Sunday, July 31, 2011

Everybody Has a Hungry Heart ~ Isaiah 55:1-5 ~ July 31, 2011

They say the fastest way to a person's heart is through their stomach.

At no time was this truer for me than when I was in college.  My Alma Mater isn’t known for great-tasting food in its dining halls.  All too often, ramen noodles were my meal of choice when the cafeteria food didn’t cut it.

One afternoon a friend called me and invited me to a “free dinner for aspiring entrepreneurs.”  Being a hungry business major with dreams of owning my own business, this was great news.  I gladly accepted the invitation.

At the door we were greeted by the smell of hot pizza—and by a smooth-talking young man in a silk suit.  The pizza was delicious—and I ate my fill. 

Dessert was a presentation about the business venture of a lifetime that would make all my financial dreams come true.  All I had to do was pay a $500 franchise fee and I'd be on the road to riches with my very own internet business. 

But after sitting through an hour’s worth of videos about all the cool stuff I could buy with my future fortune, I decided I’d heard enough.  This was a classic pyramid scheme and I wanted no part of it.  So I headed for the door.

“Where are you going?  I gave you a free dinner, and you're not even going to hear me out?”  After I told him I needed to go, he shouts “well then leave; I don't have time for quitters...”

My friend wasn’t a quitter...  He signed a promissory note for the $500 franchise fee.  In the end, all he got in return for his $500 was anger and a whole bunch of regret... 

Maybe the old saying should be “the fastest way to a person's heart is through their hunger” because that's exactly what the pyramid scheme was out to satisfy that night: my hunger for food and my hunger for the finer things in life, for which I was studying so hard to achieve.

Bruce Springsteen’s hit song “Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart” couldn’t be truer[i].  We are all hungry for something—and what exactly we’re hungry for is unique to us both in terms of our personalities and our situations in life.  Some are hungry for success and achievement; some are hungry for the respect and admiration of others…  Some are hungry for companionship…  If you’re going through difficult times right now, you may simply be hungry for comfort and healing…  In the midst of life’s stresses and pains, you may be hungry simply for escape… 

And sadly, there are many who are hungry for simple food—and their most basic needs… 

It isn’t morally wrong to have a hungry heart—any more than it’s wrong to hunger for food.  But where we go wrong is in the things we choose order to satisfy our hunger…

I once saw a bunch of signs in a shopping mall that read “help yourself to a little retail therapy.”  Basically, the sign said “if you buy it, you’ll feel good.”  Don’t get me wrong—there’s no harm in enjoying shopping every once in a while.  But as our hearts hunger, the so-called therapies we seek can easily become gods that take over our lives.  And we all serve false gods, whether we realize it or not.  We habitually turn to these gods to satisfy the hunger that’s inside of us.  These gods make us happy; they make us feel good.  But our hunger is never satisfied.  We get to that point when we just can’t get enough.  In time, these gods drag us into misery and darkness.  These gods only succeed in making us feel empty and dead.    

So God’s Word asks us: “why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and labor for that which does not satisfy?”  God knows that we’re hungry—therefore, God has for us food that is good; a food that will satisfy: the bread of life that is Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.  People can come and feast on the bread of life in water and Word, bread and wine.  You don’t have to have money because all of God’s children eat free. 

If you come you will eat. 

If you listen your hunger will be satisfied. 

Jesus is bread that satisfies our hunger for love and acceptance.  He is bread that satisfies our hunger for hope and healing.  He is bread that satisfies our desperate hunger for forgiveness in the wake of all of our failings and the hurt we bring to others.  He is bread that satisfies our desperate hunger for deliverance from the power of death.  Jesus is bread that satisfies our hunger for meaning and purpose in our lives—because we were created to feast on the riches of God’s grace and bear witness to the one who feeds us.  We come, we eat, and we listen in order that God will consume us.

Make no mistake—you will still be hungry after you’ve been fed—but that’s a good thing.  We can never get enough of the food of God’s grace—because this is a food that gives us life.  And God will never stop feeding it to us.  A disciple is not someone whose hunger for God has been completely satisfied.  A true disciple is someone who is constantly hungry—and who is always coming back to Jesus and listening to the Word. 

But it’s not easy to break free of our false gods—regardless of what they are.  It’s all too easy to look for that quick fix or that fast escape when our hearts hunger.  Every day is a battle to break away from their power over us.  But we do none of this alone.  God’s strength comes when we come to God, eating the meal of grace and listening to the promises of the Gospel.  God’s forgiveness gives us a new beginning.  God’s free grace leads us out of the darkness to a new day. 

When I was little, my mom used to stand at the bottom of the stairs and yell to my sister and me that dinner was ready.  This was one occasion that we always listened.  We ran down the stairs and took our places at the table because we were hungry.  TV, our favorite toys and (especially) our homework weren’t going to satisfy our hunger. 

So as God calls all of us to dinner, why would we want to be anywhere else?  Where else can we be fed with forgiveness?  Where else can we be fed with hope?  Where else can we be fed with a food that will give us life?  The best way to a person’s heart is through their hunger—because our love and our affection will always be upon the one who satisfies it.  God’s way into your heart is through everything that you hunger and thirst for today. 

Come and eat,

Listen and be satisfied,

And God will give the bread of eternal life.

[i] Springsteen, Bruce. Hungry Heart. Comp. Bruce Springsteen. 1980.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

God's Takeover ~ Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 ~ July 2011

It was Christmas morning, and all eyes are on my two pre-school-aged cousins as they opened their presents.  Their grandma and grandpa broke the bank to buy them the ultimate gift.  They walk the gigantic gift into the living room—which took almost a whole roll of wrapping paper to wrap up.  The girls light up with joy at the sight of this grand present.  They quickly tear off the wrapping paper and jump and shout for joy over their new present. 

While mom and dad unpack the present, the girls’ attention turns toward the giant box it came in.

Once it’s all ready to go, Grandma and grandpa ask them: “aren’t you going to play with your new toy?”  “Later,” they say.  “We’re playing house!” 

With dozens of presents are scattered all over the living room floor, the girls fall asleep from all the excitement.  Their dad takes away the giant box.  An hour later the girls wake up, and they cry “where’s our house?”  Mom says “it’s in the garbage.  Don’t you want to play with all your new toys?”  The older girl cries “we want our house back!”

It turns out that it wasn’t the expensive gift that girls loved most that morning—they loved the box it came in.  Now we’d be inclined to think that this is something only a child would do.  But unfortunately, this is what happens all too often with the gift of our baptismal faith.  Baptism is God’s version of Christmas morning—for that is when all of the treasures of God’s kingdom become ours.  We’re forgiven of our sins, delivered from the powers of death and evil, and given eternal life.  We’re sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. 

At first, we receive our faith with great joy, because we know how great a gift it is.  We know that when it comes to eternity, the heavenly treasures are worth far more than any treasures that can be amassed in this world.  But we end up doing exactly what my cousins did on Christmas morning: we forget our greatest treasure.  Even though we still believe in God, we fail to live for God.  We live for lesser treasures.  Everyday day life ends up ruling over us. 

Think for a moment about the two areas of our lives where we feel the most pressure: our schedule books and our pocketbooks.  Between our jobs, our families, and all of our other commitments that demand so much of our time—where does God fit in?  Where does God fit in during these tough economic times?  With so little time and money to go around, life’s pressures take us over—and they drain the life out of us.  We don’t pray or read Scripture, we don’t come to church, and we don’t give of our time and talents.  The world and its pressures are in control.  We believe in God—but we live as though God doesn’t exist…

But hear the words of Jesus’ parable:           

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in joy went and sold everything to buy that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold everything and bought it.”

In these two parables, people are caught up in their everyday routines when, suddenly, they stumble upon a great treasure.  And finding this treasure changes everything.  The treasure is now the cornerstone upon which these persons’ lives are built. 

The treasure they find is God’s kingdom.  Whenever you hear the terms “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” don’t be thinking of a place.  God’s kingdom is God’s rule.  In these parables, people’s lives are taken over by the rule of God. 

And what these parables teach us is that God breaks in to our lives in the midst of our day-to-day drudgeries—in the simplest and most unexpected ways.  In the midst of our routines, our frustrations, and even our hurts, God comes and takes us over.  In other words, we may not be seeking God—but God is seeking us.  And God doesn’t get frustrated by our stubbornness and give up.  God is out to claim us—and this is good news, because unless God is in control of us, this world and all of its pressures will be in control—and they will destroy us. 

Today God’s Word announces God’s takeover of creation.  It challenges us to stop; to pause in the midst of all the busyness and pressures we face and ask ourselves: are we ready for that?  Are we ready for God to come and turn everything upside-down?  Are we willing risk letting God be in control of our schedule books and pocketbooks?  Are we ready for God to reset and reorder our priorities?  Are we ready for God to break apart our routines, drive us out of comfort zones, and lead us forward into the unknown?  Are you ready for God to transform you from a Christian to disciple? 

This all may sound quite intimidating—as if God is going to make you even busier or take away things that bring you joy and rest.  We can’t help feeling uneasy at the thought of our lives being dramatically changed.  We can’t help pondering the cost of being a disciple—because when God rules over us, there’s a part of us that dies.  No longer do we live for our own sake or for the sake of gaining the world’s treasures.  But something new comes alive—and that is the life of Jesus Christ.  No longer are we bound to a life that will destroy us; for God gives us a life that is everlasting.  And even though a disciple is never guaranteed an easy and carefree life, we have peace and we have hope because our God reigns.  We rest in the assurance God’s Word speaks to us in Romans:

“…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Today our God is taking over.  Today our God is breaking into our busy and chaotic lives to claim every one of us.  The powers of chaos and evil—and the hardness of our own hearts may seem so great as to be unstoppable—but they are no match for our God. 

Today Christ invites you to his table.  In order that Christ may claim you as his own, he gives his body and blood for us to eat and to drink.  So if you are ready for God to come and take you over, come to the feast.  Be prepared for Christ to change you.  Be prepared to be a disciple.  But also be ready for Christ to give you peace and calm.  With God in charge, there’s nothing in this world that tear us away from God’s all-surpassing love.  So when you come forward today, be prepared to receive the greatest treasure of all that is Jesus Christ, and all of his forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Slanderers! ~ Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 ~ July 17, 2011

Sometimes I really hated being a teenager…

My first part-time job was working as a cashier at a major department store chain.  I’ll admit that I was young and immature and there were plenty of times when I was not always professional in my dealings with customers.  But I really tried to treat people well and do my job right.

But sometimes people treated me like garbage—and one of the reasons for that was because I was a teenager.  People assumed that I was lazy, stupid, and that I didn’t care about them.  Some people judged my character solely on the basis of my age.

Just a few days ago, Elizabeth and I were eating in a crowded fast food restaurant.  Normally we find a table in a section where the sun isn’t shining through the windows.  But that day, that section was occupied by some rough looking teenagers.  So I sat us down in a seat in the sunny section near an older couple. 

Now I didn’t see those teenagers acting up.  But without even thinking, I stayed away from them—assuming they were rowdy and would disturb my enjoyment of my lunch.  I guess I didn’t learn anything from my teenage years.  I didn’t even realize I did this until the next day, when I sat down to study today’s Gospel. 

In it, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner and his wheat field.  After the landowner sowed good seed, an enemy came along and sowed weeds among the wheat.  So now there’s a problem: there are weeds in the field.  These weeds are depleting the nutrients in the soil and could very well choke the wheat and ruin the harvest.  So the servants ask permission to go and pull them out.  But the landowner says “no”—because they would surely uproot the wheat along with the weeds.  So the weeds will not be collected until harvest time.  The landowner goes on to say that it will never be their job to separate out the weeds from the wheat.  That job will belong to the landowner and his reapers. 

In turns out that the greatest threat to the wheat was not the weeds—but the servants.  It was the servants who could cause the greatest harm to the wheat. 

With this parable, Jesus is once again turning everyday common sense on its head.  We know that there’s a weed problem on this earth—a problem we know as human sin.  If someone were to ask us to identify the greatest threat to the health and well-being of the children of God, we would naturally say “sin” and “evildoers.”  But Jesus is speaking of an even greater threat—and that is people who judge certain people as the children of evil and treat them accordingly.  The greatest threat to the children of God is when we put ourselves into God’s position as judge and we condemn people by what we say, by what we do, or by what we fail to do.

Now I’ve been here four weeks, and I’m glad to report that I’ve heard no one from this congregation say to someone else “God hates you and you’re going to hell.”  Unfortunately, there are plenty of churches and Christians who will preach precisely that message.  And what’s so tragic about these people is that they do this in Jesus’ name, as if to say that Jesus’ mission is all about exclusion and condemnation instead of inclusion, redemption, and forgiveness. 

But there are still two other ways that we put ourselves into God’s place as judge… 

We hear Scripture passages like the second half of today’s Gospel, that speak powerful and disquieting words about judgment.  We look at ourselves, fully aware of our own sin and our failings, and conclude that we are the weeds of the field headed for the fire.  We do not believe that God could possibly love us and forgive us for the things we’ve done. 

The other way we put ourselves into God’s place as judge is when we choose not to share the love of Christ with someone.  Throughout the day there are opportunities to talk about our faith or do something kind for a neighbor.  But instead we walk away.  Sometimes we look at those persons and assume, for whatever reason, that they won’t appreciate our kindness; they’ll reject us and think we’re stupid for sharing our faith.  We assume that they couldn’t possibly have faith in Jesus Christ.  Other times we judge ourselves as incapable of doing ministry.  We doubt that God could effectively use us to draw others to faith.

When we judge people and treat them in accordance to those judgments, we put ourselves in the God’s place—whether we realize it or not.  But remember how often, throughout Scripture, the devil is referred to as “the accuser” and “the slanderer.”  When we make negative judgments about anyone—even ourselves, we are giving voice to the devil’s lies.  And it is the devil’s lies that destroy the children of God—because they stand in the way of people hearing and fleeing to the promises of God.  As sin wreaks havoc upon us and our world, we can’t help but cry out to God like the servants in the parable.   Every day we suffer the consequences of evil and we are desperate for answers and for help.  But we cannot overcome with the problem of sin and make disciples of Jesus Christ by making judgments and assumptions about one another.  God’s mission in the world is a bountiful harvest of people who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord.  This mission is accomplished by the grace of God poured from the cross of Jesus Christ.  The harvest is not something to be underestimated—because we cannot fathom the vastness of God’s grace or the power of God’s Holy Spirit to bring people to faith.  Therefore we have no reason to judge any person as anyone other than a child of God—even if we see no signs of faith or no potential for that person to become a Christian… even if all we see is the enormity of that person’s sin…

We pray for those who do us wrong and cause us to suffer.  We ask God to help us to love those who are hard to love.  We ask that God would help them to turn from their sins and live in obedience.  We ask these things for others just as we ask them for ourselves.  We see every single person as a child of God who will inherit the promises of God’s kingdom because that is God’s will for everybody.  We tell others of Christ’s love and do good for our neighbors in the hope that they would come to a knowledge of the truth of God’s grace and mercy.

God will indeed sort the weeds from the wheat at the end of the age.  There will be judgment.  Evil and evildoers will be dealt with.  But let us remember the true nature of the God who is doing the judging.  Christ died on the cross because God hated sin and sin’s power to harm and destroy God’s own children.  Christ died because God loves sinners.  We are not to concern ourselves with the specifics of who is a child of God versus who is not.  That is not our job.  Our mission is to join Jesus Christ in preparing for the great harvest of children who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ.  That is God’s purpose for all creation.  That is our hope.  And to all who cry out to Jesus Christ for that hope, the kingdom of God will be given. 

Let anyone with ears listen!

A Wasted Ministry? ~ Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 ~ July 10, 2011

Oreo cookies are the best cookies money can buy.

Not only do Oreos taste great; they’re versatile.  Grind them up and make the best ice cream: Cookies and Cream.  They’re even great in pies and pudding.  And there’s more than one way to eat them.  You can eat them whole; you can dip them in ice cream or milk; or you can twist them apart and eat the creamy middle first. 

There’s no doubt that I inherited my love of Oreo cookies from my dad.  When I was no more than three or four, I had my own unique way of eating Oreo Cookies.  I’d lick off the creamy middle, and throw the rest in the trash.  I remember the day my dad caught me “enjoying” the Oreos.  His eyes bulged in horror and disbelief as he saw the remaining two-thirds of his favorite cookies in the trash. 

I learned two valuable lessons that day: 1) I learned to eat the whole Oreo, as indeed the whole Oreo is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. 

The second lesson I learned that day was about waste.  My dad wastes nothing—and he taught me well.  I squeeze every last drop out of my toothpaste tubes.  Any meal that I can’t finish becomes my next meal.  We drive nowhere that we can walk.  We run the A/C only a few hours per day.  And we’re always looking for ways that we can reduce/re-use/recycle. 

I believe I can speak for all of us when I say that we hate waste—because waste hits us in the two places where it hurts the most: our time and our wallets.  Time and money are precious—and we want to have something good to show for them.  We want them to be used in ways that make life better for us. 

So the biggest problem in the Parable of the Sower is all the wasted seed.  Anyone with common sense would sow their seed only in the best soil.  But in the parable, seed is sown in places where it can’t grow: on the hard soil of the pathway, on the rocky soil, and among the thorns.  The results come as no surprise.  We the hearers are left stunned at all the time and money that are wasted. 

But the power of the parable is in its shock value.  (This goes for all of Jesus’ parables).  Jesus wants us to be shocked by the sower’s waste.  Jesus uses that shock to teach us something important about God: and that is that God doesn’t operate by our standards.

Jesus wasn’t just telling the parable of the Sower; he was living the parable.  He preached God’s Word and performed all kinds of miracles so that people would believe that he was God’s Son.  But not everyone believed.  Entire cities rejected Jesus.  The religious leaders were convinced that Jesus had been sent by “Beelzebul, the ruler of demons.”  Even John the Baptist questioned that Jesus was the Messiah.  Like the three kinds of bad soil, there was no great harvest of faith among these people. 

So we wonder: why did Jesus waste his time on these people?  Jesus knew what was in people’s hearts.  He knew the people who were going to reject him—and even knew why they were going to reject them.  But that didn’t matter.  He ministered to them anyway.  He preached God’s Word and loved the people, even though they didn’t deserve it.  That’s what grace is.  God doesn’t operate by our standards.

Even though we see waste, inefficiency, and failure in the parable—much of the sower’s seed did fall into good soil—and the harvest was tremendous: up to a hundredfold return on every seed sown.  In the same way, Jesus’ ministry did create faith.  And we’re not talking small groups of people.  We’re talking large crowds—thousands of people.  And make no mistake—those who did believe were no more worthy of Christ’s love than those who rejected him.  All are sinners.  But by grace, they had faith.  By grace, they believed.

In the same way as this parable was lived out in Jesus’ own ministry, the parable is also lived out in our own lives of faith.  It’s so tempting to think of ourselves as the “good soil” Jesus spoke of in the parable—because we believe, and because we are part of his church.  And that would be true—we have faith only because God’s Word has take root in us.  But that’s not the whole truth…  We are also the hard soil when we don’t believe in God’s promises and fail to obey God’s commands.  We’re the rocky soil when tough times “scorch our faith…”  And we’re the thorny soil when all the cares of our lives and the treasures of the world choke our faith.  We are not always fruitful in living out our faith.  But if you know that you’re heart is not good soil right now, the Parable of the Sower is good news for you.  Jesus never stops sowing his seeds of mercy and hope in us.  There will be a time—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow—that your heart will be the best possible soil to receive the seed of God’s Word.  Jesus will be there to sow the seeds—and your faith will bear fruit.  Keep praying; keep reading the Word and coming to church.  God’s Word will take root in you.

And God’s Word will take root in the ministries of our congregation—but that doesn’t happen any more easily than it happens in our own lives.  We want to invest our time and energies into ministries that will grow us as disciples of Jesus Christ, and help us to attract new members.  But the old saying “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t necessarily apply to the Church.  How easy it is to feel like we’ve wasted our time after we’ve spent preparing for a special event or a Sunday school class—and no one shows up.  That fear of failure; that fear of wasting our precious time and money is one of the biggest obstacles we face as we move forward into our future.  But we must never let that fear deter us from doing what God has called us to do.  Nothing we do to minister the love of Christ will ever be a waste.  If we persist, if we continue to do what we believe God has called us to do, our efforts will ultimately bear fruit by God’s help.  Therefore, we plan our events, we teach our classes, we help the poor, and we invite un-churched people to come with us to church.  We take risks on new ways to grow our witness.  We persist even when things don’t turn out as we hoped.  We do these things assured of the promise God spoke through the prophet Isaiah: “My word shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  

Even when our ministries don’t seem to be bearing fruit; when our faith seems non-existent, we can never waste our time doing those things that God wants us to do.  We’re on God’s time—and God’s time cannot be wasted on us.  Therefore let us trust in the promises of God—and let us persist.  Let us never stop seeking God’s Word and God’s presence in our lives; let us never hold back on our witness to Christ’s love for fear of failure or rejection.  God’s purpose for the world is a harvest of people whose lives are caught up in the life of Jesus Christ.  Let anyone with ears listen!

The Freedom to Rest ~ Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 ~ July 3, 2011

 If you were to ask me what I love most about the fourth of July,

I wouldn't say "fireworks..."

I wouldn't say "backyard barbecues..."

I wouldn't say "carnivals or parades."

Now don’t get me wrong—I love fireworks and barbecues.  But what I love most about July fourth is that it's one of a few days that most working people take the time to have fun; and be with friends and family.  July 4th brings us one more day of much-needed rest—and all of us need rest. 

As Americans, we believe living the American dream is the reward for hard work and dedication.  So we work hard—and push ourselves to the limits, believing that we can bring the American dream within our reach.  Our young people are being pushed harder and harder to earn good grades, hold part-time jobs, and succeed in sports, the arts, and community service.  But for many of us, we do all the hard work we can handle and still struggle to make ends meet. 

It seems as though life in these United States is not permitting us the simple freedom to rest and take the time to enjoy the freedoms that we are so blessed to have.   We are a people burdened with many obligations and many commitments.  I'm not saying that we shouldn't work hard or strive with all our might to achieve our God-given potential and provide the best possible future for ourselves and our children.  But at what point does all of our work and all of our busyness begin to harm us?  Are we pushing God out of our lives because there simply isn't time?

To what would Jesus compare our generation?

God has blessed us to live in the United States to enjoy the freedom to worship and share our faith with others without fear of persecution.  The tragedy of our generation is that people everywhere are not experiencing the rest of Jesus Christ—and I’m speaking for Christians and non-Christians alike.  Some people simply choose not to receive Christ’s rest.  They choose to do other things instead of praying and being involved in the church.  There are other things that are taking precedence over living in relationship with God and God’s people.  But some people are so heavily burdened with commitments and obligations that finding time even to eat and sleep is a daily challenge.  So many people work long hours or in multiple jobs to make ends meet.  Many must care for children.  Some must care for sick or aging loved ones.  How sad it is when people say “rest is a luxury I cannot afford.” 

As one who bore the burden of our sin on the cross, Jesus knows the burdens we carry.  He knows what it’s like to be weighed-down.  Jesus invites us to receive his rest because he knows how badly we need it.  And all throughout the Four Gospels, Jesus rests.  Even though he was God, he was human—and he had human limitations.  God had placed on him the burden of dying for the salvation of the world—so he rested in order to be able to carry that burden.  He went off by himself to pray.  He spent time with his heavenly Father.  And Jesus slept. 

God has places burdens on us—burdens called vocations.  We are called to be spouses, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends.  We are called to serve Christ in our jobs and among our neighbors.  But God did not place these burdens upon us to weigh us down.  God gave us vocations so that the love of Christ can shine through us in our everyday lives.  But our lives must first be built on the foundation of rest—for it is our resting in Jesus Christ that will shape how we live as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Rest is not a luxury we can do without.  It’s a necessity that we can’t live without.  Jesus promises rest to everybody—especially those who are so heavy-burdened that they struggle just to make it through the day.  We need rest so that we can give the very best of ourselves in our vocations and to those who depend on us.  But for the Christian, we need rest so that we can experience the presence of God.  God is with us always—even when we’re busy.  But it is in rest that we can be fully present with the God who is fully present with us.  It is only in the ceasing of the day-to-day rush that we can experience the peace and stillness of God.  It is only in ceasing that we can offer God our worries, our sorrows, our confessions, and our praises.  It is only in ceasing that we can concentrate our mind and our will upon God as the Spirit speaks to us in Scripture, in Sacrament, in prayer, and in other people.  It is only in ceasing that we can be aware of the works of God’s hand all around us.  When we cease and take time to rest, we can see God at work in creation.  We can see God at work in other people’s lives.  We can see God at work in our own lives, in all of the daily blessings we are provided. 

And Jesus loves us so much that he doesn’t wait for us to find the time to turn to him.  If it were up to us to come to Jesus for rest, we would probably never come.  Jesus breaks into our hectic lives and our busy schedules to bring us to his rest.  Jesus comes to take into his hands every burden you carry, and give you his light and easy yoke.  His is a yoke of belonging.  His is a yoke that brings comfort, healing, strength, and forgiveness…  His is a yoke that restores us when we are weary and feel like we can’t go on.  His yoke is one that gives us strength to say “no” to those burdens that stand in the way of your living in his rest.  If you are not finding rest and time to be in the presence of God, pray to God for that rest.  Beg for it—because Jesus has promised it to you, you will receive it. 

We are a congregation of Jesus Christ today so that you and people all throughout this community and this world can enter into the rest of Jesus Christ.  We’re here so that those who are wearied by the changes and challenges of life can know the rest of Christ that is hope.  We’re here so that those who are burdened by the fear and terror of their own sin can know the rest of Christ that is his forgiveness.  We’re here to give rest to the poor and the hungry.  And we’re here so that everyone can receive the all-surpassing rest of Jesus Christ that lasts into eternity.

Rest is not a luxury you can do without; it’s a necessity that you can’t live without.  It’s not a privilege for a fortunate few; it’s a command to everyone.  We cannot live without God—and thus we cannot live without rest.  Rest is the foundation of a life lived in Jesus Christ.  It is only in rest that we can be refreshed and re-charged to live faithfully as disciples.  It is in our resting that we receive God’s grace and strength that will uplift and sustain us in all our labors and all our trials.

Real Freedom ~ Romans 6:12-23 ~ June 26, 2011

Last summer, there was a pop song at the top of the charts called “Billionaire.”  At any given time, there was at least one radio station on the dial playing that song during.  I’m sure some of our young people will know it well.  The song begins with the words “I wanna be a billionaire so bad; buy all the things I never had.  I wanna be on the cover of Forbes magazine, smiling next to Oprah and the queen.”  [i]

I don't know about you, but I can't say I’ve never dreamed about being a music star or winning the Power Ball.  Because with fame, fortune, and power comes freedom—the freedom to do whatever we want to do; be whoever we want to be; and reach for the stars.  Freedom means having no obligations to anyone but ourselves, and no obstacles standing in the way our dreams.  Freedom means no limits, no boundaries, no commitments to anyone but ourselves.  Freedom is living our dreams and doing whatever we want... 

Or so we think...

Since 2011 began I've lost count of the number of rich, famous, and powerful people who’ve have fallen from grace; people like Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and that former congressman who shall remain nameless.  These were people who truly believed they could do whatever they wanted-- and they did—and the consequences were disastrous.  Not only have these people disgraced themselves, they have brought humiliation and misery on their friends and loved ones.  They betrayed the trust of those who helped them rise to the top.  How tragically ironic that those who thought they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted ended up losing everything—and often taking others down with them.

What some would call freedom—doing whatever it is we want—God calls sin.  Sin is that constant impulse to do whatever we please.  It is that insatiable force driving us to serve only ourselves, with no concern for the consequences of our actions or their impact on other people.  Sin is that voice telling us “we can have it all.”  It tells us “we’re entitled to having it all.”  But this so-called “freedom” is only an illusion.  Anybody who lives to please themselves has no need for God—because they are their own god. 

The hard truth is that if we live our lives just doing whatever pleases us, others will suffer—and eventually, we will suffer too.  This so called “freedom” will destroy us in the end.  There is no such thing as freedom that allows us to do whatever we want and not suffer dire consequences.
In our second reading for today from Romans, Paul tells us the hard truth about ourselves before God called us to baptism.  Sin had dominion over our bodies, which is to say that sin controlled everything we did.  We were slaves to sin.  Everything we said or did was evil—even kind words and good works.  And sin was in control of our destiny—a destiny culminating in eternal death. 

God’s plan to give humankind a real and lasting freedom was to become a human being in Jesus Christ to liberate us from the dominion, or rather the domination, of sin.  It was the nails that bound Jesus to the cross that break us free from sin’s domination.  When we were baptized, that freedom became ours.  God freed us from sin’s control over our lives and our bodies.  And God bound us to God’s own self—making us slaves to righteousness.  God took control of our destiny—giving us eternal life.

The freedom of God is also slavery to God—which would seem counter-intuitive, because we’re so accustomed to thinking of freedom is the ability to do whatever we please.  But God’s freedom is not license.  God’s freedom means liberation from sin’s domination—and it is Jesus Christ who accomplished this for us, not ourselves.  It’s not up to us to make ourselves worthy to of God’s freedom.  It is God who brought us from death into life—all apart from our deserving.  God’s freedom is one that opens to us all of the riches of God’s goodness—both in this life and in eternity. 

God’s freedom also brings us to a whole new way of living.  In the same way as God’s freedom changes our destiny, God’s freedom changes our hearts.  God’s desires become our desires.  Life is no longer about pleasing ourselves but about pleasing God.  As slaves to God we become servants to everyone.  Through Word, table, font, and in the fellowship of believers, the Spirit empowers us to be ministers of God’s grace and goodness.  And even though we fail every day to obey God and live as though we are still slaves to sin, God never ceases to forgive, nor does God ever fail to free us again and again so that we can live for God alone.  This is grace as only God gives it.

God’s work in our world is all about freedom—and making that freedom a reality for everyone. 
We don’t need to be reminded that we’re living in a world of violence and injustice…  We don’t need to be reminded of the lives that are being devastated by disaster, poverty, and disease.  We don’t need to be reminded that we’re living in a world of unbelief, where people do not know Jesus Christ or the freedom that God is bringing this world.  We all experience the powers of chaos and evil that bring death and destruction.  But God has freed us from their control of our destiny.  Nothing can stand in the way of God’s will for our salvation. 

As we turn the page on a new chapter in the life of this congregation, let us remember that the Holy Spirit has gathered us together as a Body to join with God in freeing God’s children from suffering and unbelief.  Let us be in conversation with one another as we listen to where God is calling us to go as a congregation.  There is no shortage of opportunities to grow and strengthen the ministries that are already taking place, and contemplate new ministries.  We don’t know what the future holds, but we know that God is faithful.  God will provide abundantly for all that we need to carry on God’s mission—and God will call each of us to share of ourselves and our gifts in this work.  And as God calls us, God will free us from doubts about ourselves and our abilities so that we can witness God’s strength and goodness in ourselves and in each other.

I thank God to be with you and among you as your pastor.  I look forward to following Jesus Christ with you into the future God has prepared.  And by God’s help, I know that together, we are going to witness God’s freedom becoming a reality all throughout our life together.  Christ has freed us from the powers of sin and death that lead to misery and death.  Christ has made us alive—so let us go forth in the power of the Spirit to free this world to live in the grace and goodness of God. 

[i] McCoy, Travie, and Bruno Mars. Billionaire. Comps. Bruno Mars, Art Levine, Travis McCoy and Philip Lawrence. 2010.

Pass it On! ~ John 20:19-23 ~ May 29, 2011

Every Sunday during our worship we greet one another with the words "peace be with you."

When we do this, we aren't just saying "hello." We're preaching the Gospel to one another with the very first words Jesus spoke to his disciples after his resurrection.

We have peace because God defeated death by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. Death is no longer our end, but a gateway to an eternal communion with God and all of the saints of Christ's redeeming.

We have peace because God forgives us of our sin. We are no longer enemies of God, but beloved daughters and sons who are redeemed through the cross of Jesus Christ.

We have peace because we have been drawn into a relationship with God by the Holy Spirit. God is not a distant stranger. God is with us in the risen and living Christ.

We have peace because Christ reigns over this world. Even as life brings us suffering and hardship, God is in control. Jesus is healing this world. He is making God’s peace a reality for all creation.

No single word can describe God’s will for God’s creation quite like the word "peace." As we receive Christ’s peace, we are sent to pass it on to a world in desperate need.
· When we forgive others their sins, we pass on God’s peace…
· When we share ourselves and our treasures with the poor, we pass on God’s peace …
· When we love our neighbors as ourselves, we pass on God’s peace…

As you share God’s peace with one another today, remember that this is the life you are called to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. From Jesus Christ we receive the peace of God that passes understanding—a peace for us to pass on to others.

Christ & Crisis ~ John 20:19-31 ~ May 1, 2011

As many of you may know, my full name is James Volk Arter, III.

Since there were two Jim’s in the house when I was growing up, I was called Jimmy.  That was fine when I was younger—but when I got older, I wanted to be called Jim.  It was never a problem making the change at school or with my friends.  But my hopes were in vain with my family.  Even though I’m 30 years old, I’m still ‘Jimmy’ to them.  And I always will be.  In fact, whenever my grandfather is around, I get called “little Jimmy”—even though I’m five inches taller than my dad.

And Thomas will always be called ‘Doubting Thomas’ because he refuses to believe the news that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  But there’s a story behind his doubt… 

Jesus was dead, and Thomas was in crisis.  For three years, Thomas had been Jesus’ disciple.  He was there as Jesus proclaimed himself to be God in the flesh, the Bread of Life, and the Son of Man.  He was there for the miracles; he was there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. 

And then came the unthinkable—Jesus was crucified.  It was hard enough for Thomas and the disciples to believe that Jesus was who he said he was while Jesus was alive.  But now, this Jesus who said he was God in the flesh; this Jesus who raised the dead; this Jesus was dead. 

With Jesus dead, there were really only two things left for Thomas to believe—either Jesus had been lying about who he was, or the powers of evil had defeated God.  Either way, everything that Thomas believed about Jesus had been turned on its head when Jesus died.  So now Thomas and the disciples are in hiding—fearing that they may end up dying on crosses, just like Jesus.  For Thomas, there wasn’t a Jesus left to believe in.  And when Thomas hears the news that Jesus was alive, it was too outrageous to believe.  It didn’t make sense in light of reality.  Thomas was in crisis—a crisis that shattered his faith. 

Three years ago when I interned as a hospital chaplain, I remember being called to pray with a patient named Bill.  From the second I walked in the door, I was absolutely amazed by his faith.  The joy of the Lord radiated from his presence as he spoke of his love and trust in Jesus Christ.  Bill believed he would quickly recover and return home to his wife and children—because God was faithful.  But that didn’t happen.  His condition worsened.  Days turned into weeks; weeks turned into months.  Every time I was in the unit, Bill and I would talk—but he had begun questioning his beliefs.  It didn’t make sense to him that he had faith in Jesus Christ—and that he wasn’t getting better. 

As the weeks passed, his faith gave way to despair—and one day he finally told me: “I’ve made my decision.  I’m done with God.  I’m walking away.” 

I was crushed by his words.  I felt I had failed him.  I was hurt that he wasn’t getting any better.  But what hurt me the most was that he had lost his faith in Jesus Christ—and there wasn’t anything I could say to change that.  Like Thomas, Bill was in a crisis that shattered his faith.

When we speak of faith, we’re speaking of a system of beliefs about God and how we should live.  We believe in God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s justice, and that God will triumph over evil.  We strive to obey the Ten Commandments and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Much of what we believe comes straight from the pages of Scripture.  But our life experiences shape our faith as well.  We learn new things as we go through life’s ups and downs—and God’s Word speaks new things to us.  Sometimes our beliefs change.  One thing that’s for certain is that there will always be seasons of struggle in the life of faith; there will be questions and doubts. 

But crisis has a way of making everything we believe crumble to the ground—because our reality contradicts our beliefs.  Bill’s illness crushed his faith—just like Jesus’ death crushed Thomas’s faith.  It was too outrageous for Bill to believe that Jesus loved him since he wasn’t getting better.  All of us face crises just like this, when our circumstances become so dire that it’s too outrageous to believe that Jesus loves us or that he’s taking care of us.  Sometimes our crises come from within; when we consider the depths of our sin, it’s too outrageous to believe that Jesus could ever forgive us or that we’ll inherit eternal life.  Crisis has a way of turning faith into unbelief—leaving us in the grip of fear and hopelessness…

The whole history of God—from the very beginnings of the universe to the present day—is the story of God’s activity in a world of chaos.  God’s creation is in crisis—and God is not silent.  The whole history of God is the unfolding of God’s plan to redeem this world from the forces of death and evil—and heal the hurts of every child created in his image.  To redeem this world, God struck at the very heart of death and evil—by raising the crucified Jesus from the dead.  Jesus’ resurrection was the dawn of destruction for the forces of chaos. 

Right after God raises Jesus from the dead, Jesus was on the move to make his people alive with resurrection.  He goes to Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and Thomas.  He meets them in their fear and brings them peace.  And even though Thomas didn’t believe the news that he had been raised, Jesus doesn’t speak harshly to him or punish him.  Jesus raises Thomas’s faith from the dead; he gives Thomas a faith to believe that he was his Lord and his God.  Jesus makes Thomas alive with resurrection. 

And Jesus is still on the move today—because our world is still in crisis.  We suffer; we experience crisis; we sin, and we struggle with unbelief.  But Jesus is risen so that we will never go through any of this alone.  If you are experiencing crisis right now, may you never see that as a sign of your rejection by God or as proof that God doesn’t exist.  Remember that you are baptized and that you belong to Jesus Christ no matter what.  Remember that Jesus has experienced everything you’re going through on the cross of his death.  Know that Jesus welcomes your questions and your doubts.  Know that you are forgiven.  Know that Jesus is with you to make you alive with resurrection. 

So when we say Christ is Risen, we’re not just speaking of something that happened 2,000 years ago.  We’re celebrating that Jesus is among us; that we have been made alive with resurrection.  We’re celebrating the healing that God is bringing to all creation.  We’re celebrating the forgiveness we have been given.  We’re celebrating God’s victory over evil and death.  We’re proclaiming the hope that God has given to all people—a hope that God calls us to share with the world.  Wherever there is fear, wherever there is crisis, wherever there is unbelief—these are the places Jesus sends us as the people of his Body. 

Christ is risen!  Good has triumphed over evil; life has triumphed over death.  Alleluia.

There's Just Jesus ~ John 12:1-11 ~ April 18, 2011

Back in high school, my dream was to become a professional musician.

My trumpet was my life.  I played in six different ensembles, took private lessons, and spent more time playing my trumpet than I did studying.  And my private trumpet teacher had my dream job—he was the principal trumpeter and assistant director of the River City Brass Band in Pittsburgh.

And one day he hit me with a bombshell: he was giving it all up to go to seminary. 

I remember being absolutely dumfounded by what I was hearing.  Here’s a man who had it all (in my opinion).   He played his trumpet for a living.  I remember thinking “all of his hard work, all of his talent, and all of the people who’d love to have his life (especially me)—and he’s giving it all up.”

I can’t help but think of him as I consider Mary and this bottle of costly perfume she pours onto Jesus’ feet.  This perfume was something that only royalty and rich people would own.  It was worth a fortune; a laborer’s whole year’s wages.  As the sweet aroma of the perfume fills the air, Judas’ protests don’t seem that unreasonable…  It most definitely could have been sold and the money given to the poor. 

But Mary isn’t thinking of the cost of the perfume—nor is she thinking over the myriad of other things that could be done had she sold the perfume and given away the money.  All that she is thinking about is Jesus, whose love has changed everything in her life.  Jesus is her treasure.  She gives her Savior Jesus the royal treatment.  She’s not counting the cost of her offering.  Mary just loves Jesus—and Mary gives. 

And in just a few days, something else that is precious, costly, and beautiful will be poured out: and that is the body and blood of Jesus Christ.   In the same way as Mary gives no thought to the cost of the treasure she pours out at the feet of Jesus, Jesus gives no thought to the cost of the cross.  Jesus just loves us—and Jesus gives.

While Mary shines as model of discipleship, this is a story about Jesus—and what happens when his love reigns in the life of an ordinary person.  This is a story of an ordinary person pouring out herself, her love, and her devotion because her life is grounded in the love of Jesus Christ.  Such a love that turns us outward so that loving Christ becomes our consuming passion...  Such a love has the power to make all of our worldly treasures seem worthless in comparison to the treasure that is Jesus...  Such a love that turns us outward to the poor and needy ones that Jesus loves so much...  When Jesus said “you will always have the poor among you,” he was saying that when his love reigns in us, we will follow him to the poor and serve them as we would serve Jesus himself.  We will love Jesus, we will give to the poor—and we won’t count the cost.

But if you’re like me, this is easier said than done…  How hard it is to give of our time when so much is already being demanded of us.  How hard it can be to give generously of our treasure as the prices of food, energy, and tuition keep going up…  How hard it is to follow Jesus when he calls us to places and situations that are unfamiliar, and that intimidate us.  It’s so easy to say no to Jesus, because there is a cost to being a disciple; there is a cost to following him; there is a cost to loving him. 

But let us remember that this is the story of Jesus and his extravagant love.  This is a story of Jesus’ love changing everything.  It is a love that transforms us into the people that God wants us to be.  It is a love that breaks into our busy schedules, that drives us out of our comfort zones, and that opens our eyes to all of the riches of God’s faithfulness that God has provided for us.  This is the very same love that will overcome death and the cross.  When Jesus is our first love, there are no costs to be counted.  There’s just Jesus. 

The love that flowed from the wounds in Jesus’ hands and his side still flows for us all today.  The most precious gift the world has ever known is being given for you.  The sweet aroma of God’s grace and forgiveness are in the air.  During this Holy Week and beyond, let us be in the presence of Jesus and his love—be it in prayer and quiet contemplation, in the presence of our brothers in sisters in the faith, or in the faces of the sick, the poor, and the lonely.  May Jesus’ compassion and love so overwhelm us that we never count the cost of our devotion and our service to him.  Let us follow him to the cross and be filled with of a love that is the greatest treasure we can ever know