Love, Heal Me

Mike and I got turned on to the band The City Harmonic because they had their song “Mountaintop” on one of the CD’s that he gets in Worship Leader Magazine.  We immediately were fans.  I don’t know if you know this about me yet, but if I’m blasting my iTunes on the computer in my office, I’m being productive.  I’m in the groove.  I love music.   Music is one of the ways I tap into God’s voice.  Music has a way of moving you out of your own way so that you can see the kernel of truth.  We hear music.  We sing along.  We think about the words.  It taps into the deep well of our souls in a way nothing can and it can come to us in our times of need.  I remember bits of hymns or praise songs or scriptures when I’m at my most vulnerable and raw.

This morning a song from The City Harmonic came on my iTunes.  It’s called “Love, Heal Me” and it has a powerful story behind it.  One that I knew about, but I didn’t discover the youtube video until today.  As a congregation, many have been battling cancer and everyone has been touched in some way by cancer.  I know this for sure and for certain that God doesn’t cause cancer or any other disease.  God doesn’t want any of God’s children to suffer.  “Everything happens for a reason” is no where in scripture, but God working all things for good (Romans 8:28) is definitely there.  The Psalms are full of people crying out to God in grief, in anger, in desperation….and God was with each of them then and God is with each of us now, no matter what battle we face.

Eric describes his bandmates, their families and the fans coming alongside him as he journeyed through cancer.  He says, “I kept saying I can’t write this right now. I can’t say these things right now.  I believe them, but I can’t say them right now. He said (talking about lead singer Elias) I think you need to write it.  I think we just need to do it.  And in that, in and of itself, him as a brother forcing me to deal with what I was processing at the time. That’s what we’re hoping to do with our music to the larger body because the truth is, I was in a really vulnerable and raw place and it really helped to get the songs out and to state what I knew I believed and what I knew to be true even if I couldn’t feel it at the time.”

My desire is that for the Church to come alongside people, to not give cliched answers, but instead to listen, embodying love and grace for all.  I want the church to be vulnerable and raw and for that to be okay.  Jesus doesn’t call the perfect.  He calls the messy people that don’t have it all together.  Don’t worry….that’s each and every of us.  As Roberta Porter writes in her poem Transforming Love, “God wants our lives — not Sunday morning shiny, but all 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.”  Even those who have been turned off by the church.  Even those who are angry at God.  Even those that feel like God has forgotten them and is not listening.  The world doesn’t need all of the “right” answers, the world needs a Church that is authentically caring about each of us, loving each of us exactly where we are, taking the time to build relationships with each of us.  As we sit at the feet of the Rabbi, as we learn to be true disciples that walk the way that leads to life, may we take off our masks.  May we let the scales of stress and expectation fall away.

Most of all, let us never forget GOD IS WITH US.  Every step of the way.  Through good times and bad.  Sometimes we need our Christian community to remind us of who we are and Whose we are, for them to help us sing when we can’t make a sound, for them to lift us up when we fall.  There’s an old Irish proverb that I think exemplifies what I believe the image of Christian community to be. “It is in the shelter of each other that people live.”  It is in the shelter of each other that people live.  My prayer is that as we continue to battle whatever adversity life throws at us, we draw closer to one another and to the One whose mercies are new every day, even when it’s hard for us to believe that.

“Love, Heal Me”

I’m broken down
I’m on my knees
I’m crying out in my disease
I’m so worn down
So won’t You speak
and tell me how
You care for me?
’cause You are God
You heal all things
Your name is Love
So Love, heal me
I’m broken now
Won’t always be
Yes, I’ve seen pain
I’ve seen grief
But how it fades
When I sing
These songs of love:
They help me see that
You are God
You heal all things
Your name is Love
So Love heal me
And I’ll hold on
‘Cause You heal all things
Your name is Love
So Love, heal me
I’m falling down
I’m on my knees
I’m singin’ out: You’re what I need
I’m singin’ out: You’re what I need
I’m seeing now You’re here with me

“Praise The Lord”

Praise the Lord when it comes out easy
Praise the Lord on top of the world
Praise the Lord ‘cause in every moment Jesus Christ is Lord
Even in the middle of the joys of life
There is always grace enough today to
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Won’t you praise the Lord?
Praise the Lord with the world on your shoulders
Praise the Lord when it seems too hard
Praise the Lord ‘cause in every moment Jesus Christ is Lord
Even in the middle of the long, dark night
There is always grace enough today to
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Won’t you praise the Lord?
Praise the Lord if you can sing it at the top of your lungs
Praise the Lord like every moment is a song to be sung
Praise the Lord: though it might take blood, sweat and tears in your eyes
There is grace for today so praise the Lord
There is grace for today so praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Won’t you praise the Lord?
There is grace for today so praise the Lord

Prodigal Son Sermon a la the Ukraine

Preached at St. John United Methodist Church, L’viv, Ukraine

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Our text from Luke today is a familiar text to many of us. As soon as we hear the intro, “There was a man who had two sons…” some of us begin to think – oh, I know this story. This is a good one. It’s like those old favorite hymns – you know them backwards and forwards and they speak to you whether because of their foundational and transformative messages or because of their familiarity and the feelings and memories they evoke. I remember listening to the story as a child and being fascinated by the younger son feeding the pigs and wanting to eat what the pigs were eating. Could have been my love for animals or it could have been the funny pictures of pigs that we put on the felt board in Sunday School, but for some reason, that was what stood out to me in the story. My romanticized view of getting to sit with the pigs quickly changed as I got older and sitting in the mud with pigs stopped being so appealing.

One of things about the familiar is that sometimes it’s really easy for us to let the words and the meaning slip by us. When it comes to the routine, it’s easy to go on autopilot and miss what God is speaking to us today.

Because we know this story so well, we have lost some of the shock and horror at the behavior of the younger son. Since we know the beautiful ending that is coming and can almost hear the orchestra tuning up the celebratory music, we forget the harshness of the younger son’s words and the father’s great hurt. The broken relationship that is clearly present.

Culturally, in Jewish tradition a son was allowed to obtain possession of his inheritance, only after his father died or the son got married. As his father is still alive, he had no right to dispose of it. He’s demanding what he wants when he wants it, disrespecting his father and cultural tradition and acting like his father is dead. He’s all geared up for rebellion – no matter the cost or whom it hurts.

Several studies have shown people that have won the lottery or somehow received a great deal of money, for the most part end up right back where they started, no matter the amount, and some even worse off than they were before. There are a lot of reasons for this – an extravagant lifestyle, thinking the money will never run out, a false sense of reality, not thinking things through. The prodigal son easily could fit the profile of one who gambles it all away – the text tells us “he squandered his property in dissolute living” and “he spent everything.” Here he was a Jew tending pigs for a Gentile and longing to eat their slop. He had lost everything. Both his wealth and his integrity.

Just because Jesus eats with sinners, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take sin very seriously. As seen in the consequences of the younger son’s actions – sitting in filth and coveting pig food. Sin does have serious consequences and can lead down a devastating and degrading path. Not only has the son been led to a physically desperate place, his sin is also seen as broken relationship with God and the community, as he is left in self-imposed isolation in his pigsty.

I like the phrase, “when he came to himself” in verse 17. It’s as if he’s been in this stubborn and disobedient state and he’s finally beginning to snap out of it. Praise God for those lightbulbs of awareness – the Holy Spirit – coming to us and helping us to realize how lost we are, helping us to come to ourselves. It’s not easy to face the reality of our disobedience, but it’s definitely necessary to move forward.

The road back is paved and well lit, because we have traveled this story many times. We forget how scary it is for the prodigal to come home. The shame, the feelings of unworthiness, the lack of hope. I read of a man who had committed a crime for which he was deeply ashamed. When he’d served his prison sentence and was about to be released he wondered if his family would reject him because of the scandal he’d caused and the shame brought on the family. He wrote his parents saying that he would be coming back by bus but didn’t want to embarrass them with his presence if they didn’t want him back. He asked them to tie a yellow ribbon on the ooak tree at the beginning of their street if it was all right for him to return home. If there was no ribbon on the tree when the bus passed he wouldn’t get off the bus. He was nervous on the bus and as he got closer and closer to his street he couldn’t bear to look so he asked the driver to look for him. But, he needn’t have worried because the tree was covered with yellow ribbons!

The father in this passage offers his son yellow ribbons, and following his lead, the community joins in the celebration as well. It is clear in this passage that the father is representing God. God does not stop us from making choices or from the consequences of those actions, but as our loving parent God is ready and waiting for us to come home. In the passage, the father also goes above and beyond to show his love and forgiveness to his son. The son had dishonored his father and the village by taking everything and leaving. When he returns in tattered clothes, bare-foot and semi-starved, he would have to get home by walking through the narrow streets of the village and facing the raised eye-brows, the cold stares, the disgusted looks of the village. So when the son is still far off, the father sees him and decides immediately what he must do. In compassion for his son and to spare him the pain of walking through the gauntlet of the town alone, he runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him. The expected thing for his father is to wait in the house and let the young man be brought before him. Let the boy fall down on his face before his father and grovel in the dust. The father may then reluctantly accept his apologies and put him on probation. This father does not do any of that. Instead, he not only runs to his son but also falls on his neck and kisses him.

A man was commissioned to paint a picture of the Prodigal Son. He went into his work fervently, laboring to produce a picture worthy of telling the story. Finally, the day came when the picture was complete, and he unveiled the finished painting. The scene was set outside the father’s house, and showed the open arms of each as they were just about to meet and embrace. The man who commissioned the work was well pleased, and was prepared to pay the painter for his work, when he suddenly noticed a detail that he had missed.

Standing out in the painting above everything else in the scene, was the starkly apparent fact that the father was wearing one red shoe and one blue shoe. He was incredulous. How could this be, that the painter could make such an error? He asked the painter, and the man simply smiled and nodded, assuring the man, “Yes, this is a beautiful representation of the love of God for His children.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, puzzled.

“The father in this picture was not interested in being color-coordinated or fashion-conscious when he went out to meet his son. In fact, he was in such a hurry to show his love to his son, he simply reached and grabbed the nearest two shoes that he could find.”

“He is the God of the Unmatched Shoes.”

Praise God that our God is a God of the unmatched shoes.

The great God of the universe came down and dwelt among us, took our sin upon himself, and died on the cross for each of us. Wow. Talk about grace in the face of disobedience. We believe deeply in God’s grace. God’s prevenient grace – that God loved us even before we knew it and God draws us to God’s self even when we don’t realize it. God’s justifying grace – where we realize the great gift of God’s salvation for us – that he died for our sins so that we can be again in right relationship with God. And lastly, God’s sanctifying grace – that God doesn’t leave us where we are, but we’re on a journey constantly growing and stretching in our faith and our understanding of God and discipleship. Grace. Nothing we’ve earned, but we’ve been given freely.
Before we close the book on the story, let’s look at the elder brother. The elder son was in the field and heard music and dancing as he approached the house. After he hears what has happened, he is angry and refuses to join the party. Again, the father could have easily reacted in anger, but he goes to his son, rushes out to him, and begins to plead with him. The son is extremely rude to his father. This son begins his speech with a Greek word that is often translated “Behold!” This version of the Bible has correctly caught the mood of the son by translating the word as “Listen!” His bitterness and anger are clear in his response. He sees himself as a slave working for his father rather than a son who is taking care of his own property.
Henri Nouwen, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, commented on the “lostness” of both sons in the story of the Prodigal Son. He wrote, “Did you ever notice how lost you are when you are resentful? It’s a very deep lostness. The younger son gets lost in a much more spectacular way — giving in to his lust and his greed, using women, playing poker, and losing his money. His wrongdoing is very clear-cut. He knows it and everybody else does, too. Because of it he can come back, and he can be forgiven. The problem with resentment is that it is not so clear-cut: It’s not spectacular. And it is not overt, and it can be covered by the appearance of a holy life. Resentment is so pernicious because it sits very deep in you, in your heart, in your bones, and in your flesh, and often you don’t even know it is there. You think you’re so good. But in fact you are lost in a very profound way.”

The thing is, whether we think we have it all figured out or if we have blatantly been living a life of disobedience, as Romans says, we have all fallen short of the glory of God. None of us has an edge on the sin market. We’re all in need of God’s grace. We are each part prodigal and part elder brother. As Karl Barth wrote, “If Jesus himself had not left the Father and traveled into the far country to share a table with sinners, we would still be there, eating those pig pods.”

And that is what we are to remember. Our text for today does not begin with the parable, but with Jesus interacting with the Pharisees. Our parable and the two that precede it, that of the lost sheep and the lost coin, are in direct response to this opening grumbling made by the Pharisees, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” We are called to do the same thing. I feel like I’ve been saying this all weekend, but we have got to share the light of Christ to all the world, to be the salt, to eat with sinners and Pharisees alike. If we share our little sparks in our daily walk with Jesus, may they become a raging fire, fanned by the flame of the Holy Spirit.

Spark by The City Harmonic

Spark and Mountaintop

One of the Gator Wesley bands is going to be playing both of the songs that I’ve included in this post. They’re both by a band called The City Harmonic and they are called “Spark” and ‘Mountaintop” respectively and Gator Wesley hopes to book them in late January. I share these songs because I shared them both in a closing worship that I did at Duke’s Foundation of Christian Leadership, a week before my surgery. I have no clue what I said at the time. But, reflecting now, these things jump out at me so I share them with you, in no particular order.

1. Breathe – There’s nothing a few deep breaths won’t solve. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Have you heard people encouraging you to take deep breaths if they have just said something that they think will make you mad? The lines of “Spark” that say “When I breathe in hope/And breathe in grace and breathe in God/Then I’ll breathe out peace/And breathe out justice, breathe out love” make sense don’t they? So take a couple of deep breaths. I’m not talking about shallow breaths. I’m talking about using your diaphragm. Visualize you’re breathing in God and breathing out peace.

2. Have you heard that John Wesley said, “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.” Well, he didn’t actually say that. It makes for a great quote though, doesn’t it? If we all come together and share our “sparks” we CAN set the whole church on fire. Are you with me?

3. Our spark sometimes gets snuffed out. By life, by stress, by midterms, by tragedy, by doubt, by what we say as the very nature of God. It’s never too late to ask like the lyrics say, “Light a fire here in my heart.” If you ask God surely will answer. Matthew 7:7-8 says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

4. Have you ever had a “mountaintop” experience? I like that the song talks about “The valley low, that’s where we make our homes” and God is present in that valley low. I love the line, “He’s here, I feel it in my bones, our God.” So God is WALKING WITH US EACH STEP OF THE WAY.

5. I like the image of no matter what walls or temples we can build, we can’t hold God in. That’s so powerful. So many times we try to put God in boxes of our own making, but God leaks out and CANNOT be CONTAINED. No matter what. God cannot be contained, no matter how the world defines God (“they”) or how we define God (“we”).

What jumps out at you in regard to the two songs? You may have noticed that music plays a significant role in my faith walk. What are the songs that have shaped your faith?

Praise the Lord in All Circumstances

For some of us we have a harder time acknowledging God in the good times but we cry out to God readily in tough times.  Others of us, lean the other way – feeling like if everything’s going right in our lives we must be in tune to what God is calling us to do.  I definitely find myself pulled in one direction or the other, but I remind myself of Paul’s words in Philippians and Thessalonians.  In Philippians 4:11-13 it says, “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 it says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,  give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  

It reminds me of the song Praise the Lord from The City Harmonic’s just released album Heart.  The lyrics and the link to the song are below.  

It reminds me of the ordination question, “How do you interpret the statement “Jesus Christ is Lord?””  So I pulled out my ordination paperwork and perused the answers that I wrote in 2004 and 2007.  I wrote this in 2007 as I went before the Board for my Elder’s orders, “Jesus is (past, present, and future) our Lord.  He is the Lord.”  I go on to write, “In confessing Jesus Christ as Lord, I am affirming that Jesus Christ won the ultimate victory over sin and death.  Nothing in creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord and Redeemer.” 

I like the images of seeming contradiction of being on top of the world and the world on your shoulders.  

So what do you think?  Is it easier for us to see God at work in the good times or the bad?  Do we feel closer to God in our turning towards God after we’ve been through things?  Is it easy to see God at work in our lives?  Or a challenge at times?  No matter where you find yourself on your journey, I hope you will wrestle with these questions.  And that God will give you real, tangible signs that help you to praise the Lord!

The City Harmonic – Praise the Lord

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50e4vTAexMM

Praise the Lord when it comes out easy
Praise the Lord on top of the world
Praise the Lord ‘cause in every moment Jesus Christ is Lord
Even in the middle of the joys of life
There is always grace enough today to
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Won’t you praise the Lord?
Praise the Lord with the world on your shoulders
Praise the Lord when it seems too hard
Praise the Lord ‘cause in every moment Jesus Christ is Lord
Even in the middle of the long, dark night
There is always grace enough today to
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Won’t you praise the Lord?
Praise the Lord if you can sing it at the top of your lungs
Praise the Lord like every moment is a song to be sung
Praise the Lord: though it might take blood, sweat and tears in your eyes
There is grace for today so praise the Lord
There is grace for today so praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord
Won’t you praise the Lord?
There is grace for today so praise the Lord

 

Two More Awesome Songs by The City Harmonic:

The City Harmonic – Mountaintop

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUYAqH2yRqQ

The City Harmonic – Spark

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