Chosen to Share the Good News

Romans 10:5-15 (NRSV)

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say?

“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

The title of this sermon in the Chosen series is “Chosen to share the Good News.”  Before we can understand the Good News, we have to understand how good that news is.

Have you ever fallen victim to autocorrect?  It’s one thing to do it on your computer, but it’s an entirely different thing to do it on your phone.  For sure.  For example, your phones may auto-correct my name and give you the choices of “Marcie or Nancy.”

Mom to son: “Where are you?”
Son: “I’m having a little seizure.”
Mom: “Oh no! I’m calling 911 right now!”
Son: “No, mom! I meant I’m having a Little Caesar’s — I’m eating pizza!”

Guy to Friend: “How was the date?”
Friend: “Awesome! I killed her at the end.”
Guy: “That bad, eh?”
Friend: “No, I meant I kissed her. Stupid auto-correct!”

For any of us who have smart phones, we’ve been there.  One auto-corrected word can mean the difference between a great date or a life in prison!

The context for our passage in Romans is that Paul’s writing to a Roman church that’s struggling with a language disconnect between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians.  You see, the Jewish Christians recently came back to Rome after being expelled by the emperor, Claudius and the Gentile Christians outnumbered them in the small house churches throughout the city.  Not only was miscommunication rampant and Paul wanted them to use a particular language and stop talking past each other.  Language is important.  Words are important.  They are powerful.  I used to have a button that had these words in big letters, “Button Your Lip” and in smaller letters, “Be quick to hear and slow to speak.”  Words can wound.  Words can show love.  Words can bring devastation.  Words can give life.  So it’s ever more important that Paul bridges the gap and gives the Roman Christians – Jews and gentiles alike – a common language.

I was with colleagues sharing a meal and someone asked me to explain the word “shade” because I had just used it in conversation.  Maybe I’ve been hanging with college students too long, but I thought “shade” had entered the mainstream because it was on primetime television.  By the way, I had to look up the word “fleek.”  I’m glad he asked me about it because that told me he was trying to understand.  We all have insider and outsider language.  We have generational language.  We have “church” language.  We often don’t notice it until someone brings it to our attention because they feel excluded. I can attest, it’s frustrating, when people don’t understand us, when we can’t explain effectively what we think clearly or we can’t find the right word.  Whether because we get tongue-tied or we’re fighting for the speaking stick, I think I’ll human beings yearn to be understood.

In her 2013 Commencement Address at Harvard Oprah Winfrey shares, “I have to say that the single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people, was that there is a common denominator in our human experience. Most of us, I tell you we don’t want to be divided. What we want, the common denominator that I found in every single interview, is we want to be validated. We want to be understood. I have done over 35,000 interviews in my career and as soon as that camera shuts off everyone always turns to me and inevitably in their own way asks this question “Was that okay?” I heard it from President Bush, I heard it from President Obama. I’ve heard it from heroes and from housewives. I’ve heard it from victims and perpetrators of crimes. I even heard it from Beyonce and all of her Beyonceness. She finishes performing, hands me the microphone and says, “Was that okay?” Friends and family, yours, enemies, strangers in every argument in every encounter, every exchange I will tell you, they all want to know one thing: was that okay? Did you hear me? Do you see me? Did what I say mean anything to you?”

Paul wants everyone on the same page to limit the misunderstandings and he reminds everyone in Romans chapters 1-3 that all of them are under slavery to sin and death, much more than slavery to a Verizon or Sprint contract, and all have fallen short of the glory of God.  In chapter 4 Paul talks about God’s covenant with Abraham that he may have descendants as the stars all over the world, drawing all nations to God, and through Moses gave Israel the law as to set God’s children apart.  In chapters 5-8, Paul points out that Israel had a problem keeping the law.  If you ever glanced at the Old Testament, you know it’s a constant spin cycle of the people disobeying God, God giving them multiple chances to turn back sending various prophets, they end up being in exile, and after a period of time God welcomes the people back.  And then it repeats and repeats.  Paul is making the case that the law wasn’t the ultimate solution to the world’s problems.  Paul says very rightly, that the law only pointed out how sinful we are not how to get out from it.  The law itself won’t save us, only faith in Christ and he points out the lineage of Christ that he was a good Jew as the bridge.  What Paul has been doing the entire time in Romans has been giving them a common language and that link was Jesus.

This is not to say, we fall into the pit of sinfulness or we don’t have to follow God’s commands, after all in Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”  Paul never denies obedience to the law, but just checking off a set of rules is not what it’s all about.  The “righteousness of faith” he’s talking about, acknowledges that God came to earth, Emmanuel, to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.  The fact that God sent God’s son Jesus to be one with us and because of his sacrifice our sins are forgiven and we have eternal life is really Good News.  Faith isn’t merely a set of rules, it’s a way of life.  Instead of auto-correct, it’s Christ-corrected as the Holy Spirit guides us in walking the way of Christ and it’s not just about being personally Christ-connected, but it’s sharing the Good News of Jesus with the whole world that the Great God of the Universe would pay attention to someone as insignificant as me and that that very God pursues me with an abundant love and wants a relationship with me is crazy, beautiful news.  Why wouldn’t I want to serve that kind of God?  The One who walks with us every step of the way.  The One who gives us nudges or God-things so we can tangibly see.  I’ll follow that God and seek to walk in the way of Jesus, knowing that grace can’t be earned, only trusted and believed in.

In verses 14 and 15 a series of 4 questions are asked, “14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

We have to share Jesus with the world.  God’s grace is not something we hoard because it’s a limited supply, it’s unending, unstoppable, and unlimited.  We all have a story of Christ’s redemption.  We may have several stories.  We have to know our story in order to share it and more yet, we have to be willing to claim our story, all the highs and all the lows, in order to risk being vulnerable enough to share it.

Donald Miller writes in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, “We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose.  It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story.  How brightly a better story shines.  How easily the world looks to it in wonder.  How grateful are we to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.”  Many of y’all have told me that what you remember most about my sermons are the stories.  Stories have a way of piercing through all of the layers that we wear as armor to the soul.

Earlier in her Commencement address Oprah says, “As you heard this morning I was in the Miss Fire Prevention contest. That was when I was 16 years old in Nashville, Tennessee, and you had the requirement of having to have red hair in order to win up until the year that I entered. So they were doing the question and answer period because I knew I wasn’t going to win under the swimsuit competition. So during the question and answer period the question came “Why, young lady, what would you like to be when you grow up?” And by the time they got to me all the good answers were gone. So I had seen Barbara Walters on the “Today Show” that morning so I answered, “I would like to be a journalist. I would like to tell other people’s stories in a way that makes a difference in their lives and the world.”  And she sure did.

Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  What will you do with your one wild and precious life?  Do you know yet?  Have you been living it?

Brennan Manning writes, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”  It doesn’t have to be a perfect, beautiful image, carefully curated for social media consumption, but it has to be your one, true, authentic story.  If it’s fake, like those fake bags or watches, the world is going to know.  The world needs real Jesus followers, not afraid to get dirty, followers of Jesus, who sat with tax collectors and prostitutes and again and again choose the least of these:  the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the paralyzed.  God can redeem all of your story.  God can redeem even the parts that you don’t want the world to see and give you the courage, peace, confidence and love for you to boldly proclaim it because you know who you are and more importantly Whose you are.

I kept thinking about the Matthew West song “Do Something” as I wrote this sermon.

I’m so tired of talking
About how we are God’s hands and feet
But it’s easier to say than to be
Live like angels of apathy who tell ourselves
It’s alright, “somebody else will do something”
Well, I don’t know about you
But I’m sick and tired of life with no desire
I don’t want a flame, I want a fire
I wanna be the one who stands up and says,
“I’m gonna do something”

If not us, then who
If not me and you
Right now, it’s time for us to do something
If not now, then when
Will we see an end
To all this pain
It’s not enough to do nothing
It’s time for us to do something

Have we done something?  Are we actively making the world a better place?  Are we actively helping people?  God calls us each to spread all the good we can in the world.  N. T. Wright says, “God is putting the world right, so God puts people right, so that they might be his right-putting people.” We have to show the world the Good News of Jesus Christ.  It’s not just good, it’s great.  We are set apart to share the beautiful, life giving Good News of Jesus Christ.  I’ll end with a passage from Colossians that is my prayer for you all.

Colossians 3:12-17 (NRSV)

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Amen and amen.

Full text of Oprah’s Commencement Speech:  http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/05/winfreys-commencement-address/

 

Helping Each Other Finish the Race

I don’t know if you’ve seen this story or not, but it’s a beautiful reminder of the Olympic spirit.  That though these athletes are from other countries, they’ve trained for this, they’ve endured various challenges for this moment, and they persevered over injuries, early morning wake ups, weather, and apathy to routine.  Sometimes we need a little bit of help to finish the race.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/sports/olympics/nikki-hamblin-abbey-dagostino-womens-5000.html?_r=0

“Get up.  We have to finish this.”

Sometimes we need a little help and encouragement to finish the race.

It reminds me of the Mark 2 passage.  The one where a paralytic man’s friends help him by lowering him from the roof to be healed by Jesus.  This passage has always been a favorite of mine because they go the extra mile for their friend which illustrates perfectly Christian community – not just talking the talk but walking the walk.  Action, not merely words.  You see Jesus had already started healing people and when he came to Capernaum there was standing room only inside the house. There were four friends and a man on a stretcher that were trying to get in to see Jesus because they had faith that if Jesus saw their friend, he could be made well.

It was so crowded,that they literally had to tear up the roof to lower him down.  To me, there’s something really powerful about them having to actually dig through and get dirty to help make this miracle happen.  According to some scholars, the roof was usually made of beams about 3 feet apart.  These beams would be filled with twigs, then packed with clay and covered with dirt.

If you have ever worked with drywall or insulation, particularly taking it down, you know that there’s small particles and dust everywhere.  A big mess.  So as you can probably imagine, as these four are pulling away chunks of clay, bits of dirt, and dried leaves are falling all over those below.

And the people who stood in the room, who most likely had some small rubble or debris dropped on their heads were doubtfully very thrilled and the men had to know this when they concocted their plan.  They risked a lot because they had faith in who Jesus is and what a tremendous impact he could have on the life of their friend.

Sometimes we need people to come alongside us to bring about God’s healing.  Sometimes we need conversation partners as God speaks through another, sometimes we need others to recognize the God spark in us, when we can’t imagine it’s anything but extinguished, sometimes we need a push or someone to reach down and help us up.  And that’s okay.  We’re supposed to be community to and with one another.  We’re here to support and be the hands and feet of Christ as the Holy Spirit leads us in the words to speak that all people are created in the image of God and God has called us all GOOD.

We need to be the ones that receive the help and then give the help.  Everyone is on a journey, with twists and turns, highs and lows.  We are not any of us invincible.  We all need help sometimes.  But we also need to give that same help to others.  I think that God allows some things to happen, hard roads to walk, to give us empathy with one another.  God works all things for good, after all.  I’ll invite you to insert your name for love as I write the Message version of 1 Corinthians 13.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

So when you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  If you see someone down and out, don’t be afraid to step out in faith and let the miracle happen.  We are all on this blessed journey together.  Every one of us. We can’t do this life alone.  We all need to lean on each other.

Chosen to Be Restored

Jeremiah 29:11-14

“11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

These are familiar words.  You can find them on bumper stickers, pass it on cards, pictures at Christian bookstores and Hobby Lobby and greeting cards meant to encourage and inspire.  They’re mostly quoting Jeremiah 29:11 but I feel like when you leave off the other verses you lose the context, and to me the context makes it even more powerful.

Who was Jeremiah?  What was his context?  Jeremiah was called the “weeping prophet,” he is credited with writing the books of Jeremiah, Kings, and Lamentations, and he served under 5 Kings of Judah:  Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah.  Jeremiah chapter 1 gives us this context.   Jeremiah, much like Moses or Jonah, didn’t want to be the mouthpiece of God, but God tells him God has designed him for such a time as this.

Jeremiah’s Call and Commission

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

Whoa.  No pressure, right?  God wanted him to speak up.  You and I can do that, right?  It’s easy to deliver good news.  God didn’t call him to be an oracle; God called him to be a prophet, to speak out against the status quo.  I can’t help but think God wants us to be little prophets.  God formed us and knew us, just as God did Jeremiah, and God calls us to speak out when we something wrong in our world today both in big and small ways and it doesn’t matter what our age.  I shared on facebook a blog post I read on Momastery.  It was written by a mother before her son, Chase, entered into third grade.  She talks about how there was a kid in her class that she didn’t stand up for or invite to sit at her lunch table.

“I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us. The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you.

So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.

Baby, if you see a child being left out, or hurt, or teased, a little part of your heart will hurt a little. Your daddy and I want you to trust that heart- ache. Your whole life, we want you to notice and trust your heart-ache. That heart ache is called compassion, and it is God’s signal to you to do something. It is God saying, Chase! Wake up! One of my babies is hurting! Do something to help! Whenever you feel compassion – be thrilled! It means God is speaking to you, and that is magic. It means He trusts you and needs you.

Sometimes the magic of compassion will make you step into the middle of a bad situation right away.

Compassion might lead you to tell a teaser to stop it and then ask the teased kid to play. You might invite a left-out kid to sit next to you at lunch. You might choose a kid for your team first who usually gets chosen last. These things will be hard to do, but you can do hard things.

Sometimes you will feel compassion but you won’t step in right away. That’s okay, too. You might choose instead to tell your teacher and then tell us. We are on your team – we are on your whole class’ team. Asking for help for someone who is hurting is not tattling, it is doing the right thing. If someone in your class needs help, please tell me, baby. We will make a plan to help together.

When God speaks to you by making your heart hurt for another, by giving you compassion, just do something. We send you to school to practice being brave and kind. Kind people are brave people. Because brave is not a feeling that you should wait for. It is a decision. It is a decision that compassion is more important than fear, than fitting in, than following the crowd.

Jeremiah did something.  He proclaimed the word of God, even though he was persecuted, even though he delivered awful news and that made him the least popular of all time.  He did it because God told him to.  Remember that still small voice Elijah heard, that’s the Holy Spirit speaking to your heart.  The Holy Spirit gives you these nudges whether you want him to or not.  When you invite Jesus into your heart, he doesn’t remain hidden in a box figuratively under your bed.  Jesus has a way of infiltrating even the things that you would rather keep hidden.

Jeremiah is not a short book.  He goes through a lot, false prophets preaching a prosperity Gospel, being imprisoned, people basically spitting in his face.  He continues to speak the word of the Lord through 52 chapters, offering words of reckoning and judgement, as well as hope and promise of restoration.  Jeremiah 29 was a letter to the exiles in Babylon and in it is both hope and restoration.  I’m going to read now those same verses from The Message version of the Bible.

Jeremiah 29:11-14The Message (MSG)

10-11 This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.

12 “When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen.

13-14 “When you come looking for me, you’ll find me.

“Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.”

“I’ll turn things around for you. I’ll bring you back from all the countries into which I drove you bring you home to the place from which I sent you off into exile. You can count on it.”

God’s gonna be faithful.  God’s gonna keep God’s promises.

God’s promises last forever, age to age, but sometimes our promises to God are another story.

Case in point: a man was driving down the street, desperately searching for a parking place so he wouldn’t be late for an important meeting. In desperation, he gazed into the heavens and prayed: “Lord, take pity on me. If you find me a parking place, I promise to go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life and give up smoking!”

Instantly, a parking place opened up before him and he took it.

Whereupon, he looked toward heaven again and said: “Nevermind, I found one.”

That’s a silly illustration, to say that if we see God like a giant Santa in the sky or a genie, that’s a one-sided relationship and there’s more to it than that.  Are we trusting God to lead and guide us in all that we do?  Are we trusting God with our children and grandchildren that God will pursue them with an abundant love, reaching out to them and seeking a relationship with them?  Even if they have drifted away, even if they have made mistakes and they’re as far from God as can be and they like it that way or they full unworthy to approach the throne of grace with confidence.  Even then God remains faithful. This is why parents cling to Jeremiah 29:11-14.  This is why teachers, coaches, principals, Sunday School teachers, anyone who works with youth clings to these verses.  It’s not just about the plans that God has designed specifically for them, but it’s about restoration.  Restoring them to who they were truly created to be.  Restoring us and transforming us into a new creation in Christ.  We were CHOSEN to be RESTORED.

Have you ever felt like you live in exile?  Do you ever feel so far from God that you don’t know your way back?  God does not desire that for you. In Psalms 37:4 says, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  God desires healing, wholeness and hope.  William Carey, founder of the Baptist Missionary Society, says, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.” Is there something holding you back from leaving your self or society imposed exile?  God doesn’t want that for you.  Danny Gokey in his song “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again” wrote these words.

You’re shattered
Like you’ve never been before
The life you knew
In a thousand pieces on the floor
And words fall short in times like these
When this world drives you to your knees
You think you’re never gonna get back
To the you that used to be

Tell your heart to beat again
Close your eyes and breathe it in
Let the shadows fall away
Step into the light of grace
Yesterday’s a closing door
You don’t live there anymore
Say goodbye to where you’ve been
And tell your heart to beat again

Beginning
Just let that word wash over you
It’s alright now
Love’s healing hands have pulled you through
So get back up, take step one
Leave the darkness, feel the sun
‘Cause your story’s far from over
And your journey’s just begun

Tell your heart to beat again
Close your eyes and breathe it in
Let the shadows fall away
Step into the light of grace
Yesterday’s a closing door
You don’t live there anymore
Say goodbye to where you’ve been
And tell your heart to beat again

Let every heartbreak
And every scar
Be a picture that reminds you
Who has carried you this far
‘Cause love sees farther than you ever could
In this moment heaven’s working
Everything for your good

As Romans 8:28 says, “28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  We have to forgive ourselves so that we’re able to grasp hold of all that God has in store for us.  We need to trust God in the letting go of whatever is holding us back that God will restore us to right paths and give us a future with hope, even though we may have walked through the darkest valley, even if we’ve been in literal or figurative exile.  The light will eventually break through.  We as the church can walk with one another and lead each other to the light.  Professor James Limburg tells this story of going bicycling with his son. “We took a ride on the bike path around our town. Just off the path was a drainage tunnel which ran under the interstate highway. We decided to explore it. We parked our bikes and began to walk through the tunnel. It was made of concrete, wide enough for us to walk side by side, but not high enough for me to stand up straight. We walked for a distance and then the tunnel took a sharp turn and suddenly it became dark. A hand reached out and took mine. Neither of us said anything about it, but we continued, hand in hand, until we came to another turn and we could see the light.”

We are called to be the voice of God, even when it’s not popular, speak for the least of these, walk with people in exile, and trust the promises of God.  That God who began a good work in you and me will bring it to completion.  As the last verse of the Hymn of Promise says, “There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”  No matter what God is going to be faithful, even if you’ve been in exile.  You will be restored.

You Are Here

I flew from the Charleston airport this week for an Imagine What’s NEXT Design Team meeting.  I flew into Charlotte and then onto Atlanta as well as on the way back.  The Charlotte and Atlanta airports somehow illicit a fog on me because you see they were our “home” airports.  We lived in Atlanta for four years and we lived near the Charlotte airport 11 years counting when I was in high school and college.  So although I think I know where I’m going, I need the “You are Here” maps.  I don’t need to assume or attempt to go on autopilot. That was particularly helpful in Charleston as I had never been there before but it was just as true in Atlanta and Charlotte trying to find my gate.  I would look at the monitors and find my flight and then a moving side walk or a tram later the info would drop out of my head.   I constantly looked at “You are Here” maps and the monitors to give me direction.  That’s the position Esther was in.  She knew where she was, in King Xerses’ Court, but she needed God to give her direction on what she should do, and God’s Spirit to lead her steps and guard her mouth.

The story takes place in the 5th-century B.C. somewhere in the 470’s or so. Xerxes I (519-465) is the king in Persia. You might call him “king of the world.” He is known as Xerxes the Great. He invades Greece in 480 and is a monarch with absolute power and authority. Even today his legend is immortalized in Hollywood in movies such as 300. Xerxes knew how to throw a party.  The party lasted seven days and in Esther chapter 1: 8-9 it reads, “Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.” Can you imagine a party lasting for seven days? It would be like Mardi Gras or Carnival to the extreme. The party never ends. On the seventh day, the King, who was in “high spirits” from wine orders Queen Vashti to make an appearance so they can behold her beauty, she’s his centerpiece after all. But Queen Vashti refuses to come. The text doesn’t say why she didn’t come. Maybe she didn’t feel like it, maybe she was sleeping and she didn’t want to be rudely woken up by a summons from the king, it doesn’t say.  As the eunuchs give the Queen’s response to the King, he is furious.  No surprise, Queen Vashti got deposed at the end of chapter 1.

How did Esther get there?  While the king was having second thoughts for having Vashti banned, his servants encouraged him to gather beautiful young women from every province in the kingdom, let cosmetic treatments be given to them and let the girl who pleases the king be queen. The king thought this was a very good idea.  Of course he did. He had his own version of The Bachelor.

I feel like at some points I’m telling a fairy tale. Esther was the most beautiful woman, the fairest in the land. There was a wise old Jewish man named Mordecai, and he had brought up Esther as his own daughter because she was an orphan.  And so of course, she ends up with a fairy tale ending and marries the king.  I’m skipping several plot points here – the twelve month beautification in the king’s harem and that the king chooses her and gives her a banquet to celebrate. And they lived happily ever after. What happens after happily after? Things get real and challenging and tricky negotiating because he is this all powerful king and she can’t go and see him anytime she wants to.  He has to summon her.  Talk about a complicated marriage.

Meanwhile, Mordecai is sitting at the king’s gates and he overheard two of the king’s officers plotting to assassinate the king. Mordecai lets Esther know, and she warns the king about it. Mordecai was given credit for unfurling the plot and the two treasonous guards were hung on the gallows.

Now you should be hearing villainous music and lots of bass and minor notes because I’m about to introduce the character of Haman. It says the king “advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. All the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down.” But Mordecai refused, because he was a Jew, who would bow to no one except God. This made Haman very angry and he along with his wife and his advisors plotted against the Jews making a plan to get rid of them. Haman uses his influence on the king and makes the king a pawn in his chess game against Mordecai, saying the Jews don’t keep the same laws. So the king agrees. Esther 3:13, “Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.”

When Mordecai learns this he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth. When Esther finds out about this she is obviously distressed because she is a Jew and from the beginning Mordecai told her to be silent about her heritage in the palace. Mordecai sends this reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

For such a time as this.

She sees the “You are Here” sign but she wonders why?  Why was she placed here?  Why was she called to this place?  What gifts did she have to offer?  Her faith in God?  Her fervent desire to go where God leads even though it may cost her?

Perhaps you’re here in this world at this particular time in this particular place for such a time as this, to step out and risk everything….

We’re back in Persia with some palace intrigue. Remember when I said Esther was not allowed to see the king unless he had asked for her?  She could be put to death for this and she had not been called in to see the king in 30 days.  So she, her maid-servants, and all of the Jews of Persia fasted earnestly for three days before she built up enough courage to enter the king’s presence. When the king saw Esther, he was pleased and held out his scepter to her. He then asked Esther what she wished of him, promising to grant even up to half his kingdom should she ask. Esther requested a banquet with the king and Haman. During the banquet, she requested another banquet with the king and Haman the following day.

Cue villainous laughter, Haman was already ordering gallows to be constructed to hang Mordecai. At the same time, Esther 6:1 says, “On that night the king could not sleep, and he gave orders to bring the book of records, the annals, and they were read to the king” and he remembers that Mordecai had saved him from the previous assassination attempt and the king realizes he had not rewarded Mordecai.

Early the next morning, Haman came to the king to ask permission to hang Mordecai, but before he could, the king asked him “What should be done for the man whom the king delights to honor?” Haman assumed the king meant him, so he said that the man should wear a royal robe and be led on one of the king’s horses through the city streets proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” The king thought this was appropriate, and asked Haman to lead Mordecai through the streets in this way. After doing this, Haman rushed home, full of grief. His wife said to him, “You will surely come to ruin!”

Esther 7:1-10 (NRSV)
“1 So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. 2 On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” 3 Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. 4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” 5 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” 6 Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”

And you can guess what happened to Haman. He was hung on the gallows that he had built for Mordecai.

How do we relate to the story of Esther?  Haman reaped what he had sown? Is the moral of the story that we should speak up even when it’s hard?  Why did God place us exactly where we are now, in this time, and in this place “for such a time as this?” How can we stand up on behalf of the poor, hurting and marginalized in our own lives by speaking truth to power?  Who are the poor and hurting in our lives?  Do we see them?  They may be us.  How have the disappointments in life and the valleys shaped us for such a time as this?  In what ways are we challenged by the story? How does Esther’s story intersect with your life and where God is calling you?

Bluetree “God of this City” Story

I love that story. I love that the band took a step out in faith to play at the bar. I love that even out of a horrific situation, we can call on the name of Jesus or cry out to God, and God immediately is there as the Holy Spirit turns our mere utterances into prayers. I love the specificity that the guy from Bluetree gives us the name of the city, Pattaya, Thailand because we can name this specific city of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina or Charleston or Bangladesh or London in our prayers. We can name the city of Rio de Janeiro in our prayers.  I love that God put that song in his heart and it came out in the notes he played and his words for God is not defeated even in the darkest places.

I visited L’viv, Ukraine during the protests in January 2013.  I arrived on the day the first protester was shot and he happened to be from where I was speaking at this conference.  I immediately changed much of what I would share in the 4 talks I would give there.  I saw great faith in the Ukranian people.  Though I’ve never been that cold in my life, their fire and passion and trust in the will of God for their lives and their country was awe-inspiring.  I preached that God can work and move in seemingly impossible situations and God can make a way when we see no hope of there being a way forward, but they lived it. I bore witness to the intentional prayer times and fasting for the future of their country.  I bore witness to the fervor to seek the will of God.  When we hung up posters for the NEXT event in one of the universities, it showed a picture of the protester who was killed, holding a sign that said, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

Their country was in a civil war, and me an American that had only been there 48 hours, was supposed to speak into that turmoil.  They were watching on big screens set up in the town square 24 a day the news coverage coming out of their capital city.  I don’t actually know what they got out of it, but I know what I did.  I saw faith and fervor in the face of death that I had only read about.  I saw and heard through their prayers, their heart’s desires.

What did Esther have?  She had an attitude of openness to God’s leading.  She was willing to take risks, gathering her lady’s maids and praying and fasting as Mordecai gathered all the Jews together to pray and fast right along with her.  She knew what the cost was, “And if I perish, I perish.”  Sometimes what God calls us to, is to be faithful to the opportunities God puts before you.  Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War 2. She was imprisoned for her actions. Her most famous book, The Hiding Place, describes what transpired.  She knew what she was talking about when she said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”  Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God. James 1:2-4 says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  God wants us to be change agents in the world.  God doesn’t want us to give only lip service, but God seeks disciples that will walk in the way that leads to life.

There is an old legend that tells how Jesus, after his ascension, was asked by the angels how he planned to complete his mission.  The angels were incredulous.  “Them?” they exclaimed pointing to the fearful, unlearned disciples who stood lost and confused on the earth below, “You are going to depend on them to complete your mission?”

“That’s correct,” Jesus answers.

“And should they fail??” the angels counter, “If they are not capable of carrying on your work, do you have a back-up plan?”

“They are my only plan,” Jesus says.

We don’t have to do it on our own.  In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and transformed them.  We may fall or fail, but we don’t lose heart. As it says in 2 Corinthians 4:1 “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” It’s not by our own strength, it’s God’s.

The guy from Bluetree asks the question in the youtube video, “What does the global church do to actually combat things that actually exist on our planet that are completely wrong whether it’s child soldiers, prostitution within your own city, homeless within your own city, anything that’s going on, what does the church do? We should be the pioneers. We need to understand that we have an authority that comes from Christ…that we need an attitude to serve the world with love and actually living out the great commission.”

And they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love. We will walk with each other, we walk side by side. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our Love.  Henri Nouwen says, “Our little lives become great – part of the mysterious work of God’s salvation.  Once that happens, nothing is accidental, casual or futile any more.  Even the most insignificant event speaks the language of faith, hope and, above all love.”

We have to show a hurting, hopeless world that God loves them, in the US and in Thailand, in the Ukraine and Rio, in all of the world.  That’s why I love the Olympics. The stories of endurance and overcoming adversity inspires me to ponder what’s holding me back.  The ways I have put up a “closed” sign or the large words UNAVAILABLE or a “for sale” sign in the window of my soul.  We all need to make ourselves available.  As Corrie ten Boom put it, “Don’t bother to give God instructions; just report for duty.” Yes, you are here.  We are here.  We may not know all the who’s or why’s.  But God does.  And God can guide and lead us to help shave or sand off our growing edges, the things that hold us back from being fully present to go or to step out.

Isaiah 43:1-6

43:1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
43:2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
43:3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
43:4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
43:5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
43:6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–

For such a time as this.

Seasons

Ecclesiastes 3 (NRSV)

Everything Has Its Time

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

The God-Given Task

What gain have the workers from their toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. 11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live;13 moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. 14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

 

This time of year has always held a mixture of excitement and nerves.  As a kid I loved getting new school clothes and the neat nick in me loved the clean notebooks and the perfectly sharpened pencils with the new erasers.  I still like that part of it.  Buying new school clothes or uniforms and checking off everything on my kids’school supply lists, gives me a sense of satisfaction as if I’ve accomplished something.  Add to it the list of things that you have to complete when you’ve not only moved schools and communities, but states, and even my peppy cheerleader organizational mode gets tired and discouraged.  Ever notice how a bad attitude is contagious?  It really IS.  (Christian music is what keeps me positive. Without it?  Yikes!)  When you’ve had to go to the DMV over 5 times to get your license and license plates, all arrows are pointing to God teaching you patience, perseverance and endurance.  It’s a constant test.  The corollary is true too.  As hard as it sometimes is to choose joy instead of frustration, it’s well worth it in our workplaces, with our friends, and DEFINITELY with our families.   So after the fourth time at the DMV, I stopped by a craft store and bought this picture, as a reminder to choose joy.choose joy

Today after Point Hope’s prayer time, where we intentionally pray for the prayer request cards lifted on Sunday and anything a person has asked us to pray for, this Mandisa song came on the radio as I was listening in my office.  It’s called “He is With You” and below are the video and the lyrics.

 

There’s a time to live
And a time to die
There’s a time to laugh
And a time to cry
There’s a time for war
And a time for peace
There’s a hand to hold
In the worst of these

He is with you when your faith is dead
And you can’t even get out of bed
Or your husband doesn’t kiss you anymore
He is with you when your baby’s gone
And your house is still, and your heart’s a stone
Cryin’ God, what’d You do that for
He is with you

There’s a time for yes
And a time for no
There’s a time to be angry
And a time to let it go
There is a time to run
And a time to face it
There is love to see you
Through all of this

He is with you in the conference room
When the world is coming down on you
And your wife and kids don’t know you anymore
He is with you in the ICU
When the doctors don’t know what to do
And it scares you to the core
He is with you

We may weep for a time
But joy will come in the morning
The morning light

He is with you when your kids are grown
When there’s too much space and you feel alone
And you’re worried if you got it right or wrong
Yes He is with you when you’ve given up
On ever finding your true love
Someone who feels like home
He is with you

When nothing else is left
And you take your final breath
He is with you

It was a perfect song for me to listen to right then.  There’s a time and a season for everything and God is with us through it all.  We choose every day and all throughout the day whether to grasp hold of the negative or we choose to give it to God and choose joy because we trust and believe God can make a way when there doesn’t seem to be one.

Even when this tired Mommy Pastor is worried about “Meet the Teacher” on Thursday afternoon, and the first day of school on Monday; I have to trust and pray that Enoch and Evy will have excellent teachers and will make new friends and we will find our new rhythm and places that we like.  Enoch said tonight, “We need to find a good doughnut shop and a good comic store.”  And we do.  But we also need to be gentle with our selves, as we grieve past things and embrace the new.  God is ever in the midst.  As Birdee Pruitt says at the end of Hope Floats, “That’s what momma always says. She says that beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts the most. Try to remember that when you find yourself at a new beginning. Just give hope a chance to float up. And it will, too…”

As we begin this school year, with all of it’s crazy hecticness, I give thanks to God for always being in the mix, guiding and leading us on this adventure, helping us to trust and lean into grace, God’s abundant grace.  If you’re feeling anxious about anything, then I leave you with these verses to carry in your heart.

Philippians 4:6-7 (NRSV)

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

1 Peter 5:7 (NRSV)

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

We all, at any season of life, need to worry less and pray more.  Amen?  Amen.

 

 

We Choose to Follow Jesus

What did we talk about last Sunday? You might remember the Parables of the Talents, The Legend of Bagger Vance or the quotes on success from Larry Bird or Queen Elizabeth II, but the main point was when God chooses us, we’re chosen FOR something and fear is the main thing that holds us back.
Our scripture this morning is Luke 19:1-10.
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Did you ever climb trees as a kid? We had a magnolia tree in a neighbor’s backyard that was perfect for climbing. If you know anything about magnolia trees, their branches are close together, which makes it an easy tree to climb. We spent many afternoon of my childhood climbing trees.

That’s why the story of Zacchaeus has always fascinated me. The story of Zacchaeus is familiar to many of us. He was the short guy who had to climb a tree to see Jesus. There’s even a song that we sang in Sunday school about him.  “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. Jesus said, “You come down for I’m coming to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.” I can’t believe after all these years I still remember that.

Zacchaeus wasn’t the funny short guy climbing in a tree that I pictured in my mind’s eye as a child. He wasn’t the wee leprechaun that I imagine when using the word “wee.”  He’s the chief tax collector. Zacchaeus doesn’t need to be told he’s a sinner. Society’s already made that clear. He doesn’t need people to tell him he’s an outcast. He already feels it.
The English word sin is used to translate at least six Hebrew and seven Greek words. Soren Kierkegaard defines sin this way. “Sin is the steadfast refusal to be your one true self.” That is a very different understanding than the typical definition of sin. Evigras of Pontus’ understanding of sin is that sin is a “forgetfulness of God’s goodness.” Jesus actively sought out sinners and made room at the table for them, he was searching them out reminding them of God’s love specifically for them.
You would think that the religious people would get used to Jesus hanging out with the social outcasts, lepers, women of ill repute, tax collectors, dirty and smelly fisherman, but they didn’t catch on at all. That he picked them continually only seemed to make them more angry and haughty. They reject any idea that he would pick THOSE people over them. He CHOOSES to hang out with sinners and NOT the hyper religious or wealthy. They are surprised by this EVERY time. I want to shake my head and ask, “Don’t you get it?” Jesus chooses to go where no one else would go. Jesus chooses the least, the last, and the low. Jesus chooses the ones what society stamps “not good enough.” Jesus chooses us sinners. In verse 10, it says Jesus came to seek out and to save the lost. Jesus didn’t seem to mind that he was getting a “reputation” for hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes. Everyone that he encountered, he saw as a person in need of God’s love, even the Pharisees.
If they would stop looking down their noses and judging, they would realize we’re all in need of God’s grace and mercy because in fact, we’re ALL sinners. They probably didn’t like when he said in Luke 6, “37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Or “41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 42 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” A good and challenging word for today. As Mother Teresa says, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” If you judge people, you have no time to love them.

I’d like to tell you a story, “There was a young, intelligent university student named Bill. Bill was what some people call a “free spirit” or “hippie.” He had wild long hair, always wore the same old and torn T-shirt, jeans and no shoes. Across the street from the university campus was a church. The people there were rich, older and well-dressed. They wanted to help the university students nearby, but they did not know exactly how to do it.

Well, one day Bill decided to go visit this church by his university. As usual, he went wearing his only jeans, old, torn T-shirt and his dirty long hair. The church service had already started and was full, so Bill walked down the center aisle looking for a seat. People were getting more and more uncomfortable as they watched this unclean, wild-looking young man. Finally, Bill got to the front and saw there were no more empty seats, so he just sat down on the floor right in front of the preacher. No one had ever done that in this church before! By now, everyone was upset and distracted.
Then, a respected old church deacon got up and started toward the front. Everyone was thinking: “You can’t blame the deacon, he really should correct this disrespectful young man.” Everyone was watching. Even the preacher stopped his sermon when the old man finally got to the front. Then, they were all completely surprised to see the old deacon drop his walking stick and very slowly sit down on the floor next to this young hippie. He did not want this young man to sit alone and feel unaccepted. The people in the church were moved to tears. Finally, the preacher said: “What I am preaching about today you will probably never remember. But what you have just seen you will never forget!””

Jesus came for all of us. It doesn’t say, “For God so loved some of the world…” The great God of the universe came down and was Emmanuel God with us and he seeks relationships with each of us. Just as Harry seeks the horcruxes in the later books of the Harry Potter series, just like they seek the ring of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, just like they seek the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones, the and they seek treasure in the Mummy, National Treasure, and the Goonies, our Lord SEEKS us. And we don’t have to hide who or what we are. God knows us. God knows when we sit and when we rise. We are sinners. We are lost. We don’t have to put on our masks every day that we put on for work or school. We don’t have to hide behind our answer of “fine” when someone asks how we’re doing. With God we can let our guard down. God already knows the things that we’d rather keep hidden. What we’re worried about, our hopes, fears, and dreams. That can be freeing for some people and it should give hope to ALL of us because Romans 3:23-24 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” We have all fallen short. None of us immune. It is a free gift of grace through Jesus.

This is a poem by Roberta Porter. It’s called “Transforming Love.”
“God wants our lives –
Not Sunday morning shiny,
But all of the fragments of our failures,
Shards of struggle and sin
We’ve gathered, hidden, on our way.
And in Jesus’ transforming love,
His willing brokenness, sacrifice, rising,
Our sorrow and pain become gifts
To be used for others,
Our weakness the dwelling place
For the Spirit’s strength,
Our broken-open lives
Bearers of God’s grace.”

We’re not perfect. None of us are. At least Zacchaeus was aware of his sinfulness. He was aware that he needed saving. As C S Lewis perceptively wrote in his classic book, Mere Christianity:  “When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.” It doesn’t say in the text when Zacchaeus made a change of heart – if it was when he saw Jesus, when Jesus recognized him worthy to speak to him, actually when he invited him down from the tree, or as he was climbing down the tree, but it’s clear that this is a lifestyle change. It’s clear that he has repented.
He says in verse 8, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” It was biblical custom to only pay them back twice as much, so he’s going above and beyond because of this encounter with Jesus.
How do we encounter Jesus? Do we pretend to not see him and not meet his eyes? Or do we ignore his voice by putting our fingers and doing what we want? Do we even consciously admit to being sinful or do we push that aside because it’s distasteful? Or are we so oblivious to our own faults like the Pharisees? Maybe Jesus liked to hang out with sinners because they were real. They chose to be honest about their flaws or growing edges. Zaccheaus chose to lay it all out there, repent, change, make amends and then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Zacchaeus’ are obviously “out there” – the social misfits, the humans that wound each other, the anarchists, the people on the fringes or outside society’s norms, BUT there’s a bit of Zacchaeus in all of us. We’re all Zacchaeus. Jesus would have come into the world for any one of us. We all have worries and fears. It’s okay. Like the parable of the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the one lost sheep. All for one.

tree
God will give you the evidence you need to help you believe. Like in Luke 9:24, when the man of the child that Jesus is healing says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” One of the most profoundly honest prayer.  I believe, help my unbelief.  Just ask. Jesus desires a personal relationship with each one of us. That’s why before we even have understanding of it, God searches us out and draws us to God’s self in God’s prevenient grace. We recognize we’re in need of God’s grace – that that grace is for us – in justifying grace. God doesn’t leave us where we are in the mire and the muck. In God’s sanctifying grace, God helps us to grow and mature as Christians. God will give us the signs and the answers that we need to believe if we but ask him. God will answer our doubts and reassure you when you need it most. 1 John 4:9-10 says, “9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
God’s heart reaches, searches, longs for EACH of us and meets our needs. If you don’t hear anything I say this morning, hear that. There are no outsiders because no one is out of the reach of the love of God. Nothing can separate us from it. Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is a verse I cling to on my darkest nights.
Have y’all ever heard of cardboard testimonies? On one side of the cardboard you write what you’re struggling with and when you flip the cardboard over, you can see the power of God working in your life.

What would you write as your cardboard testimony? Do you live your life in such a way that people know your cardboard testimony without you even writing it down? Is it known that you’re a Christian? Or is it just known that you’re a nice person?
Bob Goff says, “Follow the footsteps of God. Walk (don’t just fall) in love. Love God. Be like Jesus.” How are we like Jesus? How are we to be Jesus to the world? I read an author once that said, “Love is the only power that can compel us to risk our own lives. And love is the only power that has the potential to heal all the wounds that human beings inflict upon one another.”
Love is the answer. Love God. Love people. It’s that simple.
We choose to follow Jesus. We choose to follow him because of his great love for us. Because he’s the answer to all of our quests, to all of our journeys, to all of our adventures. He’s the One that we’ve been waiting for and the world needs to know. Will you share it with them? Will you share it by living your life of faith out loud? The good, the bad, the ugly and the faithful. Growing in grace and growing the depth of our faith that the world may see and know that our God reigns and God’s grace is available to them without price, without strings attached. Tax Collectors. Prostitutes. You and Me.

We are Chosen FOR Something

(Hold on to your hats ladies and gents!  This is a long scripture.  I know you can handle it!)

Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

The Parable of the Talents

14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This is one of those head scratching texts because it seems like such a harsh ending.  You have to remember Jesus is telling a parable.  He’s alluding to some deep truth or lesson while telling a story that conveys meaning.  It’s sometimes a comparison or analogy, and even the disciples couldn’t figure some of them out.  A common theme throughout our “Chosen Series” is that fear limits us from doing what we can with the talents God has given us.   And that’s the difference in the third slave in our scripture, he was afraid…so he buried his talent…He let fear of the Master cripple him.  God does not call us to have a spirit of fear but of boldness.  The audacity of the first and second slave to double their money.  If he was indeed a harsh Master than that was truly audacious.  Clearly the text is talking about an ancient style of money, but in the Middle Ages talents started meaning something else, like Jack’s awesome guitar skills or Derek’s voice or Joanne’s encouragement or Deanne’s teaching.

Queen Elizabeth II says this about talent.  “I know of no single formula for success. But over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.”  So she says it’s all about working together.  Bringing all of our talents to the table.  Larry Bird, basketball player says this about talent, “A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals.”  Larry Bird knows what it is to work hard.  He says you can’t merely rely on talent alone, but you have to work hard to develop that talent.  Soledad O’Brian, broadcaster, says this, “I’ve learned that fear limits you and your vision. It serves as blinders to what may be just a few steps down the road for you. The journey is valuable, but believing in your talents, your abilities, and your self-worth can empower you to walk down an even brighter path. Transforming fear into freedom – how great is that?”  There’s that “fear” word again.

2 Timothy 1:6-7, 14, “ For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.  14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.  God gives us this treasure that God’s entrusted to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Do you hear that?  We’ve been given this jewel and if we hide it, just like in the parable of the talents, we will not be rewarded.  God wants us to share it with others.  God doesn’t choose us simply for the sake of choosing; being chosen doesn’t mean that you’re better than others.  When God chooses us, we’re chosen FOR something.

I read an article from Relevant a few years ago called “So You Have No Idea What Your ‘Calling’ Is.”  “Words like “calling” and “vocation” sound great until you realize you don’t know yours.  We have to consider our talents and passions and seek out wisdom. And when we do start to figure it out, we may have to come to terms with the fact that our place in the process might look a little bit more like making someone’s day by brewing an incredible cup of coffee rather than revolutionizing the whole industry through fair-trade initiatives.”  Have you ever felt like that?  Or do you see your children or grandchildren stuck in that uncertain, stuck place discerning their gifts or callings?  Or are you in your retirement, thinking some of those same thoughts?  Where are the gifts and talents God gave me, leading me?  It’s okay to not have all the answers, just don’t shut the door on an opportunity God may have for you.  To any age group, God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine if we trust and believe.  You may not have any idea what your actual gifts are.  Have different people encouraged you along the way and pointed out the things that you are good at?  Have they affirmed your talent?  Their collective voices may be God’s way of showing and telling you what your gifts are.  We definitely serve a show and tell God.  God has a way of using multiple mediums to get God’s point across loud and clear.  It may be a still small voice or it may be a resounding gong, but God will make a way.

You see the God that knit you together in your mother’s womb is calling you forth to share YOUR particular gift, your unique talents with the world.  Whether big or small, no act of love, no sharing of your gifts, is insignificant.   We’re called to only be faithful and obedient.  Not to be perfect or have it all together and most of us are not called to be famous, to have a million followers on Twitter or have a clothing line.  Good for the people that do.  We get into this comparison cycle where we feel like God is Santa Claus and we’ve got no gift.  Or not the one we want.  It’s always greener in someone’s field.  Don’t compare yourself to others because that only sets you up for dissatisfaction, envy, failure, and not to mention, it’s unhealthy.  Trust me, we are each given our part to play in the body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-11 (NRSV) says, 1 “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

Everyone has been given gifts spiritual and otherwise.  Ask God to help you see and know your specific gifts, those that you bring light to a world full of darkness.  There’s a great explanation and test on The United Methodist Church’s website – http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/spiritual-gifts.  The website shares, “The Spiritual Gifts Assessment helps individuals identify their God-given gifts for living faithfully as Christian disciples day by day and find meaningful ways to use their gifts in connection with others through the community of faith.”  Everyone has been given gifts, it just may be you’ve never unlocked or activated yours or that you’ve forgotten.

I have loved the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance” ever since I saw it in 2000.  I watched over and over again after a second brain surgery left me without the ability to speak in 2013.  I remember practicing at the pulpit, a friend helping me, as I struggled that summer and fall. “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is about a war veteran, Captain Rannulph Junah played by Matt Damon, who was a talented golfer before he went to war and some things went down and he now refuses to play the game.  He ends up in this tournament and his caddy, Bagger, played by Will Smith, and Harley the young local boy that is serving as the assistant caddy.  When he first tries to swing his clubs, you can tell he’s getting frustrated and angry because it’s not coming back so easy.  He’s forgotten how to do it, to let it flow. and Bagger says to Harley.  “Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing. Something that we were born with. Something that’s ours and ours alone. Something that can’t be taught to you or learned. Something that got to be remembered. Over time the world can rob us of that swing. It can be buried inside us in the woulda, coulda, shoulda’s.  Some people forget what their swing was like.”

Our arrogance gets us into trouble.  So does when we don’t try our best or we give up.  This clip is when Junah is 12 strokes back, he’s already let the self-defeating prophesy set in.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60PQRpo9T-Q

You see when we humble ourselves and listen to God and God’s leading, we’re able to be who God created us to be.  If we rest, in the resting state, in the love of God for each of us we can truly use our gifts for God’s glory.

Some of us have forgotten our authentic swing.  Life happened.  Jobs happened.  Babies happened.  All the things that demand our time happened.  The callous, apathetic, nature of our world happened.  We are numb to the attacks in the world and we’re numb to the terror, heartache, and politics in our own country, some of us thinking that is our only means of survival to remain wrapped up in our apathy so we don’t have to feel the wounds of those around us.  First of all, God doesn’t cause the atrocities in the world.  God grieves and mourns right alongside us.  Second of all, God is a just God and anyone who shoots the innocent is going to answer to God for it.  I cling to and believe whole-heartedly in times like these, as Romans 8 says,  “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

We forget that sometimes.  Sometimes the stuff of the world, our baggage as we’ve spoken of gets in the way.  We get in our own heads too much and overthink things.  That basically boils down to FEAR. This is later in the movie.  Junah’s gotten into his head and he’s experiencing PTSD.  He’s about to give up the tournament….

“Now play the game.  Your game.  The game that only you was meant to play.  The one was given to you when you come into this world.”

God is going to be with you every step of the way.  Even when God doesn’t seem like it, even if you’re hoarse from crying out, God is there.

Naomi Faw writes, “In the dark night of my soul I long for someone’s comfort and no one comes.  There is no one to call.  I imagine Jesus in the Garden praying until sweat became blood and even the disciples would not wake.  This night is my garden.  When will help come?  Where is grace?  Will I be able to take one more step?  The dark night passes and no one came.  Or, perhaps Christ was here all along leading me into the dawn.”

Christ was here all along leading me into the dawn.  God never leaves us or forsakes us.  Amen?

 

I promise you that if you ask God, seek God with all of your heart, God will answer you.  Seek and ye shall find.  Knock and the door will be opened for you.  The place God leads you is the place you come alive.  It’s where your passions lie and it is where your deepest desires are going to be met, the cry of your heart that you’ve not even dared to speak aloud.  It’s a journey of self-discovery and discovering God’s purpose for your life.  Not just one purpose, it’s a myriad of instances, ways to share small things with great love.  The world will see it.  The world will see people who are truly authentic and it will be shining from our faces.  Our one true authentic swings.  God is faithful and true and the Holy Spirit can guide and lead us in our gifts and graces as the Spirit moves us to claim our gifts.  God doesn’t call us to hoard our gifts or leave them unused because we are afraid.  God gives us these talents to share with the world.

Why did God place you on this earth in this particular time, in this particular place?  Not in a braggy, self-centered kind of way.  Too much self-love is a detriment and can lead you on the path of destruction. We don’t need “our giftedness” to go to our heads.  Sometimes we want to take the credit ourselves.  It’s my talent.  I’ve gotten myself to this point.  I’m brilliant.  I’ve gotten this promotion, house, new job, etc. all on my own.

I’m reminded of Ellie Holcomb’s song “Only Hope I’ve Got.”

I take all the gifts that You have given and I stake my claim like they’re my own,
Will You help me when I forget to remember, the good I’ve got is yours alone.
Oh ’cause I don’t wanna tell some arrogant story
Or let myself believe I’m you!
I don’t wanna be a thief who’s stealing Your glory…
Will You help remind me of what is true? The ONLY hope I’ve got, it’s You.
It’s You.

We need to remember that all good gifts come from above. We need to be humble and not squander the great gifts God has given.  According to Marianne Williamson, “Success means we go to sleep at night knowing that our talents and abilities were used in a way that served others.”  As Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I’d like to be your conversation partner in this.  If you get the results of a spiritual gift inventory and you’d like to talk to someone, I’m available.  If you’d like to share with a trusted friend, family member, or small group what you think your gifts are and where you think they’re leading you then do it.  We have to have these times of deep soul work or we grow stale.

Earlier this morning I placed stars under your chairs and I prayed over them for God to help you see what gifts and graces that God has given you.  Help you see that you’re enough.  Help you see you’re worthy to approach the throne of grace with confidence.  You see these stars symbolize our lights shining collectively in the world.  When you claim your gifts for God, it makes the light brighter, stronger, more full.  Notice I gave you two stars and don’t worry, I won’t give you homework every week.  Part of our calling as Christians is to not just use our gifts for Christ for the world  but to see the gifts of others in the world, the light shining brightly out of them, or dimly as it was for Captain Junah.  I want you to give someone your other star this week as a sign that maybe you see something that they don’t recognize in themselves, or if someone does something kind for you, like carries your groceries, or let’s you get in front of them in line at the gas station, or a mother that you see at Target harried by her children as a sign of encouragement.  God doesn’t just want us to accept and use our gifts, God wants us to shine our lights so that the world knows God’s love and grace and that God has given them gifts as well.

I will close with this poem called “More Than Enough.”

“Something is better than nothing,” I say to myself.

Still another voice persists:

“Will my gift, which appears so meager, count amidst this sea of other offerings?” I ache with doubt.  And yet I saw how my leaking faucet filled a bucket last night.  One drop at a time.  More isn’t always the most, and less isn’t always the least.  Approachability.  Availability.  Dependability. Listening ears, understanding heart.  Words of encouragement, being present when it matters most.  Selflessness and the gift of self.  If the smallest act to even one life becomes significant enough, it might just make a world of difference.  The endless possibilities lie with the One who can use the whole of what we think is merely a mite, a part.  Here and now, if we simply present whatever we are, whatever we can, and whatever we have, somehow it would be more than enough, more than worthwhile.”

Let us pray.