Sunday, December 29, 2013

one of us

Hebrews 2: 10-18/ Psalm 148

This Psalm tells us to praise!  And while I know I should, I have to admit sometimes I just don’t feel like praising.  As we begin to take down our Christmas decorations, put away the gifts, and our families go back home and we return to our normal routine, if you didn’t feel the loneliness of Christmas itself, you may very well feel it now.  All the build up to the big day, the excitement of shopping and family gatherings have left us feeling a little bloated, maybe a little disappointed and our pocketbooks a little empty… now what?
Jesus has come,( yippee), but life hasn’t changed much.  Life is still hard.  Maybe it isn’t anything in particular that makes us feel blue, maybe we are disappointed that Santa didn’t bring us what we wanted or it is just a cold dreary day and we need more coffee but sometimes it is much more than that. 
It isn’t just at Christmas that we feel this way.  I am sure most of us have felt this way at some time or another.  Nothing seems to go as planned, the depression is deeper than just surface disappointment, life is not what we thought it would be.  We want to do things differently, be different.  Maybe we see others so joyful and excited about the holidays.  We begin to think that no one else has ever gone through what we are going through. In an effort to be strong and independent we struggle alone and in silence not wanting to burden others with our problems thinking that no one else would understand anyway. 
Then maybe we begin to question our faith.  If I was more faithful I wouldn’t be sick or I wouldn’t feel this way.  We start to question God and ask things like- If God really loved me I wouldn’t be suffering like this.  We begin to think that God has abandoned us in our most difficult hour. Sometimes we feel like we are really being tested and this time we are failing that test. 
We like to see God as all knowing and all powerful.  A God who not only has everything but made everything so how could God possibly understand my problems?  What does God know about loneliness, feeling abandoned, being in pain, struggling to make ends meet, paying off debt or fear and humiliation? 
When we envision God in this way it is easy to lose hope and seek to find comfort in our bad habits.  We wonder what could God, who has everything, want from me? We forget that the only thing God wants is to be in a relationship with us.  God has tried all kinds of things over the course of history to create that relationship.  God taught people how to worship, what it meant to be holy, what it meant to trust God, and how a relationship with our brothers and sisters in this world and how we care for and treat each other is a reflection on how much we love and feel loved by God. 
All this happened with pockets of success.  Some were good at this but other people still violated their neighbors, stole from one another, ignored the poor and the distance between humanity and God grew larger instead of narrower.  And there were those who felt they were not part of God’s plan for redemption- they felt left out.   God knew that in order to be in a relationship with us, we had to be able to connect with God in a more direct way.
God, not being one who is afraid to try new things decided to dwell with us and be Immanuel. Jesus Christ came to be that connection.  Not only did Jesus come to earth but instead of coming in on a divine, angelic cloud or riding in on a white horse to rescue us, he came as a human.

He came into the world, just as we do- crying.  He learned to walk, talk, push the parental limits of Mary and Joseph, and test his independence just as we do.  He knew as a child what it meant to flee out of fear.  He learned the pain of disappointment as the people whom he cared for abandoned him.  He knew hunger and the temptation of using his own power to have his needs met.  He learned the fear of death and loss as he watched the people around him suffer and die and faced a brutal death himself. 
God could have chosen a multitude of ways to show us compassion and build a relationship with us but chose to suffer with us and experience life as we live it.  When we feel like we are suffering alone, when no one understands what we are going through we can look to Jesus and know that he understands exactly how it is. 
Jesus is our spiritual support group.  As we face trials it is always those who have been through it and come out the other side who are our best guides.  It is the support we find through people who know what chemotherapy is like, what it is like to raise a child with a disability, what it is like to watch a parent age or lose a child that bring us the most comfort and encouragement. 
As we face our fears we know we can turn to God our parent, Jesus our brother and friend to gain encouragement knowing that Jesus faced all these things , faced death and the devil too and survived so that we can too.  We find comfort in knowing that God has brought glory to God’s children through Jesus.  We have reason to hope and to praise because Jesus became one of us and because he understands all that we are going through he can show us true mercy and compassion. It is not about testing our faith but experiencing that our faith as real by seeing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who has passed the same tests.
This reminds us that it is not the absence of suffering that makes us who we are but learning to trust the one who created us to see us through even the most difficult times.   God showed us compassion and mercy so that when we are able to trust in God to get us through our trails we can then lead others through theirs as well.  God does not call us to be ashamed of who we are and the problems in our lives.  Through Christ we are claimed, faults and all, to be the brothers and Sisters of Christ, loved and embraced, forgiven and cherished for who we are and who we are becoming in Christ.
This is why we praise.  Not because God removes our problems.  Not because following Jesus makes our lives easier but because we know that trust in him brings peace, comfort and the realization that we are not alone.  Praise is not about being happy and joyous all the time.  It is about seeking a deeper and more meaningful connection with God who loves us and cares about us enough to become one of us and to walk through this life just like we do and experience the same challenges we face. 
Jesus willingly became the baby we celebrated just days ago so he could become the man who would show us the way and be the truth and the light that can guide us on any path, lead us out of danger, and bring light to a darkened world.  


Monday, December 16, 2013

doubt and expectation

Matthew 11: 2-6

Here we have John the Baptist; Prophet extraordinaire, Identified by Jesus as Elijah, the one who has come to prepare the way of the Lord, one of the first people to who really knows who Jesus is.  He is Jesus’ cousin.  He baptized him in the Jordan River, saw the dove and heard the voice of God declare that Jesus is God’s son, the beloved.  Of all people, John should have a very clear and unwavering opinion about who Jesus is….

And yet, we see him now, in prison.  He has spent his whole life calling people to repentance and speaking truth to power and now he is paying the price. He may have gotten away with calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” but he can’t get away with telling Herod he is an adulterer.   This wilderness wanderer who ate locust and wild honey and lived his life with the broad expanse of stars as his ceiling is now chained to the wall in the damp, dark dungeon prison cell and what he was once so sure of…. He now doubts.

This isn’t what he expected would happen.  He was doing God’s will after all.  He preached the coming messiah, the one who would challenge the worldly powers, separate the chaff from the wheat…. John is wheat, Herod is chaff right? So if Jesus has come, if the messiah has come, then why is John in prison and Herod celebrating with his new wife?  It doesn’t make sense! 

So John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask point blank: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Who can blame John for doubting?  Most of us have been there, maybe we are too embarrassed to say it out loud, but we have been there.  Maybe you have always been “good”.  Following all the rules, never questioning authority, you’re in church every week and then… the promotion you have been praying for doesn’t come through and instead you lose your job, the doctor calls and the test came back positive, the white picket fence life you always dreamed of comes crashing down around you…We all have our prison experiences… we all have our moments of doubt…. It is a natural part of the journey of life and faith.

We have an expectation of life that is imbedded in us from an early age.  An idea of what we think life will be like.  We have a sense of fairness, justice, right and wrong and we feel like if we keep up our end of the bargain, God will too! 

These are our misguided expectations of what Jesus is supposed to do.  Jesus is supposed to be on our side, fit in our box, answer our prayers, bless us, make our lives easy.   John had them too.  He thought Jesus would fit in his box and that the changes he was predicting would come immediately.

Jesus did turn the world upside down, just not in the way John expected.  In the narrowness of our vision we, like John often miss the true character of Jesus.
So John wants the same answer from Jesus that we do…. Are you really the Messiah? Are you really the one who will save humanity?  Have I wasted all my time and prayers on a figment of my imagination?  Jesus are you really my savior?

Jesus could have answered with a simple Yes but, when we are in the dark, damp, lonely prisons of our lives we need more than just words.  How many of you, during a crisis has been told- everything will be OK, It’s part of God’s plan, Jesus loves you, it will all work out for the best?   

I have to admit I have probably been guilty of saying some of those things before.  It is easy to give rote responses when we don’t know what to say or we don’t know what it is like to be in another person’s shoes and although it may be true, these words are just words. 

As good intentioned as they are, when someone is deep in doubt and uncertainty, they don’t really help.  What they need is to see and experience the presence of Jesus and to remember when Jesus has been an active force in their lives and those around them. 

I know Jesus is real.  Not just because this book tells me so but because I have seen him, I have witnessed his miracles and I have felt his presence, both personally and through the lives of others. 

Jesus is sometimes easier to see during this season of Advent and Christmas.  As many people spend this time of year putting change in the Salvation Army kettles, packing food boxes for UCM, singing Christmas Carols, spending time with friends and inviting those without family to share the lonely holidays together but God also shows up in other ways all year around.
And when Jesus shows up it is often in ways and places we don’t expect. 

One example of this is Pearce, a little girl I used to work with.  She died this week, exactly two months shy of her third birthday.  To an outsider, that seems devastating, and it is, but this child and this family have experienced first-hand the love of Christ.  While she lived a very short life, she is actually a miracle baby. Like most parents I am sure her mother was full of excitement and expectation until the doctors told her the baby she was carrying would never survive.  She was diagnosed with a condition called anencephaly, meaning she had little more than a brainstem.  Before she was even born hospice had been called.  Her coming home clothes were to be her burial clothes but at birth she chose to breath, then eat, and fill her diaper… all things the doctors said she would never do. 

She became the love of Christ to her family.  Teaching all that met her and some that never knew her, unconditional love, joy, what it means to believe when everyone else doubts, milestone after milestone, adversity after adversity met repeatedly by smiles and laughter, love, family, and faith.  While the days of darkness and doubt will come, they will be able to look back and remember that Christ does exist in the miracle of the baby they were told they would never get to hold.
Words are just words.  Jesus can say he is the messiah all day long but the proof is in our experiences both the expected and the unexpected.   While John’s disciples ask a direct question they get anything but a direct answer…. Jesus tells them-Look around you, what do you see, feel, hear, and experience?  The lame walk, the blind see, the lepers are healed, the dead are raised, the good news of love and grace is preached to the poor, the hungry are fed and a little girl lived.   See these things then ask yourself, Is Jesus real?

Faith is not an intellectual decision we make.  We can study the words in the Bible.  We can tell other people what we think the words in the Bible mean.  We can give them a Bible to read for themselves but what makes Jesus real and the words in this book mean something is what we feel and what we experience as we encounter Jesus in our lives.  This is how we know Jesus is real. 
This is how we know Jesus is who he says he is.  This is where we turn when we face doubt and this is who we show others as they seek to discover who Christ is in their lives. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Santa is not God

Matthew 24: 36-44

I am always a little put off by this first week in advent.  If I am honest I don’t particularly like the apocalyptic stories in the bible.  We have just finished Thanksgiving and now it is time to get ready to shop, decorate the house, invite people over, and get ready for Christmas.  We are preparing for the birth of Jesus, cute little baby Jesus. We are getting ready for the beginning not the end. 

When I first read this text, I immediately got a feeling of doom.  The negative imagery of the flood and the thief pushes us in that direction. Popular Christian authors and fundamental preachers sell it this way too. 

It is the ever popular metaphor of Santa Clause portraying God.  You better watch out, you better not cry…. He knows when you have been bad or good…. So you better be good for goodness sake.  It is the attempt to scare people into heaven or for parents at Christmas it is how you stop children from fighting and being mischievous- Santa’s watching and you won’t get any presents if you aren’t good! 

If you want to get to heaven you better be good- and be good all the time because you don’t know when Jesus is coming back.  This feels like a threat to me. 

It is just like threatening children with coal in their stockings and it may work for a little while (Thankfully Santa comes every year so we just keep recycling the threat- until they become teenagers and it doesn’t work anymore). 

To make the threat effective we have to keep rehashing it, threatening people with Judgment and condemnation for this sin or that sin- depending on which ones we find personally the most repulsive and ignoring the ones we commit.  If it were up to us, and not the grace of God, we would all get coal in our stocking.

This isn’t the God I know though.  It doesn’t make sense to me that God would simply want us to behave a certain way just to get what we want--- so, I went back and read the rest of the chapter. Instead of a feeling of doom, I got an overwhelming sense of hope. 

The people in Matthew’s time didn’t need to wait for the Apocalypse.  They were living through it.  The first part of this chapter describes life as they knew it. 

Wars and rumors of wars, famine, natural disasters, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and people were being persecuted for their faith.  It seemed like the end times were there.  They wanted Jesus to come back now!  This was not a scripture of Judgment and threat.  It was a word of hope in trying and uncertain times. 

People all around us are living through very similar times.   People around the world live in war torn countries.  People of all faiths and nationalities are scared to leave their homes because of war and violence.  People are starving because of famine and government corruption.  Homes have been destroyed by tornado and typhoon.  People are afraid to go to the grocery store worried that there may not be any food to buy and even if there is they run the risk of being robbed on the way there. 

People around the world are living through this each and every day but it isn’t just someone else, somewhere else who feels this way. 

Ask the woman abused by her husband if you need to live in Syria to live in a war zone.

Ask the child who opens an empty cabinet everyday if you need to live in Ethiopia to be hungry.

Ask the person fighting addiction what it is like to not be in control of your own body.

Ask the person fighting cancer what it feels like to want to be taken or their caregiver what it is like to be left behind. 

We don’t have to watch the news or travel the world to find people who need hope.  Maybe it is you or your friend, neighbor, or maybe even the person sitting next to you. 

Waiting for God to answer prayers is often done in silence.

There is hope in all this waiting.  The words of Matthew tell us that even in the middle of all this mess, God is there.  While times feel uncertain God has not forgotten you.  God is coming to save you, and one way or another, will rescue you from whatever personal hell you are going through. 

There is hope.  Don’t give up on God or your faith in Jesus and your faith in humanity.  Keep living the life you have been given.  Not in a way that throws up your hands and gives up but in a way that says Bring it on!

Waiting and watching for the return of Jesus is done with Joy.  Waiting is not an opportunity for you to show how good you are so you can be rewarded with heavenly presents.  It is a time to show your faith and confidence in salvation through Christ to each person you meet.  Allowing God to use your trails as a way to teach you and others about the love and provision of Jesus.  

This scripture calls us to not only look forward to the life that is to come but also to the past. Matthew asks us to remember Noah- while the world may have been destroyed God never left and God rebuilt the world with the promise of the rainbow. 

Look back at your past.  Remember the times God has provided for you, when you experienced God’s presence and was saved by God’s grace.  Remembering your story of salvation and relationship with God encourages you when times get tough and helps you to look forward through the present challenges with hope for a coming future.  God has seen you through in the past and will see you through again.

As you look back on a life of faith remember the sacrifice Christ made for us, give thanks for his love and grace, and embrace hope, knowing that Christ Jesus has already come, and Jesus will come again.  This is a promise, not a threat for all those who believe. 

While we enter this waiting season of Advent- Be alert so that you do not fall victim to self-pity and doubt.  Be alert so that you can keep your hope and trust in Jesus Christ – the one who has already come and will come again.  Be alert to all the ways God shows up in your life- whether it be horrific, joyous or mundane moments.  Live out your faith in everything you say and do - your actions and words are a direct reflection of Christ to others.  Be alert, Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming.

Monday, November 4, 2013

sight to see

Mark 10: 46-52

Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, sitting on the outside of town, no one worth paying much attention to, just a normal part of his community.  He is doing what beggars do- waiting for people to have pity on him.  That is, until Jesus comes to his home town of Jericho.  As Jesus leaves town Bartimaeus can hear people begin to mummer and the voices of the crowd declares that Jesus is coming by. This rock star, Jesus, miracle worker and healer.   He doesn’t know where Jesus is.  He can’t see him.  So, he uses the only tool he has- his voice.
 “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This outcry is seen as a nuisance.   They didn’t mind him being there- as long as he was minding his own business -easily ignored by the crowd.  
Each week as I drive into Atlanta there is a beggar on the corner at the Druid Hills Exit.  He is always holding a sign asking for help or food.  I and everyone else that use that exit know he is there.  Some days we look away not wanting to feel guilty or obligated to help.  Other days we may throw him a dollar or two or offer him a pack of crackers but then we go about our lives- off to church, work, school or home.  The crowd knew Bartimaeus was there but once they passed- out of sight out of mind.  While they were aware of his presence, like the man on the street corner, he was never really seen.

But now he starts in with the attention seeking behaviors- he cries out, demands to be seen, heard, understood, it’s irritating.  Who does he think he is?  We are forced to look; we are forced to see his desperation.  He isn’t trying to be obnoxious, it is a cry for help but it’s disturbing and disruptive to the disciples, the crowd trying to get a glimpse of this Rock Star Jesus, and the good folk trying to get along with their daily lives. 
It’s making them uncomfortable, it makes us uncomfortable. The need is too great, the smell too pungent, the problem too big and we think we can’t really help him. So, they tell him to hush- we want him to be quiet.  As long as he is quiet we can ignore him and pretend he isn’t there.  We can keep Jesus all to ourselves.

But this time, he will not be ignored.  He is persistent and cries out even louder “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!”  Jesus hears his plea of desperation even over the noise and objection of the crowd.  Jesus is our Lord, our messiah.  He is off to do a great and wonderful thing- he is on his way to the cross to die for our sins.  There is no time to waste on this one beggar.
But, Jesus disagrees.  He stops- Jesus gives him permission to be seen, there is always time for one more child of God to be found and to be healed.

Bartimaeus jumps up at this opportunity and throws his cloak to the side.  Jesus hasn’t done anything yet but still Bartimaeus is full of faith and trust in what is yet to be and what cannot be seen. This piece of fabric was not just his coat but his blanket, his cup (Eerdmans’s Dictionary).  People would throw the loose change on the fabric so that it could be easily collected.  As he throws off the cloak and jumps up- whatever money he had that day is lost.  The man on the corner- tosses his cup- change rattles as it hits the pavement as he runs to greet the one person who gives him hope.
Bartemaeus knows Jesus is more than just a healer, a miracle worker.  He knows Jesus is his only chance to regain his sight, his life, his dignity.  So, he doesn’t hesitate and doesn’t just ask for sight but instead asks to see. 

Tradition tells us this request was not simply to regain his physical sight but a desire to understand and to know more fully (CBQ).  Jesus has mercy on him, heals him.  Not only is his sight restored but his life is restored.  He is made whole.  The man who was never really seen by his own people is now seen by Jesus and sees himself.  He is no longer just a beggar he is now a Disciple of Jesus. When told to go he chooses the most difficult but rewarding path- to follow Jesus “on the way” to Jerusalem… and the cross.    
The crowd is following Rock Star Jesus – miracle worker and enigmatic teacher but this blind beggar has known Jesus all of two minutes but knows because of him, his life has been changed forever.  He may even know him better than the crowd of followers and the twelve disciples. The Gospel of Mark likes to portray Jesus as a mystery and yet while the demons and those he heals know him, the disciples remain confused.  They have spent three years with Jesus.  They have observed the miracles and the signs.  They have learned at the feet of the Master himself and yet, they still don’t quite understand what this blind man sees- the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David, Messiah!

Is this who we see, when we see Jesus?  We, like the disciples often find it easy to hear the words of Jesus.  We read our Bibles; we study diligently, wanting to understand more.   We come to church and bible study and Sunday school to hear about this amazing man and the life he desires for us and we ask all kinds of questions about what he said and did but yet, we still don’t always understand.  We are blind to who Jesus really is. We are asking the wrong questions.  We ask for understanding when we need faith.  We ask for sight but what we really need is to see. 
We all have things in our lives which are broken and in need of the healing words of Jesus.  And yet, we tend to put more energy into hiding them, ignoring them and hushing them, than we do seeking help.  When our brokenness can’t take it and desires to cry out in desperation… are we willing to be like Bartimaeus?  Are we brave enough to ask for what we really need? 

Jesus can and will show us the way, shine light in the world of darkness, heal us, make us whole and allow us to see but that seeing leads us away from what is comfortable and known. 
What we gain is so much more! We gain salvation, a life healed and made whole.  A full life, filled with the love of Christ, no longer digging through the trash of this world looking for meaning, no longer begging for someone, anyone to give us love and attention, no longer dependent on the charity of others to give us value.  When we realize that we are seen by Jesus; we realize that we are valued by the one who knows us inside and out, sees all those things we try to hide and loves us anyway.  Then we know we too must cry out “Jesus, Son of David! Have Mercy on Me!”

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Mark 14: 3-9

What do you want to be when you grow up?  This is a question we ask children and teenagers all the time.  Some adults are still asking this question.   Think for a moment what your answer to that question was when you were 10, 11, or 12 years old?   Did your dream come true?  Were you encouraged by your parents and teachers to reach for the stars? Did you have cheerleaders along the way who pushed you to try harder, study, do your homework, or accept that first job to learn a work ethic?
If you had asked me that question as a child, I would have told you I wanted to be a Marine Biologist.  I didn’t really know what that meant but I loved the beach and thought dolphins were pretty cool! Needless to say this was not my cup of tea in reality.  I don’t even like cleaning out fish tanks now and science was not my best subject in school.  As I got older I thought maybe I would go into counseling.  I liked listening to people talk and all my friends said I gave good advice and Psychology was pretty interesting- Not very useful in and of itself, but I enjoyed it.  All along the way I was told I could be anything, as long as I worked hard, studied and made responsible decisions. 
Not everyone is as lucky as I was though.  Some people seem to hit a road block and get knocked down every time they dared to dream.  We don’t have the money for you to go to college and you’re not smart enough to get a scholarship,  what makes you think you would ever be successful anyway.  School is a waste of time, just get a job; but not that job it’s not for boys or girls can’t do that kind of work.  Are you stupid, why would you ever think you could do that, know your place, no one will ever accept you…… seeds of doubt and a desire to maintain the status quo are too strong for many to escape or even explore what God is calling and gifting them to be. 
The woman in this story may have felt that way.  She is first and foremost a woman.  Marginalized by the society she lived in with no authority, no rights and little to no say in how her life would turn out to be.  She is in the margins again as she walks into the room and interrupts a meal between Jesus and his male companions.  She shouldn’t be there; all the men stare at her, irritated by the interruption.  I can hear her thinking—ah man, what am I doing here.  What if Jesus gets mad or won’t accept my gift?  But she gathers up all her courage and takes out a small jar of sweet smelling oil.  She breaks it and pours it on the head of Jesus. 
This gets a reaction alright- the men at the table begin to murmur, criticize, scold, rebuke- what an idiot, stupid woman, such a waste, we could have fed a lot of people with that money, how dare you waste all that money!
Jesus stops them though.  Jesus knows the importance and significance of her actions even if she and the disciples didn’t.  The verses prior to this story are of the Pharisees and chief priests plotting to kill Jesus and the verses after are of Judas deciding to volunteer to betray Jesus.  Jesus knew his days on earth were numbered.  One of the translations called the anointment “a beautiful thing”.  Her gift was accepted after all, even praised.  Even though the other men at the table didn’t appreciate what she had done; Jesus did and that was the only person who mattered.
Anointment in Biblical times served several purposes.  Kings and prophets were anointed to set them apart for God, make them sacred, give them power and ability to do what they were called to do, people were anointed for healing, celebrations and yes, for burial.
Jesus was anointed for his work on earth at his baptism and here, just days before his crucifixion, he is being anointed again for the next task- his death, resurrection and eternal place as King of all creation. The Legacy of Jesus will forever be remembered and the legacy of this unnamed woman will forever be a part of that story. 
The complaints of the disciples may have felt like legitimate ones.  We are called to care for the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the spiritually and physically needy and Jesus never tells them it is not important but they were blind to the big picture.  Jesus wants them to understand that worship and service go hand in hand.  The two are never separate.  We serve because of Jesus; not because we want to “win souls” or get kudos from our fellow church members and community.  We serve because we love and we love because we are loved.   That is worship. That is what this woman’s act of worship meant.  Her worship was service.    
We are called through the love of Christ to risk taking mission and service.  The jar of nard cost a year’s wages- costly to anyone but she was willing to risk her wealth for Jesus even before she knew he was willing to sacrifice his life for hers.  How much more should we be willing to risk- knowing the abundance of his love?  She was willing to risk ridicule to worship Christ- but the act of worship wasn’t for the bystanders and the naysayers- it was for Christ. And Christ knew the true meaning of her worship and praised her for it- putting the rest to shame and forever cementing a place for her in this story.  Her legacy would remain forever. 
Like Jesus, we have each been anointed through our baptisms to serve God in this life.  Our call is to serve Christ- each of us will do that in our own unique way.  The legacy of the woman in the story today is not only what she did for Jesus but by her willingness to be bold, vulnerable and to risk offering everything she had for Christ.  It took courage to walk into someone’s home uninvited.  It took a willingness to be vulnerable- not knowing if her gift would be accepted or if she would be criticized for it.  It took fearlessness to offer an item of such great value.   
What do you want to be when you grow up is the question we ask children.  They look to their heroes, their skills, and their life situation to dream big.  As we age the question changes to the one addressed by our scripture today…focus shifts from the future through the eyes of a child to the present.  Not what do you want to be- rather what do you want your legacy to be? 
This is entirely dependent on how you live in the present.  We see the legacy of this woman, of the disciples, of the others who followed Jesus. The woman in our scripture had no idea the impact this sacrifice would make but she acted out of love. 
What will your legacy be? Will you be remembered as the scoundrel who turned your life around when you entered into a relationship with God?  Will you be remembered as the person who always showed compassion to others?  Will it be one of someone always willing to go the extra mile for others?  One who was never ashamed of their faith willing to share it boldly with others?  Will it be of someone willing to welcome others into a life with Christ and his community of believers? 
What will your legacy be?  What will the legacy of this church community be? What will Christ remember about us?  What will the people we leave behind remember?
Now is the time to decide.  There is no time like the present.  If you have thought about this question and you aren’t sure you like what the answer is- now is the time to fix it.  If you have wandered away or maybe never felt your heart warm with passion and love for Christ- now is the time to return to Christ, repent, start over. 
Our past does not determine our future.  Jesus likes spending time with people who make mistakes.  Jesus loves people who are honest in their faith and in their doubt.  We little information about  what the disciples were like before they met Christ.  We have no idea what this woman’s history was before this moment of worship and service.  What we do know is how they were changed by their relationship with Christ.  This is the legacy they leave behind. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

True Value

1 Timothy 1: 12-17
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” what a mighty and powerful statement.  It is one we say and hear quite often but sometimes it is easier to say than to believe. 

Maybe you remember learning about Paul’s conversion experience.  He was a Pharisee, a leader in the temple who felt that the followers of Jesus were destroying the community of faith and needed to be destroyed themselves.  He was willing to maintain the status quo at any cost- including taking the lives of anyone who dared to go another way.  Until, that day on the road to Damascus, his life is changed forever.  Jesus confronts him, convicts him and sends him as a messenger for Christ.
This is a dramatic turnaround for Paul and a significant moment in the life of the church.  The greatest enemy to the cause of Christ has become the greatest ally.  While this is dramatic and wonderful on all levels, it is hard for most people to relate.  While I do know people who have had a similar experience, many people have a slower and more gradual turn around.  Instead of a U-Turn back to Christ we go around the block a few times to find the right direction.  But it is in Paul’s retelling of what that moment of conversion did in his life that most Christians can relate.
As I read Paul’s story and reflect on my own faith journey, I know I can relate.    I was not a violent person or a persecutor but I did seek to find self worth in all the wrong places.  Paul found value in the encouragement of his peers to kill the Christians.  He found value in his position in the Temple and within the Jewish hierarchy of society- thinking he was better than others because he followed the law better than others. 

We can all relate to that.  It is part of human nature to compare ourselves with others.  See if you can relate to any of these scenarios from a book I am reading- Teaching as a Sacramenta Act:
                A group of youth stand on a street corner jeering at an old man… they feel agile and youthful in comparison.  The man is watching a ragged woman with unkempt hair and dirty clothes walk by him thinking how pathetic she is because she is not successful like him.  Meanwhile the woman who is white looks grumpily back at the man who is black.  She resents the way he holds his head high, she deems his race inferior to hers and does not like his “uppity ways”. 
                Down the street a boy is drinking alcohol with his friends.  His family had rejected him so he acted out to get acceptance and attention from his peers.  A girl from his class sees him drunk on the street and in her mind chastises him while feeling stable and wise thinking she would never do anything like that. (Teaching as a Sacramental Act)  These people are no different from each other, from us, from Paul; we on some level all compare ourselves to others to make ourselves feel better.  But we are looking for value in places that provide a moving target and put others down in the process.

Paul’s story about his relationship to Christ turns this competitive notion on its ear.  He realizes that all the places we seek to find value are false idols.  Promotions and raises at work, relationships with other people, drugs, alcohol, sex, youth, new cars, stylish clothes, wealth… all these are false idols because the value doesn’t last.  Companies close and jobs are lost- where is your value then? Relationships end- friends move, marriages end- the loneliness sets in- where is your value then?  The high ends, youth fades and there isn’t enough Botox and plastic surgery in the world to stop the sands of time, cars break down, clothes go out of style and money- stock markets crash, the value of the dollar plummets.   When the thing that gives you value and worth comes to an end- then what?

When we place value on earthly things we feel it is important to save face when the world falls apart.  We put on a brave, stoic face and build up walls around our personal lives so that others cannot see that we are dying inside.  We whitewash over our imperfections by blaming others or doing as the people in the stories do- find someone who seems less important with whom to compare ourselves. Or, we Band-Aid our problems with busyness, chemicals and empty relationships. But the whitewash and the Band-Aids only mask the fact that we are still falling apart.

Paul’s conversion not only convicted him of his sin but rearranged the order of where he found value.  This is what a relationship with Christ does for everyone.  Conversion is not a one-time experience and it is not a fix all to the problems in our lives.  Even after we begin a relationship with Christ we continue to sin and Christ in his endless patience calls us to repent time after time, convert, return; we are repeatedly convicted of our sins so that we can be put back in a right relationship with Christ.  I don’t know about you but every time I am in a worship service where they do a sinner’s prayer or call for repentance and conversion- I am there in my heart- of course I want to be in right relation to God, of course I want to be forgiven of my sins- It reminds me of my rightful place in this world; unworthy of the love and forgiveness of Christ.  The love and forgiveness of Christ is an act of mercy, love and compassion that Jesus bestows on anyone who will accept it but no one truly deserves. 
We are down here and God is up here.  That order never changes. God never changes so when we stop finding personal value in things of this world and realize that it is Christ alone who gives us value it doesn’t really matter if the world falls apart around us.  Yes, it is devastating to lose a job and relationships but we don’t lose our pride and our value because that is not what defines us- Christ defines who we are.  Our value does not come from what we do or who we pretend to be, our value comes in our willingness to admit and recognize that without Christ we are nothing. 
Paul retells his story of conversion, not because it is novel- Timothy has spent years in ministry with Paul. He already knows the story.  But retelling it reminds Timothy and us of the hope we find in Christ.  As we begin to see ourselves as God sees us it is important to share that story with others.  This change, conversion, repentance is an inward event that is not always immediately evident to the people around us but as people see how God has changed us, they find hope and encouragement for their own lives.
They realize there is no need to hide, no need to pretend that their life and world is perfect because no one’s is.  It encourages us and allows us to be authentic, real, caring and compassionate knowing that our successes and failures are not what make us valuable or important.  What makes us each important and valuable is that we are loved by the God who created heaven and earth, the God who has mercy and compassion on us, and who is patient and faithful to the promises made to us, willing to be vulnerable, willing to suffer and die so that our lives could be eternal with him, willing to love us and forgive us each time we make mistakes.
The gospel lesson assigned for today that I did not read, is the two parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  Reminding us that God finds value in each and every person- willing to seek us out, willing to risk everything to find those who are lost, and celebrating each and every time we are found.  This is a God of love, who places value on even the least of these- the marginalized, the abused, the forgotten and the lost all have value and worth in the eyes of God.  You have worth; you are priceless to God not because of what you can do or what you have done but in spite of these things.  God just wants you to recognize that you are loved, cherished, and cared for, valued so much you were worth dying for.  Christ came to earth to save sinners from a false sense of self-worth, from the false idols in our lives, from ourselves. 
Do you know you are loved?  Do you know you are valued by God? Have you been hiding from the realness of this life afraid of what others might think? Afraid you will lose value if people know the real you? Take this moment of reflection: turn from these false idols, these places of false value and turn to the one who truly knows you and loves you anyway- Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!


Sunday, September 8, 2013

God’s not done with you yet!

Jeremiah 18: 1-11

I am not sure how many of you have “thrown clay” before but it is a messy process of creation that on one hand seems violent- the term itself is a violent image.  Throwing, smacking, pressing, kneading are all very forceful words. But on the other hand the image is beautiful- smoothness, balance, centering, proportion and shape- more like a dance than a battle requiring an even, gentle touch.  There is beauty in the finished product but there is also beauty in the process of creation as well.  The creator has an image of what he or she wants that lump of clay to become… a bowl, cup, plate, vase…. The possibilities are nearly limitless but as the creation process progresses the clay does not always want to cooperate or imperfections develop so the potter begins again- smashing it down and starting from scratch.

In Jeremiah’s time, pottery was less about beauty and more about function.  Pottery items were used for everything- tools to cook, vessels for holding and serving food, lamps, items for worship including personal alters and idols.  Pottery was very utilitarian for most people and it was very fragile.  It was important that blemishes be worked out and corrected during the creation process so that it would be strong, functional and resist the temperatures from the kiln and from future cooking processes. 

I know for me, the first image that arises when I think of creating pottery is the romantic scene between Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost.  It is sweet and romantic if not a little messy.  But if we are honest and look at the reality of creation; it is always messy and often violent. 

Even the way children become adults is often a painful process.  Children are exposed to violence, forced to navigate the tortures of making friends and dealing with bullies and betrayals of trust, learning to deal with the highs of success and the lows of failure, learning to love their imperfections as well as the places they excel. This is often a lifelong process whether we are 15, 35, 55 or 85- with each decision we make right or wrong we learn to live with and embrace the consequences, repent of our mistakes and try to make better choices the next time. 

This is the process that God is trying to explain to the Israelite people in our scripture but the lesson is not just for them.  This is a lesson that transcends time.   We have the benefit of hindsight when it comes to scripture.  We know how that particular segment of the story ended.  The Israelites, despite this warning refused to change, refused to turn back to God, refused to repent.  Soon thereafter, Jerusalem was destroyed by the neo-Babylonians and the people were scattered throughout the region.

God’s grace and love remained though and this was not the end of Israel’s story.  If it were we would not have many other books in the Bible including the New Testament.  God used this very painful time in the history of Israel to reform, recreate and give the Israelites another chance to choose God. 

While on the surface, this scripture lesson and the lesson we learn from the lives of the Israelite people in Jeremiah’s time seems to be one of doom.  With God there is always hope always another chance. 

No, their story does not end with the destruction and defeat by the Neo-Babylonians.  Yes, they are scattered for a time but as the Persian Empire gained strength and power the Jewish people were allowed, even encouraged to return to their homeland.  It was a difficult process I am sure to be a part of how God started over with the people and nation of Israel but even today it is evident that God has not given up on them. 

God tells Jeremiah that there is a connection between God’s self and the work of the potter.  We believe in the depths of our soul that God is the creator of all things.  We believe God created the universe, each thing we see- both man-made and natural.  We believe that we were lovingly and wonderfully made by that God.  God as creator was very evident as we walked through Deep Creek yesterday.  Plants in bloom, shade from the trees full of leaves, the cool breeze and warm sunshine.  There is even something holy in the laughter from the kids tubing down the creek as tubers and hikers alike enjoyed this gift from God. 

Creation though often requires reshaping.  A community once stood in that place; homes, gardens, dams and roads now gone or repurposed to be enjoyed by a new generation of people and animals.  Old trees rotting, upended at the root, the power and strength of the waterfalls crashing down, smoothing the rough edges of the rocks below, leaves beginning to turn yellow and fall to the ground. 

The beautiful Islands of Hawaii were created from the violent explosion of a Volcano!  The majestic Grand Canon was created from the violent forces of rushing water.  Even the magic of life itself is brought forth through the violent act of labor.  Creation is a painful thing--- but it is also a beautiful thing full of joy, excitement and passion.   Creation is both life and death and death that harbors in new life. 

God is the potter and we are the clay.  God is the creator and we are the created. 

We often have the benefit of 20/20 vision as we look back on the story of the Israelite people, the story of the people and nature that surrounds us in these mountains, and sometimes even our own lives. 

We see the results of the latest edition of God’s creation.  We watch as children grow, learn from their mistakes and begin to make mature well thought out decisions instead of emotion charged impulse choices.  We look back at the history of our own lives and see how God has smoothed the rough patches of our lives.  We can see how although there have been times of pain, there have also been times of joy. It is difficult and often impossible to see the process of creation in the midst of emotion but it is there and can often be seen more clearly as we examine our past. 

We see how God has given us a redo; new relationships, new jobs , the opportunity to put down an addiction, the chance to start over.  This process never ends.  Even if we think we always make the right decisions each phase of our life is God’s way of giving us the opportunity to be flexible, listen to his calling, allow God to mold us into a new creation, start over, begin again.  Each time we change jobs, a new child is born, when we retire, move to a new town, start a new hobby, make new friends.  Each allows us to try again.

There is joy and hope in the promise God makes to each and every one of us.  God is not through with you yet!  God is not through with you yet!
There is always a chance to return to God, make holy and healthy decisions for you and your family.  We are being shaped and molded by God to be the Christians we are called to be. 
Our ultimate desire then should be to remain soft, pliable and flexible like clay in the hands of our Creator.   These items on the altar have long been determined.  They are what they are- some useful, some beautiful and others… well, interesting- but we are not called to be a bowl or a cup.  When we get set in our ways and refuse to believe we can change or to be molded into the object desirable to God- instead of becoming something new and useful we will simply break.  Sitting still, being satisfied with the status quo, being stagnate in our faith is when we dry up and become brittle.

The joy and the curse of this is that it is up to us.  God has given us the free will to decide.  Yes, there are plenty of times when God makes things happen despite our most fervent efforts to fail but ultimately it is our choice.  Are we willing to be worked, molded and formed into the image of God- ever growing, ever listening and ever learning? Or, are we stuck, refusing to bend satisfied with the imperfections in our lives?

The Good News is that God is not done with you yet!  Unlike these items of pottery- we are not set, our future is not predetermined, God is still willing to work with us, to shape, mold and remake as many times as is necessary. We have been given the ultimate example of love, sacrifice, hospitality, salvation, and patience in the life of Christ.  
As we can see from the example of Israel and by looking back on our own live.  God is a God of second chances, and third and fourth- always willing to adjust to the decisions we make.
As Christians we don’t believe in reincarnation but we do believe in recreation.  Each day we wake up we are given the choice of how we want to live that day.   Each day is a chance to start a new life in faith allowing God to use us and mold us into the vessels of Christ’s love. 

Ponder for a moment your life until now.  Where can you see God smoothing off the rough edges?  Where can you see yourself being resistant to God’s molding?  What choices can you make today that will allow God to reshape your life, your relationships, your future? 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

yeah, yeah, yeah

Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16

Love, hospitality, empathy… yeah, yeah, yeah.  It is a lot easier said than done.  We all know what we should do and how we should act but it is rarely that simple.
We hear stories in the news all the time about people in prison, we see images of torture sometimes at the hands of other countries but regrettably it happens at the hands of our fellow countrymen too.  We see images of children starving in foreign countries and initiated into gangs as purely a means of survival.  Yet, it doesn’t just happen somewhere else, it happens here too.
We see these images and hear stories but it is hard to have sympathy for people we don’t know in circumstances that are beyond our scope of understanding much less empathy.  It is simply hard to relate to people and situations we don’t know personally.  We can watch documentaries, read books, and go to conferences and trainings and these do open our eyes to the world around us but it just a starting place. 
Maybe God has called you to go, spend time living with and getting to know people from other places and life situations but you don’t have to travel around the world to meet people who need love and hospitality.  People all around us are struggling too.  Often in silence.
This week I participated in a training called “Darkness to Light” about child sexual abuse; how to recognize, prevent and protect children from it.  The statistics are staggering.  1:4 girls and 1:6 boys have been sexually abused.  So, chances are great that there are people in this room who have survived or still live in this emotional prison.  This is just one example.  There are many reasons people struggle.
Even though it is easier to relate when it is someone we know all of this is still in the abstract for many of us and maybe you are thinking I can’t handle helping anyone else.  I have too much on my plate already.  I have my own problems. 
I can’t possibly read another book, attend a training, much less travel the world or volunteer any more of my time and I have enough emotional baggage of my own to deal with.  I just can’t take on anyone else’s problems. 
For most people dropping everything even for a week or two is not what God has in mind.  For most, God is simply calling us to be aware, open and willing to see the people and situations around us through God’s eyes.  We are called first and foremost to know and understand that we are children of God.  It is recognizing the love of Christ in our own lives that then allows us to have compassion for others.  God is not asking us to take on and fix someone else’s life, but simply have compassion for the cashier who is having a bad day. Offer a word of encouragement and patience to the person you work with who cannot seem to get it together.  Offering a word of peace, love and forgiveness to the person who always seems to know how to push your buttons. 
That is what God is calling us to do.  It is not something that takes any more time and very little extra effort to stop, see ourselves as a child of God, see the person who gets on our last frayed nerve as a child of God, taking a deep breath and choosing to love them the way we want Christ to love us. 
One of the commentaries I read this week said that the opposite of love and hospitality is selfishness.
That is what God is asking from us; to be a little less worried about “I” and a little more worried about “We”.  Less about what is good for me and my family and more about the greater good.  We don’t have to go somewhere else to do this.  Yes, going other places,  being with other people and experiencing life outside our comfort zone makes it easier to reprioritize and refocus our lives but we are called to do this in our everyday lives; in the moments and situations that we find ourselves in every day. 
Two weeks ago in a suburb of Atlanta, Antoinette Tuff went to work as a school bookkeeper like she does every day but 8/21 was different.  A young man walked into her school with an automatic weapon.  He openly admitted to the woman in the office that he did not want to hurt the children but instead wanted to hurt police and commit suicide in the process.  The woman calls 911 but she also takes the time to talk with the young man.  She starts asking him questions about his life, telling him about her life.  She bonds with him, tells him she loves him, listens to him, shares her faith with him and encourages him to make the right decision.  The end of the 911 call you can hear the man show remorse for what he had done, and admit that he had stopped taking his medication and that he needed mental health treatment.  At one point as he threatened suicide, the woman at the school reminds him that he has so much more to live for, that he is making the right decisions now, encourages his positive choices and tells him again that she loves him and that she is praying for him.
Even though he shot a few rounds, this story had a happy ending.  No one was hurt, not even the gunman and this woman shared the deepest love of Christ to this man through hospitality, love and compassion. 
Who knows what any of us would have done in this situation.  Our first instinct is almost always personal survival.  We are naturally selfish.  We want to secure our own lives, safety, possessions, and emotions so we respond in fear.  This woman somehow knew though that her running in fear and desire for self-preservation would ultimately end with someone else losing their life so instead she showed love. 
I hope I would have the courage and faith to ask God to be in that place with me but hopefully I will never know what it means to experience that kind of fear.  The antidote for fear is love.  Loving and respecting the needs, relationships, emotional and life situations of others.  The message of hope we receive in our scripture lesson today is not just one of “do this- don’t do that” but reassurance that as we share love and hospitality with others we too will be blessed.  It is the reassurance that even on the darkest days when loving others is the hardest we still serve a God who refuses to leave us behind, will help us through the difficult moments in life and if we allow God to be a part of our lives, will grant us peace in times of fear.
We can look around this room, around the dinner table and know we are not in this alone.  We read the Bible, we look at pictures of our ancestors, we see the names of those who came before us tagging the pews, window, tables and font.  We can see proof in the lives of these people and their stories that God is faithful, God has not changed and really neither has this world.  God is still calling us to live a life of love, sacrificing our selfishness, pride, comfort and resources all the while praising God through our actions and our words. 
Is there someone in your life who needs love, compassion and forgiveness from you?  Take this time to pray that God will open your eyes to someone around you who needs to see the love of Christ through you.