Sunday, September 20, 2015

Jesus: The Original Transformer

A lot can happen in a week. Last Sunday, none of us had ever heard of a 14-year-old boy named Ahmed Mohamed. Now, the story of how he was handcuffed and taken into police custody after bringing a homemade clock (not a bomb) to school has gained international attention. At the very least, this incident highlights how very near the surface our fears and suspicions lie. Uncertain of the truth, we are all too ready to jump to negative conclusions.

Today's scripture seems to bear no resemblance to this story. Jesus travels through Samaria and meets a woman who has come, alone, to a well in the heat of the day. He asks her to give him a drink, then offers her Living Water. He asks about her husband, and we learn that she has had five husbands; and the man she is living with is not her husband.

It is easy for us to make assumptions about this nameless woman. Many assume that she is a woman of "loose morals," since she has been with so many men. Perhaps she was. But there are other possibilities. Perhaps she has been unable to conceive a child, and so has been divorced time and again by men who demanded an heir. Perhaps she has been a victim of the levirate marriage laws of the day, which required the brother of a deceased man to take the widow as his own wife so that she may produce an heir for her deceased husband. If the brother dies, the next brother is required to assume the role of husband. And so on. Maybe she has run out of brothers to be given to. Maybe the family has turned her out. Maybe the man she is living with is her only hope for economic survival.

We don't know for sure what the woman's story is. But the assumptions we are quick to make might be wrong. Uncertain of the truth, we are all to ready to jump to negative conclusions. And suddenly, this woman and Ahmed have a bit more in common than we thought.

It seems fair to believe this woman knows what it is like to be misunderstood. But Jesus sits and talks with her and offers her something different from what she knows. He offers her Living Water, not the same-old same-old, but something different; something transforming. She jumps at the chance to receive this life-giving water. As their encounter at the well ends, she runs to the village to share this Good News with others.

This woman wanted to be transformed by Jesus. And she wanted to believe that he could do as he said. I wonder if we have this same desire and this same belief? Too often, we seem willing to accept the negative things in our life for what they are. We don't really expect things to change.

I've thought about this during the past week, as we have engaged together in 21 Days of Spiritual Renewal. Although I have participated in scripture reading, prayer, and acts of kindness during the week, I have also faced many challenges. I've experienced strained relationships, misunderstandings borne of suspicion and mistrust, and disappointment. These sound like drastic incidents, but they aren't, really. Certainly nothing on the scale of what Ahmed experienced. But sometimes it only takes a little thing to derail us. We think we want to be transformed, but we still allow petty jealousies, passive-aggressive exchanges, and disrespectful attitudes to bother us. Do we really expect anything else?

The question on my mind this day is: Do we really believe we can be transformed by Christ? Do we believe that strained relationships can be healed? Do we believe broken systems can be improved? Do we believe our own transformation can empower us to make a difference in a broken world?

My conclusion is that, for us to truly live transformed lives, we have to be willing to be agents for transforming change in our world. We have to be willing to admit our own failures, our own pettiness, our own resistance to change. We have to recognize where we reject the Living Water that Jesus offers, preferring instead to re-circulate the stagnant, stale water of "things as they are." For us to be transformed, we have to truly want and expect that transformation is possible. And we have to acknowledge our responsibility to act in ways that make this possible.

What if, instead of letting petty concerns and misunderstandings drag us down, we remembered that Jesus offers us a different view of what can be? What if, instead of ranting over the latest wrong that has been done to us, we remind ourselves that Jesus offers something that matters far more than today's concerns? What if we lived our lives like we believe this?

Do you believe Jesus can transform your life? Do you act like you believe it?

The Monday Connection:
Petty differences can bubble below the surface and strike red hot when words are used to hurt. This week, practice thinking before you speak:

T - True (Is what I am saying true?)
H - Helpful (Is it helpful?)
I - Inspire (Does it inspire confidence?)
N - Nice (Is it nice?)
K - Kind (Is it kind?)

Some truths are hard to share and take great courage to express. Some words are better left unsaid. Pray for wisdom to guide your tongue.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Jesus Project: Come and See

 1 Samuel 3:1-10 and John 1:35-51

 Today's scriptures tell of two different very different call stories: the boy Samuel and the first disciples of Jesus. Together, they offer some important questions and statements that can help us grow in our own discipleship journey:

  • What are you looking for?

This is the question Jesus asks the two disciples of John who turn to follow him. It's also a question we should ask of ourselves. What are we looking for? What brings us to church? What makes us want to serve Jesus as disciples? What restless need does our heart have? We all come seeking something. Do we find the answers we are seeking in our faith? Do we believe that God still asks us today to share our burdens and seek the peace that only God can give?

  • Come and see

This phrase is used twice in John's scripture. First, Jesus uses it in response to the disciples' question: Where are you staying? This seems a curious question for the disciples to ask. But John's gospel is filled with words that have double meanings. Here, the word "stay" is the same word for "abide" or "remain." In essence, the disciples recognize that Jesus can help them find what they are looking for. They can't articulate their needs, but they don't want to lose him. Their question expresses their desire to not be separated from him now that they have found him. "We want to abide with you."

The invitation is later made by Philip to a skeptical Nathanael. "Come and see" this Jesus, says Philip. It's the original evangelism invitation - just as effective now as it was then. I wonder why we don't use it more often? How often do we say to another "Come and see" as an invitation to attend church, to learn about what it means to be a Christian, to find a place where we can find what it is that we are looking for?

Tom Long tells a wonderful story about staying in a hotel where a colorful sign was posted near the elevator: "Party tonight! Room 210. 8:00 p.m. Everyone invited!" Long found this amusing, and enjoyed speculating about how many different kinds of people might attend such a party. Returning to the elevator, he saw a new sign, a boring sign, typed on hotel letterhead. It explained that the original sign was a joke, a hoax. Management apologized for any confusion. Long writes:
For a brief moment, those of us staying at the motel were tantalized by the possibility that there just might be a party going on somewhere to which we were all invited-a party where it did not make much difference who we were when we walked in the door, or what motivated us to come; a party we could come to out of boredom, loneliness, curiosity, responsibility, eagerness to be in fellowship, or simply out of a desire to come and see what was happening; a party where it didn't matter nearly as much what got us in the door, as what would happen to us after we arrived.Perhaps if there is to be such a party, the church is going to have to throw it. (1)
I wonder what would happen if we invited people to "come and see" with the attitude that our church is hosting the party in Room 210? What if we came to church expecting that something would happen that helps us find whatever it is that we are looking for? What if we helped other people experience this, as well?

This week, we begin The Jesus Project, a journey we will take together for the next nine months. Click on the link above to find the brochure that will outline the 21 Days of Spiritual Renewal that we are all invited to participate in for these first three weeks. Each day, you are encouraged to pray, asking the question, "God, What Can I Do For You Today?" I invite you to ask that question, and then to add the statement Samuel makes in our Old Testament lesson:

  • "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening." 

The Monday Connection:

  • Imagine that Jesus is walking with you. He asks the question, "What are you looking for?" How do you answer this question?
  • "Come and see" is the original and (in my opinion) best invitation to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Who do you know who you can invite to "come and see?" Will you?
  • Pray that God will show you what you can do for God each day. Pray the words of Samuel to remind yourself to listen for the answer.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Loving Large: The Distracted Life

[Click here to listen to this sermon online.]

Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. One of them, a legal expert, tested him. "Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?" He replied, "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands."

Jesus was really starting to get under the skin of the religious authorities. The Sadducees had been thwarted in their attempts to get him to fall into the legal traps that they set, so the Pharisees decided to have a go. "Which commandment is the greatest?" a lawyer asks Jesus.

This passage reminds me of a popular scene in the movie City Slickers where Trail Boss Curly asks cheeky advertising executive Mitch what he knows about the secret of life:

We lead distracted lives. We are pulled in many different directions. Family, career, friends, media, social media, society, commitments to various many different things pull at our time, our talent, our checking account. Expectations abound, and we, too, wonder what the "one thing" is that we should be focusing on.

Jesus makes this "one thing" clear: Love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this, and everything else will be clear. 

His words are easy to understand. But living this truth is much more difficult. Amidst all of the demands and distractions of our life, how can we truly put God first?

To answer this, it's helpful to first consider what it is that you are putting first in your life. What is the thing that you cannot fail at? Is it your job? Your family? Your volunteer commitments? What is the thing (or things) that you will drop everything and rush to save when there is a crisis, because you have to do this thing well.

Do you feel the same way about your relationship with God? If not, what do you think this kind of devotion to God would look like for you? What are you putting first in your life, and how would your priorities shift if this space was occupied by your love of God and love of neighbor?

My wise friend Brenda Wier once told me that when she finds herself stressed out about some petty thing, she asks herself, "What does this have to do with bringing in God's Kingdom?" This argument, this "dropped ball," this problem, this stress - is it really important in the great scheme of what God has called us to do and be? Does obsessing over this really help me love God and love my neighbor?

The Monday Connection:

  • Make a list of your priorities. Can you number them? Is there something that will always get your full attention, because you can't let that ball drop?
  • Where is your relationship with God on this list? 
  • If loving God and loving neighbor isn't currently #1, what would your life look like if you moved it there? 
  • What distracts you from keeping God first in your life? What can you do about this?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The God Story: Rising Action

Click here to listen to this sermon online. 

Exodus 16:2-4, 13-16; Numbers 11:4-6

The whole Israelite community complained against Moses and Aaron in the desert. The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to make bread rain down from the sky for you. The people will go out each day and gather just enough for that day. In this way, I’ll test them to see whether or not they follow my Instruction.

In the evening a flock of quail flew down and covered the camp. And in the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the desert surface were thin flakes, as thin as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” They didn’t know what it was.

Moses said to them, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Collect as much of it as each of you can eat, one omer per person. You may collect for the number of people in your household.’”

The riffraff among them had a strong craving. Even the Israelites cried again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our lives are wasting away. There is nothing but manna in front of us.”


This week, we took a look at one segment of "rising action" in The God Story. This is the part of the plot where one or more additional threads of conflict arise to complicate the story. Our initial conflict was established at the beginning of Genesis: God desires a relationship with humans, but our sin has caused a breach in that relationship. As The God Story unfolds, we find one long story of the salvation history of God's people. Although our relationship is broken, God's desire for us to be restored to right relationship with God does not cease.

The "rising action" this week appears, to the Israelites, to be the issue of how to survive in the wilderness. How will they eat? How will they drink? Has God (Moses) led them out here just so that they might die? Very quickly, a "back to Egypt" committee forms.

But God's perspective is very different. The issue is not that God will not provide. The issue is that God does and has and will provide, yet God's people do not trust God.

Change is hard. Leaving a familiar place is scary. There is a strong temptation to return to the known, the familiar, no matter how undesirable it may have been. Sometimes a leader entices us away from the familiar into a strange land where we would rather not go. A strong instinct tells us to get back to the way things were.

But sometimes God calls us into a strange place. Rather than focusing on how we can return to the familiar, we should first consider where God is meeting us in the place we now find ourselves. We are often too quick to rely on our own wants, our own needs, our own "gut," without even asking the question of what new thing God might be doing, here.

Our God Story thread this week is: God will provide for God's people. Before we enter into a long list of complaints, let us first consider where God is providing for us. We may discern that we are, indeed, called to go back. Or we may be called to go forward. But let us not be too quick to let our heads and our hearts lead us without first considering what God is providing for us in our current situation.

The Monday Connection:

  • Is there a "wilderness" area of your life right now? Where can you see evidence that God is providing for you, even in the midst of the wilderness?
  • Can you think of a time in your life when you have been called out of the familiar into the unknown? Looking back, where do you see God providing for you during that time?
  • Is there a decision you are facing now that you can bring to God in prayer? Acknowledge the hopes and fears of your head and your heart and ask God to help you discern the path God has for you.
Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The God Story: Introduction

Genesis 1:1-2, 26-2:4

(Sermon audio available here.)

We open our Bibles to the book of Genesis and find ourselves at the beginning of an epic story. It's all here: excitement, daring, love, risk, reward, a drama that causes strife, heroes and heroines who set things straight (for a time), hope and redemption.

This is The God Story. But it isn't just a fairy tale of what might have been or a history of what was: it's a story that continues, and we all have our part to play.

In Tolkein's epic story, The Lord of the Rings, two young hobbits, Sam and Bilbo, find themselves in the scariest place they can imagine, charged with the task of saving the world. "I wonder what sort of a tale we've fallen into?" Sam wonders.

(Click here for video link.)

We may wonder the same thing. We know there is much that has come before us, we wonder what will come ahead, and we wonder what our role is in this story.

The first chapter of Genesis tells us of creation: how God created the earth and the sea and the stars and the plants and all creatures. And how God created man and woman in the image of God and called them good. We read these words and we seek assurance that this isn't just some story. That our lives are not just some random act of the cosmos, or some cosmic mistake. And then we see glimpses of something so extraordinary that all attempts to assure us that God is a myth fade away.

(Click here for link.)

We are beloved children, created in the image of our God. And God desires a relationship with us. Here, at the beginning of this epic drama, we see the goodness that is bestowed upon creation. We learn of a God who desires to be in relationship with us. Read on, and you'll learn of the sin that keeps us from being in right relationship with God.

Keep reading. You'll hear many tales of our failures and our moments of clarity as we strive to be in right relationship with God. You'll read of God's disappointment in us and God's deep sadness over our mistakes. But you won't find the chapter where God stops loving us. You won't find the verse that says, "And God loved them no more." Instead, you'll find that God loved us so much that when we turned away and our love failed, God came to earth in the form of a man, our Savior, Jesus.

It's an epic story. This Lent, we'll take a little piece each week. This week, you are invited to follow the thread that says that God desires to be in relationship with us. How are you building your relationship with God during this Lenten season?

Frederick Buechner writes:
"It is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight. It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too. It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive. Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his true name....That is the fairy tale of the Gospel with, of course, one crucial difference from all other fairy tales, which is that the claim made for it is that it is true, that it not only happened once upon a time but has kept on happening ever since and is happening still.”
The season of Lent invites us to consider anew our relationship with God and our part in this epic story.

May we play our parts well.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Let Us Not Be Silent

Whoever speaks should do so as those who speak God's word. Whoever serves should do so from the strength that God furnishes. Do this so that in everything God may be honored through Jesus Christ. To him be honor and power forever and always. Amen. - 1 Peter 4:11
This scripture from 1 Peter speaks powerfully of our responsibility as Christians to speak God's truth and to act in ways that are consistent with our faith, so that God may be honored in all that we say and do. These words remind us that we are called to speak - to share the stories of our faith - so that God's truth may be known. If we do not do this, who will?

As we honor those who have served our country in military service this Veterans Day, these words also remind me how important it is that we share other stories, as well.

This week, I came across three different stories about veterans. The first, from England, tells of a man who faced the horrors of World War II in the desert of North Africa and returned home traumatized by his experiences. "Don't mention the war" was the tacit understanding in his household, as the man withdrew into his own reality more and more frequently. He died in his fifties, a broken man.

You can read more about this story here.

The second is the story of Rev. Dr. Wilson Canafax, whose life we celebrate today. Wilson died last week at age 95. WWII was also a defining moment in his life. But his stories did not remain silent. Wilson shared with others his story of visiting the recently-liberated Dachau Concentration Camp and meeting a young teenager who spoke perfect English. After learning that Wilson was an Army Chaplain, the boy asked him to take a tour of the camp and also to provide a Jewish service for those who could attend. Years later, Wilson reunited with this boy, who grew to be the Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

You can watch a video of Wilson sharing this story, here.

Two lives: one whose stories were shrouded in silence and whose life was cut short by depression; one whose stories were shared. Wilson also battled depression, which he attributed to his war experiences, his whole life. But in sharing his stories, he shared his burden. And he educated us and made the horrors of war more real, and somehow more bearable. Wilson's stories brought a human element into something we can barely imagine. And they gave us hope that even in the darkest times, something good can happen.

One final story took place last week, as Army Specialist Jason Shelton was brought home for the final time after a fatal injury during training. Blogger Brad Willis watched as Shelton's casket was carried off the plane (I highly recommend you take time to read his story, here.)

Willis points out that for many years (1991-2009), there was a ban on photos of military caskets coming home. He writes, "It's a good thing we can now see the pictures of our fallen soldiers coming back to America. If we stop bearing witness to their deaths, then we forget the meaning of what they do and the reason they are there."

Three stories of why it is so important to tell our stories. I think we get this. I think we understand that remaining silent about things that are hard to bear is not the best way to honor those who have served or to keep us from repeating past mistakes.

As Christians, we are called to tell a different story. Our story is not of war, but of God's Kingdom. We are called to tell the story of our God, who came to earth in the flesh, to teach us how to live. And in spite of his words and actions of love and compassion, Jesus was killed on the cross. But death did not have the last word. 

Ours is a story of victory - not just one time for one person, but for all people, for all time. We know how important stories are: Veterans Day reminds us of this. We, too, have "a story to tell to the nations." 1 Peter 4:11 reminds us that the strength to tell this story - this story that honors God - comes from our God.

Let us not be silent.
But in the days to come, the mountain of the LORD's house will be the highest of the mountains; it will be lifted above the hills; peoples will stream to it. Many nations will go and say: "Come, let's go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob's God, so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God's paths!" Instruction will come from Zion and the LORD's word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations and settle disputes of mighty nations, which are far away. They will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. All will sit underneath their own grapevines, under their own fig trees. There will be no one to terrify them; for the mouth of the LORD of heavenly forces has spoken. - Micah 4:1-4 
The Monday Connection:

  • What is my story of the Christian faith? Who am I sharing it with?
  • Everyone has a story. Too often, stories are left untold in our busy world. We forget to sit down together and talk and listen to each other. Who can I invite to share their stories with me this week? 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Wasabi Gospel Meets First World Problems

"Remember Jesus Christ," Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:8. Last week, we looked at how Paul is urging Timothy to remember who he is and Whose he is by remembering to keep the true gospel central. This week, we looked at that same text from a different angle. "Remember Jesus Christ," Paul urges. Remember what he lived for and what he died for. Remember what he taught, and remember how he died.

Paul talks to Timothy about suffering. It comes with the territory. Don't be afraid of it. Christ suffered and died for us, and living according to the gospel isn't going to be easy. If you are going to follow in the footsteps of Christ, you, too, can expect to suffer.

These are hard words for us to understand in our social context. I don't really know much about suffering - really suffering - for the gospel. It makes me think about how much I'm really willing to sacrifice for my faith.

I recently read a book by Shawn Wood called Wasabi Gospel. Wood talks about some of those "hard sayings" of Jesus that pack the kind of punch you get from a healthy dose of wasabi. (Never tried wasabi? It's a fiery condiment meant to be taken in very small doses. To get an idea of its potency, watch this clip):

Click here if video does not show.

The "wasabi" part of the gospel includes sayings about giving away our possessions, putting others first, sacrificing ourselves to help others, and being a servant who expects nothing in return. I think, overall, we find living up to these standards to be pretty difficult. And sometimes, even when we choose to do things for others, we find that our actions resulted in personal gain, after all. (And, if we're honest, we might even find that we were seeking some form of personal gain in our actions.)

And so we ponder the age-old question: Is there such a thing as a selfless act? Can we really give ourselves to others, gaining nothing in return?

Click here if video does not show.

Sometimes our attempts to act selflessly look more like pistachio ice cream than wasabi. Rarely do we find ourselves truly suffering for the gospel.

I suggest we should pray about this more - ask God to show us what sacrifices we are called to make. And maybe we will see this more clearly if we work to eliminate the clutter of what are known as "First World Problems." We have a whole host of things that we perceive as issues in our lives - everything from not having the right shoes to go with a new outfit to having the satellite signal go down - that aren't issues at all in the great global scale of human suffering.

Click here if video does not display.

We may find it hard to let go of all of our "First World Problems," but prayerful consideration might help us see them for what they really are. And maybe this will leave room for us to consider what it truly does look like for us to suffer for Jesus Christ.

The Monday Connection: 

  • What "First World Problems" are you experiencing? Pray that God will reveal these to you and help you to not give them more importance than they deserve.
  • Read some of the "wasabi gospel" passages, i.e. Matthew 19:16-30 (sell your possessions and give the money to the poor), Mark 9:33-35 (those who will be first must be least of all and servant of all), Matthew 5:38-48 (loving your enemy). How do these words of Jesus speak to your life?
The Prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Teach us, good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve, 
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.