Lies We Love (Sermon Series)

Here is a link to the four-part series preached at Milford Hills UMC.  This is a look at four of the common phrases or platitudes Christians say and exploring the theological validity of these statements.  Many Christians say them every day to bring comfort and sense to the reality of people’s lives.  However, they really are simply lies we love.

Lies We Love Logo 2

Part I: Everything Happens for a Reason

Part II: Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

Part III: You Cannot Believe in God and Science

Part IV: God Doesn’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

Happily Ever After? – Not Your Parent’s Marriage

Happily Ever After? – Not Your Parent’s Marriage
Matthew 18:23-35
The last two weeks have been fun and I hope you are enjoying this series so far.  If you have missed either of the last two sermons you can read them on my blog or listen to them on our podcast site.  We have debunked some myths about marriage and talked about how to stay in love using the blueprint found in 1 Corinthians 13 and our love languages.
The video I showed during the children’s moment was a fun to do.  We have a cute bunch of kids and youth.  I wanted to create this because how our kids see that we love each other tells us a lot about how our marriage is perceived to others.  Now our children’s perception isn’t as accurate as the truth, they really don’t know everything.  But they do give us a window into what our marriage looks like.  The relationship that has the most impact on our marriage is our parent’s marriage.  For good or for bad, that relationship is what helps form how we approach marriage in general.  Our parent’s marriage doesn’t define it but it has a dramatic impact on it.
There are three negative ways that Rod Stafford, the author of this sermon series, brings up about how our parent’s marriage affects our marriages.  Actually to use his words, “Your parent’s marriage potentially has a deadly impact on your marriage in three different ways.”  The first one is the damage of comparison.  Growing up our parent’s marriage is really the only one we know well.  It is the relationship we see daily and the only one we can see behind closed doors.  We, as children, can hear the yells as our parents argue, or apparently from the view of our children and youth, a lot of hugging and kissing.  How we see them acting out married life will impact our own marriage because we will compare our marriage with their marriage.
Some of it is good.  You may think that your Dad is the best husband ever or that your Mom was the best wife ever.  If you hold this view I bet your spouse is abundantly aware that you have this view because it probably comes up a lot.  You may have heard your spouse say, “My Dad is the best husband.  He was always home at 5pm and remembered my Mom’s birthdays and anniversary.  He would bring fresh flowers home and candies.  He would rub her feet and always give her a kiss when he walked into the house.”  Or “My Mom is the best wife you can imagine.  She had dinner on the table by 6 every night and it didn’t come out of the microwave, it was a three course meal every evening.  Mom would press Dad’s shirts so he would look his best for work and would have a pot of coffee waiting for him when he got down stairs.”
Here is the issue that you may not realize.  When we say a statement like those, what you are saying to your spouse is, “We don’t line up to my parent’s marriage.”  “You don’t line up to the expectations I have as a husband/wife.”  You may not mean it but I guarantee that is what your spouse hears.  The damage of comparison is that we are holding up another marriage against ours and it is only our perception of a marriage not the reality.  Maybe Dad came home with flowers and candies because the reality was he really messed up last night and put his foot in his mouth and so he is begging your Mom for forgiveness.  Maybe your Mom served a three course meal every night because that is what the social norm for the day was and if she didn’t her friends would think she wasn’t being a good wife.  In reality she would have much rather have a job and a career all her own instead of being a homemaker.   What we perceive our parent’s marriage to be may not be the reality and so we need to step away from comparison, even the positive.
Now the negative comparison is also difficult.  Maybe your parent’s don’t have the best relationship and maybe this is a statement you have said before.  “I will not be like my mother.”  Or “I will not be like my father.”  But this can damage a marriage in two different ways.  The first is that we think about it too much.  If I told you not to think about ice cream I bet it would be really hard not to think about ice cream.  Your brain just automatically starts to think about it although I told you not too.  The same goes with that trait you couldn’t stand about your parent.  “I will not yell like my father.”  Then we get so caught up thinking about not being like our parent we actually start to embody the trait we are trying to dodge.  Before we know it we are yelling like our father and then we hate ourselves for it.  We end up battling the same demons our parents battle because we cannot stop thinking about not being like them.
The second way is that we get so preoccupied with not become like our parents that we grade our marriage on a curve.  Instead of living into the 16 behaviors of love that we found in 1 Corinthians 13 we live into the fact that at least I am not my mother.  We think, “I may yell at my husband but at least I don’t hit him like my mother did.”  The way we look at our marriage is through the lens of “at least I don’t do.”  That is not what God calls us to grade ourselves on and it looks nothing like the blueprint found in 1 Corinthians 13.
There are two other things that can potentially have a deadly impact on our marriage and I am going to cover them really quickly.  Besides the damaged caused by comparison there is also the damage done by withholding blessing.  Being blessed by the people in our lives is extremely important and God lays out ways that we can share blessings with one another.  There are things that parents should do for their children and ways they bless them growing up and sometimes those things are not done.  Maybe your father never told you he loved you or cared about you.  Maybe your mother never hugged you or said she was proud of you.  Those blessings we miss from our parents tend to follow us into our own marriages.  Since we did not get them from our parents we look to get them other places. 
We look to our spouses to fill that gap but the truth is they can never give you the blessings you wanted from your mother or father because they are not your mother or father.  If you have a gap where some sort of blessing should be the only one who can fill that gap is God.  God, our heavenly Father, is the only one who can give you what you missed from your parents.  Your spouse can’t, your friends can’t, your job can’t.  Only God and so we need to stop looking to fill that hole in our heart caused by missing those blessings, through our spouses and other things.  Only God can do it and God would be happy if we let him.
The third deadly impact on a marriage from your parents is abuse.  Parents can do some evil things to their children.  If you have been abused physically by your parents that will have an impact on your marriage.  If you have been abused emotionally by your parents by being told you are no good, worthless, stupid, a mistake, this will have an impact on your marriage.  If you have been sexually abused, this will have an impact on your marriage.  Abuse is horrible, evil, and more places then we realize.  It creates some heavy damage in our relationships and leaves scars on us that he world may never see but may have a huge effect on our relationship with our spouse. 
With these three types of damage that can be done by our parent’s marriage in mind what must we do?  Now that I have opened Pandora’s box what we do with the realities of these demons?  There are two ways to deal with them, revenge or forgiveness.  Revenge seems a little harsh but it is true when we look at the different types of revenge or vengeance.  When we think of revenge we think about an eye for an eye.  But revenge is simply payment for being hurt.  It can be an eye for an eye but there are other ways they are lived out.  We can get revenge by simply saying, “I’m done with you.”  We walk away or withdraw from a situation or life.  The person may never know why and we probably don’t explain we simply walk away.  Or we belittle or gossip about the person.  This is a way of revenge because we are socially hurting them for the hurt they caused in us.  Naturally if this person physically hurt you it will take a lot of gossip to hurt them back.  The other way we seek revenge is by stuffing the hurt way down.  We suppress it and compress it until it can’t be held back and the little think unleashes an explosion. 
Revenge isn’t healthy though.  It doesn’t really accomplish what we hope it will do.  Rod in his sermon on this topic equates revenge to the game Angry Birds and it works well.  I am sure many of you are familiar with the game Angry Birds but if not I will give you a quick little summary of this physics game.  There are some birds and they are angry because some pigs stole their eggs.  So to get revenge on this pigs they launch themselves at the pigs to destroy them.  The pigs build different things to protect themselves and different birds have different powers to help destroy the buildings and pigs.  Here is the catch though, for those who have played the game before, what happens to the birds after they are flung at the buildings and pigs?  They disappear.  Just like the pigs they disappear and in the end are destroyed.  As they seek revenge on the pigs for stealing their eggs they too die in the process.
Revenge eats at us because we hold on to that hate, that un-forgiveness.  We cannot forgive someone unless something happens to them equally or worse than what they did to us.  Hebrews 12:15 says, “Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people.”  When we seek revenge, which is holding back forgiveness, we are letting a root of bitterness grow up inside us.  This root of bitterness will show up in our marriage and almost all other relationships as well.  It will show up in our relationship with our children and with our friends.  Sometimes it consumes us and all we are angry birds waiting to self destruct for the sake of revenge. 
So how would God like us to handle it?  How would God like us to handle the damage we have in our past to move forward into a deeper and healthier relationship in our marriage?  For that we go back to the scripture I read.  I am sure many of you were wondering what the parable of the unforgiving servant or unmerciful servant had to do with the sermon title, “Not Your Parent’s Marriage.”  And now that you can see that train coming many of you maybe upset.  The F word is not really popular because we would rather just seek revenge.  We would rather hold onto the hurt because, for some of us, we don’t know who we would be without it.  The F word I am talking about is forgiveness.  Yep, I said it, and in church no less. 
The parable of the unmerciful servant is all about forgiveness.  The servant is forgiven a huge amount of debt, more than he could pay back in about 100 lifetimes.  The king is beyond gracious and compassionate.  He shows an abundance of mercy and more than the servant desires or even deserves.  Then the forgiven servant tries to chokes out a tiny bit of money out of someone who owes him.  The mercy he is shown doesn’t follow to the other relationships in his life and in turn the king doesn’t show him any more mercy either.  What this parable boils down to is the our own capacity to experience grace.  The fact that the servant could not forgive the one who owed him money shows that he really didn’t experience the grace from the king who just forgave him an obscene amount of money.
Now don’t get me wrong, our ability to be forgiven by God doesn’t hinge on our ability to forgive others.  Forgiving others doesn’t earn us forgiveness from God.  But our ability to extend grace to people that hurt us is impossible if we never really experienced God’s grace.  Grace cannot be truly extended if is never truly experienced. 
In Rod’s sermon he pointed me to a quote by Bono, the lead singer of the Band U2.  Bono says, “You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.”
When we get caught up in revenge we are seeking an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  We are getting caught up in the karma aspect of life.  Yet this isn’t how God works is it?  Romans 12:19 says, “Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.”  We get comfortable with that because we hope God’s revenge involves hell fire and sulfur falling from the sky.  But what if God decides to handle the revenge we lay at his feet by sending his son to die on the cross and rise again?  What if God’s plan on handling the sins against us is by showing mercy and forgiveness?  What if the King of Kings shows the same mercy on our enemies as he does on us?  Are we comfortable with that?  Are we willing to be okay that grace and mercy overcomes all the evil in this world and in our lives?
If we are going to do what God calls us to do, which is to forgive and show mercy and grace to our enemies, our parents, those who have hurt us in the past so we can live healthier lives that reflect God’s love, then we will have to forgive.  We will have to surrender those sins against us on the altar of God’s forgiveness and mercy.  We will have to move forwards knowing that God loves us and commands us to love our enemy.  Are we willing to surrender to that or is our revenge, our un-forgiveness, too much a part of us that we aren’t willing to let it go?  Are we too consumed with the idea of getting back at those that hurt us, that we are willing to punish the people we are married too?  Do we really want to jeopardize our current relationships for how we have been hurt in past relationships?  Or are we ready to surrender them all to God’s love and grace?
The truth is that if we want a healthy marriage we will have to place God’s grace upon it.  We will have to be willing to surrender our past to the grace and forgiveness that God offers.  We will have to get rid of that root of bitterness that grows inside us.  Are you ready to surrender that to God?  Are you ready to forgive that person who has hurt you and caused you pain?  Leave it here with God, because revenge is all God’s.  Leave it here, surrender it in order to have a healthy, vibrant, and deep love. 

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Happily Ever After? Part II – Staying in Love

Happily Ever After? Part II – Staying in Love
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
Last week we introduced this sermon series about marriage.  We had a good time identifying and debunking just a few of the myths about marriage.  We talked about how the world feeds us this idea that there is simply one person out there, Mr. Right, Miss Right, our soul mate that if we find that one person then marriage will be easy.  Well, that is simply not true.  Instead what we learn is that marriage is really hard and takes a lot of work.  That is what we are talking about today, the work part. 
Here is what we think love is really like.  We think it is only this moment. [You had me at hello video]  But actually love is longer than that moment.  Love isn’t a moment; love is a way of life.  Love is what we are all called to live out day in and day out in all our relationships.  But how?  It isn’t easy yet we are all called to do it.  One of the hardest places to do it is in that life long commitment.  We make that commitment to show the world what love can look like.  As a marriage couple that is what your relationship is, a mirror that reflects what true Christian love is to look like in a relationship.
The letters of Paul were written in Greek, the written language of the day.  In the Greek Language there are four different kinds of love; philia, eros, storge, and agape.  Philiais the love between friends, brotherly love.  This is where Philadelphia gets its name, the city of Brotherly Love.  Eros is the sense of being in love also known as lust.  That is where we get our English word erotic from and that basically sums that one up.  Storge is affection or the love one has for family.  It is the love we have for our kids and pets.  Agape is unconditional love, sacrificial love, God love. Now in English we simply have love.  We love hotdogs and we love our wife.  We love baseball and we love our kids.  Do we love all of them on the same level or in the same way, I truly hope not.  As Christians we are all called to live out agape love, God style love, unconditional and sacrificial love for one another, especially in marriage.
I went back to the Greek just to double check and sure enough agape is the Greek Paul uses throughout 1 Corinthians.  If we want to life out what love truly looks like in God’s eyes then we need to live out the blueprint that is set in front of us in this chapter.  Now this is a popular text at weddings.  Be honest, how many of you all had this as the scripture read at your wedding?  Now be honest again, how many have read it since you were married?  The truth is that if we truly want to stay in love with our spouse then we need to follow what Paul lays out here.  It is here that we get 16 habits of what love looks like; 16 actions or behaviors that if followed by each person, a marriage will last for a lifetime.  The thing is it has to be followed by each partner, the husband and the wife.  As we learned last week in Ephesians we are both on the same level and we each have to submit to this type of love for the other. 
Let’s walk through the text again and here these 16 habits or behaviors of love.
1.     Love is patient – patience is more than simply waiting.  It is the ability to watch a person grow and change with no pressure.  Love doesn’t add pressure on someone to do something they don’t want to do or go against who they are. We all grow into the likeness of God at different rates and if we love patiently we allow the other to arrive on their time and something that is not forced.  If it is forced it isn’t real, so love patiently waits.
2.     Love is kind – it recognizes that the other person has feelings and it validates them.  Cruelty is removing the humanity of someone but to love kindly means we realize that our actions and life effects the other and we recognize that.
3.     Love isn’t jealous – a confident love doesn’t mind our spouse outshines us.  It is jealous of their successes or if they make more money than we do.  Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett received great recognition for his work–but not every one savored his accomplishments. Beckett’s marriage, in fact, was soured by his wife’s jealousy of his growing fame and success as a writer. One day in 1969 his wife Suzanne answered the telephone, listened for a moment, spoke briefly, and hung up. She then turned to Beckett and with a stricken look whispered, “What a catastrophe!” Was it a devastating personal tragedy? No, she had just learned that Beckett had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature![1]  That is jealous love, that is not agape.
4.     Love doesn’t brag – there is a common theme in many marriages where the one spouse steps on the other to make themselves look better.  We see it all the time in commercials where the husband is worthless as a caregiver to their children without the wife/mom there.  Or we share stories that make our spouses look bad in order for us to look better.  Bragging is simply a way to hold ourselves up on toothpicks.  Agape love is one of humility…not boasting about ourselves.
5.     Love isn’t arrogant – to be arrogant is to focus on one’s self.  But in a marriage, in an agape relationship, the main focus is building up the other person.  It is out of love that we want to hold up the other more than ourselves.  Agape love puts the self on the back burner for the other, it is what sacrifice is all about.
6.     Love isn’t rude – it is really sad to me to watch couples who have been married for years communicate.  Many of them forget the common courtesy of any relationship.  We teach it to our children but then we forget to model it in the relationship that the look at the most.  How many times do you use please and thank you in your marriage?  How many times do you command instead of ask.  “Bill, could you please pass the salt.”  “Susan, would please take a look at this?”  Common courtesy is forgot in the comfortableness of marriage and that rudeness can start to eat at the relationship.
7.     Love doesn’t seek advantage – there is this really bad habit in all relationship but especially in a marriage that we tend to keep score.  We keep a tally in our heads of what we have done or what we haven’t done in order to make ourselves better than our spouse.  It sounds silly but we do it all the time.  You take out the trash, wash the dishes, and vacuum the floors in one week that gives you three points.  Your spouse cooked dinner and cleaned the bathroom, two points.  So you then, in this twisted game, have permission to hold the score over the other’s head letting them know you put more into the relationship.  But true agape love doesn’t seek to have an advantage in the relationship.
8.     Love isn’t irritable – we are allowed irritable days or moments because life can be stressful.  Both men and women have certain times in the month when their fuse can be shorter than normal.  Yet, you cannot live day in and day out walking on eggshells trying not to make the other person upset.  If in a relationship that fuse is always short there is an issue.  If everything you do is making your spouse upset or disappointed then something is not right, it is not agape love.
9.     Love doesn’t keep a record of wrong – How I Met Your Mother is a great show and it is about to come to a close.  One of the best relationships on TV is between two of their characters Lilly and Marshall.  They are devoted to one another and in a recent episode they got in a huge fight.  Marshall finally threw the trump card he was holding about a time when they broke up and Lilly moved to San Francisco.  We all have trump cards in our heads that if we were backed into a corner we can throw to win an argument.  But when we do we are keeping a record of wrong.  We are not forgiving and that isn’t agape love.
10.  Love isn’t happy with injustice – agape love is about doing what is right and treating the other person as a child of God.  We need to learn to see each other not through the other person’s eyes but through the eyes of God.  We need to stand up for our spouse and be comfortable in our relationship to stand up for the injustices we come across in life.
11.  Love is happy with the truth – the truth hurts sometime, it is painful to come to grips with, but love demands truth to be told.  Love has to based on truth and if not it is like the house built on sand, eventually it will erode and wash away.  Tell the truth, not matter how hard, no matter how painful.  Lying hurts longer than the truth.
12.  Love puts up with all things – another translation puts it this way, love always protects.  When we love someone we want the best for them and so we protect them as best as we can.  But the way that the CEB puts it sheds some light on it as well.  Unconditional love puts up with all things and doesn’t demand the other person changes who they are to be someone other than who God created them to be.
13.  Love hopes all things – hope is essential to life because when life gets bad, and life will from time to time, we need a hope greater than ourselves.  Agape love has a hope that is unconditional and is eternal.  Every marriage needs that type of hope.
14.  Love always trusts – if we have to place one thing in a relationship as a key to it, it would have to be trust.  We have to trust our spouse, with our children, with life decisions, with our care, with our lives because they sleep next to us!  Trust has to be essential and when it is not there, life is rocky and love doesn’t seem to be there.
15.  Love endures all things – like I said, life will get hard, life isn’t promised to be easy at all and so love needs to endure.  Love needs to endure mistakes the other person makes, the changes in life that comes with a new job, a new child, children moving out, a new house, the death of parents or siblings, and the little things that make some marriages seem like we are being pecked to death by ducks.
16.  The final one is that Love never fails – there are times when you might not like each other.  Alycia and I have a phrase that we use time to time, “I love you but I don’t like you right now.”  Marriage is not a call to like each other in absolutely every moment in life but we are called to love each other.  We promise for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, in the best of times and in the worst of time, to always love.  When we think that agape love, unconditional and sacrificial love can fail, then we have lost hope, lost joy, and there is something wrong.
As Christians we are called to love everyone like this agape love.  One place where this can be lived out is in a marriage.  In the second creation story in Genesis God creates man and woman and it says this “this is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh.  The two of them were naked, that man and his wife, but they weren’t embarrassed.”  In this relationship we become so naked for another person it can be really difficult.  Not only in the physical sense but also the emotional and spiritual sense.  This person will see you in your moments of deepest pain and suffering, greatest moments of joy and desire, tender and honest moments, this person will see you in your rawest form of who you are.  Your spouse will see you naked and if agape love is there then there will be no embarrassment, no shame, only love.
So if we want to stay in love with our spouse for 50+ years then we need to remember what Paul tells us about agape love, true love.  This is the blueprint we are asked to follow.  These are the habits and behaviors of what love truly looks like.
There is one other thing that I have learned over my 11 years of marriage and 19 years of dating one woman.  Not only did I rock the long hair in high school but we have to learn to love the other person how they want to be loved.  There is a book I first read in college during my marriage and family class.  It is called “The 5 Love Languages.”  I think it is essential to a good marriage and how we can learn to live out these habits that Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians. 
The idea is that we all have a love language and each of us have one that is different than the other.  Here is a short video that explains the five different loves…[The 5 Love Languages]
So a quick review of the five love languages:
1.     Words of Affirmation – just like you think, it is verbally telling someone you love them, you are proud of them, you trust them, so for and so on.
2.     Acts of Service – actions speak louder than words, so picking up around the house, folding laundry, doing the dishes, mowing the grass are ways that these people know they are loved.
3.     Receiving Gifts – for these people it may not be about the size or cost but the thought that counts.  You were away and you were thinking of them.  You saw this item and it reminded them of you. 
4.     Quality Time – sometimes all people crave to know they are loved is your undivided attention, no phones, no internet, no children, just quality time with you.
5.     Physical Touch – holding hands, arm around the shoulder, a kiss goodbye or hello, these are all ways that people who have this love language feel loved.  They want to cuddle, be hugged, and have meaningful appropriate touch from their spouse. 
What we need to take from this book is to learn how we want to be loved but also how our spouse feels and receives love.  What happens is that if we feel loved with words of affirmation we tend to show our love to our spouse that way.  But our spouse may feel loved through quality time.  Maybe your spouse always wants to spend time with you because that is how they feel loved and no matter how you tell her that she is special she still doesn’t feel loved.  Many couples tend to be speaking different languages.  Visit their website and learn more about you and your spouse love language.
The key to staying in love is learning how to love. Learning your partner’s love language will give you the keys to how you can live into the sixteen habits Paul talks about.  If we are doing all 16 then our marriages will never fail.  We need to stand strong and strive for that agape love, that unconditional, sacrificial type of love.  The love that God modeled for us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
So may you dust off that scripture that was read as you started your life together and start living it.
And all God’s people said….Amen.

Happily Ever After? – Debunking the Marriage Myth

Happily Ever After? – Debunking the Marriage Myth

Ephesians 5:21-33
Let me start off this sermon series with a couple of caveats.  First of all, I am not an expert in marriage.  I have been married for 11 years now and I am still learning what it means to be a husband.  This series, once again, will be a lot of me preaching to myself.  Secondly, I have run all sermon illustrations that have to do with my first wife Alycia by her.  As a good husband/preacher I make sure I am saying things that are approved first.  I found it easier to ask for permission instead of forgiveness. Thirdly, I got this sermon series from Rod Stafford thesenior pastor of Fairfax Community Church in Fairfax, VA.  I found it on a website called Open Resourceswhich help ministers tap into quality sermon series and other resources like these great graphics and the video that we showed before I read the scripture.  These are all my sermons, I personally wrote them, but the main ideas came from Pastor Rod and I need to give him the credit as we start off these series.
First of all let me figure out who has been married the longest and the shortest in our congregation.  If you have been married for more than 40 years, if you don’t mind stand up. [go up until only one couple left].  If you have been married for less then 10 years stand up. [go down until  only one couple left]  I wonder what advice {first couple} could give the {second couple} who is just starting off? I bet they could learn a lot from each other.  I hope to have some of that later this month as well, so do keep.  I am sure we can learn a lot from everyone who has made a marriage go beyond 40+ years.  That takes a lot of work.
Today we are talking about marriage myths and there are only three that I am going to highlight today.  There are plenty more but apparently there is a football game later on today that many people would like to see so I cannot go into all of them. 
The first myth that we need to debunk about marriage is that the past is the past.  Many people think that if they can simply get to the altar then there is a fresh start.  If they can get there then they don’t have to worry about anything else.  All that stuff that happened back then we hope that when we say I do doesn’t matter any more.  But that is simply a myth.  Our past is always with us and there is nothing we can do about it.  When two people agree to marry there are only two options that can happen.  They can either choose to ignore it or deal with it. 
For example, (here is when we have the no-chicken winging rule come into play) say the person you are planning on marring has a deep connection with his mother.  They talk daily.  They text.  She still does his laundry and he is 28 and doesn’t live at home.  You, as the soon to be wife, thinks this will all go away when you say I do, but the truth is it won’t.  That baggage that we carry around with us in our singlehood is simply the baggage you carry around in your marriage.  Those mistakes you made in your early 20s, they will don’t go away and your spouse will have to deal with them. 
If a couple is not willing to work through the past then they will not have a future.  The past has to be recognized and dealt with if a marriage is going to work out.  If it is ignored then it will always be there hanging out around our necks.  We have to deal with it. 
People who hope to get married someday.  Pay attention to this right now.  Rod uses this quote in his sermon to describe how people should live in their singlehood in order not to cause a problem in their marriage.  I thought it was worth repeating.  His quote is, “Your present will someday be your past and your past will eventually show up in your future.”  [repeat]  This is a good thing to remember as we start early adulthood.  Are the decisions I am making right now eventually going to effect me and my future spouse?  Do I want to make a different decision now so I won’t have extra baggage to carry later?
The second myth about marriage is people who are married have married problems.  This isn’t true.  There really aren’t problems that are stuck within a marriage.  What is really happening is people with problems keep getting married.  I have only married one couple here and Alycia has been to many of the weddings I have officiated, so only three other people have heard this but it bears repeating.  If someone told you that sharing a house, a car, the bills, the pantry, the bathroom, a bed, toothpaste, and TV remote with one person for the rest of your life was easy, that person was lying.  They lied straight to your face.  They looked you in the eye and fed you a line because it isn’t easy.
We have this idea of happily ever after that has been fed to us since we are children.  If you look at all the major fairy tales when do those fairy tales end, they end with the wedding and riding off into the sunset and we all know that they lived happily ever after.  Sun is starting to set and there goes Snow White and Prince Charming; or Ariel and Prince Eric, or Rapunzel and Eugene. They all ride off and are happily ever after.  But Eugene, aka Flynn Rider, has some problems.  He is an outlaw and has a habit of stealing.  How will that work itself out since he is now a prince?  Prince Charming has a kingdom to reign over, how will Snow White fall in line and help lead her people?  Ariel is only 16 years old when she falls in love with Prince Eric and she is a mermaid.  How will it work for Prince Eric to visit the in-laws on Thanksgiving or will Ariel miss breathing water? 
You see when two people get together and promise to live life together for the rest of their lives, if they have problems, those problems can be magnified in marriage.  These problems aren’t marriage problems, they are people problems.  If you think that eventually you will ‘fix’ him, then don’t get married.  If you think you can ‘fix’ her, then don’t get married.  You really can’t.  Sometimes those problems are too much but we go into a marriage with dreams of happily ever after.  We have to be realistic and realize that problems come with marriage and actually the intensity of this relationship actually leads to magnifying these problems. 
The final myth we will be talking about is marrying the right person.  There is this notion out there that there is this ‘one’ person out there for you.  Your soul mate is out there and if only you can find them.  Mr. Right and Miss Right are out there if you know what you are looking for.  Now there are websites that will connect you with 4000 points of compatibility, helping you find that Mr. Right more often.  If that doesn’t work, you can always go on TV where ABC will give you two dozen people to make out with, I mean, find who you’re compatibility with and then choose one to marry until the divorce special. 
Let me save you some time.  If you are asking yourself, “Did I marry the right person?” let me tell you now, you didn’t.  Everyone in here and all over has married the wrong person.  There is no such thing as the right person.  Mr. Right and Miss Right do not exist.  We are constantly looking for what Jerry McGuire is selling, someone to complete us.   We think if I am only like Tom Hanks then we are sure Meg Ryan will show up.  Or we wait for that perfect pale faced vampire or that millionaire guy who has 50 shades to his personality.  But we will never find him or her because they don’t exist.  It is a complete and utter myth.  It may sell a lot of  movie tickets or books but it isn’t real life.
Here is the thing.  If we look at the book that tells us how we are to live and God’s desires for our lives we learn some things.  We learn first that we are fallen creatures.  Your husband or wife is a fallen creature.  Paul in Romans tells us that we all have sinned and we fall short of the glory of God.  Unless you have married Jesus, the Son of God, then your spouse is not perfect.  He has and will sin.  She has and will sin.  You are doing yourself an injustice if you are waiting for that perfect person to show up because no one is perfect. 
Actually we are asking the wrong question.  Instead of asking ourselves, “Did I marry the right person?”  The question we should be asking is, “Am I becoming the right person?”  This is where the Ephesians text comes in.  If we follow what Ephesians truly says (TRULY SAYS) then we will be on the path of becoming a right person.  Now, this text is one of the most misunderstood, twisted, and manipulated texts in the Bible.  Many people have used this text to say that the husband is in charge of the family, the supreme ruler, the final decider.  If you read through this text quickly you can see how that can happen but it really isn’t true.
I started in verse 21 for a reason.  It says, “submit to each other out of respect for Christ,” and then it gives an example for how wives and husbands can live this mutual submission out of respect for Christ out.  This whole section is hinged on this first verse.  Both husbands and wives submit themselves to each other out of respect for Christ.  Not one or the other, but both.  We need to stop thinking this in our society and realize what this text is truly telling us. 
Paul tells wives, “submit to their husbands as if to the Lord.”  Husbands, before you jump up and point and say “I told you so,” just wait.  How are we to submit to the Lord?  How is it that we are to live in a way that is pleasing to God?  What is interesting is remember the passage we ended the last sermon series on.  That we are to be children of the light?  Well that is in the section of scripture right before this.  Paul is attempting to make clear that if we are to live as followers of Christ it has to appear in every relationship.  Not just how we act at church but also how we act at home.  If we are too truly love our neighbor as ourselves then this is as true with the neighbor across the street as it is the neighbor across the sheets.  We have to be willing to submit ourselves to the type of love that Christ has for us.  If we are going to be image bears of Christ, this will show up in every relationship.  Therefore wives, “submit to your husbands AS IF TO THE LORD.”
This text is actually pretty countercultural for its time.  We cannot ignore the fact that in Biblical times women were seen as property and a lower class.  There are rules in the Old Testament that if a husband dies then the wife is passed on to his brothers.  Like an old shirt, they are simply passed down.  But here Paul is actually bringing a husband and wife up to the same level.  Paul goes on to tell how husband how they are to live in a way that demonstrates God’s love for us and he has to spend twice as many verses telling guys how to do that.  There are only three verses on how wives are supposed to treat husbands, but there are seven verses on husbands. 
Husbands are to “love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.”  Husbands tend to stop reading this passage after they learn their wives are supposed to submit to them and that they are the head of the household.  They are like, “yep, and yep, go get me a beer I’m watching the game.”  But is that how Christ loved the church?  Is keeping your woman barefoot and pregnant and waiting on your every whim the way Christ demonstrated his love while here on earth?  NO.  Hear it one more time men, NO.
Christ loved us sacrificially.  He loved us in a way that made him humbly submit himself to torture and death for our sake.  Husbands ask yourself if you are loving your wife that way?  Are you loving your wife in a way that makes her see you humbly give yourself to her?  This is the way we, as husbands are to love our wives. 
The point of this text, not to make us better than one another but to understand that as follower of God we are transform ourselves into the likeness of Christ.  This type of love is found in all relationships, friendship, parenthood, as a child or sibling, and as husband and wife.  We are to love each other as Christ loved the church. 
Marriage is about a choice.  It is made every day.  Each day we wake up we pray that God can give us the strength to love our spouse as Christ loved the church.  We pray to be molded into the type of person that loves like Christ loves.  It is a daily choice to love that person in that way.  It doesn’t just happen but it takes work and more work.  This is fact.  It is not a myth.  This is the way that God calls us to love our spouses, our friends, our children, our family, and our neighbors.  The only way we can go through life and love like this is through lots and lots of prayer.  So I challenge the married couples here to take the prayer challenge.  Pray with each other everyday and ask each other the questions listed.  Then pray for each other and pray to love each other like Christ loves the Church. 
May you grow closer to one another and realize that you are both striving to be the right person, not that you already are.  May God take this relationship and mold it into something that is worthy of his love and truth.  May the love you share with one another, express the love that Christ has for every one of us.

And all God’s people said…Amen. 

Be Still – Part 3 – "Dealing with the Noise" (Be Still Sermon Series)

Be Still: Part III – Dealing with the Noise
1 Kings 19:9-13

After being still and celebrating 111 years of ministry in this place at Homecoming we come back to the third part of this sermon series.  Let’s do a quick wrap up of where we are in this series.  In the first sermon I talked about being still.  We have a lot of movement, chaos, stuff to do in life and it is important to find time to be still.  In Psalm 46:10, it says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  In our happiest times and in our hardest times in life we need to find time to be still so we can feel God in our midst.  We passed out some of these devotionals and you can still pick some up if you haven’t already.  The challenge was to find 10 minutes a day to be still with God for 28 days.  Then in week two we talked about the Knowing and No-ing.  If we want to really get to know God we have to be able to make him a priority.  We may have to learn to say no in order to say yes to build a deeper relationship with God.  But life can get in the way.  The demands of life can be too much and we need to remind ourselves and practice stepping back, like Jesus does, to find time to be still with God.

Today we are talking about dealing with the noise.  Life has lots of noise, pressure, fear, and angst.  Our struggle is finding time to be still when life seems to be in panic mode.  For inspiration we hear the story of Elijah.  Now you probably have heard of Elijah before.  He was one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history.  He did many miraculous things but he also never died.  Instead, when he found a predecessor in Elisha, a chariot of fire came between Elijah and Elisha and Elijah was taken up into heaven in a world wind.  In Malachi it is said that Elijah would return before the great day of the Lord.  This is why when John the Baptist and Jesus come on the scene people are wondering if they are actually Elijah who has come back.  Elijah is also one of the three people at Jesus’ transfiguration.  You had Jesus, Moses and Elijah that appeared to the three disciples, Peter, James and John. 

But today we are going to talk about Elijah running in fear.  When we meet him in 1 Kings 19:9 he is hiding in the wilderness from the Queen Jezebel.  Jezebel was not a fan of the prophets of God.  She had killed hundreds of them and Elijah was the only one left.  Elijah really makes her mad in chapter 18.  In that chapter Elijah comes out and challenges the prophets of Baal to a duel of some sort.  He comes up with test to see which God is better, Baal or the God of Israel.  Here are the rules of the challenge: they will each prepare an altar and slaughter a bull on it.  Usually they would light a fire and sacrifice these animals as burnt offerings to their gods but Elijah tells them that they should see which God provides the fire. 

There were 450 prophets of Baal verses Elijah in this showdown.  The prophets of Baal construct their altar, slaughter the bull, and start calling on Baal to send down fire.  They do this from morning to midday and nothing happens.  They start dancing around to provoke Baal but nothing happens.  At this point Elijah starts talking some smack.  He says, “Shout Louder!  Certainly he’s a god!  Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering (relieving himself), or traveling somewhere.  Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!”  Where is your God?  Using the bathroom?  On vacation?  Sleeping in?  The prophets then start shouting louder and cutting themselves with swords and knives to show their devotion to Baal.  The scripture says, “Their blood flowed all over them.”  What a scene.  What an image.  These prophets shouting, dancing, and running around covered in their own blood.  But Baal never comes.  Their turn is over.

Elijah steps up and creates an altar and then digs a trench around it.  He sacrifices his bull and gets ready to pray to God to send fire.  Instead though he tells some people to get four jars of water and pour it on the altar.  They do and then he tells them to do it two more times.  There is so much water on the altar that it is dripping off it, all over the ground, and the water has filled up the trench he dug around it.  Elijah is making sure everyone knows how powerful Israel God, Yahweh, is.  If God sends down fire on this then there is no doubt who’s God is more powerful.

Elijah starts to pray and sure enough God sends down fire.  1 Kings 18:38 says, “Then the Lord’s fire fell; it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust.  It even licked up the water in the trench!  That is the God of Israel!  That is the God we worship!  Ahab, the king of Israel, sees this and understands how powerful God is and Elijah takes the prophets of Baal and has them all killed.  Then he goes to the top of a mountain and through prayer and conversation with God he ends the 3 year drought by making it finally rain.  Elijah is on fire for God.  He is doing everything right.  He is showing the people there who God is.  In fact that is his name.  Elijah means “My God is Yahweh.”  He is living out his namesake. 

But then Jezebel hears what happened.  Her husband, Ahab the King, reports what Elijah has done, the fire from heaven and the killing of the prophets.  She is REALLY upset.  She sends a message to Elijah, “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”  What a great line.  Hollywood couldn’t write a better line.  “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”  I can just see Walter White using that line.  It scares Elijah and Elijah does what comes naturally to us all when faced with the reality of death.  He runs, he runs, and he runs some more.

When we find him in verse 9 he has been living in the wilderness for a while and being fed by angels every morning.  When he is refreshed he walks for 40 days and 40 nights until he gets to Mount Horeb, or as it is also known, Mt. Sinai, or God’s Mountain.  Remember what happened on this mountain?  God gave Moses the Law.  It is here that Moses and God talked, interacted and God.  In the midst of Elijah’s fear he runs to meet God.  He crawls into a cave and God comes to him and asks, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

Have you ever had any moment like that in your life?  You are scared to death about the next step.  You know a decision has to be made.  You know you are standing on one of those life moments and you know that after this moment life will never be the same.  Fear consumes you.  Your heart is beating so hard your hair feels like it is keeping time.  Elijah is having one of these moments and God asks him, “Why are you here?”

I never wanted to be a preacher.  I know I have mentioned this before but I attempted to be in ministry in about any other way except to preach every week.  I went to college thinking I would be a Christian Camp Director.  But after one semester I realize that wasn’t the case.  In seminary I did five field education placements, internships.  I did some in the local church but I really pushed myself to do some in chaplaincy, thinking that is where God may be calling me.  In my second year at Duke I worked with Partners in Caring which was a ministry with HIV/AIDS patients at Duke University Hospital and the surrounding counties.  I loved it but at the end of the semester I came to a realization. 

After each semester was over, after my last exam, I would always walk out of the Divinity School and into Duke Chapel.  If you have never been there you should.  It is an amazingly beautiful and enormous space.  You are surrounded by gorgeous stain glass windows and it reminds you how big God is.  I remember sitting there, in the quiet, being still, wrestling with the fact that I knew God wanted me to preach.  I knew after that internship with Partners in Caring that chaplaincy wasn’t my calling.  Directing a camp wasn’t my calling.  Youth and Children’s Ministry wasn’t my calling.  In my heart of hearts I knew what God wanted me to do and in that pew in Duke Chapel I finally agreed.  I had run in every direction I knew and it all kept leading me back to the same place. 

There is a story of another minister in our conference who ran from his calling most of his youth and adulthood.  He knew God was asking him to be a pastor.  Yet he got his education in something else.  He took a job making good money in something else besides ministry.  Then one day at a bar he was thinking over a glass of beer.  It was a revelation, life decision moment.  In his heart and soul he heard God ask him, “Why are you here?”  He had attempted to run but in the end he ran straight into God’s awaiting hands.

Maybe you are running today.  You are running from some trouble in your life.  Maybe you are running from a specific person.  Maybe you are simply running from doing what you know you should be doing.  Your heart and soul are screaming at you but you are trying to run to keep it quiet.  You surround yourself with all the noise in life, the running we all do in life to deafen that voice that calls out to us within ourselves.  Maybe you are running today.

Elijah was running.  He shows up at God’s mountain and God wonders why he is there.  He just proved that Yahweh was bigger than Baal.  He had just made it rain where it hadn’t in three years.  He was on the top of this game and then Jezebel threatens him and he runs.  Sometimes we see all the good we are doing and the difference we are making in the world and the one thing we focus on is the one bad thing someone says.  Now for Elijah Jezebel was a real threat.  She had killed all the other prophets of God and Elijah was the last one.  But if God would send fire and rain down from the sky, would he let Jezebel take him out?  How quickly our faith disappears when trouble hits.

As Elijah sits there in the presence of God, God tells him to prepare himself because he is coming by.  Elijah does and a very strong wind blows by but God is not in the wind.  Then an earthquake comes but God isn’t in the earthquake.  Then a fire rolls in but God is not in the fire.  As one commentary I read this week put it, “Earthquake, wind and fire are natural forces associated with God’s appearance on earth.  God is not found in any of these natural forces, however; they only precede God’s coming. 

Where is God found?  I love the phrasing in the Common English Bible.  It says in verse 12, “After the fire, there was a sound.  Thin. Quiet.”  That is where God was in the midst of the thin and quiet.  You see when life throws us earthquakes, fires, and winds we have this notion that we can do it on our own.  We think we have enough in us to make it through anything.  We can accomplish it all but in reality we can’t.  So we fight through the storms of life.  We put up with all the noise until finally we can’t do it any longer.  Then in our moment of stillness we hear the thin and quiet voice of God.

When we hear that voice we look up and realize we are surrounded by God’s grace, enveloped by his love and that all this running has lead us right to what we were running from.  God doesn’t ridicule us, shame us, or belittle our running.  God doesn’t mock us like Elijah did to the prophets of Baal.  God simply asks, like a tender-hearted father, “Why are you here?”

Take a moment in this holy place today to be still in front of God.  Take a moment to stop running and stop thinking you can do it all on your own.  Let’s stop this morning so the noise passes by and we can hear the thin, quiet voice of God.  “Why are you here today?”  “What are you here?”


God is in the thin.  God is found in the quiet.

And all God’s people said.  Amen.

Be Still – Part 2 – "Knowing and No-ing" (Be Still Sermon Series)

Be Still – Part II
Mark 1:29-39

I am not sure if you all are up-to-date on the ins and outs of the ordination process of the United Methodist Church.  But here is a quick rundown.  All ordained clergy have to go through this process.  First they have to have both a Bachelor’s Degree and then a Masters of Divinity.  That right there is 7 years of schooling, four for the Bachelor’s and then three more for the Masters.  Once that is done you can go in front of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry for your Probationary Interviews.  A candidate has to write papers for three different committees; Call and Discipline Life (who they are and their calling into ministry); for Elders like me, Preaching; and Theology (what they know about God).  You have to write around 75-100 pages total for those papers and then sit through a 45 minute interview will each committee.  If you pass you are commissioned a Probationary Member of the Conference and serve three years before you can go up in front of the boards again; writing all papers and going through interviews again, to become Ordained.  The process can take 10 years if you go straight through.  For me it took 11.

My third year of Divinity School I was eligible to go up in front of the board for probationary status.  I wrote my papers, recorded some of my sermons, and prepared for interviews.  Fellow Divinity School students would gather and we would do mock interviews with one another.  We would help each other articulate our answers so we would feel prepared.  Since I went to Duke there were lots of people from this Conference going up at the same time.  My best friends were from the North Carolina Conference and the South Carolina Conference.  They went to their interviews before me and both of them passed.  They came home excited and we celebrated this milestone in their ministerial lives.

The day of my interviews came and I remember sitting in there petrified.  I was really nervous and scared.  I don’t remember a lot of my questions but I thought they went ok.  As I waited to hear about the results two people came and got me.  Two people were never good.  One person meant you passed, two people meant good cop, bad cop was about to be played.  One to share the bad news and the second one to console you as you curl up in the fetal position and weep.  Sure enough I didn’t pass.  I passed theology.  I passed preaching.  I didn’t pass Call and Discipline Life. 

I couldn’t articulate my calling well and they weren’t feeling that I was quite ready to be a pastor.  I walked out to my truck, I closed the door, and broke down.  I had passed theology.  I passed the test about what I knew.  I passed preaching.  I passed the part about what I would do.  I didn’t pass Call and Discipline Life.  I didn’t pass who I was.  I didn’t pass my calling into the ministry.  I felt deeply hurt because I knew I was called into ministry but I didn’t know why I couldn’t articulate it.  I didn’t know why I could not express that calling to the people on the committee.  In my tears the pain sunk in, deep into my soul.  My family, Alycia and her family were all waiting to hear the news.  I had to call them and tell them I didn’t pass.  All my friends from Seminary were waiting, waiting to celebrate like I celebrated for them.  I had to face them, broken, dejected, and utterly modified.  I was modified because I didn’t pass the part that was supposed to be the easiest, who I was.  I had even heard one that one of the people on the committee, a lay person, said that she wouldn’t want me as her minister. 

In this moment, it just stunk.  There are other words I used to describe this moment in my life but they are not appropriate for me to say from behind this pulpit. They gave me a spiritual director that I worked with over the next year.  I had to go in front of that committee again the following year and I passed that time.  I am here and I am ordained.  But to see this from way back there was impossible.

Looking back I can see what happened.  I can pin point exactly why I didn’t pass.  Here is what else was happening in my life at that moment.  In my third year of seminary I only had to take three classes a semester instead of four because I took a class over the summer.  So my class work load was a little lighter.  I was working part time at Heavenly Ham and was doing an internship in Rougemont, NC.  I was preaching every week in a three point charge about 45 minutes above Durham.  There was a three point charge up there and I would join the pastor of the charge for the 9:00 service and then I would go preach on of the 11 services and she would preach at the other church.  It was a great experience and I learned a lot preparing a sermon each week and preaching in front of tens of people. 

On top of all that I was also engaged to Alycia and we were busy planning our wedding for May 25, two weeks after I graduated from Duke.  Then about three months later we were moving to England for a year where I would be in charge of three churches just northeast of Manchester.  Then I also had all this work for commissioning to do.  I had a little bit on my plate.  Ok, I had a buffet load on my plate.  I was attempting to juggle about 12 balls at once. 

What had happened in that interview was the manifestation of having too much on my plate.  By saying yes to so much, I didn’t have enough space, enough mind power, enough spirit to give it my all.  I couldn’t formulate sentences to express what I did to connect with God.  I completely forgot to tell them that my roommates and I would gather in the crypt in Duke Chapel to pray for each other every week.  I completely forgot to tell them how I felt 100% myself when I was doing ministry and no other place in life made me feel that whole.  I didn’t have the words because I was attempting to pull myself too thin.  Writing papers for class, writing sermons each week, working part time, planning a wedding (ok Alycia and her Step-mom did 90% of that) and planning on moving to another country.  It was all too much.

In the gospel of Mark we get this unique story of Jesus doing something I couldn’t do in 2001-2002, say no.  It is only the first chapter of Mark’s gospel and Jesus has already done a whole lot before we get to the 29thverse.  He came onto the scene and was baptized by John, taken out to the wilderness to be tempted for 40 days, came back and called the disciples, and three out some demons.  Now he finds himself in the house of Simon healing his mother-in-law.  After he does that the whole town shows up with their sick and demon possessed and he heals all of them.  I don’t know about you but that seems like a really busy couple of months right there. 

Then we get to verse 35; “early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”  Jesus knew exactly what he needed to do.  After giving so much of himself; lasting through the temptations; healing and casting out demons; Jesus needed to be alone with his father.  He needed some peace away from the hectic world.  He needed to be still even though the world kept demanding him to keep producing. 

The disciples are hunting around looking for him and then they finally find him and what do they say?  “Everyone’s looking for you!”  Where have you been?  There is work that has to be done!  We need you to heal the next hundred or so people that showed up this morning!  What is amazing is what Jesus does.  He does the opposite of what we think Jesus should do.  When we think of Jesus we think that he would say; “I know they are waiting for me, let us go and heal them all of their wounds.  Let us go and cast out the demons.  Let us make the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear.”  But what does he say; verse 38; “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too.  That’s why I’ve come.”

His disciples are telling him about all these people that need him.  They are seeking out his care, his grace, his compassion and Jesus says, “There are a bunch of people over there?  Let’s go this way instead.”

What is simply amazing is why.  He goes the other way because he knows who he is and why he came to the earth.  He knows that he is the Son of God sent here to preach to the world.  Not just one place.  Not to only heal those who came from Simon’s mother-in-law’s town.  He came to heal the world and the people who existed before him and after him, all of humanity.  He knew his mission and he knew his purpose.

That is something that I am feel we as a church need to wrestle with.  One of the articles in the newsletter this month is requesting your help with creating our mission statement.  The Church Council wants your input on defining our purpose and our mission. Why are we here?  What is God calling us to do for Indian Trail and the world?  We need to be able to define that, speak it, remember it because it defines who we are and hones our ability to be church.  Jesus knew it.  Jesus understood it.  He didn’t get swallowed up in life because he found time to be still.  He escaped and went away to a quiet place to be still and talk with God.

How are you doing with your devotionals?  Is it easy to find time for God in your day?  It is only ten minutes, can you find the time?  Being still takes practice so I hope you will continue to do the work this month and if you did not pick up a devotional there are some more in the back on your way out.  Join in and walk this journey because we need time to be still and know who God is and understand or know who we are.

I wasn’t still enough in my third year of seminary.  I was on a bullet train and didn’t even realize it.  I knew I had a lot to do but I thought it was all possible.  That reality came crashing down, hard.  During the skit Leslie and everyone else did a great job depicting the stresses in life that can fill us up.  All of it seems necessary.  All of it is calling for our attention.  All of it demands 100% of who we are.  But when it piles up it can be too much.  We lose sight of who we are and why we are here.  We lose our purpose and our mission that God is calling us to do when we accept all the demands and stuff that life can through on us.

What I find exciting about this piece of scripture is that I am find assurance in knowing I can say no.  Jesus said no.  He saw all the people that gathered and he went the other way.  He knew what he was supposed to do and what he could get accomplished in what time he had.  He knew what was most important.  Even though those people needed to be healed he knew his task was bigger than that. 

I think many of us think that being Christian means we have to say yes to everything.  I mean what good Christian doesn’t say yes?  But every time we say yes to something we are saying no to something else.  Let me say that again so you can hear it and let it sink in; every time we say yes to something we are saying no to something else.  It is like the children’s sermon.  I know I can only juggle three balls at a time.  If someone tosses me a fourth I have to let it drop because I cannot handle it.  If I attempt they all will fall.  But if I put one down and pick the other ball up I can handle it. 

Maybe you desire something more out of life.  Maybe you want to make sure you are the best parent for your kids but life keeps getting in the way.  Maybe you have always felt God calling you to help in some way in our community, to reach out and tutor a child, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or something but you cannot find the time.  Maybe life feels like the skit and you are we being weighed down by all the demands in life and you can’t do any of it well because there is just too much. 

Maybe we should take note from Jesus and learn to say no.  By saying no to the things we need to say no to we can actually say yes to the things we truly desire to say yes to.  Life can eat you up and spit you out.  If you actually tried to do everything your kids school asks you to do, the church asks you to do, your kids ask you to do, your work asks you to do, your family asks you to do, your spouse asks you to do, and God asks you to do, you cannot do it all.  YOU CANNOT DO IT ALL!!!!  Jesus couldn’t so why do you think you can!

We need to learn our purpose and our mission as individuals and as a church so we can know who we are and say no to the things that get in the way of that.  To do that we need time to pray, to be still, to push everything away in order to reprioritize and get in tune with what God says to us is most important of all.

May you find time to be still in order to know who you are, whose you are, and what you are supposed to be doing.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Be Still – Part 1 (Be Still Sermon Series)

Be Still – Part 1
Psalm 46

“The feeling of being hurried is not usually the result of living a full life and having no time. It is, on the contrary, born of a vague fear that we are wasting our life. When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else–we are the busiest people in the world.”[1]  It seems people are busier than they have ever been.  But are we busy because we fear we are wasting our lives?  Are we busy because we are filling it will meaningful, real, important things?  Or are we simply filling time and not living life?  As the quote goes, “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.”

We are programmed in our world to “work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger.”[2]  There is a pace of this life that seems to be getting faster and faster.  Life has got its foot on the gas petal and has looked around to find no cops in sight.  Then put the hammer down and if you aren’t on board you are simply left behind.  That is until…

There are moments that slow down.  Moments that you can replay in you head over and over again.  It happened in regular speed but in that moment you were hyper aware and soaked up every inch of stimulus and placed in a special spot in your brain.  In the wee hours of the morning, after a long 8 hour ride home from Washington, DC, my Dad and I walked into our living room to find my mom in a chair.  It was not a good sign.  My heart sunk as the words came out of her mouth.  My grandmother, my Dad’s mom, had died.  I really don’t remember what my parents did but I know I simply kept walking into the dinning room, rested my head against a wall and cried.  In an instant I can be back in that moment, standing there and I can feel that wall *right there*. 

There is another moment when Alycia and I were driving back to Durham after having Thanksgiving in Ohio.  I was driving a back road I knew to get around some holiday traffic on I40 when all of a sudden WHAM!  A deer jumped out in front of my red Chevy S10 and before I could stop I had hit its hindquarters sending it’s head around the side of my truck until it hit my door.  It was the only deer I have ever killed.  It was over before I realized what happened by I can still take myself back to that road, the darkness and the sounds of flesh and metal meeting.

Then there was May 25, 2002, my wedding day.  The day that took over a year to plan for, the ceremony had put together with all our closest family and friends sitting there watching.  All I remember is making sure I didn’t faint as Alycia came down the aisle and then walking her back down.  What happened in between, even the kiss, I cannot recall as vividly as those other events.

Psalm 46 is my favorite Psalm, and in it holds my favorite verse, verse 10.  Be still and know that I am God.  I have found comfort and peace in that verse many times in my life.  There have been moments of decision making that I prayed and prayed about.  As I wrestled with them this verse would come to mind and I could feel God’s presence come into my soul and whisper “be still.”

There are moments in a busy life when you realize that you will not be able to do it all.  I cannot stand that feeling.  If I take on a task I want to do it to the best of my abilities and to the fullest.  I don’t want to leave it half done or not done at all.  If my name is attached to it I want to see it through.  But what I have learned in my ten years of ministry that there is always work to be done, always stuff that will not get done.  I may not like it but that is the reality of life.  Maybe you are like me in that respect.  Maybe you have remind yourself that you are not Superman or Superwoman.  You are not Super-mom or Super-dad and things will be left undone.

At the end of the day I will simply have to be still and know that God is God. 

Why Psalm 46 was written is a little unclear.  Not all scholars agree to the why question.  It looks like it could have been written to celebrate some of the military wins of King David.  Some scholars think it is an eschatological hymn.  Or a hymn talking about the end of times.  We can see some of those notions in here.  But what the Interpreters Bible Commentary suggests is that it is a New Year’s Festival psalm.  There is a prophetic style to it which directs us to reset our course at the beginning of the new year. 

How many times do we do this during our New Years resolutions?  This year will be different, “[God] makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.”  How many times do we start a new year hoping things will be different?  Three times in this psalm this phrase is repeated, “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  This reminds us that God is with us and is our place of refuge and strength.  God is where we can hide our faces and feel safe in a troubled world.  God is the place where things can start to make sense when this busy world gets the best of us.  God is the place where we can go and truly celebrate the gifts of life when they happen.  But none of this can happen unless we are still.

I told you that I do not remember much of my wedding because I did not take a chance to soak it in.  I regret that.  Now when I do weddings I always take a moment, just 30 seconds, to have the bride and groom realize what moment they are having.  I ask them to look around and soak it up. My hope is that moment will soak into their memory and fill their hearts with joy.  My hope it is then that they can look back and see God in their midst, uniting them as one.  We do not have trouble with that when it comes to life’s struggles and pains.  Those memories take up space without our request. 

But the good times, the victories, the triumphs, the moments when the wars do stop, and peace does exists are few and far between in our busy world.  We need to learn and practice being still and recognizing God’s goodness when we are in the moment.  I hope you have felt that today as we reminiscence about our shared journey.

In all things, in all places, in all times we need to realize that God is God and give God the credit.  We need to remember that when our worlds come tumbling down, God is God.  When our lives seem like they cannot get any better, God is God.  When life is going by at a fast rate that we cannot pull one day apart from the next, God is God. 

[read Psalm 46 again]

And all God’s people said, Amen.


[1]Eric Hoffer, Bits & Pieces, May 1990, p. 1.
[2]Daft Punk song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”

Pilgrimage Sermon Series – Entering God’s Promised Land – Philippians 2:1-11

Entering God’s Promised Land
Philippians 2:1-11
Today we are on the last leg of this Pilgrimage.  If you remember six weeks back, on Epiphany, we started this journey towards God’s Promised Land.  Over the weeks we have learned and discussed a lot here in worship and in the Bible Study on Monday nights.  As we enter into this last sermon, let me recap very quickly where we have been before we can get to where we are going.
The first week, which seems so long ago, we talked about Jesus praying for us in the garden of Gethsemane.  There Jesus gives us the vision and mission of his disciples.  His mission for his disciples, US, is that we are sent out into the world as representatives of God’s love and in the love of God.  This never changes, is always the same, and is always constant.  Jesus’ vision is that we are united with his heart, have joy which is found in his love, and grow and be formed by the truth. 
In the second week we talked about Israelites hearing the reports from the 12 spies.  10 said that the Promise Land was full of giants and they shared with everyone a vision of perceived reality, one based and found in fear.  Caleb and Joshua gave a report from an envisioned reality, or a reality based on faith in God.  Then we talked about overcoming the giants in the land.  We have to have faith that God can get us through anything.  Two weeks ago I preached about asking the right questions and that we need to be asking questions that lead us to God’s Promised Land and not to boost our own agendas.  Last week we discussed the invitations of Jesus which move us beyond ourselves and beyond our own walls to the people out there that need to know God.
Today we take the final leg of our Pilgrimage.  Today we will be talking about Entering God’s Promised Land.  What is interesting is in the story of Moses and the Israelites, Moses never enters the Promise Land.  He brings them to the edge and they decided to follow the reality of the ten spies.  They show lack of faith in God and because of that, they are sent into the wilderness for 40 years.  40 years later they come back to the edge of the Promise Land.  As the waters part in the Jordan the God’s chosen people enter the land he promised to give them.  Moses is on a mountain top watching and that is where he dies.  He sees the promise land, he watches his people enter it but never does. 
Why?  Why does Moses, a man of God, who has followed God’s call to lead his people not enter the promise land?  That story goes back to Numbers 20.  They are in the Desert of Zin and Miriam, Moses’ older sister who watched him in the basket on the river from the reeds, has just died.  The people of Israel are thirsty, so very thirsty.  They once again grumble against Moses and Aaron and blame them for their situation.  Moses and Aaron go to the Tent where God’s presence is and fall down on their faces.  God tells them to gather the people and water will spout out of a rock so everyone will have enough to drink.  Moses does this and strikes the rock twice and when he does water comes out.  Then God tells Moses “You did not trust in me enough to honor me. You did not honor me as the holy God in front of the people of Israel. So you will not bring this community into the land I am giving them.” (Numbers 20:12)
Moses did not trust God enough.  Moses lost sight of God’s grace and power.  Moses isn’t the only one who battles with this.  There are countless people in the Bible that do not trust God and end up paying the consequences.  Jonah thinks he knows better than God and attempts to run away but instead he finds himself in the belly of a fish and spat out three days later.  Peter is walking on water with Jesus and then sinks as he sees the wind and waves.  The early churches all struggle with their faith in God and they seek help from Paul, who writes to them to encourage and build them up.
That is where we get the message today.  The churches in Philippi are the first churches in Europe.  They are the congregations that made it possible for us to be here today.  But in Paul’s absence others were seeking to push their own agendas and so Paul writes them to make sure they understand their purpose and their calling as a congregation of Disciples of Jesus Christ.  We see this envisioned reality named by Paul in the first four verses, “Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.  Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”
Once again we hear the echo of Jesus’ second invitation we talked about last week.  We are to die to self for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  If we want to enter the Promise Land of God then we need to forget about ourselves, our agendas, our desires and concentrate on others.  We have to have this type of attitude as individuals and as a congregation to be able to enter the Promised Land God is calling us into.
When I was in High School my Sunday School teacher, Dave, was one of the coolest guys around.  He had a Jeep Wrangler AND a Mazda Miata.  He had a house on Lake Norman and worked in the South Park area making a 6 digit salary.  To a High School youth, he was living the life we had all dreamed of and wanted.  Then in my senior year we learned he was giving it all up.  Over the years he had started a ministry called, “Operation Warm Up.”  It took winter clothes that were donated in Charlotte up to the hollers of West Virginia.  Youth would pack up into teams of mini vans and head into the mountains passing out free clothes.  My senior year we learned that he was giving up his life here in Charlotte and moving to Gary, WV to live and work with McDowell Missions.  He would work for free.  This astonished us youth because he was living the life we thought we all desired but in reality he was giving up one life for the one we should really desire.  Dave had a better understanding of what God’s Promised Land looked like and it led him to the cold mountains of West Virginia, to one of the poorest places in the United States.
Daniel Fogarty is another person who decided God was asking him to leave his job as a political campaign manager and to pursue another path.  The other path led him to a couple of men who decided they wanted to help poor people in Charlotte.  They had come across families who could not afford furniture.   These families would spend all their money on rent and utilities so they would have a roof over their heads but nothing to sleep on.  These men found out that kids were sleeping on piles of clothes and that the only dresser they had to store their clothes in were plastic garbage bags.  Now he runs a ministry called “Beds for Kids.”  They take gently used furniture and furnish families houses with them.  The cost to the family is only $30 but the results from the children actually sleeping on a bed instead of the floor is amazing.  The majority of them increase their grades by one letter grade only a couple months after sleeping on their own bed, some for the first time in their lives.
The Apostle Paul was also understood too well what it meant to live into this attitude of Christ.  Paul lived a life that mirrored Christ’s dedication and love.  When he writes to the Philippians in verses 5-11 he gives them the attitude of Jesus.  Verse 7-8 says, “But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.  When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  Paul understood this all too well because he was writing this letter to the churches in Philippi while he was in prison.  Paul was in prison because he was awaiting trial for preaching the gospel of Christ.  Paul is taking the second invitation of Jesus seriously and is willing to do whatever it takes to build up the Kingdom of God.
Philippians 2:5-11 is known as the kenosis [Ken-o-sis] hymn.  Kenosis is the Greek word that means self-empting, which makes this the self-empting hymn.  It is important to remember this hymn because it is the blueprint for what we as Jesus’ disciples are supposed to live out but also what we as a church are to strive for as the Body of Christ.  Jesus made a deliberate choice to walk down the path to the cross.  He didn’t have to but his love for us truly gave him one option.  Now we are to let our love for him overpower our agendas, desires and ideas and model that same love for the world.
But it is hard to empty one’s self when there is so much pain involved.  It is hard to move beyond a past that can consume us, burden us, and hold us back.  Moses was held back by his struggles with his leadership abilities.  He always doubted, in the back of his head, that he could not live up to what God was asking him to do.  That is probably part of the reason that he was not let into that Promise Land.  He lacked the faith in God.  The thing is God believed in him, God knew he made the right choice when he talked to Moses in the burning bush, and God was going to give him what he needed to succeed.  It still meant that he had to work hard, but God was behind him all the way. 
We have some things in our past to get over.  As the Bible Study meets on Monday nights we have been talking about such things.  We have discovered that in our past there has been dysfunction, conflict, and distrust.  If you need proof let me show you something.  (hold up pictures of what the new church was projected to look like)
What is this?  The way some of you are moving right now it is a source of discomfort and it is emotional.  This was the plan for a new church project.  It was done five years ago.  Five years ago this place had two services that averaged about what we have here.  Things were hopping and moving forward.  People were excited and energized.  Then the bottom fell out of the economy and so did the wind in the sails of this vision.  I am not showing you this to point fingers. I’m not placing blame, I am only naming a reality in our past we will have to get over.  This is a picture that many believed was our congregation’s Promised Land, but we didn’t make it. 
Does that mean we give up?  Does that mean we stare at this giant in our way and simply go back to Egypt?  No, we have to name our currently reality, look to the past and then move beyond it.  Here is the good thing (flip board over).  What does this look like? 
To me this is the picture of God’s Promised Land for us here at Indian Trail UMC.  It is full of potential and the sky is the limit for what it could turn out to be.  What it is, is not yet revealed.  It is not drawn out for us yet.  I believe though that there is something God is calling us towards.  There is something that can come to light on this board.  This is the future of our congregation.  All we need to do is simply have faith God can bring it into being and work hard to make it happen.
We have giants to face.  We have debt to take care of, a parsonage that needs drastic attention, a fellowship hall that isn’t much better, and many other issues.  We are going in the right direction.  People are excited.  But we need to be in constant prayer with God to figure out what that future should look like.  How are we as a congregation living into the mission and vision of our Savoir?  What is our mission and vision for us as a congregation?  What are our goals?  What is our being called to do for Jesus Christ in Indian Trail?
Paul celebrated his struggles because he knew he was living into the Promise Land God was calling him to.  When we have an answer all those questions I just mentioned, we will be living into that Promised Land as well.  Our journey is not over today, but the hard work is just beginning.  The only way we will enter is if we have faith in the one who has brought us this far; the one who emptied himself for our sake, and only demands we do the same for him.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

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
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.