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!

Creativity, Faith and Healing

Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

We typically invest a high level of energy and effort at the start of a relationship, to woo someone or put our best foot forward. But, after a time in relationship with someone — once all your good stories and jokes have been shared, once it feels like you’ve learned all there is to learn, once it feels like you’ve got nothing new to say — that takes a persistent creativity. To reinvent ourselves for one another, or to approach each other with fresh eyes, to not take each other for granted, it all takes creativity. The same is true in how we relate to God. The Centurion’s faith is a great example because, as a Roman military commander, he should’ve been the last person on earth to believe in Jesus. Rationally, he should’ve been the last person to ever have a strong relationship with the local Jews and synagogue; rationally, he should’ve been the last person to humble himself to this wandering Jewish rabbi in Jesus; rationally, he should’ve been the last person to have this special insight into Jesus’ power and authority (to be able to command this healing even from afar). The Centurion represents that even though we must be obedient as disciples, it doesn’t mean we check our insights, experiences, and ideas at the door. Guided by the Spirit, we can personally, creatively and with humility understand and relate to the Lord.  Being in the making as a disciple takes creativity.

Where is this in Luke’s narrative and what are these sayings Luke alludes to?  Luke 6 is chock full of teachings.  It is a rich smorgasbord of Jesus’ disciples eating grain on the Sabbath, then the Pharisees hating on them about that, Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, the Pharisees calling him out about that, but he did it anyway and they were (not surprisingly) furious and that’s just the first 11 verses.  After he names the disciples, verses 17-19 say, “He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”

So the centurion had heard about Jesus and, no doubt, about the miracles he had performed in the town, like healing a man with an unclean spirit right there in the synagogue for which the centurion himself had given a lot of money. The centurion was likely a commander in the army of Herod Antipas rather than a Roman soldier. We can infer this since Capernaum was a minor trade center and toll station along the Via Maris, which was the trade route that led from the countries in the Fertile Crescent down to the Mediterranean. While Capernaum was not a combat post, the centurion was nonetheless a military veteran who may have seen his share of combat earlier in his career. If that were the case, then his slave would likely have been right beside him in the thick of battle, thus forging a relationship that was less master and slave and more like comrades in arms. His most valued slave was ill and close to death so he stepped out in faith, as we have seen all Jesus’ disciples do.  He had the faith that Jesus could heal his battle buddy.  Unlike most of the Gentile soldiers, Roman or otherwise, who were stationed in the notoriously revolutionary region of Galilee, this centurion not only built the synagogue for them (the foundation of which still stands in the ruins of Capernaum) but he went so far as to love the Jewish people. The centurion already saw the world differently than many of his peers, and his creative imagination allowed him to formulate a different vision of reality about the Jewish people AND about the itinerant Jewish preacher and healer who was now back in town.

Still, he recognized that there was a separation between him and the Jews. He wants to be respectful to this Jesus, so he sends some of the Jewish elders to speak with Jesus about his servant, knowing that a pious Jew like Jesus could not enter a Gentile house. The Jewish elders see this generous Gentile as a “worthy” candidate for a healing miracle, but the centurion believes himself to be “not worthy” to have Jesus come under his roof. The centurion understands orders and believes that it isn’t necessary for Jesus to be physically present in order to heal.  Indeed, as a commander of men, the centurion knows that he doesn’t need to be present in order to get things done. He gives an order and it is obeyed, even in his absence, and he now assumes that Jesus has the same kind of spiritual authority. All Jesus has to do is say the word and his healing order will be carried out. The centurion imagines another reality made possible by Jesus, and then acts on it.
Sister Joan Chittister tells the story of a priest who once traveled to see a renowned spiritual teacher, to spend a time on retreat with him.

“Master,” he said upon arriving, “I come to you seeking enlightenment.”

“Well, then,” the master said, “for the first exercise of your retreat, go into the courtyard, tilt back your head, stretch out your arms and wait until I come for you.”

Just as the priest arranged himself in that position, the rains came. And it rained. It rained the rest of the afternoon. Finally, the old master came back. “Well, priest,” he asked, “have you been enlightened today?”

“Are you serious?” the priest asked, in disgust. “I’ve been standing here with my head up in the rain for an hour. I’m soaking wet. I feel like a fool!”

The master said, “Well, priest, for the first day of a retreat that sounds like great enlightenment to me.”

The centurion has all the power in his relationship with Jesus. Yet, unlike the priest in the story, he is no fool. He could have lorded it over Jesus, but instead he sets his personal authority aside and submits himself to the authority of Jesus, a Jew — a subjugated member of a captive people. This wise officer understands that spiritual humility is the prerequisite to healing.

Jesus is surprised at this Gentile centurion’s ability to imagine a different outcome. “Not even in Israel have I found such faith,” Jesus says. It’s like he’s alluding to the two disagreements with the Pharisees in Luke 6 and the instructions at the end where he’s preaching against hypocrisy of the highest order.

Luke 6:46 -49, “‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you? 47I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’”  This centurion’s house is built on rock and Jesus rewards him for it.

What is a disciple?  The centurion is obedient.  No doubt.  He followed through.  The centurion owned his own sinfulness, by humbling himself before Jesus.  Remember the Heng story.  How Vietnamese kid in the orphanage that would sacrifice himself for his friend?  The centurion made the sacrifice.  Even to ask Jesus to heal his servant would be looked down upon by his peers, but he did it anyway.  And he had the creative imagination to envision a different reality for himself and his friend.  He believed and had faith in Jesus to heal just by saying the Word.

A recent sign I saw said, “Faith is like Wi-Fi.  It’s invisible but it has the power to connect you to what you need.”  The centurion had a desperate need and Jesus had the power to fill it.  Faith can lift us toward a vision of a different future.  The writer of Hebrews says in chapter 11, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Even if we do not receive a miraculous healing, a restoration of a relationship, or the satisfactory resolution of any of a thousand other circumstances in which we might find ourselves, faith invites us to begin moving, even if only a bit at a time or a step at a time, toward hope and wholeness.

Like the centurion, we need to be willing to ask for help, even if we feel unworthy of it. Jesus specializes in those of us who believe we are unworthy. Jesus will take on even the roughest of our cases with healing grace. All we have to do is reach out in faith, to bring our hurts to the surface, and allow him to meet us there.

Dr. Harold Koenig, an associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, and Director, Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke, is considered to be a pioneer in the scientific study of the potential of spiritual healing. After studying thousands of people since 1984, Dr. Koenig found that religious faith not only promotes overall good health, but also aids in recovery from serious illness.

“By praying to God,” Koenig said, religious patients “acquire an indirect form of control over their illness.” They believe that they are not alone in their struggle and God is personally interested in them. This safeguards them against the psychological isolation that batters so many people with serious disease.

In a study of 455 elderly hospital patients, for example, Koenig found that people who attended church more than once a week averaged about four days in the hospital. People who never or rarely attended church spent about 10 to 12 days hospitalized.

When Koenig initially began telling his colleagues about these observations, many were skeptical. They saw spiritual healing as irrelevant to medical science. In recent years, however, more scientific journals have been publishing reports with similar findings. More and more doctors are beginning to understand that faith can have a role in healing.

A Dartmouth Medical School study found that heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following a surgery if they did not participate in group activities and did not find comfort in religion. Within six months of surgery, 21 patients had died; but there were no deaths among the 37 people who said that they were “deeply religious.”

Researchers in Israel studied 3,900 people living on kibbutzim (Jewish communal living at its finest) over a 16-year period. Their findings: The religious had a 40 percent lower death rate from cardiovascular disease and cancer than their secular peers.

A Yale University study of 28,212 elderly people found that those who rarely or never attended church had twice the stroke rate of weekly churchgoers.

So there are definitely health benefits for people of faith, who are actively walking the walk and talking the talk.   Mike was telling me about the stradivarius violins last night.  They were built during the 17th and 18th century by the Stradivari family from Italy.  Their sound is unparalleled and all sort of stuff goes into the making of one.  Recently they discovered, the more you use it, the better it sounds.  It’s like prayer and walking alongside one another in community, the more you use them, the better your life will be.  God can use us to minister to and encourage others in their walk as disciples of Jesus. It’s faith lived out in relationship to others in the body of Christ.  Sometimes we have to have faith that God’s got this so that the world may see and know.  Sometimes we have to have faith FOR someone, like the centurion asking Jesus for the healing of his servant.  That’s called intercessory prayer and that’s what we do intentionally every Tuesday at prayer group.  That’s also why I created the facebook group “Point Hope Prayer & Encouragement.”  So that we can more fully share life with one another.  So when one of us wants to give up, give in, or give out, we pick one another up and spur each other on.  We’re not meant to live this life or walk this walk alone.  The truth is that we can be the healing presence of Christ to each other, helping one another, supporting one another, encouraging one another, being church to each other. We all need people who can speak into our lives and be the physical presence of the spiritual reality of Christ among us. We are members of one Body, says the apostle Paul, and the members should have “the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26). The Jewish elders in Capernaum saw the Gentile centurion as a neighbor and wanted to alleviate his suffering by going to Jesus. Can we be agents of healing for each other in the same way, acting as intercessors and faith-walkers for those around us?  An old Irish Proverb says, “In the shelter of each other the people live.”  I believe that.  We shelter one another, covering one another’s weaknesses with our strengths.

Who do you know who is struggling? How can you be an advocate, an intercessory healer, a representative of Christ? How can you help others envision a different sort of outcome for the brokenness in their lives? And if you are the one who is suffering, whom can you ask for help? How will you take the step of faith not only to trust Jesus to heal you, but also trust the members of his Body to intercede and advocate for you?

in-the-shelter

 

Phonic Books & Flash Cards

I don’t hesitate where my kids’ education is concerned.  I will buy any amount of Fancy Nancy or Dick and Jane or Pinkalicious or Star Wars phonic books  on Amazon Prime.  I will buy any sight word flash cards.  ANYTHING to make Evy a strong reader.  I have heard since we were married that when Mike moved to South Carolina from Alabama, the South Carolina schools were a year behind. It’s clear that the schools here in Mt. Pleasant are a little further ahead than the schools our kids were at in Florida.  When you move to a different school, sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes you’re behind.

Mike and I help them both with their homework and it takes patience to work with either of them.  They go too fast and make careless mistakes, or get tired and don’t try, or get frustrated and don’t try, or give up and don’t try, or make excuses and don’t try, or get tired and feel like they can’t try anymore.  We give them all the tools and resources and they KNOW they need to learn it.  They know they need to practice.  They know they need to keep trying.  They know there’s no playing indefinite hooky.  We’ve explained that very extensively.  But it’s hard to learn to read.  Its hard to learn multiplication. They both have to practice, practice, practice to catch up and it’s a hard thing not to give the answers to them, not to sound it out for Evy.   It’s hard not to give the answers to her, not to sound it out for her.  For our children, we would move heaven and earth to do anything for them.  There’s nothing more frustrating/heart wrenching/miserable to a parent than not being able to help their children.

As I teach her about walking with Jesus, I told her on Sunday night that you can talk to him any time you want, when you’re frustrated or embarrassed at school, when you’re feeling alone or misunderstood, he can help you.  I then told her what so many of us need to here.  You’re enough.  You’re kind enough.  You’re smart enough.  You’re enough.  She buried her head in my shoulder and began to cry.  She needed to hear that.  She needed to know we’re always in her corner no matter what and she matters to the great God of the universe.  Mostly she needed to know she was loved.

It’s a both/and.  God must be so frustrated with us, God’s children, when we don’t learn, when we give up and don’t try.  Because obviously we want our children to not only to succeed, but to flourish.  The definition of “flourish” is to “grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment.”  God wants all of us to flourish.  God wants the best for us.  God wants us to know from the tops of our head to the tips of our toes that we are enough.

But, we have to practice.  We have to practice loving people that are different from us.  We have to practice taking that extra couple of steps to help someone.  We have to practice reaching out as a church to a world that’s hurting and busy beyond their means.  We have to practice being salt and light, in the world, but not of it.  Just as Evy has to practice her reading and Enoch has to practice his multiplication, we have to practice living as followers of Jesus Christ.  Phonic books and flashcards may help, but we have to DO.  Knowing and trusting that when we fail, God’s grace is enough.  But we have to TRY.  Or we’re selling ourselves short and not reaching out and stretching ourselves to be who God created us to be.  God wants us to reach our full potential just as we want Enoch and Evy to reach their full potential.  How is God calling you to practice your faith?  What is God calling you to practice?  It sometimes will be hard.  You may fall and scrape your knees, but God’s going to be right there when that happens and we as your community will be right there with you to pick you up and dust you off.  God doesn’t want us to suffer or struggle.  God wants to give us good and abundant gifts, as we as parents, but we and God can’t do it for our children.  God gives us the free will to choose how we spend our time.  God gives us the tools and the resources but we have to make the choice to ACT for ourselves.

I’m going to close with this “Prayer for Empowerment” by Kathleen Fischer.

Creator and Healer, you dwell closer to us than the air we breathe, yet far surpass all we know.

We bless you for the stunning beauty of your cosmos, the gifts you unendingly give.

Forgive us our failure to be grateful and to trust you.

Fill our hearts with your courage, and our minds with your vision of what we might become.

Free us from fear of the dark unknown spaces where you give birth to new possibilities.

You are a God of adventure, and you took a great risk in creating us.

Empower us to become the community of which your heart dreams.

Amen.

Chosen to Share Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-16 (NRSV)

Salt and Light

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

If you ever go to a Mexican restaurant with Evy be ready because she’s going to put salt on all over the chips.  She learned that bad habit from me.  I love salty foods and I’m one of those people who puts salt on everything without tasting it, much to my embarrassment on my first dinner with Mike’s granny and grandad.  It was how I grew up.  My mom never salted food enough and I learned it from my dad.  She said she learned that from Sa Sa, my dad’s mom, who she quoted, “You can always add more, but you can never take it away.”  Wise words.  My brother lived with us one semester while we were living in Atlanta.  He was a civil engineering major at Clemson and he did an internship with Brasfield and Gory and he decided to fix us sloppy joe’s one night for dinner.  I don’t know what he put in it, but it was a sodium fiesta.  None of us could eat it, and we tried.  He had a bite and had to drink a whole glass of water afterwards.  Thus, proving Mom’s point.  Salt is a powerful substance.

Salt was very important in the first-century.  Salt was not only used as currency, but actual wars were fought over it because it had so many uses.  Salt could be used to cure and store meats, to disinfect wounds and make food and pottery.  It was useful in a thousand different ways.  It’s like us, God uses us in many different forms and ways to bring salt to the world to bring in the kingdom of God.   In Florida they had “Salty Service” hours in the bulletin and you would tear that part out if you had volunteered at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or sorted at a food bank that week.  It was a way to track their church’s service in the community, their saltiness.

If y’all walked through the fellowship hall this morning, you will notice some of the ways that we are seeking to salt our community, our nation, and our world.  We have the opportunity to share our saltiness with the whole world through one can of food, one bag of candy, one hug, one prophetic word.  Like I was preaching about last week, we have the ability to tell people about God’s world through living lives of authenticity: the good, the bad, and the ugly, the way we admit our faults, the way we cling to Christ, love our enemies, feed the needy, strive to keep our promises and so much more.  We, who have been chosen, to share the Good News, to share the salt of Christ, have an often surprising, at least to ourselves, usefulness in this broken world when we are led by the Spirit to live life out loud, in who God created us to be, and resting in the grace, hope, love of our Savior.  They will know we are Christians by our love.

Bob Goff writes, “Being engaged is a way of doing life, a way of living and loving. It’s about going to extremes and expressing the bright hope that life offers us, a hope that makes us brave and expels darkness with light. That’s what I want my life to be all about – full of abandon, whimsy, and in love.”

I have always been a star gazer.  I remember dragging our mattresses to the big field at Camp Pee Dee as a camper and later on a college retreat to look at the stars.  I remember laying down in beds of pickup trucks in high school looking at the stars. But the stars at my grandparents in Greeleyville were the brightest I had ever seen.  In my younger years, I thought it was only there that I actually had a chance to look up and savor and enjoy and take a pause from the busy-ness of life, but when I learned that it was merely a lack of ambient light because Greeleyville was in the middle of nowhere, it didn’t make it any less special.  In Tromso, Norway, there is a period of darkness called morketida. From mid-November to mid-January, the sun does not rise above the horizon. In fact, from August until mid-November, residents can count on losing 10 to 15 minutes of light each day until the depths of the winter solstice. At best, those high above the Arctic Circle may look forward to only two or three hours of indirect or half-light around midday for nearly two months.

Yet while the stars that light the sky during this morketida period may shine for long periods, they are not enough to dispel the gloom that pervades the streets and can easily poison the soul. During our own periods of morketida, we don’t really need more stars – we need more common lights or lamps to light our everyday paths on this earth.

I’ve always loved the story about Robert Louis Stevenson growing up in Scotland. In those days, streetlamps didn’t come on automatically; people were hired to light each one individually. One evening, as the lamplighters did their work, climbing their ladders, lifting the glass lid, lighting the torch, shutting the lid, climbing down, and moving on to the next lamp, young Stevenson was enthralled. As dusk settled into night, one light would be kindled, then another, and another. He said, “Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

Look at the man!  He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

As a child, didn’t you love to sing “This little light of mine … I’m going to let it shine ….”? and all of the verses?  I love it when on Christmas Eve we light the candles.  As a child, I liked that even I got a candle, and I always noticed that the more candles that were lit the more the room grew brighter and brighter.  Jesus gives us all the power and authority we need to shine our light in the world.  The Holy Spirit fans the flame and if one of our community’s light goes out, just like on Christmas Eve, you come alongside them, and light it with your light, the light of Christ in you.  Jesus wants us to think corporately about the illuminating power he generates in each of us. The “city built on a hill” is not noticed because one lone light flickers in a window. It is the combined wattage of an array of lights, each burning in its own place, but for a common purpose, that sets the city ablaze in the midst of a dark and dreary night.

Pope Francis writes, “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.”

God sends us sustenance for our journey as we need it.  Scriptures, devotions, songs, books, movies, poems, any way that pierces the layers of life that we hold so dear.

Remember who you are.  I was in the 8th grade when I saw it and it was the first time I remember God speaking to me through a movie.  God speaks to me often in movies, but it was the first time that the Great God of the Universe revealed Godself in this way to me.  Remember who you are.  Remember who I have created you to be.

Andrew Kramer shared this poem he wrote with me.  It’s called “I Am Man.”  Cold is the day /and dark is the night / when brown bears hibernate / and birds find respite from flight / also man with heart and soul / begin life’s long journey to / find himself whole / he searches the earth / for riches and fame / only to discover the unfair / rules of life’s game / he has met with obstacles on land and sea / but with steadfast perseverance / he culminates in me / I am man.  God wants us to be who God created us to be – healthy, fulfilled and whole and then God takes it a step farther calling us to live our lives as salt and light. Illuminating my and the world’s darkness.  Re-salinating  my and the world’s saltiness.  If it’s the past your worried about, don’t.

God doesn’t want you living in the past.  Sometimes you may be like Simba in the first clip, you have to make your way through the jungle, either of your own making or what the world has thrown at you or both.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made and bought for price.  The Savior of the world lives inside of you spurring you on to right action.  It’s not about your own effort.  None of us naturally salty and naturally effervescent, it’s all through Jesus.  It’s all about abiding in the true vine that gives us the ability to bear the fruit of the kingdom.

You punch another hole in the darkness every time you show up with joy instead of gloom on your face, with good things to say instead of griping, every time you stop for someone who’s struggling, when you consciously put someone else ahead of you, when you insist on taking the high road when it’s tempting to cut corners, every time you weep with someone who’s weeping, rejoice with someone who’s rejoicing, and reach out to someone who’s been acting pretty unloveable.

Don’t worry if you don’t do it “right” 24:7. Bob Goff writes, “Failure is just part of the process, and it’s not just okay; it’s better than okay. God doesn’t want failure to shut us down. God didn’t make it a three-strikes-and-you’re-out sort of thing. It’s more about how God helps us dust ourselves off so we can swing for the fences again. And all of this without keeping a meticulous record of our screw-ups.” Claim these verses from 1 Peter 2:9-10,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

Aren’t those powerful words?  When we bear witness to those mighty acts in Jesus Christ even the gates of Hell will not prevail.  We are chosen to punch holes in the darkness.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through Him who loves us.”

16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

We live in a pretty dark world.  Some of us have never seen a darker time.  But it’s not a world without salt and light, unless Christians fail to stand up by living like Jesus, treating people like Jesus, handling situations and temptations like Jesus, being like Jesus.  Who did God put in your life for you to show them Jesus?  What ways can you be salt in the world?  In what ways is God calling you to remember who you are, who you are created to be, and what is God calling you to do?  You don’t have to have all the answers now.  Just merely begin asking yourselves the questions.  Begin plotting the ways you will be salt and light in the world.  In your professional life.  In your personal life.  You can light one of the candles over there.  They are for before the service, after the service, during communion, or any time you want to pray intentionally.  We all learn in different ways and we all need different sparks, ways to interact with God.  I know sometimes you are too worn to be salty and your light seems to be on the verge of snuffing out, but God will give you the strength, Jesus will give you the sustenance, and the Holy Spirit will give you the boldness and courage.  Amen.

Chosen to Share the Good News

Romans 10:5-15 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians 3:12-17 (NRSV)

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

Amen and amen.

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

 

You Are Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For such a time as this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bluetree “God of this City” Story

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s correct,” Jesus answers.

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

“They are my only plan,” Jesus says.

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 43:1-6

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

For such a time as this.

Seasons

Ecclesiastes 3 (NRSV)

Everything Has Its Time

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

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

The God-Given Task

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippians 4:6-7 (NRSV)

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

1 Peter 5:7 (NRSV)

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

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