No One is Beyond Hope

(painting by C&C member Pam Hancharik)

Acts 9:1-19

Chuck Colson served as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973. Once known as the President’s “hatchet man”, Colson gained notoriety at the height of the Watergate Scandal.

To put it mildly, he wasn’t highly regarded.

Slate magazine writer David Plotz described Chuck Colson as “the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.”

He collaborated with a group to break into the psychiatrist’s office of Daniel Ellsberg, the man known for releasing the Pentagon Papers. He had hoped leaking personal revelations about Ellsberg would help discredit the anti-Vietnam War cause.
When that wasn’t successful, he distributed information from Ellsberg’s confidential FBI file to the press.

News stories claimed Colson once boasted that he would run over his own grandmother to re-elect Nixon.

By most measures, Colson would be considered a very bad man.

It was Colson’s fierce intensity that struck fear in many who encountered him.

When it was revealed that the think-tank Brookings Institution possessed politically damaging documents, Colson proposed firebombing the place and stealing them while firefighters put the fire out.

By his own admission, Colson noted he was valuable to the President … “because I was willing … to be ruthless in getting things done”.

In March of 1974, Colson was indicted for conspiring to cover up the Watergate burglaries.

But this wasn’t the end of the road for Colson.

As he awaited arrest, his close friend, Raytheon Chairman Thomas L. Phillips gave Colson a copy of Mere Christianity, the classic theological book by C.S. Lewis, which articulated in the plain speech the fundamental teachings of Christianity.
After reading it, like a flash of light, Colson was transformed, devoting his life to Christ, and become an evangelical Christian.

Although several in the media ridiculed his conversion, claiming it was a ploy to reduce his prison sentence, Colson was undeterred. He joined a prayer group led by members of congress from both parties and set out to be a new man.
After prayer and consultation with his fellowship group, Colson approached his lawyers and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
As a result, Colson was given a one-to- three-year sentence and fined $5,000
He served seven months in Maxwell Correction Institute in Alabama— from July of 1974 to January of 1975.

While in prison, God continued to work on Chuck Colson.

He became increasingly aware of what he saw as injustices done to prisoners and noticed shortcomings in their rehabilitation. He became convinced that he was being called by God to develop a ministry to prisoners with an emphasis in promoting changes in the justice system.

After his release from prison, Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, which today is “the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families”. Colson worked to promote prisoner rehabilitation and reform of the prison system in the United States.

In addition to these efforts, Colson wrote best-selling books and received numerous awards and honorary doctorates for his Christian advocacy. He was a well-regarded public speaker, using his experience to share a gospel message of hope to a world in desperate need of it.
Colson once said,

Where is the hope? I meet millions of people who feel demoralized by the decay around us. The hope that each of us has is not in who governs us, or what laws we pass, or what great things we do as a nation. Our hope is in the power of God working through the hearts of people. And that’s where our hope is in this country. And that’s where our hope is in life.

Power, pride, shrewdness, and corruption led to the collapse of Colson’s life. But after public humiliation and paying his debt to society, Colson elected to place his hope in Jesus Christ.
In doing so, Colson found redemption in the wake of corruption. He became an instrument of Christ, improving the lives of millions of inmates and their families across the globe and sharing the gospel.

Once known for hurting people, Colson later became known for helping people.

Once considered beyond all hope, beyond redemption, Christ used this man to become a vocal advocate for the gospel.

Because if there is one message of the gospel, it’s that no one—no one—is beyond hope.

My prayer is that this message brings comfort to you.

Because we all know people – or know of people-, whom it seems as if all hope is lost.
They’re too far gone.

Maybe it’s someone who has hurt you so badly that forgiving them is 100% out of the question. Time and again they’ve exhibited inexcusable behavior to the point where you have written them off.

Maybe they’re loved ones who continue to make bad decision after bad decision, putting themselves and others in harm’s way.
Repeated attempts for assistance- maybe from you, maybe from others, have come up empty. And it’s drained you of everything you have.

Maybe its someone who seems to have had every possible opportunity- every conceivable advantage– but never seems to be able to lift themselves up out of their challenges. We see this a lot with famous actors, athletes, and musicians.

Sometimes it’s addiction. Sometimes it’s mental illness. Sometimes it’s just poor judgment.
But regardless of the reason, hope seems to have escaped them.
They’ve ruined every opportunity.
They’ve burned every bridge.
Hope is lost.

To many, Paul would have fit this category. If you were a follower of the Way, as the writer of Acts describes early Christians, Paul, or Saul at the time, was about as bad as one could be. He brought terror to those outside of his worldview. He was known to not only threaten, arrest, and imprison Christians, but torture them as well. It is no surprise that when Ananias heard God order him to go tend to Saul, he was reluctant.

To early Christians, Saul was lost. Without hope. Lost to the dark side.
But that’s usually when Jesus makes an appearance. And he does on the road to Damascus.

But if you notice, Saul isn’t instantly restored through this appearance.
Jesus works through Ananias. Jesus appears to Ananias and has him go, lay hands on him and says,
“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

And immediately, he regained his sight. He arose and was baptized.

Ananias became an instrument of Jesus to help Saul restore his hope and step into the future God has planned for him.

Thomas Phillips became an instrument of Jesus to help Chuck Colson restore his hope and step into the future God had planned for him. By something as small as handing him a copy of an inspirational Christian book.

Where could Jesus be using you to help someone the world has deemed hopeless? How could you be an instrument God uses to restore someone’s hope and help them step into the future God has planned.

We can all become instruments of God’s grace. We can all become like Ananias, summoned to go to someone and offer them the love of Christ. A love, which can have transformative power.

They usually aren’t dramatic scenes as Paul experienced on that road. Oftentimes, they are as simple as offering someone forgiveness. Reminding them of your steadfast love. Staying persistent in prayer. Or offering them a book.

No one is beyond hope.

Paul experienced this personally and deeply. And he shared this experience most notably in his letter to the Romans when he wrote,

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In Christ, hope is ours.
In Christ, hope is for all.
No matter what.

May it be so.

Amen.

A Matter of the Heart

Mark 7: 1-8; 14-16; 21-23

I will never forget when I was younger my sister and I, who were occasionally prone to bickering and fighting, were in quite the heated altercation. I can’t even remember what it was about. But in a moment of anger, pure white-hot rage, I yelled at the top of my lungs,
“GO TO HECK!!!”
Now my sister thought little of it. In fact, she was probably reveling in the fact that she had clearly gotten under my skin. But it’s at that moment when I heard the dreaded sound. Like a fierce warning. That loud, rhythmic clip clopping of high heels colliding with hard-wood floors.
My breath tightened. My sister and I both knew what this meant.
The moment seemed to hang in balance. Neither of us saying another word. I dare say we barely moved.
The dreaded sound drew closer, the heavy pounding of hard wood floors shifting to the muffled, progressive stomp ascending the stairs.
In an instant, my sister’s door threw open and there in the doorway was my mother.
All red hair and fury, glaring at me.
“Justin Brook Seaford. What did you just say?”
In a panic, I responded, “I said go to HECK, Mom! I didn’t even say the word!!”
“But you MEANT it,” she responded. “Which is just as bad. Now go to your room.”
I slinked off in shame, baffled at how my strategically edited verbal assault on my sister had backfired.
I’ve never forgotten that experience, so props to my mom for some effective parenting! And although different in scope, it illustrates one of the messages in today’s Gospel.
In the passage, Jesus is trying to teach the disciples, Pharisees, and even us, that it’s the meaning behind the purity laws that are important, not just the rote adherence to them. The motivations of the rituals.
It’s what they mean.
Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and legal experts at the time who are calling him to the carpet, wondering why he and his disciples are not living according to the “tradition of the elders”, by not purifying their hands with water before eating.
Jesus lashes out, quite forcefully, accusing them of being hypocrites by quoting Isaiah 29:
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me.
To Jesus, it is apparent that the Pharisees and legal experts aren’t concerned with hygiene, they’re more concerned about making sure people are publicly following of the rules.
Because this was a big deal at the time. And before we get too judgey, it’s important to note that the intention of the officials was mostly sincere and devout. The observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them; to give glory to God. In the midst of Roman occupation, these laws were seen as a way to protect and preserve the Jewish faith.
But in execution, well, let’s just say the intention was lost. These rituals or traditions had devolved into legalism, where the intention was no longer the driving force. Legalism takes into account outward actions, but not inward feelings.
There’s an old story about this criminal who was a devout Muslim. As you know, a follower of Islam is required to stop everything and pray at certain times during the day. As a result, they have to carry prayer mats with them at all times. Well this story has this man chasing someone, knife raised in the air, ready to pounce and murder him. Just then, the bells ring out signaling him to pray. So immediately he stops, pulls out his mat, says his prayers as fast as he could, and then rose to continue his murderous pursuit.
Legalism can make what were once devout, meaningful rituals into meaningless external exercises.
The focus becomes more on appearances than honesty.
It’s sort of like when you catch your kids breaking a rule and you call them on it and they passively snap, “Sorry” and then continue on, without truly expressing regret or remorse.
Jesus is announcing that he isn’t concerned about the outward appearances as much as what originates from the heart. Jesus is more concerned with what’s animating the ritual. What’s behind it. Jesus is more interested in what it means.
Because rituals and traditions, in and of themselves aren’t bad as long their meaning is sincere. This is why Jesus doesn’t reject the Mosaic Law or reject the issue of defilement. What he’s rejecting are the interpretations of these laws, referred to as “traditions of the elders.”
Some background:
Originally for the Jew, the Law meant two things: first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and also the Pentateuch, which are the first five books of the Old Testament. Now it’s true that in the Pentateuch there are a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions. But in the matter of moral questions, they were content with Jews interpreting and applying these moral principles for themselves.
But in the 4th/5th century before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts known as Scribes. These folks needed definition. The needed these principles expanded and detailed into a thousand little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation. Life was no longer governed by the principles, but by these rules. Originally known as the “Oral Law”, eventually these were written down and became known as the “tradition of the elders”.
And to Jesus, these interpretations—these “traditions” had deviated from their intended meaning.
They no longer served their intended purpose, to draw us closer to God.
Depending on the tradition, many of us grew up having to don our “Sunday Best” when we went to church. Any of you remember that? Now at my church in Elkin growing up, you didn’t set foot in that place unless, for guys, you had on a sport coat and tie, and for ladies, you had on a dress and perfect hair. That was just what was expected.
Now if the intent for dressing up is to demonstrate respect and reverence for God, then dressing up is perfectly appropriate. Should maybe even be encouraged. But if its real intent is to show off and bring attention to yourself, well then, Jesus would maintain that its missing the point.
It’s all a matter of the heart.
It’s sort of like volunteering, serving, doing good deeds not for the service itself, but so you can be seen as a “good person”.
Let’s be honest. We are all occasionally guilty of this, aren’t we?
In this passage Jesus is imploring all of us, really, to focus on the heart. Jesus has rarely been about the externals. He urges us to be mindful of our motivations. Not to do things just for appearances, like a ritual whose meaning has been manipulated. But to behave in a way that is an authentic expression of a pure, loving heart.
His heart.
And that is available to us through Christ.
Because as a result of our Baptism, we are indeed joined to Christ. His heart becomes our heart. His purity becomes our purity. In doing so, Jesus is able to work through us so that our actions are HIS actions- pure and sincere.
Each and every day.
I really mean it.
Amen.

A Sermon on Reason & Faith

John 6: 35, 41-51

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
T.E. Lawrence, the archaeologist, writer, and diplomat who was later immortalized in the movie, “Lawrence of Arabia” was a close personal friend of Thomas Hardy, the poet. In the days when Lawrence was serving as an aircraftsman in the Royal Air Force he sometimes used to visit Hardy and his wife while wearing his uniform. It so happened that on one occasion his visit coincided with a visit from the Mayoress of Dorchester, a lofty, regal person. The Mayoress was bitterly offended that she had to engage in a social capacity with this lowly serviceman, not knowing who he was. Speaking in French, as to secretly communicate with Mrs. Hardy she said, “never in all my born days had I had to sit down to tea with a private soldier!”
No one said anything;
until T.E. Lawrence said in perfect French: “I beg your pardon, Madame, but can I be of any use as an interpreter? Mrs. Hardy knows no French.”
A snobby and rude woman had made a shattering mistake because she judged by externals- by her interpretation of appearance, by worldly standards.
That is what the Jews did in this morning’s Gospel passage.
They kept murmuring about Jesus because He said: “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” They kept saying “is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Based on their perspective and their worldly standards, it was inconceivable that this man could be what he claimed to be. It defied reason.
It is all the more amusing that their professed knowledge of what is true- that they knew of his father and mother – in itself was wrong. As Jesus’ earthly father might have been Joseph, his real father, of coruse, was the Father in heaven.
Sometimes our “knowledge” inhibits us.
Especially in matters of faith.
In external and worldly matters, by all means, let reason be the judge.
When you’re calculating P&L’s for your business, most definitely use reason.
When you are wrestling with a complicated problem, by all means, use reason.
Reason most definitely has its place. Please don’t misunderstand me.
But in heavenly matters, and matters of faith, it might behoove you to cast reason aside.
Because reason, my friends, will never get us to faith.
Think about it:
Reason is not at work when we consider the transformative work of the sacraments. It just doesn’t make logical sense! Jesus Christ being fully present in the bread, in the wine. There is nothing “reasonable” about it.
Reason comes up short when we contemplate God in 3 persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Reason fails us when we consider the central tenets of our faith:
A man born of a virgin, who suffered death and was buried. And bodily rose again. A man fully human, fully divine, who on the cross took on the punishment for sin we deserved but transformed that into righteousness.
How on earth can that be? It just doesn’t. make. Logical. Sense.
This often happens in matters of faith.
In the Letter to the Hebrews we cling to the words, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
Faith is unreasonable! It defies logic!
So how then can we arrive at this faith? How can we overcome our earthly training and ways of being so that we might have this faith?
Jesus offers us an answer in this passage when he tells us “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (6:44)
It’s not really our choice at all. The Father draws us to him.
Interestingly, the original word used here for “being drawn” is the Greek word, helkuein. And it almost always implies some kind of resistance. It was the same word Jesus used for drawing the heavily laden nets to shore in John 21. It’s the word used in Acts to describe Paul and Silas being dragged before the magistrates in Phillipi.
We are drawn by the Father, but often not without some resistance. And that resistance is often as a result of our reason. Even Mary asked the Angel Gabriel, “How can this be?” Reason suggests that a virgin can’t be pregnant with God’s Son.
Reason cannot accept the fact that Christ came from heaven and is God’s Son, that He is the celestial bread and yet has a father and mother on earth.
But again I tell you, in matters of faith we often must jettison reason to fully embrace the life we are promised.
Luther wrote, “If our God were to present us with sensible doctrines- doctrines which our reason could comprehend- none of us would be saved; we would all be lost”
He continued with his customary, straight-forward style,
“If Christ did say it, then we should cling to it, whether it harmonizes with reason or not, and no matter how it may sound.”
Now, this could lead us to an overly literal reading of Scripture. I’m certainly not advocating for that. But is it possible we occasionally overthink some of the matters of faith, especially when it pertains to Scripture?
Is it possible we say to ourselves, “well, that most certainly cannot be true because it makes no sense at all! I don’t like how that sounds so therefore I’m dismissing it altogether!”
I know there are a lot of areas where I wrestle with that same instinct.
But truth is truth, whether it seems reasonable or not.
As famed writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
Yet it’s become almost fashionable to pick and choose which doctrines we believe, or to tweak them so to be more palatable for our modern sensibilities.
Paul warns against this instinct in his letter to Timothy when he says, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2Tim 4:3)
Sometimes our reason, our desires, conflict with matters of faith.
But there is good news!
We needn’t’ worry about this. We have a great teacher!
Jesus says in the passage, “All will be taught by God”, quoting Isaiah 54:13 “all your children shall be taught by the Lord and great shall be their prosperity”
We are taught by the Father. But how can this be, really? How does this happen?
In his commentary, Luther explains, “The Father draws us to the Son by His mouth, His doctrine, and His Word.”
We learn by studying the Scriptures. We learn by listening to God’s Word preached. We learn through the teachings of the Church.
This is not to dismiss the discerning work of the Spirit. There is most certainly a role for the Spirit. A big role! Seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit is essential. But I maintain that there can be an overemphasis in spiritual discernment that can be quite risky.
Much in the world today elevates spiritual discernment and spirituality. And in and of itself that is a good thing.
But if your spiritual discernment conflicts with the Word of God, I encourage you to proceed with caution. Wrestle with it in prayer. Engage a trusted fellow believer. In the history of the church, spiritual discernment was never an individual enterprise. It was always in a group of believers. So don’t go rogue!
As the body of Christ, rooted in God’s Word, we hold each other accountable, supporting one another, and guiding one another especially in matters of faith.
This is the nourishment Jesus promises.
The bread of life. Which came down from heaven.
What sustains you, what nourishes you is Christ. Nothing else has this power. And it’s offered to you freely. Other things are wonderful- the love of friends, family, the joys of success and accomplishment. Material possessions are nice, too. But they are not life.
Jesus promises, “This is the truth I tell you—whoever believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life.”
And it’s given for you.
It might defy reason. But it is most certainly true.
So again I borrow Luther’s words:
“Believe it and away with your presumption! Do not rationalize and reason it out! Close your eyes! Put down your cup! Quit grumbling! Believe the Word which Christ submits to you, namely, that He came from heaven, that is, that He is God’s Son, revealed to the world, born of Mary… conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
Believe these words. Let them into your heart.
Because they are the words of eternal life.
Reasonable? Probably not.
But true? You bet.

Amen.

A Heady Sermon for a Sunday…

Mark 6:14-29
July 11, 2018

If you ever needed proof that we don’t pick the texts for the week, here it is. After being out for the last 2 weeks- one to take some high school youth to Houston for the National Youth Gathering and the other for family vacation, I arrive back to preach on this lovely passage. So HEADS up, it’s also not really the easiest passage for which to find the “good news”. Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance in the story. And it doesn’t even end on a positive note. But I don’t want to get a-HEAD of myself.
Today’s Gospel is sandwiched right between two important movements in the work of the disciples. The one before is of the disciples being sent out on their mission to proclaim the gospel, and the one that follows is about them coming back. So right there in the middle is this story of King Herod hosting this wonderful, fancy party for which to impress his people. I imagine he’s seated at the HEAD of this large table, around it of which sat political magistrates, military commanders, and prominent men. And in the middle of the party, Herod’s step-daughter performs a dance. And apparently not just any dance. We’re talking a dance so pleasing to Herod that he offers her anything she wishes as a reward- up to half his kingdom!
Surprised at this generous offer, she HEADS back to her mom to ask for guidance. And to seek revenge for John the Baptist advising her husband not to marry her—apparently even then it wasn’t exactly celebrated to marry your sister-in-law (In fact, it was illegal) —she advises her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
Whew.
Unwilling to LOSE FACE in front of his kingdom, Herod agrees to the macabre request and orders John to be executed.
So if you ever hear folks dismayed about how violent our culture has become, well maybe things aren’t so different after all. I mean, this is some real Game of Thrones stuff isn’t it. Brutal!
So what to make of this story? Where is the message here? Where is the good news?
Luther instructed us to “squeeze a passage until there’s good news” so let’s keep at this and unpack it some more.
Its placement between the two passages- the sending and the return- scholars believe is intentional and artistically strategic. Perhaps Mark is making the case that yes, the disciples are called out into the world to proclaim the good news, but that it can cost you your life. It’s an abrupt position.
One scholar noted, “It’s a sobering reminder to Christians, who might be under political or religious oppression or material allurement, to remain unwavering in God’s mission and commitment. Like the prophets of old, John the Baptist was willing to risk his life or his message and not succumb to public pressure.”
Jesus calls us to boldly proclaim the gospel, even when it’s risky business. We are to speak truth to power even when it’s scary. How many of us have been in a situation where the right answer was one that put us in jeopardy. Maybe your lives weren’t at risk, but what about your job?
A lot has been made in recent years of whistle-blowers. Employees who, upon witnessing unethical or illegal behavior, alert management or sometimes the authorities, to end the behavior. Oftentimes, these employees lost their jobs as a result of their speaking truth to power. Thankfully, awareness of these cases have brought protections for those willing to come forward.
The “me too” movement is a similar example. Women who often had to endure all forms of harassment in the workplace, often at the hands of powerful men, in order to retain their jobs or experience the professional advancement they felt entitled to.
Admittedly every case in these areas are unique, but it highlights the risks of speaking truth to power. The Christian life Jesus calls us to requires nothing less.
Maybe at times, as Christ followers, we lose sight of our purpose. In our daily lives we might forget that the message of Jesus is to live differently. Christians aren’t supposed to look and act like everyone else because let’s face it, following Christ is actually a radical way of life: loving our enemies, forgiving those who wrong us, caring for the needs of our neighbor over ourselves, radical sharing.
It’s not really what you see a lot in culture is it?
I would even argue that mainstream culture works AGAINST many of these values, which doesn’t make it any easier. Sometimes it seems like cultural pressures play in to our worst instincts.
Think about how easy it is to get pulled into that vortex of professional advancement, material consumption, self-promotion, and individuality. Before we know it, we’ve lost sight of those aspects of Christianity that are supposed to set us apart.
So when we have incidences where we are called to stand up for our faith at the expense of our cultural advancement. Well, we sometimes cave.
Look, none of us are exempt from this. Even churches get caught up in it. Where do you think the “prosperity gospel” came from? Those pastors on TV or any pastor really who preaches that God wants you to be rich! That material wealth is somehow a sign or an indicator that you’re “blessed”. None of which is really in the Bible.
No what’s in the Bible is that sometimes when you preach the gospel
or live the gospel
or witness to the gospel
you can get your head cut off, figuratively and literally.
But to share in the ministry and destiny of Jesus, discipleship will cost nothing less than everything.
At the National Youth Gathering last week in Houston, 31,000 youth—that’s right, 31 THOUSAND from all over the country gathered for a week of service, prayer, music, fun, and worship. Each night there were several speakers. Amazing speakers. And as I was preparing for this sermon, and as its theme sort of took shape, one stuck out.
Her name was Savanna Sullivan, Program Director for Young Adult Ministries in the ELCA. She gave a contemporary witness during the worship service on the final day. She shared her experience of preparing to leave for Rwanda as a Young Adult in Global Mission, but before her departure, her doctor diagnosed her with an auto-immune disease which he informed her had compromised her immune system. As a result, he recommended she not leave the United States.
She had prayed about this trip, she had prepared for it, looked forward to it, and felt deeply called by God for it. And now, she was forced with an agonizing decision to abandon it. After a conversation with her father, who like any parent was understandably weary of the thought of his baby girl going to another country with an compromised immune system, asked her through tears, “Savanna, are you willing to die for this?”
Most of us are never faced with such an agonizing decision.
Most of us will never have to make this kind of choice about our faith, one where our actual lives are on the line.
But after much thought and deep prayer, Savanna determined to think about it differently.
She returned to her dad, and with a shaky voice but one that didn’t portray her faith and resolve,
simply stated, “No dad. I’m not ready to die for this…”
“I’m ready to live for this.”
I’m ready to LIVE for this.
Because as Christians we are called to live our lives in a way that boldly proclaims the gospel. Lives not dictated or controlled by fear. Lives in service to the gospel. Even when risk is knocking at the door.
Jesus says in Matthew “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
They will find it. A life that is truly life.
Yes, the risks are great and yes they are scary.
But God offers us all the courage we need, all the hope we need. Because when we live lives in this way, we are partnering in the ushering in of the kingdom of God.
And that, my friends, is good news.
So the questions I want us all to consider this morning and beyond are these:
Are we willing to speak up or set the record straight under whatever conditions we find ourselves in?
When we see injustice, suffering, or abuse, are we willing to call wrong-doing what it is?

These are tough questions for sure. Heady ones even….
But they are questions whose answers- even in the face of death– open for us the keys to eternal life.
And that’s good news.

Amen.

Facebook and the Challenge of Listening

I don’t know about you, but I’m experiencing a profound weariness from the politically divisive climate for which we in this country are currently living.  It doesn’t matter which “side” you find yourself, there is a palpable tension about the other which leaves many of us on-edge and anxious.  This isn’t the first incidence of this tension in our country’s history, to be sure.  Our United States have weathered many a political storm,  but it’s the first for me.  And being one who DOES NOT LIKE TENSION, it has been a personal struggle.  Consider that I’m also a pastor and the situation only gets worse.  I often find myself seeking tools to lighten the mood or find common ground.  On the surface, Facebook would seem to be the perfect venue, right?

Think again.

It goes without saying that I enjoy Facebook.  I enjoy connecting with friends far and wide,  sharing in signficant life events such as anniversaries, vacations, and birthdays, and learning from news articles and pieces shared from various outlets. I enjoy making people laugh by sharing my family foibles and making fun of my lame attempts at coolness or dieting failures.  I enjoy sharing the various events of my congregation, hoping that it increases the visibilty of our church and encourages locals to visit. 

But it’s become strikingly clear that Facebook is currently NOT the venue for attempting to foster meaningful political dialogue.  On more than one occassion my attempts at carving out a middle-ground have been struck down by strident keyboard warriors either anxious to grandstand with their self-described superior views, or a juvenile refusal to engage in  open-minded civil discourse.  I’ve mourned many a well-intended post which quickly devolved into a petty, nasty, and sometimes personal argument.  I’ve been frustrated by meaningul threads derailed by individuals who seem more interested in espousing their views than participating in a conversation.

It’s a shame really.  Because Facebook could be a productive venue for engaging one another, a forum to exhange ideas and provide opportunities to listen to one another’s perspectives, and draw closer.  It could be dynamic instrument for social and political change.  But instead, at least from my perspective, it is often simply an avenue for folks to be affirmed by those who share their views and alienate those who don’t.  It is often simply an arena to stoke our narcissism.

Let’s not allow that.  I encourage everyone who’s taking a second to read this blog to be more intentional about Facebook engagement.  Try to listen deeply to another’s viewpoint, especially if it’s only different from your own, and seek first understanding.  Behind these posts are real human beings- flesh and blood, whose views, however alien they might be from yours, are usually born from an honest, caring, and sincere place.  

What you deem racist and (insert whatever)-phobic, could be honest ignorance. 

What you deem objective, could be another person’s subjective.

So perhaps with listening we can identify areas of agreement and use that as a springboard to work together to educate one another.

Look, I admire both sides’ attempts at prophetic witness.  Truly I do.  And I admire the passion behind the posts, whatever their intent.  I recognize we are all coming at this from varying points of privilege (or even oppression). 

But we are never, ever going to arrive at a place of peace unless we start listening to one another and engaging in civil discourse.  We are never going to dismantle these walls which divide us until we start working together.

And it starts with listening.  

Even if it’s on Facebook. 

Called Into the Storm

Mark 4:35-51

One of my best friends has the most amazing mountain house. It sits on top of the mountain overlooking a valley. It’s an amazing view. You can see for miles. And one of our favorite things to do was to sit on the porch overlooking the valley and watch the storms roll below from one end to the next. It was beautiful to see the dark clouds with the blinking of the lightning slowly crawl across the valley.
It’s easy to appreciate the beauty and admire the power of a storm when you’re safely removed from it.
But when you’re in the storm, it’s more difficult to appreciate the beauty and power isn’t it? When you’re in the storm you’re often confronted with the risk and the pain and fear that comes with storms.
So it’s only natural that rather than face these storms we would give up and retreat to what is comfortable. To seek cover, where we feel safe. Its only human nature that we would place our hands over our eyes, our fingers in our ears, and stay put with what is known rather than to venture out into the storms that seem inevitable with taking risk.
But safety is not the life Jesus calls us to.
I’m sorry to report that followers of Christ don’t have the luxury of remaining ensconced in safe, comfortable places. We are called to face those storms so we may partner in the development of the kingdom of God. A kingdom defined by love, equality, justice, and peace. And these are not easy tasks and they’re not void of risk. But Jesus gives us a righteous battle cry.
Jesus calls us to speak truth to power even when our safety is at risk.
Jesus calls us to care for the poor and marginalized even when it risks our reputations or livelihoods.
Jesus calls us to risk everything- our jobs, our families, our communities, our reputations – EVERYTHING for the building of the kingdom.
And we aren’t to delay.
“How about I go get my affairs in order, Jesus, then I will follow you…”
Nope.
“What if I wait until I have this much in my bank account, then I will freely give to your ministry…”
Uh-uh.
“Can’t we just process this a little bit, maybe send it to committee, vote on it, and then…”
Nope.
This isn’t what Jesus teaches. There is an urgency to the work of the Gospel. And no place is it better illustrated then in Mark, where “immediately” and “At once” are frequent beginnings to sentences.
Today’s Gospel speaks to this reality.
At this point in the story, Jesus has established a pretty successful ministry. He’s called a team of dedicated and loyal disciples for which to partner in ministry, he’s healed people from all sorts of diseases, he’s cast out demons, and he’s preached to large crowds.
One might think he could even sit back and rest a bit.
But that’s not the call of Jesus.
Rather than resting on his laurels, Jesus announces, “Ok, Let’s cross over to the other side.” There is little time between when he is teaching the crowds from the boat and when he announces the next move. The text reads, “later that day…” and off they go. “Just as he was” the text reads. No preparation. No delay.
I can’t imagine the disciples were very happy with this. Even in the midst of the uncertainty for which they were living, they probably liked this side of the lake. There was the security of it being somewhat known. They knew the lay of the land. They had grown up there, worked there, so they knew folks. Who knows what’s on the other side. They might have even heard stories about “those people”.
But rather than let them get comfortable, Jesus calls them to pick up and go there. To step faithfully into the unknown. Because this is always where God seems to be calling us. God is always urging us to step outside of our comfort zones, to break down the divides which separate us and cross over into the other side.
God doesn’t see boundaries. God is constantly tearing down walls, tearing down boundaries to unite God’s people. God is always pushing us, calling us, urging us to cross over to the other side to care for those who have been discarded, outcast, or ignored. Throughout all of Scripture just when boundaries are established, there is God stretching them, dismantling them, and tearing them down. God knows that these boundaries we create only give us an illusion of safety. And what’s more, they only serve to divide when God is in unity.
As Christians when we encounter the “other” that is where we truly encounter Christ. When we are on the other side- wherever it may be—the other side of the tracks, the other side of town, the other side of our borders, that’s often when we are doing the most effective kingdom building.
This is where the disciples find themselves. Called to go there.
And to their credit, they obediently follow. Leaving behind the shore of comfort and off to spread the good news on a new shore.
And just as they probably feared, crossing to the other side involves some storms.
And despite being expert fishermen, familiar with the territory, the text tells us, they’re afraid. Deeply afraid.
And in their struggle they are aghast to see Jesus asleep in the in the rear of the boat.
“Don’t you care that we are drowning??” they scream. They don’t ask “Don’t you see?” they ask, “Don’t you CARE.” It’s almost as if they’re asking if Jesus values them at all. It’s almost as if they’re accusing Jesus of abandoning them in the midst of their storm.
How many of us have felt this? I know I have.
How many of us have felt like in the darkest of nights, when we are tossing and turning awake, battling the storms in our own lives, that Jesus was asleep, with what we think is little regard for us.
How many of us have felt like, frankly, Jesus didn’t seem to care about us at all?
But Jesus’ response is telling.
When awakened, Jesus speaks to the wind and it settles down. Jesus speaks to the sea, and it calms. Jesus establishes his authority over creation and at once settles the chaos around. With just words, Jesus demonstrates his power. Jesus demonstrates a sovereignty over all of creation- the winds, the rains, the seas, and the land.
And then he turns to them and asks, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith?”
Convicting words for sure. Because even though the disciples had witnessed Jesus performing great miracles and even though they had risked everything to embark on this journey with him, maybe just maybe they weren’t’…quite…sure.
Who could blame them?
But Jesus’s words remind them, and remind us, that his power is ever-present.
Because even when we are called to new shores, even when called to the other side, Jesus is always with us, even when we think he might be asleep in the stern. Jesus is right there with us in the midst of our storms, ready and willing to calm them so that we might do the work for the kingdom.
But notice the purpose is not just to calm the storms in our lives just so we will be happy. That doesn’t seem to be the point at all. Jesus doesn’t seem to be so interested in protecting us from danger and risk so that we will feel safe and protected and comfortable. That doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
Jesus is equipping us for the journey. Jesus is working with us so that we might continue on in our efforts to help usher in the kingdom. To bridge divides. To love those who are feeling discarded. To accompany those who feel abandoned. To care for those who are neglected. To liberate those who are persecuted. This is the kingdom of God!
Jesus is removing all those excuses which seem to keep us safe and protected, absent from the courageous work of the gospel. Jesus is calming those storms that keep us on the shores of our safety.
But that doesn’t make it less scary. We can know that Jesus has the power to calm our storms but that doesn’t mean the foreboding darkness that builds and threatens isn’t still scary. And those risks can drive us back to our comfortable shore that is known.
What does it look like for you? For me, I often feel reluctant to preach challenging sermons if there is a risk of political backlash. That’s just one of my storms. Sometimes I am reluctant to speak out on social justice issues, even when the Gospel requires me to do so, because I really, really like to be liked.
What is yours? What are the storms in your life that might be keeping you from stepping into the boat with faith?
Those things that frighten us, those storms that keep us at bay, those things that prevent us from building the kingdom of God, Jesus is with us in those storms. Jesus equips us for the journey.
Jesus is telling us to not be afraid.
Even when the storms roar and rain starts to pour.
Even when the waves crash into our boats and we feel like we are sinking
Do not be afraid.
Jesus is with us in the boats.
But when he seems to quiet your storm and the calms has settled.
Don’t rest-
Because this is when the work really begins.

Amen.

Seeds of Hope: Malala Yousafzai

Mark 4:26-34

Malala Yousafzai was a bright, precocious 12 year old girl growing up in Pakistan. She was born into a lower middle-class family with little money. In fact, her family didn’t have enough money for healthcare, so rather than being born in a hospital, she was born at home with the help of neighbors. But what her family lacked in resources, they made up for with ideas, learning, dreams, and a desire to help the world. Her father, a poet and teacher, educated Malala and raised her and her two younger brothers to dream big and to look for opportunities to make the world a better place. He allowed her to stay up way past her bedtime to discuss politics. Long after her brothers had been sent to bed.
But soon Malala’s life was drastically changed. The Taliban rose in power and were implementing drastic changes. Television and music were banned, women weren’t allowed to be in public and girls were no longer allowed to attend school and receive an education.
Responding to an inquiry by the local BBC, Malala began writing a blog under a pseudonym describing life as a young girl under Taliban rule. The blog piqued the interest of the New York Times and soon they made a documentary on Malala.
With this, the young girl gained visibility in national and international media circles. She quickly rose to prominence and used this new platform for activism, speaking out against the Taliban and advocating for education equality. She appeared often on local media and even received awards for her efforts.
But as she became more recognized, the dangers increased.
One day, after finishing one of her exams, she was headed home on a bus with her friends. Suddenly the bus stopped and a masked Taliban gunman climbed on board and shouted for Malala. Upon being identified, Malala was shot point blank in the head.
The extraordinary, promising future of an amazing young woman seemed to come to an abrupt end.
A small seed planted in a violent world.
A seed with so much potential for good but seemingly trampled upon. S
A seed of hope tamped down in the ground.
But God had other plans.
In today’s well-known gospel passage Jesus is using the imagery of a mustard seed and its growth to describe the kingdom of God. Many of us, whether we knew the Bible or were active in our churches or not, knew this parable. Or at least the gist of it. How many of us had a mother or grandmother who wore a necklace featuring a tiny mustard seed encased in a glass, pearl? It almost became a cliché to hear “if you just had the faith the size of a mustard seed…”
And to some extent, they are right. Jesus is speaking to the potential of just a little bit of faith. Like a seed can grow into something large, our faith, too, can grow into large, impactful outcomes. This is most certainly true.
But Jesus is also contrasting for his original audience the expectation of the kingdom of God which they had heard about through their tradition-this kingdom of God is described in Ezekiel as a “noble cedar.” Tall, powerful, strong and stately. But Jesus is describing a somewhat different kingdom of God –one more along the lines of a modest shrub.
Because the mustard seed, when sown, does indeed grow into the largest of shrubs. But it’s still a shrub. It’s not a mighty oak or towering cedar. So this imagery would have been a bit of a shift for the disciples to hear. The prophetic dreams of glory for Israel looks less like power and more like
Hospitality
Inclusion
Care
Despite their size, the branches of these shrubs, actively care for living things. Every bit of their being in service to their fellow beings in creation. Offering shelter and shade- safety and provision.
And these mustard bushes spread like wildfire. Some botanists compare them to ivy- they grow with abandon and soon are popping up everywhere- villages of God’s love and care for all of God’s creation.
Oftentimes, big things come from humble beginnings.
Jesus is describing the Kingdom of God as full of potential. But it often starts small. Like a little seed.
With God’s power something seemingly insufficient grows into something great. Not for its own glory, but to do the will of God. It’s about God’s power.
God’s kingdom.
And as the passage states just before this one, it’s going to happen whether we will it or not. The seed grows not because we make it, but because God empowers it.
As Jesus explained, the grain grows whether we are awake or whether we are asleep. It’s God who does the growing. The sower doesn’t control the outcomes, God does.
God uses the tiniest efforts of faith to explode them into substantial efforts.
But the sower must distribute the seed. This is the partnering God calls us to for the kingdom of God.
But we don’t need to worry about the outcomes when it comes to faith. Nope, God will do that. But we are invited to plant those seeds. We are invited to sow just a little here, a little there. We are invited to nourish the seeds.
Seeds of love.
Seeds of grace.
Seeds of hope and joy and promise.
Seeds of radical welcome and loving inclusion.
These are the origins of the kingdom of God.
Once these are planted. Once these are sown. God takes care of the rest. And then the whole world starts to change.

After the horrific attempt on her life, Malala was airlifted to a military hospital where doctors began operating on her brain, which was swelling as a result of the bullet passing through. After a 5 hour operation, the doctors, calling it a miracle, were able to successfully remove the bullet which had been lodged in her shoulder near her spinal cord. Malala was later transferred to the United Kingdom to better her chances. 4 months later, after numerous surgeries, a cochlear implant to restore her hearing, and a procedure to reconstruct her skull, the courageous young activist was discharged from the hospital and released to recuperate in her home.
Malala would ultimately fully recover and rather than let fear drive her into the shadows, she courageously set out to continue her fight for female as well as children’s rights around the world. And at the age of 17, Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever to receive this prestigious award. She became a best-selling author, an in-demand speaker, and established a global foundation which funds schools in impoverished countries.
An unlikely seed God used to grow into a mighty force in the world.
Malala might have been a young 12 year old girl in the midst of an oppressive regime which didn’t value girls.
Malala might have been a child in a world which only listens to the voices of adults.
Malala might have been a citizen of a country whose needs many in the Western world turned a blind eye to.
But she was planted.
And God had different plans.
Her curiosity, her courage, her ambition, her passion – they were all seeds which were sown and God took over.
God, along with her community, nourished Malala and grew her efforts to shed light on the oppression of a forgotten people in a forgotten world.
Malala became the face for equality throughout the world and as a result millions of girls in countries all over the world were granted education.
That sounds a lot like the kingdom of God Jesus describes in the Bible.
But not all of us grow into famous, high profile change agents. That doesn’t mean we are any less effective. God uses each and every one of us just as we are with our unique gifts and even our special flaws to help build God’s kingdom.
Yes, we all start as seeds. But our powerful God grows us into something special.
We don’t really know how it works. That remains a mystery. But being open to God using us is part of our task as partners in kingdom building.
So my challenge to you today is to reflect on how your efforts are helping build the kingdom of God. How are you partnering with God in this place at this time to proclaim the gospel?
WHAT IS GOD DOING IN YOU? HOW IS GOD WATERING YOU? MAKING YOU GROW? WHAT NEW THING IS GOD BRINGING INTO FRUITION WITH YOU? BECAUSE IF THERE’S ANYTHING THAT’S TRUE, IT’S THIS: GOD IS AT WORK IN YOU. WHAT LIES AHEAD IS AN ADVENTURE OF DISCOVERING WHAT GOD IS DOING, AND GROWING WITH GOD AS WE SPROUT FROM SEEDS TO DO AMAZING WORK THAT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD, EVEN IF IT’S ONLY YOUR LITTLE CORNER OF IT.
Because whatever our origins, however small we view our presence, however modest or insignificant we might interpret our potential, God sees as a seed ready to be grown into something great.
AMEN!

Don’t Miss the Magic: A Sermon for Graduates

Mark 2:23-3:6
In the Gospel lesson today Jesus is with his disciples on the Sabbath walking through the fields. As they’re walking, the disciples begin to pluck off the heads of the grain. Presumably they did so because they were hungry and maybe needed a little snack. Who knows how long they’ve been walking. A quick look at a map in the back of your bibles show that Jesus walked so much and so far he would be the Fit Bit Champion of all time if he were tracking steps. So they might have just needed a quick bite. But they might not have been hungry at all. They may have just been mindlessly snapping them off as they walked; out of sheer boredom. Who knows.
But all of sudden, the Pharisees seem to jump out and sound the alarm saying, “Look! Why are they doing what’s unlawful on the Sabbath?”
First of all, where were the Pharisees to notice this? Were they furtively walking a few paces behind like private investigators, watching the group’s every move? Or were they hiding in the fields like paparazzi only to spring up to catch them in some sort of misstep? Second of all, why did it matter? Indeed work was technically forbidden from the Sabbath. So would this be considered work?
Jesus seems to take this all in stride. Maybe at this point he’s used to the Torah Paparazzi, so he casually responds by giving the example of how David did the same sort of thing when he was fleeing Saul. When he and his companions were hungry and they had no food, David entered into the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, sharing some with his friends, which would, in the strict sense, have been unlawful for anyone but the priests.
But the point is clear- the Sabbath is made for humankind, not the opposite. The Sabbath rules intended to restore God’s people offering them rest. The point of the Sabbath is to help humanity have a fuller life, not to constrict them. The Sabbath was intended to serve as an intentional time to reflect on God’s blessings and provisions. Like so many of God’s commandments, they aren’t intended to be some mystical power trip but to help God’s people. The Pharisees seem to be missing this. They’re so caught up in the rules and the legal specifics, that they’re missing the larger point.
The passage continues with Jesus entering into the synagogue and encountering a man with a withered hand. Again, the Pharisees seem to be lurking in the background, waiting for a misstep so they can pounce and catch him in an unlawful act. Jesus, knowing this, uses it as an opportunity for them to recall the lesson he just taught them in the fields—he brings the man before them and asks, “ok is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?” Basically saying, “ok folks, do I heal this guy or not?”
And the Pharisees are silent.
They’ve chosen adherence to their religious structure over the helping of another human being.
And this breaks Jesus’ heart. I can imagine Jesus with angry tears, glaring at the Pharisees, grabbing the man’s hand and healing it on the spot.
And this seals his fate. With evidence in hand—finally—the Pharisees race off to conspire how to kill him.
As I was reading this passage so many different thoughts came to mind, but one in particular seemed to stick out- did the Pharisees not realize that they had just witnessed a miracle? In front of them, Jesus heals a man! Heals him! Did they not notice that?
This wondrous act, this extraordinary act; that defies the natural order has just taken place right in front of their eyes and they seem to have just dismissed it altogether. In their spiteful tunnel vision they’ve focused so intently on finding fault with this man, on sticking to their rulebook, that they’ve missed the miracle. Right in front of them.
They’ve gotten so brainwashed by the rules that they’ve allowed it to overshadow the reason for the rules altogether.
Jesus has tried to show them that the rules are there to serve a larger purpose- to care for one another. The rules and regulations are intended to point to that which is worshiped, not become the object of worship themselves.
The Sabbath is for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.
Maybe this is an area where religion has gone off the rails. Some religious people have become so focused on following the rules and APPEARING religious that they’re missing God’s extraordinary work taking place right in front of them. Seeking certainty, they’re missing the wonder of embracing the mystery of the divine.
They’ve missed the magic of a life of faith.
This is nothing new really. Humankind has been trying to put God in a box for centuries.
And I get the instinct to lean on that which is black and white. I get that there is comfort in what is dependable. And I get that sometimes considering anything outside of that carefully constructed box can be a threat. I get it. It feels unsafe. It’s sometimes even scary.
But oftentimes embracing a new interpretation of something- letting your guard down and stepping into the unknown- allows God to do some incredible work and leaves you with an expanded view of the Creator.
Sometimes when we challenge our comfortable understanding of the world, we end up with a deeper, more authentic worldview and brings us more intimately into relationship with the other.
But when we stay locked in those safe spaces, we miss these opportunities.
We miss the magic.
We miss the miracle of God in front of us.
So don’t miss the magic.
Don’t allow your faith to be so legalistic and constricted that you lose sight of the purpose- to bring you into closer communion with God. Because trust me, our faith can take anything you throw its way.
My favorite author and pastor Rob Bell wrote in his book “Velvet Elvis” about how too many well-intended Christians miss the magic of faith by sticking too stringently to dogma.
He describes faith like a trampoline.
When jumping on a trampoline you recognize the need for springs. The springs support the surface for which you jump.
Those springs are the things in our lives that help us understand God and how to live faithful lives that honor God. They might be rules, regulations, doctrines, what have you. But the springs aren’t God. The springs aren’t Jesus. The springs can be removed, stretched, examined, and explored. That’s what makes them so helpful. They’re able to be flexible to examine its purpose.
But some prefer bricks over springs. Bricks are also those things that help us understand God. The bricks seem sturdy and dependable. They don’t bend or stretch. And together, with an assortment of different bricks, they can build a strong, sturdy faith that might be helpful to some.
But if you remove one brick. Just one brick to examine or question, the whole wall comes tumbling down.
Wouldn’t you rather jump? Wouldn’t you rather bounce? So don’t let your faith become so rigid that you lose the ability to experience the magic of a buoyant life of faith. Because this is the life Jesus offers.
Jumping can be scary. Jumping involves risk. Jumping requires trust.
But that’s where you find the true joy.
That’s where you find the magic.
Being a Christian today is absolutely awesome. But in some ways we’re getting a bad rap.
Now more than ever, Christians are being challenged for hypocrisy. And to be fair there are many examples of Christians who do awful things- make outlandish statements, advocate for horrific policies, and quite frankly do an enormous amount of harm all under the auspices of their faith. And when challenged, they run for cover under their strict adherence to a doctrine that is oftentimes misunderstood. But it’s carefully constructed with little room for examination.
Like or not, the media has in many ways helped establish this misunderstanding of Christians by giving air time to these folks. And as a result have unwittingly maligned a diverse, inclusive, loving faith.
As a result, there will be people who, when you proclaim yourself as a Christian, will be just like the Pharisees—who seem to track your every movement, waiting for an opportunity to pounce to expose you and your faith as hypocritical.
Because they’re used to bricks. And we’re used to springs.
So rather than keep your faith hidden, use it as an opportunity to teach.
Invite them into a deeper understanding of the Christian faith by sharing with them a God who works miracles in the world not by controlling an army of faithful rule followers but by inviting a host of unique created beings into a magical dance, guided by love and shaped by service to the neighbor.
Help them learn to jump.
Don’t miss the magic. And don’t let them either.
Amen.

Friendship

John 15:9-17

Growing up, I was blessed with good friends. Living in a small town made it easier, I think, because we could easily ride our bikes to one another’s houses. Our parents were friends. We went to the same schools, same churches, and would play on the same teams. If any of you are fans of the show “Stranger Things” that’s exactly what it was like. This was before kids were constantly entertained with a slew of scheduled activities. We had to make our own fun. So we created our own adventures. But it fostered true closeness.
We had each other’s backs. We looked out for one another, supported one another. We were a tribe. We were thick as thieves.
If one of us got in trouble, we all got in trouble, because no one was ratting anyone out. I recently read a quote that summed it up perfectly. It said, “A good friend would bail you out of jail. But a best friend would be the one sitting next to you, saying “dang that was awesome!” There is a mutuality to true friendship.
My best friend growing up was just like this. He was such a good sport. For example, I loved heavy metal in high school- Motley Crue, Poison, Guns & Roses- loved those bands. But not many of our friends did. Ok, none of them did. But he would always go with me to the concerts so I didn’t have to go by myself. That’s a good friend.
Any of you have friends like this? They’re a cherished gift, let me tell you.
Friendship is about loyalty.
Friendship is about trust and partnership.
Friendship is about love.
In the Gospel today, Jesus is instructing his disciples about this type of love. He tells them that when they keep his commandments, they will abide in his love. Now abide is an active word. Some translations use the word “remain” and that could work. But it doesn’t necessarily capture what’s going on here. Another definition of “abide” is to continue without fading or being lost. So in this context, when we obey God’s commandments, we will continue in God’s love without fading and without being lost. What a comforting promise.
I love that.
Because so much of what ails our society today is that feeling of being lost and detached. I think more people feel disconnected and isolated. I’m no psychologist or sociologist, but it’s hard not to think that perhaps the source of so many of our ails—depression, loneliness, anger, all this division – is not abiding in God’s love.
Because Jesus tells the disciples that by abiding in love, they will experience joy. The joy of Jesus will be in them. Abiding in God’s love means we will experience joy. I feel like our world needs a little of this joy right now, don’t you?
But Jesus isn’t talking merely about happiness here. He’s not promising this emotional response. The joy Jesus is speaking of here is a steady feeling of contentment. Jesus isn’t promising that following his commandments, abiding in his love, results in a state of euphoria.
Because we all know that following God’s commandments aren’t always easy. Two weeks ago I took some confirmation students to Lutheridge to learn and discuss the 10 Commandments. We agreed that they aren’t always easy. “Honoring my mother and father” isn’t always easy when you don’t feel understood or want to express my teenage independence. But we learned that God’s goal in these commandments isn’t control, necessarily, but to live in God’s love. And when we do this, Jesus tells the disciples, they will be able to rest in the experience of God’s love. I would argue that, regardless of our age, when we make the right decision, one informed by our faith and values, we do feel that good feeling. And that is joy. Happiness comes and go. It’s more of an emotion.
But joy- joy is an overriding feeling of contentment.
And this is what Jesus promises. And that’s what our world needs.
But it requires something of us. And Jesus doesn’t shy away from it.
He says quite clearly, “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. No none has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Now Jesus isn’t encouraging martyrdom here. What he’s telling them is that self-givingl love is what will identify you as a Christian. When you put others before yourself, that’s Christian love. It’s a surrender. I would guess many of you have friends in your life whom you would take a bullet for. It’s loyalty. I don’t believe Jesus is encouraging self-neglect or submission. But what I do believe he is saying is that putting others needs before your own is an act of Christian love.
Love one another as I have loved you, he says. How has he done this? Well, he’s washed the disciples feet, he’s risked his life and reputation to reach out to the Samaritan Woman, he’s healed, he’s fed, he’s encouraged. These are all marks of friendship. These are all active examples of loving and being a friend.
And that’s what he tells the disciples. That no longer are they simply slaves but friends.
Jesus is offering here something even greater. Friendship. The original hearers of this message would have realized what a big deal this was. And I hope you also realize it.
In some ways maybe our understanding of “Friend” has been cheapened in our digital age. We can easily “Friend” or “unfriend” someone in a matter of a click. And the responsibilities of these “friendships” are no more than occasionally “liking” one of their posts or tagging them in something they might enjoy. But here friendship means something much more.
A friendship means intimacy. A friendship suggests partnership.
Jesus is inviting the disciples- and us, for that matter- into a friendship with God.
God no longer has to be a distant stranger, but our intimate friend.
He chose us. Isn’t that amazing?
So how do we respond to this friendship?
How do we respond to this incredible, divine offer of friendship?
Jesus tells us. Jesus tells us to go bear fruit.
Live a fruit-bearing life.
Take care of other people. If someone is having trouble, help them out. We are blessed in this country in ways others will never be able to understand. So be a blessing to someone else. Share in that good fortune. Don’t be afraid that if you share you’ll somehow lose and someone else wins. Help someone else have a chance to experience the joy you experience. That’s bearing fruit.
Encourage other people. We all can use a little encouragement. Never try to guess who needs it and who doesn’t. You might be surprised whose day or week might be better with just a little encouragement.
Spread kindness. A fruit-bearing life isn’t one that tears other people down. I disavow this culture of meanness that seems to be becoming more acceptable. We need to honor and respect one another as fellow children of God.
Because as Christians we should live differently. If you’re abiding in love, you live differently. Christ gave himself so that we may live, so let’s live! Let’s live fruit-bearing lives. Let’s bask in the friendship of the almighty.
I think I learned a lot about God through the friendships of my youth. I learned how God always has our backs. How God is there with you, celebrating with you in the good times, and sitting next to you when life gets you down. God joins you on all of your adventures and one day will plop down next to you and say, “dang that was awesome”.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

My Tree-Huggin’ Sermon: Psalm 19

Late last year, a few of us from Cross & Crown set out to hike part of the Appalachian Trail. Getting on the trail had been a bucket list item for me for some time and I was so excited to do it. Unlike our very own Ralph Goodenough, who in just a matter of weeks is about to set out on what is known as “through hiking” the trail, meaning you hike all 2,200 miles, starting in Springer Mountain, Georgia and finishing up in Mount Katahdin, Maine. 6 months of straight hiking, through a variety of terrains and weathering multiple seasons. Well it might come to a shock to you but this body was quite happy with just a weekend on the trail. That was good enough for me.
But I was thrilled to escape the hustle and bustle of life and immerse myself in the splendor of nature. I was excited to join the thousands of hikers before me on this epic pilgrimage- if only for a segment of it- to travel where so many had traveled, participating in the folklore of the great AT (the Appalachian Trail for you newcomers). On the hike I would be able to contemplate the wonders of creation. I could marvel in the thrift of living off only supplies I was able to stuff into my pack, and satisfied with the realization of how little I needed. Hiking is a meditative act; an exercise in reflection. I was exploding with joyful anticipation.
Well, as Susan, Wayne, and Jared could testify, that first day—well, it wasn’t quite the vision I had anticipated. It rained—downpour rained- the entire day. ENTIRE DAY. We slogged mile and after mile through the cold, windy rain hoping for the skies to clear up and for the sun to warm and dry out our cold, soaked bodies. That was not to be. Having a flair for the dramatic I imagined myself an explorer in the new frontier, an attempt to positively reframe the disappointment of the experience.
Once we arrived at our halfway point, we decided to call it and returned to Lutherock to thaw and dry out by the fire and rest up, hoping that the next day would bring better weather.
And boy did it ever. The next day brought glorious sunshine. We returned to the trail with a renewed vigor. And it was everything I had dreamt it would be. The views were extraordinary—the colors were incredible. My disappointing experienced had been resurrected. Every single step was invigorating. At one point, which truly was the climax of the adventure, we climbed to the top of a hill- the highest point in a series of ridges- in the center of this extraordinary vista to have lunch. I slipped off my boots and leaned against a rock and soaked in this view. From every angle you could see for miles. The greyish blue ridges seemed to go on and on forever. The sky above was crystal clear and piercing blue-and the lush green hills rolled along forever. I truly was waiting for Julie Andrews to come spinning around at any moment. It was remarkable. I was blown away.
It was one of those moments where you couldn’t deny the existence of God. And not just some ordinary God, but an extraordinary, creative, artist of a God. And in this creation God was being revealed to me in a way nothing else really could. It was in this majesty that I could comprehend the majesty of God. It was in the power of this experience where I could comprehend the power of God. It was in this beauty that I understood that our God is a loving God; that God is beautiful. God longs to touch our souls with beauty and speaks to us in beautiful ways.
“Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.”
We comprehend God’s glory by noticing the work of God’s hands. Paul speaks to this in Romans when he states “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
One of the best ways to receive God’s message is through nature!
And as the psalmist writes, “There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard”
But so often, we miss these powerful messages. In these uncertain times, we are anxious and distracted. We are so fearful of missing out on something, we occupy every single second of our lives with productive activity. We get caught up in our busy, hectic lives that we not only neglect to read or study our bibles, but we barely step outside to soak in the warmth of the sun or the brisk refreshment of the cold air. We stay trapped in the stale, manufactured air of our office buildings and neglect ourselves of the energizing elements of fresh air. We remain captive to our computer screens and our houses and forget to get outside to be greeted by the inspiring colors of the grass, the trees, the flowers, and the sky.
Many kids are growing up this way- busy with schoolwork, tutors, video games, and scheduled indoor activities that they are missing out on the critical benefits of the outdoors. In his book, “Last Child in the Woods” child advocacy expert Richard Louv names the lack of nature in our wired world as “nature deficit disorder”. He draws from loads of scholarship to make the case that direct exposure to nature is critical for a healthy development in children. In fact, some experts connect the link to an increase in childhood allergies to the absence of the microbes in dirt. That’s right- kids are getting sick because they’re not getting dirty.
We are all God’s children and as God’s children, God knows us and loves us. And in this love God gave us all we needed to thrive through creation. This planet for which God plopped us down is teeming with all the resources we need for life.
But just like a good parent, God commands us to care for it.
Genesis 2:15 “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
And the Hebrew words for “work” and “keep” are actually better translated as guard, protect, and cultivate.
Numbers 35:33“You shall not pollute the land in which you live”
Over and again God in the Bible commands us to keep and care for the earth because God knows it’s not only one of the best ways for us to know God loves us but all because we need it for survival.
Wendell Berry writes in his poem, The Gift of the Good Land,
To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do it knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructively, it is a desecration.
So what are we doing with this gift? How do you think we’re treating these invaluable resources?
Breaking news: we’re not doing so hot.
We continue to destroy the land, denude the forests, strip-mine the hills, and burn through the resources. Rather than protect and cultivate the earth, as Scripture mandates, we abuse it.
Perhaps in these uncertain times we are panicked about time and as a result look to making our lives more convenient without taking into consideration how it impacts the future. We are pressured to do more and we are tempted to consume more. But these practices are coming at too great of a cost. Our addiction to plastic is compromising the Earth’s ability to sustain life as we know it. Our addiction to fossil fuels is polluting the very air we breathe. We are systematically choking ourselves. This is not of God. Like a good parent, God wants what’s best for us.
I can’t imagine God rejoices when we destroy natural habitats and acres of life-sustaining resources to simply widen our highways and pave another parking lot.
Its unlikely God thinks polluting our rivers and streams with wrappers and bottles is a good exchange for making our already hectic lives more convenient.
This planet is the only home we have. It’s been entrusted to us so we need to take care of it.
No advancement, no understanding of progress is worth this cost.
So we should heed the ordinances of God to resist these habits which are hurting us and impeding our connection with God. We should protect that all-important lifeline to our Creator.
This challenge might seem overwhelming but we’re all in it together. None of us are perfect, but God has entrusted us to take care of what we have been given. But s human beings, are part of God’s creation too so we can be part of the solution. We can reverse the damage we’ve done to the earth by making simple changes. By taking just a little extra time; by being a little more thoughtful, we can begin to care for the gift God has given us. Jesus says in Luke 12:48, “to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
So where can we start?
Some simple tips:
Of course, first of all we can recycle and buy products made with recycled materials. Check.
We can also reuse things. We live in a disposable world but not everything has to be single use.
Instead of buying all that bottled water, use a reusable one and fill it up. Instead of getting that mug at Starbucks in the morning, take your own. They’ll even save 10 cents off your price.
These are just some easy things to dip your toe in the water.
It has been said, “how one treats creation says a lot about how it view its creator”.
These are uncertain times. But what is certain is God’s loving care and communication through creation! To God be the glory. Amen.