The Ragamuffin Gospel

A sermon based on Jeremiah 7:21-28 and Ephesians 4:17-5:2 preached on July 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s been a few weeks since we’ve spent time reflecting on Ephesians, so a little bit of a refresher for us may be in order.

We’re a little more than half way through. With the end of Chapter 3 and the beginning of Chapter 4, we talked about how Paul shifts the discussion. The first half of this letter is full of big words, ideas about God and what God has done, and is still doing, through Jesus Christ. Paul wows us with Divine ideas that are as deep and wide as eternity itself.

Paul is inviting us into a new way of seeing absolutely everything through and in Christ Jesus. He’s telling us that we have been invited into nothing less than the immensity and mystery of a God who is beyond our reach or knowledge, and every bit of our comprehension. And the only way we can ever properly respond to a God this big, an invitation to enter this vast Divine life, is to worship. To stand in awe. To stop right where we are, to cease being distracted by all the small things that take up most of our time, and look up into the heavens with eyes and ears and minds wide open, and start paying attention to something—Someone—much bigger than ourselves. Our tiny little lives and everything that takes up space inside of them are not what we’re made to live for. We are made for so much more. This is news that should startle us awake. Push and pull on our hearts and minds. Throw us out of our ruts.

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The back half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is all about how to properly respond to this immense invitation to live bigger lives. Here’s when Paul’s words get a whole lot more specific. Ephesians chapters 4-6 are all about what it looks like when heaven comes crashing down to earth. What it looks like when the ways of God begin to change the ways we live and relate to one another.

If you’re of the sort who prefers practical advice and instruction about what to do, what to say, how to act in ways that are faithful and responsive to God’s call upon our lives, this is the part where you can start paying attention. All the sudden, Paul is done speaking in poetry. Our passage for the morning is full of  specifics. Short, instructional, no nonsense directives:

Take off your former way of life,

he writes.

Take a fresh breath and let God renew your attitude and spirit.Put on your new self (ok, that’s poetry). Speak truth. Work honestly with your hands. Share with anyone who has a need. Offer only words that build up. Take all the words that are used to tear others down and yank them out of your vocabulary. They have no place in this new life we’re given. Communicate grace, be kind, compassionate. Forgive one another. And, in so doing, you will do nothing less than imitate God—living all your life in all of God’s love!

Easy for him to say. Much harder for us to do. But in the very center of what Paul is saying is a word of grace. This is not so much a list of things to do or attitudes to adopt as it is how our lives, our relationships, our hearts will change as we take off our old self—our conventional attitudes and ways of seeing and engaging everything—and dress up in the life God has for us in Christ Jesus. We don’t do any of this. This—all this—is what God does in us as we put Him on, clothe ourselves in Him.

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This is The Ragamuffin Gospel. This book has changed a lot of lives. And like any good book, it’s also made a lot of others furious. It’s written by a former Franciscan Priest whose name is Brennan Manning. The entire book is a testimony to the goodness and grace of God.

Father Manning, for all appearances, had it all together. He was well-revered by his fellow Priests. He lived a contemplative life among the poor in France. At one point, he spent six months in a cave in the middle of no man’s land as a desert mystic—living in silence and prayer. After that, he became a campus minister at Broward Community College in Florida. It was there that he became an alcoholic. When he failed to find the affirmation he craved through his work—some notion of God-belovedness—he medicated himself with booze. He lost himself inside the bottle. He left the priesthood and got married. He went into a six-month addiction treatment, and in the years that followed, he had two relapses. After 18 years, his marriage ended—a casualty of his alcoholism. And then one day it hit him: Alcohol wasn’t the real problem. It was the thing that he used to cover up the problem. Brennan realized that the problem was this terrible life-long, effort-filled, exhausting, graceless pursuit of God—he had always tried his best to prove himself worthy to God.

All the sudden he found out that in an effort to find God, he has lost himself. This is why he was a broken man. Then, the grace of God invaded him. One of the greatest regrets of his life, Manning says, is all the time he wasted in shame, guilt, remorse, and self-condemnation.

This is what he writes in his Preface to his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel:

The Ragamuffin Gospel is not for the super-spiritual. It is not for muscular Christians who have made John Wayne, and not Jesus, their hero. It is not for academics who would imprison Jesus in the ivory tower of biblical scholarship. It is not for noisy, feel-good folks who manipulate Christianity into a naked appeal to emotion. It is not for hooded mystics who want magic in their religion. It is not for Alleluia Christians who live only on the mountaintop and have never visited the valley of desolation.

It is not for the fearless and tearless. It is not for red-hot zealots who boast with the rich young ruler of the Gospels, ‘All these commandments I have kept from my youth.’ It is not for the complacent who hoist over their shoulders a tote bag of honors, diplomas, and good works, actually believing they have it made. It is not for legalists who would rather surrender control of their souls to rules than run the risk of living in union with Jesus.

Manning continues,

The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out. It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting their heavy suitcase from one hand to the other. It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.

It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay. It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God. It is for smart people who know they are stupid, and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags. The Ragamuffin Gospel is a book I wrote for myself and anyone who has grown weary and discouraged along the Way.

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Take your former way of life,

Paul writes, your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your

your crumpled old self—the version of you that used to devote itself to worthless pursuits, dead ends, sensual, greedy, appetite-driven, reckless living…and put on your new self: truthful, righteous, holy.

The old way has to go.

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In our reading from Jeremiah this morning, we hear God speak words of frustration to the young prophet. Jeremiah has a tough job to do. Here, God asks him to hold nothing back, to relay to the Israelites how God feels about their actions. They have not listened to God. They have not followed God. Instead, they have chosen their own way, and in so doing, they have not moved forward. They have slid backwards.

Speak to the people, Jeremiah. But they won’t hear you. This is a people who have refused to be taught.

Words like these occur throughout scripture. Even the most faithful among us have a tendency to trust our own wit and wisdom to make it through our days—to live our lives under our own power. To practice this self-help-centered Gospel, a life that, as Brennan Manning would say has much more to do with John Wayne than Jesus. No more of that, God says!

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It’s remarkable that in a letter all about spiritual maturity, we have these words: Stop trying. Even among all the imperatives in their passage, it should be clear to us that it is not we who do the work. It is not we who make the effort to arrive or achieve anything. All Paul is asking us to do is take off all that covers up and keeps us from sharing life with God and to put on something new and renewing. The way into new life starts with simply say Yes to God, letting him dress us with Himself, with truth, and righteousness, and holiness.

Stop trying to catch up to God—that’s the former way of life: trying to be your own God under your our effort, like Brennan Manning was doing. He destroyed himself from the inside out living that way.

All the effort here is God’s. We simply stop and let God catch up to us—take us over. Form us. Renew us. Change us. This is grace. So that we might not be filled with our own fullness, but be emptied of ourselves and then filled with the fullness of God.

The Christian life doesn’t start with us. It doesn’t even continue with us. It’s all God. Living the Ragamuffin Gospel means continuously growing into the truth that I am who I am, you are who you are, because Jesus is who Jesus is. We don’t become good in order to get to God. We are made good because God gets to us.

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The Jesus life isn’t about what we can accomplish for God. It’s about what God can accomplish in and through us when we stop trying to matter to God. So, let’s get out of the way of what God is doing in and among us.

This is the Ragamuffin Gospel.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Holy Soil

A sermon based Psalm 24 and Ephesians 1:1-2 preached on May 7th, 2017

It won’t be long now that we will have a Community Gardens in Barboursville. Just a block this way, along Depot Street, the field has been tilled. The soil has been stirred. Filled again with carbon dioxide. It’s breathing again. This is how land becomes ripe for growth. When its lungs can expand.

After years of sitting there, breathless and dense—compacted—a boring, lifeless, barren field is now being readied for cultivation. Readied for life. Readied for resurrection. Resurrection is what happens when what was once buried deep in the ground—breathless—comes to life again. When what was once stuck in place, unable to move or grow, is given vitality, meaning, and purpose. What was once fallow and inconsequential becomes vibrant and dynamic and life-giving once more. Resurrection is the process of readying the soil of our hearts and minds and lives so that we can grow, cultivate something new and holy among us—with God’s help. This is the Message of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

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Today, we’re diving into this life-giving letter written to the young church in Ephesus. This letter is only six chapters long. Any one of you can read it in a space of fifteen minutes, but don’t let its short length fool you. The book of Ephesians is nothing less than a Christian Opus. It’s been compared over and over again to a piece of music that stirs the soul to life. Many have said about Ephesians that it’s the one book in all of scripture that has woken them up to Jesus-alive, God-alive. One man said about Ephesians that through reading it, studying its words,

he saw a new world…Everything was new. I had a new outlook, new experiences, new attitudes to other people. I loved God. Jesus Christ became the Center of everything…I had been quickened; I was really alive!

Ephesians was John Calvin’s favorite letter. It seems as though nobody can read Ephesians without being moved to wonder and worship. What’s more, Ephesians is, for our time, the most contemporary and relevant book in the entire Bible. Its words—the promises made inside of it—have much for us in our current context. It speaks of community in a world of disunity. It promises reconciliation in time of estrangement and hostility. All of these 1st Century notions are also 21st Century ones.

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But, what makes the letter to the Ephesians so important for us—for we who call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ—is that it doesn’t just offer us words of comfort and hope. It doesn’t simply encourage us to endure in this life, to hunker down in prayer and keep on believing. Instead, Ephesians gives the Church an action plan. It’s here to encourage us to become movers and shakers, to get in on the project of God. Pastor Eugene Peterson call this holy endeavor “Practicing Resurrection.” In a sense, Ephesians tells us what to do with Easter. Its main point is nothing less than the entire point of our Christian faith. Where all this walking in the Way of Jesus leads us. We practice our faith for a purpose. The point of it all is to grow into Christian maturity.

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I’ve been going to church since the day I was born. Maybe you have too. I can’t think of a Sunday when my family was in town and we didn’t go to church. When I wasn’t encouraged to attend Logos or Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, Sunday School. But have you ever wondered why? This thing called Church—why do we do this? Or maybe that’s the wrong question.

All this being Church—attending worship and spaghetti luncheons—where’s it all taking us? Where is all of this going? What’s the point of this? Is it all repetition for repetition’s sake? We are Church, but why and to what end? Ephesians answers this question: the point of all this is to grow into Christian maturity.

Much like the journey of physical maturity, however treacherous it is, spiritual maturity is about growing up in God. But Paul doesn’t just say that and assume we know what he’s talking about. He goes on to tell us what growing to Christian maturity looks like. Just like physical maturity, the right conditions for growing into a mature faith requires much care, the right kind of nourishment, guidance. So, we’re going to spend these summer months slowly combing through this letter to the church in Ephesus. It’s written to encourage us to grow into the full stature of Christ Jesus, right here in the holy soil into which we have been planted.

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I hope to a certain extent that the idea of spiritual maturity in Christ is a new one to you. It’s relatively new to me, also.

I bet that if you asked the average Christian what the goal of the Christian life was, he or she would say something about getting into heaven at life’s end. I think that’s a fine hope. I share in that hope, too. But there’s many a Christian who spend their life holding their breath, waiting for their reward in the afterlife, because it’s never occurred to them that there’s purpose for living this life too, and it has nothing to do with waiting for what comes next.

Hoping for a distant tomorrow seems like a lousy way to live your life today. God has something for us right where we are. On earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus prayed. Eternal life starts right here and right now—in the holy soil of earth. This is where Church starts. When a family of the faithful begins to realize together that living this Christian life is about practicing heaven on earth together—helping each other grow up together into the full stature of our living Lord, Jesus Christ.

Practicing resurrection, holding each other in the holy soil of Easter, all the while prayerfully encouraging one another toward full spiritual maturity—it happens with feet firmly planted on earth. Church is how we all get grafted into God’s salvation story. Church is the community garden of Christian growth. What others have called the Colony of Heaven.

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These first two verses of Ephesians are short, but they contain multitudes. They get us thinking about all that matters as we set out to grow into the full stature of Christ with and for each other. Growing into full Christian maturity takes one part grace as well as one part peace.

Grace and peace,

Paul writes.

This mention of grace and peace is a whole lot more than a greeting that Paul uses. With these two words, he’s laying out the landscape of our growth. It is first through grace, and then through peace, that we will mature into the full stature of Christ Jesus.

This summer, as we move from one passage of Ephesians to the next, we will have the very welcome opportunity to think more deeply about these two Divine promises, grace and peace. But for now, it’s important to talk a bit about them here at the beginning. Too often, we think and speak about God’s grace as if it’s an end in itself. We say things like,

There but for the grace of God go I.

Most of the time when we use the word, it’s too often the end, and not the beginning, of our conversations.

Grace too easily degenerates into the notion that being a Christian means simply believing in Jesus Christ and that’s it. It’s too often spoken of as our excuse for never growing in our faith—for staying in place in our faith—for our never being interested growing. Grace too often is mis-used as a means to inactivity. We see it as a good reason to sit back on our heels in our life of faith. There’s no reason to do more or be more because God’s grace holds us. It’s not that this isn’t true, but it’s hardly what scripture has to say about grace. If we listen closely to what Ephesians has to tell us—even what the second verse here has to say—grace starts to look more like the beginning of the salvation story instead of its end.

“Grace and peace,” Paul says. In that order, too. Grace is the beginning of our faith. It’s the first word God speaks to us through Christ in the lifelong conversation that God wants to have with us! Paul wants us to think of grace as the seed that’s sown into the holy soil of our lives—right at the beginning. And it is by grace that this seed grows. Becomes something living and breathing.

Author and teacher Stephen Rankin writes that grace, properly understood, is “the enabling power” through which we can make our way to Christian maturity. Grace is the fuel that powers our spiritual development. It’s the vitamin and the mineral in the holy soil of our faith that starts us off in our story of our growth and into the full stature of Christ.

In a similar way, peace—this second word Paul uses here—is another vital element in our growing into Christ-likeness. Peace is the foundation, the stability of ground that our faith needs to grow safely. Grace and peace. We need both. Neither of them are ends in themselves. As we will learn as we move forward in Ephesians, the end of our faith is full spiritual maturity.

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As we move through this letter to the church in Ephesus, I think it will become clear to us that it is also a letter to us, the church in Barboursville, West Virginia. Easter resurrection, Christian maturity, and growth into the full stature of Christ happens in the holy soil beneath the feet of wherever Christ’s people gather—as we practice being church with and for one another. Together, we use the fuel of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to nurture each other in this holy soil of Easter life.

Our whole purpose for existing is to practice resurrection together. To infuse the living promise of Easter into each other’s blood and bones, minds and hearts. That’s church in essence: The groundwork of God’s salvation. Holy soil. A people on our way to maturity in the world of God-alive, Jesus-alive!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Way

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 7:13-20 preached March 26th, 2017

Sermon audio

I learned a new word yesterday: Funambulist.

A man named Jean-Francios Gravelet, born in 1825, was perhaps the greatest of them: he was a tight-rope walker. His most spectacular feat was walking a three-inch thick tightrope across a 1,000-foot chasm over Niagara Falls.

Newspapers from all across the country followed him to the Falls that day—most of them speculating how bad his inevitable plunge into the raging water would be. It was a vertical drop of 165 feet. Right before he began his 1,000-foot dare-devil walk, he offered to carry a volunteer over on his back. Surprisingly, no one took him up on it.

He made it across. The walk took him a little over 17 minutes. He stopped to rest at one point. He also decided it would be fun to stand on one leg for a bit, which drew cheers from the gathered crowd. It was almost as if he was playing around out there. Loving every minute of it. Like what he was doing wasn’t a matter of life and death, but more like child’s play. As he was planning his walk, he said once that he considered it an easy task. By all accounts, he made it look easy, too.

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As we make our way through Matthew chapter 7, the final chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, let’s not forget where we started.

That first step we took, those first words we heard from Jesus. The Beatitudes, that series of blesseds, spell out a decisively new way of walking. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is a fleshing out of the bones that are the Beatitudes. Since we’re weeks and weeks along now, with only the closing words left to go, it would be very easy for us to divorce these words about wide and narrow gates, false prophets, and good and bad fruit from good and bad trees, from the very first words of the Sermon, the ones about meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and how we should be glad when the rest of the world persecutes and insults us for not living in the world’s ways.

We started our sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount on a fifth Sunday. We were gathered in the Chapel that morning, and we went from one Beatitude to the next. And when we got to that last one: Blessed are you who are insulted and persecuted, I said that this last beatitude doesn’t really apply to us because we don’t suffer persecution for our faith. But, I think I might want to change my mind. Or at least respond to it in a more nuanced way.

It’s easy being Christian in America. The word not only doesn’t get any of us in trouble. It actually makes our way easier. We trust a Christian. All a politician needs to do is call them self a Christian, and all the sudden we stop asking hard questions about what they believe and how and why it matters to them. Being a Christian is easy. But following Jesus—that another matter entirely.

We live in a time when being a Christian and following Jesus are two different things. Anybody can call themselves whatever they want, but like Jesus declares in another translation of this passage, even wolves can dress themselves up in sheep costumes. You can dress yourself up as a healthy tree, but it’s the quality of the fruit you bear that will give you away. Calling ourselves Christians—that’s easy. Following Jesus is hard.

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Some people talk about a flash moment in their lives when all the sudden they were saved. A moment when time split into two—before Christ and after Christ. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a conversion like this. I have a story that goes a bit like that. Maybe you do, too. But if these words from Jesus have anything to do with it, a moment is not what matters. There may or may not be a moment in your life when you became Christian, but these words from the latter part of the Sermon on the Mount put much more emphasis on what happens after that. How we follow is much more important to Jesus than anything we call ourselves.

Following Jesus isn’t a one-time choice. It isn’t an event. It’s a movement along a path. It’s a step forward, and then another, and then a million more after that. And each step is a choice—a choice about how we will walk through this world, this life, this hour, this minute. It’s a call to look at the right things while we take this journey. A choice about what we will carry in our hearts, in our minds, in our mouths along the way. The words we use, we direction we move. And at the heart of this journey, this constant following after Jesus, step by step, is holy discernment. This is what separates followers of Jesus from those who merely call themselves Christians and leave it at that.

Being Christian takes a decal for the back of your car. Following Jesus takes discernment. The way of discipleship—the Jesus Way—is narrow. It’s a 1,000 foot walk across a tightrope. Every step a measured one, a prayer-filled one. According to Jesus, the Way isn’t safe. It’ll be treacherous, and hard, and confounding. You might lose your balance and fall down and have to get back up again, but maybe falling is exactly how you know you’re on it—because walking this Way is not easy.

If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as He calls Himself in another part of scripture, and if the Way is narrow, then it cannot be up to us to walk it. If we choose to give ourselves to the Way—a way of speaking and thinking, imagining and praying—we cannot follow Jesus any which way we like. There are many ways to walk these days. Lots of paths to give ourselves to. Is the route we take, the way we talk, the way we treat each other—the way we do everything—is it congruent with the Way of Jesus?

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Deuteronomy is one of the greatest books of the bible. All thirty chapters of it is Moses, Israel’s leader, preaching his last sermon to his people.

Moses brought them out from the way of slavery in Egypt and then through the desert, and now to the Promised Land. Their way had been difficult. At many moments, the Israelites—thirsty, hungry, and tired—wanted to give up, go back to Egypt, willingly give themselves back to the way of slavery. If it hadn’t been for Moses, they might have done so. Deuteronomy is Moses’s last moments with his people. His time has come to an end. He will ascend a mountain, look out at the vista of the Land God has promised, and die. But before that, Moses reiterates the Way. He says to the Israelites,

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Choose.

Choose not once, but over and over again. If your hearts turn away, if you leave the narrow Way, destruction is certain. So, pick your way carefully.

The wide way, according to Moses, is a way filled with death and curses, but it’s more enticing, and it’s certainly easier to walk. But don’t do it. You might not get lost, but you’ll certainly lose yourselves in it. Instead, hold fast to God. Love the Lord your God. Listen to His voice. Hold on for dear life to the narrow way. Prayerfully discern each and every step forward.

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Friends, we can find salvation anywhere. It’s offered to us a million times a day in a million different ways. One thousand new religions bloom every day. But all of them are a part of the wide way—the way leading to destruction. If we give ourselves to those ways, those voices, we will quickly get lost, but the dangerous thing is we’ll never know we’re lost. We might even think we’re found. That we’ve figured out salvation. But really, we’ll be far from it.

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So, how do we know where we are? Which way is the right way—the narrow way—and how do we find it? For that, we should turn to 1 John chapter 4.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and even now is already in the world.

The author of 1 John goes on to say that most people speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them, and they listen to the world. This is the wide way.

Test each and every spirit, discern everything you hear, everything you say, everything others say and do—compare it to the Way of Jesus. Hold it up to the Way of Jesus, and if it doesn’t fit, if it isn’t cross-shaped, reject it. Run far away from it. Do not give yourselves to it. Not only will it be a waste of your time; it will also lie to you, unravel you, bully you into conforming to its ways. And its ways may be far different than the Way of Jesus.

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The way of Jesus has certain qualities to it. We need to know those qualities in order to discern our way—to test the spirits.

The litmus test to it all is the Cross. The cross is the way of Jesus We are to walk the way of the cross. This is the Way of death that leads to real life. Death to self leads to life in Christ. It’s completely counter-cultural and lop-sided, but the Way of Jesus is the way of servanthood and humility, that will lead us to true freedom. Freedom in Christ.

Try convincing your next-door neighbor of that one!

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The truth is we will constantly mistake the wide way for the narrow way—life on our terms is much easier than life on God’s terms.

But for every one of our missteps on this high wire act of walking the Way, may God’s grace be there like a net below us to catch us, make the landing a soft one, and set us back on the Jesus Way.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Character

A sermon based on Micah 6:8 and Matthew 5:1-2 preached on January 29th, 2017

Blessed are those who are sure of themselves, who are so confident they have no need to rely on anyone but themselves, because they have it all figured out.

Blessed are those who pay no attention to other people’s suffering, for they will walk through the world with light feet and light hearts and nothing upon their conscience.

Blessed are the strong and the brash, for their lack of humility impresses others around them.

Blessed are those think this world is fair to everyone simply because it’s been fair to them, for they sleep well at night.

Blessed are those who run over their opponents by whatever means necessary, for they will prevail in victory.

Blessed are those who lie through a smile, whose despite their kind appearances, always have ulterior motives, for in their deviousness they always get their way.

Blessed are those who stir up trouble, and never step off the battle field, because troublemaking is always easier than peacemaking.

Blessed are those who persecute and torment others to get their way, because the world belongs to the strongest, and all is fair in love and war.

If the ways of the world had their own set of beatitudes, those are it. We know who the winners are. We’re familiar with all the clichés: Nice guys finish last; Dog Eat Dog; Survival of the Fittest.

I wrote this set of beatitudes trying my best to say the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ said in His set. These alternate beatitudes are the ideals our culture lifts up and celebrates. They’re build into the very fabric of our nation. And anyone who doesn’t live by this set of beatitudes will be trampled underfoot.

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For the next few Sundays, we will move slowly through Jesus’ most famous words—the ones from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. It is a surprising and upside-down picture of what faithful living looks like. We have heard these words for most of our lives, but I hope they have never really made much sense to you. That’s a good indication that you’ve been listening. I hope they still startle you. They still startle me.

As a whole, the Sermon on the Mount is a discourse on discipleship. It’s an 8-minute long description of how Christians should perceive and conduct themselves. In a way, it’s a working manual for the Ways of God, but that’s not all it is. That’s too small a thing. More to the heart of the matter, the Sermon on the Mount is a Rule of Life for each and every one of us who call ourselves Christian.

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I want to tell you about my week away doing Continuing Education back in early November. I went to a conference for Presbyterian pastors called Credo. Credo means I put my trust in. For 7 or 8 days, about 50 recently-ordained church leaders were invited to take a step back from the busy day-in and day-out stuff of ministry and focus our energy and imaginations on reconnecting to the very essence of our God-calling. We were challenged to pay closer attention to ourselves, to reclaim that part of us that led us into church ministry in the first place, to reestablish ways that honor our God-given character, to identify the values that are most important to us, and to insist on making time to tend to our spiritual lives throughout our weeks and our months doing ministry.

We all left that week having written our own Rule of Life. A manifesto of sorts. But more than that, I think: a very intentional plan for the living of these days. We promised each other before we left for home that we would spend the next 11 months practicing our newly-written Rules of Life, come back together this coming October, and see how they might need re-tweaking. I want to share my Rule of Life with you.

Stretch: Do an hour of stretching every day.

Pray: Spend an hour reading scripture and in prayer every day.

Play: Go on hikes, dates with my wife, and whenever possible, stop working at 5:30p

Spend: Be a good steward of money

I also wrote a big dream, a Mi Gran Sueno, for this year: Start outlining the book I’ve always wanted to write. These are very simple, very doable practices. There’s not a thing extraordinary about them, but tending to them faithfully day-in and

These are very simple, very doable practices. There’s not a thing extraordinary about them, but tending to them faithfully day-in and day-out sometimes seems heroic. Often, I do one or the other of them not out of sense that it will lead me into greater life, but merely out of a sense duty or drudgery. Some days, I complete forget I’ve made a Rule of Life at all. And other days, I simply don’t care that I have, and I hope for a better attitude for the next day.

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If these 8 beatitudes that begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount had checkboxes next to them, I wouldn’t be able to put a mark in any one of them. None of these come naturally to me. In fact, by many standards, they may look to you and I like terrible advice! Impractical and foolish. But, let’s not pass them up so quickly.

At first glance, they may appear as mere suggestions for how you and I should behave. Or maybe you see them the opposite way, as rules that we need to adhere to. We might think that a list like this isn’t so much for regular Christians, but only for those more holy than we are. Might you think that because I’m a Pastor, they’re made for me, but not for you? Not so fast! These beattitudes are for all of us. And they’re not so much a list of 8 things we have to be or accomplish. These 8 things are really only 1 thing: a single vision of what a God-blessed life looks like. Read rightly, these beattitudes are both an invitation into, and a description of true Christian character. This is what our lives would look like if we lived them the ways God wants us to. We are to take this sketch of blessedness that Jesus has given us and spend the rest of our days doing our best to live into it. And, in a word, the sketch of Christian character looks: Different.

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Maya Angelou was a writer as well a person of deep Christian faith. But if you ever heard her talk about her faith, you’d hear her use hesitant words. She didn’t like to call herself a Christian. As a poet, she knew the meaning of words very deeply, and she understood the word Christian means little Christ, and that was simply too big of a thing for her to claim. She thought that when anyone identified them self as Christian, it rang of self-accomplishment. It seemed to her too big of a thing for anyone to assume about themselves—that they’d made it. They’d become a little Christ. She thought she just wasn’t there yet. I know what she’s saying, but I’m not sure I agree with her. None of us are there yet, and it’s a dangerous person who thinks they have arrived.But can we not call ourselves something that we’re still hoping to become?

The first disciples of Jesus were called by that name not because of what they already were but what Jesus thought they ought to be. We know what we ought to be, and there is no better a collection of words in all of scripture that describe it—the essence of Christian character than these Beattitudes. These are enormous words, and we should spend our days living into every one of them.

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Let’s run through each of them quickly.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I best understand a thing when it’s compared to its opposite, so throughout I’m going to repeat the world’s beattitudes that I shared a few minutes ago.

Blessed are the poor in spirit – The spiritually poor are those who practice a humble dependence upon God. Its opposite are those who are sure of themselves, who say they have it all figured out. The poor in spirit know they are unable to save themselves. They know they have nothing to offer God, and who therefore look to God for salvation, asking for God’s grace. To such as these, the Kingdom of God is given. This is a quality of character we should practice.

Blessed are those who mourn – We usually equate mourning with the loss of a loved one, but this goes deeper than that. Jesus is talking about those who see the sorrow and suffering of an unjust world, who mourn the loss of their own self-respect, or the self-respect of others. The opposite: those who don’t seem to care about the suffering of others. By sharing this quality of Christian character, Jesus asks us to take an honest look at the evil we see in the world, to face it, to name it, take it personally, and weep over it.

Blessed are the meek is there to suggest that we practice a gentle and humble attitude toward others. Its opposite is something like throwing your weight around. The meek are those who know what a great gift God’s grace is, who know in the deepest parts of who they are that there’s nothing about them that earns God’s favor.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the ones among us who are never satisfied by the world’s idea of justice and fairness—who realize that human beings have a great capacity to mistreat others, and whose greatest prayer for the world is that all people may be treated in a way that honors their God-given integrity and dignity.

Mercy is compassion for those in need. Blessed are the merciful directs us in the ways of forgiveness and compassion for others. We live into this one when another’s suffering becomes our suffering too. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared,

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Blessed are the pure in heart – A person pure in heart is sincere. When you look into their eyes, you get this feeling that their whole life—inside and out—all their thoughts and all their motives are pure. I’m sure you can imagine the opposite

Blessed are the peacemakers – We should give ourselves to the work of creating calm where there is anxiety, understanding where there is conflict, and figuring out our problems without the use of violence.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness – This one speaks loudest to those Christians in parts of the world where their faith puts their life in danger. For us, it speaks how important it is to be unwavering in our faith, even when—especially when—it’s inconvenient. If you can’t see yourself in any of these descriptions, I implore you, in the name of Jesus Christ to change your ways. This is about as close as a Presbyterian minister will come to giving an alter call.

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Let me give away the ending here…each and every one of us will fall short of this picture of God blessedness. The point isn’t to accomplish any of these. The point is to do our best to live into them, to lean into them, to trust their divine wisdom a whole lot more than we trust in the backwards wisdom of the world. The prophet Jeremiah declared to his people,

Do not follow the ways of the nations…the rituals of the nations are hollow.

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Let us live into these counter-cultural words. They are nothing less than Jesus’ version and vision of personhood and the very shape of human being created in God’s image. May you give yourself to them. May you walk in the directions they take you, and in their practicing, may you discover the Way of Jesus.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

 

Footprints of a Mighty God

A sermon based on Psalm 89:1-8 and Colossians 1:15-29

Sermon audio

From 1495 to 1498, Leonardo Da Vinci was a single-minded artist. It was during those three years that the crowning achievement of his entire career began taking shape. The painting was The Last Supper. It measured an enormous 15 feet by 29 feet. It’s an oil on canvas masterpiece that today covers a wall in the dining hall of a monastery in Milan, Italy.

Throughout those 3 years, Da Vinci would change the smallest little details of The Last Supper, caking layer upon layer of paint until it was just right—until he felt it was something worthy of his legacy. And throughout these changes, both small and large, he would invite in his friends—artists whose opinions and eye for the artistic he respected the most. One of these friends went on and on about how extravagant the painting was. This friend said his favorite part of the painting was the chalice Da Vinci had painted in Jesus’ hand. This chalice captivated his friend. He called it “especially beautiful.”

After his friend left, Da Vinci quickly picked up his paint board and brush and began painting right over that chalice in Jesus’ hands. He didn’t stop until all signs of it were gone—until he re-painted Jesus’ hands outstretched and empty.

His friend came back a few weeks later to see the progress Da Vinci had made on this emerging masterpiece, only to find that his favorite part of the painting was gone. He demanded an explanation from Da Vinci.

Why would you paint over that chalice? It was the very best part!

Da Vinci replied,

Nothing—nothing at all—must distract from the figure of Christ!

And so it is that the final version of Da Vinci’s crowning work has Jesus at the very center, His hands generously opened.

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Christ is the Center. The Center of God’s heart, the central expression of who God is. And God wants our minds, our hearts and lives centered on Christ. Everything else is distraction—something for us to get rid of, push out of the way, paint right over.

We live in a world of distractions. There are many ways for us to lose our focus on what’s most important. Most of our days, we find ourselves paying attention to lesser things. We even get so focused on all the lesser things and they get the best of us. We forget the greater things. And when we do that, our lives get knocked off center.

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Colossians is small on chapters but big on Jesus. It’s only 4 chapters long, but it contains some of the most profound words about Jesus in the entire New Testament. It’s theme? Jesus is bigger than any of us could have ever imagined.

The writer of Colossians declares that Jesus Christ is the voice of God. That when Jesus speaks, it’s nothing less than God speaking to us. That when we look Jesus in the face, we behold nothing less than the face of God. The writer of Colossians says that Jesus is our All in All—the very image of God. Christ is the language that God speaks. When God wants to say something, God says it through Jesus Christ!

United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton says it this way: If you want to know what’s essentially true about who God is and what God thinks, look at Jesus. Christ is like a colander that we can use to filter out everything around us that doesn’t have God’s best interests in mind. The way to do that is to take all that we hear and compare it God’s Gospel of love that was made manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and if anything we hear doesn’t fit God’s Gospel of love, then spit it out, because it’s garbage.

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Imagine if you will an author sitting down in her office sitting down to write a new chapter of a novel she’s working on. Her office is tucked away in the corner of her loft in Brooklyn, New York. But her novel is set in a faraway place: Kenny Lake, Alaska. She’s a few chapters into her story, and the characters are numerous. They lead lives that are far different than hers. Living in Brooklyn, she’s surrounded by much more than she could ever need. There’s food markets and drugstores and fancy restaurants all around her. But, the characters she has created live far away from any of those conveniences—life in Kenny Lake, Alaska is completely different from life in Brooklyn, New York.

The author sips her coffee and stares at her computer screen. She wonders why these first few chapters have been so hard for her to write. It takes her way too long to figure out the reason for her difficulty: In all her life, she’s never been to Kenny Lake, Alaska. And how can she write another word of this story until she makes her way there, steps foot in Alaska, learns firsthand, in person, what living there feels like, sounds like? What Kenny Lake, Alaska smells like, and how the people talk, and how they make a living for themselves.

Sure, she could figure some of that out by making a few phone calls to the folks who live there or doing a few Google searches of Kenny Lake, but nothing could ever be as good as going there and making her own footprints in the Alaskan snow, seeing it through her own eyes, experiencing it all for herself.

Friends, God is the author of our story, and He too needed to know what it was like to set foot on the same ground we walk on—to make footprints alongside our own.

So, in Jesus Christ, God jumped inside His own creation and became a part of it. God wrote himself into His own story—inside of history—and became one of us. In the words of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, God would take the very form of a human being and humble himself, subject himself not only to life as it’s lived in all of its limitations and all of its sufferings, but God would also subject Himself to death—and not just any sort of death, but the worst kind imaginable: death on a cross.

In Jesus Christ, our Mighty God, the Author of Life itself, made footprints in all the dirty, muddy, filthy spaces that make up our own lives. And on the cross, with arms outstretched to embrace the world, God grabs a hold of each and every one of us and draws us in close!

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The Christian life is about living our lives in the company of this God who has become a part of our story. Who now in Christ walks with us through our days and our nights, through our mountains and our valleys, through good times and bad.

God has a human face. That of Jesus Christ. And the Christian life is the practice of living in such a way that we reflect the face of Christ so all those around us can see what God looks like. The Christian walk is that journey we make every time we step outside and go about the busyness of our lives, because whether we like it or not, everywhere we go and in everything we do and say, we are the reflection that Jesus makes onto the world.

So, the question to ask yourself is, What kind of reflection are you making? What kind of footprint are you leaving? Is it that of Jesus?

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In our passage, the Apostle Paul hopes for a day when everything that is created becomes a reflection of God’s goodness and love shown in Jesus Christ. He dreams of a day when Jesus will become All in All; and everything and everybody, and all powers whether visible or invisible, would know who their Maker is and will finally recognize the love and goodness of the God in whose image they were established…and then start acting like it!

In a world that likes to lift up its leaders to the loftiest of heights—that puts them in the very center of the painting—attributing to them ultimate power and authority, we who follow Jesus see that none of the plans these worldly leaders make, none of the laws they institute, should ever be confused with the plans or dreams of God! Thrones, dominions, earthly powers, and all of our rulers come to nothing because we place our hope not in anything that they can do. Instead, we are asked to set our gaze much higher than that. Our gaze is pointed to the Center of it all, who is Christ.

The challenge of the Christian life is never to confuse the platforms and promises of human beings with the power and promises of God given through Jesus Christ and the hope that he brings to our lives.

The reason why we call Jesus King and Lord is because nobody else but He is King and nobody else but He is Lord. Not any king or Caesar, prime minister, prince, or president should ever have our allegiance. Our allegiance belongs not to any earthly ruler, to no political party, to no purpose other than the loving purposes of God through Christ. Our ultimate allegiance will not be placed in anyone other than the One who opens His hands to us and calls us His own. This, by the way, is what scripture means by having our citizenship in heaven. The phrase means a whole lot more than where we will be after we die. It means giving ourselves to Christ right now, on earth just as it is in heaven, and seeing our identity in Christ as far more important than anything else about ourselves, be it our political affiliation, our ethnicity, class, gender, nationality, or any other category the world loves to assign to us. All of those are lesser things. First and foremost, we are Christians, and we live, move, have our being, and walk in the footprints of a Mighty God!

May nothing we call ourselves ever be more important to us than what God calls us through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for in Him, we are named sons and daughters of God. And may nothing—nothing at all—distract from the figure of Christ who stands at the Center of the cosmos, the One who is the Author of our story, who is the very Center of God’s heart, and who wants more than anything to be the very Center of our lives!

All praise to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Through Ananias’ Eyes

A sermon based on Psalm 30 and Acts 9:1-20a preached on May 8th, 2016

Sermon audio

What else is there but the tug inside your heart? That feeling of being pulled in a direction that surprises everyone you know—most of all yourself. That’s all Ananias could say about it.

Ananias was a follower of the Way—what people now call a Christian. He knew that when Jesus came tugging at his heart, it was something he couldn’t ignore. Jesus is kind and patient, but also unrelenting and tenacious.

Ananias knew that the first thing Jesus does to a person—or at least what He did to him—is He injects them with a strong dose of humility. That’s what Jesus does to a heart. He calms it. Reduces it. Jesus announces your place in the family of things. When Jesus grabs of hold of somebody, that somebody becomes both smaller and bigger all at once. That is to say, all the world becomes bigger, and you become smaller, and all the sudden, the world isn’t yours anymore—it’s God’s and you’re just a little part of it. This was hard for Ananias to describe to anyone who asked, but it was true.

And, as it would turn out, Saul—yes, THE Saul, the one who went around murdering Christians—Saul, of all people(!), would be the next person to realize how Jesus does all that. Also, as it would turn out, Ananias would be the one chosen by Jesus himself to nurture Christ in Saul—help him make sense of what Jesus does to a person whenever He enters into their heart. The best way Ananias knew how to describe it is it’s a sense of being pulled in a brand new and completely surprising direction.

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You have to excuse Ananias for being fearful of what Jesus asked him to do. For all these years, he and his follow Jesus followers would flee in the other direction whenever they heard Saul was headed their way. Saul was a tornado of a man, reckless and powerful, he was by all accounts a Christian-killer, a murderous man who breathed threats against Jesus’ church. He was hell-bent on exterminating every Christian he could round up.

So when Ananias heard from the Lord in a vision that THE very same Saul was now a converted Jesus-follower, it was like telling a black man to go to the house of the Grand Dragon Wizard of the KKK and knock on his door, promising him that everything after that would go smoothly for him. It was almost impossible for Ananias to believe! But Ananias trusted the voice he heard. He trusted that it belonged to Jesus, and Jesus would never lead him astray, so out Ananias went to find a house along Straight Street. It was the home of a fellow Christian whose name was Judas (not THAT Judas, mind you, but another one), and there Saul would be. The Spirit of Jesus told Ananias that Saul was blinded by a bright light and something like scales covered his eyes. Ananias hadn’t heard of anything like that before, but all of this sounded strange, so what did it matter anyway? It’s important to mention that Ananias was at first dubious, to say the least. He talked back to the Lord, which was something only brave people do, but what Jesus was asking Ananias to do sounded like crazy talk to him, so he put up a fight. But we all know who won that fight. Jesus did. So Ananias packed his things and went!

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Flannery O’Connor once wrote of Saul,

I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him straight off his horse.

See, some people need something drastic to happen to them to change their hearts and minds about things.

Most of us who call ourselves Christians experience something much less violent than that, though. We aren’t so much knocked off a horse, or dragged to the ground by Jesus kicking and screaming like Saul was. Jesus comes inside much more slowly—over time. So you can be excused if the way Jesus came into your life is nothing like what Saul experienced. Saul’s conversion experience is way out of the ordinary, but that man needed something big to happen to him—to get his attention all at once! Jesus had to throw that man down to the ground, blind him with something like scales over his eyes, and yell at him to get his attention. For the rest of us, though, Jesus doesn’t do anything quite that drastic; He doesn’t come violently rushing into our lives like that. It’s more like Jesus sweetens our lives like honey does a cup of hot tea, if you’ll allow a metaphor. He drizzles in, little by little, He blends Himself in, until the whole cup of tea tastes and smells like Him.

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When Ananias arrived at Judas’ home on Straight Street, he got right to work. It was clear that Jesus was serious about him nursing Saul back to health again—getting him trained up and taught all about Jesus.

Jesus came into Saul’s life so fast, it hurt. Saul didn’t even know who he was anymore, and that made sense, because, like I said before, when Jesus comes in, He changes around everything. And with one look at Saul, Ananias knew that Saul had no idea which way was up.

For one, the old Saul couldn’t keep his mouth shut. The old Saul was full of vile words, and he spit whenever he said them. He was a force no one cared to reckon with. But now it was different. The person Ananias met was silent, confused, tired—not even able to get up out of bed. You might even say he was even meek and helpless. Ananias hoped that meant that even when Saul regained his strength, he’d still be like that. God can do those sort of things, you know! God can knock all the nonsense out of anyone if He wants to!

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Well, the days passed slowly, but after 3 of them, those things that looked like scales over Saul’s eyes fell off, and he could see again. He stopped mumbling too so Ananias could finally understand what he was saying. Ananias would never forget the first clear words out of his mouth,

I want to be baptized.

You know how whenever you baptize someone, you say their name out loud? Well, Ananias took Saul down to the river, gathered some water in his hand, all ready to baptize Saul, said his name, and all at once, Saul cut him off and said,

My name’s not Saul anymore. I’m a new man now. God has done something wonderful to me. Please, call me ‘Paul.’

So that’s what Ananias did. He said,

Paul, child of God. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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More time passed.

So many of us think that Paul was struck dumb and blind, was dragged into some house on Straight Street, got cured of his blindness, and all the sudden knew everything he needed to know about how to go out and talk to the world about Jesus. The account of all this that you can read in the book of Acts makes it sound that way, but that’s not how it went at all. In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul writes it down himself, saying that it took something like 14 years in all to be raised up in Jesus. Paul sat with Ananias for a few of those years. Each and every day, Ananias would share more stories about Jesus with him.

Later, Paul traveled long distances to meet up with other Christian leaders like Cephas and Barnabas, and he studied and prayed under their care. Raising up a Christian isn’t anything that happens all at once. I’m sure you know that. It takes years of study and dedication. It takes parents and teachers and mentors. It also takes a hunger to learn from all those parents and teachers and mentors. But through all that teaching, and studying, and worship, and prayer, Jesus sinks in, deeper and deeper, into our hearts and minds, and changes us from the inside out. That’s what you could see in Paul. All that anger and rage was left behind, and each day, Ananias and his other teachers recognized the wonder and awe and joy starting to take him over. That’s how Jesus works! The fancy word for that is transformation if you care to know, but most people just like to call it God’s grace.

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So, what does this all have to do with you and me? It has to do plenty with all of us sitting here today all these years later. See, this story isn’t really about Paul. This story is about God. This is how God works in all of us.

That’s not to say we’ll ever be thrown down to the ground and struck blind like Paul was. God approaches us like we need him to. And God help him, Paul needed to be confronted in the way he was. Hopefully Jesus won’t ever have to do that to any one of us! But just the same, Jesus changes lives. He interrupts us and makes house calls! Jesus comes knocking on the door of our hearts and minds, and once He starts, He doesn’t stop until we let him in! Jesus is stubborn that way! But the truth is, we’re all stubborn, too! Much more stubborn sometimes than Jesus is! Sometimes we don’t even know He’s knocking. Other times, we just ignore the knocks, because we like to do it all without Him inside bothering us—and the one thing Jesus will always do, once he’s inside, is bother us! Jesus refuses to be ignored once he’s made His way through the door! Most of the time, we’d just rather Him shut up, but Jesus never stops talking to us. It’s just us who stop listening to Him.

My advice, if you want it? Don’t ever stop listening for Jesus!

The faithful task—and I call it that because it’s hard work!—is to try your level best to keep yourself open to everything that Jesus is doing in you and around you. That’s the truth of it all—seen through Ananias’ eyes, anyway.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Coloring Outside the Lines

A sermon based on Psalm 148 and Acts 11:1-18 preached on April 17th, 2016

Sermon audio

On April 25th, 2014, German astronaut Alexander Gerst had a rare view outside his window. Across the many miles of space, he looked down at the bright blue ball of earth. It was like a marble hung from an invisible string—just floating there in its place—somehow both fragile-looking and resilient at the same time. Gerst commented at length about this moment, this astonishing and rare perspective.

He said,

Some things that on Earth we see in the news every day and thus almost tend to accept as a given, appear very different from an astronaut’s perspective. We do not see any borders from space. We just see a unique planet with a thin, fragile atmosphere, suspended in a vast and hostile darkness. From up here it is crystal clear that on Earth we are one humanity, we eventually all share the same fate.

From a bigger point of view, there are no lines drawn between countries. No borders or boundaries are visible from way up there. All any astronaut can see are the ripples of our planet’s biggest mountain ranges, the blue of water, and the green of earth. But that day, as Alexander Gerst stared down at our planet, he could also see the tiny poofs of bombs exploding up and down the Gaza Strip and how they continue to scar the land and its people.

Gerst said,

What came to my mind at the time was, if we ever will be visited by another species from somewhere in the universe, how would we explain to them what they might see as the very first thing when they look at our planet? How would we explain to them the way we humans treat not only each other but also our fragile, blue planet, the only home we have? I do not have an answer for that.

We human beings are great at subdividing what was once whole. We’re also good at making enemies out of those who live on the other side of those imaginary divisions.

This is where I wish we had a projector and screen in the sanctuary. If we did, I’d go to Google.com and type in the beginning of a phrase: “Why are Christians so…”

Once I typed that, suggestions for how to finish that question would come up, and those suggestions would be based on all the different ways millions and millions of Google users have finished typing that question, trying their best to get an answer for it. Here are some of the most frequently asked of them: Why are Christians so… mean? Why are Christians so… obnoxious? Why are Christians so… stupid, judgmental, ignorant, hateful, intolerant, narrow-minded, hypocritical, annoying, crazy? If you backspace a bit and type “Why are Buddhists so…” the first result you get is, “happy.”

This is the way people view us Christians. Yes, its makes them sound a bit cynical and jaded, but you have to imagine they finished the sentence “Why are Christians so…<whatever>” in the way they did because they’ve had terrible experiences with Christians who have acted in all those ways.

When Mohandas Gandhi met a Christian pastor from England, they struck up a conversation about Jesus, and Gandhi told him,

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

Scathing words spoken from people on the outside looking on! We’d do best to listen to them and honor them so that we can learn how better to represent the kindness and love of Christ—especially to those who have been burnt to a crisp by some of our fellow Christians.

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The big controversy in the Church in Peter’s day is written about all throughout the New Testament. They couldn’t escape it no matter how hard they tried: Can Gentiles be a part of the Church? Did God love the Gentiles? Were they inside or outside God’s circle of salvation?

From Abraham and Sarah on, it was the Jews who were God’s chosen people. All the way through the times of Moses and Aaron, then Joshua and David, Isaiah and Jeremiah, there was no question about it: the Israelites were God’s chosen people. And now, all the sudden, Gentiles were coming to Peter and the other leaders of the early Christian church, asking to be baptized—to become a part of their Jesus movement, and no one knew quite what to do about this. Some said that any Gentile who wanted to become Christian must first become Jewish; get circumcised, and then become Christian! That’s the way they’ve always done it, so they thought it must be the only way to do it. Some others said,

There’s no reason for that—let’s not overthink this!—if a Gentile professes faith in Christ and wants to follow in His way, then let’s not get in the way! Who are we to argue with God about this?! Let’s baptize them and make them a part of Christ’s church!

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The more I study history, the more I’m convinced that there’s nothing new under the sun. This ancient question of whether the Gentiles are “in” or “out” just takes on a different form today. Just substitute “Gentiles” for any group out there: homosexuals, immigrants, Mexicans—go right ahead and chose any other group of people if you’d like, but those are the most popular “Us vs. Them’s” of the day.

We’re still hung up on who’s on God’s good side and who’s not. And most likely, all of us think that we’re “in” and those others over there who are different than us in whatever way, are “out.” We’re always bumping up against the borders and boundaries of our own understanding of who God loves and welcomes in. And most of us are pretty sure of ourselves when it comes to these sorts of things! We very easily convince ourselves that our opinions are also God’s opinions, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else sees it differently. And that’s why Peter’s comment in verse 17 is so refreshing to see! Listen to what he says—remember, this is the first leader of the church talking here!:

If God gave them (in Peter’s case the Gentiles; in our case, fill in the blank), If God gave them the same gift He gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ (the gift Peter’s talking about is the Holy Spirit), then who am I—WHO AM I—to stand in God’s way?

Peter shares his dream (and it’s a wacky one) of a sheet with all these different non-kosher animals that Jews aren’t supposed to touch with a 10-foot pole, and he hears God’s voice.

Kill and eat!

God says.

Peter objects because there’s 1,000’s of years’ worth of rules against eating any of this stuff. And God says to Peter,

Never consider unclean what God has made pure.

What God says right there should make all of us stop in our tracks and ask ourselves a few question: What, these days, do we consider unclean and impure? What or who these days do we consider out of bounds? And just like those who disagreed with Peter about who’s in and who’s out, could it be that we have something new to learn about God’s grace and how surprising and expansive it is? Maybe God’s circle of inclusion is much bigger than we have ever thought or imagined it to be. Maybe what or who we have always considered “unclean” has always been pure and acceptable in God’s eyes, it’s just that our own rules and small fears get in the way of seeing how big God’s arms are? We might be scared to color outside these lines, but God isn’t. God doesn’t even see lines!

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I think back to the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr and his fellow protesters had been working tirelessly to gain the right to vote for every black American. And the movement came to a head in Selma, Alabama. Those who risked their lives marching for equality were few in number. Most black and white folks stayed inside. They refused to become involved in any way whatsoever. But they watched from their TV screens on the night of March 7th, 1965 as the news broke into their regularly-scheduled programming and aired footage of black men and women and some of their white allies being beaten with clubs and stepped on by horses. It was a wretched scene that would wake up anyone from their ambivalence. If you watched that footage, you were either cheering or were made sick by it.

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See, it’s one thing to have a political stance based on an ideology or principle or platform or an –ism, whether its racism or any other kind of –ism. It’s another thing entirely to witness personally how others suffer because of that -ism. The moment we’re able to put a face to all those abstract –isms. That’s when we see that real lives are affected by all these political stances and abstract ideologies we hold, that’s when politics gets personal.

Rules, principles, and ideologies are cold and calculated and separated from the people they affect, and that makes it very easy for us to overlook and stay disconnected. But stories and images of suffering and poverty and oppression—those are harder to ignore. Knowing that there are poor people out there because you’ve seen statistics in a newspaper is one thing. Spending slow time with a poor single mother as she tells you her story over a cup of coffee is something entirely different. Knowing racism exists is one thing, but sitting down with a black man at a lunch table and listening to him as he shares what his everyday life is like makes it personal and real.

That’s exactly what happened to Peter. He was met along the road by a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who told Peter his story and then asked that he be baptized. And that’s when all the old rules, borders, and boundaries that held Peter to his narrow grasp of God’s grace started to crumble apart. That’s when God started coloring outside all the lines that Peter and so many of his fellow Jewish Christians had drawn in their own minds. Our adherence to abstract, person-less rules have a tendency to shrink our compassion and patience. But when we look a person in the eyes and take time to listen to their stories, that’s when these things take on flesh and become more than ideas. And God is much more interested in people than He is in principles. He’s much more interested in real relationships than He is in rules, and God wants that to be true of us, too. That’s what Peter realized that day.

God pries open the narrowness of our long-held rules and wants to introduce us to real people who put a face to all those faceless rules and regulations that are in place. But that can only happen when we’re willing to take the risk of surrounding ourselves with those who are unlike us—when we become willing to sit down with them and listen to their stories. And in that sharing, in that holy space, we will come to recognize their humanity—that there really are no borders or boundaries between us, that they too are a beloved child of God. And who are we to stand in God’s way?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.