awareness of this moment that is around us.

In many ways – thankfulness and engagement are two sides of the same coin.  We need to open our eyes and see the gift we have been given.  We need to live into this moment and cherish it with our whole lives.

Whether you walk through nature, or feast with friends around a table, or spend time in God’s word – look upon each moment as a chance to encounter our Lord and Savior and give thanks for what you find there.

The final trap we fall into is pride and the refusal to learn.

Our pride tells us that we can do it on our own.  Our pride makes us believe that we don’t need anyone or anything and we are fine just the way we are.  We turn away from advice, scoff at help, and stubbornly stand still.

In fact, this is one of the primary things James writes about.  We cannot see our own faults because we are so focused on who we think we are and where we want to be.  We let the desires of our own heart rule the day and shut the door on anything that is contrary to those desires.

We may not be starving children or picky eaters, the prideful are the ones who have a plate of good and delicious food set before them and stubbornly refuse to eat.  They don’t need it.  They aren’t hungry.  They are just fine on their own.

But without the word of God to nourish us and give us strength, our own devices quickly fail.  We stumble and fall.

Humility is the only thing that will tame a prideful tongue.  Our boasting brings us low when reality sets in.  We get to decide whether that humility is on our own terms or if we are destroyed by our own smugness.

Humility means that we ask for help.  Humility means we admit that we need to grow.  Humility means recognizing that we were not meant to go it alone and finding a group to study with, friends to lean on, and a God to depend upon.

Pay attention to me FIRST, Lady Wisdom calls from the streets…. Then relax – you are in good hands.

Good hands indeed.  James tells us that the wisdom from above is pure.  It is gentle and reasonable.  God overflows with mercy and blessings.  And in a community that is healthy and robust and depends upon God for direction, your tongue will be anchored in the life-giving Word.

After all, our friend Peter found.  As much as he stumbled and faltered with his words… as much as he let his own pride and doubts get in the way of God’s work… he was not abandoned by God.  And when the Holy Spirit poured into his life, the Apostle Peter found the right words to say every time.

The good news is that Lady Wisdom is ready to pour out her spirit upon us.  If we let go of our ignorance… if we shed our cynicism… if we abandon our pride… we will find direction in God.

Amen and Amen.

Do Not Conform

Weekends in the fall seem to be a portrait of contrast in my life.  I experience in those two short days each weekend my best moments and my worst ones.

You see in my family… Saturdays in the fall are good for only one thing: Hawkeye football games (okay… you Cyclone fans can insert yourselves in here to, just change the words in your mind).

Now, I’m not sure that this would be a big problem, if it weren’t for the fact that while enjoyable… and while a great source of community and family time… I also have some of my worst moments during football games

I get very wrapped up in my Hawkeye football.

A bad call?  I’m jumping up out of my seat and yelling at the zebras.

A dropped catch?  That poor Marvin McNutt heard plenty from me last year.

Yes, even Kirk Ferentz… especially Kirk Ferentz… gets an earful from me.

Now – never mind you that I’m sitting on a couch at my parent’s house or in my own basement and they are at least 30 miles away.

It doesn’t matter to me.  My whole self – mind, body, and soul – is focused on that game.  It gets very personal.  I’m sure my blood pressure is rising just thinking about it.  I want to see them win and succeed and when they don’t, it is disappointing.  And when they intentionally do dumb things and make mistakes… well, then sometimes a curse word or two slips in there.

I am NOT the same person during a football game that I am when I come to church on a Sunday morning.  And you might not be the same person at work on a Tuesday afternoon that you are here in worship either.  We have become so comfortable with putting on and taking off our holiness and exchanging it for the ways of the world. We do it seamlessly… without blinking… without even being aware of it ourselves.

In fact, we do it so well that we begin to blur the lines between the two. We look at all of the good things that sports and work and shopping and national pride and money and the like provide that we start to see them as goods that are on the same par, the same level as our divine calling.

So it is no big deal with we give up a Sunday morning for a round of golf or skip our morning devotions in order to be at work early.  They are equally good and important in our lives.

Eh… except, they’re not.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, we find Peter making a similar mistake.  He knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ and he is so proud of himself for correctly identifying his Savior.

But then his mind goes to other places….

I want to invite you to hear this scripture again, this time rewritten by Kyle Childress:

Jesus starts asking them questions about what people are saying about him. Who do they think he is? And more, what do you fellows think about me? Of course, Peter spoke first, “You are the Messiah!” Jesus responded, “Yeah, but you guys need to be quiet about this. Let me explain what being the Messiah is.”

Then he began to teach the hard stuff; he began to teach that he would suffer and die and be raised. Peter interrupted, “No, No! We’ve got a good thing going here. People are having their needs met and more and more of them are joining up. For Pete’s sake, we have a movement started. We’re going to be successful. Some of the boys are already drawing up the blueprints for a new Center for Ministry complex inCapernaum. James and John want to be co-directors and I’m putting together ‘Jesus Tour: A.D. 31’ with t-shirts and kid’s action figures and a possible book deal. Jesus, just think, you could become an author. People might even start quoting you.”

Jesus whirled around, “You don’t get it! The stuff you’re talking about is satanic! It’s the complete opposite of what God wants and who I’m called to be.” And Jesus got back to the hard teachings: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me …”

Ministry centers might be good.  T-shirts with your ministry on them, definitely good. Books about Jesus – awesome…

But the problem is, those things have nothing to do with what God wants right now.  They have nothing to do with God’s will at that moment.  They directly contradict God’s plan for Jesus and for all of human history.

There are so many competing goods out there in the world, and our lines get blurred and sometimes we can no longer tell the difference between divine things and human things, between what we want and what God wants.

So what do we do?  How do we weigh the options?  How do we choose?

Human things vs. Godly things: How do we tell the difference?

A)    YOU don’t: when we come up with these things, we excuse our human actions.

  1. Daniel Deffenbaugh writes:

In our sin and unbelief, we like to think of ourselves as “free thinkers.” In reality, we are only thinking like Satan and like the fallen world system in which we live. Our culture constantly seeks to shape us. Like teenage children, we think we are expressing our individuality and independence when we differ with God. In reality, we are merely following the world, the flesh, and the devil in rebellion and unbelief. When we give our lives to God, we give ourselves over to His influence and control. When we turn to God in obedience, we turn away from the world’s shaping influence on us. Its influence should diminish, and God’s infinite wisdom, contained in Scripture and conveyed by His Spirit, should begin to transform our thinking and our actions. Giving our lives to God as a living sacrifice is the decision to be shaped and influenced by God and not by our fallen world.

B) Not talking about a list of right or wrong – something we can post on a wall and check-off… we are talking about something written on our hearts.

  1. This might be different for everyone… a different choice, not a universal set of ways of being.
  2. Take someone which a gift for public speaking who has a successful job at a corporation.  A) stay in job, use money for God’s will, B) quit job and become preacher, c) stay in job, volunteer on the side
  3. Really reminds us of the importance of discernment… and not not imposing our ways of following God upon others.

C)    HOW does it get written there?

  1. We have to spend time with God
  2. You are who your friends are… be friends with God.
  3. Letting God shape our lives/fixing our attention on God
  4. Means of grace in the Methodist tradition: Prayer, bible study, small groups, communion, worship, service, visiting the sick, tithing
  5. We really have to do these things intentionally… we have to do them so that we are paying more attention to God and what he wants for our lives than we are to our own wants and desires.  When you spend time focusing on God, there starts to become less room for your own base thoughts.

When we let God transform our hearts and our minds, then we will KNOW what God’s will is.  The best of God will be dwelling in our hearts.  It will spill out of us when we talk, when we listen, when we act in this world.

If I started my Saturdays in the fall with prayer… If I spent some time reading the scriptures with my breakfast on those days… If I spent some time with a person in need before the football game even started – my whole attitude and energy would be in a different place.  I would understand that its only a game… a good human enterprise… but that it doesn’t need to take such a huge spot in my life.  I would be able to enjoy it for what it was, knowing that I don’t live and die on the outcome, but on the grace and mercy of my God and Savior…

Strength for the Weary

This morning, I have 13 reasons why I am a little bit tired and weary.

First of all, it is only 6:15 in the morning Hawaii time.  It took me about a week to get myself on Pacific time, and time changes are always more difficult when you head east.  This time next week, I’ll be operating on central standard time once again… hopefully =)

 My other twelve reasons can be summed up in this one picture.

 Last night we had a mini-lock-in to prepare for SouperBowl Subday and we had 12 awesome young people here to help out.

After two hours of work – slicing, cutting, stirring, scooping and sandwich making – we had a couple of hours of games to play and finished with worship and communion at midnight.  It was a fun evening!

After getting all of the hard work done, we played JESUS bingo for prizes, had an indoor snowball fight… with all of that scrap paper and played a rather disgusting game of “Chubby Bunny.”

I want to thank everyone who has ordered subs and soup for today.  All the money we raise from the food is going to help continue ministry with these young people and to send us on our mission trip this summer to the Twin Cities in July.

So those are my thirteen reasons for being weary this morning… but as the scripture reminds us, I have one very good reason for being strong…

28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Will you pray with me?

 

Before we dive into the meat of today’s readings, I want to give you a little background on this passage from Isaiah.

Isaiah was a prophet of Judah, or the southern part of what used to beIsrael. After King David died, thekingdomofIsraelwas basically split into two. The green part on this map shows the part which was known asIsraeland the purple shows the southernkingdomofJudah.

Isaiah is called upon by God during a very difficult time in the history of the faith.  You see, all God wanted from the people was for them to follow Him.  To trust in Him.  To let Him be the King of their lives.  But both of these kingdoms had said – No thank-you, Lord… we are going to do it yourself.

This is the God of all creation!  This is the one who sets the stars in the sky and raises up nations and kings! This is the one who had brought them victory and had given them thelandofIsraelin the first place!  And they turned their backs on him.

As a result, God let them fall.  AndIsrael, this green portion on the map, has just been conquered by the Assyrians.  They have been wiped off of the map and out of history.

And the word of God that comes to Isaiah is this:  I am the God of all creation.  I am everything that you need.  Tell the people ofJudahthat if they don’t start to follow me, if they try to trust in their own might, they will only find ruin.

For 39 chapters, Isaiah carries this word to the people ofJudah.  He warns them.  He pleads with them.  All he has to do is point to the north and remind them of what happened to their neighbors.  But his words fall on deaf ears.  And disobedience has its consequences.  God sends the Babylonians in and the kingdom of Judah is conquered.

But here is the really important part.  God does not forget the people in exile.  He sends Isaiah to them again, this time with a message of comfort and hope.  From chapter 40 on, the whole feel of this book of scripture changes.  Now that the people realize that they can’t do it on their own… now that they realize how futile it is to try… now that they are at rock bottom… God is right there, offering strength and hope and life.

Yes, Isaiah reminds us that even young people like myself will faint and be weary if we try to go on our own.  We will fall absolutely exhausted by the side of the road.  Simple youth is not a prescription for strength.  Military might will not save us.  Protein shakes  and lifting weights will not build the kind of muscles that we need here.

If we want to be spiritually strong and whole and full of life the only place that we can turn is the Lord.

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The question that I really wrestle with is: what does it mean to wait?

After all, that seems to be the key to that verse of scripture.  Those who wait for the Lord…

Does it mean that we sit quietly and patiently?  That we stop everything else we are doing and just see what happens?

Not at all.

In fact, the Hebrew word for “waiting” is the same as the word used for twisting – like making a rope.  (It is not a passive state, but one of tension as you are being worked on. It also means to expect, gather, look patiently, tarry, wait (for, on, upon) and bind together. (from Lindy Black)

Blogger Lindy Black asks – Is it possible that waiting on the Lord is more than just passing time?  Is waiting on the Lord also being open and available to the will of God?

There is the old joke about the man who prayed to God that he might win the lottery… but he never went out and bought a ticket.

If we dive deep into what this word “wait” means… it is not passive, it is active, expectant, full of hope and tension as we not only wait for God to act, but we also wait upon the Lord in service and worship.

I have quite a few friends who are pregnant right now, and as they “wait” for these new lives to come into the world – they can tell you that waiting is not passive.  It is painful.  It is full of uncomfortable moments. But in the midst of it all, your life and the life of that child are one.  What you eat matters. What you drink matters. How you move matters.  A relationship is formed in the process of the waiting.  Your life and their life is bound together – it is entwined.

That’s how it should be when we wait upon the Lord… our life becomes entwined with God’s as we serve him… as we are bound together… and in the process, his strength becomes our strength – he takes our single cord and with others in the church we are made into the many… we are made strong.

[retell the story of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law – a woman who found her strength and her salvation… what is the first thing she does?  She serves.]

In her book “On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross,” Megan McKenna talks about this amazing act of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law:

I am often amazed that this last line offends many, especially women, who may cynically respond, “That’s why she was healed, to be a servant to the men.” But they have missed the meaning of the phrase “to wait on them,” which is the term used for a deacon. She “ministers” to him, just as the “angels ministered to him” during his time in the desert. Jesus has gone out to Simon’s mother-in-law in her disease and grasped her by the hand for the victory of justice. In gratitude for his taking hold of her and giving her life to do his work, she responds wholeheartedly. Now the first four followers of Jesus become five in number.

I think her strength comes not only from the healing power of Jesus.  Her strength comes from the fact that she is serving Jesus.  That she has bound herself to him.  That she has let him come into her life and now it is Christ’s strength that flows out of her.

Suzanne Guthrie writes:

Peter’s mother-in-law is lifted up, as in the Resurrection… And she begins to serve – just as the apostles are sent out… She is the church’s first deacon. She announces the Gospel by her action. Healed, transformed, and readily at service she slips into her role as easily as if her life-time had prepared her for it… She serves, like Jesus himself… She receives the Light into her home, she is raised up by the Light, the Light shines through her as she ministers to others.

That is what we are also called to do.  Whether we are old or young, rich or poor, weak or strong.  To accept the light of God into our life and to let it transform us and give us strength.

What Isaiah was trying to teach the people of Judah is that our power has nothing to do with us.  Our power is God’s.  Our strength is the Lord’s.

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Come Out the Wilderness

As we started this journey of Lent yesterday with Matthew, we entered the place of wilderness and watched as Jesus wrestled verbally with the devil.  It was a rich dialogue of temptation and power and scripture… with some magical teleportation thrown in there for good measure.  But as Keith Mcilwain reminds us, the devil is not all pitchforks and fireworks. (For yesterday’s Lenten Blog Tour reflection click here)

Today, though, we find ourselves in the gospel of Mark.  He is terse with his words.  He is urgent. In less verses than sum up the verbal banter of yesterday, we get Jesus’ baptism, the wilderness and the first description of his ministry.

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “ You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness. ”

At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “ Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! ” (Mark 1:9-15, Common English Bible)

I find myself caught up in a whirlwind when I read Mark. I find him taking me places faster than I am prepared to go. I am still back in the wilderness… heck, it’s only the second day of Lent – I’m barely IN the wilderness!And here we go rushing back into the world again?My own life has been so chaotic lately, that to spend time with this hurried verion of the gospel exhausts me. And yet, here I sit, with this passage assigned.


(deep breath)


The wilderness keeps calling out to me. 

And in Mark’s text, the wilderness was somewhere Jesus was forced to go.

Other translations have used words like “sent,” “impelled,” “pushed,” “drove.”

But “forced” feels different.  Just because you are sent doesn’t mean you have to go.  You chose to obey.  To be impelled or driven gives me the sense that there is something that urges you on, be it internal or external, and your own will aligns itself with that push.  But to be forced…  it means I don’t want to do something but I don’t have a choice.

Did Jesus want to be in the wilderness?

Did he want to spend forty days wrestling with Satan?  Sure, there were angels watching out over him, but it was also the wilderness!  Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

I get the sense that any rational person wouldn’t choose this situation. Jesus didn’t want to be there, but he had to do it.  He had to spend this time apart.  He had to get ready for what was to come.  Jesus had to make sure his head and heart and body were aligned before his ministry started.  It was going to be a rough journey and he was going to be working with some knuckleheads of disciples… not to mention the cross that would loom before him. 

He had to be forced to take this time apart, because after the wilderness, there was a job to do.

I sometimes have to force myself into the wilderness of Lent, too.


I’m really too busy to spend any extra time in prayer and fasting and study… I’ve got a job to do.  I have important ministry that takes place. 

But when I force myself to stop… when I hand a piece of my life over to God for a while… I find that all those priorities re-align. I suddenly remember it’s not about me.

Maybe it is a good thing that before we can even blink Mark has led us through the wilderness and back out again into ministry. 

When I stop to think about it, I am comforted by the fact that the wilderness is not forever.  It is not something we do just for the sake of doing it.  We don’t even spend time in the wilderness to please God… as our passage reminds us, Jesus has already done that before the time “out there” has begun.

This time apart gets us ready to come back out of the wilderness.

I have recently re-discovered that old song, “Come Out the Wilderness.”  Unlike some versions that are jubilant, I prefer this rendition that is minor and plaintive.

It reminds me that I’m going to come out of this time in the wilderness.

It reminds me that sometimes the wilderness will make us want to weep… or pray… or shout. 

It reminds me that most importantly… when we come out the wilderness, we do so leaning on the Lord.

My ministry is not about me.  It is about proclaiming something that is far greater than I will ever be. I am only one small part of a much bigger body. Even Christ when he came out the wilderness didn’t point to himself, but to God’s kingdom that was coming our way.

We sometimes have to force ourselves to spend time in the wilderness to get our heads and hearts screwed on straight.  We have to force ourselves into this time of discipline, this time of waiting, this time of dependence upon God and God’s mercy, so that when we come out the wilderness, we will remember it’s not about us.

Hewbrews Part 1: Disposable People

The strange and frustrating thing about the lectionary – the three year cycle of readings that is used in many churches in the world – including ours… the strange and frustrating thing about the lectionary is that sometimes it just doesn’t make sense.

Each week we have a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading. And while most of the time they go together – with the same message and purpose, sometimes they just don’t seem to fit.

Take today for instance. Worldwide, we are celebrating the fact that as Christians we all partake of communion with one another. It is a day to remember that a Christian across the globe is our brother or sister in Christ – that we all partake of the one loaf and we all drink from the one cup.

In the lectionary cycle – today is also the day that we start exploring the books of Job in the Old Testament and Hebrews in the New. Until Thanksgiving, in fact, we will be going slowly through the book of Hebrews as we worship on Sunday mornings. But those readings have very little to do with the Old Testament reading from Job where Satan begins testing the faithful man by raining destruction into his life. It has very little to do with the passage from the gospels about divorce.

In fact, I couldn’t figure out how any of these things hung together – what we were supposed to make of them until I remembered a conversation I had with a patient of mine from Nashville

This patient, Adam, was struggling – deeply struggling with his worthiness before God. You see, Adam had cancer. And on this afternoon he was in a particularly deep hole of doubt and self-pity. On this day, the illness had gotten the best of him. And as I entered the room to visit with him he wanted to know why he couldn’t just die.

As we got to talking, I wondered what kind of comfort I could bring him. I couldn’t take the pain away. I asked him if he wanted to pray with me and he barely lifted his head as he spoke.

“I’ve asked Jesus over and over again to help me and he hasn’t,” Adam cried out, “how can he just let me suffer like this?”

As we talked more I began to realize that Adam was expressing a deep feeling of being forsaken by God. Forgotten. Thrown away. He felt like no matter how much he cried out, God wouldn’t listen.

Instead he was being punished. In his eyes, the suffering he was experiencing was God knocking on the door saying “see, I told you so,” and Adam was going to withstand that suffering. Whether it was sheer pride, or self-loathing, or the medications, he felt like he was being punished and he was going to take it like a man.

I remember asking him at one point: What if God’s just waiting for you to let go? What if God is just waiting for you to stop fighting him so that he can actually heal you? What if who you are fighting is yourself?

And then, I’ll never forget what he said. “Even if I do let go, even if I do admit he’s really there, I don’t deserve it.”

I have no idea what Adam’s past was. I don’t know where he thought that he failed.

I do know that I wanted to shake him and tell him that no matter how unworthy he thought he was, God wasn’t done with him.

God didn’t see him, and God doesn’t see us, as some disposable thing – made and then broken and easily thrown away. God saw him in the words of Psalm 8 as the one who was made just a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor. It didn’t matter what he had done – God’s grace and forgiveness was bigger and stronger than his mistakes.

The amazing thing about the book of Hebrews is that while it is a text that portrays very vividly what Christ has done – it is humans who are the focus. Hebrews is about who God is yes, but about what God has done for us – how God acts because of us.

In chapter 1, we are reminded that while God has always been speaking to us – in various times and places – God chose finally to speak by his Son. This Son is the Word of God that is God and was God and spoke all things into being in the creation. Jesus, the Son of God, the Word of God, is God and is fully of all glory and honor.

But then in chapter two we compare this glory and majesty with what was created. This world, that we live in, was not given to angels or to demons, but to humans. Compared with the moon and the stars we are nothing – and yet God has made us a little lower than the angels and God has placed this world in our hands.

Here, the author of Hebrews turns our eyes back towards Psalm 8. We are reminded that Adam and Eve were made caretakers over the garden – over the animals and the birds and the fish and the land and the seas. This is our world – a gift, given to us by God for safekeeping.

And while chapter 2 verse 8 says that we are supposed to be in control, when we are sick. When natural disasters like earthquakes and tornados and floods ravage. When a brother or a sister harms us – the feeling of control slips between our fingertips. The reality that we experience however is that we feel completely out of control.

That is what my friend Adam in the hospital was experiencing. Completely out of control.

Hebrews tells us that while this world appears to be spinning out of control, we catch a glimpse of Jesus and we are reminded of how he poured himself out, became human – became one of us, and took the sins of the world with him through the cross. That becomes our reference point. That becomes our hope.

We are not disposable in God’s eyes, we are redeemable. As John 3:16 reminds us, For God so loved the world. God doesn’t abandon his creation – he loves it and he redeems it.

And through Christ, we become children of God. Or as verse 11 puts it – we all have one Father, one source – and Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.

What I told my friend Adam is that it doesn’t matter if you feel unworthy or not. It doesn’t matter if you think you deserve help or not. Heck, we probably are unworthy and we are undeserving. There is nothing that we can do to earn God’s love. But God loves you anyways. You are not a disposable part of God’s creation.

Christ invites us each to the table because it is more complete when we are all here. And when we sit at this table, we look across and see our brothers and our sisters. And just as you are not a disposable part of God’s creation – neither are they.

Gathering at the table means that we speak the truth about those we have hurt. It means that we acknowledge that there are people in the world that we have treated as if they can be used up and easily tossed aside. They may be people we never see like sweatshop workers in Vietnam, or coffee farmers in Columbia, or diamond miners in Africa.

But they might also be people who are close to us, people whose lives we share on a daily basis.

In our gospel reading today, Jesus makes a plea with his disciples not to separate the bonds of marriage and to honor the lives of children. And in both of these instances, he is speaking against cultural practices that allowed spouses and children to be considered disposable people.

If your wife burnt your dinner, you could write her a certificate of divorce. If you didn’t like the way she wore her hair, you could write her a certificate of divorce. While this had been in part Jewish custom, Greco-Roman culture also allowed by this time that women could divorce their husbands in a similar manner.

The same was true for children. They were seen as not fully human. Until they reached a certain age they had no voice and no standing. They were non-persons who could be sold and traded.

But just as Christ doesn’t give up on us – doesn’t throw us out with the slightest irritation, so too are we supposed to love one another. The relationship between two partners in marriage does not entitle either one to see the other as disposable. The relationship between parent and child means that the parent should care for the child and the child should honor the parent.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be brokenness in the body of Christ. We all know situations where divorce has divided a family. We all know situations in which divorce was the only way out of an unhealthy situation. We can all think of instances in which children were not cared for by their community.

And we bring that to the table. And we speak the truth about the ways we have failed one another through confession. And here we receive forgiveness. In this bread and in this cup, we are restored. Whether we deserve it or not. Whether we think we are worthy or not. You are not disposable in God’s eyes and this table is set just for you.