Catching Jesus’ Bad Habits: Jesus Could Be Dangerous

Matt. 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Matt. 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

John 3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

When I was growing up, my parents really wanted me to stay away from dangerous situations. I’m sure all of us want that for our children. So why is it that some people grow up to take dangerous jobs? According to Business Insider, the 8 most dangerous jobs in America are

8.  Farmers and ranchers

7.  Delivery drivers

6.  Iron and steel workers

5.  Garbage and recycling collectors

4.  Roofers

3.  Aircraft pilots and flight engineers

2.  Fishing and jobs like it

1.  Logging. Lumberjacks are almost 38 times more likely to have a fatal injury than the national average.[1]

 When I was growing up, my parents would have said that these folks were “playing with fire.” Imagine my surprise when among Jesus’ bad habits, I saw that Jesus could be dangerous. Bad habit? It seems like a bad idea! But living dangerously is one of those counter-intuitive pieces of Jesus’ life that could rearrange the way we live. How could Jesus be dangerous?

First, Jesus could be dangerous because He called for people to care less about religion and more about a relationship with God. That was scary for people who built their identities around doing all the things that made it look like they were tight with God. Jesus was big on people not just avoiding what was wrong, but becoming what was right. The rules said, “Love your friends and hate your enemies” but Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who are after you.” Well, that’s crazy talk! Who loves their enemies? God does…. oh …. so if we really know God, if God really matters to us, then we don’t just want the appearance of being a Christ-like person, we actually want to know Jesus, actually want to love our enemies and pray for those who are after us. Today, how is your heart with God?

Second, Jesus could be dangerous because he reminded people to go all in. God doesn’t want us to just be nice, to do a few good things, to change a few bad habits. As Leonard Sweet says, “Jesus wanted them to change everything—mind, heart, and soul.” When I was a teen-ager, I was part of an amazing youth group. We had as many as 35–40 teens every week, and I ran for President ahead of my senior year. My opponent was Mark, and he was super popular, but sometimes cruel and would exclude people from the “in” crowd. I delivered a great campaign speech about being inclusive and wanting to learn more about each other and God, and I totally lost. I was really mad at Mark, and mad at God. The first youth group retreat we went on after that, we had communion on the last night, and as usual the youth group officers were going to distribute the bread and cup. And then I realized that meant Mark was going to be giving me communion…and I almost walked out. In that moment, I discovered that I was enjoying being angry at Mark and at God, and I didn’t want to give that anger up. I said that I wanted to follow Jesus, to have Him be the Lord of my whole life, but really, I just wanted to keep this angry place for myself. Was I really going to let my anger come between me and God? God opened my eyes to see that communion was His and that I had to let go of that anger, to receive grace from the hand of someone I thought of as an enemy. That night, for the first time, I gave God my anger, and learned at least a little, how to love my enemies. Even after all these years, I am still trying to learn how to let Jesus truly be the Lord of all my life. Today, have you let Jesus into every area of your life?

Finally, Jesus could be dangerous because He was the Truth and He lived it all the time. Being truly good, and being that way all the time will threaten people. One of Dad’s old youth group became a new man thanks to Jesus. Phil worked in the Navy shipyard in San Diego, one of the biggest shipyards in the world. When he worked, he worked hard, he did the best that he could, and he was always honest. After being on the job for a few days, some of his co-workers grumbled at him for working so hard. He was making them look bad. After a few weeks, he received his first threat. So was Phil doing anything wrong? No, actually he was just doing what everyone should. He didn’t think of himself as doing anything special, but he was dangerous. In the same way, just by living a life of truth, Jesus shined a light into people’s lives. Some people welcomed the light, for it showed them the path ahead. Some people hated the light, because it showed how flawed they were, and they did not want to see—they wanted to choose their own selfish way, instead of the way of God. Jesus was dangerous. He had to be stopped, and so they killed Him. To live the truth all the time, is always dangerous. Today, are you comfortable with Jesus shining the light of truth on all that you do? Will you live a life dedicated to the truth of Jesus’ love for you and everyone?

We all internalize the messages of our parents—“Stay safe.” “Don’t play with fire”—and they are right as far as they go. But Jesus came to show us how far we have yet to go. Leonard Sweet continues, Jesus “didn’t want to just make a difference in the world; he wanted to make a different world.” And there are powers that don’t want to change. This week, one of the great men of our nation, Elijah Cummings passed away. He represented one of the poorest, roughest districts in Baltimore and he was one of the lions of the House of Representatives. He once said, “Most people who are hating on you, they are not worried about where you are. They’re worried about where you’re going.” True and lasting change comes to us when we let God ease our fears and uncertainties, to recognize that grace is really how the world works. Today, Jesus calls us to live dangerously, to live lives so dedicated to the truth. sacrifice and kindness that other people realize the folly of their greed, selfishness and little deceptions. Today, Jesus calls us to live dangerously, to not just give God a Sunday here or there, but every day, asking God to direct our paths and show God’s grace. Today, Jesus calls us as a community to belong to God so completely, to be so full of God’s passion for changing lives that we are actually changing the world. It could be dangerous. But isn’t that where the adventure begins?

[1]https://www.businessinsider.com/the-most-dangerous-jobs-in-america-2018-7#5-refuse-and-recyclable-material-collectors-30

Catching Jesus’ Bad Habits: Jesus Loved to Party!

Matt. 9:9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

Matt. 9:10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

I want you to turn to someone near you and say, “I’m really glad you’re here.”

Now I want you to turn to someone else and ask, “Has Doug lost his mind?”

Are you laughing yet? Did you know that Jesus was accused of having too much fun? It’s true! In fact, more than once, Jesus was accused of being a party animal. Over and over again, Jesus is found hanging out at different people’s houses. Jesus loved to party!

 Because Jesus loved to party, I would like you to take a moment and think about parties. What’s one of your favorite parties that you’ve ever been part of? Find someone close to you, and share three things that made that party memorable.

 [Let people have a minute to talk it over.]

 Okay? Oh my gosh! I expect there are a lot of stories out there, but I expect all our parties have some things in common. What are some of the things you find at all the best parties?

 [Take responses from the congregation.]

 Food — Of course! And it has to be great food, right? Did you know that God loves barbecue? For real! That’s why the Jews were commanded to have burnt offerings—they were roasting the lambs or bulls or whatever! And then after, they would bring the food out and everyone would share it. It was a party and God was the host!

 People tell jokes and outrageous things happen — Jesus went to parties all the time. “Why?” Leonard Sweet asks. “Because Jesus was the life of every party. So much so that less-than-kosher people often hosted VIP events for him, causing the religious establishment to label him a party animal.”

 Music — When you’re at a really great party, there’s music. Sometimes people are feeling the music and the joy and they start dancing! This past May, my niece Kendall married Zack, and the music at their reception was great. You want to know my favorite part? It was watching my Dad and my Aunt Betsey—3 artificial hips and two artificial knees between them—cutting the rug together! Oooo could they dance!

When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, He says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding party!” When someone comes back to God, Jesus doesn’t look to see if the roof fell in, doesn’t tease them about long-time-no see, Jesus is just glad to see them and throws a party! That’s what heaven is like!

To show what that’s like, I want to tell you a story. It’s by Tony Campolo, a Professor of Sociology at Eastern College in Philadelphia. He is one of the most unusual people you’ll ever meet. Many years ago, I heard him tell this story, and I found it on YouTube, but it’s too long there. I’m going to tell it like he does, in the first person, but it’s really Tony Campolo. He says:

I had to go on a speaking engagement to Honolulu. (laughs) Hey, sometimes you get Chicago, sometimes you get Honolulu. You go to Honolulu and you wake up at 3 in the morning if you’re from the East Coast because of the time difference…and I was hungry. So I went looking for something to eat, and up a side street I found a greasy spoon. I went in. There were no booths, just a row of stools in front of the counter. I sat down—there was no body in the place. I didn’t touch the menu. It was one of those plastic menus you know, and grease had piled up on it. I knew that if I opened it, something extra-terrestrial would have crawled out.

This fat guy with a greasy apron, unshaved, with a cigar comes out. He puts the cigar down and asks, “What do you want?”

“A cup of coffee and a doughnut?” He poured the coffee and then he did this [wipes off his hand on his chest], and he picked up the doughnut. I hate that!

So I’m sitting there, 3:30 in the morning, munching on my dirty doughnut, when into the place come about 10 or 11 prostitutes and they sat on either side of me…and it was a small place! And I tried to disappear.

The one next to me was especially boisterous, and she said to her friend, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”

“So what do you want me to do? Sing Happy Birthday? So you’re going to be 39—you want a cake, you want a party?”

The first woman said, “Look I don’t want anything. I’m just telling you it’s my birthday. Why do you have to hurt my feelings?” And then she added, “I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. I don’t expect to have one now.”

That did it. I waited until they left. Then I called Harry over.

I said, “Do they come in here every night?”

He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “The one right next to me…”

He said, “Agnes!”

I said, “It’s her birthday tomorrow, Harry. What do you say we decorate this place and when she comes in tomorrow night, we have a little party for her. She’s never had a party in her whole life.”

He grabbed my hand and squeezed it and said, “Mister, that’s beautiful! Beautiful! Hey Janet! Come out here. This guy wants to throw a birthday party for Agnes! It’s her birthday tomorrow.”

She came out and she said, “Oh mister, that’s brilliant. Nobody ever does anything for Agnes, and she’s one of the good people in this town. I know, I know what she does to make money, but she’s a good person, really kind to everyone.”

I said, “Can I decorate the place?”

She said, “To your hearts content.”

I said, “I’m going to get a great, big, birthday cake…”

Harry said, “Oh no the cake’s my thing.”

I thought, “Oh geez!”

So I got there the next morning at about 2:30. I had bought this crepe paper at K-Mart. Strung it across the place. Made a big sign that said, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” and put it up on the mirror behind the counter. I had the place spruced. It was ready.

Janet, who did the cooking, had gotten the word out on the street. By 3:15, every single prostitute in Honolulu was squeezed into this diner. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes…and me!

Three-thirty in the morning, the door opens, and in comes Agnes and her friends. I’ve got everybody set, everybody ready, and as they come to the door, everybody yells, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I’ve never seen anybody so stunned in my life. Her knees buckled…they steadied her…and got her down on the stool, and we started singing, “Happy Birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday, dear Agnes.” When they brought out the cake with all the candles lit, that was it—that’s when she lost it and started to cry.

Harry just stood there with the cake, with all the candles. “Knock it off! Come on, Agnes, knock it off and blow out the candles. Come on, blow out the candles!” She tried, but she couldn’t do it…so he blew out the candles.

He gave her the knife and said, “Alright, Agnes, now cut the cake. Cut the cake. Cut the cake.”

She sat for a long moment and then she turned to me. She said, “Mister, I really don’t want to cut the cake. Is it alright if I don’t want to cut the cake?”

I said, “It’s your cake. It’s your cake, you can do with it what you want.”

“I want to take it home I want to show it to my mother. Is that ok?”

“Sure,” I said.

She stood up.

I said, “Do you have to do it now?”

“I live two doors down. Let me take the cake to her and I promise I’ll bring it right back. I promise.”

She picked up the cake like it was the holy grail. She pushed her way through the crowd and out the door.

And as the door swung slowly shut, there was dead silence. You talk about an awkward silence. All of us were standing there, stunned. I didn’t know what to say, so I finally said, “What do you say…what do you say…we…pray.” It’s weird looking back at it now—a sociologist leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner at 3:30 in the morning… It was the right thing to do.

I prayed that God would deliver her from what filthy men had done to her, probably starting when she was too young to know what was going on. That’s how these things start, you know, some kid—11, 12 years old—gets messed over by some filthy slob, and her self-image is destroyed and she’s ruined, and we blame her when we ought to be blaming him. And I prayed that God would make her new, because we are here to declare Good News that no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done Jesus can make you new.

When I finished the prayer, Harry leaned across the counter. He said, “Hey Campolo! You told us you were a sociologist. You’re not a sociologist…you’re a preacher. What kind of church do you preach in?”

In one of those moments when you come up with just the right words, I said, “I preach in a church that throws birthday parties for [prostitutes] at 3:30 in the morning.”

“No, you don’t. No, you don’t. (pause) I would join a church like that.”

Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to belong to a church that threw birthday parties for [prostitutes] at 3:30 in the morning? I got news for you. I got news for you. That is the kind of church that Jesus came to create. I don’t know where we got this other one that’s half country club. Jesus came to create a people that would bring parties to those who have no parties, celebrations into the lives of those who have nothing to celebrate.[1]

Jesus brought us here today, not to make us feel bad about ourselves, but to get us out of the grind of our lives and in the middle of our darkened world to give us some Good News—that we can be new again, whatever we have done, wherever we have been, whatever haunts us—that we can be new again in Jesus. Jesus brought us here today hoping we would pick up this “bad” habit—and bring God’s abundant life to the party. Jesus partied with the not-so-nice and they would follow Him anywhere. What about you? The party’s for you…and me…and Jesus is waiting.

[1]Here’s the link to the YouTube of Tony telling this story himself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWlMV-UmueM

Catching Jesus’ Bad Habits: Jesus Offended People, Especially People in High Places

7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

     “Hosanna!

              Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

10              Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

     Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Mark 11:11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Mark 11:15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

     ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?

              But you have made it a den of robbers.”

18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. 19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

  Do you remember the “What Would Jesus Do?” fad? It was really big in 1990s. Lots of folks had bracelets or keychains that said, “WWJD?” It’s a great question. But I think most people misunderstand it. They thought of Jesus as a nice guy—kind, helpful, thoughtful, and willing to go the extra mile. That’s all true as far as it goes, but that does not take into account the way that Jesus could really offend people sometimes. He famously said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” He called out liars for lying and hypocrites for faking it. He compared the “holier than thou” leaders to “white-washed tombs” because they were white-washed and nice-looking on the outside, but inside full of death.” And then in today’s passage, Jesus actually gets so angry about what He finds in the Temple that He starts throwing tables and chairs around. Why did Jesus consistently offend people? Why would we want to catch Jesus’ bad habit?

First, Jesus called out insincerity and dishonesty and showed compassion to those who were sincerely trying to love God with their whole heart. The chief priests and scribes were so invested in the system, they were blind to the commercializing of God’s sacred space. So Jesus broke up the party and explained why. Jesus quoted from the Prophet Isaiah 56:6–7:

Is. 56:6      And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD

                  to serve him,

         to love the name of the LORD,

                  and to worship him,

         all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it

                  and who hold fast to my covenant—

7       these I will bring to my holy mountain

                  and give them joy in my house of prayer.

         Their burnt offerings and sacrifices

                  will be accepted on my altar;

         for my house will be called

                  a house of prayer for all nations.”

  Wait, wait, wait. Did Jesus just suggest that God made a place in the Temple for people who are not Jewish? Yep. He did. Scandalous! To the people who traveled long distances to be at the Temple, even those who were not Jewish, Jesus makes it clear they should be able to worship without having to deal with sheep, doves and money-changers. Where the almighty shekel had a foothold, God should be King.

Second, Jesus called out the folks who thought they were safe. Jesus’ other quote comes from God through the Prophet Jeremiah 7:9–11:

  Jer. 7:9 “ ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

  How did the Jewish leaders know they were going to heaven? Well, they were Jewish for one thing—that meant they were part of God’s people. For another thing, they could point to all the “good things” they were doing—making the right sacrifices, not working on the Sabbath, giving a tenth of their income, and abiding by all the other rules. But they were following other gods during the week—money, self-interest, pleasure, whatever. To the people just going through the motions without giving their whole heart to God, Jesus makes it clear they are not safe. “I have been watching! declares the Lord.”

Jesus overturning the tables and chairs—clearing out the Temple—is just as offensive today if we will hear it. Jesus is looking for followers not fans. The incredibly ironic thing about the WWJD fad was the amount of merchandising that with it. You could buy bracelets, shirts, necklaces, hats. Mostly these were for other people to see, not for the owner to see. Why did they wear them then? To show they were Jesus’ fans? Jesus is looking for followers, for people who are willing to go “all in” to make their lives revolve around what Jesus would do. Jesus would have something to say about the way making a buck and busyness are getting a foothold in the Sabbath places of our lives. The idea of a Sabbath is really important. Sabbath means honoring time spent with God, setting aside all our getting ahead and money-making efforts, to remind ourselves we are more than what we do, we belong to God. Where would Jesus overturn the tables and chairs of commercialism and busyness to create space for God? You see, being in a church building isn’t what makes us safe. Just because you and I showed up today doesn’t mean we have a “lock” on getting into heaven. In fact, just because we are “nice” people and do “good” things does not guarantee we have eternal life. That’s a way of saying we can earn our way to salvation, that we are saved by what we do, that if we work hard enough then God has to give us what we worked for…as if we could control God. Jesus came not just to call us out for our self-deceptions, but to call us in—to live a life of radical, revolutionary love and obedience to God. Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done” and then Jesus lived that reality out completely—even if it meant going to a Cross for the very people who cursed and spat on Him. Jesus is looking for followers, and He welcomes everyone to take up their own crosses, to be willing to offend others with our simple, trusting faith and Jesus’ open-handed grace…and to follow. Oh those dangerous, life-changing words, “What would Jesus do?”

Catching Jesus’ Bad Habits: Jesus Was Constantly Disappearing

16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matt. 14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Matt. 14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Do you remember trying to learn to ride a bike? I was five and parents bought me an orange and black, Schwinn Swingline bicycle with a banana seat and tassels on the handlebars. I remember my parents taking it out of the car and showing me how to hold it, how to make the kickstand work, and how to stop by pushing backwards on the pedals. Do you remember trying to learn to ride a bike? I remember standing putting my leg over the crossbar and rocking back and forth a little. There was power and possibility! I was afraid and excited all at the same time. I don’t remember a word my parents said, but I remember looking down to make sure my feet were on the pedals, and I remember first my mom and then my dad walking with me, their hands on my handlebar and my shoulder, and then running with me as I pushed on the pedals. At some point, my folks must have taken away their hands, but I don’t remember when it was they let go. Do you remember learning to ride a bike? Or maybe you remember teaching someone else how to ride a bike? As we read today’s passages, I find myself thinking Jesus is teaching the disciples about spiritual life like I learned to ride a bike. Jesus is there, showing them what to do, and then Jesus is gone. In fact, Jesus was constantly disappearing—much to the consternation of his disciples—and then reappearing when they least expected it. Why did Jesus disappear and what can we learn from this “bad” habit?

First, Jesus disappeared for some Father-Son bonding time. As some of you know, I generally take Wednesdays off. The theory is that since I am working on Sundays, that I need to another day off to make up for it. When each of our kids was small, I would often take them out of day-care and we would have some Father-Child bonding time. With Morgan, it was learning about fish in aquarium stores. With Jordan, it was learning about animals at the zoo or playing on the playground. With Caleb, it was going to parks, house-cleaning or shopping. I looked forward to it all week, and I think the kids did too. These days, my Wednesdays are often finding my Dad and seeing what he’s up to. One reason Jesus disappeared was to find His Dad and see what he was up to. Jesus used his time off as soul time, something that added to His relationship with His heavenly Father. This time mattered so much to Jesus, that He would disappear after big days—like feeding the 5000 or a busy day of healing and being with people. Jesus also disappeared before big days—like the night before He picked the disciples, Jesus went away to pray, and after being baptized, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness in preparation for His ministry. In the same way, we all need to have time off when we disappear from the rest of our duties in order to have some Father-Child time with our God to recover from or prepare ourselves for big things.

Second, Jesus seemed to disappear so that He could reappear at just the right time. On at least one occasion, Jesus disappears and comes back to find the disciples struggling with a healing or among themselves. He reappears at just the right time to coach them through the healing or to help them see how clueless they were being. In our passage today, Jesus is on the mountain praying, while the disciples are out on the lake, rowing against the wind, getting beat up by the waves. Then suddenly they see Jesus walking on the water and they are scared. Jesus says, “Take heart, it’s me; don’t be afraid.” As some of you know, I was chemistry major in college, and worked a year as a chemist out in LA. It was a year of misery for me and wondered what God was doing a lot that year—I was a little distracted by a beautiful woman named Cynthia—but was profoundly lonely. When my grandfather was killed by drunk drivers, I remember taking a walk and God rushed in—at just the right time—to help me realign my life. “Take heart, it’s me, don’t be afraid.” Jesus seems to disappear sometimes, just so that He can reappear at just the right time.

Why was Jesus constantly disappearing? Like me learning to ride a bike and finding my parents no longer steadying me, I wonder if Jesus disappeared so that the disciples might get used to Jesus being physically gone. Though I could not feel my parents’ hands on my handlebar and shoulder, it was like their presence still steadied me. Was it like that for Jesus’ first friends? At first, Jesus was gone for a few hours or a night. Later, Jesus would ascend into heaven and be physically gone the rest of their lives. But they were ready when the training wheels finally came off, they knew they were not alone—they could still feel the hands of the Master, still know the steadiness of His Presence. Maybe all along God has been preparing us through our times of disappearing to be with Him for the moment when the training wheels will come off? And Peter could remember a time, when Jesus invited him to step out of a boat and walk on water, could remember how when he looked at Jesus he was doing fine. Peter could remember what it was like to look at the wind and the waves and begin to sink into his fears, only to have Jesus raise him up. In those times when Jesus seems most absent, when we are at our driest and loneliest, battered and broken by the storms of life, there will come a time when Jesus will suddenly reappear and invite us to step out with Him onto the water. May we be ready to respond like Peter, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Catching Jesus’ Bad Habits: Jesus Appeared Wasteful!

Matt. 26:6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Matt. 26:14 Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

When I was a kid, sometimes I would leave food on my plate. My grandmother would make me sit there until I finished it. She would say, “Don’t waste your food! Don’t you know there are people starving in China?” My dad famously told his mother that if they were so hungry, she could send it to them. I’m pretty sure he was grounded for that. The idea was that we can’t leave food on our plate because that’s a waste. That might explain why I put on 30 pounds when Cynthia was pregnant with each of our kids. Cynthia would be craving ice cream, or pickles, or a doughnut, or pesto sauce—and I would get it for her and some for me so we could eat together. She would have a taste hers and be like, “Mmmm! Thanks! I’m good now.” And she would hand me hers and I would add it to mine, and I thought that was great…until I stood on the scale! How do we deal with waste and abundance? How do we find the balance between conserving and using wisely on the one hand, and extravagance and giving generously on the other?

One of the things I love about Jesus is that He seems to navigate this beautifully. For example, Jesus was all about not wasting. On more than one occasion, had a huge crowd that needed feeding—like 4000 or 5000.[1] He would take a little bit of food and make it enough to feed the whole crowd. Then afterward Jesus told His disciples to pick up all the leftovers. That’s pretty sweet! You go hear Jesus, and you leave with doggy bags! Jesus was also really into investing, and gets after people who don’t get enough return on the Lord’s investment.[2] But then we run into a story like the one Matthew tells us today, and Jesus seems to just condone tremendous wastefulness. Through all these stories, Jesus seems to be teaching us some important things about God and how to live God’s way.

First, God’s way is abundant, extravagant, and beautiful. When I was in grad school, I did my field education at a wonderful church in Jamesburg, NJ. Every month or so, they would host a potluck, and—oh my freaking goodness!—it was incredible. The spread they laid out 50–60 could easily have fed 100–120, and then there was the taste of it—skip Betty’s dish (yeesh), but have seconds of Mrs. Nyack’s jello dessert. And when we were done, they would fill up bags full of food for me to take back to my dorm to feed all those “starving seminarians,” because the cafeteria wasn’t open on Sunday nights. Eventually, I just started inviting my seminary buddies to join me for the potlucks, then we could all have an amazing meal and still take home the leftovers to share. Those people were living God’s way. Like Jesus, what happened with the leftovers was not as important as understanding how much grace there is. And when I go for a walk, I see that God runs the universe just like that. I look at all the different kinds of plants and trees, smell the pollen and sneeze. If I take a moment to look at the water, the number of different blues is mind-blowing—and the number of creatures around us from plankton to hermit crabs, and shellfish to ospreys is astonishing. And we haven’t even talked about all the ways God blesses me every day. If I focus for even a moment on all of this, I am overwhelmed, and gratitude becomes my theme song. God loves diversity, abundance and beauty.

Second, God honors those who surrender everything to Him. The woman who takes this expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head is doing a beautiful thing—under normal conditions, His head would smell fabulous for days and days, even weeks. The Gospel of Luke includes that this woman had led a sinful life, and Jesus adds, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much.”[3] And adds in Matthew, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” What has she surrendered? A year’s wages worth of perfume! Holy cow! That’s crazy wasteful! But what else has she surrendered? Her dignity. To do this was a servant’s task. Her fear. To break out of the women’s gathering and, scandalously, enter the men’s gathering. She doesn’t care what the others think, only what Jesus does. She has done this beautiful, wasteful thing—and Jesus sees the surrender of her heart. That’s why even today, we remember her. God honors those who surrender to Him.

To live in God’s way is to live abundantly. Leonard Sweet tells the story of Dionysius, “a pagan scholar who converted to Christ and became bishop of Alexandria” for twenty-one years, beginning in 247 CE. “In a letter to fellow Christians, Dionysius describes a plague that struck Alexandria” perhaps it took his life. He writes,

Most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fest to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually serving them in Christ. Andy they died with them most joyfully, taking the afflictions of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains….But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. And they cast them out into the streets where they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied.[4]

 They lived with abandon, out of the abundance of grace they had received. Someone else added, “When the life of the Christian group is recognizably different from the life of the world outside, then no tricks are needed to attract people.”[5] Something so beautifully wasteful as caring for the sick is never wasted. God changes people’s lives with the beauty of that kind of compassion.

Jesus was wasteful. It was a terrible habit and it was beautiful. It was so terrible that it offended the politically correct of Jesus’ day, and it so offended Judas that he decided Jesus had to be stopped. It was so beautiful, that to this day even the most beautiful art and music only offer glimpses into its glory. Yes, glory! Because, of course, the most wasteful thing Jesus ever did was to surrender His life to God’s purpose, and the most wasteful thing God ever did was to call in that offer. Then Jesus didn’t fight Judas, but accepted Judas’ tragic kiss, accepted the humiliation of the soldiers and crowds, and accepted even the pain and death of the Cross.[6] For what? For clueless people like you and me and Betty who can’t cook and plague victims and drug addicts and homeless and queers and people of color and immigrants and haters and the neighbor who makes us crazy. Whoever we are least likely to think makes it into God’s embrace, that’s who Jesus died for. It’s a shameful waste. Why would Jesus do that? ‘Cause you’re worth it in God’s eyes! To live in God’s way is to live like our lives matter to God. To live in God’s way is to find a path to the abundant beauty of wasteful kindness and extravagant servanthood. To live in God’s way is to find abundant grace and to show it abundantly. To live in God’s way is to live with all the abundance God gives us and to not be controlled by it, to not be defined by it, but to lay it all before God and to ask, “What would you have me do?”


[1]The crowds were actually bigger than the number recorded, as only men were part of the headcount. See Matthew 14:13–21 and Matthew 15:29–38. Also Mark 6:32–42. All four gospels tell at least one of these stories, so it’s definitely part of the Good News of Jesus!

[2]Matthew 25:14–30 tells the story of man who gave people wealth and left…and what do they do with that? The wealth is immense, since a talent was about 75 pounds, usually gold or silver! The crown King David captured from the Ammonites (2 Samuel 12:30) reportedly weighed one talent.

[3]Story is told in Luke 7:36ff.

[4]Eusebius, Church History, Book 7, Chapter 22. Quoted in Leonard Sweet, The Bad Habits of Jesus (2016),
p. 28–9.

[5]Sweet, p. 29.

[6]If you haven’t read the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion, just keep reading on from our passage today in Matthew 26 through Chapter 27. Amazing!

Catching Jesus' Bad Habits: Jesus Procrastinated

 Mark 5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” 24 So he went with him.

 And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Mark 5:35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

 I was always taught that procrastination was a bad thing, right? Ben Franklin said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” When I was a kid, my mom was a hawk about procrastination. If I’m being honest, procrastination was such anathema to my mom, I confess that there were times when I would procrastinate just to make her bonkers. So I can imagine teen-age me being very excited to learn that Jesus procrastinated—“See Mom! Jesus procrastinated! It must be a good thing.” Even so, there were some things I instinctively knew were not to be messed with—going to church on Sunday, weddings, funerals, trips—and for those we just had to make it happen. It’s one thing to procrastinate when it’s a homework that’s not graded, and it’s another to procrastinate when someone else’s life depends on you. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ approach to procrastination really bothers me. At least twice, Jesus procrastinates as He’s going to heal people and they die because of it, including the little girl in our story today. Why would we want to learn procrastination from Jesus?

First, Jesus lives on God’s time. New Jersey Governor, Tom Kean, used to tell the story of William F. Allen who did something miraculous. Kean writes, “Until high noon on October 18, 1883, every rail line ran on its own time. Every train station set its own clocks by the sun. So when it was noon in New York, it was 11:58 in Trenton and 11:56 in Camden, and so on. Pure chaos. Allen was chosen to sort out this mess, and after eight years he convinced the nation to adopt the time zones that we have today.”[1] In fact, Allen’s approach was later adopted by the rest of the world in the 20th century. Jesus knows what time zone He’s living in, and it has nothing to do with Greenwich Mean Time. You see, Jesus knows that God made time, that for God, every moment just is. In fact, when Moses asks God what God’s Name is, God says, “I am.” That’s what Jehovah or Yahweh means, “I AM.” God’s time zone is called “eternity” and Jesus lived to do things at just the right time, God’s time. Also, because Jesus is God, Jesus knows things we don’t—is the little girl dead before he starts towards her house? And Jesus knows that God’s power is greater than our problems, so just because the little girl is dead doesn’t mean she’s beyond God’s power. Leonard Sweet writes, “Humans are reactive to time; God is proactive with time. We operate within it; God operates outside of it. Jesus accomplished his mission in [God’s] time, not theirs or ours.”[2] To live on God’s time allows us to live a life of trust in the Lord Who made us.

Second, Jesus makes time for what matters. One of the things about Jesus that I notice in our passage is that he is not feeling time pressure. In fact, when I re-read the passage, when he stops in the middle of the road, waiting for the healed woman to come forward, I want to scream and Jesus is calm. Part of what makes Jesus extraordinary is that there are some things he encourages us to make time for:

·      seeking and giving forgiveness,[3]

·      working it out when you’re angry,[4]

·      doing quickly what you know God wants you to do[5]

In the case of the woman with the chronic bleeding, I wonder if Jesus stops because He knows the healing is not complete. She has taken the healing for herself, not received it as a blessing. It matters that she knows it was God’s doing—not her own—and after all the ways she has been let down and excluded and misled, it matters that she knows she was worth Jesus’ time. Jesus knows there’s still time to make things right with Jairus and his little girl, because that matters too.

Jesus procrastinated, and in later years, I apologized to my mom for giving her a hard time. These days, I usually procrastinate because I am avoiding some kind of pain. Jesus always faced His pain even though it meant a cross, going through the suffering of the Cross, because Jesus knew we couldn’t ever make it back to God without it…and Jesus knew what was on the other side—abundant life not just for Himself, but for all of us. Jesus did, however, procrastinate so that He was in rhythm with the Father, because Jesus knew that the God of the universe is often “just in time” and loves us “all the time.” So how can we get into the rhythm of God, to live in the Eternal Now with Jesus as our guide? It begins with seeking God and learning from God. We take time out of our lives, so that God can make His time work in us. As we listen and learn from God, we begin to know what matters to God, begin to do what God would want us to do. We begin to live a life like Jesus did. That’s where it gets exciting! Because as those who are living like Jesus did, we can often find ourselves going where we never meant to go, meeting people we never meant to meet, doing things we never meant to do, and so we discover what God meant for us. Like Jesus, we too begin to live with less anxiety because we know what we need will come to us at just the right time. As we live like Jesus, we discover that along the way we find the wholeness and healing God knows we need. All because we have allowed our hearts to beat in time with God’s.

[1]Quoted in Leonard Sweet’s The Bad Habits of Jesus: Showing Us How to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong (2016), p. 17.

[2]Bad Habits, p. 16.

[3]Matthew 5:23–24.

[4]Ephesians 4:26.

[5]Luke 14:21.

Catching Jesus’ Bad Habits: Jesus Spit

When I say the name, Jesus, what images come to mind? Maybe we imagine a great teacher. Maybe what comes to mind is a man who showed people how to love each other, and showed great compassion to people. Sometimes nice people try to make Jesus nice, because they think if Jesus is nice then they are already in heaven. If you don’t have an image of Jesus yet, then you’re in luck, because you are about to meet one of the most interesting, troubling, out-of-the-box people who ever lived. Jesus was crazy good at offending people. In fact, this whole sermon series we are going to learn about all the bad habits of Jesus, to see that Jesus came not to call people to be nice but to live a life of radical compassion, servanthood and sacrifice. Today we are going to start with one of Jesus’ grosser habits. 


John 9:1 As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.


Have you ever noticed how generous little children are? They’ll be eating Cheerios or goldfish, and they will offer you one. That’s very sweet. But the real test of a parent is when the child offers you the one she or he just took out of their mouths. Will the parent eat it? I might do that, but one of our children—who will remain nameless to protect the innocent—loved offering us their cup. Which was very generous of them, but we were not fooled, and we would tell them how kind they were to offer, but we knew that it was full of backwash. I drew the line there! Why does spitting gross us out? Is it the germs? Or is there just an ewww factor? It’s not just us. Did you know that in 5 states, it’s still illegal to spit in public? For years, China has been waging a campaign against spitting. Even in our time—like in Jesus’—to spit at someone was not just rude but a way of showing your utter contempt for them. In fact, when Jesus is being prepared for death, don’t people mock and spit on him?[1] So when Jesus used spit to heal people—and he does it three times that we know of—of course it offended and grossed people out. But Jesus’ bad habit could change our lives.

First, Jesus turns rudeness into blessing. In Jesus’ time, if you were blind, you must have done something to deserve it. Seeing this guy, the disciples are busy thinking about who is to blame for his blindness, and Jesus is busy helping him see. Leonard Sweet, who wrote The Bad Habits of Jesus: Showing Us How to Live Right in a World Gone Wrong, says,

Imagine the shock—or perhaps not—when Jesus faced the man and spat upon the ground. Perhaps everyone around him was nodding in approval, thinking that Jesus was obviously showing his contempt for the outcast Jew. But then Jesus did the unthinkable. He reached down, gathered up the spittle and some dirt, made a poultice of mud and then applied the clay to the man’s eyes. From a gesture of insult, Jesus created a magnificent and powerful blessing. And isn’t that how God works anyway?[2]

One of my friends, Janet (not her name), was bullied a lot as a kid. She was kind of scrawny, and had been taught to be kind to people—perfect target for bullying. The cruelty of those bullies might have beaten some people down or whipped up inner anger, but in Janet, God grew compassion for people who are mistreated or left out. People seemed to be drawn to Janet, and Janet always has time to listen. Jesus can turn rudeness into blessing.

Second, Jesus shows us God is not afraid to get dirty. When I was a kid, and mom or grandma were sweeping the kitchen floor, I’d be running around and I’d get to the doorway, and they would stop me. “Don’t walk through my pile of dirt!”[3] But Jesus walks through my dirt all the time. I used to think that I had to be good to come to Jesus, but Jesus is just happy to see me coming his way. I used to think that I had to have my life in order, but Jesus is happy to come into my disorder and love in the midst of all my chaos. I used to think those things, but then I realized that it was my pride getting in the way. Before coming to Jesus, I wanted to be good enough that I could deserve Jesus’ love and attention. Before coming to Jesus, I wanted to have my act together so that Jesus wouldn’t have to change me so much. In my pride, I was embarrassed and ashamed at the dark places, the dirty habits I had, the messiness of my life. And I gave up. Jesus was happy to walk through my dirt to fold me in his arms and say, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Jesus is not afraid to get dirty.

That Jesus spits and makes mud with it and puts on someone’s eyes is gross. Leonard Sweet writes, “It’s easy to love Jesus when it’s tidy, hip, and clean. It’s easier to donate money than to put our hand in the hand of a man or a woman who looks dirty, down, and drowned with mud. Yet the church of Jesus is not meant to be a hideaway but a hostel for all of God’s dirtiest who need restoration and healing.”[4] God is waiting for us to invite God into the mess of our lives, and find we are loved. God is waiting for us to invite God to look at all the darkest, rudest, cruelest, most painful corners of our life, and find God’s tenderness and power can turn the dark, rude, cruel pains into fountains of healing—and not just for ourselves. God is calling us—in our messy, busy lives—to be willing to get down and dirty out of kindness and mercy. When we do, we are building a habit that will unleash the power of God to change our relationships and our world.

[1]Leonard Sweet, The Bad Habits of Jesus (2016), pp. 3–4.

[2]Sweet (2016), p. 4

[3]My memory, but inspired by a quote in Sweet p. 6.

[4]Sweet, p. 9.

The Great Adventure: When We Walk in Darkness…

As I mentioned before, we are in the third in our sermon series inspired by C.S. Lewis’ book, The Silver Chair. In our story last week, Jill and Eustace were in a castle of giants trying to find a way out before the end up as the main course at the Autumn Feast. As they are running for their lives, chased by giants and their dogs, the children and their guide find a crevice and block it up with rocks behind them. They are well and truly in the dark, and then they are captured by creatures called Earthmen and taken on a long journey through the dark. Jill and Eustace are doing what God wants—and it has led them into a dark place, and then it seems the darkness will never end. Lewis even writes, “And the worst thing about it was that you began to feel as if you had always lived…in that darkness, and to wonder whether sun and blue skies and wind and birds had not been only a dream.” I think that’s a really profound way to talk about dark times in our lives. What are the things that can lead to dark times in people’s lives?

Congregational responses: grief, sickness, failure, oppression, fear and more.

daniel lions.gif

 All of those are things that can mean we travel in darkness. When I was thinking about people who experienced great darkness in the Bible, I was drawn to the powerful story of Daniel. Daniel’s life and faith offer us some great wisdom for those of us who are traveling in darkness now, or who may yet travel in darkness.

First, God is the One we go to when we are in a jam. When I’m out and about, meeting people in public places, I don’t usually advertise that I’m a pastor. It’s not that I’m embarrassed—I think I am one of the luckiest people in the world that I get to do what I love. It’s more like I find other people are embarrassed. When people know that I’m a pastor, they apologize for everything. They swear—oops! sorry pastor—as if I’ve never heard it. They say something unkind—oops! sorry pastor—when really they should apologize to God for that, not to me. The other day, someone said, “Oh God!” “Oops! Sorry pastor.” “What for?” I asked. “For taking the Lord’s Name in vain.” I said, “But you were praying! God’s Name is supposed to be used when we are praying.” Isn’t it true? Some of the first words out of our lips when something bad happens are “Oh God!” That’s Daniel’s thing. He knows the document that forbids him to pray to God is signed, and he goes to pray again. It’s good to call on God when we are in a jam.

Second, when the darkness falls, God is with us. In our passage today, when does the darkness begin to fall on Daniel? Is he doing anything wrong? Actually, Daniel’s doing really well, so well that other people are upset with him. The darkness begins in the other administrators as they feel inadequate next to Daniel. Instead of trying to get better themselves, they decide to do Daniel in. Sometimes darkness comes because we have done something wrong—natural consequence then right? But sometimes darkness comes and it’s not because of us. Think about that list of things we made earlier. As the darkness closes in, do we go to God? That’s what Daniel does. Look at Daniel’s prayer for a moment. Daniel gets down on his knees to pray—to praise God, and to seek God’s mercy. Praise God? In the darkness? Why would we praise God in the darkness? Because God is still God in the darkness. Because God still loves us in the darkness. Because God is still in control even in the darkness. Seek God’s mercy? Because God can change things. Because God can help us manage our fears and anxieties, and stay humble. Because even in the darkness, we know things can get worse. Did you notice that it got worse for Daniel? First, there are people out to get him…then they get him…then he’s thrown into the lion’s den. Dark. Darker. Darkest. Still Daniel praises God and seeks God’s mercy. Daniel knows when the darkness falls, God is with us.

Third, to go through the darkness with God brings us freedom. I love forensic shows. One of my favorites was called Cold Case, and I loved it because it did a really neat job of solving the mysteries, but also showing people’s humanity. In one episode, a girl is heart-broken because a boy dumped her for another girl, so she conspires to kill the girl. Decades later, Detective Lilly solves the mystery and sits across from the girl who killed the other girl. “Why did you did it?” the detective asks. The girl who is now grown says, “No one ever told me it would get better.” Trying to put out the darkness only makes the darkness deeper. Instead, Daniel shows us that God is with us and can help us endure the darkness, that God will even join us in the depths of consuming darkness…and we will not be eaten. God completely foils the forces of darkness for Daniel…they never expected that Daniel would survive. The law only talked about what to do if they caught him praying—he’d get thrown into the lions’ den—not what would happen when he came out the other side! In the same way, for those who go through the valley of the shadow, we gain freedom. We know God will be with us whatever comes, and we can face our future fearlessly.

Lots of people think that Christians should walk in a land of sunlight, beauty and joy, and there can be times when God’s Presence can bring joy so powerful that we are not sure we will laugh or cry or both. But Christians can also walk in some really dark places—and when we travel in darkness, still God is there with us. How can that be? To walk with Jesus is to learn how to surrender our lives to Him, to learn how to trust God and lean on God’s strength and direction—whatever else is happening in our lives. That’s what’s amazing about Daniel—how calm he seems to be. He knows God is with him. And just as Daniel leaves the lions’ den, just as Jesus walked out of a tomb after rising again, when we travel in darkness, we know one day, we will step out of the darkness. We know, because we travel with the One who, even in the darkest places, is the light of the world.

Why Restoring Our Plant Matters

We are going to try a thought exercise today. I would like you to take a moment to write down what you believe are the five biggest problems we and our world face at this time. Take a minute to think them out or write them out—the five biggest problems we and our world face. In general, don’t think too hard about it, but just write down the first things that come to mind. [Pause to let people write things down.] Good! Now I want you to write down the next five biggest problems we and our world face. No fair repeating! [Pause to let people write things down.] So, let’s pop up some of the biggest problems we and our world face. Go ahead, let’s name them. The only thing that I ask is that they not be phrased as an attack on someone else. We are not here to be divisive, but to come together to worship God and seek God’s wisdom.

[Take responses from the congregation.]

 Thank you for your thoughtfulness. If we look through the list we just created together, there are some things that are just part of living—death, the universe running down, etc—and then there’s everything else. I’m willing to bet that if we were to consider each of these biggest problems, and we tried to come up with solutions, wouldn’t most of our solutions be about fixing things? But the challenges seem so big! Where do we begin? 

First, by recognizing that this is not the way things are meant to be. In Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis talks about how in Narnia the trees and rivers used to talk and live, but have fallen asleep because of human ignorance and cruelty. At one point, in her longing, Lucy cries out, “Oh Trees, Trees, Trees…Oh Trees, wake, wake, wake. Don’t you remember it? Don’t you remember me? Dryads and Hamadryads, come out, come to me.” Lucy recognizes that nature used to have more joy, and could again. That’s on Paul’s mind too. According to Paul, in these biggest problems, “All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs.” But beyond that, weare not the way weare meant to be. Paul continues, “But it’s not only around us; it’s withinus. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance.” So the suffering of the world is reflected in our suffering, and our suffering is reflected in the world’s. That we know things could be—even shouldbe—better suggests that God is at work.

Second, we often spend time trying to fix problems without fixing their cause. If we look deeply at almost all of our world’s biggest problems, at the bottom is something wrong in the human heart. Leonard Sweet, the Christian future-caster, wrote, “All the problems of postmodern culture stem from the same root cause:  heart disease. Poet/politician Vaclav Havel, when asked how we can escape the horrors facing us in this new world, responds, ‘It is my deep conviction that the only option is a change in the sphere of the spirit.’ Our problems are not out there. Our problems are in here.”Paul adds, “So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life.” For those trying to follow Jesus, we aren’t trying to make ourselves better, we are trying to love and follow Jesus more, and letting the way Jesus thinks and acts change who we are from the inside. Jesus’ death on the Cross tells us that we can leave the old, joyless life behind. Jesus’ rising from the grave tells us that we can have a new life of possibility with Jesus at the core and the Spirit beckoning us onward.

Finally, we pray and live the prayer, “Thy will be done Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Lots of us think of heaven as a place—it’s where people go after we die. For sure I agree that God takes care of us after we die, but heaven is way closer than that! Jesus believed that heaven and earth are not separate places, but like different, interwoven dimensions living in the same space. Jesus even said, “The Kingdom of God is within you or among you.” So when we help God’s will be done on earth—when we love on each other and love on our planet—we are really making the Kingdom of God—heaven!—visible for everyone to see. So you see, caring for our planet and for each other is not an optional thing for Christians, it’s part of how we reflect the goodness of God and the love of Jesus Christ.

In Prince Caspian, Queen Lucy is the one who sees, she sees the trees as they once were, she says Aslan (the Christ-figure) when nobody else does, and eventually she rides on Aslan’s back as He restores Narnia to its wild and awakened state and as He invites the invaders to experience the joy of the land. Lucy sees with the eyes of faith, and because of her faith, others begin to see. That’s part of the mission of this church—really of any church—to love on each other and our world in such a way that others begin to see. In his fabulous book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes, “Good things as well as bad, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to get wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them….They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you:  if you are not, you will remain dry.” We are called to be a people for whom grace is contagious, not just to change people’s lives, but in so doing to care for the planet we share.

The Keys to Restoring Corrupt Society

Have you ever written a letter to a close friend? What are the things you want for your friend? 

 [Take responses from the congregation.]

Peter is writing to Christians in what is now Turkey, who are starting to experience how hard it is to be Christian. Peter has two prayers for them: That they would have a “sincere mind” — tested as genuine in the light of day — and that they would check everything against the Bible and Jesus life and teachings. They are living in a corrupt, sometimes hostile, society and Peter wants to give them hope.

 Definition of Corrupt — having or showing a willingness to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain. Or as a verb, causing to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain.

 Corrupt Society is founded on fear and greed.

1.   There are people who scoff at what is good. They pooh pooh the truth as something for losers. Generosity is for chumps. Our self-focused society is trying to teach us that right and wrong, good and bad, don’t really exist—they’re social constructs. At the root, is a fear that we might be on the wrong path, or that someone else is right. 

2.   There are people who live to indulge their desires. They encourage us to only listen to the desires of our heart, as if getting what we want is how to be happy. Our consumerist society is trying to teach us that we should get what we want, whatever we want. At the root is a fear that we might miss out on something, that we might not have what someone else does.

3.   There are people who aren’t concerned about the future. They aren’t interested in “some day.” They want it now. Our short-sighted society is trying to teach us that what matters is right in front of us. At the root is fear and greed—fear that we are creating a horrible future for our families and our world (but trying to preserve at least our family), fear that we can’t really change what needs to be changed (so what the heck…why not get some for myself?), and greed because we may as well get what we can while we can.

 To restore a corrupt society:

1.   To have a sincere mind—believing in things that have been tested in the light of day. Building character and living with integrity. The truth matters because living in the same reality is part of what binds us together. Working to improve our shared reality is what gives us purpose. Giving generously is what God does in creation, what God did in Jesus sacrificing Himself on the cross, and what God does in providing for our needs and leading us with the Holy Spirit.

2.   Check everything against the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Willingness to sacrifice today, so that we can have a better tomorrow. If we know God will provide, then we are not anxious about being different from others.

3.   God will keep God’s promises. We can rest secure and have peace in the midst of turmoil and trouble.

4.   God wants everyone to have a chance at grace. For some, keep on into the arms of God. For others, turn around.

 We could make it even simpler as Micah does: What does the Lord require of you?

To do justice

To love kindness

To walk humbly with our God

 True Society, true community, is founded not on fear, but on trust. True society wants what works best for everyone. True society knows that if we can be humble and listen to each other, we can find solutions to our world’s problems. True society doesn’t just happen. It happens because people like you and me decide we want it to be different from what we have. 

 Today, you and I are writing a letter to our children and grandchildren. We write it with our lives, with what we make most important—with how we do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. Will we write it in the ink of fear or selfishness? Then we will make our society more corrupt and our communities less livable. Or will we write it in trust and sacrifice? Then God will help us, and by God’s grace at work in us, society will find its way to a better, more livable day for all of us. If only we will turn around, and live in the light of the Lord who loves us…

The Wild God Who Heals

by Rev. Doug Gray

What are the things that paralyze us?

 For the disciples it was fear—fear of the people and forces that had crucified Jesus. Sometimes fear is what paralyzes us too—fear that we will disappoint someone, that we will look bad, or that others might get the wrong idea. Sometimes we are afraid that we will lose or that we can’t do something perfectly, so we can’t bring ourselves to do that something. Sometimes we fear, and that fear paralyzes us.

Sometimes we get locked up even by the good things in our lives. Like the disciples on Easter Night, we may have heard the Good News—that God is real and amazing, loving, kind and in control—but we are afraid it might be true. Perhaps, like the disciples we are locked up, hunkering down, because if Jesus died for us and rose to new life, that would change everything. We might have to give up shouting at the driver who cut us off, or at the person checking us out or at someone who is different from us. Because we might then recognize that Jesus died for them too, and that we are no better. Or perhaps we have decided we are supremely rational, and to acknowledge that Jesus not only was real, but is real, would shake the foundations of our life and identity. To accept that some of the best, most powerful, most meaningful things in life have as much to do with deep mystery as they do with rational thought—well that may feel like we are leaving secure logic behind. So we try to lock ourselves away from even the Good News. Perhaps we are not so different from these disciples after all. The disciples left all they had to follow Jesus, but now they are paralyzed by fear and locked away from the world.

Into our fearful paralysis and locked down hearts, Jesus comes. Locks and walls, fear and paralysis are not barriers to this untamed Lord! Jesus comes and speaks the words we long to hear, “Peace be with you.” These words can unclench our hearts and ease our fears. That Jesus speaks them means that peace comes from knowing we are safe in God. And that would have been enough for some—but Jesus shows he understands the disciples’ confused and fearful hearts. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Peace to you!”, He shows them how it can be, shows them His nail-scarred hands and His spear-pierced side, and they have joy. As we receive Jesus’ peace, understanding more deeply the meaning of Jesus’ nail-scarred and spear-pierced grace, we too can have peace and joy as we recognize He is Lord.

And then Jesus breathes on his followers. I remember when I was a teen-ager and I was getting ready for a date, I would hold my hand in front of my face and breathe into my hand, so I could smell my breath. There’s an intimacy in being close enough to feel and smell someone’s breath. I wonder what that experience was like for the disciples, so close they could feel Jesus’ breath as they received the Holy Spirit.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis describes the effects of the Christ-figure, Aslan, when Aslan breathes on animals and people who have been turned to stone by the Witch. He writes,

 [Aslan] had bounded up to the stone lion and breathed on him…I expect you’ve seen someone put a lighted match to a bit of newspaper which is propped up in a [fireplace] against an unlit fire. And for a second nothing seems to have happened; and then you notice a tiny streak of flame creeping along the edge of the newspaper. It was like that now. For a second after Aslan had breathed upon him the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back—then it spread then the color seemed to lick all over him as the flame licks all over a bit of paper—then, while his hindquarters were still obviously stone, the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stone folds rippled into living hair. Then he opened a great red mouth, warm and living, and gave a prodigious yawn. And now his hind legs had come to life. (pp.167–168)

 What would it be like, if while we were praying, we were to pray for Jesus to breathe upon us? Could we offer Jesus our fearful hearts and petrified lives? Wouldn’t Jesus come close to us too, to breathe on us, and wouldn’t start like “a tiny streak of flame creeping along the edge” until our stone hearts would become flesh—able to feel compassion and show love?

Jesus says, “Peace to you.” No more fear…only trust. No longer locked down or locked up…only forgiven so we can forgive.

Worship with the Lion The Power of the Deeper Magic

by Rev. Doug Gray

Welcome back to Narnia! It’s our fourth message inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Why go to fiction for our series? Because C.S. Lewis was a deep thinker, and he asked himself the question, “If Jesus were to go to world with talking animals, what would that look like?” Of course, Aslan came as an animal (a Lion) and is the Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea, just as Jesus came as a human and is the Son of the God. So in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we might gain some insight into the life and death, resurrection and meaning of Jesus. Spoiler alert:  We will turn to the Bible to learn about the Deep Magic and Deeper Magic of our universe.

This morning, we are going to start with a short video clip from the movie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

 

Lion, Witch, Wardrobe (2005) 1:22:28–1:23:48

 

So what did you hear?

  •    Promise — that he will be King

  •     Not who you think I am — only to find that Aslan already knows

  •   Deep Magic

    • more powerful than any of us

    •   defines right from wrong

    • governs our destinies

  •    I want my family to be safe

 Very good! The problem in the book is that Edmund is a traitor, and as the Witch tells us, “for every treachery I have a right to a kill.” So how can Edmund become one of the Kings of Narnia?

The Deep Magic of our world is that when someone does something wrong—someone has to pay the price. We see it all the time. When I was in school, if I didn’t study, I didn’t do well on the test. When I was mean to someone, I got in trouble. One time, we were on a family trip in Iowa, and we were traveling with a bunch of cars that were going over the speed limit. We topped a hill and started down it, and my mom saw a State Trooper standing in the middle of the highway just waving the whole bunch of cars over to the side of the road. Turns out that the State Police had an airplane pacing us, and then they called it in. That morning, my mom waited in line to get her ticket. And what’s she going to say? She was breaking the law, right? My mom was driving too fast, and she got a ticket. Our universe has this right and wrong woven into its fabric—physically and morally. If someone punches a wall with their fist, their hand may get hurt or even broken. If someone steals or cheats, aside from legal implications, we trust that there will be a penalty that will come to them somehow—if not now, then later. In our world, we often call the Deep Magic, God’s Law.

I see two problems with the Deep Magic or Law of the Universe. First, the Law is relentless and merciless. In the short-run or in the long-run, someone always pays. The Universe can’t let someone off the hook out of mercy—the Law is the Law. But the relentlessness of the Law is out of control—we have all betrayed someone or something. We have all failed to live up to all the good we could do, and we often fail in horrible ways.

Second, the Law means the sacrifices can never stop. In the Jewish tradition, to find forgiveness meant killing animals every time one sinned, so that the animal paid the price instead of the human. But that only meant forgiveness for that sin and only created a blank slate from which to start over. Yesterday was Cynthia’s and my 28th anniversary. Over the course of those years, I have done a few things—wrong. Alright, I have done lots of things—wrong. Alright, I do something every day—wrong. Alright, I blow it all the time. How glad I am that she’s willing to start over, but imagine if she never let go of everything wrong that I do. That would mean an endless parade of sacrifices, but I could not actually getting better. According to the Law, that’s what our lives are like. Our brokenness can lead only to death, not life—only to fear, not trust. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Every priest goes to work at the altar each day, offers the same old sacrifices year in, year out, and never makes a dent in the sin problem.”

Spoiler Alert:  In Narnia, Aslan dies in Edmund’s place. The Witch kills him on the Stone Table.

  Lion, Witch, Wardrobe (2005) 1:52:40–1:55

 And Jesus came to us who were helpless with brokenness and unable to escape the endless need for sacrifice, and offered Himself in our place, His blood for ours, paying the price that we should have paid.

Like Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy, we have a promise too—that we are children of the Most High God. We may, like Peter, worry that God doesn’t understand who we really are, but Jesus already knows. Like Aslan, more than anything, Jesus wants His family to be safe.

Like Edmund, we can have confidence when we face consequences for our choices—“Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan.” We will just keep our eyes on Jesus, and so we learn to trust.

Like Susan, we may be confused. She asks, “But what does it all mean?...”

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward. And now—”

Like Lucy, when we hear Jesus say, “And now—” we know it will have this Deeper Magic, this deeper mystery underneath, but also leading us forward. Like Lucy, when we realize that Jesus is risen and that our new life has begun, we can say, “Oh yes. Now?” said Lucy, jumping up and clapping her hands. And we will have all the joy and peace we need.

Worship with the Lion Facing Temptation? Look for God’s Escape Route

by Rev. Doug Gray

Welcome back to Narnia! Last week, our adventures in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe found four children—Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter—staying in a mysterious mansion owned by a professor. Lucy found a magic wardrobe and went through it into the magical realm of Narnia. This week, Lucy’s older brother, Edmund, follows Lucy into the wardrobe but has a different kind of adventure. Very different! Over the course of Edmund’s story we learn about temptation, addiction and brokenness. Underneath Edmund’s story, we find some really interesting ideas from the Bible about how to face all of these.

Edmund’s story begins as he’s looking for Lucy, and meets the Queen of Narnia, the one who makes it so it is always winter, but never Christmas. In truth, she is the White Witch, with a magic wand that can turn creatures and people to stone.

The first thing we notice about evil is that it can come off as impressive. C.S. Lewis writes of the White Witch, “[she was] a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head.”(p. 33) She rides in a sleigh pulled by snow-white reindeer, and driven by a dwarf. Perhaps evil likes to impress because it can intimidate or bully people into getting its way. Perhaps evil likes to think it has a right to the crown on its head or to be prideful of its accomplishments. Think of the villains of lots of movies—from James Bond to Star Wars, and from the Wizard of Oz to the Avengers—they all share this pride and ability to impress. Evil likes to impress and bully.

The second thing we notice is that evil can use addiction/temptation to ensnare us. The White Witch asks Edmund what he would most like to eat, and he says, “Turkish Delight!” So I brought some today so those who want to can try some. C.S. Lewis writes, “At first Edmund tried to remember that it is rude to speak with one’s mouth full, but soon he forgot about this and thought only of trying to shovel down as much Turkish Delight as he could, and the more he ate the more he wanted to eat, and he never asked himself why the Queen should be so inquisitive…The Queen knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” (pp. 38–39) The White Witch uses Edmund’s desire for Turkish Delight to manipulate him into betraying his family.

The third thing we notice is that Edmund has choices along the way where he could avoid the trouble, but he chooses the path into darkness and betrayal. So what are some places where Edmund could have made a different choice?

[take responses from the congregation]

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth, he writes, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” So the question, when we are tempted, is not whether we will have the strength to endure temptation, or a way out, but whether we want to endure, whether we want a way out. A couple of years ago, I told the story of a mother who told her son not to go swimming. However, when he came into the house his mother noticed that his hair and bathing suit were wet. “Jacob,” his mother scolded, “I told you not to go swimming.” “I couldn’t help it, Mom,” he defended himself. “The water looked so good.” “But why did you take your bathing suit with you?” “In case I was tempted.” If we are tempted to go swimming, the first step is not bringing the bathing suit!

The other day I heard a great story that summarizes some of this. “A woman arrived at the Pearly Gates of heaven. “Welcome to Heaven,” said St. Peter. “Before you get settled in though, it seems we have a problem. You see, strangely enough, we’ve never once had an executive make it this far and we’re not really sure what to do with you.”

“No problem. Just let me in,” said the woman. “Well, I’d like to,” said St. Peter, “but I have higher orders. What we’re going to do is let you have a day in Hell and a day in Heaven and then you can choose whichever one you want to spend an eternity in.”

“Actually, I think I’ve made up my mind. I prefer to stay in Heaven,” said the woman.

“Sorry, we have rules...”

And with that St. Peter put the executive in an elevator and it went down to hell. The doors opened and she found herself stepping out onto the putting green of a beautiful golf course. In the distance was a country club and standing in front of her were lots of her friends and they were all dressed in fine evening wear and cheering for her. They ran up and kissed her on both cheeks and they talked about old times.

They played an excellent round of golf and at night went to the country club where she enjoyed an excellent steak and lobster dinner. She met the Devil, who was actually a really nice guy and she had a great time telling jokes and dancing.

She was having such a good time that before she knew it, it was time to leave. Everybody shook her hand and waved good-bye as she got on the elevator.

The elevator took the executive back up to the Pearly Gates and found St. Peter. “Now it’s time to spend a day in heaven,” he said.

So she spent the next 24 hours lounging around on clouds and playing the harp and singing. She had a great time and before she knew it her 24 hours were up and St. Peter came and got her.

“So, you’ve spent a day in hell and you’ve spent a day in heaven. Now you must choose your eternity,” he said.

The woman paused for a second and then replied, “Well, I never thought I’d say this, I mean, Heaven has been really great and all, but I think I had a better time in Hell.”

So St. Peter escorted her to the elevator and again she went back to Hell.

When the doors of the elevator opened she found herself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage and filth. She saw her friends were dressed in rags and were picking up the garbage and putting it in sacks. The Devil came up to her and put his arm around her.

“I don’t understand,” stammered the woman, “yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a country club and we ate lobster and we danced and had a great time. Now all there is a wasteland of garbage and all my friends look miserable.” The Devil looked at her and smiled. “Yesterday we were recruiting you. Today, you’re staff.”

What tempts us may seem better, more impressive, more prideful, more delicious, but the real question is what it will be like in the long-term. Edmund is flattered by the White Witch’s attention, impressed with her trappings, ensnared by her Turkish Delight, and jumped at a chance to turn his brother and sisters into inferiors. If he is going to be King, then he will need courtiers and servants. Ah, but the gift of a throne for Edmund is not really the Witch’s to give. In fact, the only legitimate way to the throne is through the true King. In the same way, lots of temptations will look good on the face of it, but cannot give us what we truly want or need. Fortunately, when we face temptation, God is with us. All we have to do is ask for God’s help, and it is there, with a power more than equal to our temptation. But when we ask God for help, we have to live as if that help has already come. That’s the real key! God’s strength ready for us, filling us, armoring us, giving us the strength and wisdom we need to find and take the escape route.

Worship with the Lion 1 Into the Wardrobe: Why We Like “Magic Thinking”

by Rev. Doug Gray

Welcome to Narnia! Narnia is a magic place with animals that talk and a story that draws us in. Narnia is a place where it feels like anything can happen. It’s a fabulous thought—isn’t it?—that we might open a wardrobe and find ourselves in a place like Narnia. It fires our imagination. We begin to think, “What if?” Perhaps we begin to let go of the rules of our world, to try to understand the way this other world works. If the author is a good one, by the time she or he is done, we will understand ourselves and our world a bit better. Magic is just one tool for C.S. Lewis to help us understand there are different rules.

The Bible makes a very clear distinction between faith-thinking and magic-thinking. Faith-thinking is about a relationship with God through Jesus. Because of their trust-relationship with God, some people discover they have power beyond what people in this world expect. I have met some people who have been healed in ways that shouldn’t have happened. One of my grandfathers talked about praying that God would take away his craving for nicotine, and it was gone…and never came back. Faith trusts that God listens when we ask, and will give us what we need. It’s not magic. It’s faith.

Magic-thinking in this world is the idea that someone can make the universe do what they want with a motion or a word. When I was a boy, I remember being really bored sitting at stop lights. I thought I could make the light change. I would wind up and throw my hand at the light and say, “Change!” Or I would really want the elevator to come, and I would try to predict which door would open. It didn’t really work for me. The lights were on timers and the elevators came when they were ready. That’s the way Simon Magus is thinking in our passage for today—he tries to buy the power of the Holy Spirit so that he can make money giving people the power of God. He thinks the Holy Spirit is magic, and he’s wrong. This kind of magic-thinking believes we can tell the universe, to tell God what to do.

Some people try to use that kind of thinking in the guise of faith. If you say this special prayer, then you’ll get whatever you want. If you start this program in your church, then you will have an amazing Sunday School. If you read this book, then you will unlock the power of God. It’s really just another way to try to make God do what we want God to do. We like magic-thinking because we like the idea of being in control.

Faith recognizes that God is in control. Faith understands that we can’t make God do anything, but that when we walk with God, good things will come. Growing in faith is learning to trust that Jesus is who he says he is, and can change things in ways we will find amazing. But we can’t make it happen—only be in the place with the One who can make it happen. In fact, the challenge of Impact Squantum and the visioning process we have been working together is that we are having to learn about our life with God, having to learn more how to really trust God with the very practical pieces of our lives. It’s one thing to say, “I believe in God,” and it’s another to trust God with our finances.

Some people think of the Bible as another fantasy book, in which things happen that don’t happen in the real world. To this way of thinking, Simon Magus and Simon Peter would both be demented—Simon Magus thinking that there’s magic, and Simon Peter that there’s a Holy Spirit. Magic doesn’t work, not really. But we are drawn to worlds of imagination like Narnia, because we are seeking something more—the possibility of relationship beyond what we can see and touch, and yet somehow part of them too. What if Jesus didn’t just die long ago, but lives with us all the time? If only we could imagine the reality of Jesus that could change all of reality… Not magic…faith.

Knowing the Good Shepherd

by Rev. Doug Gray

Several guys are in the locker room of the country club. When a cell phone on a bench rings, a man puts the call on the hands-free speaker and begins to talk.

MAN: “Hello”

WOMAN: “Honey, it’s me. Are you at the club?”

MAN: “Yes.”

WOMAN: “I’m at the mall and found a beautiful leather coat. It’s $1,000. Can I buy it?”

MAN: “OK, go ahead if you like it that much.”

WOMAN: “I also stopped by the Mercedes dealership and saw the 2020 models. I saw one I really liked.”

MAN: “How much?”

WOMAN: $80,000.

MAN: “For that price I want it with all the options.”

WOMAN: “Great! One more thing. ... The house we wanted last year is back on the market. They’re only asking $650,000.”

MAN: “Well, then go ahead and buy it but just offer $620,000.”

WOMAN: “OK. I’ll see you later! I love you!”

MAN: “Bye, I love you too.”

The man hangs up. The other guys in the locker room are looking at him in astonishment. Then he asks: “Anyone know who this phone belongs to?”

 It’s getting harder to tell whom to trust. Everyone to give us an answer. The infomercials all have broadly smiling people who are happy to tell us how we can all be as happy as they are. On-line, we are told we are just one click away from happiness. So how can we tell whom we can trust? In our passage today, Jesus offers three clear insights into how to tell whom to trust with all we are, and in the process points the only way to real, lasting, fulfilling joy.

We are known. Maybe that’s why I hate calls from telemarketers. I feel like I am just another statistic in their quest for the next sale. They don’t care—they’re not paid to care. They are paid to make as many calls as they can, trusting that statistically they will happen on one or two out of every hundred who will buy what they’re selling. Jesus says, 14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…” We are more than a number to God. We are infinitely precious in His sight, so precious that God knows each of us to the very core—our wants and needs, our hurts and deepest desires—because God has known us from the beginning. We can trust the One who truly knows and loves us.

We are the goal. Danny Dutton lived in Chula Vista, California. At the immense age of 8, had a homework assignment to “Explain God.” Here’s some of what he wrote:

 If you don’t believe in God, besides being an atheist, you will be very lonely, because your parents can’t go everywhere with you, like to camp, but God can. It is good to know He’s around you when you’re scared in the dark or when you can’t swim very good and you get thrown into real deep water by big kids. But you shouldn’t just always think of what God can do for you. I figure God put me here and He can take me back anytime He pleases. And that’s why I believe in God.

 I think Danny is really onto something here. If you want to find out who your friends are, see who sticks with you when your life is caving in, who will stand by you when you’re scared and hold you when you are hurting. All the false gods will give you up when it gets tough. They’re in it for themselves, not you. But God is in it for you! You are not only important enough to know by name, you are important enough that Jesus was willing to lay his life down for yours. Only put your whole self in the care of those for whom you are the goal.

Jesus guides us to what we most need. I was a camp counselor at a wilderness camp for a few years. My co-counselor and I had 12 boys we would take on one- and two-day hikes. The camp had several different trails, and you would go to the trailhead and on a tree would be a spray-painted symbol, called a trail blaze. If you stood next to the tree with that blaze, and looked ahead on the trail, you would find another tree with the same colored symbol. Then you would go to that tree and look for the next blaze and so on until you got to your destination. In the same way, Jesus has blazed the trail for us to follow, as Christians and as a fellowship. Jesus knows what it means to follow God with His whole heart and He has marked the path for us to follow. On this path, we will find all that we need—food, water, shelter, purpose and fulfillment—and on it we will also find a cross. Because Jesus knows that the only way to really gain our life is to offer it up for something and someone bigger than we are. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who guides us to what we most need.

We are surrounded by voices clamoring for our trust. If only we will make our lives revolve around their program, their store, their vitamin, their technology, then we will have real happiness. The voices that worry me the most are the ones like the guy on the cell phone in our opening story that say you can have whatever you want. But the only one who truly knows us—knows us better than we do ourselves—is God…and He still loves us! And as we look around for someone or something willing to make us their goal, we turn and see a guy who beckons to us with nail-scarred hands. These scars were ones He chose because He knew how hard it is to do what’s right, and wanted to give us a chance to become more than we ever thought possible. At their best, the people who mother us love like Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The ones who mother us best know us through and through—sometimes better than we know ourselves, and still we are loved. The best love of a mother wants us to become the whole, happy, capable, purposeful, loving people God has made us to be, and like Jesus, they help us on the road to our best, most loving selves. Of course, the thing is that all of us—even moms—can listen to these other voices and go down unhealthy paths, only to find nothing but dead ends. (Even in those dead ends, Jesus is with us!) I’d like to say lots of paths lead to true happiness, but I haven’t found any except one—the guy with the nail-scarred hands who beckons to us down his trail. Jesus understood that only someone who came from God could be the way to real happiness. Only someone willing to lay down his life to ransom the souls of many could have a chance to take that life up again. Sure, Jesus is the good, noble, beautiful shepherd. But Jesus also says, “9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” I have tried lots of God-replacements and watched others try a lot more, and Jesus is the only sure way to the truly abundant life, where we reach the fullness of what we are meant to be. And the best part is that Jesus is not just the way, the truth and the light, but that He is the good shepherd. Jesus is the One who knows us, the One who loves enough to make us the goal, the One who guides us into a great future, then we, too, can enjoy the refreshing, challenging, growing, abundant life.

Letting Jesus into the Messiness

by Rev. Doug Gray

As long as I can remember, having family come visit always meant hours—even days—of cleaning. The ordinary, “lived in” house just won’t do when family is coming, especially if it’s mom. Once, Cynthia’s mom was coming to visit and things were crazy. The kids were sick. Things were blowing up at work for both Cynthia and me. With hours to spare, we gave up on “Queen of England” clean. With minutes to spare, we gave up on family clean. I can’t speak for Cynthia, but I was really stressed just because of what was going on, and then to not have the house clean for Karen? I love my mother-in-law and it’s not how I wanted things to be for her. In fact, I am getting teary about it even now—embarrassed and even a little ashamed. At times, I have felt like that with God too. I want God to come into my life, so I start a life-cleaning project—trying to change old habits, trying to be more thoughtful of my family, volunteering to help someone out, read the Bible more, find some solitude for prayer. But things get crazy and all of a sudden, I look up and God is coming, and I need God…and my life is really messy. And I’m not sure I want to let God in to see that. Our passage has some advice for us if we’re feeling that way.

First, Jesus comes into the messiness. I’m not sure why the two disciples left Jerusalem, but they are obviously depressed about Jesus’ death on the cross. Are they trying to leave the hard facts of death behind as they head out of town? In the midst of their confusion and sadness, Jesus comes. Jesus doesn’t wait until these disciples are organized and ready, and Jesus doesn’t wait until our lives are neat and orderly. Jesus comes into the messiness.

Second, Jesus cares about what’s going on inside. You’ll notice that Jesus asks these disciples what they are talking about, and truly listens to their response. Jesus knows what is going on for them, knows what has upset them, but there is something about really telling someone what is on our hearts that helps us. Jesus cares enough about what’s going on inside of us to truly listen.

Finally, Jesus explains to the disciples why it had to be. In his book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Thomas Bergler describes how in America, we have become satisfied with a nice God who wants us to be nice, and who helps us on the road to self-development. But this empties the Cross of its power, because we forget that we can worship and experience the power of God in our suffering as well as our good times. Bergler writes, “We must be vigilant and creatively compensate for what gets lost in translation when we use the language of [the world]. For example, if we sing songs that highlight the emotional consolations of the faith, what can we do to help…people also embrace the sufferings that come with following Jesus?”[1] Indeed, Paul experienced God saying, “My grace is sufficient for you and my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) On the road to Emmaus, Jesus explains God’s plan to the disciples—why the Son of God was willing to suffer—and it made their hearts burn with joy and passion.

When my mother-in-law came to the door, we were so happy to see her, and so ashamed at the messiness of our house. She didn’t bat an eye. In fact, she rolled up her sleeves and helped us make things better. What a blessing! One of the reasons I love this story of the Road to Emmaus is that just as Jesus comes to those disciples in the middle of their messed up lives, Jesus comes into the messiness of our lives and really listens to us—what are we thinking, what are we sad and upset about. No need to feel embarrassed or ashamed—Jesus loves us! Then, if we will listen, Jesus tells us of the never-failing, sacrificial love of God, of the way Jesus put God’s Will first, and how the Cross (a symbol of death) releases the power of forgiveness and healing. Jesus is with us, though it may be Jesus will use someone from our family or our church or a complete stranger to explain it to us. When we worship, God takes us, and blesses us and breaks us and gives us to each other and the world. Then our eyes will be opened, the eyes of everyone will be opened, and we will see Jesus Christ is indeed with us in a way that fills our hearts with passion and our limbs with energy to tell the Good News! He is risen! Hallelujah!


[1]Thomas Bergler, “When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity,” Christianity Today, June 2012, Vol. 56:6, pp18ff.

Fruitfulness on the Front Lines: The Better Tomorrow Starts Today

by Rev. Doug Gray

Since before I can remember, I have loved Easter Egg hunts. Was that a tradition at your house when you were growing up? Or is it something you’ve seen other folks do? If it’s a new tradition for you, you might check out our kids while they are doing the Easter Egg hunt. Watch their faces as they hunt. Watch the littlest ones. Sometimes they find an egg, and then they’re happy. When you open it and there is something inside—the delight on their faces. Watch the older ones, and they are more into finding the eggs. Candy, stickers, prizes? Ok, fine, but there’s work to do! We have to find the eggs! It’s why we do our Easter Egg hunt in two waves, because the way the two groups approach the process is so different—the littlest ones really don’t stand a chance if the older ones are in on it from the beginning. You know, it’s funny, but I think that the adult search for Easter and the Risen Christ is a lot like that too.

Some of us are like the littlest ones hunting Easter eggs—totally happy to find there is a day for joy! Like the women standing in an empty tomb wondering what the heck is going on…and then finding joy, we may not be really sure what to think about the whole resurrection thing, but it’s great to celebrate what God is doing! To open the day, and find a prize—some sweet music, a cool message, some good prayer—who’s not up for that? If you are here for the joy and beauty, then you’re in luck! We have lots of joy and beauty in today!

Some of us are more like the older kids hunting eggs—we are in it to win it! Open the eggs? Are you kidding? We are into the hunt! For us, we want to understand this whole resurrection thing. What do you mean raised from the dead? What if Jesus was really a ghost? Was Jesus actually raised from the dead? Why are there differences between the four gospel accounts of the resurrection? The best explanation for the different accounts of Jesus on Easter Sunday is to think of Jesus rising from the grave like a televised football game. There are lots of cameras at the game—some look down on the plays on the field from above, some look at the same plays from the ground level, some are looking at the fan response in the stands, some look at it from the quarterback’s point of view. All the cameras are looking at the same game, but we see different things from each one. All the cameras agree on the main features—who won the game, maybe some of the key plays, maybe the crazy woman with the Viking hat who decided to jump the fence and was ushered out—and they all add important perspectives to understand the game. When we look at Easter Sunday, all the accounts agree on some things:

  • It was the third day after Jesus died on the cross. The Romans were pros at execution. No way Jesus makes it out of that alive. Jesus was really dead.

  • Women were the first to go to the tomb, hoping to anoint Jesus with aromatic spices so that when the other people came to visit, it wouldn’t smell so bad. In a patriarchal society, someone making up the story would have had men as the first witnesses.

  • Jesus was not in the tomb. Most likely, some of the women encountered Jesus too. They knew what ghosts were, and this Jesus was not a ghost. They could touch him, he was living and breathing.

  • The women are freaked out and unbelievably happy at the same time, which is a hard set of emotions to have at the same time.

  • They go and tell the other disciples—none of whom believe them at first.

If you are hunting for Easter, full of questions and doubts, and maybe a curious mix of wonder, fear, and joy, you are in luck—we have plenty of questions, doubts and mixed emotions. We are always looking for more of Easter too.

Of course, the thing about Easter is that it’s more than hunting eggs. The story is told of a boy named Philip who never felt like he belonged. In his Sunday school class before Easter, Phillip’s teacher introduced a special project. He gave every member a plastic “egg”—the kind pantyhose used to come in. He explained that each child was to go outside, find a symbol for new life and put it into the egg. The class really got into it. Back in the classroom the eggs were opened one at a time. In the first egg was a pretty flower. In the next a beautiful butterfly. Green grass was in a third. The children “oohed” and “aahed” over all the ideas. Finally, the last egg was opened—there was nothing. “That’s stupid,” said one child. Another grumbled, “Someone didn’t do it right!” The teacher felt a tug on his shirt. It was Phillip, who said, “That’s mine, and I did do it right! It’s empty, ‘cause the tomb was empty.” There was an unusual, thoughtful silence. And strangely, from that time on, Phillip was accepted as part of the group. Phillip struggled with many physical problems. That summer he picked up an infection which most children would easily have shaken off. But Philip’s weak body couldn’t, and a few weeks later, he died. At his funeral nine eight-year-olds with their teacher brought their symbol of remembrance and placed it near his coffin. Their unusual gift of love to Phillip wasn’t flowers. It was an empty egg—now a symbol to them of new life and hope.[1] The fearful disciples who locked their doors before Jesus’ resurrection would, in a few short weeks, become bold and fearless ambassadors for the Jesus who was not in the tomb. The empty egg and the empty tomb are not simply empty, they are paradoxically full of hope and power. Richard Foster wrote of this group of Easter hunters, “These are the ones who can envision a new future, a future of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. They are being taken over by a holy power to do the right. They are being brought out of bondage to human beings. They cannot be bribed or manipulated or flattered. They love their enemies and pray for those who despise them. In time their very presence and actions will bring down those structures that are sustained by greed and pride and fear.”[2] The hunters for Easter know that they are not really hunting for the event—what happened long ago; they are hunting for a person who lives with us today, and whose presence transforms people. So we hunters for Easter can know that the better tomorrow starts with Jesus rising to be with us today. Uncertainty, wonder, and joy! He is risen!


[1]Preaching Today.

[2]Foster, Prayer, p. 246

Two Mary’s Make Us Merry

by Rev. Doug Gray

One of the things I get to do each month is to lead worship down at the Marina Bay Skilled Nursing Facility and across the way at The Atria. Mary Thompson, this sweet woman with penetrating blue eyes, is often there. Mary was in the paper not long ago because she turned 102 and has led an amazing life. Just about every week, Mary re-introduces herself to me, but one week she said, “I’m Mary. Just another Mary.” That made me think of the first Easter Sunday, when we see Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb…Mary, and the other Mary.

When you were growing up, did any of the other kids have the same first name as you? My first-grade class had 3 Bob’s in it. So the teacher was forever getting them mixed up. All three Bob’s used to roll their eyes with embarrassment when she got them mixed up, but the rest of the class used to snicker. Jesus seemed to have a lot of Mary’s hanging around. Mary Magdalene, Mary His mother, and the other Mary. I wonder, did they feel very ordinary, like the 3 Bob’s in my third-grade class? So on this first Easter Sunday, two Mary’s were at the tomb, felt the earthquake, saw and heard the angel, and two Mary’s carried the news back to the other disciples. Did you hear what their emotions are as they run to the disciples? With fear and great joy. Just Mary and the other Mary. On the way, Jesus steps up to them and says, “Greetings! Rejoice!” and then Jesus adds, “Do not be afraid!” Ordinary Mary’s with extraordinary news, meeting an extraordinary Jesus, and their fear is taken away.

So when I think of Mary Thompson at 102, saying, “I’m just another Mary,” and I think about her amazing life, I am struck that for God there is no such thing as “just another Mary” or just another you. God made each of us and knows each of us like we are the only one. And Jesus knows all our fears, flaws and foibles and still we are loved—even ordinary folks like you and me can have extraordinary news of Jesus rising again in us. Even ordinary folks like you and me can meet this extraordinary Jesus because of Easter. Because of Jesus rising again, our fear can give way to great joy. He is risen! He is risen indeed!

Fruitfulness on the Frontlines: Love Doesn’t Have to, But Love Does Anyway

by Rev. Doug Gray

 

All this Lent, we are spending time thinking about our frontlines. What’s a frontline? Our frontline is the edge of our lives where we are meeting people who need grace—where we work, where we play, at the store, at school, with our family, at the doctor’s office, hanging out while our kids are in an activity, going for a walk in the neighborhood—wherever we spend time with people can be a frontline. Our frontline is where we are stretched, and where we have a chance to make a difference. All this Lent, we are exploring ways to be fruitful on our frontlines.It’s one of those phrases that drives a parent nuts. When I was a kid, my parents would ask me to take out the garbage…they asked me to take out the garbage, so I said, “No.” Then they told me to take out the garbage, and I used the phrase, “Do I have to?” When my parents asked me to spend part of a beautiful, sunny Saturday mowing the lawn, I would ask, “Do I have to?” When they would ask me if I would go with them to party where I didn’t have any friends, I would ask, “Do I have to?” Now I don’t know—maybe you have said that phrase yourself, or maybe you have heard it from your kids—but in our passages for today, we find God has answers to the question, “Do I have to?”

First, the short answer is always “No!” A poor widow comes to the prophet Elisha and pleads her case. A woman of substance invites the prophet Elisha to stop by for a meal. In the second story, Jesus reminds us that there are people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, without clothes, sick and in prison. In the face of their need, we may ask, “Do I have to?” And the answer is always, “No!” We don’t have to.

Second, need calls us to action. We don’t have to, but we could. The poor widow’s financial need activates Elisha’s compassion. Perhaps the woman of substance is lonely, or just wants a chance to be a blessing. Whatever it is, Elisha comes by her house for dinner whenever he is in the neighborhood. Or is it that this great woman sees Elisha’s need for some good home-cooking and a quiet space? Jesus makes it clear that those who see need and do something about it—those are the people who know Jesus best. Jesus says, “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The needs are really simple and straightforward, aren’t they? Financial need, loneliness, hunger, thirst, sickness…We don’t have to, but we choose to. Need calls us to action.

Third, God wants to rewire us for compassion. We don’t have to, but we want to. Whether it’s Elisha or the woman of substance or Jesus, the compassion leads us. In fact, Jesus talks about people who are so wired to show compassion, that they didn’t even know they were doing it. Breathtakingly, they discover from Jesus, that they were taking care of Him, not just caring for the hungry, thirsty, sick and lonely. They were just doing it, but there was something more going on. When we show compassion, God rewires us to be more compassionate.

In his book, Fruitfulness on the Frontlines:  Making a Difference Where You Are, Mark Greene tells the story of David that seems to catch all of these ideas..

 

David’s frontline was his office….One Monday, one of his colleagues, James, failed to turn up to work.

No one thought much about it—probably just had a spectacular weekend—but when [James] didn’t turn up the following day, David called him, even though he wasn’t a particular friend of his.

‘Are you ok?’

‘No, I’m feeling terrible. I haven’t been able to get out of bed for three days.’

‘Is anyone looking after you?’

No, I live alone and my family are miles away.’

‘Have you got the right medicine?’

‘I haven’t even got any food.’

… David went…to see James that evening, got him into the shower, changed his [bedding], took him to the doctor, got the medicine, bought food and went to see him every evening for a week. During that week, James never asked David a single question about why he was doing all he was doing for him.

However, within a week of James’ return to work, David found…[he had lots of opportunities to explain]. James had told everyone what David had done. And people stopped [David] on the [elevator], in the halls, in the cafeteria; his colleagues simply couldn’t understand why he’d done it. As [David’s pastor] put it, ‘David replied carefully and humbly to all who asked, “It is nothing I did… I think what I did is the kind of thing [Jesus] would have done. I don’t do it very well, but I do my best.”’[1]

 

What I love about this story, is that in one sense David’s loving choices are completely unexpected—when we ask ourselves what would Jesus do, we don’t expect to be taking care of one of our co-workers in a very personal, dedicated way. James’ needs awakened David to action, and he did a beautifully compassionate thing. In another sense, David’s loving choices are totally expected—it’s how we would want the story to go if we were James, and perhaps we know that’s the kind of radical compassion that Jesus lived and taught and died to show us.

When we are kids, often we are self-focused. As I got older, I began to realize that when I asked my parents “Do I have to?” it was like telling them that I didn’t want to. So I started taking out the garbage when I saw it was full. I started making space in my weekend to mow the lawn and found that mowing the lawn was very meditative. I even began to think of my parents’ parties as a way of being with them and giving them joy. I was learning to think with grace. Mark Greene writes, “Grace and love go beyond the acceptable minimum or the way things are usually done—the homeless person is not just given a meal, but a really great meal. Indeed, there is more to ministering grace and love than kindness. Love is about wanting and seeking the best for someone else.” Isn’t it what we want for our children? In a sense, that’s what we hope to grow into, isn’t it? That we would have more grace and love, that we would become people who show love not because they have to, but because they want to. But in another sense, what we hope for most, is that God would rewire us, so that we not only want to, it’s the only way we are.


[1]Mark Greene, Fruitfulness on the Frontline:  Making a difference where you are (Nottingham, UK:  Inter-Varsity Press, 2014), pp. 109–111.

Fruitfulness on the Frontline: Fruitfulness in Belonging to God

by Rev. Doug Gray

Being a parent is the most important job in the world, and it’s one of those jobs you can never really know how to do until you’re a parent. When our oldest, Morgan, was born, the best sound in the world was the sound of her crying, because I knew that crying meant her lungs were working. It was so glorious and I was so relieved—and incidentally, so exhausted—that I almost cried myself. I would discover that Morgan crying and our exhaustion would go together a lot. When it came time to leave the hospital, and Cynthia carried Morgan, and I was the Sherpa carrying a yak’s worth of stuff that we got at the hospital. We couldn’t believe that anyone would let us walk out of the hospital with this baby. What the heck do we really know about being parents anyway? It’s “on the job training,” right?

Another thing they don’t tell you about parenting is that there’s going to be pressure. If you don’t think there’s pressure in parenting, then you have never looked for your child’s stuffed animal as if your life depended on it—because it does. Oh yes, there’s pressure! Our children add unexpected things to our lives, and suddenly we are under pressure. When Morgan was just a few months old, the Congregational church in Quincy, IL was looking for an Associate Pastor, and so Cynthia and Morgan joined me as I was going to meet the congregation for the first time. Sunday morning comes, and we are talking with the little old ladies of the congregation before worship as they’re sitting around the Parlor. While we talk, we’re playing “Pass the Baby” because everyone wanted to see this adorable child—which I am very cool with since they aren’t asking me thorny theological questions. Being the loving, chill child Morgan is, she is going with it. And the little old ladies are loving it, and bouncing her on their knees and making goo-goo eyes…and then Morgan gets really still on a lady with the bright pink dress. Suddenly, the scent of doom is in the air, so Cynthia and I whisk Morgan into the Nursery, and yep—diaper blow out. Great! Perfect! Fortunately, we have a change of clothes and clean diapers, so we undo Morgan’s diaper and start getting her undressed, when she dips her heel in the—stuff—and before we can blink, Morgan is covered head to toe in—stuff. And Cynthia starts to chuckle, and I start to giggle, and pretty soon we are laughing our backsides off because we cannot imagine how this could get any worse. Then we learn that the poor woman’s bright pink dress is ruined…and she is ushering that day…and she is the Moderator of the church…and she is leading the Congregational Meeting after worship where the congregation is voting on whether or not to call me. The funniest part was that the congregation did vote to call me as their Associate Pastor, and the Moderator, Pat, became one of our best friends. Did I say there is pressure in parenting?

There are all kinds of pressure at work, though, aren’t there? How many of you have ever had a job with weird people? My friend, Vera, used to work at Walmart in our small city in Wisconsin. She worked in jewelry and she had the weirdest things happen, people being mean to her, people stealing stupid stuff—oh no, I didn’t take that!—and the people she worked with were a pretty tough, not very understanding bunch. Every Monday night, Vera would come to Bible Study with a new story about how bizarre people were and how toxic a work environment could be—some of the stories were funny, but most of them were sad. One Monday night, Vera came and told us that a woman had come in for a watchband, and spent 20 minutes telling Vera all about how her house was being foreclosed on, and she was trying to figure out what to do to feed and clothe her family. When she was done telling us, Vera said, “When I came out from behind the counter and hugged that woman and told her I’d pray for her, I knew why God put me at Walmart.”

We have lots of places where we experience pressure—family, friends, work, school, neighborhood—so the question is not whether we will experience pressure, but what we are going to do with it. One of my mentors called it “being in the fire,” that there are times when the pressure just rises and rises—sometimes from different areas at the same time. How can we handle being in the fire? Paul says, “since we are made right by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…” In the midst of the fire—and the heat just gets hotter—we who are trying to follow Jesus have a peace that makes us fireproof: we know that we will get through this with God’s help. But Paul says something even more incredible will happen if we are willing to stay in the fire with Jesus—our sufferings, troubles, and pressure, “produce endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” Somehow, when we love during the pressure, troubles, and suffering, people begin to see that God’s love is real—real enough to stake their lives on…because we have staked our lives on that love.

We can never really be prepared for what it means to be a parent until we are in the thick of it. Even if we know how to do a job, that doesn’t mean we are prepared for what it’s like to work with other people until we are there. So much of life is just learning while we do it. When we are under pressure, do we keep trying to do the loving thing? When we are in the fire, do we hold out a hand of compassion to our co-worker to help them with their troubles? When we are suffering, do we stay cool and keep doing what Jesus would do? Wherever God has planted us, whoever is in our lives today, God has put each of us there for a reason. Our frontlines are where things can get messy, where the pressure can rise, and the heat can get hotter. Our frontlines are where God is growing and stretching us, shaping our character for even greater times ahead. In Lent—more than any other season of the Church—people often invite God to grow them with the pressure by giving something up or adding something in. Remembering how Jesus was tested in the wilderness, on our frontlines we too will be tested. How will we make it through? By trying to get closer to God. The psalmist writes,

 

Happy are those…[whose] delight is in the law of the LORD,

                  and on his Law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees

                  planted by streams of water,

         which yield their fruit in its season,

                  and their leaves do not wither.

     In all that they do, they prosper.

 

This Lent, let us be fruitful on our frontlines with God and so come closer to the Lord who saves!