Sunday, September 30, 2012

Forgiveness and Freedom ~ Mark 9:38-50 ~ 21st Sunday after Pentecost ~ September 30, 2012

I always get a kick out of telling the youth that it was not always cool to own a cell phone...

A short time after I got my driver’s license, my parents were gracious enough to loan me their car when I went out with friends...  But one condition was that I had to keep them informed as to where I was—in addition to obeying the traffic laws.

That required a cell phone...and my first phone could be described as like a car battery with a phone attached...  It had to have weighed three or four pounds—and it was far too big to it in my jeans pockets.  Thank goodness cargo pants with the giant pockets were in style at the time, so I had a place to carry this thing...

And one evening, I was at a party with some friends—and my cell phone rang...  Right then, I knew who was calling—and why...  I hadn’t checked in with mom and dad. 

Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at me as I answered my phone.  No one else had a cell phone at this time.  And when I told them it was my mom, I became the butt of all jokes for the rest of the night...

If my cell phone was any kind of a status symbol, it symbolized that I had protective parents.

And in spite of the embarrassment I suffered, I was blessed to be loved that much.  Yes, I’m a child of protective parents, but I’m also the child of a protective God.

That’s something to keep in mind as we hear Jesus’ harsh words from our Gospel for today.  Jesus speaks of drowning people with millstones.  He’s telling us to cut off our arms and feet and tear out our eyes.  And this is the only time in the entire Gospel of Mark that Jesus speaks of hell—and in very graphic detail, no less...

But make no mistake: these are words of love, but a tough love.  Love must be tough when it comes to the problem of sin... 

As much as we’d like to think that everything’s okay with our lives, things are not okay.

Sin is a deadly poison inside every one of us.  It drives us to make gods of ourselves, with no other authority to answer to other than our own needs and wants.  When sin is in control, we have no regard for how our actions affect others—and maybe even our own selves.  It begets fear and misery; it blinds us to the reality of God’s love, and ultimately leads us to death.

Thankfully, God forgives our sin—before we even ask for it. When we’re baptized, our sins are washed away and God sees them no more.  Sin no longer rules over us.  But sin’s deadly poison remains—and with every passing day, we struggle against it. 

Because of that, Jesus says, “If your hand or your foot or your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”  With these words, Jesus challenges us to take a serious look at our lives and ask ourselves: “what in my life is leading me to sin and standing in the way of my relationship with God?  What in my life must I cut off and throw away so that I may live more fully in the gracious love of Jesus Christ?”

If we take a look at our lives, we will find that there are many evil presences that lead us to temptation.  These presences may not be evil in and of themselves, but their presence serves to block out God’s presence and entice us to sin.  And the only way to keep ourselves from the temptations they present is to cut them right out of our lives. 

Is there anything in your life that you love too much?  Do the things that stress you out and worry you and make you afraid really matter to your life and relationship with God?  Are there things in your life that you believe you could not live without—but deep down inside yourself you know you could?  Much of what we seek after for a fulfilled and meaningful life only serves to stand in the way of God’s presence.  If they stand between us and God, these things must go.  But we do so not under a threat, but under a promise.  We cut off and throw away so as to be free of all the negativity and worry these things create, so that we can devote ourselves to doing what matters to God and experiencing God’s peace.

Last weekend, I read a fascinating article about the tiny house movement.  In this age of rising costs and stagnant wages, a growing number of people are downsizing their homes to live in spaces as tiny as a small RV.  It would seem as though these people would be sacrificing simple breathing space, in addition to giving up room for their possessions.  It would seem as though these people would be grieving a terrible loss.

But no one interviewed in the article had any regrets.  Yes, they had to make sacrifices—yet they were now free of high utility bills and mortgage payments and the extra work required for maintaining a larger home.  They were in a better position to enjoy that which was truly important to them—without the stress and worry that came with keeping a larger home.

This is what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of cutting off and throwing away. 

Forgiveness is all about freedom—and that is what Jesus wants for you today.  God’s will is for you to be free of all the misery and the worry and the fear that sin creates in your life, so that you may walk with him daily and live in his goodness.  The battle against sin is a hard one—but Jesus won the fight, and so can we...

So we cut off and throw away what really has no eternal value to be filled to the full with all the treasures of God’s great love.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Words that Heal ~ James 3:1-12 ~ Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ September 16, 2012

They say “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Wouldn’t it be great if that were true?  If hurtful words could run off of us like water off a duck’s back—never again to be remembered?

Unfortunately, words can be like bullets that go straight to our hearts.  It takes only words to make us feel worthless and unloved.  It takes only words to ruin our day.  Some words can even wreck entire lives—with wounds that not even time can heal.

Words are like bullets; our tongues as guns. 

This is the essence of what God’s Word is speaking to us from the third chapter of James.  There, it is written that the tongue is a flame set ablaze by hell.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison; something that cannot be tamed. 

Our tongues commit evil whenever we speak first and think only later about what we said...  Or we’re caught in the heat of a moment; we can’t keep our emotions in check, and we speak either out of anger or frustration or envy or insecurity. 

But the tongue is at its deadliest when it is used to deliberately wound another person.  This is what bullying is.  The bully uses their skill and cunning to inflict maximum harm on another person for reasons as petty as their own enjoyment. The bully gets high by using their words to bring another person down.

But as much as other people’s words can hurt us, we can hurt ourselves just as much with our own words.

James reminds us that none of us is perfect—and therefore, we all say things we wish we could take back.  But we can’t.  Words cannot be unsaid like pencil marks erased from paper.  And if we have any kind of conscience at all, we become burdened with guilt and shame when we realize we’ve spoken hurtful words.  And what’s worse is that we recognize that our words break relationships and damage our reputations.  In the end, our own words end up making us feel worthless and stupid and evil.  And saying “I’m sorry” cannot take back the hurt we cause—and more than it can take away our shame. 

If we need any proof of our need of divine grace, we need look no further than our hearts that are wounded by the hurtful things we say and the hurtful things said to us.  Time cannot heal a wounded heart—but Jesus can.  His forgiveness takes away our guilt and our shame; his wounded hands and feet show us how much we are loved even when people treat us like garbage.

God’s invitation to us today is to listen to a Holy and Sacred Word that gives life.  At the font, Jesus says to you that you belong to him.  At the table, Jesus says, “this is my body and my blood given for you,” and this is what he gives us in bread and in wine.  And all throughout the Scriptures, God speaks to us to assure us that we are loved, that you are forgiven, and that all of the evil and chaos in this world cannot defeat God’s redemption of the cosmos.  Therefore, we must close our mouths, still our busy hands, and listen as God speaks this life-giving Word to the world.  This is the discipline part of living as a disciple of Jesus Christ. 

When we discipline our ears to listen as God speaks, we become kind compassionate and forgiving.  We become Christ-like.  We receive the grace to discipline our tongues.

Ultimately, we show Christ’s compassion most powerfully not in what we say, but in what we do—and one of the greatest gifts we can give to our neighbors is in listening to them.  You can never go wrong in helping someone when you listen and make the effort to understand what they’re saying.  The world doesn’t need more advice givers.  It needs more listeners.

And when we do speak, we must choose our words carefully.

I remember a three-fold test my pastor my confirmation class:

1)      Is it nice? 

2)      Is it true?

3)      Is it necessary?

If you can’t say “yes” to at least two of those three, you should probably keep your mouth shut. 

Sometimes, it will be necessary to speak and it won’t be nice, such as when we learn that someone is suffering unjustly—and that they will continue to suffer if we remain silent.  Another case is when someone does us wrong—and the only way to heal that broken relationship is to tell that person that they’ve hurt us.  Therefore, the ultimate test of our words, is this: “do my words speak the love of Jesus Christ?

An uncontrolled tongue can create hell on earth—but hands and mouths that proclaim the life of Christ will heal.  So let your words and your deeds speak Jesus’ love.  Be quick to listen, and slow to speak. 


Sunday, September 9, 2012

This Is What Jesus Would Do ~ James 2:1-17 ~ Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ September 9, 2012

In the late 90’s, a sensation was sweeping the nation, at least among Christians: the WWJD, or ‘what-would-Jesus-do’ wristband.  In my high school, you’d find one on every Christian’s wrist—except for me.  I had one but I never wore it—because it was itchy...

Yet I could never argue the fact the wristbands served as great reminders to walk with God throughout the day—not to mention that they were a way for others to hold you accountable, should you do something that Jesus wouldn’t do.

They were even great conversation starters for sharing the faith.

So what would Jesus do?  Sometimes, that question can be very difficult to answer.  But God’s Word from the book of James makes very clear what God demands of all who believe.

Genuine faith is expressed in good works.

The Bible is very clear that our good works do not save us; that we are saved by God’s grace through faith.  But James does not contradict Scripture in teaching that good works are the fruit of a living faith.  When we are drawn into the reality of Christ’s love for the whole world, we are compelled to love our neighbors as we ourselves are loved by Jesus.

And James is very specific in terms of who we are to serve: and this is the point where James’ teachings become very challenging.

We are not to show favoritism by only serving certain people, while neglecting others.  And here’s why: whenever the opportunity comes along to do good for someone else, there will always be that temptation to do so in pursuit of something for ourselves.  And there will always be certain peoples with the means to reward us for serving them.

James puts this in practical terms when he speaks of a congregation welcoming a rich person into their church and giving them a seat of honor.  Their “serving” may be rewarded with a substantial monetary contribution. 

Yet when Jesus’ love fills our hearts and our minds, we don’t play favorites.  We don’t seeing people for what we can get from them.  Instead we recognize that every person is loved by Jesus Christ—and not because of what they have to offer him; or even because they are worthy of such a love, but because Jesus is gracious.  Behind all the labels and the gossip; amid the circumstances and hardships of life, there is a person who is precious in Jesus’ sight; a person for whom he gave his life.  And when one of those precious ones suffers need of any kind, Jesus’ heart burns with compassion.

Today, God brings good news to the poor—the poor of means; the poor of health; the poor of self-worth, and the poor of faith...

The words of James remind us—as do Jesus’ own words throughout the Gospels—that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor.  And it’s not because the poor are morally superior to the rich, or even because the poor are more deserving...  God has chosen the poor because of their tremendous need.  And it is God’s delight to bind up brokenness of the poor ones, wipe their tears away, and give to them the life their souls have always longed for and never found. 

At the end of the day, the truth is that we are all poor.  Any earthly treasures and personal successes count for nothing in the next life.  We’re all sinners.  We’re all broken and lost creatures.  Yet we are loved.

Serving the poor is our duty—so to love others as we ourselves are loved.  All that we are to seek is to glorify our Savior by meeting our neighbors’ needs.  If we serve only those who reward us, or if we choose to ignore the cries of the poor, we’re taking the precious gifts of God for granted.  What good is Jesus’ love to us if it doesn’t make us loving?  Faith is dead if we are not participating in Christ and his work.

But when we do participate in Christ, we come alive—because we are taking part in his healing of the world.  We have the opportunity to give life to those in darkness; to participate in miracles that transform lives.

We don’t have the power to take away people’s hurts and fix everything that’s wrong in their lives.  But we can love graciously—just as Jesus loves them.  And this is enough to turn the tide against all the evils and pains that enshroud God’s people in darkness.  This is enough to make God’s promises real to a world in such great need of hope.

It can be very difficult to believe in grace; to believe that we are saved by Christ’s righteousness alone and not by our own good works. 

So to know a gracious God more fully, and to understand the meaning of salvation by grace, let us go forth and practice grace by serving and loving all who are poor of health, wealth, or faith...  Let us go forth to meet a gracious Savior in our neighbors in need.  Let us go forth to love others as graciously and as mercifully as we ourselves are loved.

Let’s go forth to serve the poor.  This is what Jesus does.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Lives of Love ~ Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 ~ Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ September 2, 2012

Next Sunday, my grandfather will celebrate his 89th birthday.

And one of my enduring memories of him will be this picture he used to carry in his wallet: of a wrinkly old man whose face was all shriveled up like a rotten jack-o-lantern.

I accompanied him to the grocery store during one of our family’s many visits to their home in Florida.  At the checkout, he opened his wallet, pulled out the picture, and he asked the cashier: “have you seen my Uncle Fester?”  (And this wasn’t Uncle Fester from the Addams family!)

After a few more wisecracks (at his own expense), the young woman behind the counter began to laugh.

As we walked out of the store, Grandpa looked at me and he said, “You didn’t ask me why I did that...”

So I said, “Why did you do that?”  He said, “Jesus loves her, and she deserves to smile today.  I’d be failing in my duty to her as a Christian if I didn’t share the joy of the Lord with her.”

That day, he taught me much of what it means to live as a child of God; something that Moses is teaching the Israelites in our first lesson for today... 

For the Israelites, this is a time of transition in their history.  God has freed them from slavery in Egypt—and soon, they will take possession of the land that God had promised to be their own. 

It is in this time of change that Moses commands the people to live in obedience to the Laws of God—and for these reasons:

First of all, obedience is the proper response to the graciousness of God.  Out of all the peoples of the world, God had chosen them as his own.   God has liberated them from their slavery, and God will make of them a great nation.

Secondly, by obeying God’s commands, the people will be able to live well in the land they are about to receive.  There can be peace and prosperity when the people love God and their neighbors as themselves.

And thirdly, God commands obedience so that Israel would be a shining witness to the greatness of God.  Israel was blessed to be a blessing.

Moses’ teachings remain true to us who hear this 3,000 years after the fact. 

God has graciously claimed us as his own people in baptism; we are set free from our slavery to sin and given new life through Jesus Christ. 

And we live out our relationship with God by serving others.  This is how we respond to God’s goodness. 

We have forgiveness; we have hope; we have life—thanks to God.  So we love our neighbors as ourselves; we strive to meet their needs with the same urgency as our own; for when we do—we discover God’s gracious love for us within our own hearts. 

And at the same time, we live out our God-given purpose in life—because has chosen us as his own so that all the world would know him through us.

This is why the church exists. 

Our message to a world so full of sin and suffering and unbelief, is that every person is loved by Jesus Christ.  Our work is to fill the world with his love—so that everything we do bears witness to the gracious love of God. 

Whether we realize it or not, we have tremendous power—as a congregation—and as individuals—to reach people’s lives with Jesus’ love.  We have the spiritual gift from God of being a loving and generous congregation.  In August alone, we’ve been blessed to share Jesus’ love through our clothing ministry and the blood drive.  More opportunities to do the very same are on the horizon.  As we go from this place and return to our lives outside of church, we will have opportunities to do good.  There will be opportunities to support and befriend those in need.  If we keep walking in love, people will notice.  They will ask, “why do you do these things?”  To that, you say “because Jesus loves you.” 

Wherever you find yourself this week, God will be there—giving you opportunities to love people just as you yourself are loved.  On this Labor Day weekend, our work is to remember Jesus’ gracious love for us and tell everyone that Jesus loves them just the same.  This is the good news that people need so desperately to hear.  This is the kind of religion that will change lives.  This is the Christianity that will heal the world.