Sunday, December 29, 2013

Jesus Was a Refugee

(A sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday after Christmas)

I have never been a refugee and you probably haven’t either. There have been times for many of us when we “had” to leave home but we did so because we chose to get an education or to take a job or because our parents told us it was time. Oh, there is a sense in which many of us feel a restlessness and rootlessness and feel like we are on a constant quest for home. But the facts remain that we have never been driven from our home or from our hometown or from our homeland because of warfare or famine. We have never been driven away because of our ethnicity or our politics or our religion; we have never been forced out or forced underground because we are a threat to those in power.

Millions of people are refugees, though. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there were at the end of 2012 15.4 million refugees—people who have fled their country for another because of war or persecution—in the world. In addition, there were 28.8 million internally displaced persons or people uprooted from their homes but still living in their own country. In 2012, 23,000 people per day left their homes due to violence or persecution. Pakistan hosts the most refugees of any country at 1.6 million. One out of four refugees worldwide is from Afghanistan. 46% of refugees are under eighteen; 48% are women and girls (http://www.unhcr.org.uk/about-us/key-facts-and-figures.html. Accessed 12/26/13).

If I was a refugee, it could prove meaningful to me to discover that the Son of God was at a very early point in his life a refugee, too. And he was a refugee for the same reasons that other people are refugees: he and his family were at risk due to violence that occurred because they were perceived to be a threat to someone’s power.

The danger arose when the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem on their quest to find the king whose birth they believed the star foretold. As they asked around the capital city about the location of the child, word got back to Herod, who was the Roman Empire-supported ruler of the province of Judea, and, being a person in authority, he didn’t appreciate talk of a new king being born. So, pretending to want to pay his respects to the new king, he asked the Wise Men to let him know when they found him. Find him they did, but when they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod—and you have to figure that, being Wise Men, they were already suspicious of his motives—they took the bypass around Jerusalem and went back home.

And then the horrible stuff happened. Joseph was warned in a dream that Herod was going to try to kill the child Jesus and was instructed to take his family to Egypt to escape the danger. Joseph did. Then, when Herod, who was a notoriously vicious man, realized that the Wise Men had proven wiser than he was, he ordered that all the children in Bethlehem two years old and under be killed. It was to escape that threat that Jesus and his family became refugees in Egypt.

Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from this terribly sad story is that God is with those are displaced.

As I said earlier, a refugee could be encouraged by the fact that Jesus was a refugee, too. Now I want to add to that observation this one: refugees need the people of God to be there with them and for them, too. Let’s not forget that many of our ancestors were political and religious refugees; that’s why they come to this land. Let’s also not forget that their coming here created other refugees. Let’s not forget the refugees and displaced persons of our world; let’s pray for them and help them in any way we can. God is with them and we as the people of God should be with them, too.

Even though I said at the beginning that we had never been refugees, the truth is that if we are followers of Jesus we are in fact refugees. Jesus was a refugee early on because he was Jesus. We assume that he had a fairly settled life during his growing up years but once he struck out to carry out his mission he, by his own testimony, had no place to lay his head. And he would be pursued by the powers until he finally was killed by them.

He was, though, a refugee who had a home—his home was with his Father; his home was in doing his Father’s will.

Jesus said that if we are to follow him we have to take up our cross and follow him; we have to be willing to lose our life if we are going to find it. We are to live in ways of love and grace that run counter to the flow of the world. If we live that way, we will find that we usually don’t feel at home and even that we are being set upon by those for whom such living amounts to a threat to their power. The theologian Tom Petty once said, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” But if you’re a Christian, you do.

Remember, though, that we are refugees—we are wanderers and we are pilgrims—who have a home that we take with us wherever we go. Our home is with God because God has chosen to make God’s home with us …

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Heaven Knows

(A sermon based on Luke 2:1-20 for Christmas Eve 2013)

Imagine with me that we are standing outside in a wide open space, perhaps a prairie or a desert. As we look off in the distance, we see the horizon, the place where the sky seems to intersect with the earth. That is not in reality what is happening, of course, but the metaphor of the horizon might prove helpful to us tonight, a night when we talk, with great reverence and wonder, about a night when heaven came into contact with earth—the night when Christ was born.

Imagine with me that we are there that night when heaven comes down to earth. If we can assume that God knows more about reality than we do and that those in heaven know more about reality than those on earth do, what do the events and words of that night show us about the way things really are? Perhaps if we pay close attention we will come to know some of what heaven knows. And if we come to know what heaven knows, it just might change the ways we think about and approach life here on earth.

Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a human way. God has always worked through people to accomplish his will on Earth. When God sent his Son as the Savior of the world, that Savior came as a human being, delivered into this world as all other human beings are. Granted, his origins are extraordinary; he is the eternal Word of God who was somehow “of the Holy Spirit”; but still, he was carried for nine months in his mother Mary’s womb and he entered the world through labor and pain and messiness just like we all did. And he then lived a life of labor and pain and messiness just like we all do. In Christ, God entered our world as one of us. Because Christ is in us, we continue to live his life of service and sacrifice so that others might experience the love and grace of God. Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a human way.

Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a humble way. The baby born in Bethlehem was the Messiah; he was the anointed one who came in the line of King David, which means he was the King for whom Israel had looked and longed. What a strange king he was, though. He was born not in the capital city but in a small town; he was born not to royal parents but to a peasant couple; he was born not in a palace but in a stable. And he was laid not in a fancy and comfortable crib but in a feed trough. God’s way is to work in and through the humble in order to lift up the humble and to bring down the proud. Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a humble way.

Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a revolutionary way. It is no accident that the Gospel writers are careful to place the coming of Jesus in an historical and political context. It is no accident that Jesus was born into a country that was under the domination of a great empire. It is no accident that Jesus was called the King of the Jews. It is no accident that he came preaching that the Kingdom of God was among us. The juxtaposition was and is clear: God’s kingdom was and is far different than the kingdoms of the world. Jesus came to instigate a revolution, a revolution that favored giving over getting, forgiveness over revenge, grace over legalism, love over hate, and acceptance over rejection. Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a revolutionary way.

Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a wondrous way. The shepherds went away praising God. Mary pondered in her heart all that had happened. It’s really all so amazingly unbelievable; it is, frankly, too good not to be true. Perhaps the best we can do is stand in awe of it all, try our best to accept it, and let God help us to live in light of it. Heaven knows that God’s way in the world is a wondrous way.

The horizon is where heaven and earth seem to come together. On that first Christmas night, the boundary between heaven and earth was breached and heaven’s way broke into the world. Think about this, though: there is a horizon every day; there is no day when heaven and earth do not intersect. They intersect whenever we live out Jesus’ way of life in the world; they intersect whenever we live out of our full humanity, when we live out of real humility, when we live in a truly revolutionary way, and when we live in praise and wonder. The story of Jesus’ birth lets us see what heaven knows about how life really is and it lets us see what way will finally, when all is said and done, be seen to be the most true.

So now we know what heaven knows. The question is what will we do with such great knowledge?

It is time to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. What will it mean for him to be born in us today?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Get Ready: Trust!

(A sermon based on Matthew 1:18-25 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent)

It may be that in reading these few short verses that describe events that occurred over just a few short days, we bear witness to Joseph making the kind of progress that it usually takes a lifetime to make—and that some of us, after many years of living, still have not made.

Joseph was engaged to Mary; engagement was in that day a legal and binding arrangement. While the couple would not consummate the marriage until the wedding took place, they were nonetheless considered legally joined during the engagement period. If the arrangement was to be ended, a divorce was required.

So when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, he understandably assumed that she had been unfaithful to him. Joseph knew what the right thing to do was; his tradition that was derived from his Bible told him that Mary was to be publicly divorced and his Bible told him that she could under certain circumstances be stoned. Joseph was a righteous, Bible-following, law-keeping man and the righteous thing to do, according to the rules and according to the tradition, was to shame and get rid of Mary. Everybody would have understood and supported that action had he taken it. He would have been honored for it.

Many people know the right thing to do; they know what the Bible says and they know what their tradition—which is supposedly derived from the Bible—says. They know the rules. And they know how to apply them, especially to other people.

Joseph knew the right thing to do. So do many of us.

Joseph, though, was not only righteous; he was also kind. Because he was kind, he wanted to do the right thing in the right way. And so, “being unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph “planned to dismiss her quietly.” Joseph seems to have been motivated by love because love does not seek vengeance, love does not seek to tear down, and love does not allow wounded pride to dictate one’s response. Love tries to do no harm in the course of doing right.

We Christians want to do the right thing but we want to do it in the right way. There is a right way to live but there is a “righter” way to live; that “righter” way is the way of love and kindness. We, like Joseph, are to be growing toward an attitude of gracious correction and away from gleeful and prideful vengeance. It is not difficult to imagine Joseph being more sad than mad. He thought he knew what had been done to him and he knew what he had to do about it; but his heart was such that he could treat the one who had wounded him in ways that would do as little damage as possible to her life and not do further damage to his heart.

Joseph knew the right thing to do; he knew what his Bible and his tradition said. But Joseph also knew the righter thing to do; he responded to the hurt he had received with love, kindness, and grace. That’s a step that we need to grow toward taking.

But Joseph took even a further step that we can grow toward taking: he moved into radical trust that led him to radical obedience. When Joseph had determined the right thing to do and the right way to do it, he lay down to sleep and an angel came to him in a dream and told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Then, in one of those remarkable verses that we tend to read right past, Matthew reports, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife …”

Joseph moved beyond doing what was right to doing what was right in the right way to doing what was right in the best way because he did what best fit in with what God was doing and because he acted in radical trust in God. He embraced the one that his tradition told him he should despise and reject because God told him that God was doing something special in the one who should have been despised and rejected. And in so doing Joseph embraced the Son of God who would grow up to be the One who was despised and rejected; in so doing he embraced God’s salvation.

It just may be that the best way for us to embrace the Child who grew up to be despised and rejected who was born to Mary who should have been (and perhaps was) despised and rejected and to Joseph who embraced those who were despised and rejected is to embrace the despised and rejected.

In one of our Christmas hymns, we sing the prayer “Be born in us today.” Jesus was born into Joseph’s household because he moved beyond what was right to what was righter and beyond what was righter to what was rightest. He moved beyond applying the rules to applying the rules with love and kindness to acting with a radical trust in God that caused him to embrace the unembraceable and to accept the unacceptable.

So can we …

Monday, December 16, 2013

Get Ready: Accept!

(A sermon based on Matthew 11:2-6 for the 3rd Sunday of Advent)

Every year during Advent, during these weeks leading up to December 25, we hear a good bit of talk about the need to keep Christ in Christmas. For some, that means saying “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays”; for others, it means writing “Merry Christmas” rather than “Merry Xmas”; for still others, it means having Christian displays on government property; for a few radical folks, it means really focusing on Jesus and downplaying the commercial aspects of the season.

As for me, I’m comfortable saying both “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”; after all, I am a Christian who respects the fact that the holy days of other faiths occur at this time of year. As for me, I am more interested in protecting the rights of individuals and of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other institutions to be able to display the symbols of their particular faith than I am of placing such displays on property that belongs to all of us. As for me, I’ll usually write out “Merry Christmas” but will occasionally in my own notes or in a message to someone who understands with me that the “X” in “Xmas” is the first letter in Greek name for Christ will write “Merry Xmas” (I never say “Merry Xmas” because that just sounds silly). As for me, while I will give and receive presents and while I believe in and anticipate the coming of Santa Claus, I will work at focusing on Jesus by observing Advent and by observing the Twelve Days of Christmas to which my Christian calendar points me; the latter practice gives me eleven days to focus on Christ in Christmas without the blessed distractions of presents and Frosty and Rudolph.

But you know, while some of us may get vexed about such matters, I must tell you that they are not the real problem for us; none of them is the main problem when it comes to keeping Christ in Christmas for today’s church people including those of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. No, our main problem is the kind of Jesus on which we focus not just at Christmas but all the time. Our main problem is whether we focus on Jesus as we want him to be or as he really was and is. And we have a second problem that is related to the first: do our lives express our following of Jesus as he really is?

John the Baptist was struggling with himself over Jesus—and we can hardly blame him. After all, John had come preaching that a Messiah was coming who would baptize with fire and with the Spirit; his fiery preaching had accentuated the judgment that the Messiah would bring. John had identified Jesus as that Messiah. But now John’s preaching had landed him where strong preaching will often land a preacher—in trouble; in John’s case, that meant in jail facing the possibility of execution. John had given his life to preaching that the Messiah was coming and now he was very likely literally going to give his life for his faithful preaching.

But Jesus was not cleaning house, at least not in the way that people expected. He was not running the Romans out of Israel. He was not organizing a rescue party to free the political prisoners, including his faithful forerunner John. And so, quite understandably, when John heard in prison what Jesus was up to, he sent some of his followers to see Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus, in other words, was not meeting John’s expectations. He was not meeting those expectations because it was not his business to meet John’s expectations; it was rather his business to meet his Father’s expectations.

There is a valuable lesson to be learned here: God is not obligated to meet our expectations, either. When we think about Jesus’ second coming, as Advent leads us to do, we would be wise to remember that practically nobody—maybe literally nobody—expected a Messiah who would be born to such humble circumstances and under such scandalous circumstances as Jesus was in his first coming, who would challenge his people’s religious establishment even more than their foreign oppressors, and who would be executed in the most shameful and cruel manner possible. And they based their expectations largely on their reading of the Bible. So we should be careful about presuming to know how Jesus will come back; we should keep our eyes open for him no matter how God chooses to reveal him.

We have our expectations about how Jesus will come to us and be with us right here and now, too. Perhaps we expect him to confirm our biases and prejudices—to look down on the same people on whom we look down. Perhaps we expect him to support our goals in life, even if we try to reach those goals through means that hurt people and reflect a heart driven by lust and greed. Perhaps we expect him not to love other people because we really don’t expect him to love us.

But what answer did Jesus send to John? “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” “This is who I am,” Jesus said, “I am the One who was sent from God to bring help to the hurting, healing to the broken, and good news to the outcast and marginalized.”

Then Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” In other words, we are blessed if we accept the kind of Messiah that Jesus is rather than trying to fit him into the mold out of which we think he should come.

How do we demonstrate such acceptance? We do so by the kind of heart that we develop and by the kind of life that we live. We do so by accepting Jesus’ love and grace and by then spreading it all around in whatever ways we can.

We are not in the same position as Pope Francis, who was named last week as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Francis has been a breath of fresh air as he has rejected the pomp of the papacy and called his Church to care about the poor and disenfranchised. In a now iconic photograph, he is pictured kissing a man who was disfigured by disease. There are reports that he sneaks out of the Vatican at night to minister to the homeless.

I am not the Pope and neither are you. We are who we are and we are where we are. But we all, no matter who we are and where we are, demonstrate what kind of Messiah, what kind of Jesus, we believe in by the ways we think, talk, and act. We demonstrate it in the ways that we care or don’t care. We demonstrate it in the ways that we help or don’t help. We demonstrate it in the ways that we love or don’t love.

I heard a commentator refer to the Pope as “shockingly Christian.” So was Jesus. Are we in “shockingly Christian” in the ways that we think, talk, and act? Or are we shockingly—well, unchristian?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Get Ready: Watch!

(A sermon based on Matthew 24:36-44 for the First Sunday in Advent)

We have arrived at the first Sunday of our new year—the first Sunday of Advent! Advent is about the arrival or coming of Jesus and, as such, it has at least three components. First, we anticipate the celebration of the coming of Jesus our world two millennia ago. Second, we anticipate his coming in power in the fullness of time. Third, we anticipate his coming to us right here and now in whatever new and unexpected ways he chooses to come.

Let’s get a few important things said right up front.

First, Advent is not about prediction; it is about preparation. People who predict when Jesus will return are false prophets and people who listen to them are fools. Date-setters are looking for a following and followers of date-setters are looking for a way out of this world; both are, at best, misguided.

Second, Advent is not about paranoia; it is about anticipation. We are not to look for reasons to feel persecuted; we are to look for what God is doing in whatever is going on in the world and in our lives.

Third, Advent is not about passivity; it is about activity. We are not to sit around and wait for something to happen; we are to believe that God is working and we are to be about sharing in what God is doing.

Fourth, Advent is not about hype; it is about hope. It is not about trying to get worked up over what might or might not happen; it is about looking forward to what God intends to make happen.

Fifth, Advent is not about fear; it is about faith. We are to look forward not with anxiety but with trust in God.

You see, we don’t know when, but we do know that. We don’t know when Jesus will come again, but we do know that he will come again. We don’t know how, but we do know that. We don’t know how Jesus will come again, but we do know that he will come again.

Really, though, those statements refer only to the coming of Jesus in power one day. We don’t know neither when he will return nor how, but we do know that. But there is another sense in which we do know when he will return and we do know how he will return. We know it just as surely as we know that he came all those years ago in the event that we celebrate at Christmas.

We know that Jesus comes to us right here and now. We know that he comes to us in the course of our living our everyday, normal lives. Jesus said that when he comes again, people would be living their normal lives and some would be take and some would be left. As we live our lives, some of us are aware of the coming of Jesus to us and some of us are not.

How can we increase our awareness? Well, we can keep our spirits more open. How do we do that? We do that through prayer, through slow and careful Bible reading, through contemplation of the life of Jesus, through reading dependable writers, through worship, and through service.

We can also watch for Christ’s coming in ways that will surprise us. The people in Jesus’ day—especially the “experts”—did not anticipate a Savior who came like he did, who did what he did, who talked like he talked, and who died like he died. We need to watch that our expectations don’t blind us to the ways that Christ comes.

For example, if all we do is watch for how he will come one day in such glory and with such great power that his coming will be obvious to all, then we might miss how he comes to us right here and now in humble circumstances. In fact, if we are not careful, we will not only miss such comings but we will intentionally ignore them.

Perhaps you will join me in praying this prayer that we will practice the presence of Christ in everything:

O God,

We thank you for the way that you surround us all the time; you are

in the air we breathe,
in the grace we encounter,
in the Spirit we sense,
in the love we know, and
in the people we meet.

Help us to grow in our awareness of your presence; cause

our pores,
our eyes,
our ears,
our mind, and our
spirit

to be more and more open to you in all the ways that you make yourself known to us.

Perhaps we most easily forget the way that Christ makes his presence known in other people. It is as Carlo Carretto wrote:

When her husband is near, and does not let her want for anything she expects, hopes for, and enjoys, a wife says she loves her husband, says it easily and normally. But when the husband is far away, when the waiting is prolonged for months and years, when doubt grows that he will ever return again, oh, then the true test of love begins!
What light, what splendors, in the possibilities this wife has to resist, while she fixes her eyes on the anonymous crowd and tries to pick out him, only him!
What power of real, living, strong testimony emanates from the faithful vigilance, the unquenchable hope, which this woman lives behind the bitter doorway of waiting!
Oh, how each one of us would like to be the bridegroom who returns disguised as a poor stranger, whom she does not recognize, but to whom she repeats, again and again, her certainty of his return and the sweetness of his love!
Well, every evening, when the darkness wraps itself round my prayer, he, God, there, disguised as a poor man watching me.
When I endure, in the darkness of faith, the prolonged wait for the God who comes, he has already come to me and is embracing me silently, with the same embrace with which I, in faith, embrace him.
(Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes)

This section of Matthew is filled with words of Jesus about being ready by watching for him to come again. But it ends with words about who will be blessed when he does come.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)

By all means, let us watch for him to come again.

But by all means, let us watch for how he comes to us right here and now …

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Circle of Love, the Circle of Life

[A sermon based on James 2:14-26]

In Christ, we have the opportunity always to be moving toward who we are supposed to be; in Christ, we have the opportunity always to be developing greater and greater integrity; in Christ, we have the opportunity always to be becoming more whole and complete.

What does all of that mean?

Well, it means a lot.

It means, for one thing, that our spirit—the essence of who we are—is becoming more and more a trusting spirit, a loving spirit, a hopeful spirit, and a gracious spirit, because it is a spirit being formed in the image of God that we see most clearly in Christ, who was full of trust, love, hope, and grace. It means, for another thing, that our actions are coming more and more to reflect the trust, love, hope, and grace of our developing spirit. It means, for a third thing, that our spirits are growing in trust, love, hope, and grace as we carry out trusting, loving, hopeful, and graceful actions.

In Christ, then, we have the opportunity always to be becoming more and more whole and sound; we have the opportunity by the grace and Spirit of God to have our heart and hands, our attitudes and our actions, on the same wavelength—and for it to be a Christ-like wavelength.

James wanted his readers to understand that “faith without works is dead” (v. 17). We need to understand what he meant, especially since we know that Paul said that we are “saved by grace through faith and not by works.” We get a clue to James’ point when he says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (v. 19). So the “faith” that James says is not enough is “mind faith”—it is believing that there is a God; such “faith” is not saving faith. Still, though, James also teaches that real faith—the saving faith that is trust in God—leads to action. When Paul railed against “salvation by works” he meant the futile effort to keep enough rules and do enough good to be saved. But Paul agreed that real faith leads to acts of real love and devotion and that real acts of love and devotion come from hearts filled with God’s love.

Now, there are times when words are said that are a blessing in and of themselves. There are also times when words are not said and that is a blessing in and of itself. Words of blessing are good and not bad.

But James says that words without actions can be a sign of a “faith” that is really “no faith” in that is does not affect how we treat other people—and especially people in need. He says that if there is someone in need in the church family and we speak sweet-sounding words to them (“Bless you.” “I’m praying for you.” “God will take care of you.”) but take no action to help them out, then our failure to act in love to help them shows that our so-called “faith” is just that—“so-called.” Why? Because real faith leads to real love that leads to real loving actions.

Don’t hear me saying that we have to do more to prove our faith; don’t hear me saying that if we’d just have more faith we’d show more love. But do hear me saying this: because of the love of Jesus Christ that is in us, we can be growing more and more into a love that consumes our entire being and that shows itself in our entire lives—in how we think, in how we speak, and in how we act.

Perhaps it’ll always be hit and miss, but wouldn’t it be great to hit much more than we miss?

Sometimes our heart is better than our actions; sometimes our actions are better than our heart. In Christ, we can be growing into people who have loving hearts that inspire us to loving actions and who carry out loving actions that confirm and grow our loving hearts.

Just a few sentences earlier, James had said, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (2:8). And so we are back to that: we are, as Jesus said, to love our neighbor as ourselves; behind that and along with it, we are to love the Lord our God with everything we are.

Are we living in circles of love? Are we loving God in ways that lead us to love our neighbors? Are we loving our neighbors in ways that lead us to love God? Are we trusting God in ways that lead us to help people in need? Are we helping people in need in ways that build our trust in God?

Prayer: “O God, help us to grow in Christlikeness. Cause us always to be growing in wholeness and in integrity. Let the love in our hearts show itself in the love of our actions; let the love of our actions grow the love in our hearts. Amen.”

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bless the Beasts and the Children

(A sermon based on Mark 9:30-37 for Sunday, October 27, 2013, following the presentation of a children's musical)

Sometimes I stop to think about who I would really like to use my resources—my time, my energy, my money, my love—to help. I can’t do everything for everybody, after all, and I find myself thinking that I would really like to help those who can’t help themselves. Now, that’s a broad category. Even we able-bodied adults with reasonable intelligence, average common sense, and a decent work ethic sometimes need someone to reach out to hold us up or to help us out. I myself would not be standing here today had some gracious people not helped me out along the way when I was at the end of my rope.

When I get to thinking that way, my thoughts always come back around to children and animals (particularly dogs and cats). I guess I think along the lines of that Carpenters’ song from the early 1970s that prayed, “Bless the beasts and the children for in this world they have no voice; they have no choice.” They are largely at the mercy of how adult human beings choose to treat them—and we all know that adult human beings can always be trusted to be kind and humane!

Today’s text features no animals but it does prominently feature children. Jesus, who along with his disciples was headed toward Jerusalem where he would fulfill his mission, perceived that they had been discussing who was the greatest among them. He held a child in his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

That was a shocking act and statement in a cultural context in which social status was very important. Children were not given much consideration because they lacked status in society. Being way up the ladder was considered a good thing and children couldn’t get above the first rung.

But Jesus said that children were to be highly regarded and eagerly accepted and that when they were those who so regarded and accepted them were in fact regarding and accepting Jesus and the Heavenly Father who sent Jesus. The children, then—those who in that day and time had the lowest social status because they had the least to contribute—represented Christ. To welcome them was to welcome Jesus.

Now, while there are cultures in which children are not accorded high social standing, I would suggest that our First Baptist Church culture is not one of them. No, from the moment our children are born they become the most important people in our homes and extended families, and are equally valued alongside everyone else in our church. Indeed, we will devote more of our time and resources to them than we do to others. We let their schedules dictate ours. We put not only their needs but also their wants and desires ahead of just about everything else.

That is not to say that there are not children here in Fitzgerald who are not valued; clearly there are.

So it is a good thing to let these our children who have been before us this morning remind us of what Jesus said about receiving and welcoming “the least of these” in the church because “the least of these” represent Christ among us.

But who are the “children” in our society? Who are they in our setting? Who are those who can offer little or nothing and who are overlooked and undervalued but who therefore represent Jesus right here and now?

If Jesus were sitting right here in the First Baptist Church sanctuary today, he would not use one of these children to make his point that in welcoming those who are the least valued and the most vulnerable we are in fact welcoming him. So who would he put among us and take in his arms and say, “Whoever welcomes one such _____________ in my name welcomes me”?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

To Our Health!

(A Communion Meditation based on 1 Corinthians 11:17-26 for Sunday, October 20, 2013)

We have come together today to eat the Lord’s Supper. But, to use Paul’s phrase, have we come together “really to eat the Lord’s supper”? Put the emphasis where it belongs: Have we come together to eat the Lord’s supper? Paul said that it was not the Lord’s supper that the Corinthians had gathered to eat; it was something else, namely, it was their own supper.

Now, to be fair, it was the practice in the early church to observe the Lord’s Supper—the memorial of bread and cup in which we still share today—in the context of a regular fellowship meal, as was the case on the Thursday night when Jesus established the practice for his followers. The members of the church would bring their own food and eat together; the Lord’s Supper would be observed as a part of the larger meal. So the problem was not that the people were enjoying a meal together—it was rather than they were not really enjoying it together.

In 1st century Corinth, as in 21st century anywhere, the church was made up both of people who had much and people who had little. In Corinth, the well-to-do folks would bring their abundant food and wine and would eat and drink in front of the others—without sharing—so that, as Paul put it, “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21). Paul was very critical: “What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (v. 22).

It was not the Lord’s supper that the Corinthians were observing, Paul said, if their attention was on fulfilling their own desires without noticing or meeting the needs of their fellow believers. They could not give proper attention to the Lord who gave his life for them if their focus was on themselves rather than on others.

Were Paul writing his letter today he might have asked his readers, as I now ask you, to take note of a scientific study the results of which were released last week. Researchers at Connecticut College have found that Oreo cookies are just as if not more addictive than cocaine, at least for rats, whose brains apparently—no big surprise here—function much like the brains of humans. The researchers set up a maze with Oreos on one side and rice cakes on the other side and the rats—again no big surprise here—much more often chose the Oreos than the rice cakes. Here’s the real news, though: the pleasure centers of the rats’ brains were activated—researchers have ways of seeing what areas of the brain “light up” when stimulated—just as much if not more when the rats ate Oreos than they did when they were given cocaine. Thus the researchers arrived at the conclusion that Oreos are addictive—maybe more addictive than cocaine (Walton).

Ah, if only the Corinthians had understood the difference between hedonistic and eudaimonic pleasure! Hedonistic pleasure is a pleasure individually experienced, such as eating a big meal. Eudaimonic pleasure results from doing something with a view toward contributing to the greater good and toward fulfilling a purpose that goes beyond your own gratification, such as working on a Habitat for Humanity House or volunteering at the local food bank. So that we don’t have to remember those challenging words, let’s think in terms of the difference between pleasure that comes from doing something that makes you feel good and pleasure that comes from doing something that does someone else good.

Another recent study suggests that the pleasure derived from doing something for others has greater physical benefits than the pleasure gained from doing something just for yourself. A team of researchers led by Professor Barbara L. Frederickson of the University of North Carolina studied the impact that different kinds of happiness have on human genes. They found that doing something that makes you feel good contributes to an increase in the gene profile that helps to contribute to inflammation in the body that can lead to such diseases as arthritis and heart disease and a decrease in the gene profile that contributes to antiviral responses.

Paul said a similar thing 2000 years before this research was done: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).

The study also revealed, though, that doing things that are for the greater good contributes to a decrease in the gene profile that leads to illness. The sense of well-being that comes from doing something that helps give people better lives and that helps make our community or world a better place, then, contributes to real long-term well-being.

Professor Frederickson said, “We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ‘empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically. At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose” (University of North Carolina).

Put simply, doing things that make you feel good can in the long run make you less healthy while doing things that contribute to the greater good can in the long run make you more healthy. Selfishness can make you sick; selflessness can make you well.

Those Corinthian Christians, then, who were gorging themselves and ignoring their sisters and brothers were on a temporary high that contributed to their long-term lack of health. And that is not to mention the negative affect that their attitudes and practices had on their spiritual health, on the spiritual health of their church family, and on their witness to the Savior who sought only to give himself up. For them to eat the bread and to drink the cup that represented the body and blood of the crucified Jesus when they lived in such selfish ways was an affront to him.

So now we come to the Table of the Lord. Do we eat and drink to our sickness or to our health? Christ’s death was to him not about him; it was about everybody else. How do we give ourselves up for others? How do we sacrifice ourselves for our brothers and sisters?

It seems counterintuitive but it’s the truth—when it’s about others and not about us, then it’s good for us, too.

So here’s to our health …

References

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2013, July 29). Human cells respond in healthy, unhealthy ways to different kinds of happiness. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2013/07/130729161952.htm

Alice G. Walton (2013, October 16). Why Oreos are as addictive as cocaine to your brain. Forbes. Retrieved October 17, 2013, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2013/10/16/why-your-brain-treats-oreos-like-a-drug/

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Eureka!

[A sermon based on Matthew 13:44-46 for July 21, 2013)

Are we aware enough of what we have found and are finding in Christ? Are we aware enough of what we have in him?

While it is most likely a legend, it is a legend that has endured for over two thousand years, so it is at least an enduring legend. The story goes that the third century BCE mathematician Archimedes was challenged by his king to solve a problem. It seems that an artisan who made golden wreaths for the gods was suspected of diluting the gold with silver but the suspicions could not be confirmed; Archimedes was commissioned to figure out a way to determine the truth.

While struggling with the problem, Archimedes went to the public baths. Noticing that the deeper he went in the tub the more water was displaced, he realized that the amount of water he displaced was equal to the volume of his body. It occurred to him that, since gold weighs more than silver, it would take more silver to give the wreath the desired bulk and so, he could solve his problem by comparing the displacement of a known pure gold wreath with a suspected silvered-down one. He leapt out of the bath and went running home naked shouting “I found it! I found it!” which in Greek is “Eureka! Eureka!”

So even now we talk about having a “eureka moment” when we find something vital or realize something important.

It’s a legend that reminds us of a truth: discovering something that is valuable because it is life-changing is exciting!

In the two parables of Jesus that we read today, he talks about people finding a treasure. The first person is likely a peasant who, while plowing someone else’s field, finds a treasure—perhaps a jar of coins buried there by a previous owner unbeknownst to the present owner—and goes and sells everything he has to buy the field. The second person is likely a merchant who would know the value of pearls and would have some means who, when he found a pearl of great value, goes and sells all he has to purchase that one pearl. [cf. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 391-392.]

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like that.

But what is the kingdom of heaven? Simply put, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is the reign of God; so the kingdom of God is where God rules. That raises the question of where God rules, the answer to which is “everywhere.” So where does God not rule? The answer is “nowhere.” Still, these two parables as well as other parables and teachings of Jesus make the points that in some way the kingdom of heaven is hidden from view and that there are few that find it.

God will not force God’s rule upon you.

How then do you come upon the kingdom? There’s no one way. After all, in the first parable the man came upon the treasure accidentally, probably just in the course of minding his own business; the treasure he found was something he didn’t expect and probably something for which he wasn’t even looking. On the other hand, the merchant in the second parable was looking for fine pearls when he found the finest pearl of all. One person was looking while one was not—but they both found the treasure.

In the film “Pretty Woman,” Edward (played by Richard Gere) takes Vivian (Julia Roberts)to the opera. He is a man of the world—educated, privileged, and refined—who frequents, understands, and appreciates opera. She is a woman of the world—but in a very different sense; she is not educated, privileged, or refined and she has never even seen an opera. By the end of the performance, though, Vivian is mesmerized and moved to tears; she liked it even more than “The Pirates of Penzance”! He enjoyed the opera because he knew what he was looking for; she enjoyed it because she stumbled across something unexpected and beautiful.

The kingdom is like that.

So you might find the kingdom if you’re not looking for it and you might find it if you are. It is, either way, a gift of God.

To find the kingdom, you see, is to find God; it is to find God who is quite obviously there but is also quite obviously sometimes hard for us to detect. To find the kingdom is to find your life caught up in the life of God and to have God’s life poured into your life. Over time, you will grow more and more in being with God and having God be with you—and it will be a wonderful, challenging, and adventurous life.

When you find it—or when you realize you have found it—or when you realize you have been finding it all along—“Eureka” is an appropriate response.

And when you realize the value of what you have found, you will go all in. The two men in the two parables sold everything they had in order to buy the valuable treasure they had found; we will give everything up and everything over in order to acquire the kingdom that we have found—and we will find great joy in doing so because we know that there is nothing greater than what we have found.

I do wonder what the two men in the two parables did with their treasure once they had acquired. Chances are that they handled it less than perfectly because that’s what people do; for some reason we tend to break and soil even wonderful and valuable things. Recently, a man renovating an old house was pulling out the newspaper that a long-ago owner had used to insulate the walls. As he pulled out the newspapers he found a comic book, but not just any comic book—he found a DC #1, which is the issue that introduced Superman to the world. It sold at auction for $175,000, but it would have sold for even more had the owner and his mother-in-law not gotten into an argument during which the back cover was ripped!

Still, being aware of and alert to and involved in what God is doing is worth anything and everything because to find the kingdom is to find God and to find God is to discover your own life. And even though we will handle the treasure imperfectly, it’s amazing what God will do with us even when we drop it and tear it …

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Going Under

(A Baptism Sermon for Sunday, July 14, 2013)

Romans 6:1-11


Do you ever feel like you’re going under? Do you ever feel like your mistakes and your missteps are about to catch up with you? Do you ever feel like the temptations you face are going to overwhelm you?

Well, welcome to life in the real world.

Recently, a woman was commenting on how she had been helped by joining the adult choir of her church when she was only thirteen. She spoke of how it taught her discipline; she learned, she said, that if she wanted to be treated like an adult she had to act like an adult (Lorienne Schwenk, Letter to the Editor, Christian Century, July 10, 2013, p. 6.) I hear that.

It’s funny, though; we talk a lot about how growing up and being an adult means learning to take care of yourself—and there’s a lot of truth to that—but growing up as a child of God means learning to let someone else take care of you and taking advantage of the ways that someone else provides for your care and well-being. That someone else is God.

We have baptized four young ladies this morning and I want them to hear something important about growing up in faith. Really, though, I want all of us to hear it because it will be beneficial to all of us who are baptized or who will be baptized.

Being baptized—being a child of God and a follower of Jesus—makes a difference in our lives. Over time, we become different; we might even say that we become “better” so long as by “better” we mean more loving, more grace-filled, more forgiving, and more generous. But it can be a struggle because there is so much inside us and outside of us pulling us in other directions and threatening to pull us under.

We need to know that the God who raised Jesus from the dead can hold our heads above what threatens to engulf us. A heart-warming story came out of Australia last year. A woman named Nicole Graham was riding her horse on the beach when the animal became mired in the mud. Finally, after sedating the horse, rescuers were able to pull him out with a tractor. During the three hours that the rescuers labored to extract the horse from the mud, the woman stayed with him, holding his head above water as the tide began to come in.

God will hold our heads above the rising tide, too. Sometimes that’s what we need; sometimes we get ourselves mired so deeply and the tide is coming in so rapidly that letting God hold our head above water is all we can manage. Being baptized doesn’t exempt us from getting ourselves into such a fix. And if just having our head held above water is what we need, God will do it.

That has been my experience and I suspect it’s been yours, too. Thanks be to God for the grace that leads God to lift us up from sin when we have gotten ourselves stuck in it.

This might be a good time to say something to our newly baptized ones and to all of us about what sin is. Sin is much more than doing things we ought not to do. Sin is living in ways that betray a lack of trust in God; the particular nuance of sin for a follower of Jesus is being motivated by less than love and grace in what we do—after all, love and grace are the ways of Jesus whom we follow. Yes, it is possible that we will give ourselves over to behaviors that are destructive to us personally but it is much more likely that we will give ourselves over to attitudes and prejudices that are motivated by fear of the possibilities rather than by trust in God.

As most of you know, the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down last night. Perhaps I will say more about it at a later time, but in the context of this sermon I want to observe that a case could be made that the entire episode that led to Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin was motivated by fear: each of them feared the other. When we fear each other, we give in to generalizations and characterizations and it is possible that we will finally try to destroy each other.

We are called not to fear but to trust.

Such attitudes and prejudices are the realities out of which we spend a lifetime trying to grow; such trust and love are the ways of being and living into which we spend a lifetime trying to grow.

That kind of growth and change is truly possible!

Paul points out that we are in reality—a reality symbolized by our baptism—“baptized into Christ Jesus” and therefore “baptized into his death” (v. 3); “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6) so that we can consider ourselves “dead to sin” (v. 11). In the baptized life we can “walk in newness of life” (v. 3); we “believe that we will also live with him” (v. 8) and that we can consider ourselves “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).

Yes, one way to live is to just barely hang on and let God hold our heads above water until we die and the resurrection comes and the heavenly tractor comes and pulls us out of the mud.

Or we can take ongoing advantage of what is always there: the new life in Christ in which we can freely and fully walk.

Debra and I are watching “Lost” this summer; we’re about half-way through so don’t tell us how it turns out. For those of you who don’t know, the series is about a group of survivors of a plane crash on an isolated Pacific island. At least that’s what I think it’s about. So far as I can tell, the island really is isolated.

But I remember a made-for-television movie of many years ago about a couple who were stranded on an island; they struggled to make it in their dual isolation. At the end of the film, though, they discovered that there was a thriving resort on the other side of the island to and from which people traveled all the time. They were not really alone; had they just looked around a bit more they would have found help.

We have access to the new life in Christ right here and right now. Yes, sometimes it is all we can to let God hold our heads above water; but most of the time we can be becoming more and more who God has made us to be and who Jesus died to enable us to be. That new life is available to us in our dying with Christ and in our being raised to new life in him that are symbolized by our baptism.

It’s funny, but going under is how we are delivered both from the threat of going under and from just living from one near-drowning to the next…

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Fall and the Call

(A Deacon Ordination sermon based on John 21:15-19 for Sunday, June 23, 2013)

“Fall and call go together” [Christopher Bamford, “The Gift of the Call,” Parabola, Fall 2004, in Philip Zaleski, ed., The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 4].

That’s why we don’t expect you to be perfect.

That’s why we do expect you to be you.

So what do we get in getting you? We get sinners, that’s what we get.

There’s no point in denying it or dancing around it; we’re ordaining sinners and installing sinners as deacons today.

The rest of us are sinners, too, so what we really have here are sinners ordaining sinners.

And that’s good news.

It’s good news because it means that we are all in this together; we are a bunch of sinners who have stumbled into the grace of God and who are by that grace trying to follow Jesus and trying to serve a broken world.

Simon Peter can serve as a role model for us. I can’t help but wonder if, as happy as he must have been to find that Jesus had been resurrected, he was also anxious about seeing Jesus again, given that the last time he has seen him it was just as he denied knowing his teacher and friend. Have you ever hurt someone but comforted yourself with the assumption that you would never have to see them again, only to have them turn up unexpectedly? That’s what happened to Peter.

I imagine Peter on the beach that morning, chewing on his piece of fish while hovering around the edge of the group, simultaneously trying to and trying not to catch Jesus’ eye. Then Jesus called his name: “Simon, son of John!” and Peter’s heart leapt into his throat while his stomach hit his feet. I see Peter walking slowly over to Jesus, perhaps bracing himself for a reprimand (he never forgot the time that Jesus called him “Satan”) or an absolution. But he got neither.

Instead, he got a three-fold question and commission; three times he heard “Do you love me?” and three times he heard “Feed my sheep.” And he spent the rest of his life loving Jesus and feeding his sheep.

You have not been called to be a deacon because you are perfect or because you are even particularly good. You have been called because you are a human being who has been saved by the grace of God and thus have the capability of loving Jesus and of feeding his sheep.

We need you to be who you are in all your broken gloriousness. It is as the songwriter Leonard Cohen put it:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.


Besides, when you heard your name, you responded. You will continue to hear your name called and you will continue to respond. I think it is good that now, when someone around here calls “Mike,” all three of us will look up [note: both deacons being ordained are named "Mike," as am I]. That is as it should be. We are all in this together. We are all servants together. We may not know which one of us they are calling so let’s just assume it is all three of us.

I said that we don’t expect you to be perfect—and I meant it. Still, there is one way in which we do expect you to be becoming perfect. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). What does that mean? Kathleen Norris gets it right when she observes that “Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others” [Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead, 1998), p. 57]. It means growing in love so that you think of others before thinking of yourself and become willing to give yourself up for others.

Perhaps it is only when you fall down that you can appropriately look up; perhaps it is only when you know that you don’t deserve to hear his call that you are ready to hear his call; perhaps it is only when you know how imperfect you are that you are ready to be perfect.

We need you to be imperfect and perfect. We need you to help us to be aware of who we are and of who we are becoming. We need you to show us how to fall down and then to get up and keep on serving …

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Family with Two Fathers

(A sermon based on Luke 2:41-52 for Father's Day 2013)

I recently, on two separate occasions, gave our children the opportunity to express their opinion, now that they are adults, of what kind of father I have been to them. I did so with fear and trembling. Our son Joshua said, “Well, Sara and I are both reasonably well-adjusted and are doing what we think we are supposed to do. I’d say you did fine.” Our daughter Sara said, “You're the best. The absolute best. And I'll stick to that as long as you keep making your chicken wings.”

I took their insights to heart and I felt fine.

What I always wanted was what all decent parents want: for my children to discover who God made them to be and to spend their lives being that. I am grateful that they are doing that and that they recognize the truly finer things in life, too. And that they have a sense of humor.

After all, we parents believe that our children are a gift from God, that they are blessed by God with unique gifts, and that they can do great good with their lives.

Imagine, then, how Joseph must have felt.

After all, he had been told—and by an angel, no less—that the son that his wife Mary would bear was “conceived of the Holy Spirit” and that he would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20). Talk about high expectations! What a privilege it was to get to serve as the earthly father to such a child!

But then there had been that odd old man named Simeon who, on the day Mary and he had taken little Jesus to have him dedicated at the Temple, had said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). He hadn’t liked that part about a sword piercing his wife’s soul. He was a father, not a mother, but he knew mothers well enough to know that their soul got pierced when something bad happened to their child.

Joseph had to wonder how much pain Jesus would have to bear on the way to fulfilling his purpose in life. How much pain would Mary and he have to bear as Jesus found his way?

None of the rest of us has had an angel tell us how special our child is (at least I don’t think so) or have had someone prophesy what kind of pain our child’s life would bring us—but all of us fathers do share some of this experience in common with Joseph. We believe that our children are special, too. And we know that whatever pain they experience in growing up and in being grown is pain that we will feel, too.

The story in today’s text is the only story in the Bible about Jesus’ childhood; perhaps it is indicative of the kinds of experiences that Mary and Joseph had with their son throughout his growing up years. Every child has to come to terms with who she or he is and has to find a way to be who she or he is meant to be; Jesus was no exception and perhaps he had a heightened experience with such development. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine the young Jesus being precocious, inquisitive, and adventurous.

Sooner or later, your child’s search will lead him away from you and when it does, it’s scary and it’s upsetting. And so it was that after his family’s annual pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem for Passover, one day into the journey back home—a journey that would have involved a large party of family and friends traveling together—Joseph and Mary realized that Jesus was missing. When they finally found him after three days of searching—it’s not hard to imagine how frantic they would have been—they located him conversing with the teachers.

Mary said to him, “What’s the matter with you? How could you do this to us? We’ve been worried sick about you!” We’re not told what Joseph said but it was probably something like, “Yeah, listen to your mother!”

That’s when Jesus said it. I don’t know that he had never said it before, but I have a feeling this was the first time. “Did you not know that I must involve myself in my Father’s affairs?” So there it was: there were two fathers in the house—the earthly father Joseph and the heavenly Father God—and the heavenly Father had greater claim on Jesus and on his life than did his earthly father. And the twelve-year-old Jesus was coming to realize it.

Jesus didn’t say what so many young folks at some point say, namely, “It’s my life and I’ll do what I want!” (or something like that). Instead he said, “It’s the life that my heavenly Father has for me that I must live.”

Still, Jesus went home and was obedient to his parents. But we all know that things were never the same between Joseph and him because now they both knew that Jesus’ life was not about the carpenter’s shop but was about whatever calling the heavenly Father had placed on his life, a calling that would be challenging, difficult, and painful.

Our homes have two fathers, too, and the claims of the heavenly Father on our children are more important and more enduring than our claims. That can be hard on us. But it can also be liberating for all of us. Make no mistake about it, though—if our children believe that the path down which God calls them is difficult and even dangerous, it is our place to affirm and to support them.

It appears that Joseph did not live to see the final outcome of Jesus’ life; we never see him again after this incident and we assume that he died before Jesus began his public ministry. But he saw him on his way.

Let’s see our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren on their way. They need to be about their heavenly Father’s business, too …

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Open Doors, Open Lives

(A Communion meditation based on Genesis 18:1-14 for Sunday, June 9, 2013)

So far as Abraham could tell, they were just three men who happened by, but he still fell all over himself being hospitable to them. He asked them in, encouraged them to put their feet up, and, along with Sarah, fed them a great meal. He welcomed them into his home, to his table, and into his life. As a result, Abraham was included in a conversation that made quite a difference in his life for in that conversation Abraham was told that at that same time the next year Sarah would give birth to a son. After much waiting and hoping, there would be a son of Sarah and Abraham; his name would be Isaac. So Abraham gave to his guests but he also received from them.

And in some mysterious way, the Lord God was present in the meal outside Abraham and Sarah’s tent.

Many years later there lived in the town of Jericho another “son of Abraham” whose name was Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a reject, a small man made even smaller in the eyes of his neighbors by his collusion with the hated Romans in their taxation system. He didn’t know who Jesus was but he wanted to find out and so he ran ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree—for the Lord he wanted to see. When Jesus walked by he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Then, we are told, “he hurried down and was happy to welcome him” (Luke 19:5-6). The good religious folks fussed because Jesus was going to eat with a sinner but that sinner started promising to make right the wrong he had done and to give to people in need. And Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house!” (Luke 19:9).

And in some mysterious way, the Lord God was present at that meal at Zacchaeus’s house.

A few years later, a Christian leader encouraged his readers, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). He most likely had the story of Abraham’s visitors in mind, but his point is well made, especially when we understand that the word “angel” means “messenger”; who knows what the Lord might have to say to us through people that come to us and that we receive, even if we don’t know who they are or why they are there.

Abraham didn’t know that his visitors represented the Lord—but they did. Zacchaeus didn’t know that he was going to host the Savior—but he was. Neither knew that their lives were about to change drastically—but they were.

Now, hundreds of years later, here we are about to gather around the Table. And in some mysterious way, the Lord God is present at this meal. The Lord may just have something life-changing to say to us. Are we listening? The Lord may just want to bring salvation—freedom from what narrows and lessens us, from what causes us to lose ourselves, and from what causes us to think and act destructively toward other people—to our house. Are we willing—and even anxious—to receive it?

There are Christian traditions in which the sanctuary contains more than one altar. In those churches, there is one High Altar; it is the altar on which the Lord’s Supper is served. It makes sense for that altar to be called the “high” one, given that Jesus is Lord and that his sacrifice is central to our faith.

But if only look “high” for the Lord, we will miss him.

Someone once asked a rabbi why so few people see the Lord to which the rabbi replied, “Because they don’t look low enough.”

Or, as the Lord put it, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35). When do we welcome and minister to Jesus in those ways? “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Somehow, in this meal, the Lord is present.

Somehow, in the stranger, the hungry one, the impoverished one, the sick one, and the imprisoned one, the Lord is present.

The question is whether we will open the door and open our lives and let them in …

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Waging Peace

(A sermon baseed on Matthew 5:9 for the Sunday before Memorial Day)

Neil Young’s recent biography is entitled Waging Heavy Peace. Young has been trying to develop a digital music delivery system that is of superior quality to that which is presently available. Someone asked him if he was going to wage war against iTunes to which he replied, “No, I’m waging heavy peace.”

Waging heavy peace would be a good thing for the Church to do.

Famed World War II leader Gen. George Patton said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God help me, I do love it so.” With all due respect to the General, if he really did love it so, he needed God’s help. When you think, though, of the kind of focused energy, commitment, and sacrifice that a nation can muster during a time of war, you can see his point.

What if a nation were to mobilize to wage peace with the same kind of commitment with which we wage war? What if we counted as heroes those who give themselves up for peace as much as we do those who give themselves up in war?

We can’t count on nations—even our great nation—ever to do that, though. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II and our nation’s 34th president Dwight Eisenhower once said, “I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”

What if the Church led the way? What if the Church mobilized to wage peace?

“But,” you are thinking, “sometimes war is necessary and sometimes we have to fight.” Yes, in a fallen world sometimes wars do and will—maybe even must—happen. Can we work, though, to try to stop war from being a perpetual reality? Can we work so that war will lead to peace?

At our brother Alvie Dorminy’s funeral in 2009, his son Mark said, "Dad didn't want for me to be a soldier, because he had hoped that his service would make it unnecessary for me to have to do so." Mark went on to say that "he, like John Adams, believed that 'I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.'"

The full quote from our second President, a vital leader of the American Revolution, is, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

In other words, those who fight and those who die fight and die so that those who come after them might have a more peaceful world in which to live.

I guess that “fighting for peace” is an oxymoron but still, when we must fight, peace is the proper goal, and we who have lived in relative peace are grateful to those service men and women who have enabled it to happen.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Really, in Christ peace has already been made. In speaking about the breaching of the wall between Gentiles and Jews, Paul said, “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:13-14).

We are to live out the peace that Jesus has established. So let’s know peace, let’s live peace, and let’s share peace—let’s wage peace!

How do we do that? Well, we can start right where we are and we can start by letting these words from Paul be our guide:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:14-21).

As we honor those who gave their lives waging war so that we might know peace, let’s commit our lives to waging peace …

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Inherit the Wind

(A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21 for Pentecost 2013)


What happened on Pentecost was that the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus who had assembled in Jerusalem following his ascension. He had told them to wait there until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit and, ten days after he ascended, they were still waiting.

And then, suddenly, the Spirit came; all at once the followers of Jesus received their inheritance from their Lord.

The coming of the Holy Spirit to those first believers was, to understate it terribly, a major event. And the Holy Spirit has remained in and with the Church ever since which is also, to understate it terribly, a big deal.

There is no point in seeking a scientific explanation for events like this one; what happened was an act of divine grace and God, being God, can offer God’s gifts in any way that God pleases. I could not resist, though, delving into a little science as I thought about the events of Pentecost, particularly as I tried to imagine being in that room when “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind” (NRSV).

I got to thinking about why wind makes a sound.

Before there is the sound, though, there is the wind. So why is there wind? Put too simply, wind occurs as air moves from an area of high atmospheric pressure to an area of low pressure. The closer the two pressure areas are to one another, the stronger the wind will be. So why does wind make a sound? Again put too simply, it doesn’t; but, when air speed changes the resulting vibration in the air molecules can be picked up by our ears as “sound.” The more drastic the change is, then, the louder the sound will be.

Now, let’s go back to the “sound like the rush of a violent wind” that filled the house where the believers were sitting. Perhaps we can imagine that those disciples heard that sound because the atmosphere of heaven had drawn right up against the atmosphere of Earth and that close proximity created a strong disturbance that brought about tremendous changes in the atmosphere. Therefore, the disciples heard a “sound like the rush of a violent wind.”

The text does not say that there was an actual wind, just that there was the sound of a powerful wind; still, once the Spirit fell on the gathered believers things started to move as if they were compelled by a mighty wind. It was if the believers were sitting in a sailboat on a calm day with the sails unfurled but slack when all of a sudden a powerful wind began to blow that filled the sails and propelled the boat forward.

But what if a sailboat is anchored when the wind begins to blow? If it’s strong enough, what the wind can’t find a way through or can’t move it will push over or destroy. A good wind will propel a sailboat forward but that same wind, if the sailboat is anchored with its flags unfurled, will tip the boat over.
The boat needs to be untethered and to have its sail unfurled so the wind can propel it forward and it can carry its passengers on their journey.

The Church needs to have our anchor up and our sail unfurled so the Spirit can propel us forward on our mission.

On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came and when it came it sounded like a mighty wind. Heaven had come right up next to Earth and caused a powerful movement in the atmosphere. The disturbance was violent enough to be perceived as a loud noise by the believers gathered in that room.

And when that Spirit came into those disciples they began to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ in languages that all the immigrants and pilgrims in Jerusalem could understand. The Spirit came to those Christians so that it could be passed along to others through the ministry of the Word and so that the disciples could be empowered and equipped to carry out their mission.

We are the inheritors of that same wind, of that same Spirit. The Spirit moves in us and through us, driving us forward and empowering us to share the life of God with others.

Who will the Spirit lead us to be? What will the Spirit lead us to do? Where will the Spirit lead us to go?

Is our anchor up? Is our sail unfurled? Will we be who the Spirit is leading us to be? Will we do what the Spirit is empowering us to do? Will we go where the Spirit is calling us to go?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Jesus Lives—In Our Unity!

(A sermon based on John 17:20-26 for the Seventh Sunday of Easter)

When a family manages, through all the turmoil and calm, through all the bad and good, through all the change and the sameness, to hang in there and still be a family, what is it that holds that family together? On Mother’s Day, we naturally expect the answer to be “Mother” or “Mom” or “Mama”—or whatever your family’s preferred title is. And that would be an accurate answer for many of our families, although for some it would be “Father” or “Grandparent” or “Big Sister or Brother” or “Foster Parent” or someone else. There often is a person who functions as the family’s “glue.”

The real answer to the question, though—and it’s an answer for which those other answers can and do stand—is “love.” The glue that holds a family together is love, and such love is selfless love, self-giving love, and self-sacrificing love. And such love leads the one who has it to offer a lot of prayer for the family.

The Church is a family, too. We are a big, spread out all over the world kind of family; we have millions of sisters and brothers that we have never seen and that we will never meet. We love each other and show that love by praying for each other.

But the Church is also a local, right here with each other kind of family; we have dozens of sisters and brothers that we see all the time both in the church building and out in the community. It’s remarkable that the universal Church has held together for two thousand years and that this particular church has held together for over a hundred years. The church universal and the church local have many problems and struggles and even divisions but nonetheless we can still affirm that there is indeed “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

Jesus loves us, this we know. Because loves us he prayed for us. Our staying together is an answer to our Savior’s prayer.

Today’s text is the last part of a prayer prayed by Jesus on the night that he was betrayed and arrested. In the first part of that prayer he prayed for those who had followed him during his life while in the second part he prayed for all of those who would believe in him through the words of his apostles—and that includes us. So here we have a prayer that Jesus prayed for us! And in that prayer he prayed that we would be together—that we would be one.

When we are a unity we are an answer to Jesus’ prayer; when we are a unity we are experiencing and expressing the life of Jesus—indeed, the very life of God—in our life as a community, in our life as a church.

Unity is not the same thing as uniformity, though. We are united but we are not alike. We walk together but we do not walk in lockstep. Jesus prayed that we would be one as the Father and he are one. Now, while the relationships between the persons of the Trinity are complex, this much is clear: for the Father and the Son to be one does not mean that they are the same; if they were, it would make no sense for Jesus to pray to the Father, which he did regularly.

And yet the Father and Son are one and Jesus prayed that we would be one in the same way; indeed, he also prayed that we would be one with them!

There is something powerful and mysterious about all of this. It is awe-inspiring and challenging.

Still, our text points us toward an answer to this important question: What kind of unity can we share with God and with each other? The answer is that we can share the unity of love that leads to the glory of sacrifice and giving.

The love that the Father has for the Son caused the Son to give his life away; that same love will cause us to give our lives away. Love leads to glory but the way to glory leads through the cross.

This is the miracle of being the Church; this is the miracle of being Christian; this is the miracle of being united with God and with each other.

We are a unity with God and with each other when God’s love leads us to give ourselves away. The Christian life is not about saving ourselves; it is about giving ourselves away. That is the key to being a Christian family and it is the key to being a Christian Church.

This week I saw a poem that said very well what I’m stumbling around trying to say. It’s called “Are You Saved?”

All this talk of saving souls,
Souls weren’t meant to save,
Like Sunday clothes that
give out at the seams.

They’re made for wear;
they come with a lifetime guarantee.
Don’t save your soul.
Pour it out like rain
on cracked, parched earth.

Give your soul away,
or pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out,
or laugh it up the wind.

Souls were meant for hearing
breaking hearts, for puzzling dreams,
remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.

These folk who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies
who blow out candles before you
sing happy birthday,
and want the world to be in alphabetical order.

I will spend my soul,
Playing it out like sticky string
Into the world…
So I can catch every last thing I touch.

Next time someone asks, “Is your soul saved?”
Say, “No, it’s spent, spent, spent!”

---Linder Unders

Mothers are mothers because they don’t try to save themselves; they give themselves away.

Christians are Christians because they don’t try to save themselves; they give themselves away.

The Church is the Church because it doesn’t try to save itself; it gives itself away.

And when the Church does that, we are sharing with God and with each other in the love and glory of God. We are united with God and with each other in love, in service, and in sacrifice …

Friday, May 10, 2013

Above, Beyond, and Beside

(A sermon based on Luke 24:44-53 & Ephesians 1:15-23 for Ascension Day 2013)

Following his resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples and then, on that fortieth day, he ascended to take his place at the right hand of his Father. From there he rules over all that is and from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

This, then, is an awe-inspiring day. It is a day to celebrate the power of God and the lordship of Christ.

It is a day to celebrate the fact that Jesus is beyond us. After his resurrection he came back to his disciples but then forty days later he left them. Jesus Christ is the Son of God who left his place with the Father to come here as a human being who lived, died, and rose again. Then he ascended—he went back to be with his Father and in so doing he went somewhere that they could not go, at least not yet. So this is a good day to remember and to celebrate that Jesus Christ is beyond us. He is God and he is to be worshiped.

When Jesus left his followers he left them for good—not in the sense that he would never come back because he will but in the sense that it was for their (and our) good. He said so himself when he said that it was good for his followers if he went away because then the Father would send the Holy Spirit who would be with them.

It is an ironic truth: Jesus Christ is beyond us and because he is beyond us he is always with us. That is because in God’s gracious plan the ascension of Jesus led to the Father’s sending of the Holy Spirit which is the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ; that Spirit will never leave us.

It is a day to celebrate the fact that Jesus is above all things. When he ascended, Jesus took his place as Lord of everything that is in the universe. Through his resurrection and subsequent ascension, Jesus became greater than every other power or influence in the universe. Absolutely everything is under his feet. There is nothing that is not under him and that will not finally bow down before him and submit to him. Jesus is Lord!

It is an amazing truth: the same power of God that caused Jesus to be raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father in heavenly places is available to us right here and right now! That great power of God is working in and through us.

It is a day to celebrate the fact that Jesus is beside the Father. To say that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father is to say that he is in the position of honor and power. From his place of honor and power Jesus rules all of creation. From that position he is our Lord and so he rules our lives and the life of the Church.

It is an awe-inspiring truth: the life of the resurrected and ascended Christ fills the Church. We are filled with the life of Jesus Christ our Lord!

As you can see, Ascension Day is a day to celebrate God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Now, can we get a glimpse of the difference the Ascension makes for us?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Jesus Lives—In Our Love!

(A sermon based on John 13:31-35 for the Fifth Sunday of Easter)

The great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (6th century BCE) said,

“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

It is, like most pithy sayings, an oversimplification—some depression and some anxiety can have a biological and chemical basis, for example; but it is also, like many such sayings, packed with truth.

It is also a saying that a Christian can affirm, although probably not without some elaboration.

Here is one necessary elaboration: “If you are at peace you are living in the present because you are living in love.” That is a necessary elaboration because living in love is the necessity if a Christian is going to live a life of peace.

The Apostle Paul famously said, “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). For as long as I can remember I have said—and not incorrectly, I think—that love is the greatest of the three because it is the one that will exist all through eternity. We won’t need faith and hope in eternity because we will see and know completely, but, since God is love, we will live in love for all of eternity.

But we need to see that there is more to it than that.

We need faith now because faith can be the remedy for depression. That is especially true for a depression that comes from things that have happened in the past. All of us have hurt ourselves and hurt others through things we have done or have not done; all of us have sinned against God, against others people, and against ourselves. That knowledge can drag us down into depression. But faith—the trust that Jesus did indeed die on the cross for our sins and that we are by God’s grace indeed forgiven—can help to resolve our past so that we can live fully in the present.

We need hope now because hope can be the remedy for anxiety. Anxiety can visit us because we are worried about the future; we are worried about things that haven’t happened but that might happen. Such worries can drag us down into anxiety. But hope—the assurance that because of the resurrection of Jesus our future is in God’s hands—can help to resolve our future so that we can live fully in the present.

So the key to the situation is living in the present. Through the gift of faith we can overcome the paralysis of feeling guilty about the past; through the gift of hope we can overcome the paralysis of feeling anxious about the future. That leaves us living in the present which is, after all, the only place we are and can be. And living fully in the present comes down to living in love that frees us from spiritual and emotional paralysis and sets us free to give ourselves away.

On the last night of his life on earth, Jesus did not cling to his past; while he had nothing to feel guilty about he could have waxed nostalgic about the eternity that he had spent in loving fellowship with his Father and the Holy Spirit but he, in great trust, left his past behind both in reality and in the way he approached life. He also did not think anxiously about the future; while he would pray “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me” he would also pray “Nevertheless, not my will but your will be done.” He, in great hope, trusted his future to his Father both in reality and in the way that he approached life.

And that left him living in the present. He was fully present in the present, loving his disciples and being open and vulnerable with them until the very end.

He laid down his pride for them, washing their feet as if he was a common servant.

Then, finally, he laid down his life for them, dying on the cross as if he was a common criminal.

And he called us to do the same. He called his disciples, including us, to love like he loved, to love by laying down our pride and our lives for each other. When we do so he lives on through and in us. But we can only live such lives by living in love which causes us to be fully present in the present with each other.

As the twentieth century theologian Emil Brunner said, “And to become a loving heart instead of a worried, self-centered heart meant to become ‘present.’ The man who receives Christ in faith receives presence, because God’s love is presence. By agape he now has become capable of being ‘with’ his fellow men.” [Emil Brunner, Faith, Hope and Love (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), p. 74. I am indebted to the chapter “Love” for many of my thoughts in this sermon.]

It is so simple and yet so complicated, so easy and yet so difficult.

First, we pay attention to the fact of each other.

Second, we think more of others than we do of ourselves.

Third, we operate from the premise of wanting to give ourselves up rather than of having to do so.

Fourth, we do what we can do.

Fifth, and foremost, we live out the love that is ours because Jesus Christ is present with us. It is only because he is present with us that we can be fully present with each other.

Jesus told his disciples that they could not go where he was going; they were going to have to stay where they were and while they were there they were to love one another.

We’re still here. How will we live? How will we love?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Jesus Lives—In Our Service!

(A sermon based on John 21:1-19 for the Third Sunday of Easter 2013)

You have likely heard the quote “Failure is not an option.” It’s a nice thought and it would be a good motivator in a time of crisis when all energies need to be focused on finding solutions that will help a person or group work toward a positive outcome.

If you really think about it, though, you have to admit that it doesn’t hold up. Failure is always an option; sometimes it comes despite our best efforts while sometimes it comes because we choose it by our failure to give our best effort.

I like this Chinese proverb better: “Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.” Sometimes we will not succeed but we don’t truly fail unless we don’t get up and try again. I remember reading about a monk describing life in the monastery to a writer: “We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again.”

When it comes to talking about who we are as it compares with who we can be, I find myself in a quandary. As a follower of Christ, as a pastor of the Church, and as a proclaimer of the gospel, I feel like idealism and realism are having a tug of war—and I’m the rope.

I must tell you that we who are growing up into Jesus Christ can be making a lot more progress toward who we are coming to be in Christ than we are willing to believe. I do us a disservice if I do not tell you that we need always to be moving upward; I do not tell you the truth unless I tell you that we all have a long way to go and we can go farther if we desire it. That’s the idealism—we can and should be becoming all that we are meant in Christ to be; we can and should be doing all that we are meant in Christ to do. We walk in newness of life and the Spirit of God is in us; therefore our expectations of ourselves should be high and we cannot excuse ourselves if they are not.

On the other hand, I must tell you that along the way, failure is an option. That is not an excuse; it is a fact. We do fail along the way even if we are doing our best, which we often are not. We will at times not be who we could have been; we will at times not do what we could have done.

Everybody fails. Some of us seem to have the ability to deny it or to justify it so that we don’t have to face up to our fallibility while others of us seem paralyzed by the possibility of failure.

Odd as it may see, though, there are times when our failures can work out for the best. That is some of the best of the good news.

And so we come to Simon Peter.

On the night that Jesus was betrayed, Simon Peter told Jesus that he would lay down his life for him to which Jesus replied, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (John 13:38). While John does not record Peter’s response, both Mark and Matthew tell us that Peter insisted he would do no such thing—and I am sure that he meant it.

And in such sureness can lie the problem. Why? For one thing, if you are sure you won’t fail, you won’t be on your guard against failure. For another thing, if you are sure you won’t fail, you might not quite believe it when you do and try to blame everybody but you for your failure. For a third thing, if you are sure you won’t fail and you happen not to in a particular situation in which failure might have been expected, you just might find yourself tending toward the very non-Christian characteristic of arrogance.

And arrogance is a real problem in the life of a follower of Christ because it makes us real interested in how good we look doing good things; it causes us to become, to use Mark Twain’s memorable phrase, “good in the worst sense of the word.”

This is why I suggest the perhaps shocking possibility that Simon Peter’s failure was in the long run good for him and why our failures can in the long run be good for us. Peter needed to learn—and we need to learn—that despite and maybe even because of our failures we can become more effective servants of the Lord and more effective ministers to people.

So it came to pass that early that morning beside the Sea of Galilee, as Peter stood shivering in his wet clothes beside the fire, Jesus asked him, “Simon, do you love me more than these?” Now, the “these” could have been his fishing implements or they could have been the other disciples. Regardless, the point is that Jesus was asking Peter, who had failed so miserably just a few days before, if he loved Jesus.

How the memory of his failure must have rushed back on Peter as he tried to answer the question without bursting into tears. As we listen in on their conversation, it is helpful to know that different words for “love” are used, namely, agape which means God’s love and philos which indicates a friend’s love [Here I agree with Scott Hoezee, “Third Sunday of Easter, Year C,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts—The Third Readings: the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 600-601]. Jesus initially asked Peter if he loved him with agape love; Peter replied that he loved Jesus with philos love. Jesus told Peter to feed his lambs. Then Jesus asked him a second time if he loved him with agape love and Peter answered again that he loved Jesus with philos love. And Jesus told him to tend his sheep. Finally, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him with philos love and Peter, while saddened that Jesus had asked him a third time (and perhaps that Jesus had moved from using agape to philos), said that Jesus knew he did.

Jesus challenged Peter with a most difficult and challenging question; Peter gave Jesus the best and most honest answer he could. Finally, Jesus met Peter where he was and told him, in effect to do the best he could. The time would come when his philos love would become agape love. Meanwhile, Peter was to serve.
You see, God uses failures, and God may be able to use failures better than God can use anybody else.

This is one of the best parts of the good news about the resurrection.

Yesterday I was listening to Neil Young’s song “Old Man” in which a (then) young man sang to an older man, “Old man, look at my life; I’m a lot like you were” and I realized that I now heard the song from the perspective of the older man. And that’s why the following story means more to me now than it once did.

Dr. Carlyle Marney was one of the great Baptist preachers of the last century. Once, after speaking to some college students, he was asked by one of them to say something about the resurrection of the dead. Marney replied, “I will not discuss the resurrection of the dead with people like you. Look at you all – - – in the prime of life. Never have you known honest-to-God failure, heartburn, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls or mortality. . . . What can you know of a world that makes sense only if Christ is raised?”

Well, lots of us know. And the rest of us will know.

The world only makes sense if Christ is raised. We who have fallen head-first into failure and who have been picked up by Jesus and told to serve anyway know how important that great truth is …