Scattering Fear and Gloom

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Easter Sunday is a rollercoaster of emotions.

We felt that as we began worship today… instead of starting with the joy of the resurrected Christ, we began with the despair felt by Mary and the disciples because their Lord and Teacher was no longer with them.

You see, for the disciples, Easter morning began with a hopeless situation.

It began with fear of the unknown.

It began with the gloom of death.  

When I wrestled with what I should preach about this morning, I couldn’t help but think about all of the hopelessness and fear and gloom in this world. 

I hear it in the halls of this church, and around our dinner tables… in the grocery store, the halls of work or school… all of the varied and sundry places that we gather in our lives.  

We worry about family who just can’t seem to get their act together.

We struggle with illness or money in our personal lives.

We watch the evening news and everything seems wrong with the world.

After a while, the daily grind starts to take its toll and we become numb to all of that stuff around us. We find ourselves settling into the rut and start to believe that this is just the way it’s going to be.

The violence of the world almost ceases to phase us.  What is a crucified Savior when another bombing in Syria has taken lives?  Another shooting at a school last week?  Another gun related death in our city?     

We can barely keep ourselves abreast of the human rights violations occurring across our planet as war-torn countries continue to destroy the lives of innocent men, women and children. So many of these places of conflict feel utterly hopeless and without end.   It seems that no matter what we do, or maybe because of what we do, new groups and new people spring up to fight, instead of searching for ways to work together and to rebuild lives.

 

In our gospel reading this morning, Mary goes to the tomb and she is not going with expectant hope. She is going to bring spices and oil and to continue to prepare his body for burial.

You see, Jesus was laid in the tomb just before sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath Day and so the women did not have enough time to properly lay him to rest.

As the sun rose on this Easter morning, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb to mourn, to pray, and to say her good-byes.

She was someone who desperately loved Jesus. He was her Teacher and her Master. He offered her new life and a brand new beginning when he cleansed the demons from her life. And ever since that time, she had followed him faithfully. Then, in one fell swoop, everything that she had begun to put her trust into was taken away.

Her Lord was gone.

The disciples who followed him had scattered and those who remained were hiding out in fear of the Jewish authorities.

Mary had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.

The only thing she knew to do was go to that tomb and rehearse a ritual practiced by Jewish women for centuries. She would go to the tomb to honor Jesus and to mourn for him properly.

 

But as our scriptures this morning remind us, when she arrived, everything was in disarray!

The stone was rolled back and her Master was nowhere to be found!

His body was gone!

Desperately, she ran to the house of one of the disciples for she knew that some of them would be there…

They have taken away his body! She cried out….

They have taken him and I don’t know where they have laid him!

Two of the disciples, run back to the tomb with her and find her story to be true. They enter and find the burial clothes there also, neatly folded and placed on the stone. They know that something has happened… but none of them really knows what it means.

 

Mary, in the midst of all of her desperation and mourning saw Jesus standing before her but did not recognize him. She couldn’t see the promise that was right before her eyes!

Jesus even called out to her, trying to scatter her fear and her gloom:

 “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

As Mary stood in that garden weeping out of desperation she heard her Master call her voice. One moment of startling fear and overwhelming joy – a moment of holy awe – as the significance of what is seen – and what is unseen comes crashing in.

 

And Christ is calling out to us all the time, every day.

He asks us constantly what we are weeping for.

He longs to wipe away the tears from our eyes.

Jesus is Risen. Death could not hold him.

And if it cannot hold him, it cannot hold us.

All that Jesus said about life and death

all that was understood only as idea – as a concept – as a vision

is made real in that empty tomb and in that encounter in the garden.

 

The disciples and the women heard Jesus talk SO MANY TIMES about his death and resurrection and it just never sunk in.

They couldn’t understand the promise because they never believed it would happen.

So when Jesus shared his final meal with them on Thursday night they let him down and failed to remain faithful.

And when Christ was crucified on Friday afternoon, they were paralyzed by their unbelief and forgot the promises he made to them.

They couldn’t see past their own pain and fear and gloom to remember the promise!

The ancient promises from Isaiah:

“No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime… They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

 

And he wants us to see him, to recognize him as the Jesus who is alive – the Jesus who is risen – the Jesus who has the power to bring that new creation to bear on our lives.

But like Mary, our hearts are often so slow to believe, to trust, and to accept he is standing before us.

There are so many things in our lives that we could feel hopeless about:

Loved ones who die too young,

People who work away their lives for a wage that won’t pay the rent,

Hungry families… including the 55,000 people in Des Moines who don’t have enough food on their tables,

But the power of the Easter resurrection didn’t just bring Christ to life.

The power of the Easter resurrection took a rag tag bunch of disciples who barely knew their left from their right as far as following Jesus was concerned…. And turned them into apostles.

It turned these doubting, stammering, disobedient fools into the leaders of a movement that would transform the world!

When Christ rose from the dead, the Body of Christ that is the church was brought to life – a community was formed that would love and cherish and carry on the mission and the ministry of Christ!

Each and every single one of us is a living testimony to the power that Christ’s resurrection had on our world.

Each one of us is who we are today and is in this place this morning because those first disciples experienced the risen Christ.

And because that experienced so radically changed their lives that they had to tell others.

 

So what is this Easter morn?

It is God’s promise of a new day

It is God’s promise of a new life

It is God’s promise of a new world

coming to pass in our midst.

 Jesus is risen. Death could not hold him. And it will not hold us either.

 

Wherever in your heart there is weeping, Christ promises to turn your tears into laughter.

Jesus is risen! Death could not hold him!

And the forces that tear us apart in this world will not defeat him either!

Christ has risen!

And we… as the body of Christ, in this time and in this place… are called to continually live our lives as a beacon of that promise!

We are called to visit the sick and those who mourn and pray for healing in this life or the next.  

We are called to work for those who are struggling and help to create a better way.

We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

We are called to welcome the stranger and the outcast, the person who is not like you: 

whether that means they were born here or not,

an NRA member or fighting to limit guns,

someone who wants sidewalks in their community or doesn’t,

whatever the color of their skin or whomever they love. 

 

You and I… because of the reality of what we experience this morning… are called to go forth and scatter the forces of fear and gloom in the world.

We are to find small ways to live out and practice the resurrection power in our world today.

Christ is risen!

Let us crown him the lord of Life, the Lord of Peace and the Lord of Love

and may we believe in his power to truly transform our lives.

Amen.

The Sermon on the Mount: Lord’s Prayer Lessons

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This morning in worship, we built our entire service around the Lord’s Prayer, using songs and brief meditations to help us focus on the various parts of the prayer itself.  Below are the three meditations:

 

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

 That little tiny phrase is one of the most subversive and radical things that we can say as Christian people. And we say it every week. Too often, we rush over the words, practically tripping over them to get to the end, because we know the Lord’s Prayer so well.

For the last two thousand years, Christians have tried to let God use them to bring about glimpses of the Kingdom on this earth.  If we are going to be daring enough to pray for the kingdom to come on earth – then let us also be daring enough to participate when we see it!

In, “Listening to your Life,” (page 304), Fred Beuchner writes:

“…the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born within ourselves and within the world; …[it] is what all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know… The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”

We are homesick for it and yet it is as close as our next breath. Thy Kingdom come on earth.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Holy Lord, come on this earth and pull us beyond the borders we have artificially made.

Thy Kingdom, Oh Lord and King, come on this earth and root all of our actions in the care of your creation.

Thy Kingdom, Blessed Ruler, come on earth and let us find the boldness to feed and clothe and heal our brothers and sisters without waiting for the government to help.

Thy Kingdom, Glorious King, come on earth and make us uncomfortable. Don’t let us be content with peace in our hearts until your peace truly reigns over the nations.

Thy Kingdom, Ancient of Days, come on earth and turn our allegiance from brand names and politicians and flags and nations … but help us imagine and embody life on earth, here and now, as though you were truly the king of it all and the rulers of this world were not.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

 

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I want to tell you a story about a church here in Iowa that took seriously Jesus’ prayer and the command to forgive. (from Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)  

Farmers Chapel UMC, “was burned to the ground by an arsonist. In the weeks and months that followed, the congregation had to wrestle with how to forgive the person who destroyed their 107-year-old church…. [so, their pastor] wrote an open letter to the unknown arsonist and had it printed in the local newspaper…” (
page 37-38)

He wrote:  “Our worship time is 9:00AM every Sunday. I tell you this because I want you to know that you are invited. In fact, we even plan to reserve a seat just for you. Our faith has a lot to say about forgiveness. Every Sunday we ask God to forgive our sins but only as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. That would be you. So if you would join us for worship, we could practice this kind of forgiveness face to face. I say “practice” for a reason. I don’t expect us to get it right the first or even the second time. Of course we’ll continue to work to forgive you even if you decline our invitation to worship. Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the faith we have inherited. Some people think it is impossible. They may be right. I only know that we have to try. Our forgiveness of you is tied to God’s forgiveness of us. We can’t receive something we are not willing to give others. So you see, if we harbor hatred for you in our hearts, we harbor the smoldering ashes of your arson. If we cling to bitterness, we fan the embers of your violent act. If we fantasize about revenge, we rekindle a destructive flame that will consume us. Forgiveness may indeed be impossible, but for us it is not optional.” (as printed in Becoming Jesus’ Prayer)

That church has been rebuilt and at the focal point of their worship space is a cross that has been built out of the charred timbers of their old building. Every single time that Body of Christ comes together, they are a living witness to the power of forgiveness. And when we pray Jesus’ prayer – when we truly pray it – we are asking… no we are begging for our lives to be changed. We are asking for this church to be transformed and for it to be a place of transformation.

 

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

All throughout the gospels, Jesus shows us what it means to be delivered from evil. 

He teaches about the ways that we should follow and does so with authority and power.

And when the demons show up, questioning his wisdom, he casts them out.

Ofelia Ortega writes that “the forces of evil know of the healing power of Jesus’ word; they are not submissive or indifferent. Jesus’ powerful teaching not only is fresh to the ears of the faithful, but it also disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. Evil discovers that it is running its course.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, page 312)

All Jesus had to do was speak, and the evil powers of the world started shaking in their boots.

“Be silent.” Jesus commanded. “Come out.” He said firmly. And the spirit obeyed.

I don’t know what to tell all of you about evil, demons and spirits. I have never personally experienced them, although I know people who have. What I can tell you is that I firmly believe that God has power over the evil in this world.

The reign of God… the Kingdom of God is at hand. And when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, it is a personal prayer and we are talking about God’s authority and power within us. We are praying for God to help us tap into that amazing power that the people witnessed within the synagogue. We are praying not only to be cleansed of our own internal demons – but we are also praying for the power to love others who have their own internal demons.

A Cherokee elder was teaching his children about life.

A fight is going on inside me,” he said to them. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandchildren thought about it and after a minute one of them asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elder simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Every time we pray this prayer, we are feeding the wolf of love in our lives.  We are asking God to help us to be imitators of Christ, to be ones who can truly praise God as our King.

Follow the Star

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Today, we come to the end of our journey through Narnia and the Christmas season with the celebration of Epiphany. 

The word Epiphany means “an appearance or manifestation” and on the twelfth day after Christmas, it is a celebration of the manifestation of God’s love in human form… and of all of those people to whom the good news was first revealed:   the shepherds at Christmas, Anna and Simeon in the temple, and the wise men who followed the star and journeyed from afar to worship the Christ Child.

As Matthew tells the story, these magi followed a star in the sky – a light in the midst of the darkness – in order to find this Messiah.  And that glimmer of light and hope reminded Matthew of another time of darkness and the promise of God that Isaiah shared with the Israelites. 

Arise! Shine! For your light has come… though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you… Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance. (60:1-3)

In Matthew’s eyes, it wasn’t a star in the sky at all, but the light of Christ himself, revealed to the entire world, that pulled those magi over mountains and deserts and seas to the countryside surrounding Jerusalem. He may have been a tiny infant in his mother’s arms, but in the words of John’s gospel – the light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.

 

To appreciate why this was good news, we can’t pass too quickly over the darkness in these stories. We like to focus on the beautiful image of wise and powerful men bowed down before a humble and poor baby. But in our scripture today, forces of death and violence, power and pride and lurking around every corner. 

You see, in between the appearance of the star in the sky and their encounter with the Jesus, the magi found themselves on the doorsteps of power. 

King Herod was an appointed ruler who had been chosen from among his fellow Jews because he was willing to betray them and serve the Romans.  His had been named a leader by the Roman Mark Antony to support the governor of Galilee, but through political maneuvering and not a little bit of money, scheming and treachery, he had climbed as high as he could – and now happily sat in Jerusalem as the “king of the mountain.”

Relationships for him were always about what the connection could get for him.  He banished his first wife and child in order to marry the granddaughter of an elite in Rome.  And he grew to be jealous of his second wife Mariamne, eventually executing her for adultery; he eventually married five different times. He killed his brother-in-law on charges of conspiracy, and then later his sons by Mariamne because he no longer trusted them.

In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch reminds me of that cold, insecure figure Herod.

As Heidi Haverkamp reminds in the devotional for this season, the Witch’s castle was cold and full of statues of people the witch had turned to stone.  The only living creature besides the White Witch who resided there was her Wolf Captain Maugrim.  She couldn’t trust anyone and so her castle was empty and lonely. 

And she, too, feared a threat to her power and hold over the land. 

There had been prophecies in Narnia, after all about the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve and how one day they would sit on the throne of Cair Paravel.  When she came upon Edmund, all alone in the woods one day, she very nearly turned him into stone on the spot… until she realized she could use him for more information and to tempt the rest of his siblings to her castle and kill them all at once. 

She arrested and tried the faun, Mr.  for “fraternizing with Humans,” just as she did any who sought to oppose her reign. 

The White Witch responded to the news of these children who would be Kings and Queens in the same way that Herod did… with intrigue, lies, and a heart bent on destruction. 

 

What is the danger of a baby?  Or of four little children to a powerful king or queen? 

The danger is in what they represent and the threat to the future. 

And the danger is that there are people in this world who are willing to resist their oppression and power… people who are willing to follow a star and choose another way. 

The magi from the East arrive in Jerusalem… and instead of bowing down before King Herod, they want to worship, to bow down, to pay homage to someone else.   

And this season invites us to honor God and not the powers of this world.  To honor love and not fear.  Mercy not judgment.  This season invites us to let go of our power and offer of ourselves, rather than taking what we think belongs to us.

 

Isaiah’s prophecy calls out:  Arise!  Shine! Lift up your Eyes! 

That is a whole lot of exclamation points. 

And Isaiah isn’t just inviting the people living in exile to hear the words… he is commanding them to live differently.  

As Rev. Marci Glass writes:

“Isaiah’s audience knew all about the darkness of the world.  They knew the despair of exile.  They knew what it was like to look around and say, ‘ the problems are so big. What can one person do?’

The Christmas season is a time of joy and hope and peace, and I truly pray that each and every one of you were able to glimpse that spirit of Christmas in these last few weeks. 

But just as the Christmas decorations begin to be put away, the cold harsh reality of the world hits us. We find ourselves right back where we were before this season of consumer frenzy, perhaps with emptier pockets and fuller bellies, but back in reality nonetheless.

And maybe we start to ask that question:  what can one person do?

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in our country this week in Fort Lauterdale, what can we do to stop it?

In the face of loved ones battling illness and injury, how can we make the pain go away?

Perhaps we are left wondering what all of it was really for.  Are we just rehearsing the Spirit of Christmas, much like we get out the decorations and put them away again when the time has passed? Is our hope in the pomp and circumstance? the beautifully wrapped presents?  the music? or is our hope in something else?  Something that will sustain us long after the wreaths have come off the door?

 

Arise!  Shine!  Lift Up Your Eyes!

 

The magi in the East recognized that this star was leading them on a journey into the unknown.  And they willingly chose to follow that star.

This epiphany, I want to invite you to follow the star. 

I want to invite you to seek out light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair.

And I want to invite you to share the light of that star with others.

And just like the magi, I want to invite you to not only be willing to offer your gifts with God… but I want to invite you to be open to what God might be giving to you in this journey. 

 

As we come forward in just a few minutes for our time of response and offering, I want to invite you to come to this basket and select a star.  Don’t over think it… just reach in and take one.

Every star has a word on it.  And I want to invite you to think about how that word, that star, might speak to your life this year.

Stick the star to your refrigerator or bathroom mirror.  Put it in your devotional for when you do daily prayers.  Place that star somewhere you might see it each and every day so that you can remember, whenever you lift up your eyes, that God is guiding you.

I want to invite you to remember that what you do with the light that has shined in your life does matter.

The creatures of Narnia embraced the small role they could play and they stood up to the power of the White Witch and she was defeated.

Even Edmund, who had turned his back on those he loved, found that one simple action could dramatically alter the course of events.  

The magi from the east refused to bow to the demands of Herod and chose another way home.

God is calling you to Arise! Shine!  And Lift up your eyes to see can do through you. 

Ever-patient God, Help us be people of the light, shining your light of righteousness, peace, and joy into all the dark places of our lives and world.

Turn our aimless wanderings into a journey of purpose guided by your star.
Let the light break into our lives and our world, and transform us into people of the light.

Arise!

Shine!
Follow the star!

Empty. #umcgc

So far at this conference I’ve been given a few nicknames.

Mama-Pastor.
Interloper.
Bridge-builder.

I feel called to be United Methodist and I have always felt called to hang out in the middle and help various sides hear one another.

Maybe that is why my subcommittee experience was so powerful.

We connected across cultures.
We shared from our contexts.
We listened more than we talked.

And maybe that is why today has been so terribly hard.

Yesterday evening, word started spreading about conversations between the Council of Bishops and various caucuses. They are trying to help us find a way forward and viable separation was on the table. As Bishop Ough said this morning (and this is a paraphrase): we risked being vulnerable enough to go there.

Last night was full of denial and shock.

We began worship with the room buzzing and a whole host of ecumenical guests.

Unity. Oneness. Unity. Oneness.

Oh, and an absolutely incredible and challenging sermon by Ivan Abrahams of the World Methodist Council.

I wept through most of worship.

My heart was broken.

The bridges seemed to be disintegrating.

And yet we were singing “I need you to survive.”

Bishop Ough came to the mic after worship and shared with us a letter from the Bishops. A word that they were committed to unity. And yet, it felt to me like they were also saying… whatever you decide to do, we’ll help you navigate through.

Except, we don’t know what to do.

Friends, our conflict is not about the lives of LGBTQI people. At this moment, their value, calls, and relationships are at the center of our conflict, but the church needs to grow up and say to our children: it is not your fault that we are so divided and torn.

My siblings are not issues and they are not the cause of our pain… although we are causing them pain.

Our conflict is that we have radically different ways of understanding what it means to be United Methodist. Across the connection, we view the primacy of scripture differently. Some of us see the Discipline as gospel and some of us see it as a living breathing document that helps us adapt to changing context. Some of our conferences are lay led, others clergy, other focus their power in the episcopacy. Some of us are in cultures that have forgotten the Christian tradition, others in places where the way of Jesus is barely taking root and trying to create space for Christianity. Some of are studying liberation theology and some of us can’t see our privilege when we look at ourselves in the mirror. Some of us have the freedom to make choices and others face scrutiny from their governments. Some of us are worried about kids spending too much time and energy on soccer camp and others are just praying for their five year old not to die from malaria.

We’ve found a way together before.

What I love about our tradition is that we hold together all sorts of both/ands… personal piety AND social holiness… making disciples AND transforming the world… potlucks AND fasting…

So I came to General Conference committed to finding a way forward… together.

I have to admit, however, that I need the church to change. Yes, to be more inclusive. Yes, to end the pain upon our LGBTQI siblings. But even more, I need the church to change because the Holy Spirit is calling and pushing and challenging us to step to the margins and let go of our rules and power and privilege and actually go do the things Jesus freaking asked us to do!

If the church refuses to change and adapt… well…  I have started to feel like maybe we can each be more faithful on our own.

Watching us celebrate the 200th anniversary of the AME Church, we lifted up how they thrived a part from us. We pushed out our siblings (in horrendous acts of racism) and they are  fine. God continues to move and work in both of our traditions. God is bigger than our denominations and conflicts. God can unite us even if we have different names for our churches.

So, friends, tomorrow we start the conversation again.

The Bishops might come back with a proposal. We might discuss it.

Only God knows what our future holds.

And tomorrow, having heard the pain and frustration, I don’t know where we’ll end up.

All I know is that I’m letting go of any desire to stay together at all cost, any stubborn clinging to unity in name only.

There is a way forward but I no longer pretend to have a “right answer.”

Lord, put us to what thou wilt… let us be employed for thee or laid aside for thee… let us have all things, let us have nothing… thy will be done.

Two Texts: Iran, Cuba, and the Gerasene Demoniac

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This month, our “Two Texts” series takes seriously the advice of Karl Barth… that we should take the bible and take the newspaper and read both.

All sorts of stories have caught our attention over the summer and have led us to wonder what the Bible might have to say about that.

What do people of faith have to say about these issues of our day?

And how do we, as a congregation with many different perspectives, look at these stories in a way that respects one another?

I and Pastor Todd can’t claim to be experts on world events, politics, finance and sociology. But we do know this book. And so our series this month will not dive into the details of policies, but will instead point us to biblical themes that have a bearing on our world today.

Will you pray with me…

 

I must start in our exploration of diplomacy in the midst of disagreements by reiterating a confession I just made. I am not an expert on these topics. In fact, the roots of both of the conflicts we will talk about today started before I was born.

In 1960, Cuba took over and nationalized American-owned oil refineries without permission or compensation.   The Cuban Revolution had overthrown the Batista regime, Fidel Castro was in power, and the United States and our economic leaders were … well… not happy. October 19th of that year began the United States embargo against Cuba.

Our national relationship with Iran also changed as the result of a revolution. In 1979, their United States supported leaders were overthrown. Eventually Iran became an Islamic republic, led by the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. There were a number of factors that eventually severed relations between our countries, but perhaps one of the greatest began on November 4 of that year. A group, angry that Iran’s former leader had been allowed into the United States, took over the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage for over a year. Over the years that have followed, our sour relations have focused on the attempted development of nuclear weapons by their country.

Our anger, our fears, our troubled relationships have led us to keep both of these nations at more than an arm’s length. We see them as dangerous to ourselves and our interests. We have intentionally cut off our connection with both nations in an attempt to force them to change and keep ourselves safe.

 

When we turn to the pages of the Bible, I am reminded of someone else who was kept at a distance. In the region of the Gerasenes, there was a man no one could control. He had been possessed by an evil spirit and was causing chaos in his community. As the Message bible tells us, “no one could restrain him – he couldn’t be chained, couldn’t be tied down. He had been tied up many times with chains and ropes, but he broke the chains, snapped the ropes. No one was strong enough to tame him. Night and day he roamed through the graves and the hills, screaming out and slashing himself with sharp stones.”

 

How should we respond to those we fear? Or disagree with?

Do we keep them at a distance?

Do we try to chain them up and isolate them?

Do we prefer to turn our backs, avoiding them at all costs, while they in turn self-destruct?

That is what the people in the Gerasene region did. They were helpless. They were scared. And they kept their distance. Can we blame them? They are human like we are.

 

But what do we do about a whole country?

We think of this biblical story as the story of a single person, but when we dive deeper, this is a story about communities.

As Jesus approaches the demoniac (the demon possessed man) he tries to cast out the spirit. And he asks the spirit’s name…

“My name is Mob.” “My name is Legion.”

The spirit was not one, but thousands. A Legion is actually a military term for an entire unit in the Roman army… between 3-6,000 foot soldiers.

An entire community was living inside that man, tormenting him and everyone around.

So the larger community did what they could. They couldn’t cast them out. They couldn’t change the man, so they chained him up. They isolated him in the hopes that the spirits would leave.

Much like the larger world community has used sanctions and embargos and severed diplomatic ties with Iran and Cuba in order to protect ourselves and to force a change in the regimes of these places.

 

This summer, we have seen our diplomatic ties with these places soften a bit. We have reached a historic compromise with Iran that we are now debating in our own country. We have warmed up to Cuba and will soon be opening a United States Embassy there. We have reached out as a nation to talk, to imagine new possibilities, to rebuild relationships.

 

When Jesus approached the Gerasene Demoniac, nothing about the man had softened or changed. He was still as dangerous as ever. But through God, all kinds of healing are possible. Where the rest of the countryside had given up, Jesus knew that the man could be saved.

And so Jesus and the Legion had a talk. They negotiated. They each made some diplomatic concessions.

 

There are three larger themes I think we can point to in this story.

First, knowing Jesus had the power to cast them out, they begged Jesus to be merciful.

Power is a dangerous thing. In each of the conflicts mentioned, military power has been a thread of both disagreements – whether it was missiles pointed at our country or the development of nuclear weapons. But our nation also has a strong measure of power that has kept the other at bay.

Each week this month, we are also including a bulletin insert from the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. Maybe we can think of this as our third text. These are the official positions of our church on some of the issues we are exploring today.

This one, in particular, challenges us to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. It is a reminder that our first moral duty is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises. It is also a strong condemnation against nuclear weapons.

Above all, it is a reminder that our power to hurt one another is great. And as people of faith, our call instead is to always seek peace first.

Rather than destroy the mob of spirits, Jesus showed them mercy.

I mentioned at the start of the message this morning that I wasn’t even alive when these conflicts started, but I learned along the way that over half of the population of Iran wasn’t around for the beginning of this conflict either. Half of their population is under the age of 25. A quarter of their people are under the age of 15. They certainly didn’t start the conflict, but they are impacted by it.

Mercy in these situations looks like recognizing each nation as a part of the human family and prioritizing human values over military claims. It means listening to the hopes and concerns of the other as we seek a way forward.

 

Second, this story reminds us that there are no easy answers to these negotiations. There are sacrifices and consequences to be made along the way.

As Jesus showed the Legion mercy, he allowed them to enter a herd of pigs that were grazing nearby. As we heard our lay reader say, nearly two thousand animals were possessed and driven mad, they charged over a cliff into the lake and drowned.

While pigs are not clean animals and wouldn’t have been part of the diet of the Jewish families, this was a gentile region. Someone or many someone’s lost their entire herd that day. The economic livelihood of many families was probably destroyed.

Yet, you also have to consider that the economic well-being of the region was probably hampered to begin with if this possessed man had been terrorizing the countryside. Travelers and merchants probably avoided the area as much as possible.

Every negotiation has a give and take. Diplomacy is not easy and it is important to consider what must be sacrificed for the greater good. That doesn’t mean anyone will be happy… and the people of the region, though initially relieved were pretty upset with Jesus over the pigs.

In our diplomacy with Iran and Cuba, we might not all agree on the specifics of the deals. But we must remember that in all cases, a negotiation means we let some things go, so that we might reach other objectives.

 

Lastly, this is a story of reconciliation. Relieved, embarrassed, ashamed, the man who had been possessed by the Legion, now didn’t know what to do. He begged Jesus to allow him to run away with the disciples.

But Jesus refused. He ordered him to return to his own people, to his own community, to find his place there again.

In every encounter Jesus has with those who are displaced, shunned, or isolated, his end goal is to return them to their own community. It is not to rescue or remove them, but to reconcile them. Think of the Samaritan woman, or the prodigal son, the lepers or the hemorrhaging woman? In every instance, they are healed so they can return to their place in society.

If we are the Body of Christ, then we need one another. This church community needs those we disagree with and those we don’t understand. We all have something to teach one another.

On a global stage, we might not all share the same faith or belief systems, but we are all human beings. We breathe the same air and need the same water. Our economies and politics impact the people of this world, not only their leaders. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together.

 

As we encounter the news and hear stories of our diplomatic ties to Iran and Cuba and other places where our relationships have been difficult, let us think of the Gerasene Demoniac.

Think of the man, the Legion, and think about how Jesus walked right up and offered a path forward. Not an easy path, but a just path, a merciful path, a path towards reconciliation.

May we seek these things in all of our relationships.

Amen.

Image: Second Coming of Christ With Two Gospel Miracles
Detail: Christ and the Gerasene Demoniac
Artist:  Alexey Pismenny

Keep P.U.S.H.ing!

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My aunt Barb has been diagnosed and treating uterine and ovarian cancer for about two years now. She has been through a few rounds of surgery, chemo, and radiation. Some of it has been successful! Some of the cancer has returned. It has been an up and down journey, but she has had quite a few healthy months in the midst of it all.

Through everything, family and friends have been a huge support and together they have participated in Relay for Life the past two years.

As Team Triple B, their slogan is “Keep PUSHing”

For them, PUSHing means that you Pray Until Something Happens.

 

Pray Until Something Happens.

 

In these past six weeks, we have talked a lot about prayer. We started out by talking about prayer as group activity… something we do together. Pastor Todd talked about prayer as an intimate relationship with our parental God. Trevor invited us to think about prayer as something that is always hard and always necessary – a sweet devotion. Our guest preachers, Pastors Ted and Mara, have led us in a variety of disciplines and continued to stretch our thinking on how we practice prayer.

While I was away on leave, I spent every single morning in prayer. I wish I could say that I always spent every morning in prayer, but as Trevor so eloquently stated in his message, prayer is hard work.

Yet, on my renewal leave, my only real task was to pray. To pray for you. To pray for our ministries. To pray for God to guide me and us. And I read a lot about prayer as well.

One of the things that kept striking me is that we need to pray like we mean it.

We need to pray about those things in this world that we really want to change.

We need to pray until something happens!

 

In our gospel reading, Jesus was walking into Jerusalem and he passed by a fig tree. Even though it was out of season, he looked for fruit and didn’t find any. So he said, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” The tree withered, dried up, and died within 24 hours.

Jesus prayed… and something happened!

Now, I’m going to be honest… this is a rather strange story that leaves us with all sorts of questions:

Why would Jesus punish the tree when it couldn’t help that it was the wrong season?

The scripture says he was really hungry… so maybe he was just really grouchy, like I often get when I haven’t eaten in a while…

Because, I mean, what kind of Jesus is this that arbitrarily causes things to die?

United Methodists don’t typically buy into the kind of prosperity gospel that says if you pray for what you want, you will get it.

We are fully aware that all kinds of faithful people pray for things like healing and miracles and help and the answers aren’t always what we want.

Maybe that is why even though it is a story mentioned in both Matthew and Mark, most of the cycles of scripture readings pastors use completely ignore this passage. We’d rather Jesus didn’t have this encounter with the fig tree.

 

Yet, the core of the message here… aside from the weird stuff with the fig tree… is repeated over and over again by Jesus.

Ask and it will be given to you.

Seek and you will find.

Knock and the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9)

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains… nothing will be impossible (Mt 17:20)

If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

If we pray… stuff will happen! Not little stuff… BIG. GIGANTIC. POWERFUL. MOUNTAIN SIZED stuff!

That’s what scripture tells us.

That’s what Jesus keeps reminding us.

Prayer is powerful.

 

There is a important thing to remember in this power of prayer, however.

This power only works when our prayers are aligned with God’s will.

If I started praying for a bigger house today… I probably wouldn’t get it. Because that is not about God… its about me.

As 1 John puts it: If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for what he wanted… but he ended that prayer: not my will, but yours be done.

What I love about my aunt’s prayer during this time  is that while she has all sorts of hopes and wants and desires for her treatment, their goal is for God’s will to be done.

They are going to Pray Until Something Happens.

That might be good news and healing. It might be deeper relationships.  It might not be the ending they want, but they are open to discovering God’s blessings and God’s answers along the way.

And through it all… they are going to pray.

 

I have found that we don’t hesitate to lift up prayers asking for healing. We are even pretty good at lifting up prayers of gratitude.

But there are things in this world that we are called to do and change and work towards… and we forget to pray about it!

We get so caught up in what we are doing that we forget to ask God to be a part of it. We keep thinking it is all about us.

And when we do so, we forget to tap into the mountain-moving power of prayer that is right there at our fingertips.

 

 

And that is what we need to do.

Last fall, we sat down and spent some time asking God what we were supposed to do here at Immanuel. And out of those conversations as leadership, we set some goals around places we have passion and we felt God was moving. Now… we need to pray about it.

We need to Pray Until Something Happens.

 

One of those goals was that we wanted to increase our visibility in the community… We want get to know our neighbors better… And our goal, our hope, is that those new relationships will mean there are 10% more people here in worship at the end of this year.

But you know what… we haven’t really prayed about it. We haven’t asked God to help us with this work. We’ve been trying to do it on our own.

 

Another goal we set last year was create space for people to serve here at Immanuel. We want to make sure that everyone is connected to some kind of ministry beyond Sunday morning. And one of the pieces of this goal is to encourage new people to embrace God’s gifts in their life and we wanted to find a place for 10 new people to serve on our ministry teams.

But we haven’t been praying about it. We haven’t asked God to help us.

 

And as the Iowa Annual Conference, we have this amazing new goal. As United Methodists, we want to make a significant impact on poverty in our communities and we think we can do something really big by addressing the opportunity gap in education. And so, we are being asked to get involved with an effort to distribute half a million books and to give a million hours of time over the next year. And it is a big and awesome and mountain sized goal and we are just getting started…

So you know what… we had better start praying for it.

 

In fact, we need to start praying for all of these things.

We are going to need God on our side if these things are going to happen.

If the world is going to change… if the kingdom is going to come… if God’s will is to be done, we need to ask for God to be involved.

We need to start praying until something happens.

 

As we leave worship today, you’ll find that there are some tables at the back with three different stations.

Each station relates to one of those goals I lifted up in the message this morning.

And at each station is a prayer card I want to invite you to take with you.

I want us to commit to praying for mountains to move.

I want us to commit to praying every day that God’s will be done in our midst.

 

You don’t have to pray for every single one of them… but pick at least one.

Commit yourself to prayer by name.

If we have at least 50 people here in the church praying for every one of these goals do you think God will hear us. Do you think God will sense we are not only people who care about these things, but we are ready for change. We believe. We have faith that God can make a difference here.

 

Ghandi once wrote:

If when we plunge our hand into a bowl of water,

Or stir up the fire with the bellows

Or tabulate interminable columns of figures on our book-keeping table,

Or, burnt by the sun, we are plunged in the mud of the rice-field,

Or standing by the smelter’s furnace

We do not fulfill the same religious life as if in prayer in a monastery,

The world will never be saved.

 

We may not share the same faith as Ghandi, but we all believe in the power of prayer. And Ghandi’s words remind us that prayer is not just for the super-religious, and prayer is not only for renewal leave… prayer is something we are supposed to be doing every second of every day of our lives.

 

We should be praying when we work.

We should be praying as we play.

We can be praying as we brush our teeth and drive to work.

We can pray at the dinner table.

We need to be praying everywhere, all the time, about everything.

 

And what I want you to do is take one of these prayer cards this morning and pray your heart out.

Put it on your bathroom mirror and pray it every morning.

Stick it in your car and pray before you get to work.

Take more than one if you want to, and put them wherever they might be a reminder to you.

Bring your prayers to breakfast and take turns each saying your prayer together.

 

Pray… even if your faith is as small as a mustard seed.

Pray that mountains might move.

Pray that kids might learn to read.

Pray that we might meet and grow with new people.

Pray that every person might find a place to connect and serve.

Pray.

Pray Until Something Happens.

The Shepherd King

As each year draws to an end, another begins.

It is a cycle, an ebb and flow, watching and waiting, the birth of the promise, and then we watch as that promise is fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ.  We witness each year his life, his death, his resurrection.  We watch as the Holy Spirit blows among the people and how the people of God respond.

And at the end of every yearly cycle, we have a glimpse of the Kingdom.  We have a glimpse of the one who will rule forever, eternal in the heavens.

In our epistle this morning, Paul gives thanks for the faith and the love of the Ephesians, and continues to pray that they might know Christ, who sits at “God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future.”

You know…. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords that is promised in Isaiah.

And so today, the last Sunday in the church year, we celebrate Christ the King.  We remind ourselves of his power and glory and majesty.

And next week, the cycle begins anew as we return to waiting and preparation in the season of Advent.

Christ the King.

What does it even mean for Christ to be the king of our lives?

What kind of King will he be?

Some kings in our modern culture are ruthless dictators.

Other kings are figureheads who only represent power.

I might have been watching too much Game of Thrones lately, but when I think of a king, the first image that comes to mind is a ruler on the Iron Throne.

A leader who is a part from the people, indifferent to their plight unless it affects him personally.

I picture a king whose battles and wars are for his glory and power.

Other biblical images of kings find people who are full of both faults and incredible wisdom.  At times, we see them sitting in judgment over the people, much like we find Jesus doing in the vision of the end in Matthew 25.

The King is the final arbiter of the law.  When there is conflict among the people, the case is brought before him as their ruler for a word of justice.

Often, when we think of traditional ideas of kingship, the ruler is the judge, jury, and executioner who parse out sentences according to the laws of the land.

Laws that he probably wrote.

So, it is to be expected that when we come to the end… the end of the year, the end of our lives, the end of the earthly realm… that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will sit upon the throne and will give a final account.  He will determine who is worthy to enter the kingdom.

In Matthew 25:31-32: “When the Son of Man comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.  All the nations will be gathered in front of him.  He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

Just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

What are shepherds doing in this story?

Historically speaking, shepherds and kings belong on opposite ends of the social spectrum.

While kings have armies at their disposal, the shepherd personally protects the sheep. His very body is their first line of defense.

While a king leads from on high, issuing orders through his commanders and sending word through the land, the shepherd leads from the midst of the sheep.

I learned that there is a difference between the way we lead sheep here in the West and how they would have done it in Jesus time, and continue to do in the east. We often herd our sheep like a king would – pushing them forward towards their destination, often with the aid of sheep dogs or other animals. When they begin to go the wrong direction, we push them onwards, or the dogs nip at their heels, and eventually they get where they are supposed to.

In the East however, the shepherd personally led his flock. He would have stood near the front of the flock, but was always in the midst of them. As he walked, they would walk with him. Wherever he went, they would go.

Kings are often indifferent to the plight of their people, but a shepherd knows each one in his flock by name.  And a shepherd wouldn’t hesitate to leave behind the entire flock in order to search for one that was lost.

Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, judges us, calls us to account, in the way a shepherd would.

He gathers the flock together and calls them by name.

He speaks and at the sound of his voice, those who recognize him come running near.

 

But what they and we are surprised by is that Jesus doesn’t judge us by the laws of the church and the kingdom.  You know…. by how many times we came to church or even by holding us accountable to the 10 commandments.  He doesn’t ask if we ate shellfish or if we were circumcised.  He doesn’t separate the married from the divorced.  He says not a word about the tithe or ask how many times we lied.

He separates the people into those who fed and clothed the poor, who welcomed the stranger, who visited the sick and imprisoned…. And those who didn’t.

Jesus, our King, is a shepherd at heart.

Even at the end, his concern is always for the flock.  It is for the lost, and the least and the last.  It is for those who have been forgotten.

The rules are only good in so far as they have led us to be shepherds alongside him in the world.

You see, Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Shepherd of Shepherds and as his people, as his body the church, OUR task is also to care for the flock.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when the story came out a few weeks ago about Arnold Abbott who was arrested for feeding the homeless.  Abbott is 90 years old and has now been arrested twice for this act of loving his neighbor.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I learned of the death of Dr. Salia this past Monday.  Dr. Salia went to Africa to serve at the Kissy United Methodist Hospital in Sierra Leone.  He went to the sick, to offer his gifts and skills, and contracted Ebola while he cared for those who were ill.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think of the hundreds of people who have poured into Ferguson to stand in solidarity with a community that is frustrated and grieving after the death of Michael Brown… especially those who have worked to bring non-violent training to the young people who felt like they had no other options but violence. Today, I hold them all in prayer as they await the grand jury decision.

I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think about one of our United Methodist ministers here in Iowa, Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner,  who has had a complaint filed against him for officiating a same-sex marriage.

In all of these complicated and difficult situations, I feel the tension between the law and tradition and scripture and what we are supposed to do… and the call to be with and serve the flock, to tend the sheep, to care for the people.

 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

None of these are easy situations.  Our lives are full of complicated choices that can put us in danger or on the wrong side of the law or put us at odds with our neighbors.

But as Paul prays for the Ephesians, so I pray for us… here at Immanuel, in the Iowa Annual Conference, for the people in Ferguson, and for our brothers and sisters across this world who are hungry and homeless and sick and imprisoned:

“I pray that that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, 19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.”

Christ is our King. Christ is the head of our church and our lives.  Christ is the shepherd who is leading this flock.

May we turn our hearts towards prayer.  May we seek God’s wisdom and power and hope.  May we hear the voice of our shepherd and may we go where he leads us.

Amen. And Amen.

Spirit of the Underdog

In 1887, a new term was coined in the English speaking world – the “underdog”… as opposed to the top dog – who was the dominant person in a situation or hierarchy, the winner, the victor in a fight or contest of wills. The term likely comes from the world of dog fighting, but soon the phrase was applied to politics, games, matches, and life in general.

We have seen the term “underdog” change from describing the outcome of a contest to the expectations for the outcome…. The underdog is the one who is expected to lose.  The underdog is the one facing the uphill battle.  The underdog is the victim of injustice who starts off at a disadvantage.  The underdog doesn’t have the power, the money, the strength, or the system on their side.

And our bible is full of underdogs… people who march into battle with nothing but slingshots to face a giant… people who head into the seats of power as prophets… people who fight with trumpets instead of swords… people who are not afraid of what might happen to their own lives if they speak the truth…

And in our journey through the book of Acts today, we find disciples who by all accounts are NOT the top dogs of society.  Their leader has recently been crucified, and yet still they go around working and witnessing and worshipping in his name.

As Zoe read for us, immediately after Peter and John healed the lame man in the temple they began to talk about Jesus and his power… and the powers of this world swoop in.  They are not happy, to say the least, and they throw the pair in jail for the night so that they will cease and desist.

The next day, a council comes together… the same sort of council that gathered around Jesus – questioning him and sending him off to be crucified.

Jessica Hagedorn, an American playwright and poet once said: “I’m an underdog person, so I align myself with those who seem to be not considered valuable in polite society.”

That is precisely what Peter and John have done.  Not only have they aligned themselves with the name of Jesus, but they have also aligned themselves with a poor, helpless, and up until yesterday – lame and useless man.

But right there on the margins, on the edge of society, is where the Holy Spirit moves.  And so even though they were standing in front of the High Priest, the elders, and the legal scribes… even though they knew the danger and the risk… even though they knew the outcome seemed grim – Peter was moved by the Holy Spirit to speak:

“Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.”

There the man stood.  The one who was lame for birth stood there – right next to Peter and John as a living witness of the power of Jesus Christ.  It was not a miracle done in the privacy of a home but in the middle of the temple and half of Jerusalem had seen it.  The leaders were shocked by the disciples confidence, overwhelmed by the support of the crowds that gathered for these  underdogs, and couldn’t figure out how to punish them and enforce their power without making themselves look bad.

Peter and John aligned themselves with the underdog – with the man on the bottom of society’s food chain… and for once that underdog was winning… the crowd was on his side… they were on the right side of justice.

In our society today – there are many people who are pushed around and broken.  Last week we talked about the power of prayer and the healing power of God, but God also calls us to simply stand with them.

We are moved by they Holy Spirit to stand with the widow and the orphan.  We are moved by the Holy Spirit to not just minister to the poor, but to get to know them and find out why they are poor and work to change that.  Our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ takes us to the dark and lonely corners of our community – to people who have no one – in order to reflect the light of God into their lives. We, like Peter and John, are called to pay attention to the underdogs and to stand with them…. even if it means that we put our own selves on the line.

I talked a few weeks ago about how even “the church” has been an agent of oppression and injustice in this world.  For a long time, we were on the wrong side of issues of equality for African Americans, justice for native peoples, and the inclusion of women in the pulpit.  But throughout our history, there have also been countless people who have said, “no,” to the church and who chose to stand with and for those people until they found a place at the table.  I am utterly grateful for those who became underdogs for my sake.

And so today, even if it means that I might get myself in trouble, I cannot ignore my calling to stand with underdogs.  Last week, we talked about how Peter and John were led to stop by the side of the road and heal the lame man… and in the same way, the Holy Spirit leads each of us.  We all have different issues that are close to our hearts, but whatever they are –  we have to act, we have to do something, we have to stand up for the underdog.  Maybe it is justice for the immigrant, or support for those fighting cancer, or kids who go hungry every day.  Maybe it is with single parents, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who feel excluded from the church.  Maybe it is with any parent facing the uphill battle of raising kids today.  Whoever it is, wherever they are… if they Holy Spirit calls you to stand with them and for them, go…  even if it means that you yourself become an underdog.

H. Jackson Brown, Jr. – the author of “Life’s Little Instruction Book”  once wrote:  “I never expect to lose.  Even when I’m the underdog, I still prepare a victory speech.”

And in the blessed hands of the Holy Spirit, you and I always have a victory speech ready, too.

In our passage from Acts, Peter and John found themselves in front of the high and mighty in the religious leadership and yet the Holy Spirit gave them the words to speak.

As I think more about it – their speech would have been the same whether they were facing commendation or condemnation.  They were simply speaking the truth:  This man was healed in the name of Jesus Christ who you rejected.  Praise be to God!

As much as the council wanted to throw the book at these two – the crowds were not on their side.  Even with all of their power, they couldn’t win.

I believe that this passage reminds us that neutrality is not an option.  When we choose not to speak or stand with the underdog than we have registered our vote with the top dogs.  The only reason that the council lost the power they held was because of the strength of the crowds – because they spoke the truth, because they were willing to put themselves on the line for justice.

When the Holy Spirit calls you to speak, you just might be the voice that tips the scales in the favor of the underdog.

With the crowds turning against them, the council had nothing left to do.  They tried to maintain their face and they scolded Peter and John and warned them to not preach in Jesus’ name again.

And Peter and John responded:  “We can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

As Christians, our victory speech is the testimony of our hearts about what Jesus Christ has done in our lives.  Everytime we tell it, it is good news.  Whether we are on the top of the pile or the bottom, it is good news.  On good days and on bad days, it is good news.

The musician behind the familiar song “Proud to Be An American,” Lee Greenwood once wrote:  It bothers me to know there is the possibility that I as a Christian would be not only an underdog, but that I would be trodden upon if I claimed that I was a Christian.

I have talked a lot this morning about standing with the underdog, but the very fact that we are Christians make us underdogs in this society.  We start out at a disadvantage.  We will be ridiculed, misunderstood, antagonized, and trampled on.  If we’re not… then we are doing something wrong 😉

I actually believe the beauty of the fact that we no longer live in a Christian nation is that we now have the freedom to truly live out our faith.  Without the blanket assumption that everyone is a Christian, people can see the difference between someone who claims to follow Jesus and someone who really does it.

Too many of us are afraid to associate with the name of Jesus.  We are afraid of being rejected and cast out of our families.  We are afraid of offending.  We are afraid of finding ourselves in a vulnerable position.

You are not alone.  You are in good company.  And for far too long, we as Christians have been timid of speaking the truth of our faith.  My prayer is that the Holy Spirit might move among us like it did among Peter and John and the disciples and early followers of the way of Christ.  My prayer is that we might be challenged to stand with the underdogs, that we might speak the good news in love, and that we might not be afraid to become underdogs ourselves.

Because you know, when the storms are raging and all the powers of this world seem to be against us – that is when Jesus’ power is seen most clearly.

Our children learned this week that with God on our side, we have nothing to be afraid of.  The wind and the waters obey him… the devil doesn’t stand a chance… the hungry are fed… the lost are found… the lonely are loved… all because of Jesus Christ.

Maybe the key to this story is the realization that we are not actually underdogs at all… in the grand scheme of things – we know in whom true victory lies.  Goodness is stronger than evil, life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness.  In the big picture – the powers of this world have nothing on the power of Jesus… they are the ones who will lose.  They are doomed from the start.

We can no longer despair at the pain and suffering because we know through Jesus Christ that all will be made well.

The question of Jesus keeps coming back to me… Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

Victory is already ours…. So lets boldly start proclaming the good news.