Taking God to the Bank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing is Believing – “Doubting” Thomas

John 20:19-31 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you imagine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father John Dear in Blessed are the Nonviolent, writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God works wonders from dust…

Today is Ash Wednesday.   It is the beginning of Lent and the day in the church calendar that we are called upon to face our own mortality.   I am confessing a secret that I actually don’t hate Lent.  Because in this crazy, busy culture we need 40 days to contemplate, pray, and fast and this is the day that kicks it all off.  It is in Ash Wednesday that we are called upon to face the deep truth that as mortals we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Mary Oliver says about this life “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Even though we talk about calling and gifts and graces and God guiding and leading us through life, Ash Wednesday is reminding us that we are dust and to dust we return.

It can be scary, a little refreshing.   Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran priest shares the image she has about Ash Wednesday, “If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and us not knowing what the distance is between the two, well then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and then held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. With these ashes, it is as though the water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the future to meet us here today. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God. Promises which outlast our piety, outlast our efforts in self-improvement, outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”  We live in a culture that tells us if we work hard enough, have enough money, buy enough skin care products, eat healthy enough, or exercise with enough vigor, we might just live forever.  And yet, we know that is not true.  So today, we proclaim the truth that we shall return to the dust over which God first breathed life.

And I, at least, breathe a sigh of relief.   Because admitting and facing my own mortality, allows me to admit that God is God and I am not (and we should all be very thankful for that).  It allows me to lay down my attempts to manage my own human brokenness, and step into the deep and holy mystery that is the Christian life.   Having confessed my sins, and admitted my own mortality, it allows me to live freely this incredible, mortal life that is my reality right now.  It allows me to take chances, take leaps of faith, with every breath that I have in my body.

But perhaps more than that, it helps me to let go of my fear.  Because Ash Wednesday reminds us that in spite of it all, death does not have the last word.   While we and others have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, God has destroyed death.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that it cuts through the crud, the non-essentials.  It gets to the heart of the very core of everything.  It reminds us of God’s infinite promises to us.  It reminds us there is beauty in our brokenness, and freedom that we don’t have to live up to some earthly falsehood of perfection.

Ann Voskamp says this about Lent, “I can’t seem to follow through in giving up for Lent. Which makes me want to just give up Lent.  Which makes me question Who I am following.  Which may precisely be the point of Lent.”

Whether you’re adding something or taking something away, whether you commit to have some quiet in your life and spend twenty minutes in day in silence, whether you write down things that you are thankful for, or fast one day a week.   Randy Wells reminded me before the service that I have to talk about the “feast” days on Sundays that you can choose to follow your Lenten discipline or not because every Sunday is supposed to be a Resurrection Sunday or mini-Easter.  He then pointed out, we shouldn’t take that as an invitation to cram all of the other days vices into that one day!

Jo Ann Staebler in her book “Soul Fast,” says, “In the deep stillness of prayer my soul fasts.  Fasting, at its heart, is turning away from what keeps me from God.  Two things I must leave:  the walls I build around the space that was made to be God’s dwelling; the absurdities I keep in that space, so jealously hoarded.  Taking down the wall that protects the false self I have been building, all these years…risking exposure, emptiness, loneliness.  The fast is silence, ocean-deep and prolonged.  Shard by shard, the wall begins to fall.  Inch by inch, the space clears, and Love lights the shadows.  I come unprotected, and learn that God alone is safety.  I come unaccompanied, and find that Christ alone is Friend.  I come hungry, and receive the only food that satisfies.  In letting go is abundance.  In emptying I am filled.  This is not denial, but freedom.  Fast is feast.”

Maybe we should fast from the 24 hours new cycle.  Maybe we should fast from television.  Maybe we should fast from social media.  Maybe we should fast from the electronics that get in the way of us talking to our friends and family, like they are attached to our bodies or something.  It doesn’t matter to me what you do, I just want you to be intentional in this Lenten ritual.  As most things in life, what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it.  It’s only a tool, a ritual, to draw us closer to Jesus.

Hear these powerful words from the artist and poet, Jan Richardson, in her poem “Blessing the Dust.”

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

God can work wonders from dust.  God made you in your mother’s womb.  Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them . . . that you pay attention to them?”

I’ve heard Hawk Nelson’s “Diamonds” on the radio and can’t help but relate it to Ash Wednesday every time it comes on.  Here are the lyrics:

Here and now I’m in the fire, in above my head
Being held under the pressure, don’t know what will be left
But it’s here in the ashes
I’m finding treasure

He’s making diamonds
Making diamonds
He’s making diamonds out of dust
He is refining
And in his timing
He’s making diamonds out of us

I’ll surrender to the power of being crushed by love
‘Til the beauty that was hidden isn’t covered up
It’s not what I hoped for
It’s something much better

Oh The Joy of the Lord
It will be my strength
When the pressure is on
He’s making Diamonds

I won’t be afraid to shine

May we never be afraid to shine.  God can do mighty things through us.  Our Rabbi Jesus can lead us to do some crazy, awesome things as we follow his teachings, example, and have his dust all over us.  The Holy Spirit can fan the fire to make diamonds out of dust.  So, shout it from the roof tops, sing it in your heart, whisper it quietly to yourself, but tell that truth.  That you were formed from dust and to dust you will return.  Then, breathe a sigh of relief and be free.  Because it’s not all about you.  It’s about what God does in us.  As I will say when I put the ashes on your forehead, God can work wonders out of dust.  Thanks be to God indeed.

God is with us

It’s been a hard week for some.  It’s been an exciting week for others.  It’s been a roller coaster week for many of us.  Do you like roller coasters?  The anticipation as you’re going up the steepest hill…the breath you take as you’re about to crest the top…do you brace yourself and grit your teeth or do you lift your arms and enjoy the ride?  I admit that I just hunker down and “get through” rollercoasters.  When we would get the pictures after the ride at the kiosk, other people were smiling and having a great time, but me, I was head down just trying to hold on for dear life.

Some of us have been white-knuckled as we watch the news.  Some of us have longed to see this change.  Some of us are wondering how it will affect us.  Others of us are wondering how it will affect our neighbors.  No matter where we are in this rollercoaster of life, we know God is with us.  Deuteronomy 31:6 is one of the scriptures which minister to me at times like this.  “6 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”  The NRSV translation translates “courageous” into “bold.”  Be courageous.  Be bold.  Let your light shine before others no matter the circumstance.  It’s easy when everything is going right.  It’s easy when everything is falling into place.  It’s easy when you feel God’s presence guiding and leading you and you feel that you’re in God’s perfect will.

But what about when you feel God is silent?  When you feel like God has forsaken you?  When you feel alone and rejected?  When you feel despondent and shattered?  In the Psalms you can find an abundance of people crying out to God.  Particularly Psalm 139 when it asks, “Where can I flee from your presence?”  Or one of my favorite pieces of scriptures ever, 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.”  I’m not sure why God allows things to happen, but a little earlier in Romans 8 verse 28 says, “28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  I choose to trust.  I choose to believe.  I choose to hope.  I choose to love.  I continue to choose the light even on the darkest days because I don’t want my default or resting mode to be bitterness, judgement, or hate, but I want to radiate joy, love and grace.  I want to be a Micah 6:8 person.  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  This week has been tough; but God is with us.  Changing us, transforming us, hearing us, pushing us, comforting us, WITH us.

An Unexpected Christmas

Derek sang “O Holy Night” beautifully.  We are a weary world, but as the scriptures say, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  We are taught on this journey of faith to expect the unexpected because we love and serve a God that does the inconceivable.

Hear this strange and fascinating story of the song “O Holy Night.”  In 1847, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissionaire of wines in a small French town. Known more for his poetry than his church attendance, it probably shocked Placide when his parish priest asked the commissionaire to pen a poem for Christmas mass. Nevertheless, the poet was honored to share his talents with the church.

In a dusty coach traveling down a bumpy road to France’s capital city, Placide Cappeau considered the priest’s request. Using the gospel of Luke as his guide, Cappeau imagined witnessing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Thoughts of being present on the blessed night inspired him. By the time he arrived in Paris, “Cantique de Noel” had been completed.

Moved by his own work, Cappeau decided that his “Cantique de Noel” was not just a poem, but a song in need of a master musician’s hand. Not musically inclined himself, the poet turned to one of his friends, Adolphe Charles Adams, for help.

The son of a well-known classical musician, Adolphe had studied in the Paris conservatoire. His talent and fame brought requests to write works for orchestras and ballets all over the world. Yet the lyrics that his friend Cappeau gave him must have challenged the composer in a fashion unlike anything he received from London, Berlin, or St. Petersburg.

As a man of Jewish ancestry, for Adolphe the words of “Cantique de Noel” represented a day he didn’t celebrate and a man he did not view as the son of God. Nevertheless, Adams quickly went to work, attempting to marry an original score to Cappeau’s beautiful words. Adams’ finished work pleased both poet and priest. The song was performed just three weeks later at a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Initially, “Cantique de Noel” was wholeheartedly accepted by the church in France and the song quickly found its way into various Catholic Christmas services. But when Placide Cappeau walked away from the church and became a part of the socialist movement, and church leaders discovered that Adolphe Adams was a Jew, the song–which had quickly grown to be one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France–was suddenly and uniformly denounced by the church. The heads of the French Catholic church of the time deemed “Cantique de Noel” as unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Yet even as the church tried to bury the Christmas song, the French people continued to sing it, and a decade later a reclusive American writer brought it to a whole new audience halfway around the world.
Not only did this American writer–John Sullivan Dwight–feel that this wonderful Christmas songs needed to be introduced to America, he saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: “Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.” The text supported Dwight’s own view of slavery in the South. Published in his magazine, Dwight’s English translation of “O Holy Night” quickly found found favor in America.

Back in France, even though the song had been banned from the church for almost two decades, many commoners still sang “Cantique de Noel” at home. Legend has it that on Christmas Eve 1871, in the midst of fierce fighting between the armies of Germany and France, during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier suddenly jumped out of his muddy trench. Both sides stared at the seemingly crazed man. Boldly standing with no weapon in his hand or at his side, he lifted his eyes to the heavens and sang the beginning of “Cantique de Noel.”

After completing all three verses, a German infantryman climbed out his hiding place and answered with Martin Luther’s robust “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.”

The story goes that the fighting stopped for the next twenty-four hours while the men on both sides observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas day. Perhaps this story had a part in the French church once again embracing “Cantique de Noel” in holiday services.

Adams had been dead for many years and Cappeau and Dwight were old men when on Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden–a 33-year-old university professor and former chief chemist for Thomas Edison–did something long thought impossible. Using a new type of generator, Fessenden spoke into a microphone and, for the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over the airwaves: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed,” he began in a clear, strong voice, hoping he was reaching across the distances he supposed he would.

Shocked radio operators on ships and astonished wireless owners at newspapers sat slack-jawed as their normal, coded impulses, heard over tiny speakers, were interrupted by a professor reading from the gospel of Luke. To the few who caught this broadcast, it must have seemed like a miracle–hearing a voice somehow transmitted to those far away. Some might have believed they were hearing the voice of an angel.

Fessenden was probably unaware of the sensation he was causing on ships and in offices; he couldn’t have known that men and women were rushing to their wireless units to catch this Christmas Eve miracle. After finishing his recitation of the birth of Christ, Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night,” the first song ever sent through the air via radio waves. When the carol ended, so did the broadcast–but not before music had found a new medium that would take it around the world.

Since that first rendition at a small Christmas mass in 1847, “O Holy Night” has been sung millions of times in churches in every corner of the world. And since the moment a handful of people first heard it played over the radio, the carol has gone on to become one of the entertainment industry’s most recorded and played spiritual songs. This incredible work–requested by a forgotten parish priest, written by a poet who would later split from the church, given soaring music by a Jewish composer, and unexpectedly brought to Americans to serve as much as a tool to spotlight the sinful nature of slavery as tell the story of the birth of a Savior–has become one of the most beautiful, inspired pieces of music ever created.

Expect the Unexpected.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a staple around our house.  Peanuts had become a phenomenon worldwide by the mid-1960s, and the special was commissioned and sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company. It was written over a period of several weeks, and animated on a shoestring budget in only six months. In casting the characters, the producers went an unconventional route, hiring child actors. The program’s soundtrack was similarly unorthodox: it features a jazz score by pianist Vince Guaraldi. Its absence of a laugh track (a staple in television animation in this period), in addition to its tone, pacing, music, and animation led both the producers and network to predict the project would be a disaster. I love when Linus pipes saying, “I know what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!” and then he reads from Luke’s Gospel.  Did you know that almost wasn’t in there?   Shulz was asked to cut that part of the movie and he answered, “If we don’t do it, who will?” Shulz had Linus’s recitation of Scripture incorporated in such a way that it forms the climax of the film, thus making it impossible to successfully edit out.  It ended up being such a hit, that it won an Emmy, a Peabody award and it’s been run every Christmas since.  Expect the Unexpected.

Do you know which Christmas story was even more unexpected than that?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM1XusYVqNY 

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

“I feel so far away from my kids down there.”

God almighty, God the creator of the universe, God that was, and is, and is to come – came to earth as a tiny baby.  The most vulnerable thing on Earth.

The angels asked, “Lord, how will people know he’s there, what if they don’t notice?”  God answered, “Those who are looking will find him and his mission will bring all people closer to me, even if they do something really wrong. When the Prince (of Peace) is done nothing will get between them and my love.”

That’s the point of this meal we celebrate.  We don’t earn it.  It’s a free, beautiful, undeserved gift.  The Great God of the Universe came to give us the most brilliant present of all.  God’s self.

We Choose to Follow Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Created YOU

We are launching into a trilogy series called “Chosen.”

Part One: Running to You

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July 8th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God Created You.

July 17th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God chooses us just as we are.

July 24th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God chooses us FOR something.

Part Two: Choosing You

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July 31st – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to follow Jesus.

August 7th – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to step out.

August 14th – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to be restored.

Part Three: Chosen to Act

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August 21st – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to share the Good News.

August 28th – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to bring light.

September 4th – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to love the world.

Psalm 139

The Inescapable God

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

This passage is titled “The Inescapable God.”

inəˈskāpəb(ə)l/

adjective

adjective: inescapable

  1. unable to be avoided or denied.
synonyms: unavoidable, inevitable, unpreventable, ineluctable, inexorable;

assured,sure, certain, guaranteed;

necessary, required, compulsory, mandatory;

rareineludible

“meeting the future in-laws is inescapable”

Meeting the future in-laws is definitely inescapable and I’m glad that I have good ones.  God’s love is unavoidable, compulsory, unpreventable….Do you find comfort in this or discomfort?  It sort of depends on how you see God or the nature of God.  If you see God as an all loving, omnipresent (all present), and omnipotent (all knowing) that’s our strength and our shield and a very present help in times of trouble, you are comforted by this Psalm.  You realize that even though God knows all you’ve done and said and the things you’ve hidden away and the deepest recesses of your heart, God loves you anyway.  Jesus scatters your sins from the east to the west and they’re not held against you anymore by grace alone.  Christ is the victor over all evil and injustice in this world and we work with the Holy Spirit to bring God’s kingdom to earth.  If your view of God is a task-master, one that checks off like Santa if you do this naughty thing, or that, or if you simply don’t trust God because what you see God doing in the world seems so unfair, unjust, and unfathomable, then you have an entirely different picture of who God is.  Scriptures abound painting with  all kinds of different strokes about the nature of God, but if you take the full picture, the full painting, you begin to see that God is longing for us to return home.  Just like the father in the familiar prodigal sermon.  God’s longing for us to come home so that God can throw a party just as the father did in the story.

This points to what United Methodists call prevenient grace.  God woos us to God’s self, even before we knew, even before we are aware of it.  God seeks each of us out to have a relationship with God.  God calls us where we are, in all of the mire and muck of sin, and as Jeremiah 18:1-4 says, “18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”  God, as the potter, has the power to make all things new.  As Isaiah 64:8 says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  God creates each of us and calls us each by name.  God cares about each of us.  God seeks the heart of each of us.  To give us hope and a future.

8th grade was a very difficult year for me.  My dad was a United Methodist pastor so we moved the summer before my eighth grade year.  The exact wrong time to move if you’re a 5 foot 11 ½ inch girl and none of the guys at your school had hit their growth spurt yet.  I grew to this height in seventh grade, but we had been in the Hartsville schools for 7 years, but when we moved to Cheraw I was fresh meat.  My nicknames abounded that year:  giraffe, Olive Oil, stick.  They made fun of me for my long fingers and after a dance where some people had gone through my purse, I went home crying and being oh so dramatic and yelling at the top of my lungs to my parents, “I hate this town and everyone in it!”  I wanted to go “home” to Hartsville.  I felt out of place and wanted my old friends, old church and the familiar status quo.  Have you ever felt like an outsider?  That you didn’t belong?  Like Dorothy did you realize there’s no place like home.  It’s easy for adolescents to feel that way.  To hope that some day they will find a place where they fit.  As a teenager I always searched for this mythical home.  Even writing about it when I was 17 in a poem titled “My “Ganny’s.”

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This place has been my haven, through life’s many storms

A constant place of refuge, where things are close and warm

It’s seen my tears, it’s seen my smiles, and it’s picked me up each time

The one place that has never changed in the journey of my life

When I have felt lost – no real “home” – and confused

Or when I thought my heart was broken and my soul had been stripped bare

I go through life as a little child trying to keep on her disguise

But in these walls my face lights up for this is where my strength and hope lies

Things are brighter, life more precious, feelings really matter

Here I find my true self, amidst the family’s chatter

This place is not a castle, a mansion, or a dream

What makes it great is not itself but the things that are unseen

The simple words full of wisdom, lack of pretense, and genuine love for people and each other

Are the things I admire and respect about my grandfather and grandmother

Although I can’t say I have the pleasure of living here from day to day

This place is my strength and my rock and in my heart it will stay

A place given from God to me, to help me light my way

A place where I can dance and sing, a secret hiding place

Everyone needs a refuge, a place to feel free and loved

There’s always a light, open door, some chocolate cake and a hug

People need a “Ganny’s” to escape our stress-filled world

A home that shows the love and grace of Jesus Christ our Lord

Everyone should have a safe space, where they can simply be.  Simply relax.  Simply to take off the armor we sometimes carry around in our day to day lives.  Whether it is a societal shield or a learned behavior, to protect us from further wounding or to hide our hurt.  Why do we remember only the negative things years later, but we forget the praises in a heartbeat?  Why do we carry around our wounds?  When the great God of the Universe created us and calls us for a purpose.  God created YOU.  God created Me.  With all of our persnicketies and peculiarities.

We have to LET IT GO, as Elsa sings, or as Taylor Swift sings, SHAKE IT OFF.  We have to stop all of the negative tapes in our heads that we’re not good enough, we’re not worthy, we’re not strong enough, we’re not….enough.  Because that’s just Satan trying to keep us silent and feeling bad about ourselves.  Our baggage is the stuff we carry; the stuff we can’t shake.  At times, we carry it so long it becomes a part of us.  We begin repeating it in our heads in our litany of why we can’t do something.  It holds us back.  It holds us down.  It enslaves us, keep us in bondage, preventing us from being who God truly wants us to be.  Who God truly created us to be.  It can either be mistakes we’ve made or things that we’ve been subjected to be others.  Nevertheless, it’s a pain festering inside of us, an open festering wound. It’s time to let go and let God.  That’s where the healing begins.

It’s time to lay them all down at the feet of Jesus and he can play new words on the tape players of our hearts.

You are chosen.

You are beloved.

You are my beautiful creation.

You don’t have to DO anything to have my love.  You don’t have to BE anything to have my love.  I’m your home.  The place you belong is is resting in my love and grace.  You can hang out there forever.

If you’ve been carrying around these wounds, this baggage inside – take a moment and consider freedom from those things.  If you know someone carrying around this baggage, pray for them and that God will give you the courage and the words to ask them to lay their fears, worries, tapes, baggage at the feet of Jesus.

I’m reminded of the words from Paul encouraging Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6-10.  “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear.  God wants to take away our burdens.  God wants to be our refuge.  A very present help in times of trouble.  Don’t let anyone tell you who you are.  Tell them Whose you are and rest in that.  I know what I’m saying is easier said than done.  Some of us hold tight to our woundings like familiar, old security blankets.  Ask God to work on that with you.  God created your inmost thoughts, God knows everything about you, and God desires to give you abundant life in Christ.  Not a half life.

We cannot love our neighbors with God’s agape love until we first love ourselves with God’s agape love.  That sacrificial love that is exemplified as Christ dying for our sins.  So whatever your burdens are….Whatever separates you from feeling the love of God….ask God to reveal it to you….whatever baggage you carry with you….ask God to free you from it in Jesus’ name.  As Mother Teresa says, “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can live your life radiating that love.”  I want us all to radiate the love of God.  I’m praying as it says in Micah that we all seek to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  Aberjhani, in Journey through the Power of the Rainbow says, “Love is our most unifying and empowering common spiritual denominator. The more we ignore its potential to bring greater balance and deeper meaning to human existence, the more likely we are to continue to define history as one long inglorious record of man’s inhumanity to man.”

I will tell you if you let go and let God in, God doesn’t promise to take the pain away, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, God doesn’t promise you will not be challenged and face all that the world throws at you, but God promises to be with you.  In Psalm 139:18, “I come to the end – I am still with you.”  These are the words of David, but they could express the emotion and commitment of Martin Luther King Jr. as well. The “end” nearly came sooner than later.

The year was 1968. The place: Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis Presley is living at Graceland with his wife Priscilla and newborn daughter Lisa Marie, and is enjoying the Grammy he has just won for his second gospel album, “How Great Thou Art.” In the minds of many, he is “The King.”

Another King comes to town on April 3, 1968. Several death threats have been directed at King, and tension is high, but he feels that it is important to press ahead and speak at a rally on behalf of the sanitation workers. In the course of this address, he tells the story of an earlier attempt on his life, one that brought him perilously close to death. According to Ralph Abernathy, his friend and successor, Martin Luther King stood up that night and just “preached out” his fear.

“You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you drown in your own blood, that’s the end of you.

It came out in The New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. [Some time] after the operation, after my chest had been opened and the blade taken out, they allowed me to move around … and to read the mail that had come in from all over the states and the world. Kind letters had come in. I read a few, but one I will never forget. I had received telegrams from the president and vice president, but I have forgotten what those messages said. I received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I forgot what was said.

But there was another letter that came from a young girl at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I will never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing to you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I [too] am happy that I didn’t sneeze.”

In his autobiography he wrote, “If I demonstrated unusual calm during the attempt on my life, it was certainly not due to any extraordinary powers that I possess. Rather, it was due to the power of God working through me. Throughout this struggle for racial justice I have constantly asked God to remove all bitterness from my heart and to give me the strength and courage to face any disaster that came my way. This constant prayer life and feeling of dependence on God have given me the feeling that I have divine companionship in the struggle. I know no other way to explain it. It is the fact that in the midst of external tension, God can give an inner peace.”

He died the next day after giving that speech in Memphis.  In the course of his life, Martin Luther King walked through many dangers, toils and snares, but through it all he knew that God was walking with him. He had the very same faith as the writer of Psalm 139, the ancient poet who said to the Lord, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”

After this week of unspeakable tragedy in our nation, “sides” being picked in our offices, homes and especially on social media, and children being afraid to go outside and play in their yards, we can draw comfort from the knowledge that God made each and every one of us, God is with each and every one of us, and God works all things together for God for those who love God.  God was with those who were shot, God was with the people at the rally in Dallas, God is with the ones that are recovering, God is with their families, God is with each of us as we grapple with the who’s, why’s, and how’s, as we explain such events to our children. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

I will close with this prayer that Beth A. Richardson wrote after the awful tragedy and deadly violence in Orlando.

The news is bad.
We are outraged and horrified.
We are shocked and afraid.
We are overwhelmed and numb.
How many more times will we awake to such news?

Some of us sit in front of the television,
Search the internet for stories,
Watch, listen for something
That will help make sense,
That will soothe or comfort,
That will bring order back again.

Some of us can’t bear the words, the images.
The press conferences and scrolling news feeds
Freeze our brains, our hearts, our guts.

Some of us pray.
Some of us escape.
Some of us rage.
Some of us cry.

God, have mercy on our world.
Have mercy on the powerless and the powerful.
Have mercy on the first responders and those in ministry to the brokenhearted.
Have mercy on the victims, their families, their friends.

Sit with us in our terror, our sadness, our hopelessness.
And let us hold the space for others as we
Sit or cry, light candles or pray,
In solidarity, in hope, in love.
Amen.

You are chosen.  God created you in God’s image.  God created all of us in the image of God and freely forgives us no matter the baggage, no matter the doubt, no matter what.  You are loved.  Don’t let anyone or anything wrestle that fact away from you.  You are a beloved child of God, a fearfully and wonderfully made creation.  May we all feel , after this particularly hard week, God’s tangible love for each of us that calls us to a new, higher way, when we will all journey home.