The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Footing

A sermon based on Psalm 31 and Matthew 7:21-29 preached on April 2nd, 2017

Sermon audio

Throughout Lent, we’ve been traveling our way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s sketch of the countercultural ways of discipleship. Jesus himself teaches His people how to follow Him.

All of the Sermon on the Mount adds up to create one picture, one snapshot. This is our value-system, our rule of life, our compass pointing the way in a world that wants to give us a million different ways to walk. All these words add up to a direction-giving, disciple-making manifesto. If you want to know what Jesus is up to, come back to these words. If you’re ever unsure what the heart of God looks like, cares about, is filled with, what God yearns for, come back here to these 3 chapters of Matthew’s gospel. But don’t simply read them. The Sermon on the Mount is not a constitution, it’s not a set of guidelines; it’s not a rulebook or an owner’s manual. It is a Way to walk. A way to talk, and live, and breathe. A way to hear and see. Watch and discern everything. If we treat what we’ve heard over the course of this Lenten season as merely sound advice that we may or may not take, depending upon our circumstances, then we’ve misheard Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come to us as just another voice among many other voices, with suggestions about how to get along day by day. Discipleship is a take it or leave it affair. It’s all or nothing. Jesus is the Way, and with Him, there is no halfway.

We should confess that many of us get really uncomfortable with that idea. That “all or nothing, take it or leave it” language from the Gospel. Jesus saves the hardest part of His message for last. This idea that maybe one day we might call Jesus Lord and His reply will be,

I’m sorry, do I know you?

That’s terrifying.

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All the way through this Lenten season, coming back again and again to the next parts of this Sermon on the Mount, I tried to keep in mind who Jesus is teaching these words to. He’s talking to His disciples. These words are for them. For us.

I imagine that as Jesus made his way through this 8-minute long sermon, folks gathered around Him and His circle of 12. Maybe they were interested to some degree or another in the ideas that He had about the way the world works. Maybe they stood within earshot of Jesus and leaned in a bit to hear Him a little better.

I can picture a crowd slowly gathering around. Maybe some of them paced along the periphery, too scared to come any closer. The closer an onlooker came, the easier others might mistake them as one of His disciples, so, for the timid, it was best to keep some distance, to appear nonchalant; yes, interested and curious, but not too interested or curious. Let’s just play the casual observer. One can hear or even consider what Jesus has to say and still walk away. One can even agree with what Jesus has to say, ponder all these things in their minds, thinking He makes some good points, but still remain uncommitted.

Good ideas, Jesus! Maybe you should write an opinion piece with all these ideas of yours and put it in the local section of tomorrow’s Galilee Times.

But the disciples weren’t listening from the periphery. The disciples were gathered in a tight bunch, circled around Jesus as he told them all of these things.

Try to put yourself in their position. Try to imagine Jesus staring straight into your eyes as He talks to you about murder, adultery, divorce, loving your enemies, judging others, asking, seeking, knocking. What would you be thinking? How would you feel by the end of it all? Would you wonder if Jesus was giving you advice or simply passing along some new ideas that came to Him. Was He expecting you to take all of this on and live in these ways? No, that can’t be. It all sounds too hard! Would you think it was all too much?

Slow down, Jesus, I need time to digest some of this!

What if being one of Jesus’ disciples meant you and I had to accomplish all of this—to stick to this narrow path that we heard about last week? Imagine how glazed over the disciples’ eyes were getting. They had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. Do we even? And if all these things He’s had to say wasn’t enough to knock you over with a feather, certainly the ending is:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a man who builds his life on unsteady ground.

How high is this hurdle, Jesus! And who could ever jump over it! Who stands a chance here?!

I wonder if the disciples were thinking something like that.

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Two wonderful families build two houses. They build them out of the same material. Good solid wood. Only the best will do. They go down the local Home Depot: Galilee’s Home Improvement Warehouse. Then they go down to the local blacksmith and with the same exact amount of money, they buy all the nails they need—really solid ones. They draw up plans, they learn them inside and out—pored over the blueprints more times than they can count.

Their houses are going to be the best on the block! These two families, they’re all really hard workers. They’re ready to pour their blood, sweat, and tears into this project. Both see their houses as lifetime investments, and they have made all the right choices along the way. But, no matter how costly or well-built a house may be, it can never out-last its foundation. If the foundation gives way, the house will give way right along with it.

One family takes that into consideration; sadly, the other does not. That’s the parable Jesus tells. It doesn’t matter how well you have it together. All of it will crumble into a pile of splinters if it’s not founded upon something solid underneath. Something sound. Strong. Storm-proof.

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Oliver Wendell Holmes said of the Sermon on the Mount:

Most people are willing to take these words as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.

It’s not what’s over your head that counts. What matters most is what’s under you. The exact wrong way to respond to Jesus’s words in Matthew chapters 5 through 7 is to lift them up and worship them. To gaze up at them once in a while, to make some sort of symbol out of them by which we define ourselves. That’s not discipleship; that’s mere observance. It might even be idolatry. Jesus’ words frozen into a collection of principles we simply align ourselves with, gather ourselves under, pledge our allegiance to with hands over our hearts as we do so. Jesus, as well as His sermon, is no emblem.

The only right way to respond to the Sermon on the Mount is to live into it. To jump inside of it. To let it carry you. Animate you.  Jesus as well as all the words He says are the Word of the living, breathing God who is here to steer you and I in all our directions. The right response to Jesus isn’t observance; it’s movement. Let Jesus be the power underneath your feet. Allow Jesus as well as His words to take you places.

If we approach the Sermon on the Mount the first way Holmes suggests: as our flag, we assume control over Jesus, continuing to live our lives in first place, in all the ways we would like. But, if we let Jesus’ words become the rudder by which to steer, then we give up control.  The power won’t be ours anymore, it will come instead from something underneath us, something bigger that moves us. Jesus, our direction-giver. Someone who guides us. The One under us that carries us in the Jesus Way.

If we look at the Sermon on the Mount as a list of things to pay attention to, Jesus remains an icon like a flag; some self-righteous statement we make; some personal slogan of ours. But Jesus doesn’t belong on top of a flag pole, as a word on a bumper sticker or as something shouted into a megaphone. Jesus isn’t a position we take. We don’t use Jesus. Jesus uses us. Jesus is a moving, living breathing person who has the power to breathe new life into us.  And discipleship is a choice we make each and everyday to have Jesus be the very bedrock that upholds, giving shape and integrity to everything we are, do, and say. That’s the life of discipleship. It’s a life where we come in second place, because Jesus always claims first place.

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The word obedience comes to us from three different languages: Middle English, old French, and Latin. It literally means to hear in the direction of. By now, we’ve figured out that the Sermon on the Mount is a direction-giving message from a direction-giving Messiah.

Having faith in Jesus isn’t about standing in one position and declaring it as the right place to establish ourselves. It’s a movement forward. If we think being Christian is a place to plant ourselves, we will quickly find ourselves alone. Jesus is a mover, and the Way of Jesus is a chasing after Him in every aspect of our lives. As Presbyterian Pastor, Eugene Peterson, puts it, discipleship isn’t about building monuments. It’s about leaving footprints. Discipleship is a travel song we sing to give witness to our God along our way.

Poet William Faulker once said something like that. The way of Jesus, he said, is not filled with monuments but with footprints. A monument says, “At least I got this far,” while a footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.”

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All foundations sink after a while. All ground gives way. That’s why we build our traveling faith upon Jesus—the Rock that’s never in one place but also never fails, never gives way.

May we build ourselves upon this Jesus, so that our journey will be carved along pathways made strong and sure by the One who always goes before us. And because this pathway is steep and demanding, because it asks us to hand over every bit of who we are, may God be gracious and merciful as we stumble along. And when our legs shake and the ground gives way, may God become our help. May God be our solid footing.

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.

Going Without Knowing

A sermon based on Psalm 27:1, 4-9 and Matthew 4:12-23 preached on January 22nd, 2017

Sermon audio

These days, it’s awfully difficult to hold our attention. Our culture moves fast. We dart from one thing to another just as fast as our high-speed internet connections can move us. It’s not difficult to get our attention, but it’s almost impossible to hold our attention. Scientific studies have proven this. Since the year 2000, the average attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, which is the attention span of your average goldfish. If that’s true, it means I’ve already lost you.

Magazine editors also know this about us. The word-count of your average article has dropped from 2,000 words to somewhere around 400 words. Any longer than that, and they lose their readers. I’d like to say that I’m not a part of that easily distracted average, but I know that every time I get my Atlantic Monthly or Smithsonian Magazine in the mail, I turn to the cover article to see how long it is. If it’s anything over 4 pages, there’s a good chance I’ll throw the magazine away before I get to reading it. In this sense and others, we’ve become tourists in our own lives. We visit moments, but we no longer settle down into them. We live out of our suitcases instead of using the chest of drawers, empty and available for us.

And in a lot of ways, our religious lives are like that, too. We enjoy those occasional moments of spiritual highs—the moments when our faith entertains us. We make scarce time to grow in our faith, and if we’re honest, the attention we give to practicing our faith is fleeting—counted only in moments. It’s more akin to a rest stop along the highway than a long, day-in and day-out journey down the road.

We don’t mean to spend so little time attending to our relationship with Jesus, it’s just that, increasingly, Jesus has to be squeezed into our ever-endangered free moments. Whatever attention we pay to Jesus has to be written into our schedules. Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, puts it this way:

There’s little interest or enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue or of deeper knowledge.

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Come, follow me!

Jesus shouts to those first disciples. And right way, Simon Peter and Andrew drop their diversions—the nets they were mending—and follow Him.

One thing missing from this story is all the small print. There’s no clarification of what this commitment these first 4 followers of Jesus would be like. No questions of how long this would project of discipleship would take. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John weren’t given an itinerary or an ETA. Jesus didn’t hand them a syllabus, nor did he present them with a project proposal. Really, no details at all. Jesus simply said,

Come, follow me,

and they dropped everything and went with Him.

Jesus doesn’t want casual fans. He’s not interested in entertaining tourists. Read all 4 gospels. There’s never a moment where Jesus tolerates a distracted follower. Jesus doesn’t care for sightseers. Jesus wants disciples.

A disciple, biblically speaking, is a learner, not a learner in the academic sense of the word, but someone who dedicates her or himself to the slow, careful, intentional, and meticulous ways of apprenticeship. Whether we’ve ever realized it or not, when we call ourselves disciples, we are identifying ourselves as people who learn and work as apprentices under the tutelage of Jesus, our master craftsman.

This means that discipleship is a learning-growing relationship where we live under the guidance and instruction of our Teacher, and we dedicate our everyday, our every moment to paying attention to the ways of Jesus. And like all apprenticeships, discipleship takes every bit of our day, every bit of our focus, our entire mind and heart. The student soaks herself in the life and ways of her teacher. So are we to throw all of ourselves into the careful and meticulous learning as apprentices of Jesus. Casual glances toward Jesus isn’t discipleship. It’s tourism. Freidrich Nietzche calls biblical discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction.”

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Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John—none of them were looking for new jobs. If we take this story at face value, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t, Jesus simply shows up one day and disrupts their lives. Not asking but telling them to follow Him. Jesus pulled them away from everything they ever knew. The rhythm of their days as fisherman. Their family and friends. Their homes and their mortgages. And for some unknown and thoroughly confounding reason, these first 4 disciples drop everything, including their nets, and follow Jesus. The only thing Jesus says about what’s coming next for them is this ambiguous and mysterious mixed metaphor:

I’ll show you how to fish for people.

“To fish for people.” That’s the calling. That’s the vocation of a disciple, and we have to figure out what that means in our own contexts. Change the metaphor if you need to. I have a hunch that the only reason Jesus used a fishing metaphor is because he was talking to fishermen. If Jesus was talking to construction workers, He might have said,

Come, follow me. I’ll show you how to dig for people and build up a new Kingdom.

If He was talking to a bunch of chiropractors, he might have said,

Come follow me. I’ll show you how to turn your crooked hearts and lives back into their proper alignment.

The point is that you take who you are, how you best understand the world and your place in it, and apply it in a bigger way change the world with it.

Jesus’ call is a summons to be something bigger—to think bigger thoughts about your purpose and place in the world, because God’s call upon your life and mine isn’t merely a call to do something; it’s a call to be something. Jesus calls us as we are, from where we are and how we are, being who we are, and then He takes us farther, changing our focus, expanding our sense of purpose, apprenticing us in the Way until we realize that the Yes we’ve said to Jesus means giving of our entire selves to the call of God upon our lives.

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In a world full of people trying their best to take the lead, who seem to define success as the capacity to climb to the highest rung of whatever ladder they’re on, the vocation of discipleship says that being a leader doesn’t hold a candle to being a follower of our Divine Apprentice.

Discipleship is first an abandoning of all the values that our culture holds up highest, and giving ourselves to the project of followership. It’s a changing of loyalties. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a purposeful, determined, and daily humbling of ourselves. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John—they had no clue where Jesus was leading them, but they followed and obeyed anyway. Discipleship means going without knowing, being caught up in what Jesus is doing. It’s a call to spend our days and our lives sharing in the life and ways of Jesus, giving our best, apprentice-like attention and devotion to our Fisher King.

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A story like this, where four random people simply get up, seemingly abandon their lives as they knew them, and walk away from every one of their relationships makes all of us feel…what? Small? Pithy? Incredulous? This story does have a certain sting to it, doesn’t it?

When we ask ourselves what we would do if we were in the situation, dropping it all and following just doesn’t seem possible. We’re no sea-faring people like the disciples. We spend most of our time on land. We have our feet, as well as our loyalties, firmly grounded in some very specific places with some very specific and beloved people. So, maybe our version of dropping our nets and following Jesus—this going without knowing—looks a little different for most of us. And that’s okay. We’re not all meant to be vagabonds. But just like those first disciples, we come and go, leave and arrive in so many senses of those words. What if we did it all under the apprenticeship of the Master Craftsman of our lives, Jesus the Christ?

Maybe our call to be disciples of Jesus means dropping our own nets—all those heavy things in our lives that only ensnare us, entangle us. All those small things that take up too much of our time and attention, that distract us from seeing how Jesus is always approaching us, saying to us in some way or another, “Come, follow me!” It could be that following where Jesus takes us means considering all of those fears we have that keep us where we are.

Could it be that some of us are trapped inside nets of our own making—the selfish motives we have woven over the years, that feeling we have that we are helpless to undo all the knots we’ve made in our own lives or in the lives of others. Maybe the call to drop our nets means being more receptive to the voice of Jesus. Or, could it be that Going Without Knowing means getting out of our own way so that Jesus can become our way.

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That’s not a bad prayer for all us, by the way. What if, before we rolled out of bed in the morning, we prayed a prayer like this:

Jesus, get in my way today! In fact, Jesus, become my way, today!

That’s not the prayer of a casual follower or a sightseer, nor are those words a spiritual tourist would say. Those are the words of an apprentice, a disciple on the Jesus Way.

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May we be caught up in the Jesus vocation, this going without knowing, this long apprenticeship in holiness. This long obedience in the same direction.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Touchdown Jesus

A sermon based on Psalm 25:1-10 and Philippians 2:1-13 preached on October 16th, 2016

Sermon audio

There’s a reason why today’s Super Bowls have been played either in warm weather climates or indoor stadiums. Perhaps the best reason took place on December 31st, 1967. That was the day of the NFL Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys. The temperature in Green Bay, Wisconsin that New Year’s Eve was 16 degrees below zero. The wind chill made it feel like minus 57. It’s still the coldest football game on record. Players said it felt like they were playing in a meat locker.

After the first play, a recovered fumble, the referee blew his whistle and the metal stuck to his lip. He had to rip it off his mouth. His lip started bleeding and the blood immediately froze. From that moment, not another whistle was used in that game. If you care to, you can watch video of the game on YouTube. You’ll see players sliding out of bounds, skidding 20 feet over top of icy grass and rock solid earth. Players were dropping to the ground like the game was being played on a hockey rink.

In temperatures like that that, every hit stings. Your hands and your feet don’t even feel like they’re yours, but for those players that day, they had to work anyway. So they dug down deep and gave it everything they had. With time running out, the Packers put together a drive that ended with quarterback Bart Starr diving headfirst into a pile of Cowboys and over the goal line to score the game-ending winning touchdown.

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In the fullness of time, God took His first careful steps upon the earth. This is the mystery and the miracle that we profess: That in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s bare feet touched ground, that He dove headfirst into the pile of humanity.

In all other religions, God is that Holy Other, the One who is entirely well past anything anyone could ever think of or imagine. Completely unknowable and incomprehensible. But we who call ourselves Christians believe something different. We believe that God was one of us. We believe that God has a face. Eyes we could peer into. A voice we could hear with our own ears as easily as you and I can hear one another. That, in Jesus Christ, God came close and became acquainted with the muck and the mire of our everyday, earthbound existence. This is what Paul declares, when he shares with the believers in Philippi that Jesus emptied himself. What he means is that Jesus forsook his safe position at the right side of God—the one he’s had since the very beginning of creation—that Jesus chose for our sake to abandon His throne and touch down to earth—to become one of us. To share in this dirty, earthbound existence of ours.

Touchdown Jesus.

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But the story of Jesus’ incarnation is really not so much about what God gave up to become one of us. It’s really more about what He took on. He took on flesh. He took on sin. He took on humanity. True humanity. When we look at Jesus, we see the face of God, but not only that. We also see what true humanity looks like. God is the most human of us all—and Jesus, who is God with skin on, is the most human being who has ever lived.

According to God, human beings are at their best when they reflect Him, and Jesus spent every second of His earthly existence reflecting God because by His perfect human nature, Jesus gave Himself over to a life of service, truth, humility. By His every word and action, Jesus reflected the glory of God to us by showing how big God’s love really is, and how far God is willing to go to show us how fully we are loved. With who He is and all of what He does, Jesus is the Imago Dei, the very image of God, and therefore the truest human, the most humane of all. And from the moment of his first touch-down in a manger in Bethlehem 2,020 years ago right on up to now, Jesus has invited all of us to reflect the Imago Dei, the image of Christ in our own lives—to slowly but surely become human, to practice kindness and compassion. To take up a life of service and truth and humility that mirrors (however dimly) the image of Christ, who is the most human being who has ever lived.

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In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, he encourages that community to practice being church. If we take Paul at his word, being church happens when people come together and are of the same mind, have the same love, and are in full accord with one another. Now, this doesn’t mean that Paul is suggesting that Christians should all believe the same things, agree on every issue out there, or that every church should strive to be ideologically identical. Far from it. This isn’t a plea for cookie-cutter Christianity. Rather, Paul coaxes us all to adopt a similar attitude, the attitude of Christ. To orient ourselves in the same direction. To face towards Jesus, and to nurture within our community a willingness to bear one another’s burdens, encourage each other, journey along the way beside each other, share in mutual love and heartfelt affection, and to live in right relationship. In short, to practice being church with and for one another, by reflecting Jesus in everything we say, think, and do. And the hope is, if we’re all willing to take up that burden, to give ourselves fully to that project, God will be at work here and we will see our salvation being worked out day by day, week by week, year by year. Because a community that shows Christ to each other has Christ at its center.

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All this, I hope you know, is called stewardship. Stewardship is ultimately about adopting a Christlike attitude. It’s about living our way into the Way of Jesus. Just as Jesus did nothing from selfish ambition, we who are His church live our way into the right practice of stewardship by taking up that same selfless attitude. God’s idea of good stewardship happens when each and every one of us make it our primary vocation to reflect the Imago Dei, the image of Christ, with, for and to one another, and then out into the world.

We often think of stewardship in private ways, especially when it comes to time and money. We’re not accustomed to other folks telling us how we should spend our time and our money. And anybody who challenges our choices in these matters is rude, and more than likely, crossing a boundary. If we had our way, we’d like to keep both how we spend our money and how we spend our time private matters. That’s at least what the world says. It’s no business of yours. But we who gather as Church believe something different.

To paraphrase Martin Luther, our nature is so deeply curved in on ourselves that it not only bends the gifts of God inward toward ourselves, but also it fails to realize that we seek all things, even God, for own sake. As we gather together as Church, part of what we do is admit to one another and to God how deeply curved in toward ourselves we are, how reluctant we are to share these inward parts of ourselves with each other. We’re here as church to encourage one another, to help each other regain and reclaim our human shape—to take on the shape of Christ, the most human being there ever was. And that happens when we take the chance to curve our lives outward, so that we can begin reflecting and projecting the Good News of the Gospel out into the world. Mirrors curved inward reflect their images upside down. Paul writes,

Do nothing from selfish ambition…look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Mirrors curved outward reflect their images right-side up. That’s the character of Christ and the shape of stewardship! Curved outward. How we spend our time and our money are biblical issues.

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We best reflect the image of the God whose feet touched down to earth by hitting the turf ourselves. Lives curved outward in stewardship are lives given in service to one another, to neighbors, and to community. That’s why we group Stewardship and Mission together into one committee here at Kuhn Memorial. A Church curved outward in stewardship is a church sent outward in mission!

When we give ourselves in mission to our neighbors and to our community, we make footprints upon the earth just like God has done in Jesus Christ. We’re taking the ever-outward lunge forward that our forever-outward-lunging God takes. When we are faithful, we make our way headfirst into humanity. When we do that we reflect the image of our touchdown Jesus. Whenever we lunge forward like that, putting foot to pavement; whenever we walk closer to be with and assist our neighbors in mission, our presence with them and care for them thaws out the frozen ground beneath their feet, so when a brother or sister among us falls down on hard times, the fall doesn’t hurt so bad.

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This Stewardship season, one question to ask ourselves is “Can the world see Jesus is us?” How can we better practice mutual love, heartfelt affection, and right relationship? We do it by projecting and reflecting the Imago Dei, the image of Christ, into each and every one of our relationships. We do it by trading in selfish ambition for the interests of others. We do it by encouraging one another in the faith and regarding others as better than ourselves. We do it by celebrating and paying attention to how God is at work in each and every one of us. In short, we do it by dedicating ourselves to the task of stewardship.

All praises 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.

Conversations By Firelight

A sermon based on Psalm 30 and John 21:1-25 preached on April 10th, 2016

Sermon audio

There was a light in the distance, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter and the rest of the disciples had spent the pre-dawn hours just 100 yards from the shoreline. That’s when the fish are biting—very early morning—with dark still cast above the surface of the water. Their nets had been dragging beside the boat for a few hours now and to their surprise, they were catching nothing. Not one thing. At least nothing worth keeping.

It was still Easter. The disciples had seen the resurrected Jesus appear to them over and over again. The first time was in the upper room, all bolted up and shut tight around them. The second time, Jesus came again to the empty room, this time to quell Thomas’ doubt. But the questions still remained: What do you do when you’ve lost your leader? How do you start something all on your own when all you’ve done for the last three years is follow? Well, what you do is you return to something familiar, and for the disciples, what was familiar was fishing. But for some reason, not even that was working out all that well. By this time in the morning, they’re usually dragging in loads and loads of fish, but that morning, all they had to show for it were empty nets. Something wasn’t right. Even the most familiar things didn’t feel the same anymore.

Peter was the deck captain. It was his job to make sure that before they set off from the shore the nets were mended, that they had enough bait, and the boat was in working order. But Peter’s mind wasn’t in the game. He seemed distant, almost like he was caught in some kind of net himself—unable to find his way out of it. It was near the end of this terrible, no good morning when they saw a flickering light against the shoreline—a small campfire, maybe. There was a man standing next to it, some dark figure moving along the beach. Then a voice:

Children, have you caught anything yet?

No,

they replied to this mysterious figure.

The man standing along the shore yelled back,

Try the other side of the boat!

Whoever he was, he must know his stuff, because his fishing tip worked out. Once the disciples hauled their net to the other side, they were glad they took the time to mend their net before setting off. It was so full, there was no way for them to bring it back up into the boat. They had to drag it to shore. And as they got closer, it was the unnamed, beloved disciple who recognizes that this mysterious man along the shoreline is Jesus. He says so to Peter, and at once, Peter leaps out of the boat and into the water (Peter, it seems, is prone to jumping off the sides of boats!), and he swims toward Jesus.

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The last time Peter had seen a charcoal fire was on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter gathered around it for warmth, bundled up, hoping that no one would recognize him or figure out his accent. Peter’s shame for what he did that night had been an anchor around his neck ever since. That night, Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus even knew he would before it ever happened. For days and days, Peter’s shame was unbearable, and seeing the flicker and spark of another charcoal fire sent shivers up his spine, the smell of it deepened his shame.

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In his gospel, John refers to every appearance of the resurrected Jesus as a sign. Signs point the way. When we’re lost, they can help us find out where we are in relation to things. They grab our attention, turn our heads, help us get unlost, point us in the right direction. But lots of times, we don’t have eyes to see them.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was a sign-maker. He created signs for all to see. He existed to show us the way to God. He pointed all who met him in the right direction, but most who encountered Jesus couldn’t decipher His signs. They couldn’t recognize them.

This time, though, the resurrected Jesus shows up along the shoreline to help Peter find his way again—to lead him out of his haze, out of his lostness and despair—to give him new purpose and direction.

A fish breakfast sizzled over the charcoal fire along the beach that morning. Peter was soaked from diving off the boat, so he huddled around the fire for warmth, sitting next to Jesus. Another fire. Another cold shiver. Another conversation by firelight…

Peter, do you love me?

Jesus asked.

The question must have caught Peter by surprise, but that Jesus asked it of Peter three times must have offended him.

‘Peter do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’

Yes, Yes, Yes,

Peter answers.

It wouldn’t be ‘til later, that Peter would recognize what Jesus was doing. With each question, Jesus was giving Peter a chance to redeem himself, to undo each of his three denials. Jesus visited Peter in the early dawn of the morning to turn those old No No No’s into new Yes Yes Yes’. Jesus has returned to take that anchor off from around his neck. To free him from his guilt and shame. To rehabilitate Peter. To make him whole again. That morning, during a conversation by firelight in the dim dawn of that early morning, Peter was lifted out of his fog. But not only that! See, when the risen Jesus appears, He not only forgives and unbinds us, He calls us to something—gives us purpose and direction! This isn’t just another Easter resurrection Jesus sighting; this is a call story for both Peter and those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. After each time we tell Jesus we love Him, He says prove it.

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then feed my lambs.’

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then take care of my sheep.”’

‘Since you love me, feed my sheep!’

That is love’s fruit. If we love Jesus, then we will feed his people, because love isn’t just something we feel. Love needs purpose. And if the love we love with doesn’t compel us to action and call us to feed and care for others around us, then we’re not being faithful to Jesus, and the call and voice we hear is not the call and voice of the Gospel but some lesser call. This is Jesus saying to Peter and each and every one of us,

Don’t just sit here with your love for me! I need you out there! Enact your love for me! Don’t do this ‘follow me’ thing with lips only. Do it with your lives!

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When my Aunt Peggy was a teenager, my grandfather took her fishing out on Kueka Lake in upstate New York. My grandfather had some property there that he retreated to often, and he thought Peggy was old enough and experienced enough to fish with him without being too much of a bother. So, they cast out onto the lake with their fishing rods, bait, and candy bars for snacks, and sunk their hooks underneath the surface.

My aunt Peggy was in the front of the boat; my grandfather in the back. And at some point that morning, Peggy threw her rod around her shoulder to cast her line out, and she hooked my grandfather clear through the nose, and before she realized she had done that, she pulled on it. Now, Jordan noses are pretty big, but my Aunt Peggy couldn’t have done what she did twice!

The line didn’t yank my grandfather out of the boat, but I bet a fishing hook through the nose rattled him for a time. I’m sure it took my grandfather a few minutes to get the thing out of his nose, but once they got it out, he just kept on fishing. I’m not sure if my aunt Peggy reeled in anything other than my grandfather’s nose that day, but they did catch some fish.

To add insult to injury, that night they made their own shoreline campfire, and as he cooked the fish they caught, my grandfather spilled boiling water on his bare feet. But he kept on cooking!

I wonder what the conversation around the firelight was like that night!

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Seeing Jesus upon the shore, yanked Peter out of the boat. It dragged him to the shoreline, and together they sat as the fish popped and crackled over a charcoal fire.

The firelight warmed their faces as they shared in conversation with each other. In a sense, it was a signal fire. The smoke from it was an offering that rose into the sky above them, as Jesus, with His words, gave Peter a new sign, a new purpose and calling, signaling a new vocation for Him, not as a deck captain to a ragtag bunch of fishermen, but as lead disciple, and the Rock upon which Christ’s church was to be built. It served as a signal that even our worse words and actions can’t yank us out of relationship with Jesus.

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The Good News for us, friends, is that this world is full of shore-side charcoal fires! There’s signal fires and burning bushes everywhere we turn. We just have to have Easter eyes to see their spark and flame, and ears to hear their crackle and snap. But the message of the Gospel is that we have to want to see those signs! See, most us completely overlook God-sightings. We don’t recognize them as we should. We suffer from a lack of attentiveness. Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, defines love as paying attention to the other person and opening oneself to attention. And discipleship means jumping out of the boat to be closer to Jesus. To risk something of ourselves to follow Him, to take up the vocation to love Jesus by feeding and caring for His sheep. Pastor Mike Foster says that we who are Christ’s church need to risk more of ourselves. He writes,

Our guardian angels are bored. We’re not taking chances with our faith.

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As we know, Peter would grow into his calling and purpose. He would indeed become a rock—a strong presence for an emerging church. He and his fellow disciples would eventually become unafraid and bold in their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But it would take them growing braver and walking into the world with it. The Way of Jesus is not a point of view. It’s not a religious opinion. It’s not a political or moral position. It’s not a stance we take. It’s a walk. What pastor and author Leonard Sweet calls “a world walk.” And it all started with a conversation around firelight.

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Do you love me?

That’s the question Jesus asked of Peter—of all of his disciples. It’s the question Jesus asks of each one of us.

If you love me, then follow and feed.

Jesus has the same words of purpose and vocation and challenge for us:

Forget about fishing on water. Start looking in different places. Start fishing in different ways. Risk more. Cast your faith out into deeper waters! We’ve got some hungry people to feed and some lost people to care for. Walk the Gospel Way…and follow me!

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

Alleluia! Amen.