Together

Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

I often hear James Earl Jones booming voice or Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice when I read that part.  Jesus’ baptism ushers in a new baptism. Not just with voice and the dove.  Christian baptism is not just a washing away of sin as John’s baptism was; but it is the baptism that brings the power of the Holy Spirit and a special relationship with God.  The Gospel writers all 4 tell the story of Jesus’ baptism. As usual John has his own way of saying things, Matthew adds the part about John the Baptist preventing him and then questioning his validity to baptize Jesus, Luke cuts to the chase and has the shortest account, but Mark’s Gospel is different.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, where it says the heavens are opened, Mark writes that as Jesus “was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending.”  His word for ‘torn apart’ is schizo, and it means “to cleave, to cleave asunder, to rend.” It’s a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion.  The way we tend to talk about baptism, it would have made more sense if Mark had talked about the dove, gently cooing, or perhaps fluttering over the surface of the water. But that is not how he talks about it.

Instead, Mark talks about the heavens, schizotorn apart. It’s the word Matthew, Mark and Luke all use to describe that moment on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. It’s the word John uses when the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross determine not to tear Jesus’ garment and divide it between them, but to cast lots for it, instead. It’s a word with resonances in the prophecies of Isaiah, also, particularly when Isaiah says to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” (Isaiah 63:19).

Mark understands very clearly that in Jesus, this is exactly what has happened. God has torn open the heavens and come down.  It is in the waters of baptism that the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven claims Jesus as God’s son. Although we rarely think of it as having such a dramatic flourish, baptism today still serves as a time when we recognize our being claimed as children of God.  And this is why, in the Gospel writers’ judgment, the baptism of Jesus is a radical act. In Jesus, God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world, and they want the world to know.

Sometimes, I wish it were harder to join the church, to come to communion, to be baptized.  I mean, honestly, sometimes I think it’s harder to get a membership to Sam’s Club than it is to become a Christian.

Sometimes we cheapen grace.  It’s like the membership vows of the church are in the fine print or it feels like a medical commercial saying, you’ll feel better if you do this whole Jesus thing, you’ll be happier, while the people on the screen are running through a field of flowers or jumping on a trampoline or flying a kite with what seems to be a bright, smiling, happy family.  They’re still showing the pictures of all the smiling people and let’s throw in a pet for good measure, as they read quick like the micro machine man the hazards.  Baptism is terrific but please plan on attending worship, Bible studies, service projects, fellowship events, and don’t forget covenant discipleship groups.  Christmas and Easter only come once a year, but Narcie throws in enough grace to last all year round.  She may make you experience some discomfort and conviction, but that’s at minimum only once or twice a sermon. Following Jesus may cost you.  Putting his teachings into practice may turn your life upside down……

Who can blame people for just tuning that part out?  And not understanding what following Jesus means?  What a big, awesome commitment that is?

We’re involved in a bait and switch.  You may, say hold on a second, I do no such thing.  I would challenge that back to you.  Can those around you, tell you are a Christian?  What makes you different from all of the other do gooders?  What makes this different than any other civic organization?

Peter Rollins, Northern Ireland writer, speaker, philosopher, and theologian writes, “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”

If you want to actively follow Christ.  It’s going to be hard.  It’s going to be the greatest joy and sacrifice of your life.  Don’t merely get baptized for fire insurance, because you want to flee the wrath of hell, but because you want your life transformed, you want to do more than honor Jesus’ sacrifice.  You seek to live as a changed person walking the way of life, trying to grow more like Jesus every day, and when you mess up, as you inevitably will, God gives you God’s abundant grace, God’s sanctifying grace.  God doesn’t leave us on our own in the mire and the muck.  God begins the mighty work of transforming us.

We’re not going to change overnight into the perfect Christian.  We need to hone our spiritual disciplines:  prayer, scripture reading, daily times alone with God, discerning God’s will for our lives, and not just things we  do alone.  Tenth Avenue North sings in the song No Man is Island,“We’re not meant to live this life alone.”  We are stronger together.  Iron sharpens iron after all.  The kids asked to watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on Friday’s Family Movie Night.  Mike says I should use “spoiler alert” even the book came out more than 5 years ago.  At the end of the movie, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, dies and it looks like darkness has won.  He was Harry’s protector and the only one Voldemort was afraid of.  When he dies, the students and staff are mourning him and it seems like all hope is lost, Madame Pomfrey holds her wand in the air, Professor McGonagall joins her, and the students and faculty do the same.  When they do that together, it lights up the night sky.  Together in their sorrow.  Together in their hope that the light will pierce the darkness.  Mike told Enoch and Evy, the darkness doesn’t win and I joined him in saying, when all hope seems lost, even if it looks like the darkness has won, the light will always, always, always eventually conquer the dark.  I want them to be prepared to fight for the light in their choices and to continue fighting even when it feels like it’s not making a difference, even when it seems they are fighting an uphill battle, even in the darkest night of their souls.  Good will triumph.  Spoiler Alert.  The grave didn’t hold him down.

See baptism is an individual sacrament, but it’s also a communal one also.  Whole families were baptized in the New Testament.  The church agrees to love, support, grow and strengthen those baptized persons.  Dietrich Bonheoffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, believed that a community of love is one which focuses its attention on Jesus and then expects everything else to fall into place. When the people of God come together to share their lives openly and freely, accepting each other with a kind of unconditional positive regard, there is a sort of social-spiritual “chemistry” that emerges, and those who come together experience a delightful cohesion and sense of belonging.  Bonhoeffer’s central idea is that the Church as the fellowship of Christ centers on Christ rather than being a mere association of people with a common purpose. Human love and actions are related to a desire for human community. Christian love, spiritual love, comes from Christ and goes out to the other person, not directly, but through Christ. Christ “stands between me and others”. The most direct way to another is found in prayer to Christ whose influence is greater.  The unity of the community is in Christ, “Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.”

The Book of Mormon Broadway Musical has a song called Mostly Me.  In it the missionary says he’s doing all of this “good” stuff altruistically, but he’s actually doing it for himself.  This is not just a “but mostly me” but something that if we are to survive, if we are to be a stronger, healthier, more grounded body – we’ve got to be supporters, advocates, confidants, friends to each other.  Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship writes, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”  We have to trust each other enough to share our lives together, with no fear of judgment, that’s the only way we get to the Light of Christ.

How do we push through the fear, the doubt, the awkwardness, the ego, and move towards real community?  We have to really love each other, pray for each other, root for one another, weep one another, encourage one another, be CHURCH with each other.  As Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  I want us to be a deep, Christ-centered community whether it be as Friday morning Men’s Group, an adult Sunday School Class, the Choir, the Thursday morning Women’s Bible Study, the Somerby Bible Study or one of the other communities we will create this year.  I want us to make as our theme this year to Love God and Love Neighbor.  I want us to make the main thing, the main thing.  Our focus shall be to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in Park West, in North Mount Pleasant and across the Earth.   We can only legitimately do that if we abide in Christ and seek his leading for our lives, for the call he has put on our lives, for the call he has put on this church to be the hands and feet of Christ at this time and in this place and if we look to Christ – boy, what could happen?  Could you imagine?

People should be able to see Christ in us, just as the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”  Wesley’s General Rules provide an extensive list of the marks of the Christian life that could be summarized by do no harm, do good, and attend upon all the ordinances of God or as Wesley said,

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

These rules take into account and respond to the great command to love God and neighbor. In our baptism, similar things happen to us as happened to Jesus when he was baptized: 1) The Spirit of God comes into us and remains in us. 2) We are declared to be a child of God. 3) We hear that God is well pleased with us. God’s grace washes away our sin and angst and doubt and we are made clean in the waters of baptism.  We’ve been washed by the water and are set free to live an abundant, thriving life.  Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy, but as Paul writes in Philippians 4, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.”  The Spirit of God opens up the Heavens to give us a taste of the Living God, Emmanuel, one with us, Jesus who was, is, and is to come.  As we journey with our stars and seek God’s personal will for our lives and as we journey as a church to know God’s communal will for this body of Christ and the part God wants each of us to play in that, God’s wonders and mercies are new every day and at every step of the Christian journey, God will be faithful.

I’ll ask you to come to the baptismal waters as you reaffirm your baptism, as you reaffirm that you are a new creation, as you reaffirm your commitment to this body of Christ, to walk with each other in love and grace, spurring each other on to right action and to seek the will of God.

“We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love.”

 

REAFFIRMATION OF BAPTISM         

 The Lord be with you.

and also with you.

Let us pray.

Eternal God: When nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the dark waters and brought forth light. In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow. When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt, you led them to freedom through the sea. Their children you brought through the Jordan to the land which you promised.

Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Tell of God’s mercy each day.

In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb. He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit. He called his disciples to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection and to make disciples of all nations.

 Declare Christ’s works to the nations, his glory among all the people.

 Pour out your Holy Spirit, and by this gift of water call to our remembrance the grace declared to us in our baptism. For you have washed away our sins, and you clothe us with righteousness throughout our lives, that dying and rising with Christ we may share in his final victory.

All praise to you, Eternal God, through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever. Amen.

Come as you feel led to the baptismal waters as we reaffirm our baptisms.  As you come forward and touch the water, I will say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful” and you respond “Amen.”  You can touch the water and make a sign of the cross on your forehead or you can scoop the water and let fall back into the bowl.

Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Prayer reaffirming the Baptismal Covenant:

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit, you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

Being a Disciple Takes Owning Where We Are

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

We’ve embarked on a 5-week Discipleship series and this week’s is being a Disciple takes ownership.  What is a disciple?  Merriam-Webster defines it this way “someone who accepts and helps to spread the teachings of a teacher” or “one of a group of 12 men who were sent out to spread the teachings of Jesus Christ.”  The Greek word generally refers to a student or apprentice or devoted follower.

Some may not know what a big deal this was to invite ordinary, uneducated fishermen to be disciples. As Rob Bell shares in his Nooma video “Dust,”

“Jewish education was made up of three primary sections: Bet Safar – Usually from the ages five to ten, it is a time taught in the synagogue by the Rabbi. During this time, good Jewish boys memorized Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  In Bet Talmud, it continues from the age of ten on to fourteen. During this time, the student would memorize the Psalms, prophets, and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).   In Bet Midrash, at the age of fourteen, the best of the best would continue to apply oral and written law from the Talmud, the Mishna, Sages, and years and years of commentary on the scriptures. Each Rabbi would have their own interpretation of how to live out the Torah. The Rabbi’s rules were called his yoke. When you studied under a Rabbi, you took his yoke upon you.

But Jesus came and said His yoke was easy. In Matthew 11, he says He isn’t about endless lists of rules and regulations.  You see, when Jesus is speaking, He’s not just picking words out of the air; He’s speaking as a Rabbi would.

One of the Sages from the Mishna is quoted as this, “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” Rabbis are passionate and animated. They would spend their days taking their disciples around teaching them, and as they traveled from place to place, they would literally kick up a cloud of dust. And because the disciples were following the Rabbi, at the end of the day, they would actually be covered in the dust their Rabbi kicked up – May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi….

Where does this come in the context of Jesus’ earthly ministry?  Jesus has been tempted by the Devil, he’s read the scroll where Isaiah alludes to him saying he’ll proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, but they ran him off and tried to hurl him off a cliff.  So much for being welcomed in your hometown.  He set about proving his message – he healed people and preached in the synagogues doing what he said he would do.  In chapter 5 Jesus calls his first disciples – a group of smelly fishermen.  Mark and Matthew have him passing by the fishermen while they are casting their nets, but Luke has him actually going out on the boat.  In a way, this is more powerful, though the calling is still the same.

Can the world see from our “dust” who we follow?  Who our Master is?   Jesus constantly issued a personal call to people to simply follow him. It was always an open-ended call, and they were free to choose to do so or not, and just as free to bail out on following him when things got tough. The same is true for us. Even in Mount Pleasant, this life is still a choice, and we all need to check ourselves on whether or not we are actually followers of Jesus. Not just if we once were, but if we are currently “in the making,” in process of growing in the Lord and in grace. If we are, we need to own it boldly. If not, it’s okay, but it’s a life that goes through the motions from point a to b to c.  God doesn’t want that lukewarm faith for us but God lets us make the choice.  God is not a puppet master.  We have free will to choose.

The sun had just risen when the Boy Scouts began their trek up Baldy Mountain.  At 12,441 feet, Baldy is the highest peak in the Philmont Scout Ranch, a high-adventure backpacking camp run by the Boy Scouts of America. From the summit, hikers can enjoy spectacular views of the mountains, forests and lakes of northern New Mexico.

But the summit was still a dream when the crew of eight Scouts and two adults started out, hiking through a dense pine forest in the early-morning light. Reaching a gorgeous, gurgling mountain stream, they took a turn and headed down a wide and comfortable trail for about a mile.

Turned out to be the wrong trail.

Realizing their mistake, they turned around and hiked back. This detour added an extra two miles to their trip, and you might think they would be discouraged by it. But the extra distance had a surprising benefit. One Scout who had been struggling at the start of the hike gained confidence throughout the detour, and when the group got back on track, he felt strong enough to hike to the summit.

His success required venturing out, beyond his comfort zone. And so does ours.

The Boy Scouts of America have been challenging boys to push their limits for over a century now. So just exactly who has been a Boy Scout? Two-thirds of all astronauts and 11 of the 12 men to walk on the moon. 191 members of the 113th Congress have been involved in Scouting.  Ten of the 100 members of the United States Senate are Eagle Scouts. Eagle Scouts were disproportionately represented among Hurricane Katrina’s volunteer relief workers. Steven Spielberg, Jon Tesh, George W. Bush, Harrison Ford, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Morrison, Jimmy Buffett, Jimmy Stewart, Bill Gates and even Sir Paul McCartney were scouts.

Mike and Enoch participated in a Cub Scout Clean Up at the Park yesterday and Enoch’s super excited to participate in all that scouting has to offer.  It got Enoch out of the house when he normally would have been playing videogames or watching TV.  That’s the beauty of the Scouts, to get us out of our comfort zone, and on our feet, doing good in the world.  Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.

We’re called to deep water, not shallow water.  To experience the fullness of the adventure of being a disciple of Jesus Christ who walks in the way that leads to life.  To own our failings and to own that we are sometimes scared to take that next step, to even cast a vision for the future because we’re so afraid of getting lost or of failing.

When Jesus finishes his speech to the crowd, he decides to extend his lesson with a dramatic illustration. He challenges Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (v. 4).

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing,” whines Simon. He sounds like he wants to stay close to shore, safe and comfortable because his time on the water hasn’t yielded any fish.

Put out into the deep water, says Jesus. He invites us to venture out, take a chance, be active and adventurous.

Jesus is looking for commitment. The idea of doing the same thing expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity, so when Jesus asks Simon and his fishing buddies James and John to continue doing what they were already doing, they get a surprise – an unexpected, amazing and overwhelmingly abundant catch. All because they’re willing to follow Jesus’ words and scout the deep water.  This story reminds us that Jesus may use significant force to overcome our reluctance. The only reason for the huge catch of fish was to open the hearts of these men who had not previously considered themselves disciple material. And it worked, too, because as soon as Peter saw the size of the catch, it knocked him off his feet. He prostrated himself before Jesus and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

If we fish in the deep waters without Jesus, we will always come up empty, but if we fish the deep waters with Jesus and the Holy Spirit guiding us, we can fish for people.   That miraculous catch opened these fishermen’s hearts to respond when Jesus asked them to do something they had never done: “From now on you will be catching people.”   No thought to how much money that great catch would bring, Luke says they left everything on the shore and followed Jesus.

That’s the challenge for us today: to venture beyond our comfort zones and put out into the deep water in lives of Christian discipleship. Too often we stay close to shore, safe and comfortable, when Jesus is calling us to be active, adventurous and willing to explore new territory. That’s where the fish are. That’s where the growth happens. That’s where we can make surprising discoveries about ourselves and the world around us.  We scout the deep water when we venture out to share the Christian faith with our neighbors. Jesus challenges us to reach out to our friends and neighbors with the Good News of the Gospel.

In her book Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese says that “our most important discovery is that a vivid relationship with God lies at the heart of real evangelism.” You have to ask yourself, “Has being a Christian made any difference in my life?” If so, then you’re going to want to share this reality with other people. Quite simply, evangelism is grounded in the realization that your life is better because of your relationship with God, and this is a relationship that can benefit others as well.

Reese says evangelism is all about relationships. Not high-pressure conversion programs — relationships. We need to reflect on our relationship with God, and then find natural, authentic and sincere ways to share that relationship with others.

We’re all disciples in the making. It’s an unfolding discipleship.  We are being formed into something, something new and different from when we started.  We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto, gone is the black and white and hello the technicolor.  Jesus has called us to the mission field of our community – Park West, Mount Pleasant, the city of Charleston, South Carolina…Proverbs 29:18 says where there is no vision, the people perish.  Helen Keller says it in a different way.  She says, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

What is God’s vision for the Church?  What is God’s vision for this church – Point Hope UMC? How does God want us to shape our community by being salt and light bearers and loving the people with an agape love?  If we put it off as a vision of the “church,” we can take out our personal accountability.  What is God calling YOU to do as you follow Jesus?  What is God asking you to bring to the table, the altar?  Your doubts, your fears, your excuses?  There is no one “good enough.”  As Roman 8 says we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God.

We don’t get the walk of Christian discipleship “right” all the time.  No one does.  Billy Graham shares on July 18, 2016, “”In God’s eyes all sin is equally serious, because all sin is an act of rebellion against God. This includes not only doing wrong, but also failing to do right. God also sees our hearts, and he knows the sins of greed and jealousy and selfishness that lurk there.”  Jesus knows everything about us, and yet, he STILL calls us.  Being in the making, is a Wesleyan understanding.  The first phase in that journey is to own this reality, to acknowledge (1) that Jesus has revealed himself to me, personally, in a powerful way through the different channels of God’s grace, (2) the point of that revealing is to draw me in, attract my attention/curiosity/hope, and prepare in me the desire for more, and (3) this desire is meant to open the door for calling, for Jesus to invite me to head down a very brand new pathway. It’s by sanctifying grace that God doesn’t let us wallow around in our own muck.  God keeps growing us in grace, transforming us, making us new.

For many of us, our being disciples doesn’t get off the ground, or doesn’t take clear form, or stays in a nebulous “whatever” or “blah” kind of place, because we don’t own what Jesus is trying to do, what he’s calling us to, and what it asks of us. Peter and James and John had a moment like this by the Sea. There was no doubt who Jesus was, or what he had done, or that something special was going on. And Simon left no doubt that he was changed and ready to change, ready to embark after following the Lord’s direction. And then Jesus leaves no doubt that this is exactly what he’s there for, and what he calls us each to do – go to the deep, dangerous depths.  He doesn’t promise it will be easy, but he promises to be FAITHFUL.

We need to own where we are in the process, wherever it might be. Some of us need to own that we answered God’s call and then never took another step. Some of us, we followed, but then petered out. Some of us, we’re still struggling to follow and not sure anymore where we are or what we’re about. Some of us, we’re faithfully following and ready for more. Some of us, we never answered the original call, or have claimed that we never heard one. Whatever the case, wherever we are today, we have to start by owning where we are and then deciding whether or not to own that we’re meant to be active, intentional disciples.

We are good in the United Methodist Church about talking about grace. When I was a campus minister, we often would set up in the student center a place for all of the campus ministries to share a brochure and a sticker.  The Catholics and the Baptists would get the majority of students.  At Emory and the University of Florida, we had a great many Jewish people that wanted info.  Methodists rarely came up to the table.  I would wager that we taught “grace” so well, that they knew if they took a hiatus from church, God’s grace would be enough to cover a multitude of sins in college/grad school/young adulthood.  And in fact, that’s true, but it’s a half-life or a shadow life from the one Christ seeks to give us.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about this cheap grace in The Cost of Discipleship,

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

What if we believed in that kind of “costly grace”?  Surely our world would be different.  Surely it would be.  The ball is in your court, will you follow Jesus and be fishers of people?  Bringing God’s kingdom to earth, meeting the needs of those in our community, and sharing the God’s love and grace with everyone you meet?  Or will you wait on the sidelines, being non-committal as ever?  It’s your choice, as this walking the talk of discipleship always is. Do you have the dust of your rabbi?  Are you going into the deeper waters?  Are you going to rock the world as a disciple of Jesus?  I hope so.

We Choose to Follow Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be the Change

Enoch and I watched Zootopia earlier this past week. This quote by Judy Hopps, the rabbit and main character stuck out to me in light of recent events and in life, “I thought this city would be a perfect place where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out, life’s a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey, glass half full, we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of person you are, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you.”

Change starts with you.  Change starts with us.  I often use the sermon illustration of each of us as drops of water that can fill up a bucket.  We’re more powerful together, but we don’t lose our autonomy, our individuality, our free will to choose to BE the change.  I hear the hymn in my head of “Pass it On” as I’m reminded of the words, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.”  I used to love when we would sing/shout the words, “to shout it from the mountaintop,” because we were shouting in church “Praise God!”  We’re called to be the change and to shout it by our words and actions – individually and collectively – and all of that honor and glory goes directly to God.

We watched another movie, “A Far Off Place” with a young Reese Witherspoon circa 1993, Josh, Caleb and I had watched when we were kids.  It’s the story of 2 young people and their African guide who trek across the Kalahari desert 2,000 kilometers to get away from the poachers who killed their parents.  Xhabbo says that if the wind could do it, we can and Nonnie echos him.  The three main characters are Nonnie, a girl who has been born and raised in Africa, Harry, a boy who is visiting from New York City on vacation and doesn’t want to be there, and Xhabbo, the African bushman who helps them on their journey.  At the beginning of the movie, Nonnie wants to go with Colonel Theron, the grandfather figure, to hunt the poachers, and her dad refuses to let her go.

Nonnie Parker: Dad, wasn’t it you who told me people need to stand up for what they believe in, or nothing’s ever gonna change.

Paul Parker: People need to sit down and talk, otherwise *people* won’t change.

Nonnie Parker: I’ve seen a lot of sitting and talking around here, not much changing. If you were George Washington’s father, we’d still be British colonists.

Many of us are weary from what is happening in our world and in our church… And people talking past each other.  We need to really hear each other.  We need to form the relationships that it takes to be honest about our positions and have real dialogue without threat of being demonized, painted into corners, or called names.  No matter what, we need to sit down and talk and be open to God’s leading and actually be the change, be the love, this world needs.  Can we do that?

I was recently listening to Lauren Daigle “Oh, Lord” and it has this chorus in it.

Your strength is found
At the end of my road
Your grace it reaches to the hurting
Still through the tears and the questioning why
I will stand my ground where hope can be found

I personally am still reeling from General Conference, moving in the midst, Annual Conference, the Orlando shooting, and the many atrocities that go on in our world every day.  I cling to our Wesleyan theology in times like these because it gives a framework for life.  God is with us.  John Wesley is said to have those words at his death.  At the end of his life, summoning all his remaining strength, he cried out, “The best of all is, God is with us,” lifted his arms and raised his feeble voice again, repeating the words, “The best of all is, God is with us.”  We take comfort that God is with us giving us comfort, love, direction, and all that we need in times of trouble and times of celebration. We are all in need of God’s sanctifying grace to be made further into disciples that look, speak, and act like Jesus.  We should all stand our ground in hope humbly seeking God’s will.  We should resist being stuck in the past, dredging up the same tired arguments.  We as Christians are trained to see all things made new and resurrection dust as pollen everywhere.  When Harry and Nonnie arrive at the crest of a mountain and only see more dunes, Harry looks back.  Xhabbo says, “Harry must not look back.  This is Harry’s future.”  This is our future.  God’s got this.

Philippians 3:12-16 says, “12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.”

Let us go forward, pressing towards the goal of making disciples, not for our glory, not to receive any accolades because that’s what God calls us to do – to love as God loves and bring kingdom to earth. How do we do that?  Micah 6:8 says do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. In Wesleyan language that means personal piety and social holiness.  We need to take time to be spiritually fed ourselves so that we can be Christ in the world.  I picked this card up in Portland.

IMG_5591 I think we all should follow the advice of Clive Staples. “There are far better things ahead than any we may leave behind.” This is our future.  I’m not calling General Conference a desert, but we have to keep on swimming, as Dory says, keep putting one foot in front of the other.  I’m hopeful that if we prayerfully and humbly seek the will of God than God WILL move and as it says in Ephesians 3:20, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”  I will trust in the promise that we who are called Methodists have a future with hope and we who seek to follow Jesus with our whole heart, mind, and strength will see God’s kingdom come to Earth.

  • This post was originally written for the South Carolina Delegation Meeting  on Saturday, June 18th.