Easter Unfolding

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-35 preached on April 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

The ability to see is granted gently.

Throughout scripture, God’s very presence is described as light. The kind of light that overwhelms us, the kind our eyes are not built to withstand or make any sense of.

When God comes to His people, it’s always with a blinding truth that none of us are able to handle. Think of Moses at the burning bush. On fire but not consumed. Think of Sinai, the mountain that only Moses could ascend. He climbed into God’s radiating company. After those mountaintop conversations with God, Moses had to cover his face with a veil, or else the afterglow of God was enough to blind the Israelites.

I imagine every time he stood atop Sinai, Moses shook all over from a reverent fear—an overwhelmed and overwhelming sense of the Holy that not one of us are built to witness. Not many of us could withstand such a sight.

God knows this about us. God was careful with Moses, and God is gentle with us, too. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. That’s why Easter comes not all at once, but over all these days and weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. God unfolds the Truth of Easter slowly. One sign at a time, and only when our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are ready to see it.

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No one has ever found Emmaus. Thousands, perhaps millions, of maps have been unfolded, unearthed, and unrolled from their ancient containers, combed over with magnifying glasses in case its name has faded away, but Emmaus has never been discovered. Perhaps it was never a place—or at least no place in particular.

And Cleopas. Who’s Cleopas? We don’t know really. He wasn’t one of the Twelve, but he was a disciple of Jesus all the same. He and his unnamed traveling companion—they were walking away. Away from Jerusalem. And toward who knows where or what. Maybe they didn’t even know. All they knew was that something they had given their lives to had come to an end. It all had unraveled in the course of the last three days. Along the way to Emmaus, they recounted their time with Jesus to each other. All the places He had taken them.

Wouldn’t we like to know all they were saying to each other. They must have recounted His words. His teachings. They must have laughed at themselves for never understanding any of His parables. What was Jesus trying to say, anyway?!

They must have had conversations along the Road about all the healings they witnessed. The way Jesus talked about God as if He knew God’s own heart—or had God’s own mind. What’s not to be astonished by? How could they ever forget?

They must have recounted that last week with Jesus over and over again while they walked away. The conflict in the Temple. That last meal together. The words Jesus had spoken around that table—this is my body broken;  this is my blood poured. Those sleepy moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when their Master went off on His own to pray. The two of them must have poured over every detail of what happened next. The arrest. The chaos of it. It all happened so fast. The next time they saw Jesus, He was hanging on a cross. Then the burial. How many tears were shed along that road as these last few days unfolded again and again in their memories? How do you walk away from all that?

They were going back to their old lives. They were walking away from the last three years of following Jesus. All of it having unraveled into nothing right in front of them.

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It’s in the thick of their grief, the fog of all this loss, that Jesus comes along. Appearing to them as a fellow companion along their journey away. Anonymous. Just a stranger keeping them company. He walks with them slowly. Nobody’s in a rush here. There’s nowhere specific to go now—nothing left to do anymore, or so they thought. This is slow time along a lost and dusty road. Jesus had so much to share with them. So much to prove to them, but Jesus is patient with them. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. Jesus knows this about us.

It’s along a road like this, with stories shared like these, that the truth of Easter should strike us not as an event that occurred, but a path on which we stand. A journey we take. A direction we walk. Easter, as well as the resurrection that comes with it, they are not one-time events frozen in place along a timeline. They are a constant unfolding of truth that takes place right in front of us. Easter resurrection is a way for us to encounter Jesus no matter when or where we are.

Emmaus maybe be a lost destination so far as maps are concerned, but we know where it is, because we’ve been there before. Emmaus is all the in-between places in our lives. It’s the ground we stand on when we don’t know exactly where we stand or what we stand for. There are many Emmauses. It’s in the middle of these Emmaus moments that Jesus arrives.

What are you discussing as you walk along?

He says.

Jesus companions with us in these places, but He doesn’t reveal himself—not at first, not in any obvious way—because He knows that our faith cannot yet handle a revelation. We aren’t yet ready for that. Faith cannot be forced upon us. It cannot be coerced. Faith—that is, having eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus—does not come all at once. It must be gradually unfolded in front of us. We are brought to sight slowly. As poet Denise Levertov puts it, every step we take is a sort of arrival. God is patient with His people.

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There are moments in our lives when we feel like we’re headed in no specific direction at all. When we lose sight of our purpose and our path. So, we walk away. Away from life as we knew it before. In our grief and hurt, we think that every step forward—away from a life that once was—will distance us from our past.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. That first question He asks the two along the road is Jesus’ way of reminding them of who they are and whose they are. In effect, Jesus comes along and says,

Let me re-tell you your story. It’s God’s story, too.

Jesus won’t let them walk away. God’s story is the biblical story, and we have been a part of it from the very beginning. Jesus won’t let them walk away because first and foremost, this is a story of a God who relentlessly pursues us. Who will not let us go. Who will not let us forget our story. And that’s when Jesus takes over. He tells the two everything that God has been doing. He starts with Moses—all that God has done for His people as God guided them away from slavery in Egypt and into the freedom and abundance of the Promised Land.

Jesus didn’t stop there. He told them about all the prophets who came along after that to guide God’s people in the right direction. Throughout history, those who lose their hope in God—who forget their salvation story—they walk away. But over and over again, God pursued them, retaught them their own story, and set them back on right paths again.

Along the road to Emmaus, as Jesus unfolds God’s story for the two disciples, their hearts are kindled inside of them. Brought to flame. And with each one of Jesus’ words, the two disciples begin piecing back together what they thought was forever broken. Maybe the Jesus story does have a future. Who are we to say that God’s story has an ending? Maybe there’s more.

Easter slowly unfolds in front of these two disciples along the Emmaus road. They start gaining eyes to see some vague notion of a future for themselves. Their hearts are brought to flame as the Holy Spirit speaking into them. But they needed more nudging. We all do. Our eyes are never opened fully. The Easter news of resurrection is too big for us to see all at once. There’s always more that needs revealing. It was only when they stopped and gathered around table, as Jesus broke bread with the two, that something in them was shaken awake.

How many times had they gathered around table with Jesus and shared bread with him? How many times had Jesus hosted a meal with them, inviting the hungry and the lost to be nourished, to recover who they are while sitting around table? This happens over and over again. Countless times. It was around table that their eyes were opened. When bread is shared, all heaven breaks loose.

They recognize Jesus right then. In table fellowship. This should remind us of Communion, of course, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that Luke intends here. After all, it was the two disciples who invited Jesus to stay and eat with them. Jesus was their guest. With hearts burning inside of them, they couldn’t yet let go of this mysterious traveler. They wanted more time with Him. Having been invited to their table, though, Jesus quickly becomes their Heavenly Host, taking bread and breaking it in front of them. It was then, in that moment when Jesus took bread and broke it, that their burning hearts were broken open and they could see!

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Friends, Easter is still unfolding right in front of us. There is no end to God’s story. Salvation is still working itself out right in front us, with every step we take along the Way. Emmaus is nowhere in particular. Emmaus is everywhere. Emmaus always happens. Easter is always unfolding in front of us. In all of our journeys, do we have eyes to see Jesus with us?

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

Alleluia! Amen.

A Rich Imagination

A sermon based on Psalm 119:105-112 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 preached September 11th, 2016

Sermon audio

Whoever has ears, let them hear!

The first sentence of any story is the most important one of all. Every good storyteller knows this. A good first sentence either captivates and keeps us, or it bores and repulses us. A storyteller can lose her audience in a moment’s notice. We’re fickle that way. Bookstores are full of novels with half-bent covers because we open each one, and we turn to the first few pages and we decide what all the other pages hold based on that very first page. Forget judging books by their covers. We judge books by their first few paragraphs. The most enthralling novels there are have iconic first lines…

“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austin’s’ Pride and Prejudice

“I am an invisible man.” – Ralph Ellison

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking 13.” – George Orwell’s 1984

“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451

“Once upon a time…”

“In the beginning…”

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Last week we looked at God the Artist. The Divine Potter, taking hand to clay and shaping all that has been and will be made—including us—over and over again. So is it any wonder that when God made footprints upon the earth, across the sandy surfaces of Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem, He came not with the sort of wisdom one can glean from textbooks or instruction manuals? He came not with lectures fit for college classrooms. No, Jesus came telling stories. Jesus was a story painter, a yarn spinner. He couldn’t tell a straight story. Ask any of his disciples! Everything Jesus had to say came in sideways. In parables.

The parable of the Sower and the Seeds is Jesus’ very first parable. A crowd was gathered around him. So big actually, that Jesus had to climb into a boat a few feet off shore to address everyone. He sat down, just like any good storyteller would do, and he tells his first story. Everything that Jesus has to say, everything he did (and still does), every act of healing, every act of defiance, and every parable he told, shares one message. It was his main message: The Kingdom of God. Jesus’ parables were meant to captivate. To draw us in. To make us wonder about greater things, ask bigger questions, ponder larger truths. The first line of the story Jesus told:

The Kingdom of God is like…

Whenever we hear those 6 words we know a parable’s coming. And at once, we should gather around—sit on the floor Indian-style—and stare up at the One who says those words because if we listen close, we might just get a glimpse of God!

I have to imagine that if what the Kingdom of God is like or what God himself is like could be explained to us mathematically, scientifically, methodically, Jesus would have done so. He would have gathered his disciples around a chalkboard—a chart, a graph. He would have given them a formula or a few bullet points to memorize. But he did no such thing, because that’s not the way God works, that’s not the nature of God. An infinite God cannot be understood by finite minds like ours through the memorizing of facts and formulas, textbooks or explanations, maps or models. All of that is way too small! If we want to come anywhere close to understanding who our God is, we need to summon the poets and the artists among us.

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I’m reminded of the scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where Robin Williams’ character Professor Keating, begins his career teaching English by asking all of his students to rip out the entire introduction from their poetry textbooks. It was good only for the trashcan because it encouraged the measuring of poetry. Every poem, it said, could be plotted on a graph based upon its degree of perfection on the X axis and its degree of importance on the Y axis. And by that, one could evaluate the measure of its greatness.

“Excrement!” Professor Keating, declares, to the surprise of his students. Poetry can never be reduced to plots on a graph. Art can never be reduced to arithmetic. It’s too large for that. What is made for the heart cannot be understood by the intellect. It can only be destroyed or belittled by it. Art, poetry, craft, gospel—these are the sorts of things we cannot understand. We merely behold them. And we must be okay with that.

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So, here we stand with the disciples, beholding the very first of Jesus’ parables. It would be best if we simply let the story of the Sower softly rest in our hands. Parables don’t like being gripped in our tight fists. All the life will be squeezed out of it if try to grasp it like that. Remember, this isn’t science. There’s no code to be broken, no answer key to consult. This is an image to ponder, a first sentence to wow us, a picture that Jesus paints, and the only right response is wonder.

It’s when we look at it that way that we will begin to see that the Parable of the Sower is about reception. If Jesus is the Sower, he’s gracious enough—even wasteful in his graciousness—to scatter seed on both the receptive and the non-receptive. Both on pavement and on good soil. But it’s only the receptive, those who have their hearts and lives, ears and eyes open, who will make good use of what Jesus has for them.

Whoever has ears, let them hear!

This parable is about how we hear. What kind of ears do we have? Do we have pavement ears? Ears full of rocks? Shallow soil ears where no seed can sink its roots? Thorny ears? Or do we have good soil ears? Those are the kind of ears we need. How good is your soil—the soil of your ears?

Good soil ears have room inside of them for new things to grow. They’re open enough for something new. They accommodate new growth. The roots can then sink in deep. Jesus wants us to be good soil.

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Once in a while, whenever the disciples had a hard time understanding what Jesus was talking about inside one or another of his parables, He went out to find the closest child, and he brought the child to them, and he said

Be like this little one. Listen like a child listens. Encounter everything like a child encounters everything. With astonishment! Wonder like a 4-year-old does! Re-grow your child-like imagination. Whoever told you to grow out of it in the first place?

These stories about what the kingdom of God is like—these parables—would be much easier for us to understand if we came to them with a childlike wonder!

The reason why Jesus’ stories have a hard time sinking in is because we’ve become wonder-blind. We’ve lost our ability to become enchanted. We’re trying to measure poetry, and poetry, by its very nature, refuses to be measured. Instead, we should come to Jesus’ parables ready to enter into their world and lose ourselves there. Just like the disciples, we try to understand our faith from the neck up when all the while God is trying to speak into our hearts.

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Jesus begrudgingly explains the meaning of his parable to his disciples. Anytime we have to explain anything to others—a joke or an anecdote, the magic of it fades away. And until we truly know the difference between head-faith and heart-faith, until we irrigate our stony ears and begin perceiving the story of God with the rich imagination of a child—from the shoulders-down—we will never see the Kingdom of God in the way Jesus wants us to. These things are not for us to comprehend or understand. They’re for us to be amazed by—to simply behold with the bright eyes, and open ears, and rich imagination of a child. We who call ourselves followers of Jesus should always be prepared to be astonished!

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So, what kind of soil are you?

This week, we began our Christian Education year. We started with our Squares and Circle Bible studies, and earlier this morning, our Sunday School classes met for the first time.

There are a few ways we can understand Christian Education. Some understandings are better than others. Sunday School has gotten a bad rap throughout the decades—maybe even throughout the centuries—for being a place where teachers download biblical information into people’s heads. Surely, that mistake has been made many times by many teachers and many churches. Children went to Sunday School for the sole purpose of memorizing bible verses and many other pieces of information.

These days, I hope, we’re growing our kids in the faith in much more imaginative ways. In fact, calling Sunday School, “school,” makes me kind of uneasy. I’d much rather call what we do together from 10 to 11 on Sunday mornings, “faith-building.” What we’re really there to do is expand faith’s imagination. We come ready to rework the soil of our faith, so that the seeds that God is always scattering among us have a better chance of falling on good soil. And when the soil is ready for the seeds, there will be growth. Abundant growth. We all grow stronger together and something wonderful and nourishing builds and builds, and in the words of our passage for today, that’s when we start yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown. I want to urge you to be a part of this growing. For, God does wonderful things inside of those who are ready and willing to behold, who are open and receptive to the scattered seeds of faith!

All praises to the One who spoke the first sentence of our story, and continues to speak our story—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.

Storydoers

A sermon based on Psalm 147:1-11 and Isaiah 40:21-31 preached on February 8th, 2015.

Sermon audio

Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, tells the story of man named Arlo. Arlo and his wife were married quite a while ago in rural South Dakota. On the day of their wedding, Arlo’s grandfather, a very religious man, gave the newly married couple a bible—one of those nice white leather-bound ones. It was in a box, and it had the newlywed’s names set in gold on the cover.

In its box that bible stayed, and eventually it made its way onto the top shelf of Arlo’s bedroom closet, still unopened. Every time his grandfather saw Arlo, he would ask him how he liked that Bible.

“Oh, just fine!” Arlo lied, “It was such a thoughtful gift.” Arlo said something like this each time his grandfather asked. His grandfather kept asking him about the bible—for years and years.

So, one day, Arlo got curious enough, and he took down that old bible in its dusty box from the top shelf in his bedroom closet. He flipped to the beginning of the book of Genesis and found a crisp $20 bill. Arlo kept on flipping through the pages, and at the beginning of each book—Exodus, Levitus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—there was a bill—a $20 or a $50, sometimes even a $100 bill. Arlo flipped all the way through that old bible and found that his granddad had stuffed over $1,300 into the pages of that bible, knowing that Arlo would never find it.

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The book of Isaiah is actually 3 books (1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah). In all, the book of Isaiah, as we have it now, is made of stories that span more than 200 years of Israel’s history.

And here in chapter 40, the book of 2nd Isaiah begins with the Israelites in exile. They’ve been kicked out of the Promised Land—out of their homes and away from their synagogues and everything they knew—and deported to Babylon. They are displaced people. They cry out to God, and they wonder out loud to their faith leaders why, why have these terrible things happened to us? Why has the Land that God gave our ancestors and promised to us—why have we been kicked off of it? Is God no longer God? Has God turned His back on us?

Our way is hidden from the Lord,

they say,

Our God ignores our predicament!

They demand answers and they fall into despair.

The people of Israel are crumbling apart, and it is in the midst of this hopelessness that Isaiah speaks.

Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard, O people of Israel? Your God is still with you!

As if to say, God doesn’t exist with you only when your live are comfortable and you have all you need.

God is right here, especially right here, where there is distress and trouble and hunger and sorrow and groaning. In the middle of their despair, God sends Isaiah to the exiles with a message to deliver: the story isn’t over. This isn’t the end of the line. God is much more powerful than you think, and God will lift you up again. Just wait. Have patience. Isaiah delivers this message by asking a series of rhetorical questions, kinda like the ones we hear God ask Job near the end of that story.

Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? Who is my equal? Who created all of this?

We know the answer to these questions There’s no reason to answer them because they make their own point, don’t they?

People of God, you’ve forgotten your story!

This is God saying,

Have you honestly forgotten all the promises I’ve made to you throughout all those generations? The one’s your ancestors drilled into your heads. All the stories about how I found you, rescued you, called you my own, and gave you an identity? None of that has changed and neither will it ever change. I’ve gone nowhere; I’m still right here! So stop despairing, because your lives are far from over. Remember your story. I’m the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth and I give power to the tired, and I revive the exhausted. I’m not done with you yet. I will continue being your God, so continue being my people, and live your story, the one I have given to you.

Be storydoers!

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One of my favorite authors, Leonard Sweet, tells the tale of a poor man who wanted to go on a cruise all of his life. That’s all he ever wanted to do.

Week by week, paycheck by paycheck, he would stash away a couple pennies. For decades he saved and saved, and when he was old he finally had enough money to afford a cruise ticket. Knowing he could not afford the elegant food pictured in the brochures, the man packed up a week’s supply of bread and peanut butter—that was all he could afford.

The first few days of the cruise were thrilling. The man ate peanut butter sandwiches in the morning, then went up to the deck and spent his time relaxing in the sunlight and wading in the pool.

By midweek, though, the man began to notice that he was the only one on board who wasn’t eating luxurious meals. Everybody there was eating all the time, no matter what time of day it was, and there was food everywhere. The man had grown tired and weary of peanut butter sandwiches. They never filled him up. And in his frustration he walked up to one of the porters and asked,

Tell me how all these people have enough money to afford to eat all this food! They must be rich!

Sir,

the porter said,

Don’t you have a ticket?

Sure,

the man replied,

I have a ticket, but it was so expensive, I can’t afford to eat well while I’m here!

But sir,

the porter said,

didn’t you realize? Meals are included in your passage. You may eat as much as you’d like! Anything you see, it’s yours!

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Friends, God has a story for us. It’s a feast of a story. It isn’t a quick “Once Upon a Time” story. No, it’s a much bigger story than that. God’s story starts this way:

In the beginning…

It’s a tale that began at the very dawn of time and will extend long past our days.

It’s the story of how God has come to us, over and over again, and saves us over and over again. It’s a story about how God relentlessly claims us as His own. It’s the story of how God comes to us just like He came to Abram and Sarai and promises us a future filled with blessing. It’s the story how we’ve all been delivered like the Israelites from Egypt, out from under the heavy hand of bondage. It’s the story of how we’ve been set free in Jesus Christ to live new and ever-renewing lives. That’s God’s story. And it’s ours, too. And like the Israelites, we have a tendency to forget our sacred story, especially when we find ourselves in uprooted places. Just like the old man on that cruise ship, we grow content feeding ourselves peanut butter sandwiches when God has set a feast in front of us.

God has invited us to be a people of a story, but like the exiled Israelites, we forget our story and we settle for much less. Just like Arlo, we have been invited to partake in the huge feast of God’s Word but we never open our invitations.

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In his book Tablet to Table, Leonard Sweet says that we the Church suffer from a disease called versitus. (Not bursitis, that’s the painful inflammation of our shoulder joints.)

Versitus.

The bible was written as a whole story. It’s God’s story and our story. It’s about how God creates us, calls us His own, delivers us from trouble, and in the fullness of time sent Jesus to save us from ourselves and to free us to live our lives glorifying God and serving others.

The story is all there for us, not only to read but to experience and to live out in our own lives. This is a story in which we too are characters. But we don’t know that story, nor do we live that story, because instead of feasting on the whole story we’ve tried to satisfy ourselves with crumbs. When we go to the bible, we busy ourselves so often with the verses that we have no concept of the stories.

The story of the bible is the greatest story never told.

Here’s an example of how we suffer from versitus:Let’s all say John 3:16 together:

For God so loved the world that He gave us His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Good! How about John 3:15?

John 3:17? Anyone?

Do we know the story from which John 3:16 comes? It’s the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus at night—the one where they talk about what it means to born anew.

We’ve forgotten our story. Maybe we’ve forgotten that we even have a story.

See, faith isn’t about believing in bullet points. The 5 principles of highly effective faithfulness. It isn’t even about obeying the 10 Commandments. Neither do we have a mantra or an ethic or a couple bumper sticker phrases that sum up our faith in fair ways. All of those are peanut butter sandwiches.

We are a people invited into a feast of a story! And what a feast of a story it is! It’s the story of God’s ever-unfolding pursuit of our hearts and lives! It’s the story of a God of love who’s crazy about the idea of being in relationship with us. Once we start paying attention to God’s story and our place in it, God will use us, thrill us, surprise us, and change how we see ourselves and how we see God, and we’ll start adding our own chapters to this one story. Then we’ll not only be storytellers, but storydoers!

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Our passage in Isaiah says “God inhabits the earth’s horizon.” Think about that. No matter how far we travel, isn’t the horizon always in front of us? Our God is forever in front of us.

Let us continue walking forward into the future God has for us. God will be with us as we go, ushering us into the next chapters of this ever-unfolding story.

May we always know our story. May we always tell our story. But most importantly, may we be storydoers!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Unfolding

A sermon based on Luke 2:22-38

Sermon audio

Simeon opened his eyes and all he saw was darkness. He woke up every morning at the same time for as long as he could remember.

He unfolded his blanket away from his frail body and slowly made his way out of bed. Every morning, it took him longer to get to his feet than the one before. He wondered how many more mornings he had in left him. Simeon was now an old man who long ago made peace with God and with death. He had lived a long and full life, and now he was ready for it to come to an end.

Simeon was a patient man; faithful too. God’s Spirit had come to him and told him that he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah. God had told Simeon that the one who would come to redeem Israel was on the way. God would send a savior to the world who would deliver the people from their hardship and comfort their restlessness. But God had told him this a while ago. Simeon had been waiting years.

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Simeon wondered, just like he did every day, whether today would be the day. God’s window of opportunity was, frankly, getting smaller. Simeon was somewhere in his eighties, and his body never let him forget that. He slipped on his robes and stepped outside. It was morning in Jerusalem, but the sun’s rays had not yet stretched over the hills.

Simeon breathed in deeply. Mornings were his favorite part of the day. He wrapped the scarf around his head just a little tighter, and he began his daily journey to the Temple. There was a chill in the air that Simeon loved. The cool air invigorated him and helped him forget his own weariness—this day-after-day vigilance. God had blessed Simeon with a great promise, one he was humbled to receive, but, to be honest, waiting this long for God to deliver on this promise was stressful for him. Plus, he wondered how he would know what to look for. Simeon had no idea what a messiah looked like. He had a hard time trusting that one day he would just stumble upon a messiah unwittingly.

How would this unfold? What if he missed it? What if he already had?

Simeon had decided that God uses us in ways that surpass even our own understanding, but still God needs us to pay attention.

“Simeon” was an old name that means “he who hears”. He was a vigilant man. His eyes and ears were wide open, so that he was better able to see and hear what God was doing right in front of him.

Simeon listened closely, he looked around.

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Mary and Joseph had been to the Temple before, but only as infants as young as the one cradled against Mary’s chest. Growing up, they had heard many wondrous things about the Temple. They heard it was made of gold and marble and that it stretched higher and farther than any building anyone had ever seen.

As the young couple made their way into the heart of the city, there was no mistaking it. The Temple in Jerusalem was an imposing structure that gleamed under the sun. It was built to catch everyone’s eye. The Temple was the middle of the world, the center of everything. The corridors, terraces, courtyards, porticos, and gardens unfolded across 37 acres. This was Israel’s very heart. Every day, faithful Jews just like Mary and Joseph came from every direction, and from days away to observe ancient practices.

The Temple was here to display the magnificence of God to the people, and the sight of it took Mary’s breath away.

Mary and Joseph knew what was required of them. They were here to follow the laws of Moses. Mary needed to be purified after childbirth, and Jesus, as their first born son, needed to be dedicated to God.

Mary and Joseph breathed deep as they ascended the stone stairs up the North side of the Temple. They listened closely, they looked around. Through them, God was doing wonderful things.

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Anna spent every day of her life in the Temple. She knew who came and who went, and her eyes were peeled. She too was looking for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Anna spent her days speaking the words of the prophet Isaiah:

A voice cries out in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…The glory of the Lord will one day be revealed…

But as Anna looked around, she mourned the direction that things were moving in. The Caesars and the Herods ruled Jerusalem with an iron fist. Rome occupied the Holy city of Jerusalem. Even the King of the Jews, Herod, did everything Caesar wanted him to do. There were no princes, or kings, or rulers who had any concern for the well-being of the common people, and as long these cruel leaders were in control, there was no consolation for Israel and no redemption for Jerusalem.

Anna mourned what was happening in the Temple, too. Moneychangers overcrowded its corridors, each of them profiting off of every transaction. Exploiting poor peasants was one of their everyday practices. Merchants were selling animals for sacrifice at unfair prices. Anna spoke against this type of sin. This was God’s Temple and God was never interested in these kinds of riches. Anna was concerned that wealth was becoming the peoples’ new salvation and greed their new God. But Anna knew that real salvation never involved collecting more and more. Salvation was about how God’s love frees us to give more and more of ourselves to one another.

Anna hoped for a new type of power, one that changed people’s hearts—one that brought princes to their knees and made the rulers of the earth into nothing. And the only kind of power mighty enough to bring down princes, kings, and occupying Rome would have to come from God. What Anna hoped for was a Messiah.

The Messiah would be someone who would come from among the people and he would give us all new voices to speak with, and a new way to see how God is here with and for us all. The Messiah, Anna hoped, would usher in a new Kingdom. One stronger and more meaningful than any that had ever existed before. One built on the cornerstones of justice, kindness, and righteousness.

Anna listened closely, she looked around. The promises of God were about to unfold before her.

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Simeon’s smile was huge, and his eyes as bright as Anna had ever seen them. Mary and Joseph had made their way up the stairs of the Temple, and Simeon was drawn straight to the child wrapped in torn cloth.

There was no mistaking this child.

For some reason that Mary could not explain, she felt comfortable handing her child to this old man. There was something trustworthy and familiar in Simeon’s eyes. Mary told Simeon that her child’s name was Jesus, which means “God saves”. This surely was the one he had been waiting for.

Here was an 80 year-old man ready to die, holding a two month-old infant in his arms. Simeon unfolded the baby’s blanket away from his face and he saw in the face of this child the long-awaited promises of God. This weary man was holding new and vital life in his arms. In that moment it was hard not to see how new life was always being remade from the ashes of old life.

As much as Simeon tried to prepare himself for this moment, there was no way to meet the very embodiment of God’s love for God’s people, without being overwhelmed by how wonderfully it had come. Simeon began to weep. And as these tears streamed down his face, he felt all the years of anxious waiting falling away. Simeon listened closely to the sounds of this infant in his arms; he looked across the Temple grounds. The promises of God were unfolding before him.

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But all was not good news. God’s Spirit had told Simeon that not all would go well for this Jesus. Simeon found it hard to share what he knew with Mary. There were consequences to being this important to God. Simeon swallowed hard and turned to the young mother. No one who has something as important to say to God’s people, as Jesus will, could ever do so without creating division and controversy. There would be confrontation and trouble-making. Simeon held this child only imagining what truth might one day come out of the mouth of this Jesus, but Simeon knew that whatever this truth was, that it was going to be sharp enough to divide the whole region.

Jesus’s fate would unfold in front of an entire people, and his life would be put into the hands of those who would not understand his message. This was not anything that any mother wants to hear, and Simeon’s words chiseled away the smile from Mary’s face.

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Simeon and Anna were never sure how this child would redeem the world. The world needed a lot of redeeming. Would corrupt power ever be dismantled? How would this messiah teach the world to put compassion and justice first?

Would the people recognize that their real salvation resided in the living God and not in the hollow promises of all the Caesars and all the Herods of the world? How would this vulnerable baby, now cradled to his chest, one day become the King of all kings? Seemed like a tall order, even for God.

Neither Simeon nor Anna would live to see how any of this would unfold. But they were alright with that. They had seen enough.

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The weary Simeon stood there in the middle of the Temple courtyard. And as he held the redemption of an entire people in his hands, he uttered what may have been his last words:

O Master, you may dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.

What had just unfolded before Simeon’s eyes was enough. God’s strong promise of salvation has made itself known to us in the form of weakness. The power of God has entered the world in the ultimate form of vulnerability: a child cradled in his mother’s arms.

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God is finally here, among us, closer to the world than God has ever been. God has come to console and redeem us. God is now inside, among us. And with this Jesus, God’s redemptive project will now unfold for all the world to see. And now that he knew this, old Simeon could shut his eyes and finally rest.

 

Created, Known, and Loved

A sermon based on Psalm 139 preached on July 6th, 2014.

Sermon audio

“He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”

No, those are not words from scripture. They are words of a song many of us sing every year around Christmas about Santa Claus. And even though we are here at the beginning of July—with no hint of Christmas in the air, let’s spend a minute thinking about these words from this Christmas song, because, believe it or not, I think doing so will help us understand Psalm 139 better.

The words of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” are an exciting way for kids to learn a lesson about the rewards of good behavior. This song is a friend of many parents whose children behave better because they know a jolly old man in red is looking upon them, adding and subtracting toys from their Christmas stash based upon their behavior.

According to this Christmas carol, Santa Claus is all-knowing, and his ever-present eyes see everything kids do, and the size of his generosity depends on each child’s behavior.

Santa is a stressed-out parent’s best friend. He takes away harshly as much as he gives generously, and that giving or that taking away—bestowing on children enough gifts to fill a swimming pool or harshly leaving them with nothing but a lump of coal on Christmas morning—depends not upon his goodness but upon the goodness of each child.

There is no aspect of our lives that is concealed from this man who lives at the North Pole, so as the song urges, “We better watch out!”

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The words of Psalm 139 are some of the most beautiful words of scripture. There really is no better poetry than this.

The psalmist writes about a God who knows him intimately—who knows us all intimately. The Psalmist declares that God has examined him and knows him better than he knows himself. God knows of us even before we were born. God knitted us together in the womb. God knows our inmost thoughts. For some, that might be a threatening idea—God knows our thoughts, but notice the Psalmist doesn’t seem to feel threatened by that.

Some have this idea that God is like Santa Claus—sitting somewhere up North keeping a list of good and bad behavior—records on each of us—lists of who’s naughty and who’s nice. And haven’t we been taught that one day we will all be judged according to those standards—that God will open the big book of life—which by now, we have to imagine, must be converted into a searchable database—and God will tabulate all of that information—all of those naughty things and all of those nice things and reward or punish us based upon the results. If we think of God like this—a God who judges much like Santa Claus does, being known can feel more like a threat of vengeance than a promise of love. Every kid who’s ever received a lump of coal as their only Christmas gift knows something about that.

Notice that even though the psalmist declares that God knows his inmost thoughts and desires—all the beautiful and all the ugly—he doesn’t seem concerned about any sort of punishment. In fact this Psalmist seems comforted by the idea that God knows everything about him. God knows us intimately, but that doesn’t mean we are under God’s thorough judgment. God knows of our brokenness and failures but there’s no thought here that God keeps tabs on any of it. God knows us in a way that shouldn’t make us fearful or threatened because God’s knowledge of us is not a judging knowledge.

Here the Psalmist hands over every part of himself to be known by God because he understands that God doesn’t keep score. God does not keep a naughty or nice list. God is not in the record-keeping business.

The psalmist spills it all to God not in confession but as a way of handing over every bit of himself so that he can be in full relationship with God. That’s what God desires. That’s what kind of business God is into—the relationship business. God knows us not in order to judge us but to draw us into closer relationship with God.

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As this Psalmist sings his song, it dawns on him how intimately God has always known him. Over and over again, scripture tells us that God gives everything that God has to be in relationship with each of us, and over and over again it turns out that what matters most is not how big we screw up but how big God loves us even when we do. That is the story of the bible. It’s the Psalmist’s story, and that’s the story of our faith.

That is God’s story, too. God spends time carefully creating us, knowing us deeply, loving us completely, and pursuing us relentlessly. This loving and stubborn and patient God searches for us all the days of our life.

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Whenever we baptize someone into the family of faith, we celebrate God’s story. Shannon and Michelle, Wesley’s baptism is just a marker on the long road that you will help Wesley walk as he grows into the person God has created him to be.

In essence, baptism is a sign that points both backward and forward. Baptism is a backwards-pointing sign because it is a symbol of something that has already been declared—God has called Wesley his beloved child before you even knew him. Baptism is also a forward-pointing sign because in baptizing Wesley, you have made a big promise to raise him in the ways of Jesus, to teach him to love others more than he loves himself, to teach him to live his life not for himself but for his neighbors, and to do your part to shape him into a person who seeks to do God’s will rather than his own.

The good news is that you don’t have to teach Wesley all that by yourself. Just as Emily was and now Wesley is baptized in the community of the faithful, it is important that they also be raised by a community of the faithful. We come to know God only when we extend ourselves outward and fellowship and worship with other Christians.

It’s hard to find genuine relationship these days—especially in our individualistic culture.

A community of faith is one of the only places left in our culture that offers true relationship—the right church is one of those safe places where we are loved not because of what we can do—not appreciated only if we bring added value to the situation—a good community of faith is one where people are loved and valued simply because we are seen for what we are: children of God.

Church is one of those rare places where we can teach our kids, and learn for ourselves, what our culture has stopped learning: that being in community matters—that we belong. We belong in community and we belong to God, and in faithful community, we are loved just as we are—no strings attached. No naughty or nice lists kept.

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So perhaps this Independence weekend, we should take some time to celebrate our interdependence. We might be the only ones doing such a crazy thing!

In a society where rugged individualism is celebrated as the ideal, we who call each other children of God gather together to celebrate that we belong to one another. We gather to celebrate that we are each called God’s sons and daughters. We gather to celebrate that we are bound together into one body—the body of Christ, the One who came to say with his life that we are created, known, and loved by God far more than we will ever be able to fathom.

In a country full of do-it-yourselfers, and self-starters, we gather around that baptismal font to declare that we cannot make it on our own. Wesley cannot make it on his own. I cannot make it on my own. None of us can live this life independently. In the waters of baptism, we proclaim and celebrate that we belong to one another and to a God who has created us, knows us, and loves us just as we are. That our lives our not our own.

So, happy Interdependence Day!

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

Alleluia! Amen.