Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Best of our Best ~ John 6:1-21 ~ Ninth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 29, 2012

I remember an old cliché from my time in retail management—“good leaders set SMART goals;” with the letters in the word SMART standing for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely...

Feeding a crowd of five thousand people on a mountain, in the wilderness, with no source of food at the ready, was most definitely not a SMART goal.  It was neither attainable nor realistic nor timely. 
Still, Jesus asks his disciple Philip, “where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 

Right away, Philip states the obvious: it would take more than six months’ wages to feed this many people.  That was reality.  Given the circumstances, Jesus is asking them to do something that was downright impossible.
And this would not be the only time in the Gospels when Jesus does this...

A few weeks ago, we heard of Jesus sending his disciples into the surrounding villages and towns—to preach the word, heal the sick, and cast out demons.  But they had no form of religious training—and they had never done these things before.  Not only that, he permitted them no extra food, a change of clothes, or money to boot.  
After his resurrection, Jesus commissions his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations—including nations which will persecute and exterminate the sheep of his flock.

All told, the odds were never in the disciples’ favor to accomplish those purposes for which Jesus sends them. 
But right after Philip states his objections, there appears a little boy—with a little bit of food in his possession.  Five barley loaves and two fish—a small meal even for himself and his family—and certainly a mere morsel in the face of so much need.  In spite of that, the child gives his meager offering to Jesus.  And in Jesus’ hands, it’s more than enough.  All the people do eat—and they eat their fill.  And there’s more food left over than the boy presented in the first place.

What makes this story so interesting is that Jesus had the power to make food magically appear; perhaps to turn the grass into bread.  But that’s not what he does.  What happens instead is that a small child participates with Jesus in the feeding.  Isn’t that what discipleship really is?  Being a disciple doesn’t mean that we sit back while Jesus does all the work.   A disciple is one who participates in what Jesus is doing.
And what does Jesus do?  He cares for those in need.  He forgives sins.  He makes himself one with the lost and the least of the world.  And he calls all people into a relationship with himself.  This is his work—as it is our work.

And throughout our lives as his disciples, we’re going to feel like Jesus’ (first) disciples did that day on the mountain—that Jesus is asking us to things that are impossible.  It’s not that we would disagree with what Jesus wants us to do.  Where we get stuck is in HOW we will do what Jesus calls us to do. 
Our minds and our imaginations become consumed by what little we have to offer—and how difficult the task at hand is going to be.  We know our weaknesses, we know the threats that surround us; and we know that the work we do for Jesus comes with no guarantee of success.  Then we get discouraged; and we say things like “we can’t.”  “We’ve never done this before.”  “That’ll never work.”  In other words, we conclude that doing Jesus’ will is neither realistic nor attainable nor timely. 

But today Jesus uses the example of a little boy who gives Jesus the best he has—and it is more than enough to accomplish Jesus’ will.
Each of us has what it takes to be a disciple—because we all have gifts; we all have talents; we all have passions and dreams for a better world.  We have our church—and we have each other.  Because of that, we can (by God’s grace), transform the lives of our neighbors through Christ’s love.  Yes, we have our challenges—but they’re no match for amazing grace. 

When we give Jesus our best, he will take care of the rest.
He can take our meager best and accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. 

And when we do this, we are drawn into a deeper relationship with Jesus—because we’ll be in a position to witness his power at work in us and in our gifts.
This week, our congregation will be giving our best to our community with our clothing closet.  You and dozens of others from around our community have already given so generously.  And this week, it’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of patience to see this through—but if you are able to come and give of your time and your faith, you will be drawn closer to Jesus.  You will meet Jesus in the people we serve.

In whatever ways God has blessed you, there are so many ways to participate in Jesus Christ.  What does Jesus do?  He cares for those in need.  He forgives.  He makes himself one with the least and the lost.  He loves.
When we give Jesus our best, he will take care of the rest.

Miracles will happen.  Grace will amaze.  Love and hope will abound.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A World Without Walls ~ Ephesians 2:11-12 ~ Eighth Sunday After Pentecost ~ July 22, 2012

When Elizabeth and I have a day off, very often there’s the question...of what to do...

One idea that’s sure to make Elizabeth happy is for us to go to the mall—so she can try on hats.
One day we wandered into one of the region’s more exclusive retailers.  Elizabeth tries on one hat.  Within ten seconds, the hat’s back on the rack, and we’re on our way.

Then we hear a voice calling out in the background, “can I help you?”
Now we just kept walking, because the voice was so far behind us, we didn’t think it was for us.  But then we hear hurried footsteps clunking on the floor behind us, and the same voice shouts, “hello!  You in the blue shirt, you in the brown dress, I’m talking to you!”  We turn around, and she’s says again, “can I help you?”

Elizabeth quietly says “no, thank you.” 
It was then that we made our way to the exit.  Now we don’t know what the salesperson’s motives might have been, but the message we got loud and clear was “you don’t belong here.”

And we’ll never set foot in there again. 
Now this is really no big loss for us.  If anything, we have something to laugh about every time we see one of these stores.

But exclusion is nothing to laugh about—and it happens all around us, every single day.
In just about every kind of human association imaginable, there are insider/outsider systems.  They structure our lives.  They structure our world.

These systems exist because the exclusion of many (seemingly) benefits those who are fortunate enough to be the insiders.  There’s some kind of good the insiders enjoy—and the insiders aren’t about to lose it.
So exclusion brings with it some harsh realities... Insider/outsider systems manufacture loneliness—because they cut people off from others.  They prevent relationships. 

It becomes difficult—if not impossible—for the outsiders to make ends meet—because opportunities for education and good-paying jobs and reserved to a more fortunate few...
And the message these systems send to those they exclude—is that you’re a nobody.

When people treat you as though you’re worthless, you are all the more likely going to feel worthless—even in God’s eyes...
The early Christians in the city of Ephesus certainly understood the pain of exclusion.  At the time the letter we know as the book of Ephesians was written, they were living beneath the iron rule of the Roman Empire.  And they didn’t exactly do as Romans did.  Christians didn’t offer sacrifices to the gods of the empire—something that made them subject to all kinds of ostracism—and even persecution. 

Even within the Christian community, there was the widespread belief that true Christians had to be descendents of Abraham.  Most of the Ephesian Christians were not...  So you could say that these Christians were outcasts from the outcasts.
But then one day they hear these words:

“You who were once far off from God, without hope, have been brought near by the blood of Christ...”  “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but members of the household of God.”
These words announce that God has not forgotten these people who’ve become outcasts.  God is acting through Jesus Christ to destroy the insider/outsider barriers that cut people off from the family of God and therefore God himself. 

This is the very essence of what Jesus doing in our Gospel today: he goes out to be among the crowds of the least and the lost.  He allows these unclean persons to touch him—which, in turn makes him unclean.  But that didn’t concern him.  Jesus loved these people.  So Jesus made himself one with them—by being among them.  That is the greatest gift he gives—a gift greater than even the physical healing of an illness or infirmity...  He gives them himself: a relationship with the Savior of the world.  This is the gift that heals.
As the Body of Christ, we follow Jesus by going beyond the walls of this temple, to be among strangers.  God’s grace makes visible to us the persons who’ve been forgotten in our world.  God’s grace destroys the labels and the prejudices and even the fears we have towards those who are different than us.  In sending us to be among strangers, Jesus brings us all near to himself.

There was a time that we were all strangers to God; when our sin cut us off—but Christ has changed all that.  And now, we are sent to carry on this good work that God began in us. 
What a great ministry of healing this is: to shatter the social boundaries, and break out of our comfort zones, so to encounter Jesus in the presence of strangers.  Our world desperately needs the love and compassion of people just like us.  Sin is the power that isolates and divides, but God’s love is the power that heals.  Hope comes alive where love is shown.

Today, God is challenging us to love—especially those persons whom we may have never thought to love before.  Living out Jesus’ love for the stranger will involve more than just reaching out; it is going out and to be among.  It’s learning people’s names; it’s hearing people’s stories; it’s giving generously of ourselves.  It’s staying with. 
Today, we go forth to receive the gift of new relationships as we give the gift of ourselves.  And let us not stop until all people know their place in the family of God.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Your First Love ~ Mark 6:14-29 ~ Seventh Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 15, 2012

It hardly seems appropriate that we refer to the story we heard from the sixth chapter of Mark as “Gospel.”

This story isn’t good news; it’s violent and disgusting.  Yet all four Gospels tell stories of cruelty and violence. 
And one name you’ll hear in these stories is ‘King Herod.’

It was King “Herod the Great” who massacred infant boys, when he learned from three wise men that the King of the Jews was born in Bethlehem.
It was another “King Herod,” “Herod Antipas” who interrogated Jesus before his crucifixion.

It is this “King Herod Antipas” who appears in our so-called “gospel” for today. 
Right off the bat, it comes as  somewhat of a surprise to hear that Herod believed John the Baptizer to be a man of God.  He actually enjoyed hearing John speak God’s Word.  We are told that he feared John.  And he protected John.

But Herod’s wife Herodias was no fan.  A while back, John had told Herod that it was unlawful for him to have taken his brother’s wife as his wife.  (Incidentally, Herodias was also his niece).
So to keep his wife happy, Herod has the man of God thrown into prison.  But he still protects him.  That is, until the night of his daughter’s birthday party.  That is when he carelessly swears an oath to give his daughter anything she wants, up to half of his kingdom.

The little girl asks her mother what she should ask him for, and we know what happens next...
Herod loved John—but not enough to be made a fool before his wife and his elite party guests.  Saving John’s life may have very well cost him his throne.  So he did what he had to do...to save himself.

Herod was a man who was used to getting everything he wanted.  And as a king, there was little that he couldn’t have—including his brother’s wife.   But this time, even he couldn’t have it all.  He had to decide who (or what) he loved more.  And he did.
So how much do we love Jesus?

On one hand, there is much about Jesus that makes him easy to love.  He gave his life for us on the cross.  He forgives us of our sins; he gives us salvation.  He loves us apart from our deserving.
A friend of mine used to wear a T-shirt that read “Jesus is my homeboy.”  It can be a lot of fun to love Jesus.

The trouble is that there are other things (and other people) that we love, too. And sooner or later, we’re going to find ourselves in a situation like Herod—when we’re going to have to decide what we love more. We will have to sacrifice other things that we love—for the sake of our first love.
This is what Jesus did for us on the cross.  He loved us more than all the glory and power that were rightfully his as the Son of God.  So he laid down his life.  And he didn’t do this just to be our homeboy.  He gave his life to be our Savior; to be our Lord—and our first love.

And Jesus becomes our Lord when we hear God’s Word spoken to us.  It is through God’s Word that the Holy Spirit draws us into the reality of Christ’s gracious love.  And this love has the power to transform all aspects of our being.  We go from being enemies of God to being righteous before God.  Our plans, our priorities, and our dreams are radically changed, because our Savior Jesus has become our greatest treasure. 
Everything about us changes when Jesus is our Lord.

But sometimes, we don’t want that change.  So we resist it—like Herod did. 
That is what “sin” fundamentally is.  It’s our resistance to God’s complete claim over us.  We love God, but not enough to live differently.  There’s time and money and plans and dreams that we want to keep for ourselves.  We are afraid to put God first—because if we do, we may just miss out on those good things we love.

One of the devil’s most powerful lies is that we can have it all.  We can live the life we want to live—while loving God all the way.  This lie has managed to infiltrate much of mainstream Christianity—especially in best-selling books and media.  Today, God’s Word makes it very clear that you cannot have it all and love Jesus.  There can be only one God in your life.
If we are to be born anew in Jesus Christ, we must die to ourselves and to the pursuits of this world.  This is what Jesus meant when he said “if you want to become my disciples, you must take up your cross and follow me.”

That is what it takes to put Christ first—and there is nothing more difficult in the Christian life than this.  And the truth is that we aren’t capable of loving Christ above all else. 
But the good news is that Christ will become your first love—as the Holy Spirit draws you into the reality of his gracious love for the world.  Neither the devil—or our disobedience—will stop the Holy Spirit from bringing you into that relationship. 

God is calling us to do something very simple today: to hear his Word of love again and again; to allow it to take root in us.  It is through God’s gracious Word that you will come into a relationship with the one who loved you above all else.  You don’t have to wait until heaven to live in the love of your Savior.  So don’t silence God’s Word like Herod did.  Don’t miss out on such great a love as that of Jesus Christ for you.  Don’t try and gain the world and lose your soul.  The life that you leave behind will be proven as worthless when compared with the life God gives you in Jesus Christ.  So hear the Word—believe the promises—and be transformed.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

One is the Loneliest Number ~ Mark 6:1-13 ~ Sixth Sunday After Pentecost ~ July 8, 2012

At some point between now and age 10, I lost the ability to travel light...

When I was 10, my family loaded up our ice-blue-colored Chrysler K-car and made the two-and-a-half day drive to Florida...
We had plenty of room to spare in the small car; the only excess baggage being my sister’s New Kids on the Block and Paula Abdul cassettes we listened to ad-nauseum during the trip.
Fast forward to today—and on just about every trip Elizabeth and I take (even short trips); the car is packed to the full; so much so that we would not be able to take any more passengers with us.
Hypo-allergenic pillows; multiple changes of clothes and shoes; battery chargers; books; snacks; drinks, et cetera...
So I guess I’d be in big trouble if I were one of Jesus’ first disciples—because Jesus is sending them out into the villages and towns without food, money, a change of clothes, or a place to lodge when night comes. 
Jesus makes it very clear that they will be completely dependent on the hospitality of strangers for their food and their lodging. 
Now in this period of history, it was just common courtesy for a person to open their home to strangers who happened to be passing through.  Hotels and motels just didn’t exist back then; and even if they did, most people would have been too poor to pay for them.
So that part wouldn’t have shocked the disciples...
But given the way things went for Jesus in his own hometown, their prospects of finding hospitality aren’t looking too good.  People who knew Jesus rejected him.  They were offended by him.  They didn’t want him in their town.
And Jesus warns his disciples that they will be rejected just as he was.
By this time, the disciples had to be fearing that Jesus was setting them up for total failure.  Add to that the fact that they had no formal religious training; nor had they shown themselves to be men of great faith.  In fact, one wonders if they had any faith at all...
Yet Jesus sends them anyway—and they go.  And the end comes as somewhat of a surprise, since we know how much the deck was stacked against them...  They proclaimed the Word of God—and people did receive them.  Demons were cast out; the sick were healed; and people came to faith in Jesus Christ.
So what great miracle took place here?  What happened?
For the answer, we go back Jesus, when he sends out his disciples.  He sends them with a staff, their traveling companion, and the promises of God.
No one went out alone—and the relationships of the paired disciples proved to be one of the greatest blessings in their journey.
In all likelihood, none of the disciples would have even made it out of Nazareth if Jesus had sent them by themselves.
When we’re alone (with our thoughts), it doesn’t take much for our minds to become consumed by fears and doubts—especially when things aren’t going so well.  Faith can seldom flourish when we’re by ourselves. If we’re isolated from people, it’s much easier to find ourselves feeling isolated from God.
“One is the loneliest number” when it comes to faith.  Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two—and through that relationship, God used the one to build up the faith of the other.  It was in the relationship that God provided the disciples the courage and the hope to boldly share the Word of God with complete strangers. 
And the hospitality of the strangers they met paved the way for relationships through which the disciples could share their testimony of Jesus Christ. 
Our relationships are just as vital for us here today.  To grow in faith, we must be together, to build up each another’s faith through the love and compassion we show one another.  We experience God’s presence more fully when we are together. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “when two or more or gathered, there I am among them.”
And when life circumstances put our most basic beliefs to the test, we cannot face our doubts by ourselves.  The devil and his lies can quickly overwhelm us and drive us to despair. But when we’re together, we experience God’s strength in the presence of other people.
We are so blessed to have each other.
And consider how much a blessing we as a church can be for our community... 
All of us know people who are going through difficult times.  We all know people without a church.  So let us receive those people.  Let us show them God’s compassion.  Let us show them the hospitality Christ shows to us.  We all lead busy lives, yet God will give us the time to share ourselves with others if we are willing to receive them.  We don’t do this to convert them—because none of us has the power to do that.  We reach out to our neighbors so as to love them as God loves them.  And God’s love has the power to make a believer out of an unbeliever or a doubter...
It all happens in relationships. 
One is the loneliest number when it comes to faith.  To be together with God we must be together as God’s people.  And when we are, God becomes more real and more powerful.  God heals; God comforts; God strengthens.  We are the Body of Christ to be filled with God’s love; that then goes and fills the world with God’s love.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Real Acts of God ~ Lamentations 3:22-33 ~ July 1, 2012

On a hot and rainy summer evening, I joined some seminary classmates on a thirty-mile trip to join hundreds of other people in the parking lot of where a church had once stood.
Because that morning, lightning had struck the church and burned it to the ground.
For nearly an hour, we stood in silence before the charred debris...to grieve what had become the darkest day in their church’s history.

The writer of Lamentations was doing much the same for the city of Jerusalem—but the destruction of God’s Holy City was an exceedingly greater tragedy than the destruction of the church; because no lives were lost in the church fire.
Jerusalem was, at one time, (literally) the center of the universe; the greatest city in all the world.  Under King David, the nation of Israel was a world power; such that no army could defeat them.  During this time, God’s people enjoyed prosperity and peace and security.  But that time was long gone.

The armies of Babylon invaded the land, and Jerusalem was burned to the ground.  Thousands of God’s people were killed during the invasion; and those who remained were taken exile in Babylon. 
Yet to the poet and anyone who had survived the invasion, a loss of this magnitude amounted to a loss of God.  All signs pointed to God, having left his people behind for good.

And the reason why was crystal clear: Israel had forgotten God and worshipped other gods.  They forsook God’s law and neglected their God-given duty to care for the poorest and most vulnerable of their own kin.  So now they were suffering the consequences.  It all made perfect sense.
Which leaves us with some burning questions:

Does God punish us like God punished Israel?
Can we sin so severely that God would leave us, on our own against an avalanche of suffering?

To hear the words of today’s text, the answer to those questions would seem as a resounding “yes.”  To the poet, God was responsible for everything, be it good or bad.
But what kind of picture of God does this Scripture paint?  Should we leave here today in a state of fear and trembling at a God who is threatening to punish us in the very same way?

If we listen very carefully to the poet’s words, we won’t hear of a punishing God...
As the poet stood among the ruins of Jerusalem, he (or she) the poet encountered a redeeming God.  A healing God.  A compassionate God.  In this seemingly God-forsaken place, in the darkest day of their people’s history, God was there.

And the poet didn’t encounter God by pretending the tragedy didn’t happen—or by gladly accepting that which was totally unacceptable.  The poet came face-to-face with the tragedy; face-to-face with anguish.
This is what the Book of Lamentations has to teach us. 

If we conclude that our losses and hardships are punishments from God, God will becomes dead to us.  Yet how can we do this when we don’t know God’s mind?  We can’t understand God’s ways as to why bad things happen to us.  And trying to explain our hardships as punishments from God will only drive a wedge between ourselves and God.
Instead, we should follow the example of the poet by confronting that which is most unacceptable in our lives.  We name before God our disappointments; we bring to God our anger. We go to those dark places and we cry out to God, even if we have no words of praise or thanksgiving to offer.

We can do this because God is not so wrathful that God would reject us for being disappointed with him; even angry with him.
Our God is a redeeming God.  Ours is a God who heals; who strengthens; who binds up those who are broken.  Ours is a God who delivers us from evildoers and evil situations so as to bring us into everlasting life.

If God acted only to punish, we all would fall away.  We would all be dust and ashes—because all of us have sinned.  Yet God does not curse.  God redeems.
Try as we may, we may never know the reasons why bad things happen.  But God’s will for you in your suffering is to be your redeemer.  God will meet us in the darkness and shepherd us to the joy that awaits us in the morning. 

And sometimes it will seem that God’s help will never come.  And that is when we must cling to the promises of God’s Word.  That is when we must remember God’s faithful acts in the past.  That is when we must come to the table for the bread and wine that will strengthen our faith and our trust.  That is when we must reach out to our brothers and sisters, through whom God will show us compassion and care.  God will deliver us.  Of that we can be certain.
Back at the church, a TV news reporter had caused quite when he went on camera and suggested that the fire was “an act of God.”

Well, by evening, a crowd of four hundred people had gathered (and this church was about the size of ours).  And from that crowd, a woman in her eighties stood up and said “God didn’t burn our church down.  But God is going to raise it up greater and stronger than it ever was before.”
We’ll live forever in fear if we believe in a God who acts only to condemn and to punish.  And that’s not who our God is.  If you don’t believe that, look at the cross.  An angry and wrathful God would not die on a cross.  A merciful and compassionate God would—and did.  This God will be your redeemer through whatever darkness befalls you in life.

This God will raise you up from the ashes.  This God will deliver you through the dark of night to a new and brighter day.