Posted in Acts, God, Holy Spirit, peter, pride, Transformation

God’s People Expanded

May 15th – 5th Sunday of Easter – God’s People Expanded

I was asked recently what Bible character I most relate to.  What would you say?  Pete Horlbeck said I preach like John.  I would like to think I’m saintly like Mary who shouted for joy when she sung about God using her as God’s vessel to deliver us all.  Or obedient like Ruth.  Or strong like Samson.  Or wise like Deborah.  Or tenacious and undeterred like Paul.  I am much more like look before you leap, foot in my mouth Peter.  

Matthew 14:22-33 says, “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.  After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.  Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.  But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”  “Come,” he said.  Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”  And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.  Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

When he saw the wind, he was afraid, and he began to sink.

In Matthew 17:1-8, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”  When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.”

Peter, James, and John got an up close look at glow in the dark Jesus, shining in his divinity, so much so that Peter didn’t want to leave.  He offers to put shelters up for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  He’s taking the mountaintop experience to a whole new level planning to hang out on top of the mountain permanently, but God with a big, booming voice cut that out.  I preached last week on the rising of Tabitha/Dorcas.  Peter knows how to do it from watching Jesus heal Jairus’ daughter.  Again, Peter gets an up close personal seat to all these events.  Though he’s not named, I’m sure Peter was among them fighting over who is the greatest disciple after he shared the Passover meal with him on the night in which he was betrayed because he directly mentioned him by name in Luke 22:31-34, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  But [Peter] replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”  Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

Big words.  And words that he’s going to have to prove later that night.  Later on Luke 22:54-62:

Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance.  And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them.  A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”

But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.

A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”

“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”

Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.”  And he went outside and wept bitterly.”  So it all came true.  Boasting in all his pridefulness in front of his fellow disciples, but as soon as he was out in the world, he’s like a dog with his tail between his legs.  Giving Peter the benefit of the doubt, he may have meant it at the time.  We all do when the boat is rocking merrily along, but when the ship hits the sand all bets are off.  When we get a full gulp of adversity all of us quake in our boots.  That’s what distinguishes this Peter, the one in our text today, from the one in the Gospel accounts.  We see Peter transformed.  We see Peter following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  We see Peter having a hand in God’s people expanded and we should do the same.

 Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

We see Peter transformed.  

A farmer purchases an old, run-down, abandoned farm with plans to turn it into a thriving enterprise. The fields are grown over with weeds, the farmhouse is falling apart, and the fences are collapsing all around.

During his first day of work, the town preacher stops by to bless the man’s work, saying, “May you and God work together to make this the farm of your dreams!”

A few months later, the preacher stops by again to call on the farmer. Lo and behold, it’s like a completely different place — the farmhouse is completely rebuilt and in excellent condition, there are plenty of cattle and other livestock happily munching on feed in well-fenced pens, and the fields are filled with crops planted in neat rows. “Amazing!” the preacher says. “Look what God and you have accomplished together!”

“Yes, Reverend,” says the farmer, “but remember what the farm was like when God was working it alone!”

Simon Peter is long-past questioning his dependence on the Triune God.  He understood that he was doing nothing by his own strength, but the power of the Holy Spirit coursing through him.  Peter is not the leap before you look, foot in his mouth, disciple who’s full of himself.  But he’s fulfilling what Jesus said in Matthew 16:15-18, “He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  The gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.  Nor against Peter, himself.  Remember when Jesus said in the Upper Room where he shared the first Lord’s Supper with the disciples?  “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

The devil may win a few skirmishes, but he will never win the war, if we surrender to God’s will, God’s calling in our lives.  Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love writes, “Until your knees finally hit the floor, you’re just playing at life, and on some level you’re scared because you know you’re just playing. The moment of surrender is not when life is over. It’s when it begins.”  Peter had his knees hitting the floor moment and he is forever changed and his faith has been transformed.  You see, his friends in Jerusalem, didn’t see his vision in a dream in Joppa, so he lays it out step by step, bit by bit.  He doesn’t cow tow or stutter or appear sheepish in any way.  He just lays it out there that God’s people, holding the keys to the kingdom, need to be expanded.  Underline several times the word need.  Peter was exemplifying what Saint Teresa of Avila once said: ‘We can only learn to know ourselves and do what we can — namely, surrender our will and fulfill God’s work in us.’ 

So, there in Jerusalem, in the midst of his circumcised brothers, Peter reached the conclusion of his account and humbly asks in verse 17, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”   After these men heard Peter’s “step by step” explanation and understood that they were complicit in opposing God’s will, “they were silenced.”  What a reversal that was to get the Jewish Christians to welcome the Gentile Christians so whole-heartedly that  “they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

We see Peter following the leading of the Holy Spirit. 

Only a vision of the Holy Spirit could lead Peter to throw out the customs, what was ingrained in him from birth.

In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey tells of a time when he was giving the children’s sermon.  He held up a bag, and pulled a package of barbecued pork rinds for them to munch on. Next he pulled out a fake snake and a large rubber fly, which led to squeals from his young audience. Yancey and a few of the children then sampled scallops.

“Finally, to the children’s great delight,” he writes, “I reached cautiously into the bag and extracted a live lobster. Larry the Lobster we called him, and Larry responded by waving his claws in a most menacing fashion.”

Yancey explained to the congregation that Levitical laws specifically forbade everything they had just eaten. No Orthodox Jew would touch any of the contents of his shopping bag. This is why the message in Acts 11:9 is such radical news: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 

Peter knew that this would be a stretch to the people in Jerusalem, but he was hoping, he had faith that the same Holy Spirit that drew him to that conclusion, was working in them too. 

The famed Methodist preacher Halford Luccock once published a book of sermons called Marching Off the Map. The title comes from a sermon of his in which he referenced a story from the life of Alexander the Great.

After Alexander’s unprecedented string of victories that opened the way for his army to travel from Asia Minor through Persia and into Afghanistan, his generals came to him one day and informed him: “We don’t know what to do next. We have marched off the map.”

This, says Luccock, is the critical moment of decision, and it doesn’t happen only to world conquerors. Frequently, in life, bold and adventuresome people come across situations in which there is no precedent to guide them.

In such times we are faced with two choices: turn around and return to the security of what we already know? Or forge ahead, marching off the map?  Do Peter and the people of Jerusalem trust the Holy Spirit to lead them into a new way, marching off the map?  They all shout a resounding, “ Yes!”

We see Peter having a hand in God’s people expanded and we should do the same.

Rita Snowden tells a story from World War II. In France some soldiers brought the body of a dead comrade to a cemetery to have him buried. The priest gently asked whether their friend had been a baptized Catholic. The soldiers did not know. The priest sadly informed them that in that case, he could not permit burial in the church yard.

So the soldiers dug a grave just outside the cemetery fence. And they laid their comrade to rest. The next day the soldiers came back to add some flowers — only to discover that the grave was nowhere to be found.

Bewildered, they were about to leave when the priest came up to speak to them. It seems that he could not sleep the night before, so troubled was he by his refusal to bury the soldier in the parish cemetery. So early in the morning he left his bed, and with his own hands, he moved the fence — in order to include the body of the soldier who had died.

Grace means we move the fence.  Grace means we don’t judge a book by its cover.   Grace means we don’t live our lives based on a series of assumptions.  But oh my golly, we live to be let into exclusive clubs.  We secretly relish being on the “inside” instead of the “outside.”  It’s safe on the inside, where you have a certain status and it’s comfortable.  It’s hard to welcome the stranger, the people who are different from you, the ones that don’t use the same words, or language.  Maybe they don’t speak churchese.  But the Triune God demands, demands for us to draw the circle wide.  There’s hymn “Draw the Circle Wide” with lyrics by Gordon Light and arrangement by Mark Miller in United Methodist Worship & Song Hymnbook 3154.

God the still-point of the circle

Round you all creation turns

Nothing lost but held forever

in God’s gracious arms

Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still.

Let this be our song: no one stands alone.

Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide

Let our hearts touch far horizons

So encompass great and small

Let our loving know no borders

Faithful to God’s call

It reminds me of Paul’s words in Galatians 3:26-28 “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We don’t have to hog all the love for ourselves.  God’s love is available to all.   Our lives can be transformed just like Peter’s.  If we ask the Holy Spirit to remove all of the bravado and pride, so that we can follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Lastly, we can draw the fence or circle wide.  Showing the world God’s love every chance we get.  Oh, the Holy Spirit, will guide us and lead us where to go, what to say, and how we should say it.  Our God loves a good show and tell story, the believers of the Way, surely saw how the Holy Spirit had transformed Peter, and the world will see us transformed little by little, step by step as we walk in the ways of Jesus, showing compassion when we are hurt, speaking words of love and grace, when it’s so easy to offer judgment and angst, and letting our little lights shine in a world that’s constantly seeking to dim and eventually snuff them out.  The Holy Spirit used Peter and may the Holy Spirit use us.

Posted in Acts, Holy Spirit, Jesus, peter, Sermon

A Mighty Woman

I heard a DJ ask people to call in and share their mother’s best advice.  

“Whatever you’re doing, make the place better than you found it.”

“The world is full of people all too eager to put you down. Don’t join the chorus and say bad things about yourself, to yourself. Your heart is listening.” 

“Never forget your umbrella.”  “My mother always used to say this. She meant it literally, and figuratively. For her, and eventually for me, it was about being prepared for whatever life decides to rain down upon your head. I say the same thing to my daughter over, and over again.” 

“It’s OK to be shy, but it’s not OK to never try.” 

“If you open it, close it. If you turn it on, turn it off. If you take it out, put it back. If you empty it, fill it. If you fill it, empty it.”

“Just because you CAN do it, doesn’t mean you should.”

“Every relationship takes compromise, but don’t push down parts of yourself to make your relationship work. It takes two equal people to be partners, not one person, and one half-person.”

“Always prepare early. Give yourself enough time so you have peace of mind and don’t have to rush.”

“We don’t even know what we don’t know.”

“Do not feed the fears.”

What say you, what advice did your mom’s or mother figures give you?

Jessica Larijani, SUCCESS director of digital content, writes, “My mom puts her whole heart into everything she does. For my sisters and me. For my family. Her friends. Even strangers. I admire her for so many things, but especially her generosity.

“I know what she’s doing right now without asking: sewing. She started as soon as there was a need and she hasn’t stopped since. She is part of a mask brigade making and donating protective wear to health care workers and first responders. She’s sewn almost 500 masks since the start of this pandemic, and I know she’ll keep going as long as there are requests.

“My mom’s mission has always been to help others, and her selfless dedication to that has shown me that nothing matters quite like giving kindness. Our actions leave an impact, and we can all make a difference in this life if we just choose to look for the opportunity to help.”

Our actions in this life leave an impact, not only on our children, but on everyone around us.

Acts 9:26-43

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

What is grief, but love made real?  I wrote that line down when we first watched Marvel’s WandaVision.  We binged it all over again on Friday in preparation for watching Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and I wrote it down again.  What is grief, but love made real?  Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the account of the early stages of the Way, known today as Christianity, cites one such story about a mighty woman who had died and as Jessica from SUCCESS magazine said, Dorcas put her heart in everything she did and she was loved and cherished in return.

So what is happening in our text today?  What lessons does it have to teach us?  They carried her body to an upper room of her house.  Nowadays, the scene is often played out in a funeral home, a chapel, a sanctuary, or at a graveside.  

The grieving friends of Tabitha, or Dorcas in Greek because Luke realized this story would be told to both Jews and Gentiles, are gathered to­gether in her home. She must have died recently, for she hadn’t been buried yet.

As the sad news spreads through town, her friends and loved ones come and pay their respects. I would imagine the initial conversations at the door are all essentially the same. “I just heard the news.” “I can’t believe it!” “How did it happen?” “Was anyone with her?” “She was such a wonderful person!”  The same questions that we would ask.

My grandparents all had large families and I remember funeral homes a lot as a kid.  The whole family gathered with all the drama and hijinks that comes with whole families gathered.  It gave us a chance to see aunts, uncles, and cousins we wouldn’t see until next Thanksgiving or Christmas.  It gave us a chance to see family we don’t normally see.  It gave us a chance to see the children and the grandchildren of the people that our grandparents’ talked about.  It gave us a chance to share memorable or poignant or funny stories of loved ones and when we were younger to play hide and seek or tag in our funeral clothes until inevitably we were told to stop.  But one time something peculiar happened.  All of us in the family would each dutifully walk up to the casket, pay our respects, and make a mad dash to the couches and wing-backed chairs over in one of the side rooms.  One time, my dad and his two brothers walked out of the viewing room with quizzical looks on their faces.  They each took another pass looking at their aunt’s face.  Something was definitely wrong and they couldn’t figure it out.   I don’t know who noticed first or who said it first, but one of them said, “Aunt blah-blah-blah, is smiling!  She never smiles.”

That certainly was not the case with Tabitha.  Aunt blah-blah-blah, to protect the innocent, may have lived a life “devoted to good works and acts of charity.”  I don’t know if what my dad and uncles said was right because I was little.  However, Dorcas certainly was devoted to good works and lived love as the growing crowd of grieving friends and neighbors attest.  They reminisce together, sharing their favorite stories of Dorcas. With­out the help of videos or pictures, they have to use their own recollections of her.  They don’t have a set time for the visitation like we do now.  Instead they share for hours, telling their favorite stories, recalling their happy memories together, trading the tales of her life.

While they didn’t have slideshows of pictures to spark memories, they have something even more personal because she made it.  They have the things that Tabitha her­self had made.  For each one of them.

Evidently this saintly woman was masterful at making clothes. Not just skillful, but generous, as well. Was there a friend or a neighbor who hadn’t received something from her hands? The remi­niscing turns into a lovely sort of show-and-tell as the townspeople bring out the tokens of Tabitha’s kindness.

“She gave this to me for my last birthday,” one woman tear­fully shares, as she holds up a lovely shawl. “She was so thought­ful! She never forgot a birthday, you know.”

“She was always thinking of other people,” another chimes in.

“This robe,” says another woman, drawing attention to the one she’s wearing, “I’m sure she was making this robe for herself. But when I visited one day and commented about how pretty it was, she held it up against me and said, ‘A perfect fit! It’s yours!’ “

On and on the stories went.

You and I don’t get to hear those stories and the truth is we don’t know any of Dorcas’ backstory.  Scripture doesn’t give us a glimpse of her life up to now.  We have no record of any of her words.  If we were going to wear our historian hats – the only part of her biography that is preserved for us is this story on this one particular day; and she was dead for most of it. 

And YET, for all intents and purposes, we feel like we know her, don’t we?

We feel like we know Tabitha because we’ve all been loved by someone like her.  Perhaps it was your grandfather, your aunt, your sweet next door neighbor, a favorite Sunday school teacher, that one camp counselor who was there when you first encountered Jesus and you realized that he died for you.  All of those people who loved you into being who you are.  Those generous folks who share their love with the world, not just the rich and fancy, but ALL people.

Personally, I don’t know how many Christmas stockings that my Great Aunt Clair made when we were kids, but I know that I still have mine.  She made my mom and aunt long-sleeved denim Winthrop shirts specifically designed for each of them because she was a proud Winthrop alum.  She always gave me books that were Newbery or Caldecott Winners for Christmas.  I would read every book that I received, mostly the latest Nancy Drew, before I would read those.  Sure, they weren’t a fun whodunit mystery, but those “boring” award books taught me lessons that stick with me to this day.  I have a whole host of books and quilts and prayer shawls and cross stitch pictures and pottery and a woodworked chair that my grandfather made that I will cherish long after the Saints who have imbued their spirits of selfless goodness and love long after they have gone and I remember the people that made them.  

So it was with Tabitha. The family members, friends, and neigh­bors had all gathered together in her home, clothed and armed with the loving handiwork that she had left behind. Together they oohed and ahhed. Together they reminscised. Together they showed the symbols of her goodness and love to the apostle Peter.

Peter, the leap before he looks, the foot in his mouth, and yet, the rock on which Jesus built his church, had become a pillar of the early church and he was staying in the nearby town of Lydda. He was just a few miles from Joppa where Tabitha had lived. So the Chris­tians there sent word to Peter, urging him to come to Joppa right away.

When Peter arrived, he was taken immediately up to the room where the body of Dorcas lay. There he was surrounded by the grieving loved ones, each one with an article of clothing to show him, each one with a story to tell him. Surely Peter was moved by the stories of the mourners.  Surely his heart was touched by the good works of love she had left behind.

Then he did something unusual. Peter sent them all out of the room.  They hadn’t asked him anything.  

He abruptly told them – all who had gathered  – to leave the room.  It would have seemed strange to them, he didn’t know Tabitha.  He hadn’t heard anything about Dorcas until he came to her house.  He’d never even laid eyes on her.  I can’t imagine what they whispered to one another as they walked down the stairs, leaving Peter alone in the viewing room.

He told the people to go because that’s what he had seen Jesus do.

Years before, when Peter and the disciples had chosen to follow Jesus along the dusty roads of Galilee, Peter had been in a similar bedroom. The twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus had died, and the house was full of mourners and Jesus sent them away. Or at least out of the room.  Accompanied only by a few disciples and the grieving parents, Jesus spoke to the little girl. And in speaking to her, he raised her to life.

So, now, the disciple followed the example that he had seen set by his Master, his Rabbi and did the same thing.  He sent the mourners out of the room, and then he spoke to the corpse. “Tabitha, get up,” Peter said, and the dead woman opened her eyes. Then she sat up. And then, Peter called all of her  friends and loved ones back into the room and you could have knocked them over like a feather.

They thought she was dead.  They are bursting with joy!  They can’t believe their eyes!  Now they get to say all those nice things TO her, instead of about her.  Their grief is turned to love made real in the flesh.  They could hug her and she could hug them back.

It was not Peter’s strength that brought about her healing, but by the Spirit of Jesus working within him and through him and for him.  He saw his rabbi do it and he had faith and trust that the Spirit of the Lord would do it again.

Peter stays with Simon, the tanner, but he soon goes on his way, on to the next place where he will stay, where he will preach, where he will heal. He leaves Tabitha, alive and well, in Joppa. She is among the good love works that Peter leaves behind.

Earlier, we caught a glimpse of the good love works that Tabitha had left behind. Tunics, cloaks, robes, shawls. But Peter has his own profound collection. Healed bodies, lives transformed in Christ, and a living Tabitha — these are among the good works that Peter leaves behind.

Peter’s example and Tabitha’s example challenge us. We see what each left behind, and we ask, “What is it that I leave? What is the impact and effect you or I having been in a community, a church, a school, a workplace, a family?  What is the good, the love, the mercy we leave behind?  A life well-lived?”

Where Tabitha had been, she left behind symbols of love and generosity, tokens of caring and love. Where Peter had been, he left behind life and health, gladness and rejoicing.

We don’t have to be an artisan to leave an impact, but as Mary Oliver asks “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Are you going to live love or are you going to live in fear, anger, and let the root the bitterness creep in?

We consider the example of Tabitha, and we observe that the good works she left behind remind us of her Lord.  Afterall, he is the original artist and he gifted her with the creativity and skill with which she made everything.  He modeled for  her the love and the generosity that she shared with all of the people in her community. 

We consider Peter and we see that the works he left behind also remind us of his Lord. When we look at Peter, we remember Jesus who sent his followers out in Matthew 10 “to proclaim the good news … Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”  We remember Peter who went about doing good in Acts 10:38 and when Jesus told Peter and the rest of the disciples in John 14 that they would do the works he had done and even greater works.  The Holy Spirit was with Peter.  And with Tabitha/Dorcas.  And it can be alive in us.  Helping us leave behind good love works.  Giving us the strength, perseverance in the darkness of this world, and the Mighty will to do it, we can point people to our one and only Savior in whom all of our good works are inspired and are from.  That’s the best advice of all.  We point people to our Savior by our good love works so they can see, feel and know Jesus.  Amen.

Posted in Acts, Ananias, Holy Spirit, Jesus, paul, Transformation

Ultimate Transformation

The next five weeks are going to take a deeper look at the Holy Spirit at work in the book of Acts.  Last week’s lectionary reading was the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples in a locked room and breathing on them the Holy Spirit, the ruach, the very breath of God that ignites, sustains and transforms.  Call this a 5 week special feature:  Ultimate Transformation with Saul and Ananias, A Mighty Woman with Tabitha/Dorcas and Peter, God’s People Expanded with Peter and the Gentile expansion pack, Dreams not Beans with Paul and Lydia, and finally Freedom with Paul and Silas.  All leading us toward Pentecost which for all intents and purposes IS the Holy Spirit’s day.  Blow, Spirit, blow!

You know that we have access to the Holy Spirit right here and right now.  The Holy Spirit is our advocate and comforter, interceding for us when we don’t have the words to cry out, intervening as a hedge of protection, guiding and leading us to where we should go and even giving us the words to say. 

I preached last week upstairs that we serve a show and tell God.  God shows us the ultimate transformation when Saul becomes Paul.  Saul is high on the hog, a big man on campus, a titan of Wall Street, a superstar of the Jewish faith when he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus.  The Lord revealed his plans to a hesitant Ananias who says, yes, Lord, and he gets a firsthand look at what our Lord Jesus can do.  The practical point for today is two-fold – if we think we’re too far gone, irredeemable, not worthy or good enough our Jesus loves home improvement projects and if the triune God is telling you do something, no matter how crazy it sounds, we as members of the Way should hop to it!  If we follow the Spirit’s leading everything that was lost will be found in the sweet name of Jesus.

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

If we think we’re too far gone, irredeemable, not worthy or good enough our Jesus loves home improvement projects.

Extreme Makeover Home Edition first made the big home reno transformation scene with, “Move that bus!  Move that bus!”  Now it’s common place with Fixer Upper, Home Town, Zombie Houses, Love it or List it, and the list goes on.  We often get sucked into watching those shows because we want to see the great big transformation – the huge reveal at the end.  It’s rare that we see a transformation from sinner to saint as dramatic as that of Saul to Paul.  We know that there are stories out there, however and here is one such story. The story of Cain Lackey from Patrick County, Virginia.

Cain Lackey was known as the Meanest Man in Patrick County. He was rough and tough.  The year was 1892 and Patrick County, Virginia, was a place of dirt fields and mud roads. There wasn’t always enough food. People died because there were no doctors. Some places were almost impossible to get to because of the roads.

For all that, it was still very beautiful. There were the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, and the music of winding rivers racing over the boulders in their streambeds. In the western part of the county were rich fields and long grasses. There were dairy farms, and orchards so plentiful that the smell of the fruit was like perfume.

Two ministers, Brother Dove and Brother Elgin, were standing at the edge of a swamp.  Down below, a tough, wiry man was digging a ditch. Brother Dove was a revival preacher, new in town, and Brother Elgin warned him about the man who was digging: Cain Lackey, the Meanest Man in four counties.

Brother Elgin proceeded to tell Brother Dove about Cain Lackey, how he could carry a railroad tie the way most men carried a two-by-four, how he could out-wrestle and out-fight anyone else who’d ever passed through. And he told him about the famous fight against a man known as Champion Ben, who he’d laid flat with a single punch, and how it had required twelve men to pull Cain Lackey off the former champion.

Brother Elgin also told him about the man’s father, who kept him from school, worked him from dawn to dusk, made him sleep outdoors all summer long, and how Cain had built a working mill by himself at the age of ten.

No one could level another man with his fist like Cain. No one was stronger or meaner.  “Well, he certainly looks like the strongest man in the county,” Brother Dove said, watching the way Cain Lackey thrust his shovel into the swamp, and sent great clouds of mud into the air behind him.

“I’m going to invite him to the revival,” Brother Dove said suddenly.

“He’ll never come,” Brother Elgin said.

“He’ll definitely never come if we don’t ask him,” Brother Dove replied.

Brother Elgin watched as the Brethren minister descended into the swamp. Brother Elgin could see Brother Dove step first ankle deep, then knee deep into the swamp, getting mud and gunk all over him. He watched as Brother Dove stuck out his hand to Cain Lackey. After a moment, Cain took the hand.

A few moments later Brother Dove was walking back to Brother Elgin. Mud clung to his boots and pants.

“What did he say?” Brother Elgin asked. Cain Lackey had already returned to digging. Not much seemed to keep him from work.  “He said he’d come. Is he as good as his word?”

“Yes.  If he tells you he’ll come he’ll be there. He’s just that way. He’ll do what he tells you. But if he tells you he’ll give you a whipping, he’ll do that, too.”

That night at the revival, the church was full. People had come from miles around to hear Brother Dove. There were young people and old people. There were children and mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, and plenty of babies. All the windows were open, and still it was hot, very hot inside, yet no one left. No one wanted to leave, because when someone like Brother Dove came to preach revival it was something special, very special.

The songs were the sorts of songs that everyone already knew. A sweaty man in the front of the church moved his arms up and down, right and left, to direct the singing, but everyone already knew the songs.

Brother Dove looked out over the congregation, and then he saw, in the doorway of the church, a big man standing. It was Cain Lackey, all right, and he had a child in his arms.  He hadn’t thought about it, but he now knew that Cain Lackey was married, and had children. There was a beautiful child in his arms. There was no room for anyone else in the church, but when Cain came in the door, people were afraid of him and made room for him to sit down.

Opening his Bible, Brother Dove began to read, and to talk. It got hotter and hotter in the building, and Brother Dove was dripping with sweat, and so was everyone else. It had gotten dark outside, and it was getting dark in the church as well. He could barely see into the back row, and he wondered, what did Cain Lackey, the Meanest Man in Patrick County, think about what he was saying?

When it was time for the closing song, some were crying in the church, and some were squeezing forward so that Brother Dove and Brother Elgin and all the other Brethren ministers could pray for them.  Many people were coming forward.

Brother Dove could see a dark shadow, a silhouette of a man, standing at the back of the church. Cain Lackey was standing, but he could see there was no way Cain Lackey could come forward, even if he wanted to. The church was too packed.

And then he saw something that surprised him. Cain Lackey was standing on top of a church bench. He was holding a little girl in his arms, and she was fast asleep. This person who was supposed to be the worst person in Patrick County had a little girl asleep in his arms, and he was coming forward by walking on top of the church benches.

The other ministers stood back as if they were shocked, but Brother Dove welcomed Cain Lackey, and hugged him very tightly, him and his daughter. Then Brother Dove invited Cain Lackey to kneel while they prayed together. All along, the singing continued. Then a cool breeze blew in the window, a breeze that brought relief and comfort.

When he was through praying, Brother Dove raised his hands and suddenly everyone was quiet. No one was singing. No one was crying. Everyone was listening.

“Today you have seen a miracle of grace,” he said. “God has called this man to do great things. You will be the ones who will see these things. Welcome this man into our church!”

Cain Lackey went on to learn to read and write. He became a minister and built many churches. He was elected to public office and spent tax money to build roads to improve access to rural areas even though it made him unpopular. He worked to provide social services for poor people who had been ignored by other politicians. He smashed stills where he found them. He changed lives. Most of all, he lived a life of grace and service to Jesus Christ.  A life transformed.

Saul, much like Cain Lackey, had a reputation of being a very bad man, a big bully like I said in the children’s sermon.  Saul was a man to be feared.  Saul was very zealous in the Jewish faith.  He called himself a Hebrew among Hebrews, so fervent in the faith and traditions of his own people that he stood by and watched over the cloaks of the mob that dragged Stephen off and stoned him to death.   Paul himself recalls elsewhere how he was fervent in persecution, determined to eradicate the Jesus movement by any means possible. In Galatians 1:13 he says that he “violently” laid hands on Christians. It was an overall empty life.

Saul’s conversion is the greatest act of transformation in the New Testament. It’s one of those “if he can change I guess I can change” stories that we need to prove that our gospel truly transforms lives.

If the triune God is telling you to do something, no matter how crazy it sounds, we as members of the Way should hop to it!

God uses Ananias, an ordinary Christian disciple to heal Saul.  This is the only time this particular Ananias is mentioned in scripture except when Paul is giving his testimony in Acts 22:12,  “A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well-spoken of by all the Jews living [in Damascus].”  When the Lord called to Ananias in a vision, he answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  After he’s given his instructions, Ananias vocalizes his fears and hesitations.   Word on the street was that Saul was evil and he had authority from the Chief Priests in Jerusalem to bind anyone invoke the name of Jesus. 

Every call from God is a personal call. God’s call comes to us person-to-person. It is not a conference call. Some of us respond by putting God on hold. Others of us use call-waiting and take other calls first. Then there are those of us who try to return the call collect – making God pay for calling us.  And yet Ananias answered Jesus.  He trusted Jesus, even if he may have harbored doubts and fears, and it is to Ananias, not Saul, that the purpose and plan for the new apostle’s life is first revealed. 

Ananias follows Jesus’ instructions.  The text doesn’t say if he had doubts or hesitancies, but the only way I “out” myself to Saul as a member of the Way with his reputation was to hear a voice from the Lord.  And even then…Ananias must have his own real transformation from righteous and respected Jew to faithful follower of the Way.  His was a transformation not recorded within the Bible, but he had to have one because he addresses this fearful enemy of his people as “Brother Saul” — demonstrating with his words his trust in the Lord’s transformative abilities. I would love an insight into Ananias thought process as he does the unthinkable. Outing himself as a follower of the Way and being the Jesus’ instrument bringing Saul healing. And while the vision’s words does not make the source of Ananias’ healing ability clear, Ananias himself knows better than to take credit for such a miracle. The Holy Spirit, Jesus’ presence here on earth, is the source of this healing. Saul is no longer an outsider persecuting the church; he is now a true brother in Christ.

“Here I am, Lord.”  Ananias’ behavior in this story gives us a game plan for what we should do. God wants Ananias, an ordinary man, a simple disciple, in an act of courage to lay hands on Saul – essentially to make a pastoral call on this terrorist. Here is Ananias’ reaction. Step 1: He answered. Step 2: He confirmed the assignment. Step 3: He went. Step 4: He laid his hands on Saul.  Step 5: He affirmed his new family member, when he called him “Brother.”  

Ananias understood and lived as a good Jew, who was now a follower of Jesus, a disciple of the Way. Proverbs 3:5-6 which says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  He embodied the hymn “Trust and Obey.”

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word

What a glory He sheds on our way!

While we do His good will, He abides with us still

And with all who will trust and obey

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey

If we follow the Spirit’s leading, everything that was lost will be found in the sweet name of Jesus.

Lee Strobel once knew the emptiness and lack of direction of living without the Triune God – God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit – in his life. Though he was a successful journalist, by his own account he was not a happy man. He describes himself at that stage in his life as “profane and angry.” To prove his point he cites a time when he came home one night and kicked a hole in the living room wall just out of anger with his life. Can you imagine the impression his conduct made on his five-year-old daughter? But Jesus Christ came into Lee Strobel’s life and changed his life radically. He says that five months after he gave his life to Christ, his little girl went to her mother and said, “Mommy, I want God to do for me what he’s done for Daddy.” Strobel says that God changed not only him, God changed his family and changed his world. When true God-given transformation happens it leaves nothing untouched and changes your whole wide world.

It was hard to argue with a testimony like that.  The scales had fallen off Lee Strobel’s eyes and he could now see both physically and spiritually.  Just like Saul.  The text says, “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.”  It was quite the transformation!  A week before he had given himself the task with the Chief Priests blessing to round up believers of the Way and today he’s preaching in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.  What blasphemy! To those Jewish ears.  But what a transformation!  A testimony!  Saul could sing quite literally, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

He who was lost, is found, indeed and he’s ready to preach Jesus’ transforming power far and wide.  Saul was not irredeemable.  Ananias trusts in God’s leading.  The result is revival then and now if we show and tell the world as the Spirit leads in the sweet, sweet name of Jesus – the One who has the power to transform our lives.

Posted in Abundant Life, Cross, Easter, God's love, Good News, Grace, Hope, Mary Magdalene

Easter Sunday

These plants have been with me for years.  This bamboo was given to two of my students Tyler and Austin when they did an internship at Georgia Tech Wesley.  Steve Fazenbaker, the campus minister there, gave it to them as a welcome gift as they had started attending that summer and he gave one to them for me.  It was the summer of my second brain surgery and it’s a great reminder for me of how good our Savior is.  The other plant, I got at the Walmart in Mt. Pleasant.  I used to say it had a face on it – see!  It has the plastic rock that says, “Hope.”  I’ve always loved the South Carolina motto – Dum Spiro Spero – While I breathe, I hope and it was that hope that we carried with us as we moved back to South Carolina.  They’re both still alive – against all odds – my brown thumb, the tightness of the original containers, everything.  What does Jeff Goldblum say in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”  Well life certainly found a way on Easter morning.  

I watched Rogue One on Good Friday morning. I believe it’s one of the best, or the best Star Wars movie.  It’s a precursor to A New Hope and in it three different characters, “Rebellions are built on hope.”  Oh, Jesus, sparked the greatest rebellion the world had ever seen and they crucified him for it.  He took a ragtag group of tax collectors, fisherman, prostitutes, misfits and prodigals and armed them not with weapons, but with the word of truth, that they even they were children of the most high God.  That they, even they, were loved by their Beloved God.  Their Yahweh.  That they, even they, were worthy and enough.

He had told them several, several times that this would happen like this – betrayed, beaten, crucified, buried, then resurrected.  But when the Romans pair up with the Religious Elites, all bets are off in their human understanding.  Some of them were denying, some were hiding, and some witnessed the crucifixion.  Hoping beyond hope that this was all a bad dream.  They were all grieving.   As Bob Goff so adequately put it, “Darkness fell. His friends scattered. All hope seemed lost. But heaven just started counting to three.”

John 20:1-18 NRSV

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

For Mary, Easter morning begins not with Easter eggs and “He is Risen!”, but with exhaustion, weariness and grief.  And yet, she went for help, she heard his voice, and she was the first to bear witness to the Gospel – “I have seen the Lord” and spread it.

First, she went for help.  The text doesn’t record her thoughts and questions that I’m sure are rolling around her head.  Were they grave robbers?  How many people did it take to move that heavy stone?  Are the Chief Priests involved?  Did the Romans desecrate the tomb?  It all comes out a jumbled rush, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Simon Peter and the other disciple took off running!

Two gas company servicemen, a senior training supervisor and a young trainee were out checking meters in a suburban neighborhood. They parked their truck at the end of the street and worked their way to the other end. At the last house a woman looking out her kitchen window watched the two men as they checked her gas meter. Finishing the meter check, the senior supervisor challenged his younger coworker to a foot race down the street back to the truck, to prove that an older guy could outrun a younger one.

As they came running up to the truck, they realized that the lady from the last house was huffing and puffing right behind them. They stopped and asked her what was wrong.

Gasping for breath,  she answered, “When I see two gas men running full speed away from my house, I figure I had better run, too.”

Mary was not huffing and puffing behind them.  I imagine they all were running fast.  They saw for themselves, one of them believed, but they didn’t understand the scriptures that Jesus must rise from the dead.  They saw, confirmed what Mary had seen and alerted them to, and returned to their homes.  Leaving Mary in her grief.  The text says, “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.”  Grief is most commonly defined as “deep sorrow.”  Grief takes your breath away.  More than that you don’t know if you’ll ever breathe again and you’re not sure you want to.  It’s like there’s hole of air passing through you and you won’t ever be whole again.

Looking into the tomb, she sees two angels in white and tells them she is weeping because someone has taken away her Lord. A moment later, she turns, sees a man that she assumes is the gardener, and says to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  She’s doing what she must, on autopilot.  On autopilot you make the next decision and the next.   

Secondly, Jesus called her name.  His voice broke into her thoughts.  I’ve never noticed the explanation mark included with her name, “Mary!”  It’s like he’s breaking through the fog of her grief.  Mary!  Have you ever had your kids or spouse ignore you calling out their names?  And you get louder and angrier at each shout?  And I don’t think the tone was like stopping a kid from touching a hot stove or demanding that he get out of the road when a car is coming?  I imagine it being firm but gentle, unwavering yet tender.

She turns and says, “Rabbouni!” which means “teacher.”  His voice pierced through the layers of her grief.  She had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion.  The hours of excruciating pain that she was helpless in the face of.  His voice pierced through her guilt and pain and numbness.  

We’ve been studying the book of John in the SALT Sunday School class and last week was this text and the last couple of texts of John.  As we talked about the video and the video questions, Maggie shared an insight into the text.  She was at her great aunt’s funeral, and she heard her grandfather’s voice right behind her.  She never thought she would hear it again because he had passed away years before.  Of course Mary Magdalene never, ever thought she would hear Jesus’ voice again.  When Maggie turned around it was not her grandfather that she saw, it was her grandfather’s brother that she saw.  Ironically she went to his funeral yesterday.  When I texted her if I could share her story, she said about his death, “It’s a blessing and a burden to be the last so I know they are all back together now!”  He didn’t just die for each of our sins.  Jesus promised in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  He defeated sin and death, so if we believe in him, we have a new and abundant life here on earth and we can enjoy eternal life with Jesus.  “They’re all back together now!”  Indeed, they are, Maggie.  They answered the Voice that called them home.  And we can too.  Jesus sees you as Jesus sees me.  He celebrates what he sees because God made us and loves us, no matter what, we’re enough.  We don’t have to keep all God’s love to ourselves like it’s a limited supply.  God doesn’t play favorites – we are each a favorite child of God.  We have to share God’s love with the world because we may be the Gospel – the Good News of God’s grace and love – the absolute hope of the world, we can share.  Jesus’ resurrection hope keeps bubbling up – under the surface in our pain and grief and unspeakable joy when we realize that evil nor death has the last word.

Finally, Jesus sends Mary as he sends us.  “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” He is saying to her: Run, Mary, run, take my message and run! She goes and announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she tells them what Jesus has said to her.

Mary crosses the finish line as the very first apostle, a word which literally means “one who is sent off.”  Women are the last people standing at the foot of the cross and God chooses a woman as the first witness to the resurrection. God chooses Mary Magdalene to preach the very first Easter sermon. I think God in God’s way was redeeming Eve.  Women have always been blamed for Adam’s fall because Eve tempted him, even though he too, ate the fruit.  God grants us each unique gifts and graces, but loves each equally.  God has no favorites.  Romans says we have all fallen short of the glory of God and we are all equally lovable in God’s eyes through Jesus the Christ.  Galatians 3:26-29 says, “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”  Herbert McCabe, writing in God Still Matters, says: “We do not gather at Easter to celebrate a doctrine, the doctrine of the resurrection. We come here to rejoice in the presence of one we love; in Jesus who was lost to us and has been found.”  And to whom we were lost and have been found.  

Oh, Mary Magdalene had quite a shock that Easter morning!  She went for help, heard a Voice that she thought she would never again, and she was the first to bear witness to the Gospel and spread it.  Jesus is calling us to spread his message of his resurrection hope to the world.  He wants us to tune into His Voice so he can show us the little things that he puts in our paths to give us encouragement we need at the time and the people he places in our path, he wants us to share his Gospel message of love and hope to! Just like these plants, they’ve survived moves and my brown thumb – in his resurrection power Jesus doesn’t want us to merely survive, but he wants us to thrive and bask in his love and grace for even sinners like us, to grow where he plants us.  And to that we say, “Alleluia!  He is Risen!  He is Risen, indeed!

Posted in calling, Choices, Jesus, Spirit

The Decision (Sermon on January 24th)

I hate making decisions about what restaurants to go to or what show or movie to watch.  How much time is wasted by debating over where to eat lunch or what to do today?  We have to make some decisions.  Decisions are especially layered in the pandemic.  When it comes to the simple things, I just don’t want to make another decision.

Mark 1-14

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Maybe they were bored.  Blahsday – every day the same – maybe Simon and Andrew or James and John were tired of just going through the motions…the text doesn’t say they asked any questions or offer any clues. They made a choice to follow Jesus.

Remember Luke Skywalker in New Hope making the decision whether to stay where it was familiar or go on the big adventure. The hero always looks back to what was. Anyone that stands on the precipice of change has that gut check moment.  That first step of the adventure is always hesitant and wistful because you’re leaving the safety of the known and stepping into the unknown of the future.  They dropped their nets and followed.  They made the decision not to be “rearview mirror” people, but “windshield” people.  They’re not constantly looking back, they are fully present on the journey to where Jesus would lead them.

There must have been a million little choices along the way – opportunities to say yes – these eventual twelve men – looking at Jesus, learning to listen, and following what he was teaching them.

We all have a choice – whether to follow Jesus or not?

Amy Grant back in the day in 1982 on her Age to Age album wrote this song that came back to me with the clarity of a child.

I have decided,

I’m gonna live like a believer,

Turn my back on the deceiver,

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided,

Being good is just a fable,

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

There’s a wealth of things that I profess,

I said that I believed,

But deep inside I never changed;

I guess I’d been deceived.

’cause a voice inside kept telling me,

That I’d change by and by,

But the spirit made it clear to me,

That kind of life’s a lie.

I have decided,

I’m gonna live like a believer,

Turn my back on the deceiver,

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided,

Being good is just a fable,

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

So forget the game of being good,

And your self-righteous pain.

’cause the only good inside your heart

Is the good that Jesus brings.

And when the world begins to see you change,

Don’t expect them to applaud.

Just keep your eyes on him and tell yourself,

I’ve become the work of God.

I have decided,

I’m gonna live like a believer,

Turn my back on the deceiver,

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided,

Being good is just a fable,

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able.

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

We leave it to the Lord.

If we make the choice to follow Jesus, we have to leave it to the Lord.

  • The Pharisees forgot Who they were following the rules for.  Who were they really honoring?  The Lord?  Or did they want to impress their fellow Pharisees or Saducees with their dedication to the law?
  • The disciples were regular Joe’s.  They were working, going about their day, when Jesus shows up and asks them a question.  They probably knew the stringent practices of Pharisees and the Saduccees, but they were the “regular” people.  The overlooked, working stiffs.
  • So their came to be a great divide between the pious religious folk and Jane Doe’s.

Jesus seeks to ask all of us, will you come follow?

We all have things to give up or to gain, when we follow Jesus

Luke 9:23 – Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Of course, we say, we would choose light over darkness…but the little things, the little choices add up.  The choices we make every second of every day are cumulative. 

We all have a decision to make….to saddle up our horses or keep living in complacency and apathy on the one hand, or thinking that we’re better than everyone on the other.

I’ll tell you a story, that may be an extreme example, but it points to our choices and the effects of those choices.

About 150 years ago, there was a great revival in Wales, England. As a result of this, many missionaries came from England and Germany to North-East India to spread the Gospel.  At the time, north-east India was not divided into many states as it is today. The region was known as Assam and comprised hundreds of tribes…Naturally, they were not welcomed. One Welsh missionary succeeded in converting a man, his wife, and two children. He and his family choose to follow Jesus.  This man’s faith proved contagious and many villagers began to accept Christianity. Angry, the village chief summoned all the villagers. He then called the family who had first converted to renounce their faith in public or face execution. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the man instantly composed a song which became famous down the years. He said:

“I have decided to follow Jesus.”

Enraged at the refusal of the man, the chief ordered his archers to arrow down the two children. As both boys lay twitching on the floor, the chief asked, “Will you deny your faith? You have lost both your children. You will lose your wife too.”

But the man replied:

“Though no one joins me, still I will follow.”

The chief was beside himself with fury and ordered his wife to be arrowed down. In a moment she joined her two children in death. Now he asked for the last time, “I will give you one more opportunity to deny your faith and live.”  In the face of death the man said the final memorable lines:

“The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back.”

He was shot dead like the rest of his family. But with their deaths, a miracle took place. The chief who had ordered the killings was moved by the faith of the man. He wondered, “Why should this man, his wife and two children die for a Man who lived in a far-away land on another continent some 2,000 years ago? There must be some remarkable power behind the family’s faith, and I too want to taste that faith.”

In a spontaneous confession of faith, he declared, “I too belong to Jesus Christ!” When the crowd heard this from the mouth of their chief, the whole village accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

The song is based on the last words of Nokseng, a man from Garo tribe of Assam (now Meghalaya and some in Assam), India. It is today the song of the Garo people.

(Dr. P.P. Job and Indian preacher in his book “Why God Why”)

The Welsh missionaries had a choice, the man and his family had a choice, and the chief had a choice.  We all have a choice.  “Then Jesus said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  So what’s your choice?

 “I Have Decided” (The Faith We Sing, #2129)

I have decided to follow Jesus,

I have decided to follow Jesus,

I have decided to follow Jesus –

no turning back, no turning back.

Posted in Breath Prayer, Hymn, Jesus, Prayer, Surrounded, together

Surrounded by a Mighty Fortress (Friday Devotion January 22)

We recorded Michael W. Smith’s “Waymaker” on May 22, 2020.  The pandemic had gone past Easter and the kids had mostly finished up with online school, we had no idea that it would last this long.  We were frankly flipping through the channels on a Friday night and stumbled upon it.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Smitty with his singing and piano playing, and I’ll never forget hearing “I’ll Lead You Home” from Disney’s Magic Kingdom at a Night of Joy concert.  That song was crucial to bringing me back to a relationship with Jesus.  The Waymaker special featured a song called “Surrounded” that he covered in 2018.  Originally a spontaneous moment of declaration and praise, “Surrounded” is written by Elyssa Smith of Upper Room Music.

Smith wrote at the time, “The thought of doing another live worship project has been something I have processed for a while now. The question I have asked myself most is not so much what do I want to do, but what do I need to do. What do WE need to do as God’s church and as God’s children? What expression of worship does God desire from us… have we missed something? The reality is, it is not the style of our expression God is concerned with, it is the heart. God wants our honesty. God wants our vulnerability. God wants us to come to God as we are, not as we want to be. I feel God moving through God’s church and God is calling us TOGETHER…. to be one voice and one heart. One bride. Every nation, every tribe, and every tongue. Every social class. Every denomination. Let’s get together and rejoice! In what God has done, what God is doing, and what God has yet to do.”

The lyrics are really simple, like a breath prayer.  

It may look like I’m surrounded

But I’m surrounded by You

It may look like I’m surrounded

But I’m surrounded by You

This is how I fight my battles

This is how I fight my battles

This is how I fight my battles

And, most importantly, WE are not doing the FIGHTING.  The Triune God is the one.  God is the one who beats our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks.  

Our Psalter for this Sunday’s lectionary is from Psalm 62:5-8.  It reads, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.  On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.  Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.”

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written by Martin Luther between 1527 and 1529 and has been translated into English at least 77 times.  He wrote the words as a paraphrase of Psalm 46.

A mighty fortress is our God,

a bulwark never failing;

our helper he amid the flood

of mortal ills prevailing.

For still our ancient foe

doth seek to work us woe;

his craft and power are great,

and armed with cruel hate,

on earth is not his equal.

That word above all earthly powers,

no thanks to them, abideth;

the Spirit and the gifts are ours,

thru him who with us sideth.

Let goods and kindred go,

this mortal life also;

the body they may kill;

God’s truth abideth still;

his kingdom is forever.

We remain secure in the truth we know God with Us, our Emmanuel is WHO we go to, when we feel betrayed, burdened and battered.  When we feel helpless or hopeless, we trust in the strong name of the Lord.

 Hear now this prayer of Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,

    a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

    the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;

    God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

    he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;

    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

    he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!

    I am exalted among the nations,

    I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Posted in Authority, Autopilot, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Mark, Sermons, sin, worry

What have you to do with us?

In our text today, we see Jesus preaching in the temple with authority.  He doesn’t have authority because he outranks the people like in the military, nor does he have authority because he’s the boss of people.  Jesus was a carpenter. He had no positional authority in the community. His authority came from his wisdom and knowledge and his competence at interpreting God’s Word. Even as a boy Jesus wowed people with his wisdom and his grasp of scripture.  The people in Capernaum could not possibly have known that his authority came from God.   All they knew is that they had never heard an individual teach like Jesus taught.

I’ve always imagined Jesus as one of those people whom you might not see enter the room.  He doesn’t seem like one who would ever make a grand entrance. But before long you would feel His presence. You might not even be aware of it at first because it was something subtle. But pretty soon you’d find yourself drawn to Him, like everyone else. Why? Because His words rang true. His words sprang from the heart and they resonated with power and authenticity. It was as if He had a direct line to God. And that’s what amazed His listeners.  There were no gimmicky tricks or false promises to get folks to open up their wallets to support His ministry. There was no phony manipulation. Jesus was truly concerned about everyone who came to hear Him. Jesus wanted them to understand, to know, to learn about God’s love and forgiveness and this is why this passage is so important.  Jesus has authority over everything and if we give Jesus authority over our lives then he will make us clean.

Mark 1:21-28
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

We’ve all faced the challenges of 2020 and its dragging into 2021.  How are we to respond in the face of so much mess?  So much in this world we can’t control.  From the tensions of our politics to loneliness and isolation.  We turn to Jesus.  He has the Authority to cast away the evil and bitterness that creeps in.  He has the Authority to cast out the complacency and apathy that we so easily fall into.  And most of all Jesus can cast away the doubt and fear that seems to plague us like a lion that’s stalking its prey.  The demons ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  And we confidently and boldly answer EVERYTHING. 

We give authority to Jesus, the Lord of our lives.

First, Jesus has the Authority to cast away the evil and bitterness that creeps in.  I don’t know about you but I’m generally a positive, glass half full person.  I seek joy.  It’s been hard, y’all.  It’s like we’re horses that used to be free to roam all over the hills and the meadows, and now we’re in downtown Charleston carrying tourists on our backs with the eye guards that block our vision.  I’ve started recording the Today Show.  I watch the little bit of news at the beginning of the broadcast and fast forward to Hoda’s Morning Boost.

https://www.today.com/video/-who-can-be-quiet-the-longest-not-these-4-year-old-twins-99255365842

We are called to bring joy.  We are called to shine our light.  We are called to fix our eyes on Jesus in Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”  The sin that so easily entangles us.  I appreciate the word entangle as it gives us this image. 

Our sin ensnares us but if we fix our eyes of Jesus and rest in His authority and love we’re standing on solid ground, we won’t slip or fall. 

We don’t want to be arrogant, and think of ourselves better than what we are, because that also is not of God.  The elder brother was just as sinful in the prodigal son passage.  He may not have cashed in his inheritance, but he was resentful to the point of bitterness.  Hebrews 12 goes on to say in verse 15, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”  We can’t let the negativity of the world, the gloomy days, the circumstances creep in and make us see with shrouded eyes.  Jesus is the mighty One, our Savior, and He lives within us who claim Him as Lord. Don’t ever forget: “Greater is He that is in you, than He that is in the world.”

Second, Jesus has the Authority to cast out the complacency and apathy that we so easy to fall into.

I’ve always loved Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mockingbird.  It’s based in the South and one of the main characters is a lawyer, Atticus Finch.  Atticus Finch is defending a black man in a system in which he doesn’t have a chance of winning. But he defends him anyway, because he knows that the system is unfair and evil and he feels as if he has a moral obligation to take the case. In the end he lost the case, the innocent man is convicted, and the innocent man is later shot and killed.

The lawyer’s daughter, Scout, is in the courtroom at the conclusion of the trial. She is sitting in the balcony that is segregated for blacks. There is no room on the main floor. The courtroom is packed. The verdict is given. The judge leaves. The white people downstairs all leave the courtroom. The people in the balcony remain.

He was defeated. But he was on the side of truth and righteousness and peace. So he won.  He didn’t let complacency with the status quo, nor did he let the excuse of apathy of the racial situation in the South get him down.  He stood up in truth and empathy and stepped into another person’s shoes.  We have to act with humility and live out God’s grace especially during these times of challenge. 

Jesus didn’t ignore the unclean Spirit or act like he wasn’t aware of it.  He called it to the front and rebuked it.  He wasn’t apathetic or complacent, he did something about it.  We have a responsibility to not be lulled into bobbing along on the log.  We have to STAND UP.

Mark doesn’t tell us word for word what Jesus taught, but he emphasizes the result of that teaching.  He does that throughout his Gospel.  He shows us the results that Jesus’ teaching had on others. It should be evident in our lives that we are under the authority of Jesus Christ.

Third, Jesus can cast away the doubt and fear that seems to plague us like a lion that’s stalking its prey.

Matthew West has a song out now called “Truth be told” that says:

Lie number one you’re supposed to have it all together

And when they ask how you’re doing

Just smile and tell them, “Never better”

Lie number 2 everybody’s life is perfect except yours

So keep your messes and your wounds

And your secrets safe with you behind closed doors

Truth be told

The truth is rarely told, now

I say I’m fine, yeah I’m fine oh I’m fine, hey I’m fine but I’m not

I’m broken

And when it’s out of control I say it’s under control but it’s not

And you know it

I don’t know why it’s so hard to admit it

When being honest is the only way to fix it

There’s no failure, no fall

There’s no sin you don’t already know

So let the truth be told

There’s a sign on the door, says, “Come as you are” but I doubt it

‘Cause if we lived like it was true, every Sunday morning pew would be crowded

But didn’t you say the church should look more like a hospital

A safe place for the sick, the sinner and the scarred and the prodigals

Like me

Like us. We’re so afraid to let our doubts and fears show.  We’re so afraid to set aside our masks and be honest.  Under the authority of Jesus Christ, under the Lordship of Jesus, he wants us to bring our true, honest and authentic selves to the table.  He wants our mess, not our curated lives on Instagram.  He wants the church to be the hospital the Great Physician is working through.

Singer and songwriter Gloria Gaither put it this way: “Jesus. The mere mention of His name can calm the storm, heal the broken, raise the dead . . . I’ve heard a mother softly breathe His name at the bedside of a child delirious with fever, and I’ve watched that little body grow quiet and the fevered brow cool. I’ve sat beside a dying saint, her body racked with pain, who in those final fleeting seconds summoned her last ounce of ebbing strength to whisper earth’s sweetest name Jesus, Jesus . . . Emperors have tried to destroy it; philosophers have tried to stamp it out. Tyrants have tried to wash it from the face of the earth with the very blood of those who claim it. Yet still it stands . . . Jesus . . .” Friends, that’s authority.  And we have access to that authority.

Every Sunday morning during the first block of songs, I pray that the Holy Spirit reign in this place and us gathered here and at home.  I pray that we would be renewed and refreshed in the service.  I pray that hearts will be awakened and moved.  I pray that whatever needs to be extinguished in our lives, be extinguished.  I pray that whatever needs to be lifted up, awakened, and urged forward will be.  I pray to Jesus cast anything not of You from this place and this people and bind it at the foot of your cross, covered in your precious blood in Jesus’ name.  I pray this prayer each week knowing and trusting in the authority of Jesus that he can make a way even through all of the distractions in our hearts and our heads.  All the technical difficulties.  The Holy Spirit can intercede even with my stumbling speech.  The Holy Spirit can even reach through those screens and grab you in the name of Jesus.

Jesus has an intimate interest in our lives and if we invite him, if we abide, or make a home with him as he has made with us then our lives are going to be more.   Jesus won’t take away the problems or the challenges, but Jesus will be with us to help carry the load.  As it says in Matthew 6:25-26, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”  Trust that if you’re seeking him first, you are seeking his authority over your life, then he will be faithful and good. 

Back before this pandemic when I would travel for meetings or even going on vacation, I rarely used cruise control.  I’m too much of a control freak.  It’s hard for me to sit on autopilot.  Releasing that control to the One who holds the future, the One who knows each step that is part of the Master plan, is scary for me, but freeing.  I’m not talking about an autopilot that relinquishes our free will, I’m talking about one that frees us from the bitterness, complacency, and the fear.  Jesus setting our course.  The Enemy wants to twist us up inside and Jesus offers the vaccine to that jumbled mess of our lives, that sweet, precious relief that only He can give.  As John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”   So when the demons ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  We with a bold confidence can answer EVERYTHING. 

Posted in Chapel, Isaiah, Jesus, Luke, Peace, Pilgrimage

Deep Peace

I purchased this picture when I was in Pittsburgh for General Conference in 2004 taking a Candler course.  It says,

“Deep peace of the running wave to you

Deep peace of the flowing air to you

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you

Deep peace of the shining stars to you

Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you.”

The picture says it’s “An Old Irish Prayer,” but using the internet I traced it back to the Iona Community.  Iona is a tiny and beautiful Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland, cradle of Christianity in Scotland, where in 563AD the Irish monk Columba (Columkille) established a monastic settlement that evangelised large parts of Scotland and the north of England and became an important centre of European Christianity. In the Middle Ages it became the site of a Benedictine abbey, and over the centuries it has attracted many thousands of people on their own pilgrim journeys.  I have not been to Iona, but I’ve always wanted to take a pilgrimage there.  

As a campus minister, I took 3 campuses of students on pilgrimages to the United Methodist Seminar Program at the UN Church Center Building.  The New York Times wrote an article “Church Peace Center is Started on the East Side” in 1962 and its primary purpose was to give access to the U.N. to other faith communities and nongovernmental organizations working for human rights, development and peace.  Way back when I first started taking students there, you could see the different agencies like Oxfam and Church World Service in the elevator on different floors.

We did seminars on interreligious dialogue, human trafficking, race and urban poverty, gentrification, immigration, intimate partner violence, and art, spirituality and calling.  Our seminar designers had informative panels, exercises that made the students think out of their comfort zone, and chapels that dove into texts to start the day that gave a Biblical lens to each topic.

It was not just any ordinary chapel.  It’s on the ground floor of the building, founded, operated, and owned by the United Methodist Church, as a Christian and interfaith space.  On the outside of the Chapel is a large work, “Man’s Search for Peace” and it shows human-like shapes around a large eye-like form, but on the inside it’s all stained glass.   It was like the church with its eye on the United Nations making sure they acted in a just and peaceful manner.  On one side of their wall there’s etched into the building, the words of Isaiah 2:4, 

“He shall judge between the nations,

    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

    and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

    neither shall they learn war any more.”

Located in the center of the chapel, Jesus’ words when he was riding into Jerusalem, weeping as he exclaimed, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace.”  This verse, Luke 19:42, is etched into the wooden Bible stand. These words in the heart of the chapel serve as a constant reminder of why the faith community is present; to advance God’s peace in our hearts and in the world.  

May we have the Deep Peace that abiding in Jesus provides.  May we share with the world the peace that the Prince of Peace can only give.  The Deep Peace that the world so desperately needs as we all face trials or tribulations of many kinds.  We can lean into the safe arms of Jesus, our sure harbor in the midst of life’s storms, the Son of Peace.

Posted in Fellowship, Follow, God's Voice, Jesus, Jesus is Lord, Sermon

The Voice of the Lord

The Voice of the Lord

Scripture:  Psalm 29

1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,

    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;

    worship the Lord in holy splendor.

3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters;

    the God of glory thunders,

    the Lord, over mighty waters.

4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;

    the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;

    the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,

    and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.

8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;

    the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

9 The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,

    and strips the forest bare;

    and in his temple all say, “Glory!”

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;

    the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.

11 May the Lord give strength to his people!

    May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Whose voice are you listening to?  We need to listen to the voice of the Lord.  But, how do we do that?

Tune in to Jesus.

Make Jesus Lord of your life.

Follow Jesus with your lives.

Whose voice are you listening to?

There are SO MANY voices swirling around in our heads and our lives.  Telling us what we need, competing voices telling us what we should believe, and peddling easy answers and quick fixes to our every desire.  Y’all know by now, I think of things first in song.  Three come to mind.  First, Casting Crown’s “Voice of Truth” 

But the voice of truth tells me a different story

The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”

The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”

Out of all the voices calling out to me

I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth

And that Voice of Truth is named Jesus.  Second, Lauren Daigle’s “You Say”  

I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I’m not enough

Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up

Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low

Remind me once again just who I am because I need to know

You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing

You say I am strong when I think I am weak

And you say I am held when I am falling short

And when I don’t belong, oh You say I am Yours

And I believe  

What You say of me 

I believe

Jesus says you are LOVED.  The world wants to turn you inside out and wants to make you doubt yourself.  And lastly, an oldie but a goody, particularly this week, “When the storms of life are raging, Stand By Me.”  

When the storms of life are raging,

stand by me; (stand by me)

when the storms of life are raging,

stand by me. (stand by me)

When the world is tossing me

like a ship upon the sea,

thou who rulest wind and water,

stand by me. (stand by me)

When the storms of life are raging, we need to listen to the word of the Lord.

We need to tune in to the voice of Jesus.  Erle Stanley Gardner, the famous mystery writer and creator of Perry Mason, was a lawyer himself. In his trial work, he had a partner with a rather remarkable skill. This lawyer could detect critical information in cross examination simply by listening to a person’s voice. This was information that went unnoticed by virtually everyone else. In an article in Vogue magazine, Gardner noted that in the years that this man was his partner, when they were in court together, this lawyer made it a point not to look at the witness on the stand. Instead he kept his eyes fixed on a piece of paper, sometimes taking down what the witness was saying in shorthand, sometimes simply doodling, but always listening to the voice of the witness.

At some stage in the examination, said Gardner, his partner would nudge him with his elbow. Invariably that meant that the witness was either lying at that point in the testimony, or was trying to cover up something. Gardner said his own untrained ears were never able to detect these subtle changes of voice and tempo, but his partner could spot them with a startling accuracy. 

We need to tune into that Voice of Truth.  As was illustrated with the songs, there’s all these voices going on in stereo inside our heads.  We don’t want to give in to the lies of the Enemy.  We need the wisdom and discernment to tune in to the voice of our Savior, Christ the Lord.

Remember Elijah in the wilderness. Fleeing from Queen Jezebel. Despondent, certain that God had forsaken him, hiding in a cave. Then suddenly there is a mighty wind, so mighty that it splits mountains and breaks rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:12) But that voice found Elijah out there in the wilderness, turned his life around and made him a mighty voice for God.

There’s a story of a young man who lost his job and didn’t know which way to turn. So he went to see his pastor. Pacing about the preacher’s study, the young man ranted about his problem. Finally he clenched his fist and shouted, “I’ve begged God to say something to help me. Tell me, pastor, why doesn’t God answer?”

The older man, who sat across the room, spoke something in reply–something so hushed it was indistinguishable.

The young man stepped across the room. “What did you say?” he asked.

The pastor repeated himself, but again in a tone as soft as a whisper. So the young man moved closer until he was leaning on the pastor’s chair. “Sorry,” he said. “I still didn’t hear you.”

With their heads bent together, the old minister spoke once more: “God sometimes whispers,” he said, “so we will move closer to hear Him.”

This time the young man heard and he understood.

Draw near to God. Hear God speak to your deepest need. Hear God affirm your life. God’s voice. Is there any deeper need in our lives right now than to hear God speak words of healing and hope? Listen quietly. Listen closely. Hear Jesus speak your name today.

We need to tune in to the voice of Jesus, no matter the noise of the crowd, no matter the situation.  We need to block out the noise and FOCUS on the voice of truth.

If we are going to tune in to Jesus, then what follows or precedes is to make him Lord of our lives.  Remember Saul of Tarsus. He was known to persecute people of The Way until he was struck blind on the Road to Damascus. Then he heard a voice, in Acts 9:4-5, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

And Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?”

And the voice said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” 

Saul who was transformed into Paul because he made Jesus the Lord of his life.  Paul was transformed from a man of violence to one who wrote in 1 Corinthians 13,  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing . . .”  He underwent imprisonment, torture, shipwreck and he writes in Romans 14:8-9, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”  Paul had been transformed and he understood that we are the Lord’s.

Everyone that wants to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church is asked in our provisional paperwork, how do we interpret the statement Jesus Christ as Lord?  Jesus is the Lord of our lives.  We kneel and swear fealty to him as the knights of old to the King.  We are loyal, acting not in our best interest, but in the Lord’s who created heaven and earth and all that is within it.  We are not our own; we’ve been bought with a price.  And that’s not restrictive, it’s freeing.

Thomas Merton, monk and theologian, writes in “The Road Ahead,”  “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”  I want the Lord of the heavens and the earth, to be my Lord like that.  The Lord over every inch of my heart and my life.

If we tune into Jesus and make him the Lord of our lives, what naturally flows is following Jesus with our lives.

Our modern day example in walking the walk and talking the talk is Billy Graham.  Joseph Stowell, author of the book “Simply Jesus” once asked Billy Graham what had been the best experience of his entire ministry. It seems like a difficult question for the world’s most famous evangelist. Graham has preached in front of millions of people, traveled around the world many times, counseled presidents and kings. But Graham didn’t have to hesitate in his answer. He replied, “By far the greatest joy of my life has been my fellowship with Jesus. Hearing Him speak to me, having Him guide me, sensing His presence with me and His power through me. This has been the highest pleasure of my life!” 

Hearing Jesus speak to me.

Having Jesus guide me.

Sensing Jesus’ presence with me and Jesus’ power through me.

It’s not about our own power; it’s about the power of the Holy Spirit within us, igniting in us a passion that is not squelched by mere circumstance and situation, but it is a solid ever-present flame that the world is drawn to. If we tune in to Jesus and make him Lord of our lives then he will never leave nor forsake us and he will be an ever-present help in times of trouble.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders . . . The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness . . . The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl. . . But hear what’s at the end:  11May the Lord give strength to his people!  May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

I know this has been a difficult week and I know this has been a difficult year, but our Lord promises strength to his people and the Psalmist asks for the Lord to bless his people with peace.  If we stay rooted in Christ, we’ll have that peace that the Psalmist’s asking for.  We will have Jesus’s peace that transcends all understanding.  As it says in John 14:17, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  If we tune into Jesus, make him Lord of our lives, and follow him we will be accepting his call of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20.  “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  His calling and his promise is clear.  We just have to listen to the voice of the Lord.

Posted in Arise, calling, Devotion, God, sin, strength

Rise Up – January 6th

I made a note in my notes on my iPhone when I heard this song on November 2nd.  It’s called “Rise Up (Lazarus)” by the group Cain.

In the dark and all alone, growing comfortable

Are you too scared to move and walk out of this tomb?

Buried underneath, the lies that you believed

Safe and sound, stuck in the ground

Too lost to be found

You’re just asleep and it’s time to leave

Come on and rise up, take a breath, you’re alive now

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

You’re brand new, the power of death couldn’t hold you

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

Rise up, rise up, rise up

Out from the grave like Lazarus

When He said your name, the thing that filled your veins

Was more than blood, it’s the kind of love that washes sin away

Now the door is open wide and the stones been rolled aside

The old is gone, the Light has come, so

Come on and rise up, take a breath, you’re alive now

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

You’re brand new, the power of death couldn’t hold you

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

Rise up (like Lazarus) rise up, rise up

Out from the grave like Lazarus

He’s calling us to walk out of the dark

He’s giving us new resurrected hearts, 

He’s calling us to walk out of the dark

He’s giving us new resurrected hearts,

Come on and rise up, take a breath, you’re alive now

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

You’re brand new, the power of death couldn’t hold you

Can’t you hear the voice of Jesus calling us

Out from the grave like Lazarus

Rise up (He’s calling you out) rise up

Get me up from the grave like Lazarus

The lead singer, Logan explains the meaning behind the song:

“It’s this triumphant song about come on and rise up. My story is one of secret. As I felt myself feeling separated from God in cycles of destructive behavior & sin, the last thing I wanted to do was rise up. The last thing on earth that I wanted to do was to stand up and do what was right. When I feel defeated it’s easy for me to recluse, to become comfortable in that place but I know that the voice of Jesus is always gonna call me to rise up. If you hold onto that truth, that voice will get loud and it will eventually get louder than the voice that’s telling you to not rise up. There is no greater feeling of being alive than when you decide that I’m gonna take the power that’s given to me by the blood that was shed on the cross and I’m going to stand on top of this thing that has held me down. When you rise up anything that felt like life before that pales in comparison.” 

Scripture tells us that God is going to go with us when we rise up.

In Micah 7:8, “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.”  When we fall, God will give us not only the strength to rise, but the Lord will be a light to me.

In Psalm 28:7, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.”  The Lord is going to be our strength and shield, an ever present help in times of trouble.  Our response is to trust him and give thanks and praise.

In Ezra 10:4,Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” If those are not marching words, I don’t know what is.  Rise Up, Narcie and do the tasks I’ve laid out for you.  It has a tinge of buck up, buttercup.  “Be strong and do it.”  

We can offer all kinds of excuses and reasons and justifications to why we do some things and not do others, but when God places that sin on your heart or that calling on your life, we must act.  Do I need to recount the story of Jonah to you or for that matter the Israelites of the Old Testament?  God has the uncanny way of giving us a whisper, then a nudge, then signs a la Bruce Almighty, where God gave Bruce literal billboards and flashing road signs – God makes God’s presence known and we can run away as long as we want, God’s going to still love us and draw us toward God’s relational self – the extravagant, unconditional love and truly amazing and boundless grace.  

May God show where we need to rise up out of the sins that cling so tightly and may God give us the courage and fortitude to bring love, hope, peace, and joy to a hurting world and a radically divided country. May the Holy Spirit fall afresh on each of us as we rest in God’s mercy, love and grace.