Sunday, December 30, 2012

Growing Up

(A sermon based on Luke 2:41-52 & Colossians 3:12-17 for the 1st Sunday after Christmas Day)

The 2008 movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” told the story of how the title character was born as an old man and how as he lived he grew younger and younger until finally he just ceased to be. Reflecting on that story, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to carry the experiences of old age with you into middle age and those of old and middle age into young adulthood and those of old, middle, and young adulthood into adolescence and childhood. After all, what adult among us has not said, “If I had known then what I know now”?

That is not, though, how it works. We are born as babies and we grow into adults who become older and older adults until finally we die.

Since Jesus was a normal human baby, he grew up in the normal human way. As a baby he nursed, he burped, he spit up, he messed up his diaper, he cooed, and he cried. As a toddler he learned to walk and to talk; he stumbled and got boo-boos and he said words in cute ways that made Joseph and Mary laugh. As a child he played with the kids in the neighborhood and followed Joseph around the carpenter’s shop and had to get his homework done.

The Bible tells us none of that, of course. We can infer it, though, from the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple because in that story he acts a lot like any other child acts who is entering that wonderfully awful period of being suspended somewhere between childhood and adulthood. All of us adults remember those times in our life when our parents said “We’re going this way” and we said “I believe I’ll go that way”; we parents also remember when we said “We’re going that way” and our child said “I believe I’ll go this way.”

Discovering, finding, and exploring your own way is part of growing up. In the story of Jesus staying behind at the Temple we get a glimpse of him becoming aware of who he was and of who he was meant to be and of him working it out in the best way he could. Jesus was the Son of God and so he had a pre-history and a status that no one else had or has but he still, being human as well as divine, had to grow into a full awareness of who he was and of what he was to do.

The baby born in Bethlehem would grow up to be the adult who would show us God’s way and, by living in that way—the way of service, sacrifice, and love—would ultimately die on the cross for our sins. Jesus was the child of God, Mary, and Joseph, and all of his parents would help to guide him and to place him in a position to grow and to learn. But Jesus also had to make some choices for himself, choices that he made very well. God’s goal for Jesus, as it is for all of us, was for him to find and to develop what it meant to be who he was meant to be; Jesus had to develop the gifts that were his from his Father.

Jesus chose to stay behind at the Temple. But Jesus had parents who faithfully practiced their faith and had regularly put their son in a position to understand how important such practice was. Given who he was, who his parents taught him to be, and who he was growing to understand he was, I’m sure that when Joseph and Mary reflected on it later, they realized that the Temple was the first place they should have looked.

Jesus was actively engaged in becoming who his Father meant for him to be; he was actively engaged in the process of growing up into the man who would change the course of history and the course of so many lives.

What about us? Are we seeking to grow up? Are we actively putting ourselves in a position to move past being “babes in Christ” and to grow into being mature and productive believers?

Paul said to those of us who are God’s beloved and set apart children, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). He went on to say, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:14). He continued, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (3:15) and “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3:16). Now all of these magnificent realities—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, peace, and love—are gifts from God but we choose whether or not to put ourselves in a position to practice them and to develop them.

It is as the Dalai Lama, that great Tibetan Buddhist leader, said: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” We choose whether or not to let the gifts of God take root in our lives and cause us to grow up into mature faith.

I have often been told by someone who professes to follow Christ but whose behavior tended toward obnoxiousness and rudeness, “That’s just the way I am.” No, that’s just the way they choose to be; they don’t have to be that way. I’m not saying that it’s easy and I’m not saying that it’s automatic. I am saying that we have choices and that if we choose ahead of time, before the crisis strikes or before the hurt comes (which will happen if we are to have anything to do with people, which we must do if we are to be the church) that we are going to practice love, then we will grow in showing love and in being who we are meant to be.

My very wise Uncle Johnny told me about a man who had two dogs who tended to fight a lot. A friend asked the owner, “Which one wins?” The owner replied, “Whichever one I feed.” If you feed compassion instead of apathy, compassion will win. If you feed forgiveness instead of grudges, forgiveness will win. If you feed humility instead of pride, humility will win. If you feed love instead of hate, love will win. They are all God’s gifts to you but we need keep ourselves in a position to cultivate, practice, and develop them.

The baby Jesus had to grow up to be who he was meant to be and to do what he was meant to do.

You know how some parents mark the growth of their children on a door frame? If we marked our spiritual growth—our growth as a community as seen the way we exhibit compassion, forgiveness, and love—how high would our latest mark be?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me

(A message delivered at the Christmas Eve service at First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA)

“Wait, wait…don’t tell me!” It’s something you say when someone asks you a question and the answer is right on the tip of your brain but won’t quite make the leap to your mouth. You hear it when people are playing a quiz game or when a teacher asks a question or when someone is trying to guess what is in that funny looking package under the tree.

“Wait, wait…don’t tell me!”

That’s probably not the answer you would give were I to ask you, “What are we waiting for tonight?”

No, your initial and quick (and correct) reply would be “Jesus”; you wouldn’t need for me to wait for you to come up with that answer.

But what if I followed that question up with this one: “And what does that mean?”

“Wait, wait…don’t tell me!”

OK, I won’t. Perhaps you will allow me, though, to give you some things to think about as you formulate your answer.

Jesus is already and always here; we are waiting for one who is here and so maybe we need to consider our openness and availability to him. Behold, he stands at the door and knocks.

Jesus comes in both expected and unexpected ways; look for him where you expect to find him but always be ready to be surprised. People were looking for a Messiah to come but they were not looking for one like Jesus was.

Jesus came in a way that made him vulnerable; he was born as a helpless baby who grew up to be an adult who could have protected himself but chose not to do so. He is especially present today in the poor, the sick, the helpless, and the vulnerable.

Jesus will come again to make all things as they should be but even now he is moving things toward their completion. It’s a struggle to see it sometimes but we should be living with great faith and hope, not fear and pessimism.

Jesus came to bring peace—to bring wholeness and soundness in our relationships with God, with ourselves, and with each other. Such peace comes from God’s love working in and through us.

Let me ask one more question: “So how should we be living as we wait for the one who is already here?”

“Wait, wait…don’t tell me.”

OK—I’ll let Jesus himself tell you.

“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”
(Matthew 5:3-12).

How then should we live? Let me at least tell you this much:

Be present.

Be ready.

Be vulnerable.

Be hopeful.

Be loving…

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jesus Is Coming—So Live!

(A sermon based on Micah 5:2-5a & Luke 1:39-55 for the 4th Sunday of Advent)

Here on this fourth and last Sunday of Advent, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I want to talk with you about being pregnant.

While I suspect that most of the children (and I reckon all of the adults) present know the meaning of the word, allow me to tell you that our English word “pregnant” comes from a Latin word meaning “before child”; it thus came to have the meaning of being “with child.” A pregnant woman is a woman who is going to have a baby, then.

Our Gospel text tells us about two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, who were kin. Did you ever see the movie Father of the Bride, Part 2? The story involved a middle-aged mother and her young daughter who were pregnant at the same time; it being a movie, they delivered their babies at virtually the same time on the same day in the same hospital attended by the same doctor. The story of Elizabeth and Mary is not quite like that—they were likely cousins and their due dates were six months apart—but it is an even more amazing story because it tells of how their pregnancies related to each other in the carrying out of God’s plan to bring the promise of new life into the world.

They became pregnant under interesting circumstances that, because of the role of God, became miraculous circumstances.

I guess we could say the same thing about most pregnancies, though, couldn’t we? I mean, how many of you don’t believe that the birth of your children was a gift from God?

When I was a little boy and asked my father where I came from, he said, “Your Mama and I prayed for you.” I suspect that Elizabeth had earlier in her life prayed that she would have a child; I also suspect that, given her advanced age, she had quit such praying. Mary, on the other hand, was in no position to want or to have a child so her pregnancy came as a very unexpected and troubling gift.

We can scarcely imagine the awkward position in which Elizabeth’s pregnancy placed her or the even more awkward position in which Mary’s placed her. Elizabeth and Zechariah had been unable to have children and they “were getting on in years” (Luke 1:7); while we can’t know how old they were they were clearly “too old” to be having a baby. It is the kind of situation that generates snickers and raised eyebrows.

Mary, on the other hand, was young and poor and unmarried; that’s the kind of situation that generates cruelty and maliciousness—much more so then than now. Mary may well have been grateful that Gabriel’s words to her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy gave her an opening to get out of town.

We are very good at putting ourselves in an awkward situation; sometimes, though, God puts us in one for the sake of God’s purpose. Odd as it may sound, being the recipient of God’s grace can make you uncomfortable. It is God’s way for us that the experience of such awkwardness and uncomfortableness is really a blessing, although it may not always seem like it.

The difficult situations in which Elizabeth and Mary found themselves were worth it because of the life that was stirring within them, waiting to emerge into the world and to make a difference in that world.

I remember when Debra was pregnant with each of our children and she would say to me, “Put your hand here” so I could feel a little of what she felt as the baby kicked. And every fiber of my being would cry out, “Wow! This is amazing!” while they at the same time whispered, “Wow! This is scary.” Life was stirring in her, life that was going to come crashing into this world and make a lasting impression.

So it was that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice the prenatal John “leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). Elizabeth then said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). John’s calling in life was going to be to proclaim the coming of the Messiah and he obviously could hardly wait to get started. What a life was stirring in Elizabeth!

Then Mary started talking about the life within her and what God was going to do through him. She celebrated the great mercy and strength of God. She said that through the life in her—a life that had not yet been born—God had scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, and filled the hungry. In short, God had kept God’s promises! Mary was so sure that it would happen that she could talk about it as if it already had happened.

It has happened. It will happen. It is happening. God is in the process of keeping God’s promises.

One of the ways God does that is by causing life to stir in us, in God’s people. Mary gave birth to Jesus, but our Micah text says that the people of Israel as a whole were in labor with the coming Messiah. These days, we are the body of Christ. As Teresa of Avila said,

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.

Each of us individually, all of us as a church, and all of God’s people everywhere have the life of Christ stirring within us. What does that mean for you? What does it mean for us?

One of our beloved Christmas carols offers this prayer: “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.” He is born in us. He is born in us to bring about mercy, peace, grace, and justice. He is born in us to turn things upside down, to turn us outward, to turn us—and everything—Godward...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Jesus Is Coming—So Be Joyful!

(A sermon based on Luke 3:7-18 & Philippians 4:4-7 for the Third Sunday of Advent.)

The candle of joy is now burning on the Advent wreath.

But how can we talk about joy in light of what has happened this week?

That is the question that has haunted me since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Friday.

Then another question occurred to me: how can we talk about joy in light of what happens every week? While the deaths at Sandy Hook are shocking and heart-rending, especially when we consider the deaths of so many children, the truth is that many violent deaths occur every week. There were 14,612 murders in the United States in 2011; that averages out to 281 per week.

All tragedies are not due to violence, though. For example, some five million children in developing countries die each year due to malnutrition.

This is not even to mention the many public and private tragedies, the innumerable “little deaths,” that so many of us bear in our daily lives; it is not to mention all the people who are dying of a broken heart.

Some of you may be thinking, “I can’t believe he’s talking about such depressing things just nine days before Christmas!” Lutheran pastor Peter Marty told of a Christmas night service during which he spoke in his sermon of the recent murder of a young boy in Trenton, New Jersey. Following the service, a woman walked up to him and said, “I will never set foot in this church again.” Her reason, she said, was the inappropriateness of mentioning murdered children in a Christmas sermon. And, Marty said, she has kept her work; she has never come back. (Peter W. Marty, “Christmas Unvarnished”, Christian Century, December 12, 2012, p. 10)

Perhaps she had never read her Bible, either, since the murder of the children of Bethlehem is part of the story of the birth of Christ.

Friends, the coming of Jesus into the world was not, is not, and will never be anything other than a real life, real world event. The Church is not Fantasy Land and Christians do not live in Paradise; we are in the real world with its real tragedies and its real pains. It was into such a world that Jesus came.

We rightly love the words that the angel spoke to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy”; in our minds we hear Linus reciting the words in A Charlie Brown Christmas and we get a nice warm feeling, which is all well and good. But let’s remember that those shepherds were religious and social outcasts living in an occupied land; even after they went to visit the Christ Child they were religious and social outcasts living in an occupied land.

The difference for the shepherds was that they lived the rest of their lives knowing that God had come to them and that God was with them, all the time and no matter what. While there is no record of it, I would stake my life on my belief that it was, for them, enough.

We would do well to remember that those beautiful words of Paul that jar us so in light of Sandy Hook—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”—were written from his prison cell during an incarceration that may well have culminated in his death, a death that resulted directly from his faithfulness to the Lord. Paul knew about having joy in the real and dangerous world.

Perhaps the better question to ask is, “How can we not talk about joy at a time like this?” Indeed, how can we not talk about—and live—in joy all the time? How can we not share joy all the time?

The joy we have to talk about, to live in, and to share is the joy of presence. There’s been a saying on some church signs lately that makes a good point; it goes something like “Christmas is not about the ‘presents’; it’s about the ‘presence.’” God has come to us in Jesus Christ. God will come to us in Jesus Christ. God does come to us in Jesus Christ.

How do we go about living in that joy?

First, we give ourselves over to God, in the sense of knowing that God is there with us and for us. We are never alone.

Second, we give ourselves over to other people, in the sense of being there with them and for them. We can make sure that they are never alone.

Right after telling us to rejoice always, Paul said, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Such gentleness is a caring concern that does what it can for the good of other people. When people asked John the Baptist what they should do in light of his warnings of God’s judgment, John told them to think more of others than they did of themselves and to treat people fairly.

That’s how we live in joy: by sharing our lives with others. Having joy comes down to knowing the God is present with us and in us; living in joy comes down to sharing ourselves with each other. God has given God’s love to us. God’s love is more than enough if we share it; it is never enough if we don’t.

Writer Anne Lamott, reflecting on the Connecticut tragedy, said,

I also remembered a conversation I had with my Jesuit friend Tom Weston during a bleak, cold, excruciating Advent day, three years ago, that I wrote up in Some Assembly Required. Here is some of what we talked about, which I am finding helpful today:

Where, I asked that day in 2009, in such despair and chaos, is Advent?

He tried to wiggle out of it by saying, “You Protestants and your little questions!”

Then he said: “Faith is a decision. Do we believe we are ultimately doomed…and there’s no way out? Or that god and goodness makes a difference? There is heaven, community and hope—and hope that there is life beyond the grave.”

“But Tom, at the same time, the grave is very real, dark and cold and lonely.”

“Advent is not for the naïve. Because in spite of the dark and cold, we see light—you look up, or you make light, with candles, trees. And you give light. Beauty helps, in art and nature and faces. Friends help. Solidarity helps. If you ask me, when people return phone calls, it’s about as good as it gets. And who knows beyond that?”

Advent says that there is a way out of this trap—that we embrace our humanity, and Jesus’s humanity, and then we remember that he is wrapped up in God. It’s good to know where to find Jesus—in the least of these--among the broken, the very poor and marginalized. Jesus says, ‘You want to see me? Look there.’

So after talking to Tom that day, I did notice the beautiful, deciduous tree-lined streets of Marin, CGI-level flame-colored autumn leaves. Two towns over, I saw a dozen snowy egrets in what must have been a very delicious meadow by the side of the road, and I had enough sense to pull over and sit and watch them eat for awhile.

I called Tom yesterday as soon as I heard about the shootings. Neither of us said anything interesting, but we hung out together on the phone and listened to each other's voices, and grieved for the families of Newtown, and that helped. These tiny bits of connection to the broken are very real, and the kindness and attention people show to one another create a tiny bit of light. That’s Advent.
(!/AnneLamott?fref=ts, downloaded December 15, 2012)

“Advent is not for the naïve.” Jesus comes to us in the real, hard world. When we show love to others, a bit of light shines in the darkness.

For some reason, I’m thinking about children’s songs today.

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.”

One day, God will fix it; for now, God loves. We can’t fix it now or ever; so for now—and from now on—let’s love.

O God, let the light, the love, and the joy show in the places we look for you, in the way we live in the world, and in the ways we treat other people….

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Jesus is Coming—So Look!

(A sermon based on Luke 1:68-79 & Philippians 1:3-11 for the Second Sunday of Advent)

Perhaps you have had an experience similar to mine. I will be asked by my good wife, “Did you see such and such on such and such television show?” I will reply, “No.” And she will say, “But you were sitting right there when it was on.”

There are several possible explanations for that recurring phenomenon. First, perhaps I was dozing. Second, perhaps I was paying attention to something else, like my iPad. Third, and most likely, perhaps I was watching but not seeing; my eyes were open and even pointed in the right direction but my mind and heart were not engaged in what was on the screen.

It’s amazing what you can miss when you aren’t paying attention, when you are not fully present in the moment. If we aren’t careful, we might even miss what God is up to in Jesus Christ—even during this most wonderful time of the year.

That’s ironic because the ability to see what is important is one of the great gifts that can be ours in Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, the ability to see, period, is a great gift that can be ours in Jesus.

Zechariah saw but he didn’t see and because he didn’t see he became unable to speak.

Zechariah was a priest who was married to Elizabeth who a descendant of Aaron, Israel’s original priest. Zechariah and Elizabeth were good and faithful people. One day when Zechariah was serving in the temple the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that Elizabeth, who was advanced in years and had been unable to bear children, would bear a son that they would name John who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. When Zechariah expressed disbelief—he saw but didn’t see, he heard but didn’t believe—Gabriel told him that he would be unable to speak until the child was born. When their son was born and Zechariah affirmed that he was to be named John, as the angel had instructed, he got his voice back; the first thing he that came out of his mouth was the prophetic praise of our text.

Zechariah said that God had shown favor to God’s people by sending a Savior from the house of David, thereby keeping the promises that had been made to Abraham, the great ancestor of Israel. Zechariah furthermore proclaimed that the son that had been born to Elizabeth and him would be the prophet who would proclaim forgiveness of sins and prepare the way for the Savior.

Zechariah furthermore said that the Savior was coming who would, like the dawn’s sun that drives away the night’s darkness, drive away the darkness of sin and the shadow of death that hound and confound us. Because of the light of the Savior we would be able to walk in the way of peace, of wholeness and well-being with God and with others. He shows us the way.

And what is that way that he will show us, that he will make visible to us? It is the way of love. Paul puts it very well in his prayer for the Philippian Christians: “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11). We can love more and more in wiser and wiser ways. We can look for ways that Jesus would have us to love. We can and should always be looking for ways to love and to grow in love.

Some of our beloved stories of the season teach us of the power of love. For example, there is Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch That Stole Christmas that tells of the mean old Grinch who lived on the mountain up above Whoville and who hated the Whos’ celebration of Christmas so much that one year he decided to steal it and so on Christmas Eve he took all of their Christmas decorations and gifts. Then, so the story goes,

"Pooh-pooh to the Whos!" he was grinch-ish-ly humming.
"They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming!
"They're just waking up! I know just what they'll do!
"Their mouths will hang open a minute or two
"The all the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry BOO-HOO!"

"That's a noise," grinned the Grinch,
"That I simply must hear!"
So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow...

But the sound wasn't sad!
Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn't be so!
But it WAS merry! VERY!

He stared down at Who-ville!
The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook!
What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"

And what happened then...? Who-ville they say
That the Grinch's small heart
Grew three sizes that day!
And the minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light
And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!

The Grinch carved the roast beast!

Love caused the Grinch’s heart to grow and he showed that love by making amends, by righting wrongs, and by sharing life with the people around him. I’m not saying that the Grinch became a Christian; I’m just saying that the story shows us the power of love.

This weekend we are sharing in our church’s production of A Christmas Carol. In that marvelous story, Ebenezer Scrooge’s life is changed by the nocturnal visit of three spirits, but really it is love that changes him.

What changed Scrooge was the light that shone into his darkness and what that light showed him was love. And then that light of love showed him how to live in love, how to give and serve and help.

Just think, then, of what a difference the love of God—the love seen in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—can and will make in our lives, particularly if we are on the lookout for ways to share it and to grow in it.

It won’t happen all at once, but we can be growing toward it a little bit every day. We’re a bit like those compact fluorescent bulbs that start dim and get brighter; the light of love starts out dim in us but becomes brighter and brighter and brighter as we live and love.

The light of the world is Jesus. You all are the light of the world. So look for the light. And let your light shine…

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Greening our Hearts

(A Sermon based on 1 Corinthians 13 for the Hanging of the Green 2012)

This morning we have celebrated the greening or the decorating of our sanctuary for the Advent and Christmas seasons (a reminder: Advent begins next Sunday and continues until Christmas Eve; the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and ends twelve days later). The decorations serve to enhance the always-present beauty of the sanctuary; they make an already beautiful place even more beautiful.

Decorations can dress up a place that is not already attractive, though. Imagine that you are driving around town at night looking at Christmas lights. You drive through various neighborhoods and by many houses, all the while thinking, “Well, that’s pretty.” Then imagine that you drive through those same neighborhoods and by those same houses in the middle of the next day. In some cases, you will still think the houses are pretty. In other cases, not so much.

You can dress up an ugly place. You can enhance a beautiful place. Or, you can make an ok place into a better than average place.

Let’s apply that line of thought to our hearts.

A human heart can be a beautiful place; it can also be an ugly place or a mediocre place. I suspect that for most of us it is mediocre or fair-to-middling or sometimes good, sometimes bad. For us, the days of Advent and Christmas can be, as all days can be, days when we focus on greening our hearts, on adorning them further with those qualities that make all the difference in a life. Let’s use these days to focus on the greening of our hearts with faith, hope, and love.

This is not a matter of dressing ourselves up so we can appear to be better than we in fact are. I remember clearly how, around forty-five years ago, I would at this time of year suddenly become much more interested in the quality of my outward behavior just in case Santa was watching; I didn’t want to be on the wrong list. Notice that we’re talking about greening our hearts, about adorning our innermost being, and not about dressing up our actions. We want to develop strong root systems so that we will produce the right kind of produce. If we feed our hearts, the actions will follow.

Remember, too, that this is about what God does in and through us, not about what we do for ourselves. Our responsibility is to be open, to be seeking, and to be receptive to whatever God has for us. To understand the difference between what we can do and what God can do, try this: first, when you finish decorating your house for Christmas, step back and admire the job you have done; then, on a clear night, go outside and look up at the stars to see what God has done. You will see the difference.

God will green our hearts with gifts that endure, with blessings that have staying power. As Paul said, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three,” and those are the great realities with which God will adorn our hearts.

God will green our hearts with faith.

“Faith” means “trust.” There is an axiom that says that a person who chooses to represent himself in court “has a fool for a client.” The same principle applies if we try to represent ourselves in life. “Fools,” the psalm has it, “say in their hearts ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). We are made by God and we are made for God; therefore, we need God. God is the only One worthy of our trust because only God is God.

Trust in God is meant by God to be a beautiful reality in our lives and it becomes more beautiful as we grow in humble confidence that God’s will is becoming our will and God’s ways are becoming our ways. But trust in God can become an ugly reality when it deteriorates into arrogance and assumption, when we come to think that we really do know God’s will and way and when we assume that our will and way are God’s will and way.

Do you remember the father who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief”? (Mark 9:24). That’s a good prayer. Another good prayer is, “I believe; help my belief”; that is, don’t let my belief get the best of me and make me arrogant and shallow.

What a beautiful thing it is, on the other hand, when we simply and humbly give ourselves over to God, trusting that, both because of and despite who we are and what we do, God will show us the way.

God will green our hearts with hope.

Hope, biblically speaking, is confidence born of the assurance that God keeps God’s promises and that God is working God’s purposes out. Hope is not wishful thinking; hope is not fantasy; hope is not looking at the world through rosy-colored glasses. Hope sees the world as it really is and understands that reality is challenging and that the way through it is hard. But hope also believes in God and believes that God is working and will work God’s purposes out for all of creation.

Hope looks forward to that time when we will know as we long to know and we will be known as we long to be known. Meanwhile, hope gives us light in the midst of darkness, purpose in the midst of doubt, direction in the midst of chaos, and life in the midst of death.

God will green our hearts with love.

Our hearts are not suitably adorned, though, unless they are adorned with love. Faith, as great as it is, is without love arrogance. Hope, as great as it is, is without love selfishness. We can have great faith but still not be who God means for us to be and we can have great hope and not have the heart of God. But God will by God’s grace fill us with God’s love so that everything we are, say, and do is enlivened by the love of God. Faith and hope, while necessary in the living of this life, will not be needed in the next life; but love, being eternal (God is love, after all), will endure forever.

What is the love of God? It is seen in the fact that God made us even though God did not need us; it is seen in the fact that Jesus died for us when we were not worthy of such a sacrifice. It gives and gives and gives and sacrifices and sacrifices and sacrifices. So when that love fills us it will cause us to want to give and not to keep, to sacrifice and not to protect, and to help and not to hurt.

This Advent season, let’s ask God to decorate our hearts with faith, hope, and love. When God does, what will your life look like?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Give Thanks

(A Communion Meditation based on Luke 22:14-20 for the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day)

The American Thanksgiving holiday has a long and rich history. Its roots can be traced to November 1621 when those English Separatists, known to us as the Pilgrims, celebrated their first corn harvest in the New World with a three-day feast that was shared with their Native American allies. The feast of thanksgiving, declared by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford, followed the harvest that followed the summer and spring that followed their first winter in the New World, a winter during which around half of the settlers had died. The Pilgrims celebrated their blessings, then, but they did so in the shadow of great suffering and of great trials as well as in the face of the great unknown that stretched out before them.

The first national Thanksgiving Day proclamation issued by the new United States government was that of President George Washington in 1789; he called for it as a day to give thanks for the successful war for independence and for the ratification of the United States Constitution. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday to be held annually on the last Thursday in November. Since 1941 Thanksgiving Day has been observed on the fourth Thursday in November. [All information about Thanksgiving from]

Our consumption-driven culture has done its best to reduce Thanksgiving Day to “Black Friday Eve”; I hope that we will make every effort to foster and to observe a true spirit of Thanksgiving on this Thanksgiving Day. Let’s spend some time reflecting on our blessings, thanking God for them, and asking for guidance on how we can help those who are not similarly blessed. I would suggest reading a Thanksgiving Psalm at your Thanksgiving dinner table, such as this one:

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
(Psalm 30)

Our Scripture reading is not about a Thanksgiving meal but it is about a meal; it is about a Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples—in fact, it was the last meal that he shared with them and so it was a very meaningful time. The Passover meal did and does include prayers of thanks, though, so it did and does have a thanksgiving element to it.

We are told that Jesus gave thanks both for the cup and for the bread before he passed them among his disciples. Those prayers were likely the prayers that all Jews prayed at their Passover meal; with those prayers they blessed God for the fruit of the vine and for the bread from the earth. It is a good thing to give thanks for life, whether you, like our own Esylena Dougla, have celebrated your 94th birthday or like my Aunt Mary who will turn 100 next Sunday, or have lived a much shorter time. It is a good thing to thank God for our most basic and thus most necessary blessings, namely, our food and drink.

Let us thank God that we have enough!

There is a greater thanksgiving involved in the Passover meal, though. The Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt through the exodus. It was a thanksgiving, then, for God’s deliverance of God’s people from captivity and oppression. Jesus shared the meal with his disciples as he was about to lead another even greater exodus; he was about to win the victory that would liberate us from sin, death, and meaninglessness. He would do that through his crucifixion and resurrection. How has God in Christ set you free?

Let us thank God that we are free!

The Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples was his last meal with them; on the next day he would give his body and shed his blood for his disciples and for us. In sharing in the bread and the cup, the disciples were, even though they did not know it yet, joining themselves to the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus. They would have the privilege of loving, giving, serving, and sacrificing like Jesus did; they would have the opportunity to give their lives up for God and for others like he did. We have the privilege of loving God and loving others by giving ourselves up.

Let us thank God that we can love, serve, and give!

When Luke says that Jesus “gave thanks” for the bread and the cup, he uses the Greek word eucharisto; that is a word that some Christian traditions use to name the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is in some ways, then, a Great Thanksgiving. As we come to the Table of the Lord today, let us give thanks that we have enough, that we are free, and that we can love…

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Following Jesus: We Live From the Inside Out

(A sermon based on Luke 11:37-44 for Sunday, August 26, 2012)

Trying to be a real Christian while living a real life in the real world is tricky business. I mean, just think of some of the tensions with which we live.

For one thing, we know on the one hand that being Christian is not a matter of doing all the right things but we know on the other hand that we should and could do better at doing the right things.

For another thing, we know that we are limited because we are human but we know on the other hand that we can be more than we can imagine because of the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives.

For yet another thing, we know that our behavior is often of a higher quality than the state of our hearts but we know on the other hand that the state of our hearts is sometimes of a higher quality than the quality of our behavior.

One of the challenges we confront is to face who we are in all our complicatedness, who we can by grace-infused effort become, and the gap that lies between them.

I agree with Robert Corin Morris who said, “I’ve come to believe God wants us to develop awareness of the state of our spirit, for our own sake and for the sake of others” [Wrestling with Grace: a Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Nashville: Upper Room, 2003), p. 11].

I’ve come to believe that, too. I’ve come to believe that we need to learn to become aware of the state of our spirit so that we can by the grace of God and through the Spirit of God grow and develop that spirit that it might become more and more as God intends for it to be.

What does God intend? God intends for us to grow in the image of Christ; God intends for us to grow in the love and grace of Christ; God intends for us to grow into the best version of ourselves that we can be.

But what do we intend? Do we intend to tend to our spirits so that we can grow in the grace of knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do we intend to tend to our hearts so that our way of living will be characterized by ever-increasing integrity?

The observation that William Law made many years ago is a valid one for us: “If you will stop here and ask yourself why you are not so devoted as the primitive Christians, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.” [William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1955), p. 22].

Will we intend it? Will we commit together to tending to our spirits? Will we take steps to develop our spirits so that we will live our lives out of a solid center and bear good witness to Christ with our lives?

Sure, God still loves you and you can still be a Christian even if you settle for far less than you could be. But why would you settle? Why would you not want to be all that you can be by the grace and Spirit of God?

This story about Jesus having dinner with a Pharisee leads us to think about such matters.

One day Jesus was invited to dinner at a Pharisee’s home and Jesus went, which just goes to show you that Jesus would fellowship with any sinner, even a religious one (and those can be the hardest ones to abide). The Pharisees, you see, were very well-respected and very serious religious folks; nobody did religion any better than they did. They did all the right things in all the right ways. So the Pharisee could not believe that Jesus did not wash his hands before eating his dinner. Now, this was not a hygiene issue. It was a religious purity issue and by not washing Jesus broke the rules.

Jesus said to the amazed Pharisee, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you” (vv. 39-41).

Jesus said, in other words, that it is what is on the inside that counts. We can look mighty fine and holy on the outside but on the inside be an unholy mess. Jesus also said, in other words, that the best living and the best giving come from within us—but we must have something positive and good on the inside out of which to give! The truth is that we’ll still be a mess, but better a holy mess than an unholy one!

Do we have the problem that afflicted the Pharisees? Jesus said that they were full of “greed and wickedness” on the inside. He later said that they “neglected justice and the love of God.” Yes, they lived good and right-looking lives. Yes, they did right and good-looking things. But they had no inner storehouse from which to draw to help them to live truly good lives.

They did not understand that it really did all boil down to loving God with all their being (they neglected “the love of God”) and loving their neighbor as they loved themselves (they neglected “justice”).

We give out of what we have. If we have greed and selfishness, those are the store houses from which we’ll give. If we have love and justice, those are the storehouses from which we’ll give.

We can move every day toward tearing down the useless store houses and toward building up the useful ones.

Working together, the grace of God and the living of life will form us. Let’s live life in a way that will help us learn who we are so that we can submit it to God for correction and discipline. It’s not going to just happen; we have to want it to happen.

That means paying attention to what is going on in our hearts.

That means paying attention to what is going on in our prayers.

That means paying attention to what is going on in our relationships.

And it means not letting our religion stunt our growth or stand in the way of our progress…

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Following Jesus: We Take Up Our Cross

(A sermon based on Luke 9:18-27 for Sunday, August 19, 2012. Eighth in a series...)

Gregg Allman’s disturbingly fascinating autobiography, which I recently finished reading, bears the unfortunate title My Cross to Bear. It is an unfortunate title because it uses that phrase in a way that is all too common but all too incorrect, namely, as a way to name the burdens that come upon us in the course of our living of life. In Gregg’s case, while some of the most difficult crises he faced were thrust upon him, namely, the murder of his father and the accidental death of his big brother Duane, most of his struggles were self-inflicted, such as the liver disease that resulted from his substance abuse. Still, whether we are at fault or not for our struggles, and as real and hard as the struggles of life are, such struggles are not our cross to bear.

Our cross to bear is our following of Jesus in the kind of life that Jesus lived. It is a particularly Christian way of living that is based in our relationship of discipleship to Jesus Christ.

To understand what it means to take up our cross, we need first to have a sense of what it meant for Jesus to take up his cross.

Too simply put, Jesus died on the cross to take the sins and suffering of the world on himself. He entered into human suffering so as to defeat it from the inside. He did so because he was the Messiah, the Son of God who came to inaugurate God’s reign on the earth. God’s way for him to do that was not by overt displays of power but by the living of a self-emptying, self-sacrificing life that led to a self-emptying, self-sacrificing death.

As Jesus said following Peter’s affirmation that Jesus was “the Messiah of God,” “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” As Paul said of Jesus, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

It was a costly and painful way for Jesus. But Jesus did not undergo his suffering for the sake of undergoing it; he underwent it for the sake of living out his Father’s way for him and for the sake of the hurting, lost, and broken people in the world. He underwent his suffering to take their sins, their pains, and their sorrows onto himself and to suffer with and for them—for us. His suffering was real and he felt his own pains deeply, but he bore what he bore for the sake of others. “The Son of Man,” he said, “came to give his life a ransom for many.”

We very appropriately focus on the fact that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. We need also to focus on the fact that we are to follow Jesus all the time in taking up our own cross. The life that follows the Jesus who died on the cross is the life that follows Jesus in carrying the cross.

Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross for a while. We are to carry our own cross all the time.

We are called to be a suffering people; we are called to be a suffering church.

It may be that the only true church is a suffering church, a church that suffers for the sake of the suffering world. If we are the body of Christ in the world, we will join in the suffering that he endured for the sake of suffering people.

As Douglas John Hall put it, the church is “called to suffer because there is suffering—that is, because God’s creatures, including human beings, are already suffering, because ‘the whole creation groans.’” Hall went on to say,

The point is: the suffering of the church is not the goal but the consequence of faith. For faith…is that trust in God then frees us sufficiently from self to make us cognizant of and compassionate in relation toward the other—in particular, the other who suffers, who is hungry and thirsty, who is imprisoned; the other who ‘fell among thieves’; the other who knocks at our door at midnight in need. The church is a community of suffering because it is a community whose eyes have been opened to the suffering that exists. [Douglas John Hall, The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), p. 152]

So, just as Jesus took up his cross to enter into the suffering of people so as to overcome it, so are we to enter into the suffering of the people around us to overcome it.

There are many obstacles to taking up our crosses and following Jesus by taking on the suffering of the world. One is self-centeredness; the church is too often afflicted with an “us first, them if we can get to them” attitude when our first thought needs to be about them. Another is escapism; it’s just easier to turn our heads and close our eyes to the great hurts all around us than to bring that pain into our hearts and lives but that’s what we need to do.

Mr. Dylan posed the question 50 years ago: “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” Indeed. But surely we must open our eyes and see. We are Christians. We are followers of Jesus. We are bearers of our crosses. We invite the hurts of others onto ourselves and say, “Let us be with you. Let us love you. Let us heal you.”

What kinds of approaches should we take? They are innumerable. I’d encourage us to remember the story of the Good Samaritan so as to follow the Samarian’s model. The first step is to notice. The second step is to approach. The third step is to take whatever action you can.

Jesus told his disciples that there were some standing there that day who would see the kingdom come before they died. He was talking, I believe, about those who would take up their crosses and follow him, about those who would live his kind of life in the world, and about those in whom the kingdom would be seen.

Do you want to see the kingdom come? Take up your cross and follow Jesus….

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Following Jesus: We Care

(A sermon based on Luke 6:1-11 for Sunday, August 12, 2012. Sixth in a series...)

Our nation has in recent days been struck with two mass murders, one at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado and the other at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Both were senseless, heartless, cruel acts that can finally only be explained, if they can be explained at all, by the presence of great evil and deep sickness among us.

It seems to be the case, based on what information we have, that the shooter in the Aurora murders was motivated by personal demons while the one in the Wisconsin attack, we might surmise based on his association with white supremacist groups, was motivated by racial and/or religious hatred.

Each tragedy is as heart-breaking as the other and we pray for the communities, for the victims’ families, and for the injured in both cases and in both places.

In the case of the Wisconsin shootings, the violence was carried out against a community of people who were gathering on a Sunday for worship. We don’t know much about Sikhs around here. In this week’s email issue of Sojourners, Eboo Patel wrote,

The Sikh community has been one of welcome and hospitality since its founding in India 500 years ago. With their belief in a supreme Creator and a deep respect for all human beings, Sikhs place strong emphasis on equality, religious freedom, human rights, and justice.

Sikhs from India began immigrating to the United States in the late 19th century, and currently the Sikh population numbers about 314,000 in America and 30 million worldwide. Today, Sikhs are successful business people, active community members, and advocates for social justice.

To care about people motivates us to learn as much about them as we can, so knowing about the Sikhs is a good thing.

Still, I can’t help but think about something that was going around on Facebook in the aftermath of the Sikh temple shootings: “I was gonna post something that would tell you the difference between Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims but I realized you don’t need to know anything about somebody’s religion to know that you shouldn’t shoot them”(Attributed to Eric Parsons). Indeed. “Thou shalt not kill,” the Top 10 list says.

But Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21-22a). In other words, the stance of our heart toward people, our attitude toward others, matters.

So, we know that not only are we not to kill people but we are also not to hate them. We are even to go beyond not hating them to actually loving them.

We need to go deeper, though, and in going deeper we can put the matter positively: we who follow Jesus are to care about people. We need to care about people more than we care about our rules—more than we care about doing right. We need to care about people more than we care about our religious doctrines—more than we care about being right.

We need to care especially about those who are hungry, poor, sick, and on the margins.

Let’s compare the attitudes and approaches of Jesus and of the religious leaders of his day.

Those religious leaders cared deeply about being religious; that is, they cared about following the rules and about being respectable. We need have no doubt they truly believed that what they were doing was the best way to show their love and respect for God. But when your way of expressing your devotion to God encourages or even allows you to show no compassion to people, you need to reevaluate your stance.

I say that because I can’t get away from—we can’t get away from—what Jesus said when he was asked what the greatest commandment was and he said that it was to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and that the second was to love our neighbor as like we love ourselves. From that moment on, love of God and love of people have been inextricably intertwined.

So when the religious leaders saw Jesus’ hungry disciples picking and separating grain on a Sabbath day they did not see hungry people who needed food; they saw careless followers of a radical rabbi who violated the Sabbath prohibition against work. They asked, “Why are you breaking the rules?” Had they had compassion in them, they would have said, “Let us get you some food.”

Jesus’ attitude, for which he had biblical precedent, was that the needs of people took priority over the keeping of rules; his stance shows that he believed that it honored God more to meet people’s needs than to slavishly follow the rules and to maintain one’s respectability.

And Jesus said, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

When the religious leaders saw the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on a Sabbath when Jesus was teaching there, they did not see a suffering human being in need of help; they saw a situation and a circumstance that could be manipulated to try to entrap Jesus. The man was not to them a person to be helped; he was an opportunity to forward their agenda. When Jesus saw the man, he saw a human being who elicited compassion and who called forth help.

And Jesus said, “Is it lawful to save life or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”

On a Sabbath last week in Wisconsin, a man did harm and destroyed life.

On our Sabbaths—indeed, on all our days—let us do good and let us save lives.

Let me suggest a four-step program that will lead us to do that.

The first step is to see people as people.

The second step is to see people as an opportunity to encounter the image of God and as an opportunity to minister to Christ.

The third step is to have the great compassion that God has shown to us pour out to others.

The fourth step is to act on that compassion.

Hear now a story of the Desert Fathers. A brother asked an elder,

There are two brothers, of whom one remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days at a time were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick. [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1970), p. 47, cited in Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), pp. 103-104]

So…we can put our nose in the air like we just don’t care. Or we can follow Jesus.

It just may be that we will never see the world right, that we will never see God right, that we will never see ourselves right, and that we will never see life right until we see other people—particularly the stranger, the outcast, the other, the poor, the sick—right…

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Following Jesus: We Seek Solitude

(A sermon based on Luke 5:15-16 for Sunday, August 5, 2012. Sixth in a series.)

A few weeks ago the New York Times published an editorial by Tim Kreider entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” He wrote,

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

He’s right, it seems to me, and I doubt that many of you who live in the “working for a living raising a family trying to be a good citizen being active in the church” world would argue with what he says about how busy we are and how a good bit of our busyness is self-inflicted.

We might, though, want to give some careful consideration to this line in his piece: “They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” What is it that we dread we might have to face if we stop being so busy? Kreider later says, “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”

In other words, Kreider suggests, perhaps we immerse ourselves in busyness so that we won’t have to face up to the meaninglessness in our lives.

I imagine there’s a great deal of truth in what he says.

But I want to come at the matter from another angle. As Christians, we believe and have the chance to know that everything in our lives is vitally important. Sure, there may be some things of which we should let go and sure, there may be vocational and personal changes that we should ponder, and sure, we may at times struggle to find our place in Fitzgerald, much less in the cosmos. The bottom line nonetheless is that we are the children of God and we are the sisters and brothers of Jesus; we are citizens of God’s kingdom and we are missionaries of God’s grace in all of our situations and settings.

Seen from that angle, everything we do is important, so how can we not spend all of our time doing it? How can we stop and take some time to ponder? When I was in college I had a picture on my desk of a chimpanzee sitting in a chair with the caption “Sometimes I just sits and thinks. And sometimes I just sits.” Who has time to “just sits” when there is so much to do and when all of life, from the Christian perspective, is so important?

Well, no one ever had more work and more important work to do than Jesus did. No one ever lived a life that was more filled with purpose, meaning, and vitality than Jesus did. And yet Jesus was very intentional and regular in taking time to be alone with his Father.

Another good example for us is the great 16th century reformer Martin Luther: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

What we do as Christians is so important that we dare not not spend time alone with God; the spending of such time needs to be as much a part of our routine as is eating meals and going to sleep—and it is just as necessary!

What will we find in solitude that is so important?

First, in solitude we find God. It is not that God is not there until we are alone; it is rather that we need to be alone to develop our awareness of the presence of God.

To love someone is to be in a relationship with that person; to develop a relationship with someone requires the spending of time together, just the two of you with nobody else around. Jesus had a relationship of love with his Father and so he would regularly go off to spend time alone with his Father.

The more time you spend alone with someone you love the more you find yourself absorbing her presence, the more you become aware of who she is and of the wonder of her identity. Then, when you are with her in a crowd you maintain that increased awareness. That’s the way it works with God.

Second, in solitude we find ourselves. Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior of the world but he still needed time alone with his Father in order to find and to form his identity. Think of the forty days that he spend in the wilderness after his baptism and before he began his public ministry. That story also demonstrates the pain and difficulty that can come with finding ourselves; Satan tried his best to get Jesus to be other than who he was and to live in ways that ran counter to his true identity, but Jesus persevered and emerged more fully formed on the other side.

As Christians, we find our true selves not by contrasting ourselves with some imagined ideal or with other people; we find our true selves rather in communion with God and as we grow more and more in our state of being in Christ.

Third, in solitude we find purpose & direction.
In the editorial from which I read earlier, Kreider wrote, “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.” Only God can see the whole picture of our lives, of history, and of the universe, but we need time alone with God to gain the best insight we can get.

Perhaps we can learn something vital from our children in this area.

This much I know: I have never felt more at one with God and with the universe than I did when I was a boy lying in the clover in the shade with my dog Ruff...

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Following Jesus: We Hope

(A sermon based on Luke 19:1-10 for Sunday, July 22, 2012)

This saying has been going around on Facebook lately: “Some people are so poor all they have is money.”

Zacchaeus was one of those people. He was one of those people who had everything and nothing, all at the same time. He had more money than anyone else in Jericho, he had more power than anyone else in town, and he had more enemies than anyone else in town. But he had no friends, no respect, no honor, and certainly no love.

He likely had no hope that it was going to get any better for him. He had dug his hole and now it was just a matter of hanging around until he was completely covered up with dirt.

Then along came Jesus.

Evidently Jesus’ reputation had arrived in Jericho before Jesus did because a big crowd gathered to see him. Zacchaeus was among them.

Look at him, jumping up and down trying to see over the crowd; look at the people, laughing at the little big man in town making a fool of himself. Look at him, running down the path to get ahead of the procession; look at him climbing up as high as he can into a sycamore tree so he can get a good view when Jesus comes by. (I wish it had happened in South Georgia; I’d have loved to see him try to shimmy up a pine tree.)

Now—and this is what made all the difference—look at Jesus looking at Zacchaeus.

Don’t you wish you could see what that look looked like? Imagine Jesus, gazing up into that tree at that short fellow perched on a limb. Do you think his expression was amused? Bemused? I know this: it was open and welcoming and inviting and gracious and loving.

I wonder what Zacchaeus saw when he looked in those eyes. Recently I read words of tribute to someone that went something like this: “When I looked in her eyes I saw the me I could be.” Perhaps that’s something of what Zacchaeus saw when he looked into Jesus’ eyes. He saw acceptance and grace and love and so he saw possibility.

And when he saw possibility, he saw hope.

Then Jesus put some words behind that look: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Luke tells us that Zacchaeus “hurried down”; I’ll bet he did since he didn’t get too many invitations, if any. Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus “was happy to welcome” Jesus; I’ll bet he was since he didn’t get welcomed very often, if ever.

What had happened got to Zacchaeus so much that he started throwing repentance and generosity all over the place; he exclaimed to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, O Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” His pledge went well beyond what would have been required of him by the law. “I will give and I will give generously,” Zacchaeus said; “I will make it right and I will more than make it right.”

Because he had been given much he too must give; because he had taken much he also must give.

Clearly Zacchaeus’ actions amounted to his reception of radically generous grace leading to his distribution of radically generous grace. They also amounted, though, to his reception of radically generous hope leading to his distribution of radically generous hope.

After Zacchaeus made his pledge, Jesus, who no doubt had insight to know that Zacchaeus would follow through, said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Notice, please, that salvation was not just an individual thing for Zacchaeus; Zacchaeus experienced salvation as part of the community of God (he was a member of the family of Abraham) and he experience of salvation led him to try to right the wrongs and to undo the damage that he had done to his community.

Salvation is a community thing for us, too. When we receive the grace and hope of God we do so as part of God’s community; when we receive the grace and hope of God we respond, not legalistically but gratefully, by sharing grace and hope with those around us.

Salvation is not only about our experience of grace and hope; it is also about our sharing of our experience of grace and hope.

So for Zacchaeus, salvation made a difference in the ways he lived; it made a difference in the ways he did business. It will make the same kind of difference to us.

We’ve been looking at the book of the prophet Amos in our Deacon Bible Study on Thursdays. That eighth century BCE prophet said to the well-off people of his day,

Hear this, you who trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat. (Amos 8:4-6)

From God’s perspective—which is the only perspective that really matters—to take advantage of the poor and to cheat or abuse the needy is a gross sin for God’s people to commit. We who have experienced the undeserved and extravagant grace and love of God want that grace and love to flow through us to others. Such an experience of grace and love will necessarily and inevitably affect the ways we think about, talk about, and treat other people.

Zacchaeus had through his business dealings contributed to the hopelessness of the people in his community. When he experienced hope, he then through his business dealings contributed to the restoration of hope for the people in his community.

Zacchaeus had, because of his hopeless life, spread hopelessness all around. When he experienced hope, he then through his life spread hope all around.

You have experienced the hope that comes from knowing Jesus Christ and being known by Jesus Christ. Is your business model built on hopelessness or on hope? Does it contribute to hopelessness or to hope in the lives of the people with whom you conduct business?

Does the way you live spread the hope you have received?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Following Jesus: We Eat

(A Communion Meditation based on Luke 5:27-39 for Sunday, July 15, 2012. Fourth in a series...)

Jesus called Levi the tax collector to follow him and Levi did. One of the first things that Levi did after he started following Jesus was to throw a big dinner party at his house for Jesus.

That makes sense, because following Jesus is cause for celebration.
Sure, following Jesus involves repentance which is a turning away from another way of living life and toward the way of living life in a free and full relationship with God, but that is no cause for mourning. It is reason for celebrating! Following Jesus is more about the life you are entering than it is about the one you are leaving; it is about the much that you are gaining rather than the little that you are losing!

Levi’s guest list was made up of what Luke described as “a large crowd of tax collectors and others” and of what the religious folks described as “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors are tax collectors and pretty much everybody in Jesus’ day regarded them as sinners, including the tax collectors themselves, I imagine; I guess whether someone is “other” or “sinner” depends on your perspective.

It is the case, though, that for many religious folks the “other” equals the “sinner.” It is the case for way too many of us the “other” and the “different”—you know, “they”—are the problem to be dealt with rather than the people to be accepted, loved, and embraced. “We” are fine; “we” are welcome. “They” are not.

And so the religious people asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance.” In other words, those who thought they were fine wouldn’t open themselves up to God’s grace in Jesus and those who knew they weren’t fine would.

Still, we know from other places in the Gospels that Jesus would eat with anybody, even the uptight upright (have you ever noticed how similar those words are?) religious folks, if they wanted him to do so.

The bottom line is this: kingdom of God time is party time! When you encounter the grace and love of God in Christ Jesus it’s something to celebrate; it’s something to which you want to invite your friends and family. To hear and to answer the call of Jesus is a big deal and it merits a big celebration.

This morning we are partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Let’s think of the Communion table as a banquet table. Let’s think of the Supper as a fellowship meal; let’s think of it as a precursor and a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet that will take place when Jesus come; let’s think of it as a reminder that we are “feasting on the riches of his grace; let’s think of it as part of our larger fellowship of sinners who have met and are meeting Jesus.

I guess that one thing we tend to seek in our Lord’s Supper observance is reverence and there is good reason for that; after all, we are remembering the death of our Savior. I suppose that since Jesus did say “the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” we rightly see the death of Jesus as something to mourn.

Still, there is more here to celebrate than there is to mourn. Jesus’ death fulfilled the purposes of God. Jesus’ death was an act of perfect obedience, submission, love, mercy, and grace. Jesus’ death achieved our deliverance from sin.

And Christ the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.

I want you to remember that what we celebrate here is not disconnected from real life. If we are not careful we will treat the Lord’s Supper as some kind of super sacred or super spiritual event that we come aside from the world to share in and that we go back out into the world to forget. The Supper is a real-life event that remembers a real-life Savior who died and rose that we might have full and meaningful real life in the real world. It is a sacred moment but it is not an other-worldly moment; it is a moment that reminds us that the kingdom of God is among us and within us.

That is why I sometimes think that the Church has made a mistake in divorcing the Lord’s Supper from its original setting as part of a community meal. The early church would have the Supper as part of a fellowship meal. Nora Gallagher has written beautifully of a Maundy Thursday meal in her church, in which, right after soup, the people shared in Communion right there around the tables, then returned to their meal and their conversation.

She then said, “It must have been something like this, in those early churches. You had the blessed meal and the meal meal. You were dependent on each other not only for worship but for food. You had sacred life and ordinary life, folded together like a sandwich” [Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 105).

We eat our meals and we eat the Lord’s Supper and it all belongs together, somehow.
Granted, there are times to feast and there are times to fast. There are times to receive and there are times to give. There are times to bust loose and there are times to hold back.

Our member Jackie Harden told me about times when her family would gather for big meals with many guests from outside the family. The family had a code; as the main dish was being served from the platter, when they came to family member they would whisper either “FHB” or “PIK” in the person’s ear. “FHB” meant “Family Hold Back” and “PIK” meant “Plenty in the Kitchen.” They wanted to make sure that everybody got served, that everyone had enough.

For the sake of the hungry and the hurting and the marginalized and the outcast, there are times when we should hold back. Today is not one of those days; this is not one of those times. When it comes to God’s grace, there is always plenty in the kitchen. The extravagant grace that we receive is then meant, I hope we’ll remember, to be passed on.

So today, let’s think of the Lord’s Supper as a feast. Let’s think of it as a reminder that we are all gathered around one big table sharing in the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let’s think of it as a table to which only sinners come.

The righteous don’t need it.

You see, Levi gave a feast for Jesus and all the sinners came.

We’re having a feast today; let all the sinners come to eat, because sitting around the table laughing and eating and drinking with the Lord and with each other is what us sinners do…

Monday, July 9, 2012

Following Jesus: We Pray

(A sermon based on Luke 11:1-13 for Sunday, July 8, 2012. Third in a series.)

Richard Foster said, “Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life. Of all the Spiritual Disciplines prayer is the most central because it ushers us into perpetual communion with the Father” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 33).

We see the truth of that statement when we look at the life of Jesus.

Had we been among the people who followed Jesus during his sojourn on earth, we would have often seen him praying; we could also have assumed that, if he was not around, he was likely off somewhere by himself praying. Prayer, therefore, was central and essential to the life of Jesus.

If we are his followers, then let’s make prayer central and essential to our life as well.

Let’s make prayer central to our individual lives.

Let’s make prayer central to the life of the church.

And not the kind of prayer that is just a sharing of a list of the things we want or think we need.

I’m a little nervous about the word “make,” even though prayer is a discipline, a practice, and thus it can be adopted and developed.

Prayer is first and foremost a relationship thing. Prayer happens because of a relationship that exists, it emerges from a relationship that exists, and it contributes to the growth of a relationship that exists.

So, prayer is first and foremost about our relationship with God.

Notice that our passage begins with Jesus teaching his disciples, including us, to pray to our “Father” (v. 2) and closes with Jesus reminding us of our heavenly Father’s gracious generosity toward us. We approach God as our heavenly Father, as our perfectly loving parent, and we do so with great confidence and faith that are based in God’s great love for us.

We pray because God is our heavenly Father and we pray to God as our heavenly Father.

Jesus’ prayer life was a vital aspect of his communication with his Father. Communication is key to the development of a relationship and spending quality time together is key to communication.

While in Ft. Worth for the CBF General Assembly a couple of weeks ago, Debra and I had dinner with some friends from Louisville, Kentucky with whom we had spent no quality time in about twenty-five years. Now, we had enough common interest and enough memories and enough catching up to fill a long conversation. But our relationship would be much deeper and fuller had we maintained it through regular conversations and visits over the past two decades. In a similar way, our relationship with God is deepened and enriched through our regular and purposeful communication more than it will be through sporadic and unfocused contact.

If you stop and think about it, you realize that no one had a closer relationship with God the Father than did God the Son. Yet Jesus intentionally spent untold hours in prayer. The relationship was that important.

So was integration. By that I mean that Jesus was very interested in integrating his will with the will of his Father. It seems, given the example of Jesus, that one of the most important roles that prayer plays in our lives is to help us to be aware of what God wants so that we can order our lives according to God’s will.

We assume, don’t we, that Jesus, being the Son of God, had a special insight into his Father’s will, and no doubt he did. Still, Luke tells us that before making a big decision or confronting a major issue, Jesus spent time in prayer.

So, before choosing the Twelve who would be his closest followers, Jesus spent all night praying to God. Then, he chose the Twelve from among his followers (Luke 6:12-16).

Even as we understand that the story teaches us to spend time in prayer before making major decisions, we also hear it sounding a cautionary note. After all, after spending all night seeking God’s will and no doubt coming to understand it, Jesus chose Judas. That choice was not a misunderstanding of God’s will but was rather a part of God’s will.

Being in and doing God’s will does not always mean having easy things and helpful people come into our lives; it can mean having difficult things and hurtful people come into our lives.

It was while Jesus was praying alone with his disciples nearby that he decided to ask the question, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”; it was a question that led to Simon Peter’s famous answer (“The Messiah of God”) and then to much important discussion about what that meant, namely, that the Messiah must suffer and that his followers must take up their crosses and follow him (Luke 9:18ff).

Jesus’ prayer life led him into and guided him in the making of vital decisions. So can ours; so should ours.

Then there is Jesus’ prayer in the garden in the moments leading up to his arrest (Luke 22:39ff). There he struggled to comprehend and to carry out the will of God.

When we in prayer become better able to comprehend and to accept the will of God, the way we pray changes. We come to see our prayers as less about what we think we need and more about what our needs really are as they relate to the will of God. As Jesus’ two parables in our text this morning teach us, God really will give us what we need and what we really need is the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit communicates the will of God to us.

Perhaps the main thing we should notice about the prayer life of Jesus is that he took time to get away and to go aside and to pray. He would go off by himself to pray; sometimes he would spend all night in prayer. His life was in its entirety a life of prayer as we want ours to move toward being; but part of that kind of life is taking time to pray regularly.

“Our Father, thy kingdom come.”

Now, what that means for me is…

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Following Jesus: We Are Loved

(A sermon based on Luke 3:21-22 & 6:20-26. Second in a series...)

Brennan Manning told the story of a woman who came to see him at a retreat he was leading. She told him of a life of mental anguish and spiritual suffering because of the long-term sexual abuse by a relative that she had endured as a child. He advised her to repeat the following to herself every morning: “I am Abba’s beloved child.” Her later testimony was that the practice had helped to heal her spirit.

We all have our hurts and wounds; some are deeper and more painful than others. We all need help and healing.

I have told you before of my morning routine. I get a cup of coffee and head to our home study to read Scripture and pray, a process that ends with my writing of the daily prayer that many of you receive via email or Facebook. Then, I go outside to walk a prayer path made up of a series of sets of three pavers, two small ones then one large one. With each step I say one word of the first part of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord. Jesus. Christ. Son. Of. God. Have. Mercy.” When my saying of the word “Mercy” coincides with my standing on a large paver, I stop. The first time they coincide, I raise my hands to heaven and say, “Praise you! Thank you! Praise you!” I then resume my walk until they coincide again; this time I wrap my arms around myself and say three times, “I am Abba’s beloved child.” I start walking again until the third coincidence when I drop my hands toward the ground and give every aspect of my day—those I can anticipate and those I can’t—to the Lord. I then repeat the whole process two more times.

I find the entire experience very meaningful but I must say that I have found the part where I tell myself that I am Abba’s beloved child, where I imagine my heavenly Father wrapping his arms around me and whispering in my ear that he loves me, the most meaningful.

When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptizer, he heard his Father’s voice say, “You are my beloved Son.” It was as if the Father put his arms around his Son and affirmed that great love; it was as if the Father whispered “I love you” in the Son’s ear.

So what kind of life did being God’s beloved child mean for Jesus? Naturally, it meant the same kind of life that we parents try to secure and insure for our beloved children: a life of ease, of comfort, and of safety, right? The Father satisfied all of Jesus’ yearnings and granted all of his wishes, just like we parents do today, right?

No, not hardly.

Jesus once described his life in this way: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). His life involved deprivation, rejection, and, finally, crucifixion. Jesus was God’s beloved child and so he reflected and lived out the nature of God’s love and life in the way he displayed his love and lived his life.

But don’t you think that Jesus was blessed, that he was happy, living as God’s beloved child? Don’t you think that he was blessed, that he was happy, living God’s kind of life and sharing God’s kind of love? Don’t you think that he was blessed, that he was happy, living in costly and sacrificial ways if that’s what it took to be God’s child?

We too are God’s beloved children. We are loved and claimed by God and God wants his children to live his kind of life, the life that is the best kind of life, in the world.

What kind of life does that mean for us? How will we live if we live as the beloved and happy children of God? What will our lives be like if we follow Jesus in his way of being a beloved child of God? Jesus described such a life when he said to his disciples,

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

To live as God’s beloved children is to live out the truth that God is about the business of turning things upside down and inside out; it is to live out the truth that God is about the business of doing for people what they cannot do for themselves; it is to live out the truth that God is about the business of the eternal.

Notice that Jesus uses both present and future language. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” But also, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” and “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” The poor will be blessed then but they are already blessed now. The rich are burdened now by what they have and they will be burdened then by what they do not have.

Why should we—why do we—live as if what we say is not at all valuable in eternity is most valuable here and now? It’s funny how we ascribe ultimate value here to things that we say will have no value there, as if somehow the things that will have value in eternity—trust in, joy in, fellowship with, life with Jesus—don’t have as much value here as our stuff, our prestige, our reputation, and our power do.

“Blessed are you who are poor.” Why? Perhaps the most important of the many reasons is that they realize their need and they are able to accept help.

“Woe to you who are rich.” Why? Perhaps the most important of the many reasons is that they do not realize their need and are not able to accept help.

Think of the Parable of the Two Sons. In the end, the one who had nothing experienced having his father fling his arms around him and throw him a party but the one who had everything experienced having his father trying desperately to explain to him what he had always had because he was in the father’s house.

We tend to thank God for our stuff but it’s God we need, not the stuff.

We thank God best when we don’t have much stuff because it’s God we need, not the stuff.

Hear now a modern parable.

There once were two sets of parents, each of whom had a child, one a daughter and the other a son. The son’s parents were financially successful and so he had everything he needed and more; when he was small he had all the latest toys, when he was a pre-teen he had all the latest games and gadgets, and when he was a teenager he had the newest and best car. Given that he had the time and the means, he pretty much did whatever he wanted to do and he had little or no time for his parents. They longed to put their arms around him and hug him and tell him they loved him, but he was too busy enjoying his life with his stuff and making plans for how he could get the education and career that would insure that he could have even better stuff as an adult.

The daughter had little to call her own. Her very basic needs were met by her hard-working parents but they could afford to give her little of the best things in life. When she was little she had some toys but nothing expensive; she didn’t have a cell phone when she was 13 and the only electronic games she played were at her friends’ houses; she still didn’t have a car when she left for her need-based scholarship funded college years. All through her growing-up years, her home life involved dinner at the table with her parents and siblings, playing board games with her family, and quite often just sitting around, talking. Every day, many times a day, she gladly received and gratefully accepted the hugs and kisses and words of loving affirmation offered to her by her mother and father.

You are God’s beloved child; you are God’s beloved daughter or son.

Here is God’s love.

Can you receive it?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Following Jesus: We Call Him “Lord”

(A sermon based on Luke 6:46-49; this is the first in a summer series on "Following Jesus.")

Jesus asked his disciples, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”

It’s a very good question.

Over the next few weeks we are going to be talking about what it can mean for us to follow Jesus. I hope that we will give much thoughtful and prayerful consideration to what it might mean for First Baptist Church as a body and for each one of us as disciples if we ask the Holy Spirit to help us to understand what our Bibles tell us about who Jesus is and who we might be if we follow Jesus. I furthermore hope that we will ask God to give us faith and strength to act on what we discover.

Let me confess right up front that there are some things about this I don’t know and so I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you everything there is to know about who Jesus is. I can’t tell you what your particular following of Jesus should look like. I can’t tell you exactly what way this church will go as we attempt to find and follow the way of Jesus for us.

Let me also lay on the table right up front some important pieces of my perspective; think of them as my assumptions. Piece #1: we all want to follow and obey Jesus. Piece #2: some of us take such following and obedience more seriously than others and there are lots of reasons for that. Piece #3: we all have a long way to go. Piece #4: we will never obey and follow Jesus fully. Piece #5: we can make a lot of progress. Piece #6: following Jesus is the way to have a full and abundant life, to have the life that God made us to have.

With all of that in mind, let’s return to Jesus’ question: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”

We do call him “Lord,” don’t we? What do we mean when we call him “Lord”? We mean that Jesus is the ruler not only of the universe but of our lives—and frankly it is easier for us to affirm the first part of that statement than the second part. After all, we can say “Jesus is Lord of the universe” without thinking about the effect of that truth on our lives; we can’t say “Jesus is Lord of my life”—really say it, now—and think about anything else other than the effect of that truth on our lives.

After all, we know more about Jesus being Lord than those disciples listening to him on that day knew. They knew that he was something special; they knew that he was a most insightful rabbi who seemed to embody grace and truth in a way that gave him a special authority. We know that he is the Son of God who came to take away the sin of the world and that he is the resurrected and ascended Lord. As Paul put it, “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are saying that he is the ruler of our lives; we are saying that his life is the determinant for how we are to live our lives; we are saying that his way and his way alone suffices as the model and standard for our lives. We are saying that wherever he leads we will go. We are saying that his way of obeying God is the only way of obeying God that God approves and will in the end vindicate. We are saying that given the choice between his way and other ways, we will choose, by God’s grace and with the help of the Holy Spirit, his way. We are saying that we will not regard his way, difficult and challenging though it may be, as optional, but will instead commit ourselves to persevering in the pursuit of that way until the very end. We are saying that we will do the prayerful and thoughtful work of discerning his way so that we can follow his way. We are saying that we will settle for no less than making progress each day in finding and following his way.

Of course, we are also acknowledging that we will do all of that as the people that we are, not as some kind of supermen and superwomen who are not subject to the foibles and failings of those who live in real bodies in the real world in real relationships with real people.

Still, we are appropriately haunted by the words of 1 John: “By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked” (2:5b-6).

So, since we do acknowledge Jesus as Lord, why do we not do what he tells us?

We don’t because we think it’s too hard to live like that.

The truth is, though, that it’s too hard not to, because living like that is the only path to real life.

And that’s what we’ll be talking about for the next few weeks…