Pilgrimage Sermon Series – Beyond and Within – Mark 8:34-37

Beyond and Within
Mark 8: 34-37
I hope this sermon series has been a little eye opening for you.  Next week we will finish this Pilgrimage Journey as we then go into the holy season of Lent.  I hope that you have learned some things, I know I have.  This series has been eye opening for me to preach and teach.  I too have learned some things along the way. 
One of those things is that Jesus really gives two invitations to his disciples.  I had heard and knew both of these passages but never really connected the dots until this week.  The first invitation that Jesus gives his disciples is found in Mark 1:16-20.  It says, “As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen.  “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”  Right away, they left their nets and followed him.  After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets.  At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.”
Many of us have heard that phrase in this scripture, “Follow me and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”  Another translation which is not gender inclusive says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  This is Jesus’ first invitation.  All the disciples drop everything they are doing and follow Jesus.  It is the beginning of their journey.  It is the start of this three year pilgrimage which will lead them from being disciples to apostles; from learning the faith to growing it and sharing it with the world.  In the terms of Wesleyan theology this was a moment of Justifying Grace.  It was a time when Simon and Andrew, James and John, agreed in their hearts to follow Christ.  Here in the south it may be referred to as “being saved.” 
We have similar moments in our Christian walk.  I can still remember when I was in 16 and in high school I was attending a Lay Witness Mission at my church.  We had mapped out our walk with God on paper and I could see right there in front of me the Prevenient Grace of God in my life.  I could see where God had reached out to me, desired me to follow and where I turned away.  We were in an outdoor chapel and at the end I knew I had to commit my life to God.  I made a determined walk from the outdoor chapel, through the education building, and to the prayer rail in the sanctuary.  It is there, on my knees, with tears flowing that I prayed to God and I told him I was ready to follow him.  That was my moment of Justifying Grace, or the moment I felt God’s grace work inside of me.
As Jesus walked the shores of Galilee he offered this opportunity to Simon and Andrew, James and John.  They all dropped what they were doing and decided to follow him.  This first invitation of Jesus changed their lives.  But the second invitation would be a little harder for them and to be honest it is the one that hardest for me and maybe you.
Haywood UMC is part of Central UMC in Asheville, NC.  They are doing some amazing ministry to the people of that town.  What they are doing really lives into Jesus’ second invitation.  What this video about them and you may see why.
As the disciples are following Jesus and they are deep into their ministry together Jesus realizes that the realities of their ministry are changing.   This is when he offers them the second invitation which is today’s text, Mark 8:34-37.  Here Jesus tells his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them.  But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.”
This is the second invitation of Jesus.  Once again we hear the familiar words, “follow me.”  The first time it was on a journey, on an adventure to fish for people!  This second invitation to follow Jesus doesn’t sound as exciting.  First invitation, a bunch of fishermen agree to go fish for people.  Seems to be right in their wheelhouse doesn’t it.  This second invitation isn’t in anyone’s wheel house.  We are supposed to lose ourselves, carry OUR cross, lose our lives for the sake of Jesus and the good news?  This sounds very self-sacrificing and the opposite of what our culture tells us to do.  I bet there are no Super Bowl commercials on tonight that tell us if we want happiness, if we want satisfaction, if we want purpose, than we need to forget about ourselves and follow Jesus.  Nope, they will probably say this can all be found in a can of Budweiser or on GoDaddy.com.
There is a story of a church in a fast growing suburban community.  They were running out of room and needed more parking.  They did a Capital Campaign and raised enough funds to purchase a piece of land and create a new parking lot.  When it was finished the parking lot was warm and inviting.  It wasn’t just inviting to the people who came to worship but also the local teenage skate boarders.  The fresh pavement was too much for them to pass up and soon they would gather to skate on the new parking lot.  Like a good UMC a Trustee meeting was called to deal with the problem.  They all cried out “What! Skateboarders on the new pavement!”  What are we to do?”  They did have some options.  They could put up NO Trespassing sings to hopefully keep the youth off the pavement.  They could set up patrols to make sure the parking lot was secure at all hours.  How were they going to protect THEIR church?
One of the Trustees was a retired, lifelong athlete.  He said he would talk to the skaters and see what came up.  One day he approached them and had a conversation with them.  The result from the parking lot conversation was interesting.  Instead of the church shunning this group, they welcomed them.  A weekly Bible study was started that included time to skate on the new pavement.  Later on the group took trips to different skating locations around the area and bam, a youth ministry was born.
There is a biblical principle entitled Beyond and Within.  What this idea is revolves around the two invitation with Jesus.  The first one is an invitation to build yourself up from within.  To understand, feel and agree to follow Jesus.  The second invitation is to go beyond yourself, to give yourself up, for the sake of Christ and the Good News.  We are to move beyond ourselves and focus outside instead of inside.  We are to lose ourselves or die to self in order for people to come to know the God we worship.  We look at our current reality and we know if we want it to change, if we want to be transformed into the mission and vision that Jesus has for us than we have to move beyond a vision that focuses inward and one that moves us beyond and within; Beyond the walls and within the lives of those out there.
John Wesley organized his movement into classes and bands all throughout England.  They are exactly what many churches now call life groups or small groups.  Within these groups John Wesley had two focuses, personal holiness and social holiness.  Personal Holiness was the act of sanctifying grace, the work that God does through you to become more Christ like in this world.  He also believed in Social Holiness too.  Actually he said you cannot have one without the other.  He believed that Christians could not have authentic personal holiness without social holiness.  In other words, unless you accept the second invitation of Christ, the one that moves us beyond and within, you may not be as faithful as you think.
On Haywood Street in Asheville, people give of themselves, open themselves up to reach out to the least of these in their community.  They welcome the smelly, addicted, and funny looking homeless people to worship on a Wednesday.  They feed them, know them, pray with them and for them.  They are transformed themselves by this interaction and sharing of love.  The church that opened their freshly paved parking lot to skateboards did the same thing.  Instead of seeing them as ‘one of those’ they opened their hearts to be transformed by accepting them, making room for them, and letting themselves be changed because of them.
Too many times we think church is for us.  Unless we like the music; feel connected to the sermon; are greeted by the right people; acknowledged when we feel we should be, we feel like church was a bad experience.  Then when change happens, when new people come and start to make suggestions.  Or when you get older and new people come into leadership and they don’t do what was always done, things don’t feel quite right.  What we are doing though is making these few hours a week that we come together about us.  It is all about my experience, my class, my pew, my seat, my friends.  Yet worship is not supposed to be anything about us.  We aren’t here to prop each other up and pat each other on the back.  We are here to praise God, glorify the creator, worship the savoir and be touched by the Holy Spirit.  Have you done that yet this morning?
On my first Sunday I passed out those index cards and asked you to tell me what your hope and dreams are for this church.  Almost 90% of them came back and said you wanted Indian Trail UMC to grow.  There will only be one way that truly happens.  If we really, REALLY want to see growth in this church we need to make sure we are doing it for the right reasons.  It can’t be that if we bring in more people we will have more money.  It can’t be so our choir may get bigger or that we will have more volunteers.  The only way we will see growth is if we truly feel, in every fiber of our body, that we want to grow because there are too many people in this world that need Jesus.
Our focus has to be on the second invitation of Christ.  We have to be transformed by the principle of Beyond and Within.  We have to realize it is not about us.  There is nothing in the being a disciple of Jesus Christ that says it is about us.  Listen to the scripture again today, “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good  by CouponDropDown”>news will save them.  Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?  What will people give in exchange for their lives?”
You want this congregation to be transformed and enter the Promised Land of God?  Then you come down during communion and you knee before him and ask, “What can I do?  How can I lose myself for your sake Lord Jesus?”  Only if we take this second invitation seriously will we get to that promise land.  Only if we are ready to die to self, take up our cross and truly follow Christ will we find the life we hope for, dream of, and desire deep in our hearts.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Pilgrimage Sermon Series – Asking the Right Questions – Sermon

Mark 9:30-35
Pilgrimage – Asking the Right Questions
In the Gospel of Mark there are a lot of questions.  Jesus himself asks 47 questions.  We received one of those 47 here in the passage today.  As the disciples are traveling from Galilee to Capernaum they start to argue about who is the greatest among them.  Jesus asks them “”What were you arguing about during the journey?”  In another translation the question is stated, “What were you discussing on the way?” Either way the question is a reflection of the conversation between the 12 as they journeyed. 
Jesus’ questions are not the only questions in Mark’s gospel.  There are twelve different questions that come from the religious leaders, seven that come from a crowd or an individual, five that come from Pilate, and two that come from unclean spirits.  The whole gospel is filled with questions.  The first one in Mark’s gospel is actually from an unclean spirit.  Jesus is in the same area, Capernaum, in a synagogue teaching when a person with an unclean spirit walks in and questions him.  The evil spirit screams “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?” 
This differs from the other first questions in the other gospels.  In Matthew the first question comes from the magi.  They ask, “Where is the child born King of Jews?”  In Luke the question comes from Zechariah as he learns that Elizabeth is pregnant with their son who will be known as John the Baptist.  He asks the angel, “How can I be sure of this?”  In John the religious rulers ask the first question to John the Baptist.  They ask him, “Who are you?”  In Matthew, Luke and John the first questions reflect a need to understand and searching.  But in Mark, as in most of the questions in this gospel, the question the unclean spirit asks is an attempt to question Jesus’ authority and power.
Remember the question the evil spirit screams? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”  With that simple question about coming to destroy the spirit is attempting to corner Jesus’ power as one who is coming to destroy but in reality Jesus has come to redeem.  How a question is asked is important because how we ask will lead to how we are answered.
If you have ever asked the question, “So, how was school?”, what was the normal response?  (Fine.)  This is what as a closed-ended question.  Too easily students learn they can give a one word response to their parent’s question.  When the parents are seeking to find out what happened in their child’s life at school all they usually get is fine, good, okay.  That is if they get any words at all and not just a smirk and shrug of the shoulders.  Instead of asking a closed-ended question, how would the response change if you asked an open-ended question?  A type of question that would lead to more than one word response?  What would happen if you asked a question like, “Can you tell me about your day?” or “What was the topic of your English class today?”  These lead to a conversation because they demand more than one word. 
What type of questions we ask are extremely important for our own faith and journey to grow as individuals and as a congregation?  There are right questions and there are wrong questions to ask.  The wrong questions to ask are ones that lead to accusations, labeling and destruction of community and relationships.  The evil spirit was looking to peg Jesus as a destroyer not a redeemer.  There was a purpose behind the closed-ended question he asked.  Jesus did not take the bait though and cast the spirit out.  No matter how clever we think we are, we can never trap Jesus in a corner.
Here is another example of a wrong question.  When Campbell was two years old I walked into our living room to find her jumping on our recliner.  Now this could go bad in many ways.  The recliner was right next to a class French door, so if she fell off she could go through the window.  She could go the other way which would lead to her head hitting a coffee table.  I was concerned with her safety.  Plus I was attempting to teach her the rules of the house which are you don’t jump on furniture.  Being the wise father I am I raised my voice and asked her, “What are you doing?”  She stopped jumping and looked at me, “I’m looking for trouble.”
I know a minister who is a senior minister of a very large church and has many staff people under his leadership.  It came out that two of his staff people where having an affair with one another.  He invited them into his office to sit down and talk out the ramifications of this affair.  As he discussed their termination and other consequences they were confused about why this was happening.  The minister looked at them and asked, “How did you think this was going to work out well for either of you?”  This was a far better question to ask in this situation because it was more of an open-ended question that could lead to dialogue and understanding.  My question was more closed-minded, or the wrong question to ask at that moment.  This pastor did a better job asking the right question.
A right question is one that leads to a conversation, to a deeper understanding, and strengthening of a community or a relationship.  It is something that will build up rather than tear down.  Many of the questions in Mark’s gospel vary from right questions and wrong questions.  One of the questions the religious rulers ask of Jesus is to question his authority.  In the second chapter of Mark, Jesus is once again in Capernaum and a paralyzed man is brought to him and Jesus forgives him of his sins.  The legal experts see this and the question they ask is, “Why does he speak this way?”  They were questioning his authority, his power to forgive sins.  They demanded an answer and so Jesus answers them with a couple questions of his own.  He asks them, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions?  Which is easier – to say to a paralyzed person, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk’?  But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins” – he said to the man who was paralyzed – “Get up, take your mat and go home.”
The legal experts questioned Jesus authority and there was a power struggle going on.  The legal experts wanted to make sure the power of their society rested with them.  But if Jesus was walking around forgiving sins, healing people, their power was threatened.  The same was true for the first question in Mark’s gospel from the evil spirit.  The spirit’s power was threatened and he wanted to know if Jesus was here to destroy.  But Jesus came to earth not to destroy but to redeem.  He came not to limit us to the law but for us to be free from it.  He came to forgive sins, to heal the broken, and to take the sins of the world upon himself. 
Jesus had told the disciples about this task in the early part of our scripture today.  He told them that he would be crucified and would die.  In verse 31 it says, “He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be handed over to men. They will kill him. After three days he will rise from the dead.”  He told this to the disciples but they did not understand.  What question did they ask to get clarification on what he told them?  They didn’t.  The scripture says, “But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.”  What questions are you afraid to ask Christ because you don’t understand or you really don’t want to know the answers to?
Power is extremely important to people.  People love to have power.  It could only be the power to change the channel on the TV so they hoard the remote.  Or it could be they want to be the one in charge, the director of what is going on.  There is a story I read in a book called Ten Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline and What to Do about It.  It is a story about a declining church.  It had been losing its members and worship attendance.  As it did leaders came up and started to fill in roles that needed to be filled.  They got so use to those roles they kept them for years, decades even.  In the story the authors focus in on Bill.  Bill was the head of trustees and the head usher.  He sat on the finance committee and memorial committee.  His family had donated a lot of the art work for the church and they had been there for three generations.  If the doors were opened Bill was there.  Members of that church said, “Bill is the face of our church; nothing gets past him.  It’s been that way as long as I can remember!”  The pastor the church then asked the right question, “How long has the church been in decline?”  A church member asks, “As long as I can remember.” 
The point of the story isn’t to point at Bill and say that he is the source of the church’s decline.  No, that isn’t right.  But there is a hidden benefit to Bill to keep his church in decline.  The more his church declines the more it will depend on him.  The more power he ends up having.  This probably happened completely by accident and without Bill really knowing it.  The truth in this story though is that it will be really hard on Bill as the church moves out of decline because as they do he will have less power, less control.  How will Bill react to this?
As churches decline and seek to be revived there is a thought that only through death can a resurrection happen.  Now this is true.  Jesus had to die to be able to rise again.  But how did Jesus die?  Well that may be the wrong question to ask at this moment.  A better question would be, “Why did Jesus die?”  The disciples struggle with this a lot as they follow Jesus.  In Mark 8 Jesus asks another, very vulnerable question.  He asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am.”  Peter answers correctly by saying, “You are the Christ.”  Then Jesus starts to teach them about his death.  He says, “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the leaders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”  Peter doesn’t like this and scolded him.  Jesus has none of this and says, “Get behind me Satan.”
When faced with reality that Jesus had to die Peter decided to control Jesus, or have power over him, and told him differently.  Yet if Jesus is going to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, he will have to die.  God knew this when he sent him to grow in Mary’s womb.  But the disciples had a hard time with this but this is because they hadn’t figured out the lesson that Jesus is attempting to teach them once again in verse 35; “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant to all.”
Bill was a servant to that church as it declined but as it would be resurrected would he be fine losing some of that power?  Would he be okay with the fact he would have to step out of the lime light, away from some of his leadership roles to let other people move in with possibly new ways of doing things and new ideas?  That is hard to do when you have been the one people look to for the decisions of a church for so many years, but if the church is not going the way it should maybe the right question to ask is “am I getting in the way of this church growing?”
To go back to Jesus’ original question, “What were you arguing about during the journey?”  The disciples were arguing about who had the most power.  Throughout the whole journey from Galilee to Capernaum they argued about who was the greatest.  In Galilee they heard once again Jesus predict his death and resurrection.  They could have been talking about that.  They could have been trying to figure out what that has to do with being a disciple but instead they argued about who was the greatest, who had the most power.
Many church keep asking the same question and it is one that we here at Indian Trail UMC must have to face as well, “Do we have a future?”  Are we going to stand around and argue about who has the most power, who the greatest is, or are we going to follow Jesus instead?  Are we willing to be a servant to all and the least of all for the greatest of all, Jesus Christ?
I am glad to know that some of you are taking the reading through the New Testament seriously and are doing well with it.  I know this because some of you have emailed me questions about what some of the scriptures mean.  I enjoy that, so keep them coming.  But as I wrote this sermon this week one of those questions came back to me and it fights right into Jesus’ calling for his disciples, his calling to us.  Matthew 10:29 says, “Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.”  The person who asked this question was wondering what it meant.  It echoes just what Jesus says here, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.”  We must follow Jesus’ example which leads to the cross.
If we are truly wanting to live into that mission and that vision that Jesus calls us to in John 17, then we will have to be comfortable with being the least and the servant.  “Why did Jesus go to the cross?”  He went because he loved us so much that he took our sins upon himself and died for our sake.  Yes he rose again.  Yes we love Easter but to get there we have to be willing to go through Good Friday.  The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Am I willing to die to self in order for God to be glorified?”  “Am I willing to put God’s will above my own?”  “Am I willing to serve no matter where or when in order to do the will God has laid out for this church?”  “Am I willing to do what it takes, even if it leads to my own cross, if that is what God’s will demands?”
The last question in the gospel of Mark is asked by Mary Magdalene as she approaches the tomb she laid Jesus in a few days before.  She asks, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  The difference between that question and the first question from the evil spirit is remarkable.  To quote the book I am using for this series, “The first question by the unclean spirit is an attempt to confine the power of the Holy One of God.  The last question asked on Easter morning opens our lives to the reality of the empty tomb and the power of the Holy One.”  Mary’s question was the right question because it opened her up to the power and truth of the God she loves.  Are we asking the right questions that open us up or are we asking the wrong questions which will simply lead to death?
And all God’s people said…Amen.  

Mark 12:41-44 – Sermon – Nut$ and Bolt$: Church Finance and Stewardship

Nut$ and Bolt$
Church Finance and Stewardship
Mark 12:41-44
I love the image of this story.  The part that I was impressed with this time was the very first verse, “Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money.”  What I liked about that is that Jesus sat down and watched people worship.  It is a nice reminder that the Holy Spirit is here, in our worship today, right now, watching us worship.  I say this not to impose guilt.  I am not using this like we do with our children telling them that “Jesus is always watching.”  I find comfort in knowing God is here in this place.  I find support knowing that the Holy Spirit is here in our midst.  I find grace knowing that our poor attempts to do praise God will actually be turned into something to honor him.  God is here, smiling as he watches his children offer worship up to him.
Today we offer up our worship in the form of our Estimate of Giving cards.  At the end of my sermon today I will ask the ushers to pass these cards out and I would like you to fill them out and then bring them forward and lay them on the prayer rail.  I hope you took time this week to pray about the question I have been asking the last two weeks, “What percentage of my income is God calling me to give in 2013.”  Today as we lay those answers down on the prayer rail I hope you will time to kneel and offer your gifts up to him today as well. 
This has been a rough sermon series for me because it is a tough topic but also we are in tough times.  But it is in these tough times that we as a church need to stand up for what is right and be the Church for the people of God.  Just because money is tight doesn’t mean God’s love is any different.  Just because we have to refigure how we live doesn’t wash away the gift God gave on the cross.  Just because our nation is in still divided and facing a fiscal cliff soon doesn’t mean God’s peace is any less affective.  We stand here today, to proclaim what we do every week, that our God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Almighty and the Everlasting.  We proclaim that in our worship today and in the gifts we bring.
The important part to know about this piece of scripture today is the perspective of Jesus.  Jesus is watching the giving but his eyes are not drawn to the amount of zeros in the checks but the manner in which the gift is given.  Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, is looking for the one who is sacrificing the most.  All the other rich people in the temple were placing huge amounts of money in the offering but Jesus’ attention was drawn to a widow.
Now a widow in that time and place was looked down upon because she did not have a husband anymore.  Widows were people that Jesus was calling others to take care of because their provider was gone.  This sounds very sexist for us now but it is the truth for that time.  With their husbands gone the widow was left to live off the care of others which means she didn’t have much.  Yet, this poor widow comes to the temple to give thanks and praise her God.  She brings two copper coins, not even worth a penny and places it in the offering.  Jesus sees her gift and tells us that is who we should be like. 
There is a story about Peter Marshall who was the chaplain for the US Senate.  Yes, the Senate actually does have a chaplain.  One day a senator came up to him and said that he needed some counsel.  They went off to a quiet place to talk and the senator started to confess his problem.  He said he was having problems tithing.  He said he had no problem tithing when he was making $20,000 but now that he is making $500,000, the $50,000 he is supposed to give just seems too much.  Rev. Marshall consoled the Senator and said, “Yes you are right, this is a problem.”  Do mind if we pray about it.  The senator agreed and there in the hallows of Washington, Rev. Marshall put his arm around the senator and they prayed.  He prayed, “Lord, we understand this man is going through a rough time and is struggling.  We pray that you might bring his salary down to a place where is comfortable tithing again.”
Now Jesus is not telling us that we should all be poor.  The story of the Widow’s Mite is not a call to poverty but it is a call to extravagant generosity.  Extravagant generosity is when one realizes that what you earn belongs to God, what you spend belongs to God, what you save belongs to God, and what you give belongs to God.  It all belongs to God.  The widow that day was walking into worship to give thanks for all she had.  She gave her fraction of a penny because everything she had was from God and she knew that.  She is a model of extravagant generosity. 
Today, as we profess our commitment to God, this is not a financial issue, today is a spiritual issue.  What you are willing to give away is one way God knows your commitment to him.  The fact is our willingness to be extravagant givers correlates to our relationship with the one who gives it to us.  History has had a lot of extravagant givers and some of them have passed down their wisdom to us.  Mother Theresa gave her life to the poor and sick.  She spent her days with Calcutta ministering to the people no one wanted to deal with she said this about giving, “If you give what you do not need, it isn’t giving”  It is giving God that chewed up brown apple core, if you remember from last week.  C.S. Lewis who captivated our imaginations through his Chronicles of Narnia and feeds our souls through his other books like Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy, said this, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give.  I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”
I cannot stand up here and tell you what you should give.  What you and your family write on these cards today is between you and God.  None of us know what that number means to the percentage of your income, that is between you and God.  Whether it is something leftover or a widow’s offering only God knows.  The amount does not matter to God, it is the motivation. 
Here is what I can tell you though.  I can tell you that your money will be put to good use.  Every dollar you give to Indian Trail will be used in some way to do God’s will in this world.  When we publish the 2013 budget you will see that the majority of it goes to maintenance and administration.  But in those items is ministry.  Yes we have to pay our utilities but without them we could not have a kitchen.  In our kitchen meals are offered not only to us but to the seniors in this community.  Without our kitchen there are many elderly who may go hungry each day.  This kitchen also feeds us during Meet and Greet, special meals, Homecomings, Thanksgiving celebrations, Fall Festivals, Vacation Bible School, and many more.  The Kitchen is also a gathering place where fellowship happens every week after worship.  God smiles when he thinks about his children gathering around a pot of cooking food sharing their lives with one another, sharing their joys, their worries, their hopes.  This is all because we pay our utilities and they enable us to offer ministry, fellowship, outreach and share God’s love with others.
Yes, we have to pay for our heat and air conditioning but without it we could not sit and concentrate on what we learn in Sunday School or Bible Study groups.  You want to know what it would be like to not have heat, go to my office.  We have been without heat all week, it is FREEZING!  Our HVAC allows us to meet in comfort in our educational spaces to learn and focus our lives on God.  There have been hundreds of children, and almost three generations nurtured in the rooms just down the hall way here.  It is in those rooms that they learned about Jonah and the big fish, Noah and his Ark, Moses and the Red Sea, the baby in the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb.  It is in those heated and cooled rooms that children and adults are deepening their faith and learning to love the God who loves them.
Another big chunk of our budget is our Conference Askings.  These are broken up into three sections; Pension, Healthcare, and Apportionments.  Let’s start off with Pension and Healthcare because they are really tied together.  The United Methodist Denomination is a connectional system.  What this means is that we are joined together as a denomination.  There are other denominations out there, like Baptists, where each church is autonomous.  First Baptist Church has their rules, regulations, theological stances which could be completely different than the Hartis Grove Baptist Church.  In the United Methodist Denomination we all have the same basic structure and core theology.  We are governed by the Book of Discipline which only the General Conference is allowed to change.  We are connected through our core structure and theology but we also share each other’s burdens and carry each other through the Conference Askings.  We are linked together in this connectional system through our pastors, districts, conferences, jurisdictions, missions, UMW, UMM, UMYF, about everything you can think of.  The reason that 100% of all your donation to UMCOR will go to help with Recovery from Super Storm Sandy is because all over our denomination we hold one Sunday a year to take a special offering to cover our overhead expenses with UMCOR.  We are connected and are able to do some wonderful good in horrible.
I say this all about being connectional because one way this is lived out is through the appointment process of clergy.  As an ordained elder my membership is held at the Conference level.  This is done so I can float to whatever church I am appointed to by the Bishop, which is called the itinerant system.  Other denominations like Baptists and Presbyterians are on a called system which means they interview and higher their own clergy.  When we ministers agree to the itinerate system we do so with some understanding and there is some understanding by the local church to what type of clergy you will receive.  Here are some of the promises we make to one another in this system.  If the Conference sends you an ordained elder that means that person has received a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s of Divinity degree.  He or she will have gone through the Conference Committee on Ordained Ministry twice, once as a Probationer or Commissioned member and once to receive his or her ordination.   They will have their callings verified, ethics and psychological health checked.  They will be interviewed and prayed over. They will verify that this person has the gifts and graces for ministry.  We clergy promise to go where we are sent and serve faithful in the congregations we are appointed to.
The local church also makes some promises.  You all promise to receive who the Cabinet sends, and provide adequate housing whether through a parsonage or housing allowance, pay healthcare and put into the minister’s pension plan.  You do this to provide to help the pastor that is sent to you and all of us in the conference.  *Warning I am about to step up on my soapbox* The reason the healthcare costs are so high in our conference is because we pay for what we receive.  Every year the insurance company tells us how much it will be to insure all the clergy in our conference and that is what we have to pay.  We have seen in increase in our healthcare almost 10% a year.  It was actually only an 8% increase this year.  I now pay a small fraction of my own healthcare and my family can choose to be on the conference plan or on their own.  *off soapbox* The local church also allows to pay for clergy pensions which is formulated on time served within the conference.  We do this once again because we are a connectional system, we are taking care of our pastors all over the conference.  You payments not only go to me but help Mark Mashburn who stayed in ICU for six months before he passed away.  You help Keith Auman who almost died a couple times after a massive blood infection recover.  We are linked together as the Body of Christ but also as the members of the cross and flame.
It is in this obligation though that we are behind.  As of March of 2011, Indian Trail UMC hasn’t paid towards the pension and healthcare costs of their pastor.  We were just under $18,000 behind at the end of 2011.  In 2012 we hadn’t paid anything when I arrived.  These last two months though we have been able to pay $2,000 towards our Pension and Healthcare costs which has stopped the bleeding.  But we owe that every month and our current debt to the conference is around $34,000.  This is something we will HAVE to pay back but the good news it is interest free at the moment.
The other part of Conference Askings is wehre we find a good church of missions and ministry.  This is called our Apportionments.  Through a long drawn out formula the conference takes a three year average of our spending and plugs that in to get what we owe for Apportionments.  This money goes all around the world and helps people in our district, in our state, in our country and almost every continent.  Our apportionments help fund the only Seminary in Africa, on the WHOLE CONTINENT.  It also helps people through UMCOR and Volunteer in Mission teams.  It helps people go through college and seminary and helps provide a salary to clergy where churches cannot afford it.  When we pay we are also doing global missions.  We are helping provide for the Mission Response Center of our conference in Mooresville, NC.  There flood buckets are collected and sent to areas in need.  Food is packaged and sent to Eastern Europe to help with ministries like Project AGAPE.  It also helps with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, or UMCOR, which is as we speak in Texas and New Orleans cleaning up after hurricanes.  They are also in the country of Georgia helping with that crisis.  They are in Liberia, Haiti, Myanmar, and many other countries.  Through the World Service Fund we give food and water to those who don’t have it all over the world.  We help give medical care to those in need and bed nets for families to sleep under so that they can simply live.
I am telling you all this today because none of this is possible without you.  Think how amazing it is to be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  The dollar you put in the offering plate makes all that possible and more.  There is no place in the world that offers so much for so little.  The Red Cross, the United Way, the YMCA and all of those other very worth wild agencies and organizations do great work in this world but I wanted to remind you of what God is doing through the United Methodist Church, your Church.  Through the connectionalism of the United Methodist Church we reach the entire world and we celebrate the ministry and missions that happens in our congregation and all over because of what we are able to give to God.
Martin Luther said, “I have tried to keep things in my hands and lost them all, but what I have given into God’s hands I still possess.”  Jesus is asking us today to place all we have into his hands.  He is asking us to step out in faith and give up control in our lives in order to live out the mission he is calling us to do.  When the widow walked up and placed her two copper coins in the treasury, God used that moment to teach all of us something.  When you write down your Estimate of Giving for 2013, I hope are praying that God will use your offering to transform lives as well.  If we do it with right motivations, with right attitudes and with gracious hearts, the world will be transformed through the one who is transforming us.
I ask the ushers to get ready to pass out these cards.  When you receive your card, don’t write anything down for a minute.  Take a moment and pray, hold the hand of your spouse or other family members and pray that God directs you in a way that can change the world.  After your prayer, fill out your card, and when you are done walk up here and place it in the offering plate that will be up here.  Then take time if you want to pray once again at the prayer rail.  Take your time, be in prayer, and know God loves you.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

Mark 8:31-38 – Sermon – Into Who’s Life

(Here is a very rough draft of my sermon for the week…Enjoy!)

Mark 8:31-38
Into Who’s Life?
Here we are in the second Sunday of Lent.  The ashes on our forehead are thoroughly scrubbed off and we enter the time of the season when it can be the hardest to continue the spiritual discipline that we agreed upon a week and a half ago.  But the journey is still just beginning.  There are still five more weeks until we celebrate the resurrection.  That seems like forever.
Christianity Today took a poll on Twitter to find out what the most popular thing people gave up this Lent.  Here are the top Twitter itself, Chocolate, swearing, alcohol and soda.  What is interesting is what these say about us.  Substances are by far the most common thing, like chocolate, alcohol and soda.  I am guessing that these items are given up because they have some sort of hold on people’s lives.  They want to make themselves healthier and take part in a Lenten Discipline so they kill two birds with one stone.  Swearing and not being on Twitter constantly are ways one can improve their lives, but what does it have to do with connecting with God?
I am a mentor for a Local Pastor here in town and he was telling me that his confirmands were discussing what they should give up for Lent.  They talked about how their Lenten Discipline could connect them with God and those in need in the community.  What they came up with I thought was brilliant and I had never connected these things before.  One said that twice a week he will sleep on the floor with a sleeping bag to connect with those who will be sleeping outside.  Another talked about giving up her coat in order to feel what it was like to not have one which is more common in our area than we want to know.  These really have nothing to do with attempting to make our lives better but instead deny ourselves something to broaden our horizon.  There are no two birds involved here.  I love the idea and probably will be doing one of these next year.
The scripture today starts off by Jesus telling the disciples for the first time that he will have to suffer at the hands of the religious leaders.  The disciples are put aback by this idea but it is something that they have to hear.  Jesus tells them three times about this, once here in chapter 8 and then again in chapter 9 and 10.  It is important for them to understand but it demonstrates his purpose in this world.  If the disciples didn’t hear Jesus predict his own death and resurrection, it might have looked a little suspicious when it happened.  But since he did predict it, we can now claim it as God’s act of salvation fulfilled.  It happened like God designed because God said it would be so.
But the idea of self sacrifice, the idea of self-denial doesn’t make sense to us and nor did it to Peter.  Peter pulls Jesus aside to rebuke him.  He pulls him into the corner not to make a fuss and to attempt to deal with this idea quietly but Jesus pulls Peter back out into full view of the disciples and tells him, “get behind me Satan.”  Then Jesus goes on to preach to them about self-denial, about taking up our own crosses and following Jesus.  Self-denial, putting ourselves last and God and others first is one of the central messages of Jesus.  Yet it sounds so strange to us in our narcissistic culture.  The fact people will tell the world what they gave up for Lent on Twitter and there is enough of them to do a top 100 list, should be evidence enough to see how self-centered we are as a culture these days.
The idea of self-denial is not for us to play the victim.  It is not crying out to the world in order to show them the cross you have chosen to bear.  Self-denial is the task of looking at the world around you and realizing God is calling you to put him first, others second, and yourself last.  This should be the focal point of our lives too and it is what Jesus calls us to do in this passage today.  We do have examples to look up too.  There have been people in our history who have done this because they felt God pulling them to make a difference in this world.
Harriet Tubman, aka the Black Moses, led hundreds of African-Americans out of slavery and through the Underground Railway to freedom in the north during the Civil War.  There was a huge reward offered for her capture but she still took 19 trips back into the part of the country that would have killed her if they caught her.  She followed Christ’s example to set at liberty those who were oppressed.  Once she was asked about where she got her fearlessness and strength from and she replied.  “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord. I always told him, I trust you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me. And he always did.”  She put herself in danger, looked beyond herself and reached out to help the least and the lost in her time.[1]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in the states as a professional theologian during World War II.  He could have stayed here as Hitler lay to waste the country he loved.  But instead he chose to go back to Germany and face him head on.  He wrote a great theological book called The Cost of Discipleship and in it he talks about the difference between Costly Grace and Cheap Grace.  True Christians have to go the way of Costly Grace because that is exactly what it cost Jesus.  It wasn’t easy being beaten, flogged, crucified and dying.  Yet Jesus did it for us.  Bonhoeffer stood up to one of the most evil men in history and it cost him his life but for Bonhoeffer it was worth it.  We think dying a martyr’s death is tragic but in his eyes to endure the cross is not a tragedy it is actually the fruit of following our Crucified God. 
I had the great privilege of having Peter Storey as one of my professors at Duke.  I heard his class was great and when I took I realized why.  There in front of me was not just a man who was smart, there were plenty of brilliant people at Duke.  But this was a person who lived out the faith unlike no one I have ever met.  Rev. Storey was the Bishop of the Methodist Church in South Africa during the breakdown of Apartheid.  That was the social system that was in place to hold up huge racial injustices all over South Africa.  People were dying, wars were being waged, and change was happening.  Standing next to Bishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church was Bishop Storey.  He told us stories of his office being bombed, peaceful protest marches that went wrong, and fearing for his safety and the safety of his family. But all of it was worth it because God’s people and God’s love was too big to put himself in front of.
Russell D. Moore in an article I read this week it had this quote, “For too long, we’ve called unbelievers to ‘invite Jesus into your life.’ Jesus doesn’t want to be in your life. Your life’s a wreck. Jesus calls you into his life.”[2] That is where Peter got into trouble.  He decided he knew better than Jesus.  He looked at Jesus and thought he knew what God wanted more than God did.  Dying a death on the cross would serve no purpose in Peter’s eyes.  Even while he watched it happening Peter doubted the reason.  Yet soon he learned he was wrong and became a force that could not be stopped in the world.  What changed is that Peter decided not to put God in his life but to put his life in Gods.
That is a huge difference but it is at the heart of self-denial.  We all have ideas about our lives and we all have hopes.  We have desires and we have dreams but God doesn’t call us to follow OUR dreams.  That is Disney, not Jesus Christ.  Jesus demands that we put God first.  We are to follow God’s dreams, desires, ideas and hopes for this world and our lives.  This means to be true followers we need to shrug off the idea we know what is best for us and start listening for what God is demanding of us.
Our world needs to be changed.  There are huge, GIGANTIC issues that we need to tackle as humanity.  Hungry, poverty, violence, slavery, and injustice are all things that need to be fixed and that is just here in Thomasville.  If you want to be active participants in the Kingdom of God then we need to be doing what we can to fight these issues.  I know what you might be thinking but I am only me.  What can I do to change the world?  Well, I dare you to ask God that question.  I dare you to ask God that question sincerely in your heart.  But let me warn you, he will answer and you better be ready to follow when he does.
Peter Storey said, “We have to get away from the idea that what you believe is your faith.  Your faith only matters when you live it out.”  That is self-denial.  That is following Jesus.  That is taking up your cross and following him.  It is putting what you believe and know to be true in your heart into action in your life and not having any fear over the consequences.  That is not asking God to be in your life, that is putting your life into God’s.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

Mark 1:14-20 – Sermon – Proclaim and Respond

Mark 1:14-20
Proclaim and Respond
Bishop Will Willimon tells this story, in the 60s a prominent preacher visited his church.  Like revival preacher he kit the topic of his sermon hard and strong, almost a little stronger than the congregation was use to.  He preached about God’s kingdom.  He told them that God was looking for folks to come forward and be part of God’s new order that was full of love, justice and respect for all God’s children.  Once again this was the 60s and he grew up in the south, and the preacher was asking them to love EVERYONE.  At the end of his sermon he did an altar call.  “He called upon the congregation to get up and come forward, to kneel at the altar rail and give their lives to this new world, to dedicate themselves to live their lives without racial prejudice, to flaunt the world’s standards of goodness and give ourselves totally to God’s standards of goodness, to work for and to witness to racial justice in the South.”[1]  Music started to be played and the preacher moved to stand beside the prayer rail.  Nobody came forward.
Think though, for those of you who went to church in the 60s here in Thomasville, how would have you responded?  How would you have responded if that same sermon was what I was going to preach?  Really, raise your hands because I have two directions in this sermon and if no one is going to respond I’m not going to waste my time. 
Here in the gospel of Mark things happen very quickly.  The author of this gospel has a favorite phrase, and immediately.  It is said 42 times in the gospel.  Now some translations use different words like the translation I read today which stated the phrase as Right Now.  This makes the Gospel of Mark seems fast past, blunt and very important.  If Mark was a text message it would be in all CAPS.  Here alone the phrase is used twice.  But the bluntness of Mark’s Gospel also comes through in these seven verses and it is found in Jesus’ first sermon.  Hear that sermon again, “Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, ‘Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!’”
Sure it is short but there is a lot to learn from this sermon and it could help both you, as the congregation, and me, as the preacher, to take a moment to look at it closely.  My preaching professor at Duke said he did not care how many points were made in a sermon just as long as there was at least one.  This three sentence sermon is broken up into two parts.  We have the proclamation which is the first two sentences and then the response which is the last sentence.  Jesus proclaims, “Now is the time!  Here comes God’s kingdom!”  The response is demanded next, “Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”  This means there are actions that needed to be taken.  We, the listener, have homework to do.  We have to change our hearts and lives or as another translation puts it, we have to repent.  Not only that but we have to trust in the good news, which was Jesus proclaimed.
I try to remind you each week that you all are involved in the sermon.  At the end of the sermon I always say, “And all God’s people said…” and then we say together, “Amen.”  I want you to say Amen because you are involved.  You are listening.  I hope that you feeling God’s Word becoming alive in your hearts and pulling you to do something.  By being alert and listening you are taking part of the sharing in the Word of God.  I will be the first to admit that what we do here every week is very odd these days.  There is really no place outside of school where you sit down and listen to another human being talk for 20-30 minutes.  If you are not in school where else does this happen?  Sure you can get together with other people and have a conversation and in some congregations it sounds like a conversation as the audience adds their thoughts to the sermon with “Amens,” “come on now,” and the always encouraging “Lord, help him.”  But let’s admit the most excited we get in this church is when there is good music and we feel compelled to clap and even then we feel weird.  But even in silence a congregation needs to be actively listening to do their part in the proclamation of the Word of God.
But when worship is over, when 12:01 hits and you have already shaken the minister’s hand the sermon is still going on because now you are called to live it out.  In the response to the Word of God we are called to do things.  Jesus called people to change their hearts and lives and trust in the good news!  But what is the good news?  We often think of the good news as a Snuggie.  Something we can curl up with and get all warm and toasty but then leave on the couch while we are off in the real world.  But the good news is not merely the words proclaimed in the service but also the response.  As Bishop Willimon said, “The good news is not only announced; it’s got to be enacted.  Good news is not simply said, it’s done.  Though it’s grammatically awkward to say it, we are meant to go, do good news.
That is what Christ demands when he preached.  He demanded a reaction, a response, repentance, a turning around.  We can see this in how the first disciples acted when Jesus called them.  Once again in Mark’s style this seems like a really weird story but there Jesus is walking along the sea of Galilee and comes across Simon and Andrew.  He looks at them fishing and then says, “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”  Mark states “and immediately” or “Right away, they left their nets and followed him.”  Then the same thing happens with some other fisherman James and John who were Zebedee’s sons.  Jesus called and people reacted.  There was something preached and there was a response.
It would have been hard to leave the nets behind.  It would have been very difficult to look at your father and say, “see you later pop, I’m off to follow this stranger who came along and asked me to follow him.”  Who would let their son walk away from the family business without even putting up a little bit of a fight.  The way these verses are phrased is seems like the first disciples were simply zombies.  Jesus calls out and then they immediately stop what they were doing and follow.
Here is the misconception about the disciples though.  Yes it is hard to believe that they simply followed but we also imply, probably in our own heads, that they had it all together as they left to.  This is the hard part to understand about the response.  They didn’t.  All they knew was that a guy, a rabbi, Jesus asked them to follow him and they went.  They made a decision to follow but then they had to live into it for a life time.
As a youth who was a little bit of a Jesus Freak, I participated in about every Church activity I could find.  I was even invited to come attend some of my high school friend’s activities as well.  There was one girl who was in my Bible class in High School, (yes my very public, inner city, High School did have a Bible class) who invited me to a play her church was having.  I went and little did I know that I was being invited to a Judgment House.  These are very popular and I noticed there is a church here in town doing one too.  But they are especially popular around Halloween.  Anyway, the main point in these ‘plays’ is to scare the hell out of you.  The one I went to went like this, a main character was taken through different skits that showed great sins being committed and then those people being taken to hell.  Then there is one or two of ‘good people’ who die and go to heaven.  Then that main character, after seeing all this chooses that he would rather go to heaven and accept Christ.  Then a minister comes out and asks if anyone else would like to come forward and accept Christ.
I asked my friend if they always had this type of altar call at every service and she said yes.  This church and many like it are really focused on the decision part of the response to the good news.  They really want you to make that commitment and are willing to do whatever it takes to make you choose the right path.  Yet that is not where the journey of discipleship stops, it continues for a lifetime.  Simon, later known as Peter, dropped his net and followed Christ that fateful day by the sea.  On his journey he had moments when he was praised by God and then others when he was called Satan or disowned Jesus in fear of his own safety.  His path was rocky but in the end he became the Rock the church was built on.
There are other churches that concentrate too much on the nurturing the long-standing commitment and never offer up opportunities for people to make a decision. I confess that in my 220 plus sermons here at Trinity I have never really done what we traditionally think of as an altar call.  I did one at the Revival I preached this fall, and no one came down.  John Wesley concentrated a lot of his ministry on the pursuit of holiness, or the nurturing of the body of believers.  When I was in college there was a lot of talk about seeker churches that brought new people into the faith but that always left a bad taste in my mouth because it seemed to only provide a shallow pool for people to wade in.  What did it offer the person who has been a Christian all his life and is looking for ways to deepen his walk?
Here is what I know.  God’s call is risky.  Just look at what happens to John in the beginning.  It states that he is arrested and then later on we learn that he is beheaded.  All the disciples end up in trouble and having a hard path to follow.  When Jesus calls into souls and asks us to follow him, we don’t get all the answers first, we are simply asked to follow.  No matter what time you live in that is a hard pill to swallow.  But even though the path is hard, the task is daunting, and to truly follow Christ means willing to follow him to the cross, the good news is God is always with us.  We never do it alone.
Maybe you are at a time in your relationship with God that you don’t really know where you and God stand.  Maybe you don’t know what you believe or what you are willing to let go of to become a follower of Christ.  Maybe you believe in him but somehow you have made it to this point of your life and you never really made a commitment to follow him.  Maybe you have followed him your whole life but recently with your friends getting sick, and life getting hard doubt and frustration has seeped in.  Maybe you know that God is calling you to do something but you keep coming up with excuses yet God keeps knocking. 
What ever your ‘maybe situation’ is I am going to propose a moment in our service to respond.  The prayer rail is open and Mary Lauren is going to start to play some music quietly.  I invite you to drop your nets, stop what you are doing and respond to the good news being proclaimed by our Lord and Savior today.  “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”  If you are willing, come forward and kneel before the Lord.  If you desire prayer, simply hold out your hand and I will come and pray for whatever you need., whether it is for strength or acceptance, or if it is for guidance or forgiveness.  But God calls us all to respond in our journey.  We are to respond by agreeing to follow.
If you are willing, the prayer rail is open, and all are welcomed.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

[1]Pulpit Resource

Mark 1:4-11 – Sermon – Water Born

(Here is my rough draft for this week’s sermon, enjoy and please ignore all typos)
Mark 1:4-11
Water Born
There is a technique out there to help children learn to swim.  I’m sorry, not children, little tiny babies.  It is designed for families who have a pool and small children. It is a survival technique so that those who have pool can rest a little easier that if for whatever reason the child falls in without their parents knowledge that the baby can survive.  There are videos up on YouTube showing this technique and it is amazing.  Those infants, those babies under a year old, will be basically thrown in a pool and then they float to the top, flip over, and float with their heads above water.  It is one of the scariest and unnerving videos I have ever watched.  The first time I watched one Dean was about a year old and that night I couldn’t sleep because the image of this baby in the water, looking like he was almost drowning was stuck in my head.  The video went on for about ten minutes and the baby simply floated and was fine.  There was an adult right outside of the camera and all I could think of was pick the kid up, grab that baby and take it out of the water.  Are you crazy!!!
There is a pretty famous study that came out of San Francisco about children and expectations.  The study proved that you can have a smarter child, it all depends on your expectations as a parent.  In this study, “All the children in one San Francisco grade school were given a standard I.Q. test at the beginning of the school year. The teachers were told the test could predict which students could be expected to have a spurt of academic and intellectual functioning. The researchers then drew names out of a hat and told the teachers that these were the children who had displayed a high potential for improvement. Naturally, the teachers thought they had been selected because of their test performance and began treating these children as special children.
And the most amazing thing happened — First graders whose teachers expected them to advance intellectually jumped 27.4 points, and the second grade spurters increased on the average 16.5 points more than their peers. One little Latin-American child who had been classified as mentally [disabled] with an I.Q. of 61, scored 106 after his selection as a late bloomer.”
“Eliza Doolittle says in My Fair Lady, “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” You see, how a child is treated has a lot to do with how that child sees herself and ultimately behaves. If a child is treated as a slow learner and you don’t expect much, the child shrugs her shoulders and says, “Why should I try, nobody thinks I can do it anyway!” And she gives up. But if you look at that child as someone who has more potential than she will ever be able to develop, you will challenge that child, work with her through discouragement, and find ways to explain concepts so the child can understand. You won’t mind investing time in the child because you know your investment is going to pay off! And the result? It does!”[1]
There are moments in our lives as parents that we have to ‘let go’ of our children and let them do something on their own.  I remember the look on my parent’s faces as they said goodbye and drove away leaving me at my first day of college.  There is a great commercial out there where a three year old is sitting behind the wheel having a conversation with her father.  The father is rattling off all this precautions and directions about driving.  You are wondering what a three year old is doing behind the wheel until the last shot of the commercial comes and the three year old turns into a sixteen year old.  You realize the three year old is the way the father sees his daughter.  In reality she is sixteen and driving away for the first time.  For those of you parents who have lived through that moment I am sure you can relate and know the fear and hesitation in a parent when their child takes off driving alone for the first time.  I am not looking forward to that moment.
Some recent colleges are stating that parents are having a harder time letting go than in past generations.  This is going to sound really funny to me as these words leave my mouth, “When I was in college,” the only way we could call home was doing so long distance from the phone in our dorm room.  Way back then cell phones came in a bag and weighed the same as a brick.  I had a calling card that I used to call home.  If I wanted to talk to my parents or better yet if my parents wanted to talk to me they had to catch me in my dorm room.  If I was out all they could do was leave me a message to call them back.  Now with cell phones being attached to our ears and thumbs parents can contact their college kid and ask how they are doing, how the test went, how the date with that girl they asked out went, how they slept last night or what they ate for breakfast.  We the ever present cell phone and texting parents are not letting go of their children which some people in higher education say limits the college student’s development into an independent person.
But they are our kids.  These are the children we raised since birth.  As my screen saver plays through all the pictures I have of Dean and Campbell throughout their lives, each one brings back distinct memories and feelings.  I can see Dean as eleven months old taking his first steps in the kitchen of the parsonage.  Or Campbell taking her 10:30 nap on my chest every evening in her first few months.  But I also remember one of the most spiritual moments I have ever had in my life, when I placed water on both of their heads and said the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  Each time I had to muster up all the strength in my soul to force those words out of my mouth.
We were reading Dean’s Bible this week and as I was flipping through it I asked him if he wanted to read the stories that we would be doing here in worship this week.  He agreed and we read the story of the Magi visiting Jesus and then we read the story of Jesus’ baptism.  At the end of each story in his Bible there are some questions to take the story farther.  The questions he was supposed to ask were, “Are you baptized?  Do you know anyone who was baptized?  If you were baptized as a baby ask someone to tell you the story.”  I asked him if he was baptized or not and he said no.  I said, yes you were.  I baptized you when you were a baby, like I do with other babies of the church.  I told him about the water I placed on his head and the words that choked out of my mouth. I said “I promised God that as you grew up I would teach you to follow him in his ways.”  He laid his five year old head on my shoulder and said, “Oh.”
Turn to page 35 in your hymnal.  On the top of the page it says in red, the pastor addresses the congregation.  I think we forget or maybe simply take for granted the role the congregation plays in the act of baptism.  There is so much happening in this sacrament that sometimes this can be lost.  Before the water is poured and prayed over the minister asks the parents and congregation if they are willing to nurture this child and help them grow to know Christ someday.  Both the parents and congregation agree.
What struck me as I prepared this sermon was the act that follows all the prayers and the blessing over the water.  It is suttle and I never thought about it until now, but what happens after the prayer over the water is said.  I hold out my hands and ask for the child.  Or I ask the confirmand or adult to kneel.  In that moment the baby is taken away from the parents.  The confirmand steps away from the parents.  The adult steps away from his loved ones and stands alone.  Parents have to let go.  Adults have to let go.  And in that moment we are reminded of the independence of that person, that person’s individuality. 
Our Book of Discipline explains baptism like this, “Baptism is God’s gift of unmerited grace through the Holy Spirit.  It is incorporation into Christ which marks the entrance of each person into the church and its ministry.”  When we participate in this sacrament we are opening ourselves to accept “God’s unfailing grace.”  No matter if we are a baby, a pre-teen or a full fledge adult we acknowledge that God’s grace has and will be in our lives.  We are reminded that we are not our own but we are God’s and we are part of God’s family now.  God does not have grandchildren but claims every generation, ever person as his child, his very own son or daughter.  Through the sacrament of baptism he looks at each one of us and echoes his phrase he said the day his son was baptized.  “This is my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
In this sacrament we, the Church, promise that “we will surround these person with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God and be found faithful in their service to others.”  We are let go and free to move into right relationship with God with the help of our loving family of faith.  We are freed from original sin in order to move into a deep, committed live that looks like the life of our Lord and Savior.  As parents we are entrusting the care, the nurturing, and ownership of our child to the greater Church.  Every baby baptized in this congregation is no longer just the child of the parents but our child who we promised to raise. 
Joe and Chris are starting their first semester of college tomorrow.  Both kind of dragged their feet until they were pushed by people in this congregation to sign up and go to college.  That is living into the promise of their baptisms.  As we celebrate the life of Helen this week we surround her family and her with our love as we live into the promise that was made at her baptism.  These are ways that we take our promise seriously and live into it
The joy found in the gift of baptism is knowing that at some point God looked at each one of us and let us go as we put on flesh and were birthed into the world.  He looks at us, children born through water and the spirit, and calls us his own.  As we let the baptismal waters drip down our heads or after we come up out of the water ourselves God looks down and smiles because another one of his children are home.
Today during communion you will have a chance to remember your own baptism.  After receiving communion you are invited to make your way to the baptismal font where I will dip my thumb into the blessed water and place the sign of the cross on your forehead.  It is a reminder that through these waters we are no longer our own, but through the grace of God we are called a child of God and we are loved.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

[1] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/parenting.htm; Kay Kuzma, Family Times, Vol. 1, No. 3, Fall, 1992, p. 1.

Mark 13:24-37 – Sermon – Expectations

Mark 13:24-37
I know you were thinking while I read the scripture this morning, “Where have I heard this before?”  In the great movie Ghostbusters, Dan Aykrod quotes verses 24-25 to explain the buildup ghost activity in the New York City area.  Reading this passage does bring some doom and gloom to a season that is supposed to be full of cheer and joy.  Why does the lectionary start off the Advent season talking about the End Times and Jesus’ second coming?  Or to continue using Churchy words, why do we focus on Jesus’ second Advent on the first Sunday of the season that we are preparing to celebrate his first Advent?
In this sermon series, Outside the Box, we will be concentrating on a focus word each week.  We will be focusing on the idea of expectations this week.  As I was writing this sermon I was in the waiting room of Flow Automotive in Winston-Salem.  My car needed a new water pump and since they would fix it for free I spent 4 hours in that room waiting on it to be fixed.  This turns out to be great inspiration for this first Sunday of Advent because Jesus’ message today is about waiting.  That is the joy we receive today, we get to wait.
Most of us hate waiting.  I am always amazed when I am in Walmart that the “speedy checkout” lines always have three or four people in it.  The other lines either have one or none.  It is the idea that this line will get you out of the store faster is so attractive to people that they will stand in line longer.  We get impatient waiting for traffic lights to change, for commercials to be over with, and even for people to stop preaching so they can get to lunch.  We spend so much time annoyed and agitated with the idea of waiting that we forget there can be joy in it.  There can be purpose in it and it can be fulfilling.  William Congreve says, “Uncertainty and expectation are the joys of life.”  Would you agree?
Jesus tells us to be alert, to stay awake, or to watch out five times in the last six verses of the text.  Usually if Jesus repeats himself that means we need to listen very carefully.  We need to sit up and pay attention when repetition comes out of his mouth.  Let’s sit up a little straighter, let’s turn our ears on and let’s be on alert.
We start off the Advent season at the end.  We begin at the end of the story.  It is like starting a book by reading the last paragraph first.  We do so for a couple of reasons.  For one thing by looking forward to the time when Jesus will come again, we place ourselves in the mindset of those who were waiting on Jesus to come the first time.  For those who lived in a year ending with BC, they were constantly waiting for the Messiah to come.  For every country that occupied the Jewish people they looked to God to send the Messiah who would save them from the people who were oppressing them.  As the first century Jews grumbled their way to their home town for the census they wondered when God would save them from these troublesome Romans.  They waited in great anticipation and most of them missed it.  We start off the season of Advent, the season of preparing ourselves for Christmas, by reminding ourselves that we are waiting for Christ to come again.  We are told to stay alert, to watch out, in order not to miss out.
In order to stay alert we need to be actively waiting which is the other reason for this text this first Sunday of Advent.  There is a huge difference between passively waiting and actively waiting.  A hunter passively waits for the season to start.  There is nothing he can do to speed up the arrival of bow or rifle seasons, all he can do is sit back and wait.  Yet once the season starts and he sits in his stand he is actively waiting for the deer to cross his blind.  A fisherman cannot hurry spring, so he passively waits for it to arrive.  Yet while on his boat in the lake he actively waits for the fish to bite.  The tension on his line is tight and his senses are focused to feel the slightest tickle from a fish.  Then when the deer crosses into the clearing or the fish takes the bait, the hunter and fisherman strike and claim their prey.
Actively waiting is also like standing on the side of the street waiting for a parade.  If you were standing there waiting for a bus you may not be thinking about anything.  You aren’t really excited to get on board and take your familiar route, but when you are waiting on a parade, things change.  You started to wonder and anticipate what the floats might look like.  You may be on constant lookout for when your child will be appearing or your friends.  There is a sense of anticipation and of expectations.
When we think of the things we wait for, many of us can relate to the expectations of a new mother.  Mary was expecting her first child but it came at a time when a pregnancy out of wedlock was even more taboo than it is now.  If it was not for the love that Joseph had for her and some angels confirming the divine conception of the child in her womb, she would have been left high and dry to have and raise that child on her own.  Think of what went through your mind when you heard you were expecting.  There was excitement and joy.  There was trepidation and uneasiness.  Maybe if your pregnancy was not planned there was shock, awe, fear, and worry.
No matter how you became expecting, once you were things had to be done.  There are the doctor appointments, prenatal vitamins, throwing up every morning, afternoon and evening.  It is a chaotic time and those ten months of pregnancy, eight of which you knew you are, life is completely different and all focuses on that time when the baby will arrive.  This is what we are doing here in Advent and these four full weeks of waiting for Christmas. 
However Christmas started back around Halloween didn’t it?  When we were picking out our costumes for Trunk-r-Treat there were Christmas Trees up, so Christmas had started.  The house across the street had their lights up a week before Thanksgiving and many of you already put up your Christmas Tree, scheduled the Christmas parties, and hopefully will be cooking lots of cookies for the Cookie Walk this Saturday.  There is so much in this world that points to the fact that Christmas has already started.  There is already so much busyness and chaos, hasn’t Christmas already come?  Yet while the world’s December rush may point towards Christmas it usually doesn’t point to the Christ Child.
The main purpose of the season of Advent is to prepare.  This season asks us to sit back and understand that our lives are made different because of God coming to this world as a human baby.  But if we get caught up in the hurry of the shopping season are we truly prepared?  Are we truly ready for the Christ Child? 
We live in a unique time in history, we live in the now and not yet.  We live in-between the advents of God.  We live in the in-between times.  Jesus Christ has already come into the world thousands of years ago and he promises that he will come again and that hasn’t happened yet.  We have access to Jesus’ teachings, life, example, and miracles through the Word but the time when the world will be made right again through his judgment has not happened yet.  As a commentary I read this week put it, “Already Jesus has established the means through which we are drawn into relationship with God, but not yet do we live in complete communion with God.  Already the realm of God is evident, but not yet is that realm fully established. ”[1]  We are in the midst of now and not yet.    
But what does this have to do with our waiting?  What does that mean as we prepare for Christ Child?  It means that our job is to stand a little counter cultural.  If you want to see this in action come to the worship meeting when we plan out the Advent Season.  I dig my heels in every year and attempt with all my being for us to hold off singing Christmas Carols as late into December as humanly possible.  Sure our radios have been blasting Justin Bieber’s version of Silent Night since mid-November but that night has not come yet.  Christmas is a 12 day season starting on December 25th and going to January 6th or Epiphany.  If we don’t stand against the reality of the world at times we will lose focus on the true meaning of this season.  Instead of preparing and expecting the Christ Child we will go back to simply welcoming in Christmas.
This is a naturally hectic, hurried, and chaotic time of the year.  It may seem impossible to believe that God can bless or even be found in this congested time of parties, school work, plays, performances, shopping, wrapping, writing, and eating.  I cannot imagine doing the play that was in the video today; all those personalities and all those parts working together in a chaotic moment.  Yet if we go back to the very beginning of the Bible, to the first two verses of Genesis say, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  There was one thing that existed before all others, chaos.  I don’t know how else to describe an earth that was formless, empty, and dark.  Whatever you call it chaos seems appropriate.  Yet out of the chaos God created everything; the day, the night, the sun, the moon, the earth, plants, animals and eventually us.  God looks at the chaos and the impossible and see possibilities.
No matter how busy our lives get this season; no matter how chaotic it feels, God sees possibilities to create something good.  Mary’s pregnancy was disordered and confusing, more than probably any of ours.  She didn’t know if her finance would stick with her, if her family would claim her, and then while bringing Jesus to term she had to travel.  In the rush of trying to find a place to stay they found refuge in a stable surrounded by who knows what kind of smells, noises, and confusion.  Yet in that chaos God put on flesh and dwelt among us.  All those in Bethlehem at that time were rushing around in the demanding event of the census.  As they rushed here and there they missed the birth of the Messiah. 
St. Augustine preached a sermon in which he said, “The first coming of Christ the Lord, God’s Son and our God, was in obscurity.  The second will be in sight of the whole world.  When he came in obscurity no one recognized him but his own servants.  When he comes openly he will be known by both the good and the bad.  When he came in obscurity, it was to be judged.  When he comes openly it will be judged.  He was silent at his trial, as the prophet foretold…Silent when accused, he will not be silent as judge.  Even now he does not keep silent, if there is anyone to listen.  But it says he will not keep silent then, because his voice will be acknowledged even by those who despise it.”[2]  When he comes again we will know.  But we will ready?
Growing up my Boy Scout Troop took High Adventure Trips every couple of years and I got the pleasure of going to Yosemite.  As we hiked and camped in that beautiful piece of God’s creation and some of our parents were able to come with us.  One of my friends Dad strapped on a backpack and took this adventure with us.  As he hiked he did so with a camcorder and camera around his neck.  Like a fifteen pound yoke around his neck he traveled here and there waiting for the right moment.  His goal was to document the existence of these things called bears which we were warned were highly prevalent in the area.  No one in our group had seen one in the week we spent in the woods until one day when my friend’s Dad glanced over and saw one a few feet off the trail.  He stood there in awe at this massive creature that looked at him and then bounded off into the deep woods.  This was his story of course.  With that camcorder and camera around his neck he didn’t capture anything of this so called bear.  With all his preparation he still missed capturing the moment.
Will we be ready to celebrate his first Advent on December 25thagain?  Will we be ready to welcome Christmas or the Christ Child?  As we actively wait with great expectations, my prayer is that you let God in.  Let God into this four week journey filled with expectations.  Read the wonderful devotional that was put together and let the words and activities transform this time of waiting into a time of God creating something out of the chaos.  It takes work, like any pregnancy, like any major life event, yet when we are ready we can capture the moment and experience God who is already in this world and will come again.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

[1]Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, Martin B. Copenhaver, p. 25.
[2]Pulpit Resource, Vol. 36, Year A & B, October, November, December 2008, Jason Byassee, p.40.

Mark 13:1-8 – Sermon – …and I feel fine.

Mark 13:1-8
…and I feel fine.

Six o’clock – TV hour. Don’t get caught in foreign tower. Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn. Lock him in uniform and book burning, blood letting. Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate. Light a candle, light a motive. Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush. Uh oh, this means no fear – cavalier. Renegade and steer clear! A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies. Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline. It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it. It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

If you knew anything about music in the late 80s you recognized the second verse and chorus of REM’s song, It’s the End of the World as We Know It. Okay maybe you didn’t realize the actual words but I guarantee you have the tune in your head now. That is where I got the title of my sermon today. It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

The movie 2012 came out this weekend. The plot line: it is Dec. 21st 2012, the day the Mayan calendar says the world will come to an end. It sounds so original. According to National Geographic a new cycle of the Mayan Calendar happens every 1,872,000 days and on the winter solstice of 2012, Dec. 21st, that cycle will end. Some doomsayers suggest that the end of the world will happen that day. So it is time to dust off your water bottles and canned food items you stored up 10 years ago when the solar calendar went from 1999 to 2000. I think we all know how that ended up!

I hate the fact that for the next three years we will be hearing about this. I am sure the Discovery, Science, National Geographic, and all the other cable channels will have at least 17 special reports each on this looming disaster. These stations always have programs on about how the world will end because of a comet or a meteor hitting the earth. Then there is the story line of a disease that will take out the earth’s population like in I Am Legend. As long as there were movies there have been disaster movies, like the 1933 movie Deluge. But we saw a huge influx in the last couple of years in the 90s. You had asteroids coming in Deep Impact and Armageddon. Dante’s Peak and Volcano were about, well volcanoes. The list can go on and on.

You can go to any time period of any nation and find predictions and stories of the end of the world. Some of you might think this was a modern phenomenon but if you turn to Genesis 6 you will learn of God saving humanity through Noah and the world being swallowed up in water. There is something engrained in our DNA that is fascinated about the end of the world. We want to speculate on how it will happen but we hope we are not around when it does.

It is all in fun when we see them in the movies but there have been times when we thought we were living through it. World War I was called the “War to end all wars.” In the dirt, gas and rot of the trenches almost 10 million soldiers died. The casualties of this war, military and civilian, are thought to be 37 million. Yet, we know that this was not the war to end all wars. World War II came along only two decades later.

The place Alycia and I lived in England was called Mossley and one of the past times was watching the planes circle around to land in Manchester. As we got to know the church members we learned that they would stand at the edge of the hills which over looked Manchester and watch the Nazi bomb the city. The planes would fly right over, drop their bombs and then fly right back. I have never stood in a place that saw war that recent. North Carolina last saw war during the Civil War in mid 1800s. Since then it has been peaceful. War seemed too far away and something that happened somewhere else.

When we have these moments of peace we think nothing will ever happen to change it. Nothing can really break up the way we live life. This sanctuary has been here for 48 years, it seems like it will always be here. That is what the disciples were thinking when they walked out of the temple with Jesus that day. Jesus had been in the temple teaching and had just got done comparing what a widow gave to God over a rich person. Now he and his disciples were heading out to the Mount of Olives. An unnamed disciple says to Jesus, “Jesus, what large stones and what a large building.” It was true, the second Temple was a spectacle to behold. The stones the disciple was referring to weighed about 40 tons. And if needed the temple could hold a million people within its walls. Not only was this place massive but it was also holy. It was were the presence of God lived, behind the curtain, in the holy of holies. The disciples were walking with the Son of God, in the temple, it must have been a moment to soak in and that is why the disciple mentions it.

Yet I don’t think they were ready for the answer. Jesus looks at him and says, Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down. Now this is pretty unbelievable. 40 ton stones will be toppled? A place large enough to hold a million people would be so destroyed that not one stone would be left on another? This seemed farfetched…yet in 70 AD the Romans took the temple apart and completely destroyed it, just as Jesus said.

I don’t like watching the disaster movies anymore because they use to be fun. It used to be fun thinking about a meteor coming down and cutting through buildings and people running in fear. It use to be fun because the thought was so out there. I am sure that the disciples had the same thought, “ha, that’s a good one Jesus. That will be a site to see!” Yet after watching two buildings that people thought would stand forever come crashing down, it isn’t funny anymore. When people go through tragedy, or war, their innocence is lost and reality is much scarier. I am not interested in seeing a plane fly under two skyscrapers as they collapse. I have already seen planes cause two skyscrapers to fall. We all witnessed the impossible become possible and it is not something we like to relive because in that moment our world became unstable, chaotic, and filled with fear.

The author of Mark’s gospel, the earliest gospel, is said to have written this around 70 AD. It was written in and around the Jewish-Roman war. There were plenty of people who wanted to get rid of the Romans, we see this all over the gospels. During this time there was a huge push for nationalistic loyalty and passion. The Jews were seeking willing fighters against the Romans. They claimed that this was the moment when God was returning, the was the battle of Armageddon. I have already told you how it ended because it was around this time that the temple was destroyed. In this time of uncertainty, anger, and angst we get Jesus’ message, one that is the opposite of a call to military arms. Mark wrote his gospel in the other light that this was not the moment of the end of the world. God was not moving, God had already moved in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his Son.

It happens in every lifetime. There is an event or a war or a moment that people think the world is coming to an end. During these times the calls go out, just as they did during the Jewish-Roman war. There is a call to arms and a buildup of nationalistic pride and passion. This is it, they tell us. This is the moment we have been waiting for, it all ends here. For some, those directly involved, their individual worlds just might. But for others life still goes on. There has yet to be a worldwide event that affects every single person on earth. Life simply continues to go on.

There is a moment when that change will happen. God promises that it is coming yet we still don’t know when. We want to though. Our human nature really hopes it is as easy as a date on the calendar. Peter, James, John and Andrew are intrigued by what Jesus told them and so they go to him and ask him for how they can tell the end is near. “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.”

Jesus is telling them that there will be many times in our lives when things look like they are coming to an end but those are just deceptions. I took a Bible Survey course in High School, yes public High School, and when we got the book of Revelation the teacher unfolded this huge map of how this book predicts the end of the world. I heard about bar codes being linked to the sign of the beast. The fact that there is a road being built right now from China to the middle east and this means the war is about to begin. The list went on and on. Then I just learned about something called the Rapture Index. This a website that places a numeric value on how close the rapture is to coming. On Nov. 9th it was 167 which means that there is an imminent threat that the rapture will happen at any moment. The website tells us to “fasten our seatbelts.”

We dive into works of fiction like the Left Behind series or listen to TV preachers say that they have the keys to understanding when this event will take place. But if you tune all that out, what does Jesus say? Jesus says to the disciples who were asking the exact same question we all ask, he says, “These are the beginning of birth pains.”

With all the kids that have been born in this place I am sure you all can tell me what the first signs are that a person is going into labor? They might start to nest, clean up around the house getting ready for the new arrival. Contacts might start but many times these are just Braxton Hicks contractions, or practice contractions. Then there is the thousand other signs that it might happen. I can’t tell how annoying it is to listen to everyone and their grandmother gives their thoughts on when your wife will have her baby. “Oh sweetie, she has dropped, it definitely will be this week!” “I can see that your nose is getting bigger, that means any day now.” “Have you lost your mucus plug?” “How effaced or dilated are you?” I means I remember standing there sometimes and hearing these questions and wondering…these people know what body part they are asking about right? This is starting to make me uncomfortable.

A baby comes when a baby comes. We can guess and guess but unless we have a C-section planned, we do not know the day or the hour. Jesus tells us, all these signs that people point to and tell us the end is near, don’t really know. He tells us we should not be focused on that. We should focus on what we can do for God today and not worry about tomorrow. Although we would love our focus to be on that great event when the New Heavens and New Earth will come into being, we really should stop focusing on when and focus on who is coming. Jesus Christ will come again. Instead of trying to center on when that will be we should focus on what he is calling us to do now. That way when it’s the end of the world as we know it…we’ll all feel fine.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Mark 10:17-31 – Sermon – Upside-down World

Mark 10:17-31

Upside-down World


Ben was stopped by a man as he headed to his car after a long day in his office at church. The man told him that he was in the AA group that meets at church and that he left his jacket in the room and asked him if Ben could open the door so he could retrieve it. Ben let him in and asked if he knew where the room was and the man said yes. As Ben checked on something else at the church the man disappeared. Ben soon found out that the man stole some media equipment from a classroom. He was just lied to, to his face. He was just taken advantage of, used. Ben was mad at the situation and for letting himself be taken advantage of. After reporting the incident to the police he went home bummed and angry.

About four to six weeks later Ben was meeting a fellow clergy for lunch about 45 minutes away from his church. I mention this just to let you know that Ben was no longer in his neighborhood. They met at one of those chain restaurants, like Applebee’s or Chilies. As they were sitting there enjoying their lunch Ben looked over at a booth and sure enough there the man sat. The same man that stared Ben in the eyes and asked him to open the door so he could get his coat was in a booth 20 feet away. The same man that used Ben to steal from his church was right there, right there.

If there was anything left on Ben’s plate, it stayed there, because anger and frustration was building up inside of him. Ben excused himself from his booth, his heart pounding and adrenaline pumping, and he headed for the table where the thief was eating. Ben with a polite smile asked the gentleman, “So, are you enjoying the church’s DVD player?” The man’s face go pale, he recognizes Ben, and before Ben could think the man ran out of the restaurant, jumped into his car, and took off. Ben jotted down the license plate number and headed back to the booth to finish his lunch.

The fellow clergy that Ben was eating with was very puzzled and Ben went into the story about what had happened. Ben was wrapped up in retelling the story and never saw the man coming back into the restaurant. Before Ben knew it the man he just chased away slid into the booth he was sitting at. Not across from him but right next to Ben. So now Ben is pinned into the booth and the only way out is through this man who stole a DVD player from his church and who now has his hood over his head.

It is at this point in the story that I wanted to smack Ben in the back of the head. He has a wife to think about. He didn’t have kids then but I knew he wanted to live to the day to have them. Now because his anger got the best of him he is stuck in a booth with a criminal who has who know what in his pockets and will do who knows what to get away with it. Ben assured me that this was all running through his mind and that he was really trying not to soil his pants at this point, as his heart started to beat quite rapidly and any color on his or his luncheon buddy’s face both left.

The gentleman’s in the hood had the floor and they waited for him to make his next move, in this crowded restaurant. The man looked at Ben…and began to cry. Through the tears he told Ben of his struggle with drugs and the other struggles in this life. He apologized for stealing from the church and confessed he felt he didn’t have any other option. It was a moment of desperation and he is truly sorry. The two clergy sat there stunned and just took this all in.

This is an amazing true story. It is almost as powerful as the story we receive from Mark today. Many of you probably thought, as I read the scripture today, “We just heard about money last week Jim. We don’t need to hear about money again this week!” Well you are safe because the story of the “rich young ruler” as many call it, really isn’t about money. It is really about the Kingdom of God.

This story is in all of the synoptic gospels. The synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke and they are called synoptic because they look like they have similar sources for their writings. John is completely different and stands alone as the fourth gospel. Matthew calls this person who walks up to Jesus “young.” Luke calls him a “ruler”. Mark refers to him as simply “a man” and only later do we learn that he had many possessions. Put them together and you get “rich young ruler” which is what we refer to this story as. In Mark this comes in a series of questions to Jesus. A Pharisee has just gotten done asking Jesus about divorce and trying to catch him in a false teaching. Then Jesus calls the children unto him after the disciples attempt to shoo them away. Then as Jesus is heading out a man runs up to him and asks him how he can get eternal life.

That is what we tend to focus on. We tend to say that we come to church and we believe in Jesus so that we can have eternal life. That is our long range goal in this thing called Christianity and that is where our focus tends to be. But Jesus changes the focus. He lists off some of the Ten Commandments and the man suggests that he has followed all of them. Like a check list needed to be done before you can enter heaven, the man had done everything. He just wanted to know if there is anything else on the list. Jesus finally tells him “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Mark says, “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Interesting enough, many people think that left and did not sell all his possessions, but the scripture doesn’t say that. It only says he left said because he had great wealth. That might mean that he was upset because he had a TON of stuff he now has to put on Craig’s List. He goes away upset because Jesus just asked him to take a real hard first step.

As Ben heard the cry of the thief next to him, he realized this man needed help. Ben helped him get into a rehab group and at least pointed in the right direction. The hardest thing the man probably had to do was to get out of his car and walk back into the restaurant and confess he needed help. God, through Ben, offered compassion, caring, and love and the man was on his way.

We all have something that gets in our way of truly following Christ. If we walked up to Jesus and asked him this question, deep down we know what Jesus would ask us to leave in order to follow him. The problem we have is taking that first step and letting it go in order to follow Jesus.

We follow Jesus because we are a part of the in breaking of the Kingdom of God into this world. That is what Jesus refers to after being asked the question. Instead of talking about eternal life, Jesus starts to talk about the Kingdom of God. It is our duty to help the Kingdom of God come to life here in this life and on this earth. We say this all the time in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy Kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.” But do we mean it.

After hearing that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, the disciples start to worry. Are they worried about the Kingdom of God, no, instead they ask the same question as the man, “who then can be saved?” Jesus goes on to tell them that there is nothing they can do but that God can do anything. Then he give us a peak at the Kingdom of God when he tells them “first will be last, and the last first.”

My three year old has hit the “why” stage. I do have to say on a scale of 1-10, ten being the most annoying thing ever; he is about 5 most of the time with the question “why.” I realize that this is part of the developmental stages of life. At three a child starts to attempt to grasp the world around him and is learning, in depth, cause and effect. It is a stage that he will grow out of. At least that is what I tell myself when my patience wears thin. But do we grow out of it?

The Kingdom of God looks very upside-down to us. It doesn’t seem to make much sense. In the Beatitudes Jesus explains “the meek will inherit the earth,” “the poor in spirit will get the kingdom of heaven,” and so will “the persecuted for righteousness.” No matter when Jesus explains the Kingdom of God to us it doesn’t make much sense. Jesus says it is like a farmer who sows seeds or it is like a mustard seed. We constantly look at Jesus and ask “why?” because it doesn’t make sense to us. “Why will the first be last and the last be first?”

Our answer…because.

Now that never satisfied me growing up and I know it does not satisfy Dean but let’s face it sometimes it is the best answer. “Daddy, can you throw a ball and hit the moon?” “No.” “Why?” “Well, you see the mass of the ball and the force I can exert on the ball does not equal a force greater than gravity. Plus with the rotation of the earth and the moon, I do not know the right place to launch said ball into space in order to hit the moon.” Even if I did answer my son in that manner all his three year old mind heard was, blah, blah, blah, blah. The best answer I can give him, “because.”

“God, I don’t understand why the rich man cannot get into heaven. He seems to be following all the rules. So he doesn’t want to sell everything he has, so what? Why can’t the wealthy get in with their wealth? Why?” “God, this whole last first, first last thing doesn’t make sense. I know you are all loving and powerful but why set up your kingdom this way. Aren’t the last really in last place for a reason? I mean they don’t have what it takes to be first, so why make them first? Why God, WHY? WHY? WHY?” God, in all the Fatherlyiness he can muster, shakes his head, and says…because.

As followers of Christ, as worshipers of the One True God, as the people seeking to enter the upside-down Kingdom of God, need to get comfortable with “because.” Our minds cannot wrap around the answer. But our God does answer…how awesome is that. The answer is simply, because. God constantly asks us to do uncomfortable things when we become followers of Christ. We are asked to sell all we have; to head to a distant land to help feed children; to start a ministry to feed people here; to let go of a relationship that is holding us back and soaking up all our time and resources; to put the last first in our lives; and to transform to the world into the Kingdom of God.

Christ asks us to do the uncomfortable but all of the life altering things start with that awkward first step. Whether it is going back into a restaurant to fess up to what you have done or calling that marriage counselor, or coming to grips with your debt, or simply finally giving in to God who has been asking you to do something for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We don’t get another reason we just know we need to. We need to…well…because.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Why…Because – Reflection on Mark10:17-31

My three year old has hit the “why” stage. I do have to say on a scale of 1-10, ten being the most annoying thing ever, he is about 5 most of the time with the question “why”. I realize that this is part of the developmental stages of life. At three a child starts to attempt to grasp the world around him and is learning, in depth, cause and effect. It is a stage that he will grow out of. At least that is what I tell myself when my patience wears thin. But do we grow out of it?

While listening to a Rob Bell sermon on “Blessed is the Poor in Spirit.” As his church dives into the sermon on the Mount he brought up some topics that reminded me of my son and most three year olds. As we hear about the Kingdom of God and we, as humans, try to make sense of it we constantly ask God, why? Why should the poor in spirit be blessed? Why do the meek inherit the earth? Or in the case of this week’s lectionary text, why should the first be last and the last be first. Why God? Why? Why? Why?

Our answer…because.

Now that never satisfied me growing up and I know it does not satisfy my son but let’s face it sometimes it is the best answer. “Daddy, can you throw a ball and hit the moon?” “No.” “Why?” “Well, you see the mass of the ball and the force I can exert on the ball does not equal a force greater than gravity. Plus with the rotation of the earth and the moon, I do not know the right place to launch said ball into space in order to hit the moon.” Even if I did answer my son in that manner all his three year old mind heard was, blah, blah, blah, blah. The best answer I can give him, “because.”

“God, I don’t understand why the rich man cannot get into heaven. He seems to be following all the rules. So he doesn’t want to sell everything he has, so what? Why can’t the wealthy get in with their wealth? Why?” “God, this whole last first, first last thing doesn’t make sense. I know you are all loving and powerful but why set up your kingdom this way. Aren’t the last really in last place for a reason? I mean they don’t have what it takes to be first, so why make them first? Why God, WHY? WHY? WHY?”

God, in all the Fatherlyiness he can muster, shakes his head, and says…because.

As followers of Christ, as worshipers of the One True God, as the people seeking to enter the upside-down Kingdom of God, need to get comfortable with “because.” Our minds cannot wrap around the answer. But our God does answer…how awesome is that. The answer is simply, because.