Don’t Be Afraid…Christmas Eve Sermon

Don’t Be Afraid – Luke 2:1-14 – A Christmas Eve Sermon

It is here. It is right now. I can’t stand it. I have waited and worked and waited and finally it is here. It is Christmas Eve and this is one of my favorite times to preach. I love preaching Easter morning too…but tonight I love just as well. There is something so special and yet so simple about tonight that makes it so easy to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to people.

At the 4:30pm service at the Stable I told people they needed to simply let the world go away for a moment and simply be present here in this moment. I ask you all to do the same. We have already read the Christmas story out of Luke and heard the wonder prose of John about the Word making his home among us. What excites me so much about this service is how tangible God is in this moment. There is something about candlelight and the soft singing of Silent Night that makes my heart leap out of my chest and proclaim that God has come to earth.

We need this message as we wrap up another calendar year. 2015 has been hard. I have had to lift up prayers for too many people who have been killed in violent acts. My mind had to wrap around the fact that a gunman walked into a church in Charleston and killed 9. Another walked into two military recruiting center and shot 8 people, 5 of who died. In October we were witness to another person who walked on to a community college campus and killed 9 and injured another 9. 3 more people died and 9 others were injured in Colorado and a Planned Parenthood clinic while 14 died and 21 were injured this month while at work at a holiday party.  There was another shooting today, Christmas Eve, at Northlake Mall in North Charlotte.

All of these shootings made us feel unsafe because were is there safety? These shootings happened at church, at school, surrounded by military, at the doctors and at work. Many of us have looked at this year and we don’t know what to feel and where we can feel safe any more.

These were human atrocities but mother nature punched a wallop this year too. There was the earthquake in Nepal, which killed 2,100. An avalanche on Mt. Everest took the lives of 19. There was horrible flooding which killed many in Texas, Oklahoma and our brothers and sisters in South Carolina. This was a horrible year for wild fires in the west where drought has been ravaging that area for a long time. Then there was the super typhoon that struck the Pacific causing major landslides and brought in 50 inches of rain.

You have all these events and you add the acts of terror that have happened here in California and around the world many people simply want to run and hide. But where do we go? If we turn on the television we have presidential candidates who tell us we should be running scared. They tell the world is falling down around us and what we need most is their leadership. We see images on news feeds of these disasters and we run to see disaster movies like Andres because movies of horrible disasters on the big screen distract us from the real-life ones on the little screens at home.

We are told we are to live in a constant state of fear and we shouldn’t trust our neighbors or those seeking refuge because we don’t know who will want to kill us. We are pushed to retreat to hang around only those who we agree with or see the world as we do. We look for someone to blame and for scapegoats in order to feel better. We surround ourselves with things that make us feel more powerful and secure but are only tools of human.

All of this is happening out there, out there in the world and yet here we are, on Christmas Eve in this place. We are here away from the wet and odd weather outside in this dry and sacred space to celebrate the arrival of God’s son. But what does it all really mean when there is so much out there that tells us otherwise?

A common tradition during this time of year is for many families to gather around the television and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. It is a wonderful special and I remember watching it with my sisters and parents every year. If you don’t remember the plot to this story, here is a good summary. Charlie Brown complains about the overwhelming materialism of this season and Lucy suggest that to recover the Christmas spirit he directs the Christmas play. Charlie Brown agrees and to help restore the proper spirit he brings an ugly and useless tree as decoration. It takes Linus to help everyone learn about the real reason we celebrate Christmas.

I love Linus’ speech at the end of this show and it warms my heart every time I see it. If you don’t remember Linus he is the one who carries the blue blanket everywhere. People try to get him to stop carrying this safety blanket around but they can’t seem to pry it out of his hands. There is actually a scene where Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog, tries to rip it out of Linus’ hand while they are ice skating. This turns into a massive disaster as Linus never lets go no matter how many other kids they pick up in the process.

When we think of Linus we think of that blanket and we recognize other people who carry around the same safety blankets in our lives. I had a Donald Duck I loved so much it almost fell apart. We cling to physical things but then we also cling to other safety blankets too. We cling to our pain and grief because it is what defines us. We cling to our fear because it makes us warm and fuzzy. This is all a shell we put up around ourselves because we are too scared of the reality if we actually let those safety blankets go.

Jason Soroski is a writer and musician and he wrote an interesting article that spoke to me this season. I knew where I wanted to go with this sermon tonight but Soroski’s article hit the nail on the head.  He points out something special about Linus and the end of this Christmas special. I am going to show you the clip and you see if you can spot it.

Did you see it? Did you see what happens. Linus drops his blanket. In the middle of him quoting the Christmas story from Luke, he drops his blanket. What is even more telling is that he drops it on a certain phrase. Watch it again because I know some of you don’t believe me.

Linus lets go of his blanket when he says, “And the angel of the Lord said to them, “Fear not.” In the movie there is a slight pause, Linus drops his blanket and then continues. This movie has been around for 50 years and I have seen it probably over a dozen times. I have never noticed this until this article pointed it out and there is no way that this was an accident. Shultz, the creator of the Peanuts, is a genius.

Now you might have noticed that he does pick up the blanket after he is done. And this is true for us. When we realize who God is and what his Son has done for us we drop the blanket but then life continues to happen and we pick it up again. But if you watch the rest of the show, as they rehab Charlie Brown’s messily little tree, Linus wraps his blanket around the tree to show it a little bit of love. In the dramatic ending, his friends all gather around say Charlie Brown was right, it was a nice tree. Then they sing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Tonight, we gather around here today, with everything happening out there, today we get a true picture of reality. The reality we claim tonight is that Christ is born. Jesus Christ, God’s son, came to the world in order for us to be in God’s presence again. He humbled himself by putting on flesh and dwelling with us. He came to this world so we could understand and see what God’s love truly looks like.

So let us heed the message of the Christmas angel, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you – wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger….Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those who he favors.”

This is the first Christmas message and my prayer for you tonight is that you will feel this in your heart. May this message of hope, peace, joy and love be found in your heart because God put on flesh because he loves you. He humbled himself because he wants you to have the gift of salvation that is found in his Son, the one in the manger.

With a savior who is willing to come to this world as a helpless newborn in the middle of animals in a stable what do we have to truly fear? With a savior who goes from the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross and bears our sins upon himself…what do we have to fear? With a love of God that tells us we are forgiven people and a God who defeats death for our sake…what do we have to fear?

The angel’s message is true. We have nothing to fear because we are loved by God who is willing to send his son to this world for our sake. The God who created the universe put on humanity’s limitations in order for us to have salvation. This God is always with us…even now…through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. With God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our hearts and here in this place tonight…we don’t have anything to be fearful of.

May you feel this hope, peace, joy and love tonight and always…and all God’s people said…Amen.

Looking at Sin in the Mirror – A Sermon on Racism

2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Looking at Sin in the Mirror
My heart broke, my soul cried, my mouth fell open when I heard that 9 people were shot, in a church, during a Bible Study in Charleston, SC.  I was sitting in the living room when of the house we rented for Annual Conference when Alycia got notified on her phone that there was a shooting in Charleston and 9 people died.  I remember saying, “That is horrible,” but then I continued doing what I was doing.
This is going to be a very honest sermon and it is a tough sermon but it is needed.  I need to preach it and I feel people, you, need to hear it.  I continued to do what I was doing because it is all too common these days.  My first December as the minister here was marked by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.  In the two years since there have been over 100 school shootings.  That is one shooting a week at either K-12 schools or higher education. We are surrounded by violence.  We are surrounded by hate and we don’t take notice anymore.
When Alycia shared with me that 9 people were shot in Charleston my heart took a millisecond to grieve but then I moved on, like I always do.  I have a feeling I was not alone in that moment.  However, then I learned more about it on Thursday.  I learned that a white 21-year-old, Dylann Roof, sat in on a Wednesday Night Bible Study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  There were 13 people at this Bible study, including the shooter.  During the Bible Study he started to disagree when they started discussing Scripture.  He soon took out a gun and when asked why he was attacking churchgoers, he said, “I have to do it.” 
He yelled racist statements the whole time as he shot 9 people and left only one person alive to tell the story.  Two others survived by playing dead.   All over the news we heard about the search for the suspect and we know his name, Dylann Roof, who stopped at an ATM in Charlotte and then was arrested in Shelby.  We know the shooter but do we know the victims?
I wanted read the names of those 9 who came to Church to learn more about God that day but then found themselves face to face with our Lord. 
·      Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54) – she was a manager for the Charleston County Public Library System
·      Susie Jackson (87) – she was a devote church and choir member
·      Ethel Lee Lance (70) – the church custodian
·      Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49) – a pastor who was also employed as a school administrator and admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University.
·      Clementa C. Pinckney (41) – church pastor and South Carolina State senator.  He was also getting his decorate at Wesley Theological Seminary.
·      Tywanza Sanders (26) – he was the nephew of Susie Jackson and when it was obvious that the shooting was going to start he dove in front of her.
·      Daniel Simmons (74) – a pastor who also served at Greater Zion AME Church
·      Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45) – a pastor, speech therapist and track coach
·      Myra Thompson (59) – Bible Study teacher
All of this came out as I sat in on the Plenary Sessions at Annual Conference.  We prayed and the bishop sent a letter on behalf of our conference to the AME’s bishop in that area.  Later the Bishops of the South Eastern Jurisdiction crafted a statement.  They said, “The College of Bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church stands with our Methodist family at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, with our brother Bishop Richard Franklin Morris of the Seventh Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and with our colleague Bishop Jonathan Holston, of the South Carolina Conference.  We condemn this act of violence in the house of the Lord. We commit ourselves anew to the work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred. And we lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, as God’s witness to the violence and division that is our human condition.  Please join us in acts of prayer, compassion and justice on behalf of our Pan-Methodist sisters and brothers.”
I know many pastor left Annual Conference early to return to preach to their congregation last Sunday and to speak about this tragic event.  I wrestled with that idea but I knew the work that Connie and Leslie put into their preparation.  I also knew the rarity of being able to worship with my family and have my kids next to me.  I also knew I didn’t have the words yet and I needed to worship first.
God laid a grip on my heart and I wrestled with what to preach today.  Should I stick with the lectionary or forget it and preach about what weighed heavy on my soul.  My soul won out.  The Holy Spirit, which has not let me rest yet, won out.  Today I feel we need to have a conversation about reconciling ourselves to God and to each other.  Today we need to follow the Bishops’ advice and commit our own work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred.  Today we need to “lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, as God’s witness to the violence and division that is our human condition.”
If we look at the text in 2 Corinthians we see that the process of reconciliation is to understand that as we become followers of Jesus and let the love of Christ control us we will change.  We will no longer stay the same.  We will move beyond ourselves and into the likeness of Christ.  Original sin, Adam and Eve disobeying God, happened because humanity wanted to be like God.  In Jesus Christ, God shows us what it is like and how to become like God and now we aren’t interested anymore.  Yet, if I am to be a follower of Jesus then I have to give into the change God’s love and grace does for me and in me.  I have to change my ways because I am no longer the same.  This thought consumed me as I read articles and blog posts, while I listened to sermons and read scripture.  As I learned about the hate, the evil and the sin that occurred in Emmanuel AME Church, I knew that Christ’s love and grace is the answer…but how do we get there.
I can’t stand up here and call others out.  I cannot jump on the bandwagon to bash other people.  The only thing I can do today is to make a confession.  I confess that I thought we as a culture and me personally had moved past racism.  I saw what I thought were remnants of it in conversations I would have with people or the way others talked.  I chalked it up to an older generation or an outdated way of thinking.  I was born in Detroit, MI back when whites were only the slight majority at 55%.  Sure, when I moved to Charlotte in 3rdgrade the majority of my classmates in Elementary school were white but that was because we lived on the outskirts of town.  When I went to Ranson Middle School our demographic changed and there were more black students then in my elementary school.  At West Charlotte High School I was one of the minorities where only around 35% of the school was white.  I grew up in diverse schools so I thought we had moved past all of this racism simply because I was in close proximity to people of other races.
However, as I looked back at my life growing up this week I confess it wasn’t always the case.  My close friends were 99% white.  My Boy Scout Troop was 95% white.  My church was 99.9% white.  My schooling may have been diverse but outside Middle School and High School, I lived in white America.  Not only that but I realized that many of my friends were extremely racist.  In middle school we would tell each other racist jokes and say horrible things about getting out of school for Martin Luther King Day.  I look back at those moments and I am completely humbled by shame and grief.  This is not how God wants me to treat people.
I confess that in the culture I grew up in I was taught to see non-white people as different and to be scared of them.  I can’t place why or where.  This is not something my parents taught me on purpose.  This is not something that I remember having a lesson in or a special class on.  No, it is something that was ingrained in my white culture that told me to be more scared of a black man than a white man.  I am sure it is because of media and news coverage.  I am sure it is because of the movies and TV shows I watched.  I am sure it is because of the people I grew up with and the subconscious decisions I made along the way.  I confess though that still to this day I view people of other races differently.   This is not how God wants me to treat people.
I confess that I did not realize the level of racism that is ingrained in our history and culture of our church.  In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church split into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South because the south wanted to keep slaves.  After the Civil War and the freeing of slaves the church still remained split until 1939, 95 years later.  When this church was founded on September 21, 1902 it was named, Indian Trail Methodist Episcopal Church South.  We were part of a system that wanted to keep a race of people enslaved.  This fact is in our name itself.
When we look at where this tragic event in Charleston happened we also get a picture of our racist past.  Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded 199 years ago.  It is part of the AME denomination, which is one of the Pan-Methodist denominations.   The reason the AME denomination exists is because of acts of racism, segregation and discrimination.  In St. George’s church in Philadelphia Richard Allan was a slave who purchased his freedom and started the Free African Society.  He lead prayer meetings among black members of the church.  But the people of St. George’s didn’t like the movement.  They segregated the sanctuary and cast the black members to the gallery upstairs.  Finally after two black worshipers were pulled out of the church while they were praying, Allan had enough and started Mother Bethel Church and the eventual start of a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Both AME and the AMEZ denominations were born out of the discrimination and racism of the Methodist Church and movement here in America. 
I say this not to bash us on the head but for us to recognize that this is in our country and our culture’s past.  We have not escaped it and we can’t ignore it, like I did for much of my adult life.  To do so is a sin.  This week I recognized in myself how much racism has played a part in my upbringing, my culture and my country.  I wrestle with this fact and I hope you will too.
Yet there is good news.  It can stop with us.  Nelson Mendela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  He is correct.  A child doesn’t see someone and focus on the color of their skin or their socioeconomic make up, they see another person.  We, as their parents, their church, their fellow citizens, teach them how to view that person.  Do we or will we teach them to hate, to judge or to love?
1 Corinthians 5:21, “God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.”  God knows our human tendencies and our need for that saving Grace.  We are in desperate need because sin abounds in our world.  Sin is everywhere and we need to be reconciled to God and each other for it. 
The 3rd verse of the hymn, Just As I Am, we are about to sing sums it up wonderfully.  It says, “Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”  If we are going to actually move past our racist history, reconcile with one another and live as on earth as it is in heaven, then we need to come to Jesus.  We need to recognize the racism and the sin inside ourselves and say, “This stops with me.  I won’t pass it on to the next generation.” 
As I have grappled with how I see others that are different than me I always pause and say to myself, “How does God see this person?”  Does God see them as their race? Nationality? Sexuality? Language they speak? Political party they vote for? State they were born in?  No!  God sees them as one of his children; someone who has the image of God imbedded into their souls. 
May we reconcile ourselves to God and be given this sight as well.  May we move into the future not repeating the sins of the past.  May we reconcile ourselves to God in order to be the people of God to this world. 

And all God’s people said…Amen.

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. 

Light: Reflecting the Source – Part II

Light: Reflecting the Source – Part II
John 1:1-18

Last week we started with our new sermon series on Light: Reflecting the Source by talking about God the creator.  God’s first words to create this world was, “Let there be light.”  The creator God knew we could not live and thrive without light and it was the first thing he created.  He created it to give us life, purpose, and to bring order to chaos.  Today we talk about the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.

We are very familiar with the beginning of John’s gospel.  I gospel.   familiar with the beginning of John’t to give us life, purpose, and to bring order to choas.f you attended one of our Christmas Eve services you heard this scripture read.  It is one of the most beautiful pieces of scripture ever written.  The poetry is wonderful but what is even more impressive is what it tells us about the Light of the World. 

I would wager everyone here has heard of Jesus of Nazareth, the baby born in a manger, God’s son.  But do we truly understand who he is and what he meant to this world?  Do we truly know and can explain to someone else who Jesus is?  Can we say with certainty that we know Jesus?  I think we can talk about what Jesus means to our personal lives but what I am talking about is can we talk theologically about who Jesus is?  Theology is like biology or ecology.  The suffix, the last part of each of these words is ‘ology’ which comes from the Greek word logos.  It means the study of, specialty in or art of.  The prefix or start of each of these words tell you what it is a study of.  Bio means physical life.  Therefore biology means the study of the physical life.  Ecology is broken down like this, eco means interactions of environments, therefore ecology is the study of the different interactions of our environments. 

For the word Theology, ‘theo’ comes from the Greek word that means God.  Theology means the study of the nature of God.  Can we talk about clearly about the nature of who Jesus is?  We can all profess Jesus as our savior but can we explain him?  We should be able to.  If being a Christian means that we are followers of Jesus, then we should know who he is.  We should be able to explain who he is and what he has meant for the world. 

Here is the good news, this is already done for us, all we need to do is make it our own.  The first chapter of John’s gospel lends itself to explain exactly who Jesus is.  If we read this passage over and over we will understand who Jesus is and what he means to this world.  For today’s sermon we are going to take this passage verse by verse to explain who Jesus is.  You will find that at the end you will have a way to speak about Jesus you may never realized before. 

So before we start I want you to forget everything you know about this God-man named Jesus.  Cast out of your brain everything that your Sunday School Teachers have said (yes, for you High Schoolers, even me).  Get rid of the image of Mel Gibson’s Jesus walking to Calvary.  Get rid of that standard picture of Jesus laughing or all the other stain glass windows that make our sanctuary look so good.  I want you to come to this scripture brand new, fresh ears, open heart.  Come like someone who knows nothing about Jesus, God, or church.  So find the first chapter of John in your Bible, one of the pew Bibles, or on your phone, wherever and follow along.  Ready?

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

This gospel starts where we always should; “In the beginning.”  What was in the beginning, ‘the Word.”  Well what is the Word?  It tells us, the Word was with God and the Word was God.  So when this whole thing called existence started the Word was with God and the Word was God.  John starts off by linking “the Word” with God.  They are one in the same.  They are together, there in the beginning.

2 The Word was with God in the beginning.
John goes back and explains once again that the Word was with God in the beginning.  This is key and we will learn why as we go along. 

3 Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.

The Word created the world.  Everything that has exists, is now and will be came into being through the Word.  This, the Word, made everything we know.  Since it has been around since the beginning, everything that we know and will know has been created through the Word.  I know what you are thinking but what about a platypus?  Did the Word really create a platypus because those things mess with my head.  They are mammals but they lay eggs.  They have a spur on their foot that on the males are filled with venom.  It is like when things were left over there was pile of scraps and out of that pile came the platypus.  The Word actually created that?  Well as the verse continues, “without the Word nothing came into being.”  Therefore since we have platypuses or platypi, or however you say more than one of those things.  There is nothing that has been created that wasn’t created through the Word.  That means all of creation, you, me, we all were created through this Word.

What came into being (4) through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.
Now if we continue with the last part of verse three and tack on four we see that the reason the Word created everything.  Everything came into being through the Word because the Word is life.  The Word is foundation of everything that lives.  The foundation is what a building is built on.  Without a solid foundations buildings fall down, so the word was created on the most solid thing God knew, The Word.  This Word, as verse four says, is the light of all people.  Remember last week (I know I told you to forget everything, so humor me and remember last week’s sermon) God’s first words were “Let there be light.”  Light came to the world and now here in John’s gospel we are told this thing called light is the life for all people.  Not just some people, not just ones we like, not just ones who look like us, but ALL people.  The Word is the life that is the light for white, black, brown, yellow, red, straight, gay, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Republican, Libertarian, Democrats, American, African, English, Spanish, Mexican, Cuban, Chinese, Russian.  All people.  All means all.  “The life was the light for ALL people.”  But what does this light do?

5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

This light that is life, as John Wesley said, is our wisdom, holiness, happiness.  It is the source of everything and it came to shine in the darkness.  Since sin entered the world the world had been in darkness.  This darkness surrounds us and at times consumes us.  Our sin can take us over and consume us without us even knowing it.  It is the darkness that seems like it will never end.  It is into this darkness that the light comes in and no matter what the darkness does it cannot extinguish the light.  During our Christmas Eve services we went to complete darkness.  We admit that without God we will be in complete darkness but God did not want us to stay there so he sent the Light.  He sent the Light that shines in the midst of the darkness and will always outshine it.  There is no darkness, there is no sin, that the light cannot get rid of.  No matter what a person has done, no matter how dark their soul feels, this light can shine in that darkness and transform it. (Amen?)

6 A man named John was sent from God. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. 8 He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light.

Between verses 6-8, the author of John’s gospel tells us a little bit about a man named John.  We know from other gospels that this John is John the Baptist.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, John the Baptist is the one who goes before to pave the way for the one to come.  But here in John’s gospel we learn something else.  John is sent “as a witness to testify concerning the light.”  To be a witness and to testify about something means you have to know it.  John knew this light, understood it, and was on a mission “to testify concerning the light.”  We will hear more about this man named John in a little bit.

9 The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
It is here that we hear what John’s testimony is about this light.  John points to the “true light”.  This “true light” “shines on all people”.  Once again not just a select or chosen group of people, but all people.  This light was coming to the world.

10 The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light.
Now we learn a little about what happened when this light came to the world.  Apparently this Light was in the world but the world didn’t recognize the light.  It is the same light that gave the world life and it was the same light, the same Word, the world was created in but the world didn’t recognize the light.  If you are created through this light why don’t we recognize it?  Why can’t we see this light when it is right in front of us?  Are we so blinded by our own darkness that we cannot see the light or at least recognize him.

11 The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him.
What is even worse is the light just doesn’t come to the world it comes to his own people.  It came to the people that should have opened their arms to him and welcomed him but they didn’t welcome him.  The truth is we are the same way.  If this light walked in here would we recognize him?  Would we be willing to let him sit by us?  Would I be willing to let him preach for me?  The truth is this light makes us uncomfortable many of the times and we aren’t comfortable with being uncomfortable.  A sanctuary is a place where we should feel welcomed, and like we are being hugged the whole time.  Yet this light came to give life to the world and sometimes light is blinding and even hard to really look at.  So we would rather kick the light to the curb instead of let the light surround us and sit next to us.

 12 But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children,  13 born not from blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God.
But not all was lost, we read that some did welcome him.  As verse 12 & 13says, “Those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children born not of blood or by human desire or passion but born of God.  It was thought at one point that this light, the Word, would come only for a certain group of people.  They were the chosen people and God would bring them the light.  But here we understand that God welcomes anyone, ALL PEOPLE (again) who believe in his name.  It doesn’t matter who you were before the light came, once the light comes and you welcome him, you are born of God.  There isn’t a check list, a test, or a certain amount of karma you have to build up.  You believe in his name, the name of the Light, the Word, and you are born of God.

 14 The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

To make this happen the Word became flesh and made his home among us.  I love that phrase, became flesh.  This light, this Word, put on skin and made his home among us.  He made himself comfortable in the constraining feeling of skin.  The world came into being through him.  All creation bears his light because it has life, but he chose to put on flesh…why?  Because as verse 14 continues, his glory is full of grace and truth.  This light, Word, is full of grace and truth and that is why he came.  He came so we can see his glory, the glory of a father’s only son. 

 15 John testified about him, crying out, “This is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.’”

This is when John speaks up again and cries out, pointing to this light, “this is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.”  The beginning has shown up; the start of it all.  The foundation of life, the essence of who we are, has come.

 16 From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace;
With his arrival what do we receive.  Once again, what a great verse, “grace upon grace.”  Not just grace.  But grace with an extra heaping helping of grace on top of it.  This confers John’s testimony and tells us what we are dealing with.  A light, a Word that brings grace upon grace.  How many of us need grace upon grace today?

17 as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.
Verse 17 starts to separate this light and this Word from different ways of looking at the world.  In the Old Testament we learn that the Law was given through Moses.  Moses heard the law from God and gave it to the Israelites.  He implemented them and upheld them.  It is in the law that we hear “You shall not” and it makes it sound like if we can simply check off everything we will be okay.  The law existed but it wasn’t Moses himself, it was something beyond Moses that he made sure people were following.  When we look at the second part of this verse we learn more.  We see that “grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.”  For the first time John names the Light and the Word.  It is Jesus Christ.  He brings grace and truth but it isn’t handed down to him, it is him.  Grace and truth came into being through him, just like the world, just like you and me.  We all came into being through Jesus Christ.  He is our foundation, our essence, our being, the image we are made in.  What starts to warp our head is when we put this into practice.  Grace and truth are Jesus Christ.  It is not simply his actions on the cross, or in his resurrection, they are Jesus Christ.  You want to know the truth, the truth is Jesus Christ.  You want to know grace, grace IS Jesus Christ.  You cannot know those things without knowing Christ.

18 No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.

Verse 18 reminds us that no one has ever seen God but God was made known to us, just as grace and truth is made known, through the Light, the Word, through his only Son, Jesus Christ. 

This is how we know Jesus. This is who Jesus is.  This is his nature, his purpose, and how he interacts in the world.  He is the source of all life, the true light.  He is grace and truth.  He is God’s only Son.  He is the one who is to come and he is the Word that puts on flesh and dwells among us. 

Jesus Christ is the light that shines in the darkness, that is for ALL to see.  The light that darkness cannot extinguish, although it tries.  The light for the world although the world and his people don’t recognize him.  Jesus Christ is the Light of life, the light unto this dark and fallen world.  He is our source of life and the way we can experience God.  This light is grace, wisdom, understanding, peace, joy, and the truth.  This light is my savior and I pray he is yours too.  This light is my God and the one that deserves everything I have and am.  This is the Light.

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”

John 10:22-30 – Sermon – Hear My Voice

John 10:22-30
Hear My Voice
GOD, did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?  GOD, instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don’t you just keep the ones you have now?  GOD, I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that okay?  GOD, what does it mean you are a Jealous God? I thought you had everything.  GOD, thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.  These are questions that children have asked God.  They are funny and to look into a child’s mind is always entertaining.  But we all have asked God questions at one time or another during our life. 
In today’s text we receive another story of people asking Jesus something.  There seems to be a tread that we can follow in these questions or better yet in the people who are asking these questions.  You can place the people into three different categories: sincerity, entrapment or mistaken assumptions.  As one looks at the people who sit there and ask Jesus questions, they fit into these three different categories. 
In the third chapter of John we receive a story of a Pharisee Nicodemus who came to Jesus in the night to ask him questions.  Nicodemus asks Jesus how someone can be born again.  He asks this question out of sincerity. He honestly is looking for the answers.  He knew that Jesus was a teacher who came from God and wanted to know more, so Jesus answered him with care and compassion.  Jesus lead him down a gentle path full of love and grace.  The answer given befuddled Nicodemus, there was not a huge light that came on that shows us that he understood what Jesus meant by being born again.  But the point is that Nicodemus’ heart was sincere in the asking.
That is not the case for some of the other Pharisees in the Jesus’ life.  You don’t have to look too far to see that they try to entrap Jesus in order to bring charges against him.  Take Matthew’s recount in chapter 22, this is a text many of you are familiar with.  In this story the Pharisees use one of their disciples to go and ask Jesus if they should pay taxes or not.  Verse 18 it states, But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied.  Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”   Jesus doesn’t answer them in the same tone as he does Nicodemus.  Here you can tell that he is a little shorter with his answer, a little more poignant, and you can sense the tension.
Then you have the mistaken assumption questions.  People ask Jesus questions but frame it in the wrong context or make assumptions about Jesus that they shouldn’t, and we all know what kind of trouble you can get into if you assume things.  This is the type of tone that today’s question comes in.  The people asking Jesus a question are not sincere and they are not looking to entrap him, well not quite yet.  Within this question they assume a lot and are mistaken in their assumptions.
First of all who is asking the question?  John tells us that the Jews gathered around him.  Something that we have to remember is that the author of John’s gospel does not mean the whole Jewish race.  Traditionally when you see the phrase “the Jews” in the Gospel of John it is in reference to the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  The picture we receive now is one of the religious leaders cornering Jesus while he was in the temple.  The first verse of this section tells us why Jesus is in the temple.  It states that it was the Feast of Dedication, or the Feast of Remembrance.  It was a winter Feast and since it was probably a little chilly Jesus found shelter in the south end of the second temple area called Solomon’s Colonnade or porch. 
What happened was the religious leaders may have gotten caught up in all the celebrating.  The Feast of Remembrance is a time when they would look back at their history and see their forefather’s victories over huge threats.  This might have got the religious leaders blood going and they wanted to have history repeat itself by getting rid of their biggest threat, Jesus.  In order to do so they needed to get some things strait, they needed more information.  They cornered him in the temple and asked him, how long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.
The thing is with Jesus is that he can see into our hearts, he knows our souls; therefore he knew why they were asking him what they did.  One of the commentaries I read restated the question as this, Jesus, do fit into our criteria of what the messiah looks like?  When they asked this they were demanding that Jesus answer them on their terms.  They wanted the Son of God to tell them a yes or no answer if he was the Messiah.  Since Jesus saw into their hearts though he knew the reason why they were asking was not a yes or no answer, it was much more complicated than that.  Jesus always gives the answers that the people really need, which may not be what they were looking for.  The main point we need to know is that the religious leaders were trying to push Jesus into a box.  We do this a lot with God.  We expect God to be the God we want and desire. 
I have stumbled on a blog called Letters from Leavers.  This site is dedicated to the rants of people who are fed up with the church.  They are so tired of God, ministers, and church people in their lives that they want to leave organized religion all together.  As I have read through some of these posts I am convinced that many of these people suffer from the same thing that these religious leaders did, trying to fit God into their own little box they created. 
Listen to one of these letters.  I have had enough.  I am leaving for good this time.  I have always grown up in the church, going to Sunday School, and attending worship.  Recently I went through a tragedy and neither God nor the church was there for me.  I prayed to God but God did not answer.  I reached out for help and all I got was a cold shoulder.  I am fed up with this so called God.  I always thought God was there to protect you.  God is there make sure bad things don’t happen to the people that believe in him.  That was not the case though and so I am out.  God is dead to me.  And then the letter goes on to rant about the church and the people in it.
Is it God’s fault that bad things were happening to this person?  No, we live in a fallen world and Jesus never made the promise that nothing bad would ever happen to us, that is a huge misconception about God. 
This person and so many more on this site all seem to be asking Jesus questions like, are you the God that will do things my way?  Are you the God who will shed riches upon me if I follow you?  Are you the God who will let nothing wrong ever happen to me again?  When Jesus hears these questions his answer is, Am I the Christ YOU are expecting, definitely not.
But why not?  Why cannot God be the God that we design?  The easiest answer is because we are not the designer, we are the designed, we are the created, we are the children who cannot create the Father.  Add on top of that, that we are humans, fallen creatures who have a limited ability to fathom the awesomeness of God. God is the only one who can tell us what God is like and he does in the second half of this text.
In this part we receive wave after wave after wave of grace from our Lord and Savior.  It shows us that although the Pharisees expected one thing out of Jesus, Jesus offers them grace, care, and love for his sheep.  Once again in the tenth chapter of John we get a picture of Jesus as a Shepherd and we are his lambs.  This is a common theme in John’s gospel and throughout the Bible.  That is the picture we receive from God.  Jesus, or God, is a shepherd and we are his sheep.
What do you picture when you think of sheep.  For me I get the picture of the only place that I have seen a ton of sheep, England.  As Alycia and I lived over in England for a year we saw a lot of sheep in a lot of different areas.  The town we lived in was right next to the Moors, a barren and unlivable place for humans, but a great place for sheep to roam free.  As we would drive around these moors we would always have to be on the lookout for sheep in the road. With all the grass that is in the moors, some very intelligent sheep would find the grass nearest to the fast moving machines known as cars to be the tastiest.  Inevitably we would see that one of these fast moving machines would collide with one of this not so intelligent creatures and the loser would always be the sheep.
It got me thinking about this image of sheep and shepherd that we get so much of in the Bible.  I looked at this dead sheep on the road and I would think to myself, I don’t know if I want to be God’s sheep.  I know like a sheep I will be sheared tonight but I hope I don’t smell as bad as they do.  I hope I have a little more intelligence, no much but a little bit more than they do.  I hope that I don’t just follow God because I don’t know any better.  All of a sudden this analogy was not working for in my 21st century mind.  The truth is it might not work in many of your minds too because of your experience with these animals.
As I looked back on this analogy I came to a realization.  I am doing it again.  I am making it about me.  
I am making it about us, instead of making it about God and learning something about God within this illustration.  What do we learn about God as the shepherd instead of us as sheep.  Verse 27 says, My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  In the text it states that Jesus is the kind of shepherd that knows each one of his sheep.  He loves his sheep so much that he gets to know them personally.  God is a God that is personal and wants to have that personal relationship with you.  It also states that if we are Jesus’ sheep then we know his voice.  We know when Jesus is calling us.  That tells us that Jesus is talking to us.  This means that our shepherd is active in our lives and cares so much about us, that he wants to talk to us, call out to us.
What is it though that the shepherd offers his sheep?  Eternal life.  Verse 28 states I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.  Jesus is the type of shepherd that offers such an amazing gift to his followers.  He is so loving, so generous that he wants his sheep to be with him forever. He offers us a gift that no one else can give us.  He gives us eternity, a piece of eternity that no one can take away.  We worship one loving God.
Can you see the waves of grace now?  Can you see the loving care, compassion, and joy that Christ offers to his sheep? Even though the idea of being a smelly creature like sheep may be a little outdated, we can understand the care that Jesus offers.  We can understand a little bit better who our shepherd is.  In this text God is telling us who God is and I don’t know about you all but I like what I see.
God is telling his followers that we do not have to worry about eternity.  We can loss the fear of the future.  All we have to do is follow the shepherd.  If we do then we will have eternal life. The thing is though many of us don’t truly believe that in our hearts.  We have been tricked before in life.  We know that people fail to live up their promises. We have been hurt, lied to, and our hearts have been ripped out and stomped on.  What makes us trust God then?
We can trust God because God has never let us down.  God promised to never flood the world again and sends the rainbows to remind us of that, and God has lived up to that promise.  God promised that when the time was right he would makes things right again between us and him.  He would send his Son to die our death in order that we may have eternal life.  Jesus came to defeat death by rising again on the third day.  We are in the Easter season, a time when we joyfully proclaim that God did exactly what God said he would do.  God has always lived up to his promises.  There has never, in this history of the world, been a time when God has messed up or failed to do what was promised.
This must mean that if verse 30 is true.  If Jesus and the Father are one, if they and the Holy Spirit make up the 3 in 1 God that we worship and they have never failed in the past, then we can rest assured that they will never fail in the future.  All of God’s energy, strength and love was put into the sacrifice that was made on the cross. God did not fail and God never fails us.  This means that the promise of an eternal life with God must be true.  This means that the Good Shepherd never leaves our side and is always with us through our life. 
We see this in the 23rd Psalm, the second most memorized section of the Bible.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are with me.  Your rod and your staff, your shepherd’s crook they comfort me.  God’s grace keeps washing over us.
It is alright to ask God questions, that is how we understand who God is.  Asking God to be our image of God will always create a God who fails in some way.  This means that we need to have God tell us who God is. Once we do so we need to rest assured that God will live up to his promises.  Jesus, in this text promises to give his sheep eternal life.  No matter who tries to take that away from us they cannot because it is God’s grace to give out not ours.  It is our job to accept that grace.  It is our job to hear that voice of hope and love; that voice of salvation and simply say thank you.  Then live a life knowing that Jesus is there with us all along the way. Live knowing that you are wrapped up in the hands of God no matter what happens.  That is the voice that calls to each of us. That is God we worship here today.