Living in the Gap of Knowing and Not Doing

Living in the Gap of Knowing and Not Doing

I am Not Myself“From dust you have come, to dust you will go.” If you had the courage to come to an Ash Wednesday Service, you would have heard those words spoken over you as you were marked with a cross. I say courage because it takes a certain amount of audacity to come to a worship service where you are reminded of your own mortality.

My family was unable to attend the Ash Wednesday Service this year. Maybe that was for the best. I have always found it challenging to place ashes on the forehead of my children while reminding them of their own death. It is difficult to places ashes on any child. If your child came to my station during Ash Wednesday, I placed the cross on their forehead with the words, “You are loved by God.” On this Ash Wednesday, because of recent events, I would have found it even harder to tell them, “Remember you are dust…” It seems they get that message loud and clear from the world.

You are loved by God. If there is any week that our children needed to be reminded of that truth, it is this week. We are mortal but we are not hopeless. We are broken but we are not unloved.

The word Lent is an old Saxon word meaning “spring.” It is not in the bible but the theme of Lent as a season of devotion and self-reflection is found throughout the pages of scripture. Moses fasted for 40 days when he talked with God on Mount Sinai[i]. Elijah fasted for 40 days on his journey to meet God at Horeb.[ii] After his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus was led into the wilderness and for 40 days he was under intense temptation to become something other than what his heavenly Father intended.[iii]

Ash Wednesday is the starting point into Lent. The purpose of Lent is to give us an opportunity to clean out the clutter in our lives, rearrange our priorities, and find space for new life when it comes at the end of the forty days. A lot of people give up certain things – chocolate, caffeine, social media, fatty foods, or negative talk. Fasting is the religious way of talking about it. Another way of understanding the spiritual discipline of Lent is rediscovering the power of “no.” “No” stands in the way of immediate desires. It is disruptive to our wishes and dreams. “No” means withholding something that we want.

We want what we want for a reason, and “no” always runs contrary to those wants and desires.

During Lent we practice saying “no” so that we can enjoy a greater “yes.” So, what do you need to say “no” to today in order to enjoy a greater “yes” tomorrow? Think about it this way: Give up what is necessary so that something good may be added.

It is so easy to say “yes.” It is easy because we like our lives full. We like to be busy. It makes us feel important. It drives us to be successful. “Yes” feels the vacuum of loneliness. “No” creates space. The mid-20th century Catholic theologian Hans Ur von Balthasar saw the work of Jesus as remaking the self by unselfing it. Jesus opens up a “vacant space” in us for the Spirit of God to renew us.

If our lives are filled with to-do lists and projects and deadlines and wants and shoulds, then there is no room for the Spirit of God to work on renewing us in His image. Lent is giving permission for God to “unself” us and create space for the Spirit to work on renewing our self in the image of Christ.

A self full of itself is a conflicted self.

You may not realize it but you need this. How many times this week did we say, “I decided to do good, but I didn’t really do it; I decided not to be bad, but then I did it anyway?” I know I need to exercise, but I was too tired when I got home. I know I shouldn’t go over to his house, but I went anyway. I know I should not have gossiped, but I said it anyway.

The Apostle Paul understands your pain. Listen to the way he describes it:

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:14-20)

Why do we find it so hard to live up to our own expectations? We want to do good, but we fail to do it. We desire to live right, but give us a week and we have slipped.

At the end of his life Jesus is praying in a garden. He knew that soldiers were on the way to come and arrest him. He tells Peter to stay awake and pray. Peter falls asleep. Jesus gets upset with him, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?  Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”[i]

I get it. Don’t you? I am willing but find myself weak when it counts. We are driven to despair by our conflicted self. We come to church and make promises and then we fail to live up to those expectations. The gap between willing and doing is universal. It not only affects us as individuals. It has damaging consequences on a society.

God created a garden for humanity but we have turned it into a war zone. We talk a good talk but we take no action. We say this will be the last one but we do nothing to ensure that it really is. We send our kids off to school with words like, “Remember your lunch money, remember your mama loves you, and remember to turn in your homework.” But if we keep talking without acting, we might as well add, “And remember you are from dust and to dust you shall return – possibly today.”

When the people of God talked about offering prayers and fasting, God replied, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?[i] The prayers God hears are those that beat to the rhythm of justice. The fast God notices is the ones that gives up hate and violence.

As a society we seem stuck in the gap, the gap between knowing what is right and actually doing what is right. Violence disrupts. Lives are taken. Fingers are pointed. Blame is cast. Hands are washed of blood. And the cycle of death gets put on repeat. Are mass shootings a gun problem, a mental illness problem, a public safety problem, or a heart problem? The answer is “yes!” As long as we continue to remain divided and refuse to move the conversation past heated debates, it will remain a pride problem and we are all guilty.

As followers of Jesus, we are to be about living the ways of the Prince of Peace. Our moral framework is loving our neighbor.  As Jesus followers we make decisions that seek the welfare of my neighbor. When it comes to mass shootings in the United States what decisions need to be made that respect the sanctity of life and show love to my neighbor? In other words, what actions do I need to take that will demonstrate that I am living out the prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven?” We are not going to get it perfectly right. We will fail. But the good news is that Jesus has come to meet us in the gaps, the gap between what we know is right and not living up to it. Jesus has come to meet us in the gap between our failures and God’s desire for our life. Amen.

Next week we will discuss how Jesus is in the business of redeeming failures.

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First United Methodist Church)

[i] Isaiah 58:6-7

[i] Mark 14:37-38

[i] Exodus 34:28

[ii] I Kings 19:8

[iii] Matthew 4:1-11

 

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The Tale of Two Brothers, Part II

The Tale of Two Brothers, Part II

tale of two brothersYou can stay home and still be lost. You don’t have to squander love on wild living to create distance between those who love you. You don’t have to get locked up to live your life behind bars. Jealousy can do it. Pride can do it. Anger can do it. Fear can do it. Bitter self-righteousness is as nasty as sleeping in the mud with pigs. Dining on resentment is no better than dining on pig slop.

Last week we looked at the youngest brother. The one who squandered his father’s love and then wanted to return it broken. What we discovered last week is that God’s capacity for finding us is greater than our talent for getting lost. If you haven’t listened to the message, I want to encourage you to go to gfumc.com and listen.

Have you ever had to welcome a loser back home? Have you ever had to go to a promotion party for someone who you weren’t sure deserved it? Have you ever had to say welcome home when what you really wanted to say was get the heck out of here?

No one asked the older brother what he thought about having his pig-loving, family betraying sibling back home. No one asked what it felt like wearing the second best robe because the best one had been given to the younger brother. No one asked what it was like to pick up the slack while the younger brother was wasting his life at binge parties. No one asked him how it felt to watch his father have sleepless nights staring through the blinds hoping for his son to come home. And now, you want him to sit down at the same table with this self-centered, reckless-living, careless brother and have a feast? You want him to join a homecoming party?

Preacher and scholar, Fred Craddock told a story about the time he was teaching Sunday School at a small rural church. On this particular occasion he discovered that the weekly lesson was based on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. In his lesson he invited the class to imagine that the story ended differently. In Craddock’s version, the prodigal son “comes to himself” and decides to go home and throw himself on his father’s mercy. As he gets close to the house, he hears the sound of music and dancing. He asks the servants what is going on and the servant says, “Your father has killed the fatted calf and is holding a great feast for your older brother, because he has served him faithfully for so many years!”

Craddock let the ending sit silent in the room. Suddenly there was a loud thud in the back of the room where a woman had smashed her fist on the table. After an awkward moment of silence, the woman looked around and said, “And that’s the way it should have happened!”

Most of us love with a calculated love. We consider the sacrifice. We weigh our options. We love by putting our heart on a scale and calculate the benefits. If the benefits outweigh the risks, then we will share our love. But if the risks are greater than the benefits then we give out measures of love.

The father in our story refused to love this way. He risked public shaming. He chanced getting mocked. He opened himself up to getting hurt. The father taught that sometimes it is more important to be reconciled than it is to be right. Sometimes you have to hike up your skirt and run through town as an embarrassment to embrace a son who just wants to come home. Sometimes you have to put down the ego and give out vulnerable love. Sometimes you throw caution to the wind and love courageously.

The older son counts. You can hear it in his voice, “All these years I have been working like a slave…….you never given me even a young goat……..when this son of yours came back.” I have brought you home nothing but straight “A’s.” I have top performed in my class, in my sport, in my career. I have done everything to earn your love. The father says you can’t love this way. Unconditional love does not exist on the scales of calculated devotion.

In 1668, toward the end of his life, Rembrandt painted “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It now hangs in a hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the painting as you move down from the father’s face, you notice the dirty and ragged rags of the returning son’s clothes. The bottom of his feet are visible with one sandal lying on the floor. The son’s bald head is being embraced in his father’s lap. It is as though the son has just walked in and falling at his father’s feet. The son has come home, let him be embraced. Rembrandt Prodigal Son

But just off to the side you will notice the older son. He is draped in a red robe and standing with his arms crossed. The light shines on the older son’s face and the look of condescension is written all over it. The son has come home, let him be kicked out.

The power of Rembrandt’s painting is found in the distance between the father who is embracing the wayward son and the older son who stands off to the side. It’s hard to enjoy a reunion party when your heart is full of resentment. Gratitude and resentment cannot occupy the same heart. It doesn’t take running away from home and living a reckless life to find yourself far away from home. It only takes letting resentment take root in the heart. Love cannot be found at home when resentment lives in the heart.

Forgiveness can be hard to swallow. Unconditional love can be hard to wrapped our minds around. Grace can seem so careless. That is until we realize whether we stayed home or not, we are all sinners. We are all in need of being loved.

Dr. Tom Long, one of my professors at seminary, tells a story of the time one of his students went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own. At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a home delivered pizza. As they headed for the phone booth – before the days of cell phones – a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change. The father reached into his pockets of his coat and pulled out two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said to the homeless man. “Take what you need.” The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went his way.

It only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a phone call. Can you spare some change?” The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”

If the prodigal son story teaches us anything, it demonstrates to us that somedays we have opportunity to show grace and others we are begging for grace ourselves. And no matter where we find ourselves coming home depends on grace.

If any story deserves a happy ending, it is the tale of two brothers. The father does for the older brother what he does for the younger brother. He goes out to meet him. This is where the story drops off. How does it end? Shall we put aside our resentment and go to the party? Will we keep denying grace even when it keeps us from coming home? Will we sacrifice our own wholeness to simply prove a point? You tell me, how does the story end? Amen.

(Luke 15: 11-32 Preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Georgia)

A Tale of Two Brothers: Part I

A Tale of Two Brothers: Part I

tale of two brothers“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15: 2). This is how it started. This is what motivated Jesus to tell three stories about lost things, lost animals, and lost people. The religious elite criticizing his eating habits, questioning his motives, and interrogating him on his mission. Three stories to demonstrate his purpose.

A farmer has one hundred sheep. One carelessly wonders off. The farmer leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to go look for one lost sheep. When he finds it, he calls to his friends and neighbors to celebrate.

A woman losses a valuable coin. She turns her house upside down to find it. When she does she goes door-to-door inviting her neighbors to join her in the celebration.

Then there is the tale of two sons. The rebel. The perfectionist. A father who loved both. The youngest set out on a path of destructive selfishness. The oldest stayed close to home but lived in judgment and jealousy. Regardless of where they found themselves, both brothers were lost. Both were in need of grace.

In the next couple of weeks we are going to explore the tale of the two brothers. In the parable it is two different individuals but if we are honest with ourselves there is a little bit of both in us. We can as quickly turn from asking forgiveness for ourselves to denying forgiveness for others. When it comes to ourselves we want a God of mercy. But when it comes to others we want a God of fairness.

In his recent memoir entitled In the Sanctuary of Outcast, Neil White recounts his eighteen-month federal prison sentence for bank fraud. Neil was not sent to any ordinary prison. He was sent to a leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. He and other similar inmates who had been convicted of white collar crimes shared space with the last people in America disfigured by leprosy (show image on screen). In the early days of his stay, Neil does everything possible to avoid being near the Hansen’s diseased outcasts. Over time and learning more about the condition, he befriends a number of them. He comes to admire their tenacity as they cope with the cruelty of their condition and living in a forgotten world.

One evening, the lepers were holding their annual spring dance. The inmates were assigned to set up tables and sound equipment in the ballroom. The party started before they were able to leave the room. Patients limp and wheel and slide onto the dance floor. Scarred limbs in the air and disfigured faces are radiating joy as they move to the music. An elderly woman motions for Neil to dance with her. As they move around the dance floor, suddenly the party is interrupted by a leper named Smeltzer. He screams out, “You are not invited! No inmates at our party! You are not welcome here. Get out!” Quietly, Neil and the other inmates exit through the door. Neil writes in his memoir, “We just got kicked out of a lepers dance.”

Have you ever felt that low? Have you ever felt that you were not even welcome at a party for the unwelcomed? Sometimes a divorce can make us feel that low. We are not sure how our old friends will receive us. We are not sure what the neighbors are saying. A battle with an addiction where we have hurt those we love leave us in a place of unwelcome. Sometimes those who have a spouse or a child that has committed suicide are left feeling ostracized. They feel that the questions are being directed back towards them. They are afraid to leave the house. A person struggling with their sexuality and trying to make sense of their feelings feel unwelcomed even among those that are supposed to make them feel supported.

And sometimes it is just being the baby in the family and always feeling judged by the accomplishments of the older brother or sister. Living under the constant shadow of someone more successful than you can drive a person to do irrational things. We don’t know what drove the younger brother in the story to demand his father’s inheritance. It may have just been simple selfishness. It could have been a rebellious streak. It could have been he was tired of playing by the rules of the house. Regardless, he finds himself neck deep in pig mud. A big-time player turns into a big-time loser. He starts out in a righteous home and ends up in a pig sty. He plays his father’s love to claim a portion of his father’s fortune and then blows it on a binge. He abuses it and he strays from it. He squandered it and now he wants to return it broken.

This is where Jesus gets so frustrating. I got enough religion in me that I can understand letting him back in the house. But maybe he should come in through the backdoor. Let’s let him eat in his room by himself. Let’s put him on probation, a trial period. We need to create a schedule so that he can work off some of the money he took from the old man. There is a lesson or two that this boy needs to learn.

A party. We going throw this kid a party? Here is where it gets challenging. If I were the kid, I would long for the mercy. But If I am the one asked to show the mercy, well I might need to see some proof that you have changed.

The word prodigal means wasteful and reckless. If you ask me, we need to rename this parable. If anyone is being reckless and wasteful, it is the father. The kid hasn’t even apologized. The father cut him short of a full apology. He saw him coming. He didn’t wait until he got to the front door. He hiked up his skirt for all the town folks to see and ran across the field and embraced his irresponsible son.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote a short story called “The Capital of the World.”  In it, he told the story of a father and his teenage son who were estranged from one another.  The son’s name was Paco.  He had wronged his father.  In his shame he had run away from home.

In the story, the father searched all over Spain for Paco, but still he could not find the boy.  Finally, in the city of Madrid, in a last desperate attempt to find his son, the father placed an ad in the daily newspaper.  The ad read:  “PACO, MEET ME AT THE HOTEL MONTANA.  NOON TUESDAY.  ALL IS FORGIVEN.  LOVE, PAPA.”

The next day, in front of the newspaper office, eight hundred Pacos showed up. All seeking forgiveness. All seeking the love of their father.

If your name is Paco or Tony or Julie or Sherry and you feel that you have no one searching for you, then I want you to know that God will seek out ever Meth house or Methodist Church, Bar or Baptist or Hell hole or dark valley until you are found. The world may have given up, your family may have quit searching, your friends left you alone, but God is on the hunt and God won’t stop until you know that you are loved. God’s capacity for finding us is greater than our talent for getting lost.

For those worried about wayward children, friend, or family members, I want you to know it is not their remorse that forces God to set a banquet table, it is not their desire to start over that causes God to kill the fatted calf. It is not their getting their life together that causes God to be on edge until their return home. God’s love is unconditional. God’s love is limitless. God’s love is soaked in grace.

One of my favorite stories in Philip Yancey’s excellent book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, comes from an article in The Boston Globe about an unusual wedding banquet:

Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered a wedding banquet. The two of them pored over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive taste, and the bill came to $13,000. After leaving a check for half that amount as a down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.

The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this a little longer.”

When his angry fiancée returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the Events Manager could not have been more understanding. “The same thing happened to me, Honey,” she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. “The contract is binding. You’re only entitled to $1,300 back. You have two options: to forfeit the rest of the down payment, or go ahead with the banquet. I’m sorry, Really, I am.”

It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party – not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.

And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken “in honor of the groom,” she said – and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants, and addicts took one night off from the hard life of the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.

Grace. Grace is being welcomed to a party by someone who came to eat with sinners. Amazing grace. Amen.

(Luke 15: 11-32 Preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Georgia)

 

In the Beginning God

In the Beginning God

31832_A_Quiet_HikeThe holidays are great. They are full of excitement, family and festivities. But when it’s over I am ready to get back to normal. I want the house back to its pre-Christmas décor and the new toys put up. Children jacked-up on chocolate running through the house flying Star Wars Galactic gliders is enough to make the most laid back father find his breaking point.

The calm of a silent night gives way to chaos.

Chaos. This is how the world is described before God took on the role of artist and begin creating. Before God spoke the world into existence the world was a dark glob of mess. Translations of Genesis says it was a “formless void,” or “vast waste,” or “formless and empty.” The earth was without order and no creative purpose. But all that changed when Genesis says, “In the beginning God….” God was, God is, and God will always be. In the beginning God.

For those who have felt abandoned in 2017, “In the beginning God” is statement of more than historical record. This is a confession. When all that is left is chaos and darkness, God is present. 31815_A_Quiet_Hike

This is a God who chose to get intimately involved in the chaotic mess. This is an artist who chose to get His hands dirty. An artist who gets the stains of water color on His fingertips. God gets down in the chaotic mess and creates something beautiful. If 2017 has you asking, “Is God still able to create something out of my chaotic life?” The answer is found in Genesis 1: “In the beginning God….” If God can take all the chaos of primordial substance and make something as beautiful as sunsets, waterfalls, and sunflowers then God can do something with your messed up life.

As we head into 2018, we all have something in our life that can be described as chaotic, formless, or empty. What is it? Is it a relationship? A job? A loss of some kind? Your emotions?

The story of creation is not just about a God who made the heavens and earth. It is a story of a God who takes things that are formless and empty and creates something life giving and full of purpose. This is what God wants to do in your life in 2018.

31828_Quiet_hikeGo over to the New Testament and we discover how. In using the same images as Genesis, the author of the Gospel of John says speaking of Jesus, “All things came into being through him, and without him no one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3). A life with Jesus at the center is a life that can have order in chaos and purpose beyond being empty.

A Future Hope (Jeremiah 29:1-14)

now-whatMitch Albom, perhaps most noted for his book Tuesdays With Morrie, in a recent book Have a Little Faith quotes from a 1975 sermon from his rabbi. The rabbi tells the story of a man seeking employment on a farm; he hands a letter of recommendation to his new employer that reads simply, “He sleeps in a storm.” The farmer is uncertain what to make of the note, but desperate for help, he hires the guy. Several weeks pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips though the valley. Awakened by swirling rain and howling wind, the farmer leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly. And so the farmer dashes off to the barn, where he sees to his amazement that all the animals are secure with plenty of feed. He then turns to the field, only to discover that the bales of wheat had been bound and wrapped in tarps. And when he runs to the silo, he finds latched doors and dry grain. Only then does he understand the note, “He sleeps in a storm.”

For most Americans this election season has been one giant storm. The lighting strikes of negativity, the thunderous booms of allegations, and the soaking rain of misery have left many of us drenched in despair. Even if we are joyful that our candidate won, we still are left feeling like we need a new change of clothes.

The year was 598 B.C. and a storm called Babylon had rip through Israel and forced many into exile. They had been removed from their homeland and forced to live in a foreign land. But they knew their God was faithful. They knew that their God rescued. They knew that their God saved. They knew for certain that their God was just around the corner. They knew that at any moment Yahweh was going to sweep down and free them. If you would have taken a poll, the overwhelming response would have been that it was just a matter of time that God was going to lead them back to their land, restore their homes, and crush their enemies.

To make matters worse, false prophets were telling the people that this was exactly what was going to happen. So, live your life in a holding pattern. Live out of suitcases for a while. Don’t pull out the cookbooks quiet yet. Make due on peanut butter and jelly.

The prophet who was told by God at the beginning of his ministry, “I have put my words in your mouth,” was to go and tell the people, “Babylon is going to be your home for a while.” The prophet Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon, “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Go ahead and marry, have children, get ready for grandchildren. Get settled. Get comfortable. Unpack your bags. You are not going anywhere anytime soon.

It was not ideal. It was not what they had expected. It was not what they would have wanted. But it was where they had found themselves. And as a result God says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare

Through this election process many Christians feel like they are living as exiles in their own homeland. And in one sense we are. As followers of Jesus, according to Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior” (Phil. 3:20). Hebrews 13:14 says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” The scripture speaks of Christians as “exiles and strangers” in whatever culture or nation we inhabit. This doesn’t mean we lack engagement. It doesn’t mean we shrink from responsibility. Instead we work for the welfare of the city. We strive for the betterment of the nation. We struggle for justice. We stand for peace on earth.

But how do we strive for good in the midst of the bad? How do we stand for justice and peace in the midst of violence? How do we unite when we are so divided? How do we find rest for our souls when the storm is raging?

Hope. Hope is not optimism. Optimism is what politicians preach. Hope is what prophets and preachers proclaim. Optimism is simply bringing a wishful attitude into a present situation. Optimism is a good trait to have. But it is not Christian hope. Hope is rooted in the goodness of God. Hope is believing in God’s goodness more than believing in the world’s badness. Hope allows us to see beyond our circumstances. Hope helps us to understand that we don’t simply define our lives by what we can see, taste, and touch. This is what the writer of Hebrews means when he says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

On Tuesday night, election night, I went to bed early. Along with many others, by placing our hope in Jesus, we are learning to sleep through the storm. This was what the prophet Jeremiah wanted the people of exile to understand as well. Hope keeps life circumstances from turning into life sentences. God is not helpless when life seems helpless. God is not spinning out of control when life seems to have lost its way. God is not lost when our life seems to have no direction. Jeremiah ends his message to the people with a direct word from the Lord, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

A future with hope. This is God’s message to God’s people today. This is the prophetic message the church is sent to proclaim in our world today. It is time the Church awakens from its slumber and gives this message of hope to a world screaming in pain and loneliness and division.

Francis Miller, a leader who served under General Dwight Eisenhower during World War II, once related an incident that occurred at the end of the war. A young lieutenant under his command was talking with a Russian officer, who asked the American officer, who also happened to be a Christian, if he had read the writings of Karl Marx. The young Christian replied that he had read Marx. In response the Russian officer said, “Then you know how it is going to all come out.” According to the story the American asked his Russian counterpart if he had ever read the bible. When the Soviet officer allowed that he had, the Christian responded by saying, “Then you know how it will turn out.”

God’s goodness is revealed in Jesus Christ. God believes in each of us enough to send His Son that we may have hope beyond the grave. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We have not been left to wallow in our own despair. We are a people with a future hope. Amen.

(Sermon preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Ga on Sunday, November 13, 2016)

The Gift of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-47)

Book of Acts logoAre you a Democrat? Are you a Republican? You pro-life? Or are you pro-choice? You support traditional marriage? Or do you think it is time for marriage to be re-defined? If we get nothing else out of this election cycle, it is clear we like our labels. Regardless if the issues are truly as clear-cut as we like to make them out to be, we like to know where we stand. We also like to know where our neighbor comes down on these issues. Labels give us confidence. They help us identify ourselves and others.

One of the most important question we can ask is “Who are my people?” The answer to this question give us our social identity and sense of belonging. As much as we want to think we are creators of our own destiny, how we come to answer this question shapes what we think of ourselves and our world. The answer to “Who am I” is found in asking “Who are my people?”

I am African-American. I am Asian. I am Latino. I am non-religious. I am Christian. These are our social identities. They are important to us. It is at the boundaries of these social identities that some of our most heated and complex conversations happen. These identity markers become our ticket at the ballot box. They become the reason we use words like “us” and “them” or “those other people” or “not my kind.” These identity markers help us create community. They can also be damaging and hurtful when used to exclude others from community.

In Luke 9:49-50 John, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, says, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” Do you hear what he is saying? Here is someone ministering in the name of Jesus but because he is not a part of the right community, John thinks he should be stopped. It doesn’t matter that he is doing the right thing. He is not part of the right group. Jesus responds, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.” Jesus is saying that he may not be a part of the right group but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do the right thing. This is a great reminder for all of us who are tempted to demonize fellow Christians who happen to be voting for a candidate that you don’t represent.

Just after this episode, Jesus sends some of his followers to prepare for his arrival in a village of Samaritans. The Samaritans refuse to accept Jesus. As a response, James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, say, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” (Luke 9:54)? Followers of the one whose message is love are asking, “Do you want us to kill them?”

The disciples were shocked that Jesus would talk to a Samaritan woman. They complained that mother’s brought their children to Jesus to be blessed. And here, they wanted to call fire down from heaven and turn the town into a pile of ash. Of course, the first disciples were good Jews. And the first century Jewish faith had clear markers on what distinguished someone as clean and unclean, pure and impure, godly and ungodly. You were Jew or Gentile. If you were Gentile, you had no place at God’s banquet table.

But something changes. Something happens that disrupts the disciples understanding of social identity. In a few weeks we will be looking at the first church council meeting in Acts 15. It was a called meeting by church officials to determine if Gentiles could be a part of the church without going through the Jewish conversion process or if they needed to first go through the ritual of becoming Jew. Can Gentiles stay Gentile and worship the covenant God of Israel? The council determined that they could remain Gentile and worship God as it was made possible through Jesus. They send a letter to the non-Jewish Christian communities explaining their decision. The letter begins, “The brothers both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings” (Acts 15:23).  This simple greeting is hugely revolutionary. For the first time the word “brother” is used by Jewish men to refer to non-Jewish men. Some scholars suggest this is one of the few places in first and second century Judaism that Gentiles are referred to as belonging to a Jewish social identity without becoming a convert to Judaism. By referring to the Gentile believers as “brothers” the Jewish-background church leaders are saying they belong equally to the same social group. The Jewish believers see the Gentile believers as having identical standing in Christ while allowing them to hold on to their Gentile identity.

Something happened. Something allowed the early followers of Jesus to see the world in a different way. A few years before they were ready to call fire down from heaven for those who were different and felt it was their place to remind Jesus of his Jewish identity. But now they are ready to redefine the question, “Who are my people.”

What happened?

Pentecost. Pentecost happened.

Post-resurrection band of believers have regrouped after the violent death of their leader, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven. With a head count of 120 including the original eleven, with the replacement of Judas chosen, they wait in Jerusalem. Whatever the band of followers were thinking when Jesus told them to wait for the Spirit’s coming, you can bet they were not expecting what they got. What they got was a fear-induced, adrenaline-pumping, wind-tossed, fire-seized, smoke-filled experience. A gale force wind and tongues of fire sends chaos through the streets. A Pentecostal tent revival gets confused with a college frat party.

The streets of Jerusalem were lined with people celebrating the Festival of Weeks. From the Greek word for fifty, the festival eventually became called Pentecost. It occurred fifty days after Passover. The festival celebrated the gift of the harvest. It later came to be recognized as the celebration of the anniversary of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. People came from all over. The city filled with different nationalities of Jews living in Diaspora. A cacophony of languages rang through the streets.

The Spirit’s arrival marks the turning point in the mission of Jesus. It fulfills the promises he made to his disciples that they would “receive power” and be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The Spirit of God visits and says, “You think resurrection was something? Wait until you see what’s next.”

The book of Acts is not a story of a cluster of creative individuals who set out to start a new religion. It is not a story of a group of men who should be working in the branding and marketing department of Apple. It is not even a story of people who were sitting around trying to decide how they were going to keep the story of Jesus going. They didn’t know what they were going to do. They didn’t have a plan. They didn’t have an agenda. Gathered in that room we have a group of people who loved Jesus and knew him to be something special. But beyond that they just wanted to survive another day.

This was God’s miracle. It was a miracle the disciples could have never comprehended. Now, suddenly, they are speaking in many languages and people from every corner of the world are hearing the good news of Jesus. Nobody in their right minds would infuse this band of confused and fearful men and women with power. Nobody except God.

Peter, the one who denied Jesus, is now filled with the Holy Spirit and is ready to speak. He interprets this event as fulfilling the book of Joel’s prophecy of the coming salvation on the day of the Lord. He recites the prophet, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your old men shall dream dreams, Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

Power, boldness, and an injection of supernatural determination was given to the church at Pentecost. But the real miracle was that at Pentecost the church was given a word to say to the brokenness of the world.  A word unlike any other word. Sons and daughters were given a word to speak that is stronger than death. Old men given dreams to share of hope deeper than despair. A word given to all God’s people, men and women, old and young, that in the power of Christ’s resurrection there is life.

The miracle of Pentecost is a word spoken to the world. A word that the world is desperate to hear. It is what unifies and brings together the church. Jesus told those early disciples you will be my witness – you will have a word to speak. It is the word that God is reconciling himself to the world. God is rescuing the broken. God is setting the captive free. God is releasing the prisoners. And God is doing it all through the power of the Spirit of Jesus. The Church is the Church when it gives witness to the presence of God in the world.

A rushing, mighty wind roars through a crowded room, and tongues of fire are placed on each one. A Pentecost of tongues explodes in witnessing to the name of Jesus. Three thousand souls that day were stirred and added to the church as they believed the Word.

The Holy Spirit gives us a new way of being human in community. Through the Holy Spirit the question “Who are my people,” is answered by a community centered on Jesus. The community functions as God’s witness to the world. The Church is at its best when it is united in giving witness to Jesus through the power of the Spirit.

Get Your Head Out of the Clouds (Acts 1:1-11)

Book of Acts logoEaster has come and gone. The shouts of “Alleluia” left us with hearts overflowing. On resurrection morning we heard “He is risen” and we walked out with renewed energy. Easter was a great day.

The resurrection is behind us. New life is before us. What do we do now? For some, they want to hit the rewind button and do it again. The passion, the energy, it all felt good. We encountered the resurrected presence and we want another taste. It is for those that the angels say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Other words, “Hello! Quit relishing in the past. Look ahead. He is about to do something new. Get your head out of the clouds!”

The book of Acts is the story of a Spirit-filled movement of what can happen when people get their head out of the clouds. It is the story of God’s people on the move. It is the story of Jesus’ followers who took serious his prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”

When the greatest authority in your life is a God who won’t stay dead, then your life is going to be interesting. The book of Acts is filled with adventure, suspense, and a God-size mission that turns the world upside down. Today we start our journey through the book of Acts with the hopes of discovering how we can be a church fully alive.

The author begins by saying, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1). Acts is part of a two-volume collection. The author of Luke’s gospel begins by saying, “I decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:3, 4). Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke belong together.

The writings were dedicated to a person called “Theophilus.” The name means “lover of God.” In Luke, he is given the title “Most Excellent,” which would be reserved for a high-ranking government official or someone of public stature. He is already familiar with the Jesus movement. Christianity was seen by many with widespread suspicion. As we will see through Acts, it causes a lot of disruption when it is preached on the streets. The movement disrupted a lot of the social order. Jesus followers were beginning to face regular persecution. At the end of the book, when Paul is in Rome, the Jewish leaders said, “We would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22).

In dedicating this two-volume collection to Theophilus, I believe that Luke is trying to give a true account of the Jesus movement up against the one that may have been spoken on the streets. Luke wants Theophilus to have the truth before he makes a decision of what to do with Jesus and the movement. Luke sets to layout an accurate account of the story of Jesus and His movement.

After his resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with his disciples teaching about the kingdom of God.  Like us, the disciples had a hard time grasping the kingdom of God. They were thinking that Jesus was about to restore Israel’s independence. For the disciples, the kingdom of God meant Israel’s freedom from the suppressive power of Rome. For us, we have made the kingdom of God about where we go when we die. We have made it a teaching about keeping our heads in the clouds. But the kingdom of God is about God’s reign invading our age in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The kingdom of God is God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19). This is the message of the kingdom of God. The reign of God is over all the earth. This is the message that Jesus sends his disciples out with. This is what they are being called to give witness. And what we are called to tell the world – Jesus reigns!

The witness is done in the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, the same Spirit that breathed life into creation, the same Spirit that spoke through the prophets is the same Spirit that will empower the disciples to carry the message of God’s reign to the ends of the earth. The disciples wanted political power. They had earlier asked about who would reign with him. Now they wanted to know about restoring the political strength of Israel. But Jesus tells them they will have a power that that is far greater than any political power. When the Holy Spirit comes upon them they will be given heavenly power.

“You will be my witness” is sort of the theme of the book. “In Jerusalem” covers the first seven chapters, “in all Judea and Samaria” covers 8:1 to 11:18, and the remainder of the book traces the gospel to the ends of the earth as it extends to Rome.

The Christian faith is a faith on the move. The Gospel of Luke records Jesus as he heads to Jerusalem. The book of Acts tells the story of Jesus’ Spirit descending in Jerusalem and sending his followers out from Jerusalem. The Christian faith is a missionary movement. What is it going to take to reach the 1.6 billion people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ? It is going to take a Spirit-filled presence.

What is it going to take to keep sharing, giving, and living so that every person in Cherokee County is given an opportunity to respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

It is going to take a church that does not settle for comfort and safety. It is going to take a church that is possessed by the Spirit of God. It is going to take people of faith who go out in boldness filled by the Spirit of Jesus. What is it going to take to take the gospel to the ends of the earth? A church that has its feet on the ground and its head out of the clouds.

It is hard to see the Spirit of God at work among us when our head is in the clouds. All kinds of impossible things are being made possible because the Spirit of God is at work among us. Things like families being restored, marriages being renewed, and prodigal children coming home. Things like drug addicts being delivered. Alcoholics being set free. Chains broken. Freedom given. New life.

This gospel is the hope of the world. What sin has destroyed, Jesus’ blood has restored. Now by the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to be bold witnesses to this truth. Easter was amazing. But what is to come is truly remarkable. God is calling forth our church to new beginnings. God is calling us to be witnesses of His Good News. This week I want to ask you to be bold. Take an opportunity to invite three people to worship with you next Sunday. Invite them to be your guest. We will be talking about the birth of the church. Be bold. Invite someone.

I read recently of a Mexican priest who decided to take communion to the people of a town whose church was overrun by the drug cartel. They shot anyone who came near, but the priest came forward to enter the church. They shot the ground around his feet, and overcome with fear, he started to leave, but then he stopped, came back again, and moved forward while the town came out to watch. His courage inspired others to fall in step beside him until there was a collection of unarmed people moving toward the church. The startled soldiers no longer had the will to do them harm. They stepped back helpless of the power that was evident among them. The people shared communion. Something moments earlier had been impossible was made possible by the power of God’s presence.

We are called to be a witness. We are called to give witness to the one who calls himself the Bread of Life, who tells the woman at the well that he can provide her with water that will quench her thirst. We are called to give witness to the one that feeds five thousand with one basket of bread and fish. We are called to give witness to the one who says the kingdom of God is like a giant banquet table to which everyone is invited.

You are being invited by a living God to be present with him at His table. We are not worthy. It is an invitation. All are welcome. At this table you will find strength for the journey. At this table you will find the source of strength to go out and be bold witnesses in the name of Christ. Come and feast at the table. Leave empowered. Be a witness of God’s reign to your world. Amen.