We Choose to Step Out.

9-2 SermonTitleOkay, let’s review – God created us and we’re all God’s children.  God chooses us just as we are, we are chosen FOR something, to use our gifts and graces in the world, and we choose to follow Jesus wherever he leads.  We’ve also talked about the underlying theme of fear throughout this whole series.  Following Jesus is not a moment, it’s not a one-time thing, it’s a life.  When we accept Jesus into our hearts, when we are made into new creations, when we realize God’s justifying grace is for us, when we have that “ah ha” moment and make the decision, it’s not one choice, but it’s a million little choices.  We choose to step out; it’s not just a moment, it’s a movement of the Triune God.

We decided to go on the Sawmill Branch Trail last Friday as a celebration of the first week of school being completed.  We went to Precious Treasures, otherwise known as the candy store and get 3 different kinds of cotton candy and ice cream.  I constantly looked at “You are Here” maps on the trail to make sure we were going the right way.  I even had my google maps on my phone to Enoch and I guiding us and Mike and Evy.  We knew we were on the trail, but we didn’t know at what point we were or which way to go.  That’s the position in which we find Esther.  She knew where she was, in King Xerses Court, but she needed God to give her direction on what she should do, and God’s Spirit to lead her steps and guard her mouth.

The story takes place in the 5th-century B.C. somewhere in the 470’s or so. Xerxes I (519-465) is the king in Persia. You might call him “king of the world.” He is known as Xerxes the Great. He invades Greece in 480 (he came to power about 486). He is a monarch with absolute power and authority. Even today his legend is immortalized in Hollywood in movies such as 300 (2006). It begins with a party lasting for seven days. In Esther chapter 1: 8-9 it reads, “Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired. Furthermore, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for the women in the palace of King Ahasuerus.” Can you imagine a party lasting for seven days? It would be like Mardi Gras or Carnival in the extreme. The party never ends. On the seventh day, the King, who was in “high spirits” from wine orders Queen Vashti to make an appearance so they can behold her beauty; she’s his centerpiece after all. But Queen Vashti refuses to come. The text doesn’t say why she didn’t come. Maybe she didn’t feel like it or maybe she was sleeping and she didn’t want to be rudely woken up by a summons from the king. We’re not sure. As the eunuchs give the Queen’s response to the King, he’s furious. Queen Vashti was gone by the end of chapter 1.

How did Esther arrive on the scene? While the king was having second thoughts for having Vashti banned, his servants encouraged him to gather beautiful young women from every province in the kingdom and let “cosmetic treatments be given them. And let the girl who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” The king thought this was a very good idea.  His own version of The Bachelor.

I feel like at some points I’m telling a fairy tale. Esther was the most beautiful, fairest in the land. There was a Jewish man named Mordecai, and he had brought up Esther as his own daughter because she was an orphan. And so of course, she ends up with the king. I’m skipping several plot points here – the twelve month beautification in the king’s harem and the king actually choosing her for the final rose. The king gave a banquet in Esther’s honor and they lived happily ever after.  As Lee Corso on College Gameday says, “Not so fast!”  What happens after happily after? Things get real.

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

Now you should be hearing villainous music and lots of bass and minor notes because I’m about to introduce the character of Haman. It says the king “advanced him and set his seat above all the officials who were with him. All the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate bowed down.” But Mordecai refused, because he was a Jew, who would bow to no one except God. The kids and I have been reading through the Old Testament and God is very serious about the Israelites worshiping other gods.  This made Haman very angry and he along with his wife and his advisors plotted against the Jews making plans to get rid of them. Haman uses his influence on the king and makes the king a pawn in his chess game against Mordecai, saying the Jews don’t keep the same laws. So the king agrees with Haman.

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

For such a time as this.

She sees the “You are Here” sign but she wonders why?

Perhaps you’re here in this world at this particular time in this particular place for such a time as this.

What ensues is some palace intrigue.

Esther was not permitted to see the king unless he had asked for her otherwise she could be put to death. And she had not been called in to see the king in 30 days, so she, her maid-servants, and all of the Jews of Persia fasted earnestly for three days before she built up enough courage to enter the king’s presence. When the king saw Esther, he was pleased and held out his scepter to her. He then asked Esther what she wished of him, promising to grant even up to half his kingdom should she ask. Esther requested a banquet with the king and Haman. During the banquet, she requested another banquet with the king and Haman the following day.

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

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

The king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther and after they had feasted sufficiently, she took courage and stepped out.   Esther 7 starting at verse 3 “Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?”  Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!”

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

How do we relate to the story of Esther?  Haman reaped what he had sown? Did God place us exactly where we are now, in this time, and in this place “for such a time as this?” How can we stand up on behalf of the poor, hurting and marginalized in our own lives by speaking truth to power? In what ways are we challenged by the story? How does Esther’s story intersect with your life and where God is calling you?  Is God calling you to fast and pray and take the courage and boldness only God can give to step out in faith?

What did Esther have?  She had an attitude of openness to God’s leading.  She was willing to take risks, gathering her lady’s maids and praying and fasting as Mordecai gathered all the Jews together to pray and fast right along with her.  She knew what the cost was, “And if I perish, I perish.”  Sometimes what God calls us to, is to be faithful to the opportunities God puts before you.  Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War 2. She was imprisoned for her actions. Her most famous book, The Hiding Place, describes what transpired.  She knew what she was talking about when she said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”  Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.

“For such a time as this.”  Esther knew that taking that step could mean her very life, but as Uncle Ben says in Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Esther didn’t know what would happen AND her life was on the line, but she knew that God was with her every step of the way.  That’s the thing to remember.  Jesus journeys with us as we take that first critical step.

We just have to be willing to take it.  Remember Jesus walking on the water?  In Matthew 14 it says, “And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  Peter who’s always leaping before he looks, the brash, bold Peter.  I could show a clip from the movie The Son of God or Bruce Almighty as he walks on the water, but you get the picture.  Well, what happens?  Peter gets scared about what’s happening all around him and he begins to sink.

We automatically hate on Peter, BUT at least he gets out of the boat.  It takes loads of courage to even attempt that first step.  And then another.  And then another.  The key is keeping our eyes on Jesus and NOT all of the other “stuff” in our lives.  We have to abide in the Word and put on our full armor of God to get through the daily grind.   I’m just as guilty.  I have to set aside time in my day for intentional time with God.  Not for sermon prep, not with the kids at Bible story time, but for ME.  Y’all see this staircase?  It has a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  I like that image.  The first step is often the scariest, most intense.  Who knows what God has in store for us after we take that first step, but I know we have an endless staircase to explore depending on him, letting him carry us up a few of those steps, and climbing in Jesus’ beautiful, amazing grace. If we truly walk with Jesus, we’re going to go through some trials and tribulations, no doubt, but it will indeed be also filled with awesome mountaintops, joys that are unceasing, and the promise of life everlasting.  James 1:2-4 says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”  That’s the promise of God.  God doesn’t leave us in the muck and mire, but in God’s sanctifying grace we’re made into new creations, growing in Christ’s perfect love and mercy, and ready to share that love with all the world.

I visited L’viv, Ukraine during the protests in January 2013.  I arrived on the day the first protester was shot and he happened to be from where I was the keynote at this conference for college students.  I wrote in one of the sermons that I gave, “This may be naïve for me to say as an uninformed and ignorant American who’s been here for less than 48 hours, but God can work and move in seemingly impossible situations and God can make a way when we see no hope of there being a way forward. I know y’all know that because I can bear witness to intentional prayer times for the future of this country, I can bear witness to the fasting for the future of this country, I can bear witness to the fervor I’ve seen since arriving here to seek the will of God. I know you all believe that God can move mountains, because as we hung up posters in one of the universities, it showed a picture of a protester that was killed holding a sign that said, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

As Corrie ten Boom put it, “Don’t bother to give God instructions; just report for duty.” Yes, you are here.  We are here.  We may not know all the who’s or why’s.  But God does.  And God can guide and lead us to help shave or sand off our growing edges, the things that hold us back from being fully present to go or to step out.

Remember 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.”

For such a time as this.

We Choose Jesus.

8-26 SermonTitleWhat did we talk about last week?  You might remember the movie clip from The Rise of the Guardians of the nesting dolls or the quotes by Queen Elizabeth II or Larry Bird about talent, but the main point was when God chooses us, we’re chosen FOR something, and our fears are the main things holding us back. We ended with star stickers that represent your gifts and graces that God specifically gave YOU and how you are called to use them in the world.  This week we transition from God’s going after us in God’s reckless love (God’s prevenient grace) to choosing Jesus (God’s justifying grace).

Our scripture today is Luke 19:1-10.

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 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.”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.  “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.”

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 his vision or what he was trying to do.   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.  Those that looked down their noses at him.

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 verses 41-42 “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 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.” As Mother Teresa says, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” If you think you have it altogether, you’re still a sinner saved by grace.  The world calls us to judgement and hatred of the other, but we are not called to live as the world lives, we’re called to be a city on a hill, resting in God’s love and mercy and sharing that with the world.

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, 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 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, as we do people in the grocery store that we want to avoid, or do we not meet his eyes because we are ashamed, 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 – a complete 180 – and then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Today salvation has come to this house.

Zacchaeus’ are obviously “out there” – the social misfits, 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.

God’s providence is alive and amazing.  God can and will meet us each where we are.  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 prayers.  I believe, help my unbelief.  Just ask. Seek and you will find.  Bob Goff says, “Follow the footsteps of God. Walk (don’t just fall) in love. Love God. Be like Jesus.” For God so loved the world….Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save the world.  WE CHOOSE TO FOLLOW JESUS.  He’s saved and redeemed us.  I’m reminded of the Big Daddy Weave song, “To tell you my story, is to tell of Him.”  As we grow as Christian disciples, in the likeness of our Rabbi Jesus, he will give us the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the words to speak to tell our stories of how he’s redeemed us.  We choose to follow Jesus. We choose to follow him 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 be a walking and talking testimony?  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.

God Chooses Us FOR Something

Do y’all remember what we talked about last week?  God calling the disciples and they left their nets because we can’t carry our baggage with us on this crazy, awesome journey of being a disciple of Jesus.  God chooses us just as we are.  Remember the story at the end about Ben Hooper, we’re all children of God and we should go claim our inheritance.  Let’s continue with our Chosen Series.

Matthew 25:14-30 (NRSV)

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

Let us start with a definition of “talent.” tal•ent

  1. natural aptitude or skill. “he possesses more talent than any other player”
    synonyms: flair, aptitude, facility, gift, knack, technique, touch, bent, ability,expertise, capacity, faculty;
    2. a former weight and unit of currency, used especially by the ancient Romans and Greeks.

A talent is a large sum of money, equal to the wages of a day laborer for fifteen years. As a result of the wide circulation of this story, “talent” came into the English language in the Middle Ages as a term for God-given abilities, “gifts and graces.”  Isn’t it fascinating that just from this biblical passage that we get the first definition from the second one.

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

2 Timothy 1:6-14 says, “14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”  Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.  God gives us this treasure that God’s entrusted to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Do you hear that?  We’ve been given this jewel and if we hide it, just like in the parable of the talents, we will not be rewarded.  God wants us to share it with others.  God doesn’t choose us simply for the sake of choosing; being chosen doesn’t mean that you’re better than others.  When God chooses us, we’re chosen FOR something.

I read an article from Relevant a few years ago called “So You Have No Idea What Your ‘Calling’ Is.”  “Words like “calling” and “vocation” sound great until you realize you don’t know yours.  We have to consider our talents and passions and seek out wisdom. And when we do start to figure it out, we may have to come to terms with the fact that our place in the process might look a little bit more like making someone’s day by brewing an incredible cup of coffee rather than revolutionizing the whole industry through fair-trade initiatives.”  Have you ever felt like that?  Are you, or your children or grandchildren stuck in that uncertain, stuck place discerning their gifts or callings?  At each stage of life, we go through the same thoughts and questions, whether we’re 8 or 98.

You see the God that knit you together in your mother’s womb is calling you forth to share YOUR particular gift, your unique talents with the world.  Whether big or small, no act of love, no sharing of your gifts, is insignificant.  We’re called to be faithful and obedient.  We’re not called to be famous, to have a million followers on Twitter or have a clothing line.  Good for the people that do.  Most of us will not.  Don’t compare yourself to others because that only sets you up for dissatisfaction, envy, failure, and not to mention, it’s unhealthy.  We are each given our part to play.

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

Everyone has been given gifts spiritual and otherwise.  Ask God to help you see and know your specific gifts, those that you bring to a world full of darkness.  There’s a great explanation and test on The United Methodist Church’s website – http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/spiritual-gifts.  Take a spiritual gifts survey, ask a trusted mentor or friend what they’ve seen in your life, use your own God-given discernment and let the Holy Spirit tell you what makes you – YOU.

This next clip admittedly is from a kid’s movie, The Rise of the Guardians. Jack Frost has just been invited to join The Guardians, those who protect children, and he’s being questioned by Santa Claus.  The movie asks the question, “What is your center?” What are the things that make you – YOU? What makes me Narcie?

So Santa’s outside can be intimidating, but his center is full of wonder.

This next scene is at the end of the movie where Jack Frost defeats the villain Pitch ie. the Boogeyman.

Jack’s center is fun.  I would also say mischief making, when he gives kids snow days.  He defeats the villain with joy!  What makes you – YOU? What is your center? Why did God place you on this earth in this particular time, in this particular place? Not in a braggy, self-centered kind of way. Too much self-love is a detriment and can lead you on the path of destruction. Ie. The dark side.  Not to mention getting your head through the door.

But if you’re on the other end of the spectrum, if it feels like you’re not worthy or good enough.  If you’re feeling like the kid from Polar Express, that God forgot you when God gave out the gifts, you’re not alone.  All of us struggle with doubt and fear and dark nights of the soul.

Sudha Khristmukti’s “More Than Enough” is a poem that speaks to this.

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

Still another voice persists:

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

I promise you that if you ask God, seek God with all of your heart, God will answer you. If not, come see me, and we’ll pray together and ask God to help you to see, know, and feel God’s great love for you. Frederick Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” You don’t have to figure everything out now. It’s not a snap your fingers sort of thing. It’s a journey. It’s a process. There’s no pressure but as Mother Teresa says, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” We can ALL l do small things throughout the day, throughout our lives with great love.

We can also use our good treasures that God gives to each of us for the world.  I prayed over the stars you can pick up as you come forward for communion, I also put some on the back table as you leave.  These stars are symbols to help you remember to discover or fully claim who you are called to be and what you are called to do.  Your stars that you pick up represent the gifts and graces you have been given as well as a tangible reminder of the hopes, dreams, and passions as you envision your gifts being used to bring about the kingdom of God.  To help you see that you’re enough. Help you see you’re worthy to approach the throne of grace with confidence. You see these stars symbolize our lights shining collectively in the world. When you claim your talents for God, God is faithful and will multiply them in ways that we can only imagine.  It makes the light brighter, stronger, more full. These are not gifts to hoard; they are gifts to share with the world. Like “This Little Light of Mine” says, don’t be hiding your light under a bushel because the world wants and needs to see your light.

Family

Ephesians 1:3-12 (NRSV)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.

It’s all about family with God.  We are all beloved children of God.  Blessed, chosen, destined, bestowed, lavished. The main theme of Ephesians is the Church, which is the body of Christ and it should be a family no matter what.  With family you can be your best self or your worst self, but they still have to let you in!

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” —Jane Howard

Family is your people.  Your tribe.  The ones in your corner.  Even more so, the body of Christ, the Church, is your family on super strength with super powered vitamins because it has Jesus as our core unifier.

Verses 3-14 are all a single sentence in the original Greek and in that sentence Paul uses seven action verbs to help us discover everything that God has done to give us an identity as God’s children. Blessed (v. 3), Chosen (v. 4), Destined (v. 5), Bestowed (v. 6), Lavished (v. 7), Made known (v. 9) and Gather up (v. 10).   Each of those verbs are designed to be the markers of being one of God’s beloved children.

One of the church’s most limiting and debilitating myths is that “holiness” pertains exclusively to individuals — as though holiness were the product of a solitary spiritual journey. Listen again to the words of thanksgiving and blessing the writer uses in the text “… he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (v.4). Who did God choose to be “in Christ”? Individuals yes, but individuals in community. We are called to be a holy church, a holy apostolic church functioning as Christ’s bodily presence here on earth, a HOLY FAMILY.
A holy, apostolic church exhibits three clear-cut values that keep the body healthy and growing in holiness: It must make disciples; it must mark disciples; it must mature disciples.

This is why once a disciple is made, the church must mark the members of its community. A marked disciple bears the “marks” of a living body of Christ.  In Greek these are known as didache-diakonia, koinonia, martyria, and kerygma. First, are we a teaching-serving community of disciples? Second, are we a fellowshipping community? Third are we a bread-breaking and broken-body community? Fourth are we a praying community?  It’s all about relationship and community!

Making and marking disciples for participation in the holy community of the church is still not enough. Jesus called his followers, making them disciples. He then journeyed with them all over the countryside, teaching them, fellowshipping with them, breaking bread with them and praying with them. All these activities were forward looking, pointing towards the creation of mature disciples, able to stand firm in the faith.

The body of Christ looks forward to the future and meets the challenges of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ to an ever-changing, always-longing world. But for those already feeling insecure about the ground they stand on, the future looks like a scary place. Mature disciples, well-grounded in the bedrock of a holy community, don’t need to stand fearfully rooted to one spot. We can be an active body of love, mercy, truth and justice.  Mature disciples know that the shape and the face of the church can change, as long as at the heart of this holy family is Jesus.

Mike and I went to the Goodbye Road Tour in Savannah on Tuesday night.  It was headlined by “Johnnyswim” and “Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors” with special guests “Penny & Sparrow.”

In the wake of the racially charged events at Charlottesville, the loss of rock icon Tom Petty (who was a huge influence on Drew Holcomb), and the heartbreaking attack upon an audience of music fans at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas; Johnnyswim, Drew Holcomb, and the guys of Penny & Sparrow wrote and recorded the EP “Goodbye Road.”*

They began the show by saying, “We don’t care how you voted, we don’t care about what you think on this or that, you’re family here.  The family that sings together, stays together.”   

In an interview Holcomb says of the husband-and-wife team behind Johnnyswim, “One of the things I’ve always loved about Abner and Amanda’s writing, is that it dives into the dark parts of humanity, but still comes out of that darkness with hope and light. When we were recording these songs, it was a hard moment. There was a lot happening in the world, and we felt a mutual sorrow about it, but we also shared the belief that sorrow didn’t have to be the entirety of the story.”

“It was three days after the political rallies in Charlottesville,” Abner remembers. “When we wrote ‘Ring the Bells,’ we were all sitting in the same room, thinking, ‘Enough is enough. We want to scream something into the world, but how do we make it productive?’ In that moment of agony and tension — the very moment you’re tempted to be hopeless — you can choose to give in to those dark feelings or rise above them. ‘Ring the Bells’ is our productive shout.”

They had us sing the simple word, “Family” throughout the show.  I’m speaking for myself, it had a huge impact on me, we shared this collective experience, this shared belief, this shared hope and isn’t that what family is at its heart?

They ended the show with Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and the family of God, our family of misfits and radicals and sometimes semi-complacent Christ followers, won’t back down.  I had tears streaming down my face, standing in my family, the body of Christ, the Church, that Ephesians writes so eloquently about.  It reminds me of Lauren Daigle song “O Lord” when she writes “I will stand my ground where hope can be found.”  I will stand my ground where hope can be found.  We are making, marking and maturing disciples and we have the solid ground of Christ to stand on.  We don’t have to stand alone.  We can stand TOGETHER.  In our family.  God’s family.  And trust me, from Lauren Daigle’s own lips: “O’Lord O’Lord I know You hear my cry//Your love is lifting me above all the lies//No matter what I face This I know in time//You’ll take all that is wrong and make it right.”  God’s got this.  Even when it seems darkest, God will SHOW up.  Jesus will leave the 99 and come to our rescue.  The Holy Spirit will always make a way.  It may not look like what we want it to, it may have us walk through sludge and muck, it may not be on our time table, but God is going to do a MIGHTY thing in and through us.  We just have to be obedient to God’s call on our lives.  We need to be obedient to God’s mark on our lives.  We need to have the spiritual maturity to roll with the punches and keep our forbearance, tenacity and integrity.

The force that binds us together is stronger than the force that drives us apart.

You are not forgotten.

You are not alone.

David Ogden Stiers says“Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” No one gets left behind or forgotten.  NO ONE. We are family and a strong, growing family at that!  And that’s what’s great about family, there’s always room for one more at the table…

***That ends the sermon.  Church pay attention – the audience was multi-generational and they were singing every word with feeling and passion.  We started listening to this album over spring break.  Actually, my husband Mike became obsessed with it.  He said they are singing what we’ve been feeling.  I surprised him for his birthday and our 16th wedding anniversary with a trip to see them live in concert in Savannah.  It was truly an emotional, uplifting, Holy Spirit experience.  We were coming together, young and old, all colors, as a family.  We were so encouraged and I’ll wager everybody was encouraged who was there.  There is a Christian culture humming here.  And Church, we need to listen.  I felt the Holy Spirit moving us to a place of solidarity and I’ve taken that with me in all the places, with all the people, and with all the the news, everywhere … the family that sings together, stays together.  Amen!

 

Jimmy Kimmel Live – Goodbye Road

Jimmy Kimmel Live – Ring the Bells

Some of “Won’t Back Down”

 

Some of “Ring the Bell”

A Mustard Seed Faith

Mark 4:26-34

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Look at these giant seeds.

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But look at these tiny mustard seeds.  For the life of me, I can’t just pick up one!

large_square_Brown_Mustard_Seed__Whole__close

It’s amazing Jesus uses this tiny example to emphasize faith and he uses it again in another story.

Matthew 17:18-20

18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” 20 He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Luke 17:5-6

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

I love stories.  I grew up a United Methodist preacher’s kid and what I liked best of my dad’s sermons were his stories.  So I’m going to tell you one of my stories.  I’m the oldest of three and the only girl.  We were senior, sophomore and freshman in high school and we’re super close.  My mom went back to get her master’s in guidance when my youngest brother went to kindergarten.  My parents emphasized to us that they are both equal heirs in the kingdom and have always lifted up the priesthood of all believers.  My mom, even in retirement, is as much a minister as my dad.  All my life, I’ve wanted to be a teacher.  I was obsessed with Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth from Little Women and Anne with an “E” from Anne of Green Gables.  I would create class rolls with names from books and mark them “absent” or “present.”  I took Teacher Cadet my senior year of high school and went to Winthrop University to be a high school English teacher.  It combined my love of reading, creativity, problem solving how I would get each student excited about Chaucer or King Lear.  I didn’t care that much for grammar, but I loved teaching til they understood and the light bulb went off.

In college, I got involved in campus ministry at WNW – Wesley (UMC/Methodist) Newman (Catholic) Westminster (PCUSA/Presbyterian).  Campus ministry opened my eyes to all of the many ways the Gospel can be lived out.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism had emphasized in his teachings: personal piety and social holiness.  Personal piety – personal quiet times/devotions, prayer, studying the word individually and in groups, worship.  Social holiness – we would do homeless sleep outs in boxes on Winthrop’s lawn, panhandling the next day on one of the busiest streets in Rock Hill, volunteering at CROP Walk raising money for the hungry all over the world in particular the young girls that walk on average 10 kilometers a day for clean water, writing letters to Amnesty International on behalf of prisoners.

Tuesday’s Child Learning Center was a ministry of WNW that was an afterschool care program for homeless and at-risk kids.  My husband Mike and I were co-student coordinators and learned firsthand how we dealt with stress and parenting!  When we went on my first international mission trip to Nicaragua, we were digging latrines because Hurricane Mitch had moved all of the people around Lake Managua to a cow pasture they called Nueva Vida, New Life.  We saw lots of UN tarps and metal they had scavenged.  We were divided up two by two to dig and I was paired with a girl from the University of South Carolina who spoke Spanish.  That came in handy when on the first day, I puked in the family’s yard.  The missionaries gave me a bucket and a peanut butter jar of electrolytes and sent me to the bunk room.  The only book I had in my bag was one that my mom had suggested and given to me, it was Elisabeth Elliot’s These Strange Ashes about her first years as a missionary.  I read that book cover to cover and you know what, the Bible she had created in that specific language of that tribe,  all the hours of work she had poured into it, got washed away in a river, that made me feel better, because I knew the rest of her story.  How she went on to minister and bring her 3 year old daughter Valerie to the very tribe in Ecuador that had killed her husband Jim Elliot.  Fast forward at least 40 years and I’m reading this book feeling pretty down and out, but then I discover that one of my heroines in the faith felt down and out and discouraged too, I had hope that I could do this missionary thing after all.  It was a mustard seed faith. One that blossomed over time like the first passage from Mark!  When Mike Jeter made me get up off the bed and handed me some 7 Up, it settled my stomach (Have you ever drunk straight electrolytes????  Yuck!) and he kept me laughing with his antics and stories.  I always treasured that first trip to Nicaragua and what it taught me and I continued as a student and as a campus minister helping my students have their own “ah ha” experiences.

Fast forward again to the summer between my junior year and senior year, I was going to England on a study abroad trip and Mike and I had just started dating.  It was pre-9-11 so he walked me to the gate.  As I was about to get on the plane, he told me he loved me for the first time.  Our kids, don’t like to hear the lovey dovey kissy kissy stuff, so none of that!

I, being the international traveler that I am (twice to Nicaragua – hardly!), had the brilliant idea that I wanted to travel to Scotland the two weeks before I was due at school.  Lo and behold, I get food poisoning from the airline food.  When I land at Gatwick I bought a Eurorail pass and got some Burger King French fries that I proceeded to puke on the train. (I’ve mentioned puke twice already in this sermon.  Don’t worry that’s not a frequent occurrence.)  I turn around in Heathrow, go back to Gatwick, and make reservations for a hotel.   I proceeded to find the hotel lugging my many bags through to the Paddington train stop.  I have a scrapbook that documents this trip including the picture on the hotel wall that I looked at for days on end.  My only life line was a red phone booth in front of the hotel.  I drug my sick carcass out there to call my parents and Mike.  Many, many, many times.   I realized right away when I try to get some food that sprite is lemonade and our television channels and shows are WAY, WAY better than theirs.  The hotel didn’t have air conditioning so I probably was hallucinating frequently.  I had packed lots of cold weather clothes because I was traveling to Scotland and London was hot as blue blazes, so I ventured out and found a Gap.  I tried on one skirt and passed out in the dressing room, so I thought I would take myself to the nearest hospital but couldn’t seem to hail a taxi.  Much to my relief, a priest walked up to me and showed me how. I was standing on the wrong side of the road.  Duh.

When I got to the emergency room I spent 6 and a half blissful hours in the air conditioning watching Wimbledon and seeing all the ins and outs of a London ER which was much more exciting than tv show!  Wimbledon always brings a heatwave according to the announcers and that’s when John McEnroe breaks in and makes a crack it being July 4th and us gaining our independence, I was thinking let ME have my independence from this place.  I’ve loved John McEnroe ever since!

Why am I telling you these stories?  Because in that red phone booth my mom told me to read the book of Ezekiel.  It’s a 48 chapter book.  I’m thinking in my head, “Mom, you’re daughter has food poisoning from what feels like the other side of the world and you’re telling her to read the book of Ezekiel?”  In that sweltering room, with nothing more to do, I flipped around in Ezekiel, reading passages here and there.  Then I landed on Ezekiel 37, it reads, “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone…. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

It became so clear that I was called to this awesome and scary thing called ministry.  I had been stripped away from all the “stuff” in my life, all of the busy-ness, and from my usual always whirling mind in my sickness, in a continent by myself, alone, afraid and crying out to God to draw near as only God can.  I had only a mustard seed of faith and God was ever present and ever faithful.  At the time, I was going more than full throttle, and in thinking about this over the past week, God had to make me pause so that I couldn’t stuff another thing in there.  You know when you make yourself busy doing the Lord’s work?  I was working multiple jobs, I was part of multiple organizations, my grandfathers had died the semester before, and I would have these brief, but critical Jesus injections, you know the ones that keep you running, but I had not actually stopped.  And paused. And discerned.  And processed.  I had gone to Exploration the Fall before where Tex Sample said, “Accepting a call to the ministry is a lot like throwing up, when you do it, you’ll feel a lot better.”  Well, I did it, and felt a lot better.  I could use all of my love of stories, creativity, and teaching in ministry.  I could use my love of personal piety balanced with social holiness for the glory of God.  I could move the mountains if I had mustard seed faith and God will give me the words to speak to the dry bones in Christ who strengthens me.

Not only did my call to ministry happen in England, I found out that <Spoiler Alert> Mike and I were meant to be together.  Remember when he said he loved me before I got on the plane, I meant it then when I answered him, but I really meant it in the days to come as God worked within my heart.  You see my dad had always been the pastor.  I believed very much in women in ministry, but I knew firsthand, what a call to ministry means for a family.  How could the Mom be there for both her kids and her congregation?  You have to have a willing companion and a true partner.  We joked growing up that when my mom started playing Steven Curtis Chapman’s For the Sake of the Call or Michael W. Smith’s Friends are Friends Forever, we knew we were moving.  God was giving me all sorts of nudges during my time there both within me and for all the world to see.  The pinnacle was seeing a familiar episode of Friends that happened to be on Nick at Nite on Friday.  You know how I said at the time British television was horrible, the only good thing, was the American re-runs. My family always likened me as Monica and Mike as Chandler, because I kept my room very neat and could always tell if my brothers had been in there and Mike was the sweet jokester and lo and behold, I remember sitting in a hotel room with my mom and grandmother watching the episode of Chandler asking Monica to marry him.  I hadn’t had the mustard seed faith to trust that God could work things out both in my family life and in ministry life.  I’m a natural control freak and doubter and I have to say honestly didn’t believe it could work out that I could have a call to ministry and my family.  Mike says that’s crazy, but that’s what fear does to you – it says, you can’t do something and you believe it.  Fear says you’re not enough when God says you are more than enough by God’s grace and mercy!

Fast forward over the past 17 years and we have been on the greatest mountaintops and walked the darkest valleys. Our faith has been tested, tried and pushed to the limit.  Sometimes in reference to God will never give you more than you can handle, I wish God didn’t trust us so much.  We found this in a store at Montreat on spring break.

all things are possible picture

It couldn’t have come at a better time. All things are possible.  ALL things are possible.  Do you hear that?  ALL things are possible.  If we say to a mountain move then it will move.  If we say to a mulberry tree, go jump in the lake, it will.  If we take the time to listen to what God is speaking for us today and if we tap into that Holy Spirit power, we can change the world.  Who knows what we could do with just a little bit of faith?  Faith moves mountains.  In your deepest heart, in your relationships, in your work place, in your neighborhoods, in our world if we have a mustard seed faith, what would it mean?  God could blow our minds.  As we share together, you’ve heard some of my story, I want to know your stories of mustard seed faith.  I want to know the battles you’re facing and the dragons your slaying.  I want to know what brings you joy and hope.  I want us to share together and be community with one another so that we can live out the faith for all the world to see and know the greatest story ever told – the Gospel of Jesus Christ – how the great God of the universe came to us Emmanuel and walked and lived among us and told these stories about common everyday things like mustard seeds.

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!

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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!