Taking God to the Bank

Hear now the Word of God from the book of Genesis chapter 15 verses 1 through 12 and 17 and 18.

“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’  But Abram said, ‘O Lord God what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?  And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’  But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’  He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are about to count them.’  Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’  And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’  But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’  He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’  He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.  And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him….When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.  On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Raphaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’”

This is the Word of God, for the people of God.  Thanks be to God for it.

There are many things in life that are uncertainties, and for some of us our bank account is one of them.  How many of us balance our checkbooks anymore?  I know that I do online banking, trusting that the bank will keep their promise and is keeping track of what I’m spending, and I just check and make sure we’re not bouncing.  But there are times I wonder – hmmm…..can I trust what’s in my account?  Do I really know what’s in there?  Will they keep their word?  Call it the paranoid in me, I sometimes have doubts.  Especially in the middle of the night, when all of those worries creep in.  If you can identify with this, you know something of what Abram felt as he struggled to believe in God’s promise in the midst of his doubts.

Before we dig into the story wondering about trust and promises, what was going on with Abram before this happened?  Well, you know the story of Abram, later called Abraham.  In chapter 11 of the book of Genesis we move from looking at the world as a whole and its various acts of disobedience, to following the story of Abram.  In chapters 11 and 12, God called Abram, saying “Go from your country, and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[1]  Wow.  Leave all that you have known and go to this new land that God will show you and God will make you, who has no children, a great nation.  That was pretty unbelievable.  You’re 75 years old, with no children, and God tells you go and I’ll make you into a great nation.  Yeah right.  But what does the text say “Abram left, just as the Lord had told him.”  So Abram begins this new journey.  He steps out in faith.  They really should make a movie like The Ten Commandments a la Charlton Heston about the story of Abraham because of the large scope of it all.

In chapter 13 God again makes a promise to Abram.  “Raise your eyes now and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.  Rise up, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”  So again, God promises Abram two very big things – the land and the offspring to inhabit it.  Not just a handful of offspring, but descendants like the dust of the earth never to be fully counted, because who in the world could count the dust?  I wouldn’t want to begin to count even the dust in our house.  So yes, again, God had promised this childless man not only land but descendants as numerous as dust.

Right before we met Abram in today’s passage there had been a battle and to make a long story short, with God’s help, Abram won.  When you win, you take the loot.  Our family plays the game of Risk a lot, and in that game, when you win a battle, you take that person’s land.  The goal in the game is world domination.  Just like in anything else – if you win, you get the reward.  Abram realized that God was the one who had delivered his enemies into his hand and after giving the priest ten percent of all the spoils, he didn’t take anything else for himself.  That was a whole heck of a lot to turn down, but God had been faithful to Abram delivering him from Egypt and helping him win this battle, and he didn’t want to owe anyone anything, he and his allegiance belonged only to God. Since he gave God credit for the victory, the spoils weren’t his. His refusal was a sign of faith.

This is where we are in our text today.  Abram has just turned down this handsome reward and God comes to him in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  God says look I’ve got your back, I’ve got you covered.  You may have given up that loot, like in The Goonies, “the rich stuff,” but I’ve got an even greater reward for you.

What does Abram do?  He, a little on the angry, maybe even on the sarcastic side of things, asks what can you give me when I’m childless and everything I have will go to a servant in my house.  What can you give me?  Doesn’t that sound like a question you hear today all too often.  What can you give me?  The Message says it this way, “God, Master, what use are your gifts as long as I’m childless…?”[2]  What use are your gifts?  That’s a pretty straightforward and forthright question.  What good is all this stuff if I can’t take it with me and I can’t leave it to my children?  Abram has heard God promise to make him this great nation, and he’s heard God say he’ll make his descendants as many as the dust of the earth, but yet, he hasn’t seen anything yet.  It’s a show me the money kind of moment.  He’s tired of the talk; he wants to see some action.  Don’t we get like that sometimes?  We’ve been given this promise, this word from God, and it seems that nothing is happening or that our prayers are going unanswered.  Sometimes we start to worry if God’s taking a break or if we’ve misunderstood God’s will.  In our fast-paced society, we often want things right NOW, and if they don’t come fast enough, we begin to think they’re not coming.  We get discouraged.  Abram had some of these same fears and questions.

What did God say to Abram, even before he began to ask his questions?  “Do not be afraid Abram.”  God cuts at the core of his fear.  See in Abram’s day, being childless was a big deal.  Some thought it was a sign of judgment or wickedness and as it is today, your children are who hopefully care for you as you get older, so Abram’s concern was not unfounded.  God knew Abram’s thoughts and he gave him the proof he needed.  God knows us, and God knows where we are and what we’re feeling even before we articulate it.  God is a big God, and a gracious God and God doesn’t slink away from our questions, God doesn’t hide or back down from them, God doesn’t smite him down for questioning and God doesn’t get angry at his doubt – God reassures him.  In the movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise’s character, a sports agent, has just made a huge stand professionally and he’s trying to rally all of his sports clients around him.  Cuba Gooding’s character, a pro football player is who he calls first.  Over and over again he reassures him that he is on his side, looking out for his best interests and working hard for him.  And the classic scene shows Cuba yelling back and forth into the phone “Show me the money.”  With Cruise responding emphatically assuring him as he yells into the phone, “I will show you the money!” He puts everything he has into it at the loss of all else.  He assures him and puts his fears at ease.  He steps up to the plate.  God does the same thing.  God meets Abram where he is, and answers him.

God says that Abram’s heir won’t be this servant, but a child of his own from his own body.  God doesn’t give a general speech about keeping God’s promise, but God addresses Abram’s actual fears, the doubts and worries he has about his own specific situation – having an heir or a legacy to pass on.  After he answers his doubt, God provides him with another image, another symbol just like the dust in his earlier promise.  He says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them, so shall your descendants be.”  Again, he gives him something so huge that it can’t even be counted.  Can you imagine it?  If you were Abram in the days, weeks, and years to come as you go through your every day life, in the daytime seeing the dust and in the nighttime seeing the stars and thinking about this promise that God made you, this crazy and unlikely reality that God has promised you, would you believe it?  Would you keep the faith?  Does Abram have concrete evidence that this will happen, that God will keep God’s word?  Not really.  But we have heard how God had called him and had provided for him, and how God continues to make the promise.  We have heard how God answered his fears.  And because of these things, through God, as our Covenant Keeper, Abram believed. Verse 6 says, “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  Through his faith, Abram was made right with God.

There is a story about Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, going to a bank in England and opening up an account for the China Inland Mission.  As he was filling out the application he came to a question asking him for his assets, or in other words what you got.  Taylor wrote in the blank, “ten pounds and the promises of God.”[3]  You can take God to the bank!  If you know the story of Taylor and the China Inland Mission and all of the great, faithful work that they did, you know the foundation for his life was God’s promise:  That God has begun a good work and would bring it to completion; faith that God would keep God’s covenant.  When you have received God’s promise, it is something you can take to the bank.

Abram had seen God at work in his life and as unlikely as the promise sounded, he believed.  He trusted that he could stand on those promises.  And what about those words, “reckoned it to him as righteousness?”  Paul would later allude to this verse in Romans 4 and Galations 3 when he begins talking about justification by faith.  He uses Abram as an example to the early church saying that through his faith Abram was set in right relationship with God, not by anything that he earned or worked, but just by his belief.  What Paul was trying to communicate was that it is the same with us.  We’ve seen all the ways that God has worked in our lives, just as Abram saw, and just like Abram, all we have to do is believe to be reckoned as righteous, or counted as good even though we obviously don’t deserve it.  We believe that God loved us and drew us to God even when we didn’t know it and that by grace God gives us the opportunity to believe.  Through this faith and belief, we are saved.

In verse 7, God again reminds Abram of who God is, the God who has brought him to this place, and the promise.  Here Abram goes again questioning God, “How am I to know that I shall possess this land?”  Although in verse 6 it says that he believed, he is now asking for some sort of sign.  Just like us, sometimes even when we do believe, we have questions and doubts.  Again, God answers him.  God provides the assurance that he needs both in word and deed.  God makes God’s self vulnerable by making a cutting covenant with Abram.  I know it sounds a little gross, but this is where we get our saying of “cutting a deal with someone.”   The way it works is that you walk between the animals sealing your agreement and if you break the agreement then your fate is that of the animals.  Covenants are serious, being cut in half is serious.  These are not just promises, but something far more-weighty and binding.  Marriage is one of these things, where it’s not just a promise made between two people, but it is a pledge, an oath that should not be taken lightly. It’s a covenant.

God’s covenant with Abram isn’t quite like a marriage where there is an equal partnership in the covenant-making. This is a special kind of covenant, a royal covenant, where a king rewards a servant for loyalty and faithful service.  All of the responsibility and pressure is on the king to uphold the covenant because he is the one of greater stature.[4]  In other words because of God’s love for us and God’s knowledge of our human limitations, God puts God’s self on the line, knowing that this is not an equal partnership, but that the majority of the risk is God’s.  In the form of a smoking fire pot and flaming torch, God covenanted with Abram to fulfill both of his promises – to give him all of this land and to give him descendants to inhabit it.

What an amazing God we serve, that God has staked God’s own life on this promise.  This is not a promise that Abram initiated, but it is a unilateral decision and covenant made by God.  It is not something we have to do or initiate, but it is part of the nature of God.  That’s the important point.  God’s promise is certain not because of anything that we have done, but because of who God is.  Yes, Abram has been faithful, but so has God and so God will be.  God is not a distant God who watches from afar, but God is a present God who has entered into the fray with humanity.  God seeks relationship with us and has covenanted with each of us in the greatest of all sacrifices on the cross.  God doesn’t pull back or go half way, but as in popular games of Texas Hold ‘em, God goes all in.  God, Emmanuel, became one of us.  God is a personal God that seeks us, that woos us, that draws us to God’s self.  On the cross God provided the greatest sign and gave us the opportunity to join in the greatest covenant.

What is our response?  Our response is that of Abram’s, to believe.  To have faith in the God of the universe that covenants to be in relationship with you and with me, sinners redeemed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.  To trust God’s promises – promises to never leave nor forsake us, promises to give us abundant life, promises to walk with us, both assuring us and answering our questions and fears, but also calling us to grow and trust and respond in faith.

An old man and woman were driving down the road, with the man behind the steering wheel and his wife of many years sitting next to the passenger-side door. They came up behind a car in front of them that had a very young couple riding side by side, almost looking like a two-headed monster because they were sitting so close together. The woman looked over at her husband and pointed at the young couple in front of them and asked, “Why don’t we do that anymore?” He slowly looked over at her and replied, “I haven’t moved.”[5] There have been times, like Abram, we have moved back and forth sometimes trusting, sometimes doubting and questioning God’s provision for us. At times we’ve even gotten out of the car, but God hasn’t moved.

In closing, one of my favorite hymns, perhaps because of the words, perhaps because of the gusto, is “Standing on the Promises.”  Listen here to the second verse, “Standing on the promises that cannot fail, when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail, by the living Word of God I shall prevail, standing on the promises of God.  Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior, standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”[6]  You can stand on and trust the promises of God.  God’s a sure thing.  Bank on it!

[1] Genesis 12:1-3, All scripture references unless otherwise noted are from The New Oxford Annotated Bible – New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message:  The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs:  Navpress, 2002), 39.

[3] Patrick Mead,“Standing on the Promises of God,” www.sermoncentral.com, February 20, 2006.

[4] David J. A. Clines, “Genesis-Esther,” HarperCollins Bible Commentary  (San Francisco:  HarperCollins, 2000), 93.

[5] King Duncan, King’s Treasury of Dynamic Humor (Knoxville: Seven Worlds Press, 1990), 173.

[6] The United Methodist Hymnal:  Book of United Methodist Worship (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 2002), 374.

Seeing is Believing – “Doubting” Thomas

John 20:19-31 (NRSV)

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I think this story is a testimony to the difficulty of faith – how hard it is to believe.  Merriam-Webster defines faith as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”  Belief.  I think of the words from the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and so on…”  or from the praise song – “I believe in Jesus…I believe he is the son of God…that he died and he rose again…that he gave himself for me…”  All week as I’ve thought about this text, the old Steven Curtis Chapman song has rolled around in my head, “I do, I do, I do, I do believe, I know, I know, I know, I know it’s true, Lord, I believe in you.”  Firm belief – faith – is not only foundational, but transformational.  It can be life-changing as we mentally and verbally declare – this is what we believe.  This is who we are.  So what about the disciples – where was their belief, their faith?

The doors are locked in fear.  The disciples are meeting together not just behind closed doors, but locked doors.  Their fear is apparent.  As Jesus was betrayed, they scattered like ants and that initial fear has only been heightened as they believe that their friend, their leader, their rabbi has been crucified.

But wait, prior to this, didn’t Peter and John see the empty tomb and the discarded clothes of Jesus?  Haven’t we heard “Up from the Grave He Arose” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and celebrated the Resurrection with all of the Alleluia’s?  Didn’t Mary Magdalene see and speak with Jesus and then proclaim to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”?  It seems that Thomas has gotten a bad rap.  As much preachers like to use “Doubting Thomas” in our sermon illustrations, he wasn’t the only one that needed to see to believe.  They too needed a personal encounter or experience with the Risen Lord.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  I like that he just sort of appeared.  It doesn’t say exactly what the disciples were doing – maybe freaking out or worrying over what they would do next or what would happen to them – but all of a sudden, there was Jesus – Jesus that had been crucified and buried, Jesus that they had deserted, Jesus that they loved and had followed, saying, “Peace be with you.”

He doesn’t say, “Dude, where were you guys?” or “I told you so,” but peace.  Peace.  He showed them his hands and side to prove to them that he wasn’t a ghost, that he was the same Jesus they had known, had eaten with, walked with, learned from, the same Jesus that had been crucified just three days earlier.  The text says, “Then,” “Then” they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Not until he showed them did they rejoice.  Seeing was believing.

Again Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”  And then he does an amazing thing – he empowers the disciples and gives them authority.  Not only does he react in compassion to their doubt, but he ordains them to bringing the Good News to the world.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  They have seen the journey that Jesus has taken – the ups and the downs and especially the persecution.  But he doesn’t ask them to walk this path alone – he gives them the Holy Spirit.  Actually it says, he breathed on them – just like God breathed life into Adam – He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The disciple’s faith, their firm belief, was restored.  They thought they would never see him again, and in he walks into the room.  They witnessed in person the Risen and Resurrected Lord.  They had a personal encounter with Jesus.

What does it take for us to believe?  The Gospel of John shows us that faith comes in different ways and with differing intensities to different people. It doesn’t all come in the same neatly wrapped package.  In verse 8 of this same chapter, the beloved disciple believes upon seeing the empty tomb. In verse 16, Mary believes when the Lord calls her name. The disciples here in verse 20 rejoice when they see his hand and side.  And then here comes Thomas.

He had missed out on the action, the unbelievable good news.  They had seen the Lord with their own eyes – but he had not.

Whether out of reaction to all of them seeing and now believing and a little bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) or whether he just needs tangible proof, he takes it a step further.  He not only wants to see Jesus to believe, but he says that he wants to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side.  That’s a pretty hardcore and definitive statement.

You see why he’s called Doubting Thomas?  He’s been singled out throughout the ages as someone with inferior faith because he actually expressed his doubt in the resurrection. He made his reservations known out-loud.  He used his outside voice not just wondering in his head. He absolutely refused to say that he understood what he didn’t understand, or that he believed what he didn’t.   He was honest and blunt.  As I said earlier – it’s not that the other disciples immediately believed or that they weren’t scared as well, but Thomas is the one who remains firm – No, I’m not going to believe unless…  And because of that he is the poster child for skepticism. Even those that don’t know the story, have heard of a “Doubting Thomas.”  His name is so synonymous with doubt that if you look in a Webster’s Dictionary you’ll find it in two places: under “d” for doubt and under “t” for Thomas. According to Webster the definition for a “doubting Thomas” is a habitually doubtful person.

But contrary to his bad press in Webster’s, he had not always doubted.  Thomas had believed in the Lord.  In verse 16 of John chapter 11 as Jesus prepared to go to Jerusalem, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  He had believed and he had followed, but his worst fears had been realized – in his mind, Jesus was dead and that was irreversible.  Any normal person would have that same reaction – because no one previously had been resurrected and no one ever since.  Thomas was speaking out of his grief, out of his fear, out of his anger, out of his despair.

Virginia was 19 years old and pregnant when she went to live with her 15th set of foster parents. Her case file read like a textbook example of neglect, abuse and bureaucratic failure. She sat silently in a chair, hands neatly clasped, staring into her lap. The foster parents, whose three children were in school, had been apprised of Virginia’s story and promised that this placement would be “temporary.” (Temporary was the story of Virginia’s life.)

Finally, the foster mother said, “Are you frightened, Virginia?”

“Kinda,” she replied without looking up. Then, “I’ve been in lots of homes.”

“Well,” the sympathetic woman tried to reassure the bewildered young mother-to-be, “Let’s hope this time turns out for the best.”

Virginia’s reply is one of those statements that sticks to your soul — it was flat, without change of tone and without Virginia even looking up, “Hurts too much to hope.”

Can you imagine?

Thomas could.  It hurt too much for him to hope.  In his mind, dead is dead.  His Lord was dead.  Jesus was dead.  It hurt too much to hope.

In some ways, it seems that Thomas has become a scapegoat – not only for a society who does not prize doubt, but certainty and confidence, but also a scapegoat for the church.  Somehow doubt has come to be seen as wrong, or that it is somehow less than faithful to need a sign, or a touch, or a vision, or a personal encounter.  We get the impression that we are not allowed to ask the hard questions without being labeled a cynic, or a skeptic, or a “liberal.” Since when are questions bad? Since when is it wrong to admit that we don’t understand everything? Since when is it wrong to ask God these things? Read the account of Job, the Prophets or the Psalms. All are filled with uncertainties, complaints, and questions of God. Even Jesus while hanging on the cross cried out to God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Thomas is just one in a long line of faithful people who have raised their voices to ask the hard yet faithful questions.  If one is asking God questions or seeking answers from God, there has to be some kind of faith that God exists and can respond.  When we cry out to God, know that God will answer.  Maybe not immediately or in some of the ways that we want or desire, but God always promises to work things together for good for those that love God.  Our God is a big God and can withstand our doubts, can withstand our fears and can withstand all that we throw at God, and “God with us” will respond.  Jesus doesn’t throw the book at Thomas because of his doubts.  He doesn’t say – welp, you missed out on seeing me, you’re permanently stuck in your unbelief.

A week later, this time the doors are shut, but not locked and Jesus comes and stands among them again saying, “Peace be with you.”  Part of me wonders if he leads off with the “Peace be with you” each time because it’s still probably pretty shocking to see him alive and in their midst.  Immediately he says to Thomas – do it.  Do what you need to do to remove your doubt and believe.  “Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas’s need to grasp, to touch for proof evaporates as he sees Jesus and he responds, “My Lord and my God!”  Thomas’ fears were removed – he was given all that he needed.

Reminding me very much of Thomas, Paul Tillich writes, “The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born.”

In France, they grow a lot of grapes, but in France they do not water the grapevines. In California there’s lots of irrigation, but not in France. The French believe that it’s better to have a bad harvest one year than to lose vines due to drought. If you don’t water your vines the roots of those vines go deep, deep, deep into the earth until they touch groundwater and become invulnerable to drought. The harvest may not be great one year but the vines will return the next year.

When we say I believe, when we have a real and personal encounter with our Risen Lord, we sink the roots of our faith deeper and deeper, so deep that these roots of our faith can handle the droughts. The times we feel God is silent.  We don’t know what kind of harsh weather our lives will face; we don’t know the twists and turns awaiting us on this journey, but we trust in the deep, eternal well of God’s faithfulness because we have seen and know. We send our roots deep into the waters of life with God, not because God removes all of our obstacles, all of the storms, but because God walks with us through them.

Jesus knows our doubts just as he knew Thomas’s.  He knows our hearts and if we but ask him he is faithful and true and will answer our doubts.  The Bible says, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you – if we seek the Risen Lord, we will find him.  These encounters come in a variety of ways, they meet us where we are and speak to us in ways that only God can.

Father John Dear in Blessed are the Nonviolent, writes,

“In the summer of 1982, a few months before I entered the Jesuit order, I visited the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

On the day I left the United States, Israel invaded Lebanon. When I stepped off the plane in Jerusalem, soldiers carrying machine guns searched me. I had unwittingly walked into a full-scale war.

I visited the “Chapel of the Beatitudes,” a small, eight-sided stone church that stands on a hill overlooking the sea. I remember sitting there one afternoon, carefully reading the familiar words inscribed on the chapel walls:

Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of justice, for Jesus. Love your enemies. Be as compassionate as God.

I walked onto the balcony and surveyed the magnificent Sea of Galilee. It suddenly dawned on me: I think Jesus is serious.

I turned to the sky and called out to God, “Are you trying to tell me something? Do you want me to hunger and thirst for justice? Do you want me to be a peacemaker? Do you want me to love even my enemies?

“All right,” I declared, “I’ll work for peace and justice for the rest of my life — but on one condition: if you give me a sign!”
Immediately, two Israeli jets swooped down at me from the sky above the Sea of Galilee. They roared over me, causing a sonic boom. Moments later, they dropped bombs along the Lebanon border.
Trembling, I made two decisions in that moment. I would devote the rest of my life to working for peace and justice. And I would never ask God for another sign.”

We serve a show and tell God.  I bet that if we thought about it, each of us would have stories to share about the ways that Jesus has met us where we are.  The signs and wonders, the little God things, the assurances, the encounters that strengthen our faith, that help us to believe when we’re down or all seems lost whether it be a word from a friend, that special passage we flip to in God’s Word, or the song that happens to come on the radio when we need to hear it most.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Blessed are you – who have not physically witnessed the Risen Lord – have not physically seen the nail prints and the scars, but who have come to believe, to know this Jesus.

The text says that this story was written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  God knows our need for a first-hand encounter. That is why God came to us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel – God with us.  Jesus does not shrug away from our doubts and questions.  He wants us, he longs for us to believe.  God searches and finds us even when we don’t want to be or don’t think we need to be found.  Jesus breaks through the door of our hearts breathing his Spirit over us literally blowing away our mountains of doubt.  May we let Jesus speak to our hearts, just as he spoke to Thomas.  May Jesus take away our doubts.  Ask and you shall receive, seek and ye shall find.

It doesn’t end there though – After the Lord breaks into our hearts and we have declared “my Lord and my God,” there is a life that proceeds from that point. God calls us out of our locked rooms into the world.  The disciples knew – they had seen and believed, but they could not believe for Thomas.  We can’t believe for our friends and family.  Thomas had to make the decision for himself.  They didn’t ridicule him for his disbelief or kick him out of the fold.  May we also – welcome those that are seeking, that are questioning, those that have never heard the Good News or who have a Christianity that’s contorted beyond recognition. May they see Jesus Christ alive in our hearts and lives. The ways we love each other; the ways we respond to those in need; the ways we strive to live as Christ followers – the hands and feet of Christ.  May we go forth knowing in our hearts that we serve the Risen Lord and may we let that light, that truth be known to the world!  Thomas believed; may we believe also!

Unlock your Heart with Jesus

John 20:1-18

20 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. 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.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 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.

A week ago, we celebrated Palm Sunday where Jesus rode on a colt or donkey to shouts of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches as he celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem.  Then he flipped over tables in the temple and called the religious leaders to task.  We know that he gathered with his disciples on Passover to wash their feet and to gather with them to break bread and drink wine, as he said these strange words about the bread representing his body that is broken open and the wine being his blood covering all of our sins.  We believe the familiar story of him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane asking God to take this cup from me.  Judas betraying him, Peter denying him, his disciples scattered and scared.  We believe that on Good Friday Jesus suffered death on a cross beside two thieves.  The sky turned black, the earth shook, and the curtain in the temple ripped.  He died and was placed in a tomb where he was for 3 days.

That’s where our passage starts today.  You may be thinking, Narcie why this review of Holy Week?  The Easter story is familiar to many of us.  It’s a story in all 4 of the Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  They all give different details, depending on their perspective, but that to me, is what makes it more true.  If they all said the same thing, I, being a natural doubter, would be even more skeptical.  I think that’s what makes the Bible great – all of these different people, sharing their stories, creating this arch of God’s redemption of the world.  Several years ago in The New York Times Sunday Review, the Swedish writer Henning Mankell wrote that “a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person.” Mankell’s argument was not that the biologists are wrong or that we are not thinking creatures but rather that we are also — and maybe even primarily — storytelling creatures.  We make sense of the world and our place in it through story. Story is how we create meaning, how we interpret reality, and how we come to know who we are and why we are.  Stories have a way of weaving into our psyche as nothing else does.

Our passage is from the book of John.  John is the one who has all of the “I Am’s.”  I am the bread of life.  I am the good shepherd.  I am the true vine.  It has zero parables and no Passover meal or Lord’s Supper.  It’s the only Gospel that has the foot washing instead.  John was the only one of the disciples who was with Mary and the other women the day that Jesus died on the cross.  He was the one to whom Jesus, as he was hanging on the cross, entrusted his mother Mary.  He has a peculiar way of telling a story, a more personal way.  Like with the foot washing.  He had Jesus bowing before each disciple and washing their feet and saying, “I have set for you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  He’s the only one of the Gospels that has Mary interacting with whom she supposed was the gardener, but the reader knows he’s actually Jesus.  The Gospels all explain the transformation of the Resurrected Jesus in different ways, so we get the idea that he is like himself and yet unlike himself.  When he calls out her name, “Mary!”  The text says, “She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).”  She recognized him as she heard his voice and he called out her name.  John’s is the only Gospel which weaves in this personal touch.  I think it’s important to recognize, there was never a pivotal moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry that John wasn’t an eye witness.  The Transfiguration.  The Garden of Gethsemane.  The Crucifixion.  And also in this Gospel account, the Resurrection.  He was called the one whom Jesus loved and he wrote the most personal Gospel account.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  He was writing not only about his Rabbi and Savior but his friend, and that makes for a very good story.

What were your favorite books growing up?  My favorites were Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Catch-22 and biographies of Dolly Madison, Queen Elizabeth, Abigail Adams and Julia Ward Howe, and my Mom’s old Betty Cavannah books.  Don’t worry I liked more modern stories too – like Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley High.  Have any of you read The Secret Garden?  It’s a story of Mary Lennox, who is a sickly and unloved 10-year-old girl, born in India to wealthy British parents who never wanted her. She is cared for by servants, who allow her to become a spoiled.  After a cholera epidemic kills her parents and the servants, Mary is sent England to live with Archibald Craven; an uncle whom she has never met, at his isolated house, Misselthwaite Manor.  At first, Mary is as rude and sour as ever. She dislikes her new home, the people living in it, and most of all, the bleak moor on which it sits. However, a good-natured maid named Martha Sowerby tells Mary about the late Mrs. Craven, who would spend hours in a private walled garden growing roses. Mrs. Craven died after an accident in the garden, and the devastated Mr. Craven locked the garden and buried the key. Mary becomes interested in finding the secret garden herself, and her ill manners begin to soften as a result. Soon she comes to enjoy the company of Martha, the gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and a friendly bird that she calls Robin.

“Are things stirring down below in the dark in that garden where he lives?” Mary inquired.

“What garden?” grunted Weatherstaff, becoming surly again.

“The one where the old rose-trees are.” She could not help asking, because she wanted so much to know. “Are all the flowers dead, or do some of them come again in the summer? Are there ever any roses?”

“Ask him,” said Ben Weatherstaff, hunching his shoulders toward the robin. “He’s the only one as knows. No one else has seen inside it for ten year’.”

Mary was shocked by how long the garden, this now secret garden, had gone without someone tending it.  She grew fond of the robin who had been the garden’s sole visitor and would watch it closely.  One day, as the robin hopped about under them she saw him hop over a small pile of freshly turned up earth. He stopped on it to look for a worm. The earth had been turned up because a dog had been trying to dig up a mole and he had scratched quite a deep hole.

Mary looked and saw something almost buried in the newly-turned soil. It was like a ring of rusty iron or brass, and when the robin flew up into a tree nearby she put out her hand and picked the ring up. It was more than a ring, however; it was an old key which looked as if it had been buried a long time.

Mistress Mary stood up and looked at it with an almost frightened face as it hung from her finger.

“Perhaps it has been buried for ten years,” she said in a whisper. “Perhaps it is the key to the garden!”

What happens when she unlocks the door to the Secret Garden?  Not only does the garden experience resurrection, but she does.  A sad, unloved, lonely little girl was loved for who she was, with all of her baggage, in a very personal way. As she spends time in the garden, she begins to be an agent of resurrection.  She got some of God’s Resurrection dust on her, the pollen of new life, sprinkling down from heaven to make all things new.

See Jesus wants to set us free.  Jesus hands us the keys to unlock the gardens of our hearts.  As it says in Isaiah 43:1-3, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;  I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”  Jesus calls each of us by name, just like Mary, and hands us the key to our salvation.  All we have to do is turn the lock.

What’s holding you back from taking the key that Jesus is handing you?  Jesus broke free from the shackles of sin and conquered death so that we may have eternal life if we put our hope and trust in him.  What do you need to break free from?  Perfection?  Doubt?  Fear? Loneliness?  What does the Enemy whisper to you when you’re feeling weak or vulnerable?  What are you clinging to?  Pride? Sloth? Envy? Lust? Wrath? Gluttony?  Greed? What?  Think of it as Spring cleaning.  We treat our sins like old familiar sweatshirts, old comfy shoes.  That may fit more snuggly now but they’re familiar.  Throw them out!  They have no hold over you now.  Lay down the pride, perfection, lust, lies at the foot of the cross and LEAVE IT THERE.  When you feel the tug to put them on again, ask Jesus to come and meet you in that moment and ask him to give you the strength not to fall back into the old ways and repent.

As Lutheran Priest, Nadia Bolz-Weber, writes, “That’s the thing about tombs. Sometimes we don’t even know we are in them, until the light breaks from on high. But I know we all have them.

I wonder what it is for you. Is there something buried? Thought to be dead? Something that you have left for dead? What in your life might have been in such darkness that any kind of dawn would feel sudden and unexpected causing you to shield your eyes?

Sometimes tombs are about how we treat things in our life as though they represent the end. This relationship is over. This life of faith has ended. That time of happiness will never return. There’s a big stone covering that thing I used to feel or I used to love or I used to be and anyway, it’s started to smell of rot. That part of me is totally dead, period. End of sentence. But as great African American preachers often say — “where we put a period … God puts a comma.”

Having a God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is.”

That’s the thing about serving a God of Resurrection – God is in the business of making all things new.  Frances Hodgson Burnett, writes in The Secret Garden, “At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”  To believe a new thing can be done, you have to trust and have faith in the One who is bringing the change.  Did you hear what I said?  To believe a new thing can be done, you have to trust and have faith in the One who is bringing the change.

Let’s try a little experiment. Close your eyes and empty your mind of every other thought. Okay, now, picture God.

You can open your eyes now. What was the first image that came to mind?

I’ll bet, for most of us, it was an old man with a white beard.

Now let me ask you this. In your mental image, was God smiling?

My guess is, some of you pictured God without a smile. “Stern” might be a good word to describe the visage of the Almighty.

Now, one further question: in your mind’s eye, was God holding anything? If you answered, “a thunderbolt,” congratulations — you’ve just selected most people’s all-time favorite accessory to the divine wardrobe.

Why is it so many of us picture the Lord of heaven and earth as a grumpy old man packing a loaded thunderbolt? We imagine God that way, even though we know better. Sure, God can get angry. There’s ample evidence of that in the Bible. Yet the Bible also teaches that “God is love” — and that God “so loved the world” that we have received as a gift “God’s only son,” that we might “not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Why is it, then, that we so quickly forget these passages, ie. most of what Jesus says, and elevate to such high prominence those dealing with God’s wrath and destruction?  If we only see God as old man punishing us and keeping a record of wrongs, that’s not a full picture of God at all.  I serve Emmanuel, God with us, One who walks with us through life journeys showing us the way, the truth, and the life.  I serve a Savior that wants our resting states or defaults to be love and grace, not hatred and judgment.  As it says in Matthew 19:26, “”With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  The God I serve sent God’s only son, Jesus, to break the chains of sin and death, to unlock the doors of our hearts so we are free to dream the big dreams God has in store for us.  The God that I serve, says in Romans 8:38-39, “38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Jesus seeks to unlock and banish our doubts, fears, hesitations, self-harm, woundings, and says to each of us, you are free indeed.  If you’re still doubting God’s love for you or are you are wondering how to find God, Jeremiah 29:11-13 says, “11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”  God wants to give us hope and a future.  God wants us to unlock the door to freedom from sin and death, freedom from all the things that shackle us and weigh us down, freedom to live the life we were meant to have in Jesus!

Knowing Jesus is like that.  It sneaks up on you.  You may be curious about this Jesus guy.  You may be intrigued.  But he’s the real deal and once you know that, you can’t help but spread that Good News!  You’re part of this massive letter to all of humanity that shouts from the rooftops God loves you, you were fearfully and wonderfully made, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, came to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set us free from the things that bind us and want to choke the life right out of us.  He defeated death, conquered the grave, and gave us eternal life.  Spirit of Truth guide and lead us in discovering what holds us back and rebuking that power over us. As Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us . . . approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

God goes to some outrageous lengths to share love, shouldn’t we do the same for people?  Remember the eggs in the children’s sermon.  That was and is the biggest, “Surprise!!” the world has ever seen.  Wouldn’t it be a different world if we actually lived like Easter people?  To not only talk the talk, but actually walk the walk in the ways that our Rabbi Jesus taught us.  To give a hurting world the resurrection hope that is real and tangible and sustaining, not withered like two-week old Easter lilies.  Like we mean it!  Like we believe it!

Some of my favorite words to read at a Celebration of Life are these words of grace.  “Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life.

Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live,

and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.

I died, and behold I am alive for evermore,

and I hold the keys of hell and death.

Because I live, you shall live also.”

Friends, if we turn the key to the gardens of our hearts, if we trust Emmanuel, God with us, with our salvation, then we too, have the hope of resurrection and we get to actively participate in the greatest story ever told!

2024958182

It’s time to turn the key to our hearts and SHARE the key (pun intended!) with the world, so we can together dream the big dreams that God has in store for each of us!

Carrying our Ebenezers Into the World

MATTHEW 28:1-10

28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Any time an angel appears to someone the first words out of their mouths are, “Do not be afraid.”  What a sight they must be!  All of the Gospel accounts put in different details to their particular accounts.  Some have two angels, some have one, they have different conversations, they have different ordering of things, but they all have one critical thing in common – an empty tomb.  The stone was rolled away.  He is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!  In my thinking, the Gospels being so different is evidence they are true stories – to indicate the points of view and the particular audiences they were each writing on behalf.  The one we just read has an earthquake, an angel descending from heaven, and the stone rolled away by the angel.  What does the text say about the guards?  The guards “shook and became like dead men.” Ha!  Again, they must be a sight to behold!  The message the angel relayed to the women made them run “quickly with fear and great joy” as they ran to tell the disciples and Jesus, the Risen One, confirmed the angels message on their way.

What a turn of events!  You may have come to this Easter sunrise service bleary-eyed and numb.  There’s not enough coffee in the world to have me wake up like this every morning – mission trip flights and Easter sunrise is my limit.  Don’t you see the women at the tomb were the same way.  Unlike the disciples, except for John, they had watched the crucifixion.  They had lived and were eye witnesses to Good Friday.  They had mourned on Holy Saturday.  Their Savior, their light in the world, their Rabbi, was gone.  They were grieving and numb as they walked to the tomb that day to bring the funeral spices.  Bleary-eyed just like you and me this Easter sunrise service.  Did you know that some states are outlawing those roadside crosses and those flowers you see along the roadways?  We drive by and with a mere glance, we know that something happened here.

Joyce Keeler knows the pain of losing a loved one in a tragic automobile accident. Nearly 30 years ago, her son lost his life on a rural road in Delaware. For Joyce, driving by the site of the accident is still too painful. She avoids it, even all these years later.

Instead, Joyce goes to the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden at the Smyrna Rest Area near her home. Among the trees, shrubs and flowering plants, is a pathway lined with memorial bricks that bear the names of those who have lost their lives on the roads of Delaware. In the center of the garden is a pond with goldfish, frogs, water lilies and a gurgling waterfall. Tucked amid the busyness of nearby highways U.S. 13 and Delaware 1, it’s a peaceful place to remember and reflect. To honor the memory of her son, Joyce sits quietly near the brick that bears his name.

Patrick Bowers, whose 21-year-old son died in a crash in 2008, also frequents the Delaware Highway Memorial Garden. “It’s not morbid or gloomy, not like a feeling you can get at a cemetery,” he says. “It’s a garden like someone would do in their backyard.”

Delaware is one of several states providing alternatives to roadside memorials because traffic safety officers worry they are a dangerous distraction to drivers, and put those who maintain them in harm’s way. In most states, descansos, what they call the memorial sites, are illegal, but officials rarely enforce those laws. When we lived in Florida they used signs to mark the site of a crash. Others have adopted laws limiting the time a memorial is allowed to remain on the side of the road. Still others offer to plant memorial trees at the sites of fatal accidents.

Joyce Keeler much prefers the garden over the roadside memorial.  “Things like that get old, and the flowers fade,” she says. “But this will never go away.”

The very same instinct that drives people to the site of a crash may have carried Mary Magdalene, a close disciple of Jesus, and another Mary, identified a few verses earlier as the mother of James and Joseph, to the tomb early in the morning.

They came not with a handmade cross and flowers, but with oils and spices.

They came not to set up a roadside memorial, but to care for the body of the one they followed, the one who loved and accepted them when no one else did.

They came prepared to do the only thing they could think of to honor the memory of Jesus.

Another Mary, was grieving the loss of her son.  Who could know the agony she endured from Friday to Sunday morning? Even the care she received from the “beloved disciple,” John, her son’s best friend, could not alleviate the sadness and despair.  It’s not likely, that she ever went back to the place where he died. Not much chance she wanted to sit by a cross, like some mothers might do today. The cross on this hill was the instrument of her son’s most cruel and painful death. She’d been there to witness it. Where would she go to remember?

Did she want to erect a memorial?

Did she want some place she could visit and just think about her son?

Did she want to erect a pillar of stones in his memory in his hometown, Nazareth, or in Bethlehem where he was born?

Did she want to post a sign at the site of some of his most famous miracles?

Did she want to turn the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus into a shrine or museum in his honor?

Surely, the thought crossed her mind: “How can I remember my son? How can we all remember him?”

Her people, after all, had a strong tradition of building memorials or Ebenezer’s. If you pay attention to hymns in church, there is one Hebrew term you will remember singing. It’s in the second stanza of… “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The stanza reads:

Here I raise my Ebenezer,
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

“Ebenezer.” A Hebrew word.  Hear the word and your first thought is of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the most famous “Ebenezer” in all of literature: Ebenezer Scrooge.

The prophet Samuel took a stone, set it up and named it Ebenezer.   1 Samuel 7:12 memorably says: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us.'” Samuel set up a memorial stone. “Ebenezer” literally means “stone of help.” It was a stone set to commemorate the help the people of Israel perceived had been given them by God in defeating the Philistines when they got back the ark of the covenant. … The Scots Bible translator, James Moffatt, translates it literally: “Samuel took a stone … naming it Helpstone.”

What do all 4 Gospel accounts have in common?  An empty tomb!  Jesus is ALIVE!  Death has been defeated. Love wins.  Our God is the God of help. This is the refrain that breathes through the Bible. The Great God of the Universe, our God has gave us the greatest Ebenezer of all – Jesus – our Cornerstone, as it says in our Psalm this morning.  Our Cornerstone is the greatest Ebenezer that the world has ever known!  The one they thought was in the grave is instead on the move. He’s still calling them to follow him as he now calls to us to follow him.

May we do so.  May we be Resurrection people!  May we embody the love of Christ to all the world.  May we not be afraid to share our Ebenezer’s, the times that God’s helped us on our faith journeys and share them with the world.  I ask that you come as you feel led to get one of these stones, symbolizing the stone that was rolled away.   Symbolizing the Great Ebenezer that God sent us in Jesus, our Ultimate Help.  Symbolizing our Cornerstone in Christ.  I’ll also challenge you to take another stone.  Tell someone in the weeks ahead about Jesus.  Share a story of how he helped you.  Tell a story of how he saved you.  It may be awkward, you may stammer and stutter a bit, but what a blessing, and a Help you would be to someone who doesn’t know our Risen Savior.  We’re Easter people after all!  We are called to share this Good News of the empty tomb!  Jesus is Alive!

16706359955_dcf5e19fbb_b

Palm Sunday – The One

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd[b] spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

My mom gives Enoch and Evy all kinds of Christian books.  They have many “my first Bibles,” pre-school Bibles, and “big kids” Bibles.  We actually have two copies of My Very First Easter Story. 

IMG_7704

Oh, though it’s only 2 pages, Enoch and Evy filled in the details.  Evy said it was all about friendship.  Enoch said that it was a horse (some versions say this).  Evy said they had laid the palm branches and cloaks down because they didn’t want Jesus to walk in the mud.

You see, all of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) have this story.  They included different details but the same overarching story.

I have chosen to stick with the Palm Sunday text.  You see the lectionary texts for today give us the options of choosing the Palm text and the Passion text.  I normally do some mixture of the two, however, I wanted to be intentional about sticking to the text and journeying through this week with Jesus.

The hesitancy of pastors is that if people only attend on Sundays, you get the celebration of Palm Sunday back to back with the Alleluias of Easter.  High point.  Even higher point.

You miss why in just 5 days the same people that shouted “Hosanna” and waved palm branches, shouted “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  You miss Jesus ticking off the Pharisees in the temple when he turned over the tables and called them a brood of vipers.  You miss them plotting to kill him.  You miss Jesus’ teaching the disciples you have to be last to be first as they witnessed him washing their and their friends’ feet.  Their Rabbi that they had followed for three years, getting all of his radical dust on them, as he continually flipped the script.  Doing what is always least expected.  Who else would have people waving palm branches praising him and wanting to kill him less than a week later?

He was the One they had waited for.  He was the One whom the prophets foretold.  He is the One Herod was so afraid of that he slaughtered all of those innocent children.  He was the One who preached in his hometown and they said, “Who is this kid?  Is he Joseph’s boy?”  He was the One who called Peter, James and John just a bunch of fishermen and said they were the best of the best of the best as he asked them to be his disciples.  He was the One who cast out demons, healed the paralytic and the hemorrhaging woman, called Lazarus forth FROM THE GRAVE.  He was the One even the wind and the waves obeyed.  He was the One.  Not just Neo from the Matrix or Frodo from the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but THE ONE.  And the people were PUMPED until … they realized he wasn’t a political or military conqueror.  He was not going to ride in on a float and wave and provide good sound bites.  He was not going to incite a revolt among people groups.  He was not going to be boxed in to a certain tradition.  He was not going to maintain the status quo or social norms.  He came to flip the script.  He came to set ALL people free.  He came to set us free from BOTH sin and death.  He came to set us free from all of the burdens and shackles of this world.

I spent the week talking to Donal Hook about salvation.  He was recounting what Harry said two weeks ago about Jesus wiping the slate clean and I said that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love and we’re all worthy, enough, and chosen.  He said he was like the man saying, “Help my unbelief!” I appreciated his honesty as I relate to the man and the words as well! Remember the story.  It’s immediately after the transfiguration and the disciples are in a tizzy.  In Mark 9:19-24 he says to the disciples, “19 “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”  24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” I believe; help my unbelief.  We had many discussions over the past week and a half.  Most of the time it boiled down to me saying, that’s what’s so amazing about grace!  We have faith that God’s grace is real and ever abundant to cover anything we throw at God. I brought up singing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday night when I visited him, but I was too embarrassed to sing in front of his family, some of whom I had just met, with my off-key voice, but  I ended up singing it on Tuesday with his son Michael and Michael’s wife Marlene and that became our theme song over the last couple of days.  That and Psalm 23.  I frequently have Psalm 23 rolling around in my head as I pray.  It epitomizes to me the fullness of life.  God making us lie down in green pastures, anointing our heads with oil, and as I said to Donal and praying with he and his family, Jesus is the One who walks with us even through the darkest valley of the shadow of death.  Don joined the great cloud of witnesses yesterday and he is at peace and at rest.

You skip right over that lonesome and dark valley when you go from the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter and Resurrection.  You don’t get the dark days in between of doubt, fear, frustration, anger.  You don’t get the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus asking God to take this cup from him.  You don’t see, hear, or feel his pain as he’s betrayed, denied, beaten, stripped, crucified.  You don’t get the agony and anguish or the simple humanity of it all, the muck and mire.  He was the Human One.  Not a super hero that could leap over buildings.  He took on the form of a baby, both fully divine and fully human.  He felt everything we feel and even when he was on that cross he was thinking of us as he says, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

If you don’t journey towards the cross, you miss out on the struggle and the deep pain of what it means to have an Emmanuel – God with us – even on the darkest night of our souls.  To have a savior who suffers right along with us.  Who knows the full extent of our pain and then some…

I encourage you to read the stories this week and meditate on them.  I encourage you to walk this journey towards the cross.  On Thursday we’ll gather here with Isle of Palms UMC for a joint Maundy Thursday service where we’ll celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.  On Friday we’ll have our Good Friday Tenebrae service.  If you’ve never been to a Tenebrae service, I encourage you to do so.  The word “tenebrae” comes from the Latin meaning “darkness.” The Tenebrae is an ancient Christian Good Friday service that makes use of gradually diminishing light through the extinguishing of candles as scriptures are read of that encompass the entire fullness of Holy Week.  This increasing darkness symbolizes the approaching darkness of Jesus’ death and of the hopelessness in the world without God. The service concludes in darkness and worshipers then leave in silence to ponder the impact of Christ’s death and await the coming Resurrection.  As Bob Goff, author of Love Does says, “Darkness fell.   His friends scattered.  All hope seemed lost.  But heaven just started counting to three.”

I invite us to count to three together as a faith community as One body.  We rejoice with one another.  We weep with one another.  We share in the mountaintops and the darkest of the darkest valleys and that is why it’s so special to have shared in this Holy meal together these past Sundays of Lent.  We have gathered bread, sustenance, strength to face together whatever life throws at us.   When we feel like giving up, when we need a helping hand or an encouraging word, we are there for one another with Jesus ever in our midst.  We live, move and breathe in Christ, our Rabbi, our One with us.  The One who calls each of us worthy, enough, beloved by God.  The One we celebrate when we celebrate this Holy Sacrament of Communion….

3 Simple Rules: Stay in Love with God

We continue today in our series on the “3 Simple Rules,” the guidelines for living the Christian life in such a way that we will actually be changed by God’s grace.  Remember the image we’ve been using: if our sin and spiritual failures are like stumbling and skinning our knees, then we aren’t interested just in a faith that’s like a million band-aids; we’re interested here in a faith that invites us to grow into our spiritual legs so that we fall down less in the first place, so that, by God’s grace, we mature into being able to walk and maybe even run with God. So, the last two weeks we’ve looked at what it means to “Do No Harm,” and then to “Do Good.” That brings us to rule #3 which we’re going to translate a little, but first let’s look at the original text from back in the day:

General Rule #3

“Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are:

  • The public worship of God.
  • The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.
  • The Supper of the Lord.
  • Family and private prayer.
  • Searching the Scriptures.
  • Fasting or abstinence.

These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.”

So the third rule is to attend upon the ordinances of God or, you could say, to observe the spiritual disciplines that help you abide in God.  Bishop Ruben Job, who wrote the book that inspired this series, describes rule #3 this way: Stay in love with God. Stay in love with God. For John Wesley and the Methodists, a list like this, these sorts of things, were the tools of intimately relating to the Lord. They called them the “means of grace” because they’re gifts from God, for the people of God to apply, and God promises that when we put ourselves wholeheartedly into these things, we are guaranteed to meet God’s grace there. God is just waiting there, if only we come looking. So, the Methodists said, let’s go looking, weekly, even daily, through spiritual practice like this.  Seek God.

Psalm 105:4 says, “4Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually.”  If you have not struck up a conversation with God in a while, do it.  I watched the movie The Shack a couple of weeks ago with my parents and I love how the little girl calls God “Papa.”  I don’t think that that would come authentically out of my mouth, but I love the intimacy.  If you’ve not been active in your relationship, it’s going to be a little awkward at first.  There will be starting and stopping, but keep trying and practicing.  Spiritual disciplines are simply about practicing our relationship with God, cultivating it.  It may be like going a first date.  One where you have one of your friends call for what is an “emergency” when conversation breaks down.  Push through.  Persevere.  The conversation, the dance, the relationship IS worth it.  You may be thinking, “It’s easy for you, Pastor.  Sure!  But I don’t have time.  I don’t even know how to pray.  I don’t know see God and I don’t even know if I trust God.  God is an unfair and unjust God.  God doesn’t care about me.”

As Matthew 7:7-11, “‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Seek – find.  Ask – it will be given.  Knock – door opened.  God is a good God.  God loves each of us with an abundant love.  There is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  As Harry said last week, Jesus wiped the slate clean of any of our wrong doing and we are stamped Child of God.

I think we place our human hang ups on God.  We think God’s a punishing God, keeping a record of wrongs.  We think God is a genie God, a wish fulfiller.  God cannot be boxed in.  God is Yahweh, the Great I Am.  In our Monday Small Group we are reading Bob Goff’s book Love Does and he writes, “I used to think God wouldn’t talk to me, but now I know I’m just selective with what I choose to hear.”  So clean out the ear wax and hear the words of God.  “I love you.  You are bought for a price.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made for a purpose.  Nothing will ever separate you from my love.”  And if you live knowing that?  Nothing can stop you from radiating God’s love to everyone you meet.

Now, the thing is, you may have a hard time connecting to “stay in love with God” with a list like this. They can feel like spiritual chores, or eating our spiritual broccoli, and your love relationship with God can feel like rules and regulations, or something wild and personal and free.   The thing about spiritual disciplines is that they depend on your perspective.  They can either leave us feeling words like, “Boring. Difficult. Unattainable. Guilt” and, in our minds, we relegate spiritual discipline and holiness to only the few, aged maternal or paternal saints who are one-in-a-million Christians, the exception to the rule. Or we look at them like getting to know a friend better or cultivating a relationship with the lover of our souls.  We need to rest in that knowledge and form a core and center in it.  If we lead from our cores, if we act out of our cores, if we live in the live and grace of God that emanates out of our pours…than we will truly take this world by storm and bring God’s kingdom to earth.  If we abide in the vine our core…

John 15:1-11

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he pruned to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Stay in love with God.  Abide in God’s love so that your joy may be complete.  If we keep our eyes and ears open, and our hearts, there’s a lot to this specific way of abiding, and if we’re brutally honest, some of the things that make it most special are the same things that, on occasion, make it really difficult.

First, not all of us at any given time like the idea of being pruned. Even metaphorically. In verses 2 and 3, Jesus describes how, with him, we’ll be pruned and cleansed, and it’s actually the same Greek verb both times, repeat after me: katharos. Katharos. A good English connection is catharsis. A catharsis is an expression of emotions that leaves us feeling deeply relieved. So, for instance, an ugly cry from time to time, whatever inspires it, that physically just cleans out your sinuses and emotionally unloads your burdens; that’s cathartic. Funerals are some of our biggest occasions for catharsis, to get everything out, and start to heal. This is the root of what Jesus says God the gardener does for us as branches in the vine: God prunes, gets the burdensome stuff out, purges the stunted growth, and leaves us whole by doing so. Great news, right?

Unfortunately, not all of us like to be pruned, we don’t always like self-denial, the idea of sacrificing things we’ve grown attached to. We look at God and say, “Can’t I just keep that one part of that one branch? I’ve gotten really comfortable with it. It’ll hurt if you remove that. Can’t I just send out a new branch in that direction, ‘cause I want to do that.” And pretty soon we’re a lot less like a fruit-bearing vine than a wild kudzu – more concerned with consuming in all directions than flowing with full life. Are you familiar with feeling that way? It’s why abiding is tough.

Second, not all of us at any given time really appreciate feeling tied down. Not only are parts of our lives open to pruning when we abide with Jesus, but he also says that we’re confined to the existence of branches. Now, again, sounds pretty great in a sense. Being intertwined with the Vine means having direction, having something to guide us. If you’ve ever ridden through a vineyard, these big gnarly stalks are usually carefully staked in, and supported on trellises, and there’s twine and gear everywhere to keep the branches properly placed to maximize production. It’s this big network of spider-web growth, orderly and efficient, and awesome. Even more, how awesome is it that Jesus is basically saying we get to live off his abundant, true life? Like, the very sap and richness and nutrients of God Almighty flows through the Vine directly into us. Really cool.

What some of us also hear in there is that abiding in the Vine means none of us gets to be a stand-alone plant. Nobody gets to be a towering trunk all on our own. We might start to fear that we won’t get to control our own destiny; or make our own decisions; or be creative and original. What if we won’t get to stand out from everyone else, or take credit for our own glory, or enjoy the spoils of OUR victories? Pretty soon we feel an itch to be, instead of a fruit-bearing vine all “tied up in knots,” a majestic oak that stands alone and knows no bounds. Are you familiar with any of that feeling?  It comes natural. It’s why abiding is tough.

Last, when it comes to abiding in the Vine, a more elusive truth is that not all of us always want to be fruitful.  We don’t always feel like it, don’t always think we’ve got it in us, don’t always appreciate the pressure of bearing fruit. But Jesus makes no bones: why does God prune?  What’s the end-goal of my life flowing through you? So that produce comes forth.  Not what you used to do.  Not the result you got 10 years ago.  I’m here living in you NOW.  Just open your eyes to the possibilities and don’t live in the used to’s of your past.  If we open our eyes to the unimaginable things God wants to do through us, then what can we not do?  What is our limitation? Again, it can sound like the glory of glories that the Lord of Heaven and Earth chooses to use humble old us to accomplish amazing, eternal, life-saving, earth-changing feats of power and love. But as soon as we admit that we have the capacity to bear much fruit for God, all of a sudden it makes me wonder: “So where is all the good fruit then? Why does it seem like I’m not seeing any? What, instead, am I wasting my time on selfishly? What other priorities are driving my life? What if I just don’t feel like dealing with other people sometimes, or putting myself out there, or going out on the limb (vine humor), or doing it all over again? What if I can just never believe that somebody like me could ever do anything to seriously contribute to what God’s doing?” And pretty soon, rather than abiding in a fruit-bearing vine I’d much rather be, say, a nice, self-contained little cactus. Unassuming, inwardly-focused, good to go unto my own survival, sure a little bit prickly but, hey, now God won’t need to worry about expecting anything from me. Are you familiar with any of those ideas, those feelings? Anybody else ever have a little cactus in’em? It’s why abiding is so tough.

What I’m saying is that, for everything that makes a relationship with Jesus sooo good, so unique and powerful and one-of-a-kind on earth, so life-giving and glorious, there’s something that rubs against our sinful nature. There’s a natural drawback, hesitation, and even a sense of “let me run in the opposite direction.” I think these are the same reasons why the spiritual disciplines, the means of grace, as beautiful, powerful, and life-giving as they are, are usually described as confining, boring, and impossible to attain: because they are the ways that we know how to abide, and abiding is tough for our human nature. We would sometimes rather do a thousand other things than these; we’d rather get to these things last if we have time; we’d rather choose all sorts of artificial substitutes over these things, in order to feel like we get to grow what we want to grow, the way we want to grow, as selfishly as we want to do it. Sometimes, the “disciplines” we have to stay in love with God just aren’t that attractive to the part of us that is rooted in the world, but there’s freedom in that as well. Bob Goff writes, “The cool thing about taking Jesus up on His offer [to abide in him] is that whatever controls you doesn’t anymore. People who used to be obsessed about becoming famous no longer care whether anybody knows their name. People who used to want power are willing to serve. People who used to chase money freely give it away. People who used to beg others for acceptance are now strong enough to give love. When we get our security from Christ, we no longer have to look for it in the world, and that’s a pretty good trade.”  That is a heck of a trade.  Not to get our value from the world.  Knowing and trusting God to give us the only value we need.

Y’all, as we close today, this passage isn’t supposed to be bad news. To the disciples’ ears, shortly before Jesus’ death, these words were meant to offer the hope of how they would get to remain in relationship with their beloved Lord and Master. Just listen to how Jesus wraps up in verse 11: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” The same is true for us. We know that when we pray, when we worship publicly, when we study scripture, when we fast and abstain, we have a chance to meet God, to know God, to be in love with God, and to stay in love. In these practices, God’s pruning helps us slough of the dead things that are draining our life; growing in Christ our Vine means living into holy design; and bearing fruit means taking part in the Lord’s redeeming work. As one of the three simple rules, abiding through the spiritual disciplines, means we are going to work on this together.  The mighty redwood trees of California’s Sequoia National Park are the largest life-forms on Earth; yet it is a rare thing to see a redwood standing alone. This is because the roots of the Sequoia do not extend deep into the earth, as most tree roots do; they snake along just beneath the surface of the soil. So shallow are the redwood’s roots that, when a tree is young, it is easily toppled by the wind.

The redwoods that survive — and that grow to such astounding heights — are the ones whose roots intertwine with those of other trees, forming a great interwoven mass of support. The storms that bluster their way through the valleys of the Sierra Nevada can work no harm on those trees: for they stand strong and tall together, in community.  We will walk with each other spurring each other on to good works.  We will stand stronger together because we are going to create a firm foundation as we all seek to abide in Christ.  We are asking and seeking to become more faithful followers of Christ and the Spirit of Christ will abide in us as we abide in him.  Praise be to God.

 

3 Simple Rules: Do No Harm

Galatians 5:14-15

14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Today is part two in a 4-part series on the “Three Simple Rules” or the General Rules of the early Methodists. Remember the three rules as Reuben Job states:  Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God.  Last week we introduced the idea that Methodists became a driving force in 18th-century England in large part because this spiritual revival movement was anchored into a system of small groups. Remember what Fred Barnes said, editor of The New Republic, on how it affected England, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

That’s where our scripture comes in.  Love God and love neighbor.  5 simple words, harder than anything to live out.  How do we love God with all our souls, with all our hearts and with all our minds?  Who is our neighbor?  I think Wesley was getting at that by his hard core belief in personal piety – doing all you can to abide in God and grow in grace and knowledge.  Wesley didn’t believe you should leave your brain at the door.  He was an Oxford don.  He believed what Albert Outler called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that you had to look at things with Scripture at the base along with Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  But only when he was crossing back over to England from America did he witness the Moravian’s assurance of their salvation while his boat was tossed to and fro on the waves.  You see we are all on a life-long faith journey and we grow in our love of God each and every day.  We live and move and breathe in the Spirit of God and nothing we can do can ever separate us from God’s love.

The next thing is Love of Neighbor.  That’s why Wesley not only believed in personal piety – you can’t just cloister yourself in your own little prayer closet or in an ivory tower.  Jesus calls us to be in the world but not of it.  First we have to be IN it to bring God’s kingdom to earth – love, peace, joy, hope.  Social holiness is aligning your self with the least of these and setting the captives free – whether it be from prisons of their own creation and choices or coming alongside them helping any way you can.

We learned last week the use of small groups reflected the unique theology of the Methodists and the needs of their time. After all, theirs was a time when science and economics, philosophy and many theologies, supported the idea that people are pretty hard-wired in their animal instincts. Some folks, they thought, just naturally have more virtue than others, and overall a “leopard really can’t change his spots.” In other words, for the most part you were either born a good egg or not. From that perspective, it was believed that church should try to deter sin, but more than that its function was to be the channel through which people could be forgiven after inevitably giving into temptation time after time. And, too many times, that forgiveness was only available to the special few who had access to church.

But into this reality came the Methodists, who believed that any sincere follower of Jesus could be a changed person – in terms of one’s decisions, priorities and even behaviors. John Wesley, upheld that Jesus’ death and resurrection weren’t just meant to keep us on this merry-go-round of sin and pardon. Instead, he taught that being born into a new creation means, by the ongoing work of the Spirit, we have the potential for sanctification. We can and should strive to grow in holiness, and try to approach a perfect love for God and neighbor in which our sin doesn’t have room to thrive anymore. Or, think of it this way. I put I don’t know how much Neosporin I put on Enoch’s cuts, itch relief cream on his poison ivy, and a massive amount of bandaids last night.  He is constantly scraped up ALL over the place.  I had my share of scrapes because I was a klutzy, gangly, tom boy.   My knees were always scraped.  My two brothers and I grew up when there were no digital cameras, so how did we take family pictures? We went to the local department store and there would be a kind of pop-up Olan Mills area there. And, as was always the case, one of us at least, two of us most times had skinned knees or bite marks.  Do you relate to that at all?  Did you spend childhood with skinned knees?

Imagine our faith lives like this: imagine that every time we sin and fail and fall short spiritually, it’s like we stumble and skin our knees, just like when we were kids.  John Wesley would say our faith doesn’t just provide an infinite supply of band-aids. Our faith invites us, by God’s grace, to grow into our legs, to learn to walk with God, and maybe to start falling down less in the first place. Do you hear the difference? It’s what blew people’s minds about the Methodist movement. No wonder the Methodist altar call wasn’t just “believe today and be saved” it was, “believe in the Lord, be saved, and join a group today to support you in Christian transformation.”

That’s important to us because these groups, dozens and dozens of them, put their theories to the test, over and over. It was not just a façade to ask people how they were and they would immediately say “fine” and you both would go on your way.  It was, “How well is it with your soul?”  This question became a crucible or incubator for finding out exactly what works in order for Christian disciples to help each other change, to grow together, and be stronger in the faith together.  The result is these three simple rules. Rule #1 is Do No Harm.  I want you to hear it as the time-tested Christian counsel of our spiritual mothers and fathers. Do. No. Harm.

Now, I’d love to know exactly how you receive that as a rule. “Do no harm.” We all have different thresholds for harm, don’t we? For some of us, harm might seem rare or remote, especially by comparison to other places and times. Many of us are stable, secure Americans and spanking our children isn’t even allowed, right? Where’s the harm? For others of us, all we see is harm. In several articles for The Atlantic, psychologist John Haidt proposes that, more and more in America, our only criteria for whether or not something is morally wrong is if harm is caused. That can work alright, but Haidt says it’s also the root of some big problems, like an over-sensitivity on our college campuses if you’re familiar with terms like “micro-aggressions” and “trigger warnings.” Haidt calls the trend “vindictive protectiveness” because, at some point, these efforts to avoid harm end up inflicting harm themselves. My point is that we need a place to start lest this simple rule doesn’t turn out so simple. Let’s read what Wesley said what doing harm was.  First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:

  • The taking of the name of God in vain.
  • The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.
  • Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.
  • Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.
  • Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling.
  • The buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty.
  • The giving or taking things on usury—i.e., unlawful interest.
  • Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.
  • Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.
  • Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:
  • The putting on of gold and costly apparel.
  • The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.
  • The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.
  • Softness and needless self-indulgence.
  • Laying up treasure upon earth.
  • Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them.

I want you to notice something. They had an exhaustive way of defining harm. It’s robust, probably more than what you had in mind, and if you notice the majority of these fall under “such as.”  You are a free to write your own.  Some of them are more challenging than others.  Can I get a witness?   The “such as’s” are divided into two parts.  The sins or harm we do consciously and those we do unconsciously.   The sins of volition, the harm we cause consciously – making choices because “I want to” or think “I have to.” Like when I have an angry outburst with someone or look at someone lustfully or tell a little white lie or gossip about someone or I don’t pick up my litter. Conscious harm.  It’s just a small, little thing.  No one will know.  No one will know that it was me.  But even those little things do harm and sometimes they do a great deal of harm.  Then there’s unconscious harm which I inadvertently cause just by being naturally self-absorbed or by failing to see the impact of my decisions down the line. Like when I’m a wasteful steward of God’s resources, whether it be food, energy, water, while somewhere someone doesn’t have enough to live. You can argue that this isn’t exactly unconscious, because we all know good and well that our choices have impact, but nevertheless: when we don’t overtly mean to hurt anyone, unconscious harm.

You can see your harm through the lens of individual choices, the harm I personally inflict on myself, others, God’s heart and creation, all by myself. Individual harm. Do No Harm means you’re not hurting one of the least of these or yourself.  Self-harm is running just as rampant as harm to others.  You can take a long hard look at things in terms of the harm that we can only accomplish together. Corporate harm, through immoral group dynamics and institutional sin. The sins of society, of slavery, of economy. If we’re attentive to it, “Doing no harm” includes the conscious and unconscious, individual and corporate.  Reuben Job writes of harm, “Each of us knows of groups that are locked in conflict, sometimes over profound issues and sometimes over issues that are just plain silly. But the conflict is real, the divisions deep, and the consequences can often be devastating. If, however, all who are involved can agree to do no harm, the climate in which the conflict is going on is immediately changed. How is it changed? Well, if I am to do no harm, I can no longer gossip about the conflict. I can no longer speak disparagingly about those involved in the conflict. I can no longer manipulate the facts of the conflict. I can no longer diminish those who do not agree with me and must honor each as a child of God. I will guard my lips, my mind and my heart so that my language will not disparage, injure or wound another child of God. I must do no harm, even while I seek a common good.”

You may be thinking of the ways you do all sorts of harm.  There’s a reason that this is number one. The Methodists realized that in our fallen human state, harm is our natural language. After all, the good farmer in the parable is awfully direct with his servants. He doesn’t say, “Oh, in the midst of the beautiful, fruitful wheat that I’ve planted, another farmer with a different set of strategic interests planted an alternative species.” No, in reference to our sinful produce he calls a spade a spade, or rather a weed a weed, the lifeless stuff that’s hardly worth burning.  If we’re ever going to do no harm then first, we need to have the ability to be real with one another, to paint a distinct, outlined picture of the true state of our hearts.  In the Methodist groups, this happened through confession, and every single week the members knew that their first job was not to hold back but to speak their struggles out loud, before God and one another. It was the first step toward discerning the wheat versus the weed in their hearts, and it’s something we have got to find ways to do together. Holy, honest confession.  Doesn’t it help to say things out loud?  So they’re not rolling around in our heads filled with worry, guilt and fear.  Speaking it aloud casts out fear.  When we confess things aloud, we do so in humility acknowledging we don’t have it all together, we don’t have it all figured out.

What did the Methodists do other than confess each week? They prayed together.  They shared each other’s joys and struggles.  Life together. They set out to connect with one another’s hearts and with God’s heart. The next week they would report in and then hold each other accountable in mutual love when they failed or fell short.  God could speak through their human voices a word of encouragement, challenge, and forgiveness.  They could celebrate together, because they knew exactly what God was doing in their lives by God’s transforming grace.

God doesn’t leave us where we are.  God continues to mold us, shape us, and free us to live lives of transformation.  The old has gone.  The new has come.  Not to be good little Christian boys and girls, not to be sure we’ve stamped our passport for heaven, but to be disciples. To be followers of Jesus who even if they’ve got their knees scraped with sin, God’s grace has enough Neosporin in it to heal anew.

Which brings us to this meal we are sharing together every Sunday during Lent and the transformative power where if we confess the harm we have done to ourselves, to others and to God, God is faithful and just, and will cover a multitude of our sins.  Hear these words anew and afresh as I say them and we will sing our responses today as well as the Lord’s Prayer.