Explosive Grace: Faith Just Got Easier

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Have any of you ever been part of the preparations for a baby to be born? What are some of the things people do to get ready for a baby to come into the world?

     [Take responses from the congregation.]

Sure. Some people do more. Some people do less. But everyone gets ready in one way or another, right? Now not everyone has children, but isn’t it interesting that many of the same kinds of things people do to prepare for a baby have similarities to what people do to get ready for the birth of a new company or a new idea. Instead of painting and furnishing a bedroom, for a company we look for a site and get equipment, or for an idea we add details and structure to the idea before we share it. Whenever we are beginning something new, it feels like there are a huge number of details that we have to get just right. And we really, really want to get them right because we love our child or company or idea, and we want them to grow and become all they are meant to be. Right? So how do you feel when someone comes in and tells you you’re doing it all wrong? Sometimes they’re not doing it to be mean, but it’s upsetting, isn’t it? And it could go something like this. “What are you doing?” You tell them. “Oh. (dramatic pause) Have you ever thought about it doing it this way?” And then they launch into a long explanation of whatever it is they think you should be doing to be a better parent, executive or author. Anyone have that happen? It can just steal your joy away. So maybe you’ve had something like that happen where your faith is concerned, and it can be very upsetting. It can just steal away any joy you have with God. That’s what happened to the Christians in the churches in Galatia, and it’s why Paul writes a very strongly worded letter to them, and it’s why I believe God has brought us here today:  to hear that faith just got easier!
     First, you are loved for you, not what you do. A group of missionaries had come to the churches in Galatia and told them that “real Christians” keep the Jewish Law—guys have to be circumcised, and everyone has to keep the Jewish Laws, and observe the Jewish holidays. The missionaries say God will love you if you do these things. But Paul writes, “Jesus Christ…gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil world.” Jesus went to the cross and was willing to die there because God had a plan, a plan to show us we were loved not for what we do, but because we are. When I was first getting ready to be a dad, I thought babies would be boring. I wouldn’t be able to run and play with them. I wouldn’t be able to shoot hoop or throw the frisbee with them. It was all about me and what would be fun for me. And then Morgan came along, and she was wonderful—she still is! She pooped and that was exciting! I get to change her diaper! Feeding her, caring for her—it was joy! We loved her simply because she was. Grace is like that. God loves you for you—and that’s Good News!
     Second, we are all children of God. When you were a kid, did anyone ever try to start a club? The girls down the street from me did. “No boys allowed,” they told me. I was confused, but what could I say? I was definitely a boy. I felt really left out, and had trouble understanding. Didn’t we all play together all the time? What was different now? The girls had set up a club—and there were insiders and outsiders. This group of missionaries took folks who worshiped together, helped each other, and served together and fenced them off from each other—insiders look and act this way, and then there’s everyone else. Paul writes, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father…” and we are reminded that God is our heavenly parent. God doesn’t have cousins or grandchildren, in-laws or out-laws. Instead of insiders and outsiders, we are all God’s children and we are all loved.
     Paul is so upset with these nice “Christians” who have been teaching in the churches of Galatia because they have taken the Good News—that Jesus died for them, that they are loved, that they are all children of God—and have made it awful news. And it happens to us all the time. Maybe something bad happens in your life—and some nice “Christian” person comes along who tells you how you should think about God. Or maybe you’re going along and some nice “Christian” person asks you “Are you saved?” and you’re not really sure what to make of that, but they make it sound like your experience of God isn’t right. Or maybe you have been told that God’s love isn’t for you…you’re not the right kind of person, not the right gender, not the right sexual orientation, not wearing the right clothes, not doing the right things, not talking the right language. It’s a kind of religious version of “keeping up with the Joneses”—they have to measure everybody else’s spiritual life and commitment in order to feel good about their own. So they create a Christianity that is hard enough to keep out the riff raff, and anyone else that’s not as good as them. But Jesus came for the riff raff—and we are all riff raff next to the holiness of God.
     For all the people who have been told that following Jesus about keeping the rules, I ask your forgiveness. Jesus came to be Good News. Humans use rules as tools of oppression and self-interest. Jesus died so that we could know we are loved. That love frees us from having to find our value in playing by the world’s rules. We are not measured by what we do, but we find success in being loved and loving in return. Life is not about the rule. Love is not something we earn. And because of Jesus, knowing we are loved is not something we have to be anxious about. Jesus says, “Won’t you come to me and find rest for your souls?” Faith just got easier!
     For all the who have been told that following Jesus something only certain people can do, I ask your forgiveness. Jesus came to be Good News. Turns out the Son of God died, so we could all be children of God. Who’s left out of that? Nobody! Faith just got easier!
     At the end of the day, let us simply love God. When we worship, let us not think about the clothes someone is wearing, or wonder if we have done enough for coffee hour, or whether our kids are dressed right—no, when we worship let us focus on how amazing and beautiful the grace of God is! When we are learning, let us come to God’s Word, hoping to be challenged and stretched, and that God will change us through God’s Word. If we heard God’s “I love you!” loud and clear this morning, what about our lives could be different? God never wanted faith to be hard, just Good News. That’s why Jesus came, that’s why Jesus teaches, that’s why Jesus died, and that’s why Jesus rose again. The Good News is that God loves us and that faith just got easier!

 

The One Who Didn’t Get Away

by Rev. Doug Gray

On the very first Easter Sunday, some soldiers were in trouble:  Jesus was missing from his tomb, and everyone thought they did it. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the soldiers were paid off by the priests to blame the empty tomb on the followers of Jesus. These followers knew Jesus was missing already, but not because they had taken the body—a group of them went to the tomb at daybreak and found it empty, others ran to the tomb to doublecheck, and finally, two of Jesus’ followers had actually met Jesus on the road as they walked sadly to another town. When they realized it was Jesus, they headed back (perhaps in the dark) to see the other disciples. They tell their weird story to everyone.

     A blonde once went up to a woman on the street and asked, “Excuse me, what time is it right now?” The woman responded, “It’s 11:25 a.m.” The blonde looked confused. She said, “You know, it’s the weirdest thing, I’ve asked that question thirty times today, and everybody gives me a different answer.” Whenever someone asks me what time it is, I not only tell them the time, but I realize how far behind I always seem to be. Maybe you know what that’s like—every day you start with great plans for all you are going to do, and every day you look back and think, “Where did the time go?” In his book, Undone by Easter, the great preacher, Will Willimon writes, “Humanity is that species for whom the past vanishes, the present is an enigma, and the future is unknown. We literally don’t have time. Time has us.” We live moment by moment, but as soon as we have a moment, it’s gone. And we know that all our moments will one day run out, that there will be a moment which will be our last. We will literally run out of time.
     Maybe that’s part of why I find Jesus so weird, and so fascinating. Willimon continues, “Only God has a beyond. Only God can do something about our human problem with time. When the Word was made flesh, eternity took time, defeated time’s futility.” Does anybody else think this is weird? The God Who made time, Who is beyond time, comes into time, to take time for us! Wow! Jesus does three things that help them get beyond the strangeness to the person, and these three things can help us too.
     First, Jesus says in effect, “Check me out!” You and I sometimes have questions and doubts about God. Maybe some of you here today have lots of questions and doubts about Jesus. That’s good! Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t get after His students for their questions and doubts? Instead, Jesus says to the disciples, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself!” For the disciples in that room, they had known Jesus physically—touched Him, talked with Him, laughed with Him, cried with Him—and they would know. But more importantly, Jesus had the scars to prove He was the one who died on the cross. If Jesus has really been beyond, then he could have any kind of body, including wiping out the scars. Instead, Jesus keeps the scars. When you check Jesus out, or any other spiritual path, look for the scars. No other religion has scars to show for their love. When we check Jesus out, His scars help us know we can step past the strangeness and come to Him—questions, doubts and all!
     Second, Jesus says, “Do you have anything here to eat?” Ghostly images from beyond don’t need to eat. Jesus is for real, part of time with them, able to eat and digest food. Jesus is in effect saying, “See how I am in the world.” So when we are trying to get beyond the strange, we have to look around for Jesus around us. My constant prayer is that as you look at any me or any other member of this fellowship, that you will see people living out the way of love. We are not perfect at it—and neither is any other human being. Awhile back, I had a woman who was a first-time guest, along with her family. As the woman greeted me at the back of the church, she said how much she and her family enjoyed worship with us. Then she said, “It’s so nice to be in a church where people are real…not like the last church we were at. They were a bunch of hypocrites.” I looked her in the eye. I said, “Well I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is that we try to act like Jesus as much as we can. The bad news is that we’re a bunch of hypocrites too.” We all fail, don’t we?—to live completely as Jesus did, to love God completely and our neighbor as ourselves? So if you have been hurt by Christians in the past—me too!—I have good news for you! We’re not perfect, but God’s still working on us! By the grace of God in Jesus Christ, you can find the real Jesus all around—a young woman giving up her summer break to work as a volunteer for a homeless shelter, an older man fixing things up for his neighbor, a child climbing into the lap of a grieving adult, someone opening their home to a troubled teen, another person listening to the darkness of another’s soul and embracing them with the light they’ve been given. Jesus is all around us in those who are trying. When Jesus asks, “Do you have anything here to eat?” He is saying, “I am part of the world with you.” Look around!
     Finally, “Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” When I was in college, every so often I would sidle up and stand in front of my friend and lean gently on their monitor. I’d chat with my friend for a little bit, and while we were chatting I would quietly unplug their keyboard. When we were done talking, I would walk away and they would be pounding on their keyboard trying to figure out why nothing was working. Sometimes I feel like that in my own life. I’m going along just fine in my day, and then it seems that things stop working. Why is that? I’m pounding on my life, and nothing happens. Often the problem is that I’m not plugged into God’s Word, not plugged into what God wants to say in my life. The beautiful thing about knowing Jesus is that our eyes are opened to understanding what the Bible says. Part of the reason we do Bible study together is that God opens  each of our minds in different ways, and through the lens of Jesus’ sacrifice, it all starts to make sense.
     If this were all to it, then following Jesus would be like all the other religions—believe in someone and do good. What’s different is that Jesus didn’t just offer us some nice, moral teaching—Jesus died for each of us, Jesus rose for us. That’s what Easter is about. The One Who came from beyond time gave up forever on the cross—and so broke the two things that trap us the most—death and time. By the power of God, Jesus rose from the dead so that we could have a beyond too. Easter is not about believing a teaching, but meeting a person. The disciples had doubts that Easter evening, but they knew who was in the room. Amid all the doubts you may have, I invite you to meet the One in the room with us now, Jesus the Risen Lord! In Him, we not only have a beyond to this life, but we have a power and trust and peace and hope that are beyond ourselves in this life. Willimon writes, “We are thereby encouraged not to escape time…but rather to live in time as those who know what time it really is.” What time is it? It’s time for an answer that will not change—in your life and mine, it’s time for Jesus to rise again! He is risen!

 

Holy Hilarity Technology and Knowing God

by Rev. Doug Gray

Introductory Skit
     Get 7 volunteers from the congregation.
     Make three pairs.
     Doug:    These three pairs are going to demonstrate what technology can do to
                   relationships and our spiritual life.
     First pair will be playing cards.
     Second pair will be having a very intense, private conversation.
     The third pair will be busy reading a newspaper and a book.
     The seventh person will be Jesus trying to get their attention.
     Jesus:    “Hi! Just wanted to tell you that I love you. Could we talk for a little?
                   I would really like to spend time together.”
     After Jesus has tried with each pair, Doug will stop everything.
     Doug:    “No! No! No! I said what TECHNOLOGY can do to relationships and
                   our spiritual life. Let’s try this again.
     First pair will be playing a video game.
     Second pair will be texting.
     Third pair will be reading from electronic devices or listening to iPod.
     Again, Jesus tries to get in touch with them.

Jesus said, “Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

How could technology help us/others open the door for Jesus?

How can technology make God more real for you and your family?

Jesus says, “To the one who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:21–22)

The volunteers may be seated

The problem is not the technology, but how we use it. The problem is that we are ourselves confused about the ways technology can help and hinder us. We are also confused about the nature of worship. In our passage for today, Thomas offers three guidelines for testing whether technology is being used in a healthy way.

First, technology cannot replace intimacy. Thomas says he won’t believe unless he can touch Jesus. I think that’s an awesome way to approach God. I know Thomas gets a bad rap for doubting, but really he wants something more intimate than someone telling a story. He wants to get up close and personal with Jesus. How long have there been TV preachers? Some people predicted that the local church would go the way of the dinosaur. But the TV can’t take the place of a hug and people who know you. Some people predicted that virtual relationships online would take the place of real relationships in person. But typing on a keyboard is not the same richness of experience as being there. You can watch a recording over and over, but you can only participate in an event only once in real time. Technology cannot replace intimacy.

Second, technology is not the point. God is the point.

(At this point the technology crashes and burns. TECH:  show the explosion slide! then let the screen be black.)

For Thomas, listening to the stories other people were telling was not enough—he wanted the real thing. John Ortberg, one of the great preachers of our time, writes that worship should not be boring and not be merely amusing. The word, amuse, comes from Latin. When we muse, we reflect on and think about, we are inspired by. Amusing, then, interferes with reflecting, thinking about and being inspired. Amusement is intellectual candy, just occupying our mind. A lot of technology falls into this category, doesn’t it? Ortberg’s bigger point though is that worship fails to connect with people if it’s boring, and fails to challenge and inspire people if it’s amusing. Worship is supposed to be arresting. To help us stop, think and listen. To help us open the doors of our heart and mind to the wonder, beauty and love of Jesus Christ.

Do we make time and space to get up close and personal with Jesus? Are we a physical presence with others?

 

Which Door, God? The Door in the Wall

by Rev. Doug gray

  In the city of Hanover is a graveyard which has been closed for a number of years—the Garden Churchyard. Because of its beautiful and unusual stone monuments and a number of celebrated residents, the graveyard draws the curious. A few paces east of the unassuming little church in the graveyard is a monument to Henriette Juliane Caroline von Rüling, built in the form of steps, and the massive stones are secured by heavy iron clasps. The monument was erected in the year 1782. Besides the usual family inscriptions, at the base of the monument, are engraved these words: “May this tomb, purchased for all eternity, never be opened.” That’s how lots of us feel about death—that there is a wall beyond which we may not want to go. John Ortberg, in his book, All the Places to Go:  How Will I Know, writes, “We all know about the wall. The wall is our finitude, our problems, our limitations, our disappointments, and ultimately our death. The great question in life is whether the universe has a door in the wall.”[1]

Lots of us look for the door in the wall by focusing on the nuts and bolts and arguing from logic. Being a scientist at heart, I start here. Could Jesus have risen from the grave? Some have argued that Jesus didn’t really die. Others have argued that perhaps disciples stole the body. Still others have looked for a way to explain the resurrection. A woman once wrote author and pastor, Dr. J. Vernon McGee, “Our preacher said that on Easter Jesus just swooned on the cross, and the disciples nursed him back to health. What do you think?” McGee quipped, “Dear Sister, beat your preacher with a leather whip for thirty-nine heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross. Hang him in the sun for six hours. Run a spear through his heart. Put him in an airless tomb for three days. Then see what happens.”[2] No, Jesus was truly dead. The common denominator in all these ideas is that we want an explanation that makes sense of Jesus’ resurrection in a way that we can understand. What we want is to use what we can see, taste and touch to explain life and its meaning. No matter how we try to explain it, this approach merely distracts us—it cannot find the door in the wall.

Lots of us try to pretend there is no the door in the wall, by making ourselves more secure. So we build layers of security around ourselves and our families. Perhaps we invest in home security, a better job, work longer hours, look for high safety ratings on our cars, try to lock in a better future. Ortberg tells a story “that a king once sent a pearl to the era’s most famous rabbi, Rav. Rav sent back a simple mezuzah. (A mezuzah is a small case you put on the door of your house. Inside is placed the Bible verse, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One and you shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might. For those that have a mezuzah, they touch it as the go in or out, to remind themselves that they are loved and they are called to love.) The king was furious at the great discrepancy in value. Rav explained. ‘The gift you sent me is so valuable that it will have to be guarded, whereas the gift I sent you will guard you.’ He quoted Proverbs…’When you walk it will lead you; when you lie down it will watch over you.’”[3] Isn’t that the irony of our time? That we buy stuff, and then we need stuff to store our stuff, and then we need a house to store our stuff, and then we need stuff to keep track of our stuff. No matter how much stuff we have, it doesn’t help us find the door in the wall, nor give us certainty about what’s on the other side.

The problem we have when we try to find the door in the wall is that all too often, as the angel hints today, we are looking for the living among the dead. How can anything made by human hands take us beyond the humans that created it? Limited by the wall, we humans cannot make our own door. Bruce Larson said, “The events of Easter cannot be reduced to a creed or philosophy. We are not asked to believe the doctrine of the resurrection. We are asked to meet this person raised from the dead. In faith, we move from belief in a doctrine to a knowledge of a person. Ultimate truth is a person. We met him. He is alive!”[4]

Maybe that’s why we can’t find the door in the wall. All our lives we are looking for the escape route from reality, the meaning of existence, the door in the wall, and it’s really a person. But Jesus said “I am the door. Whoever enters by me will be made whole and find meaning, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” But this Person, this relationship, this door in the wall, changes everything, especially how we relate to each other. A venerable, old sage once asked his disciples, “How can we know when the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming?” “When we can see a tree in the distance and know that it is an elm and not a juniper,” ventured one student. “When we can see an animal and know that it is a fox or a wolf,” chimed in another. “No,” said the old man, “those things will not help us.” Puzzled, the students demanded, “How then can we know?” The master teacher drew himself up to his full stature and replied quietly, “We know the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming when we can see another person and know that this is our brother or our sister; otherwise, no matter what time it is, it is still dark.”[5]

Perhaps the pronouncement on the tomb in Hanover was written in a time of deep sorrow and hopelessness—Henrietta who was buried there was after all only 26 when she died of tuberculosis. However the inscription was written, a beech seed found its way into a crevice of the foundation. In the course of years, this little seed grew to be a strong, luxuriant tree, mocking the proud inscription of the monument, as its roots raised the massive stones from their foundation, and broke the strong iron clasp on the tomb. This famous, open grave is a reminder that we, humans, sometimes don’t have much of a sense of humor and that we never get in the last word. God’s last word will echo the ones from that first Easter Sunday:  “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is risen and He goes ahead of you.” The door in the tomb is open so we can find the door in the wall.


[1]Ortberg, All the Places to Go:  How Will I Know? (2016) p. 232.

[2]Source unknown. http://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/the-swoon-theory

[3]Ortberg, All the Places, p. 243

[4]I cannot find a source for this fabulous quote. It is, however, often quoted J

[5]N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (2008), p. 249

Which Door, God? The Door Left Open

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Most of us would rather have beginnings than endings, rather have the dawn than the sunset, rather have the hellos than the good-byes. I think that’s pretty natural. Certainly, we would prefer birth to death.
     I’m sure the women headed to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning were not filled with joy, but grief. They knew Jesus was dead and had seen the tomb closed near sunset on Friday. There’s something very final about burying someone. I remember standing at the grave of my grandfather as a young man. When the words were said, the tears shed, and the hugs given, we turned from the grave to what was next. A little more time together as an extended family and then… We found ourselves still drawn back to that grave, still drawn back to the memories, still drawn back as we tried to understand what my grandfather’s death meant. Is that what the women were thinking as they headed to the garden, still drawn back to where Jesus’ body still lay, still needing the spices so that others who were drawn back could sit with him a little more. We would much rather say hello than good-bye, but sometimes we don’t know how to say good-bye.
     But the angel says, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” What kind of question is that? Where else would Jesus be but in the tomb? But the door of the tomb is open. “He is not here…he has risen!” And their good-bye becomes hello, and like us, they are confused, perhaps even fearful. But where the closed door of the tomb drew them back, the open door of the tomb draws them forward, to another place and another time, the next chance to be with Jesus.
     We are used to thinking of death as an ending, and we even say things like, “Nothing is sure, except death and taxes.” And I suppose death is a kind of ending. The forces of evil thought they were getting an ending:  Jesus was tried and convicted and executed, though He was innocent. Jesus had other choices, but He walked that sorrowful and painful road for love—of His heavenly Father to be sure, but also for love of us. Yet, the forces of evil did not know that when someone willingly gives up their life for another, then death is not an ending, but a beginning.
     Today, as we watch the sun rise, we are reminded of the beginning of Easter, the beginning of the real mission of Jesus Christ, the beginning of a new life for all who are willing to let God make in them a new beginning. So Jesus left the door open, the door to the tomb, the door to our future, the door left open to a life lived for love. When we willingly sacrifice our lives for another, then we too are drawn forward into new life. Today is a new beginning! How will we love today? The door is wide open because…He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

Good Friday Meditation: It’s Just the Way He Is

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Henry David was a pastor. For more than 50 years, he shepherded churches in California and Connecticut. He learned the art of asking and the art of listening. He had a master’s sense of timing and knowing what needed to be said and when. Two days before we sang Henry home to Jesus, I came up the darkened hallway of the hospital, in a hurry to spend some precious time with Henry. I started to rush into the room, but I noticed there was a young nurse sitting on the side of his bed with her back to me. She was pouring out her heart to Henry, and weak as he was, he was still totally focused on caring for her. Henry had spent his whole life trying to become a person who loved well, who pastored well, and even though his eyes were dimming, he couldn’t help but be the man of God whom he had tried to become.
     Was it that way for Jesus? All His life, He lived the love of God. For three years, Jesus had prayed and healed, taught and forgiven, cast out demons and preached grace. He gathered a number of women and Twelve men as His close friends. They shared the same air and food, stories and miracles, laughter and tears. Yet one friend betrayed Him, and another denied Him three times. Almost all the rest scattered, perhaps broken and afraid. He would forgive them too. Even on the cross, Jesus offers forgiveness to his mocking enemies and broken friends, and hope to a thief at the edge of the ultimate darkness, who saw the light. Even on the cross, even as He is dying, Jesus is saving. Jesus says to the criminal, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” William Barclay writes, “The word Paradise is a Persian word meaning a walled garden. When a Persian king wished to do one of his subjects a very special honour, he made him a companion of the garden, and he was chosen to walk in the garden with the king.” Jesus promises the thief an invitation to walk in the garden with Him for all of that eternity.
     Perhaps that’s the word we have most need to hear all our lives. All our lives we search for the relationship that can make us complete, the love that is forever, and the hope that can fill us with joy. Our lives are defined by that search. Perhaps we do a good deed here or there, but Jesus doesn’t just want our good deeds, Jesus wants us to be good. Jesus doesn’t just want us to show compassion—Jesus wants us to become compassionate. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven…Be mature and complete, therefore, just as your heavenly Father is mature and complete.” So Jesus most longs for us to not just receive grace from His hand, but to be so marked by that grace that we might, by the grace of God, simply become clear channels for that grace to flow to a broken world. We won’t have to even think about it. We can’t help ourselves but be the grace—for grace is where we are, peace is how we live, love is who we are. Because we walk with Him in all we do, as if we were in Paradise.
     Even on the cross, Jesus can’t help but be the Lord and Savior He had always been. He is grace and forgiveness and relationship, even when He is dying.

 

Which Door, God? Failing to Keep Watch at the Closed Door

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Bruno Mars, the singer/song-writer, famously quipped, “You can’t knock on opportunity’s door and not be ready.”[1] But the disciples are definitely not ready for the opportunity Jesus gave them in the Garden of Gethsemane, that Thursday long ago. The full weight of the next fifteen hours is landing on His broad, carpenter’s shoulders, and Jesus is looking for some strength, some guidance, some comfort. So Jesus takes those with whom He is closest to the Mount of Olives.
     From the city gates of Jerusalem, the gardens of the Mount of Olives are just a short walk in the moonlight, the hard dirt lit up like a silvery ribbon. The road heads down from Jerusalem’s city walls into the Kidron Valley, under the towering, gleaming presence of the Temple, before coming to the olive groves that still cover the hillside. But Jesus has a particular place in mind, one where He and his friends have spent happier days. It’s a garden with an oil press in it—Gethsemane means “oil press”—for crushing the harvested olives every year, letting the oil flow out and into jars that will be sold in the market. Even though it’s spring and the olive harvest lies months in the future, still the pungent aroma of the press would linger in the dry, cool air of the garden.
     Why does Jesus choose this garden? Just because it’s familiar? Because someone has given Him special access? Perhaps Jesus looking for a place where He can have a conversation with God out loud. Because Jesus knows He needs to pray. Like never before, He needs to be with God, and He needs His friends to be there for Him.
     And they fail! All the times Jesus and His disciples worked together—bringing healing and multiplying loaves, listening to Jesus teach and casting out demons—all the times Jesus was there for them, and when Jesus needs them, they can’t stay awake.
     We would understand if Jesus yelled at them, berated them for being such lousy friends…because we have done that to the people who let us down. We would understand if Jesus would shake them awake and give them some advice about how to stay awake, maybe even work one of those cool miracles that would allow everyone to gain enough strength to make it through. It’s what we would do perhaps to try to get them to do what we want them to do. What must have been so hard for the disciples is that Jesus simply understood. “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” At the very closed door when Jesus needed His friends the most, they fail Him…and he understands.
     Jesus calls us all the time, and how often are we too tired, or too upset, or too unmotivated? Jesus calls us all the time, and how often are we are just not paying attention? Maybe part of us wishes that Jesus would yell at us or shake us, give us some advice. We could handle those. We deserve those. Instead, Jesus understands us—in all our weaknesses—and Jesus forgives. And it’s not fair! Because Jesus understands and loves, He calls us to look at ourselves, not with hatred but loving understanding. Because Jesus loves and forgives, He calls us to turn aside from the wallow of self-pity and self-loathing, to forgive ourselves. In pride, we might try to hang onto our guilt and shame—they are ours after all, crafted in the failures to love those around us, failures to stand up to oppression and to right injustice—but Jesus simply understands and loves us.
      As Jesus came to that garden and smelled the olives crushed in the press, He needed just a moment to be with God, to give God one more chance to change His mind. Jesus already knew the door would be closed, and so He made it crystal clear:  if He had to walk the path of cruelty and degradation, if He had to drink this cup of suffering and sacrifice, He would do it out of love for His heavenly Daddy, and His clueless, sleeping disciples who wanted to do better. The door shut on all the other options—He was ready for what must come. He faced the closed doors, alone with God.
     And therein lies our hope as we face all our doors—open and closed! Because Jesus endured, we will never be alone. Because Jesus endured, we will always have God’s strength to walk in God’s way. Because Jesus was ready, in His grace and strength, we can be ready in His grace and strength. Because Jesus understands, even if we don’t, and Jesus forgives, we can always knock on the doors of opportunity. And because of Jesus, we can be ready.


[1]http://www.wiseoldsayings.com/door-quotes/

Which Door, God? God’s Yes Is Bigger Than Our No

by Rev. Doug Gray

     One of the long-awaited moments of each new year is the awarding of the Darwin Award. This prestigious award recognizes those people, who, through their own incredible foolishness kill themselves, thus improving society by removing their genes from the gene pool. DO NOT try these things on your own!

     •    Two men pull over a jet fuel tanker and force the driver at gunpoint to fill the
           tank of their truck with jet fuel. The driver says, “You know you really shouldn’t
           put jet fuel in your tank.” They shoot the driver in the leg, jump into their cab and
           start it up. The wounded driver makes it to the ditch before the robber’s truck
           explodes.

     •    Iraqi terrorist Khay Rahnajet, didn't put enough postage on a letter bomb, and it
          comes back marked "return to sender." He opens the package he made himself. [1]

When I hear these stories, I wonder, “How could they be such knuckleheads?” But of course, the point is that they were not thinking. I see a measure of that in Jonah’s story. Jonah is a prophet, a man devoted to God. God comes and tells him, in the second verse of the book, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its wickedness has come up before me.” Jonah runs the opposite way. I wonder “How could he be such a knucklehead? It’s not that he doesn’t know how great and loving God is!” When God opens the door in front of him, why does Jonah run away?
     Maybe fear is why Jonah runs away. That’s understandable. A prophet like Jonah was called to speak messages from God, even if it made other people feel mad or uncomfortable. Prophets are to say it as God sees it. Some of the Old Testament prophets are given words against other nations, and they can say them from Israel. God tells Jonah he’s going to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and preach against it there. The word God uses for the Ninehvites is wickedness. When someone knows something is wrong and hurtful and cruel, does it anyway and likes it? The Old Testament calls that wickedness. The Assyrian Empire was THE superpower of the Middle East for hundreds of years, and it majored in wickedness. When they defeated a country, they would cart off most of the people to a new country, and then bring some other defeated country’s citizens to replace them. When they did that to the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, the country basically disappeared. Nineveh was called the city of blood, by the prophet Nahum. He prophesied, “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims…(Nahum 3:1) Nineveh, a juggernaut of cruel empire—you can almost hear the theme—[hum the “Empire Strikes Back” theme]—and God wants Jonah to go there and preach against it? Sure, we might say, we’ll have that conversation with Darth Vader and the Emperor and see how well it goes. Maybe we can understand why Jonah ran away.
     Or maybe Jonah just thought he had a better plan. John Ortberg draws our attention to one of the little details—“Jonah paid the fare. This is a big deal. In Jonah’s day, money was still relatively new. The ancient world used a barter economy, and money was tremendously scarce among the people of Israel…Jonah had money enough to buy passage for a long voyage…He had mobility; he had options…Nineveh was a military city. Tarshish was a pioneer in trade. Commerce over the sea was kind of like new technology and was making some people rich…The ships of Tarshish became symbols of wealth and self-sufficiency and power and greed. Is it hard to imagine that once a group of human beings was so deluded that they thought technology, wealth, and a clever economic system could make them secure?”[2] Jonah had enough money to have choices, and well, what if going to Tarshish seemed like a smarter move. Instead of the open door to Nineveh, was he running away to his version of Wall Street and Silicon Valley?

     Or maybe Jonah just doesn’t think he’s good enough. Ortberg tells the story of Arthur Kemp. From a very young age, his family knew he had the makings of a preacher, and Arthur heard God telling him over and over, “Go and feed my sheep.” He spent years running to Tarshish. He writes, “I determined that I was going to be the worst possible human being you could be, to make myself unfit to be a minister.” Drinking, gambling, dealing drugs, running prostitution—all Tarshish, as far away from God as he could get. “Until he went to prayer meeting one night and the storm broke and he sobbed, ‘I’ve got to preach, I’ve got to preach,’ and the pastor told him he would not have any peace until he did.” Kemp wrote a book entitled, God’s Yes Was Louder than My No, and it’s true even for Jonah. He said no in his hometown, and no at the docks, and no on the ship and no in the storm, and finally no, just throw me overboard. Perhaps Jonah thinks he’s not good enough, but when we look at the story of the sailors, who leave their ordinary gods to come to believe in the Lord, God uses even Jonah’s “NO!” to get others to say, “Yes!” Ortberg says, “Jonah’s closed door to God becomes God’s open door to the sailors.”[3]
     I love the story of Jonah because I think we can all find ourselves in it. We have the chance to say a kind word to someone who looks lost or lonely, to show kindness to a neighbor we don’t really know, but instead we run for Tarshish. We know we need to confront someone with an uncomfortable truth in love, but it’s going to be tough, and rather than go through the pain we head for Tarshish. We have a chance to do something insanely good, but it’s going to take commitment, and we might feel nervous, like we don’t have what it takes, so get on board for Tarshish. We think we are preserving our lives—we don’t want to win a Darwin Award after all. And yet, if we are honest, we come to realize that we are knuckleheads, just like Jonah. When the open door is before us, and we know it’s God leading us, and we know God is more than enough to handle whatever we will face through that open door, still how often do we head to Tarshish?
     As it turns out, the story of Jonah is also the story of the greatness of God’s grace—bigger than Jonah can imagine. God works through Jonah’s “No!” to bring sailors to “Yes!” And God can work through even our “No!” to bring more kindness and justice to the world. God works through a fish—and Jonah, in the belly, finally prays. Especially in our darkest hour, God is present as we finally surrender our lives to God. God works through Jonah’s half-hearted preaching to bring about true, saving repentance in the people he hates the most. God can use us even when we are dragging our feet to bring blessings to the people around us. God works through the shade of a plant, to start a conversation with Jonah. And today God has brought you and me here, to start a conversation about an open door, the very ones we face today. If God can show this kind of grace with knuckleheads who say, “No!”, imagine what God could do with someone who prays, “Not my will but yours be done.” The promise is that God’s yes is way bigger than our no, and when we say yes, we become a little more like Jesus, both in the sacrifice and the resurrection. God’s “Yes!” is way more than our “NO!”


[1] www.darwinawards.com. Some of the winners of the Darwin Award are hilarious and some are just sad.

[2]John Ortberg, All the Places to Go! How Will I Know? (2016), p. 188.

[1]Ortberg, ibid, p. 195.

Which Door, God? How to Cross a Threshold

by Rev. Doug Gray

This Lent we have been spending time with John Ortberg and his book, All the Places to Go: How Will I Know?, and thinking about how to know which open doors God wants us to walk through. But today I want to turn to the idea of how to cross the threshold when we choose. When God sends us, how do we go? That’s what we find happening with Jesus’ closest followers, The Twelve, in today’s passage.

Ortberg tells this story:

     “A man named Sylvester grew up in the Deep South during the Great Depression. He grew up to be a master at recognizing and entering open doors, a man of immense dignity and strength and courage…He met [his wife] Barbara on a blind date. He had never seen her. She had never seen him. She had heard about him. He was an athletic young guy…The doorbell rang, and Barbara went to the door. She was all fixed up. She opened the door…”[1]

So there they are, Sylvester on one side of the door and Barbara on the other…and we want to know what happened. We want to jump all the way to the end of the story, but our lives don’t work like that. Our lives can even seem to stand still for just that moment as we stand at the threshold of the open door. What will happen? How should we go through? When Jesus is sending out the disciples, you’ll notice that He’s not very specific about a lot of things you and I would want to know—where to go? who to stay with? who do I go with? But Jesus is very specific about other things that affect how they will go as they get ready to cross the threshold into mission. In verse 16, Jesus ties it all together by telling them they should be like three animals, and perhaps they will help us know how we will go.

     First, Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…” Have you ever noticed that sports teams all have intimidating names? The Patriots, Bruins, Panthers, Eagles. Maybe having that name and that image helps you get the spirit going in the locker room. But some teams just don’t have that. For example, as some of you know, I graduated from Earlham College in Indiana, and our team name was “The Hustlin’ Quakers.” It’s not just that it’s hard to imagine peace-loving Quakers can play really tough football, basketball, volleyball or whatever, but how do you cheer: “Hustle Quakers!” But some schools have it worse. The University of California at Irvine has the Anteaters, and my all-time favorite...UC Santa Cruz has the Banana Slugs. It’s got to be hard to play on these teams, but can you imagine rooting for them? “Go Banana Slugs!” “Suck them dry, Ant Eaters!” And I’m trying to imagine Team Jesus gathered around before the big game and Jesus says, “Go sheep!” And then Jesus adds, “I’m sending you out among wolves.” How does a sheep go out among wolves? Make sure they’ve eaten already? Tread very carefully? For sure, the sheep doesn’t march up to the wolf and say, “You’re living all wrong! You should really try vegetarian.” We are to be like sheep—going humbly, very carefully…and did I say courageously? Ortberg writes, “To be sent as a sheep means I don’t lead with how smart or strong or impressive I am.”[2] Sheep have to trust the shepherd wherever they go, and as we cross thresholds, we can also trust in Christ, the Good Shepherd. When we are crossing thresholds, we need to go like sheep.

     Second, Jesus says, “…be wise as serpents.” Lots of people think that becoming a Christian means checking our brains at the door. They couldn’t be more wrong. Jesus calls us to be wise—to think clearly, to seek understanding, to learn about ourselves and our world. But most importantly of all, to put all our thinking, talent and expertise at God’s service. Ortberg writes, “Jesus wants to put his movement into the hands of people who are as realistic and serious about actually prevailing, actually being effective (with God’s help, which is the only way it happens)…[to] be as crafty, clever and smart and shrewd as you can.”[3] Grace is good, but targeted and strategic grace could make an amazing difference! When we are crossing thresholds, we need to go like serpents.

     Finally, Jesus says we are to “be as innocent as doves.” Not clueless, but innocent. Neither naïve, nor foolish, we are to be people of peace and integrity. Ortberg tells the story of “a friend who is a doctor. A couple of years ago he had a patient who came in for an exam, and he overlooked one of her symptoms. She found out a year later she had cancer. It could have been detected by him a year earlier, except he overlooked this particular symptom that, as it turns out, was caused by cancer. As you can imagine, when he found out, he was devastated. He didn’t check in with anyone. The first thing he did was to call her up, get into his car…drive to her house, sit with her and her husband on their porch, and say, ‘I am so sorry. I should have seen that. I didn’t. I will do anything I can to help you. Will you forgive me?’” Of course, the legal department blew a gasket, but somehow this was just the right thing to do, and together the cried and prayed. Ortberg adds, “What the world needs is not simply isolated outward deeds, but transformed character from within. That’s what Jesus wants to release in the world.”[4] Better to cross the threshold as a dove.

     When we have an open door before us and are at the threshold, how will we cross over? Ortberg continues the story of Barbara and Sylvester. As Barbara opened the door, she saw a man who “looked nothing like she expected. He was a woefully out-of-shape man who obviously didn’t take care of his body. He looked nothing like the athletic young man she’d heard described. She stood there for a moment, surprised and confused and then all of a sudden, another guy jumped out from behind him and said, ‘I’m Sylvester! You go with me!’ She wondered what this was about. It turns out Sylvester” was nervous about meeting her and asked this other guy to ring the doorbell. “When [Sylvester] saw her, he was so excited, he wanted there to be no mistake. ‘No! No! No! I’m Sylvester, not him!’ They were married for sixty years. It's good to choose your doors carefully. But when you go—go.”[5] How different from the Israelites looking back longingly to the time when they had meat—never mind that they were slaves, never mind that God was leading them with a cloud by day and fire by night, never mind that God was feeding them every day. Moses is not much better here—“Why did you inflict these people on me?” he asks. This quality of going with a whole heart seems to be something God seems to look for and enjoy. David was a man after God’s own heart—and even though he tripped up, even though he committed adultery and schemed to murder a man, this quality of “going all in” for God seems to set him apart. Peter sees Jesus walking on the water, and calls out, “If it’s really you, then tell me to come.” And Peter walks on water, until he starts focusing on the wind and the waves instead of Jesus. Peter would deny Jesus three times, but Jesus would ask him, “Do you love me three times.” And Peter would be among the first shepherds, pastors, of the church. God is calling to each of us today, from the other side of all sorts of doors. And how will we go through? Looking back like the Israelites? Or looking forward, like sheep, like serpents, like doves—but all in for God! If we knew how the story would end, wouldn’t we be like Sylvester and jump up, “It’s me! You go with me!”


[1]John Ortberg, All the Places to Go: How Will I Know? (2016), pp. 133–4.

[2]ibid, p. 147.

[3]ibid, p. 151.

[4]ibid, p. 157.

[5]ibid, p. 134.

Which Door, God? The Art of Choosing Doors

by Rev. Doug Gray

     A while back, someone sent me a list of familiar phrases that have been changed to fit the times we live in.

     1.    If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.
     2.    A closed mouth gathers no foot.
     3.    Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will
            sit in a boat and drink beer all day.
     4.    It's always darkest before dawn. So if you're going to steal your neighbor's
            newspaper, that's the time to do it.
     5.    The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt and a leaky tire.
     6.    If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments.
     7.    Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.  That
           way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.
     8.   Always remember you are unique. Just like everyone else.

What I enjoyed about these was the unexpected endings. At the beginning of each of these I thought knew what was coming, and then all of a sudden I didn’t. I find life works that way a lot of the time. If only I could know what God’s will was, then I would know what to expect, and save myself the time of trying other ways of doing things. Can we know God’s will? How do we know what is God’s will?
     Step 1:  Ground our decision-making in God’s love for us. Paul writes in verse 1, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy…” When I was a junior in high school I had a sudden revelation—my parents loved me. I guess I had always known that at some level, but I became aware that they listened to me, that they gave things up for my brother and me. Mom would cook on Sundays so that during the week, my brother and I would have enough food for even our teen-age bodies. Dad would work extra hours so that my brother and I could go to camp. People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. God gets that. He didn’t just drop a set of rules on us and say, “This will be good for you.” Throughout history, God has always shown how much He cares first. Before God gave the Israelites the 10 Commandments, He rescued them from Egypt. Paul writes in Romans 5:6, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” As we become aware of how much God loves us, everything changes for us. If we want the key to understanding God’s will, we will have to understand that the first step has already been taken by our God who sees how hard life can be and loves us. We are loved and that
changes everything.
     Step 2:  Figure out whose will we really want. That’s the thing isn’t it? When we pray and ask for God to show us His will, what we really want is for God to do it our way. Sometimes we’ll even bargain for it:  I remember as a kid, I really wanted this really cool bike. I remember praying something like, “You know, God, if You could just see your way clear to get me that bike, I would do whatever you wanted.” I wasn’t really interested in what God wanted…but if God was like a parent I could talk into it, or like a grown-up I could manipulate or trade with… This is “magic thinking” and its so different from faith. Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, wrote, “Magic desires to obtain its effects without entering into relation, and practices its tricks in the void.” Ortberg continues, “We are tempted to use superstition to be spared anxiety, or to avoid blame for our own wrongdoing, or to bail us out of trouble, or to seek inside information to get what we want. Superstition seeks to use the supernatural for my purposes; faith seeks to surrender to God’s purposes.”[1] Solomon really wants to be a good king for the people, and so he asks God for wisdom and knowledge to do that well. In fact, wisdom is the art of choosing doors well, but it begins with listening to ourselves and to God. If we really want to just do it the way we want, well let’s just be honest:  we don’t really care if it’s a good idea or not, a wise idea or not, we just want it. The art of choosing well begins with being honest with ourselves and God—Whose will do we really want here?
     Step 3:  Look for God behind the doors. As some of you know, I really enjoy the journey, wherever we are going. When I was hiking in the mountains of New Hampshire, I would see something cool, or be talking with one of my friends, and I would realize I couldn’t see the person ahead of me. I remember coming to a fork in the trail and I wasn’t sure whether to go right or left. Yogi Berra’s advice was, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” and I wasn’t going to sit there and wait for people to come back, so I looked forward down each path and listened—I chose the path down which I could hear the rest of my group. In the same way, when we come to forks in the road of our lives, we can look down all of the paths, listen down all of the paths to see where God is ahead of us. Down which path do see or hear the most love, the best grace? Perhaps that is the path we need travel to join up with God.
     Of course, the idea that there is only one right path for us and God is only down that path isn’t true—God will be with us, molding and shaping us down all of the paths before us. What God really wants is for us to be, as Paul says, “transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” It all begins with the mercy and love God has already shown us, but we just aren’t aware of it or don’t focus on it. When we take notice we will see it everywhere. God’s mercy opening doors and hearts. All we are becoming—a living sacrifice. Like the familiar sayings with surprise endings, so the world will begin with its wisdom, and Christ will give it a surprise ending. We can know God’s will—not all of it and not always as much as we like—as we give ourselves to God and are transformed from the inside out.


1. John Ortberg, All the Places to Go: How Will I Know? (2016), p. 106.

 

 

Which Door, God? Awakening to the Open Door

by Rev. Doug gray

     It all began with an open door and perhaps a sense of humor. What did God say when God came to Abram and Sarai? John Ortberg wonders if God said it like Dr. Seuss,

     Abram and Sarai, today is the day!
     So get your dad, Terah, and get on your way.
     You will wander like nomads, and I even think maybe
     You might have a nonagenarian baby.
     You’ll be marked by your faith, you’ll be marked by a vision,
     You’ll be marked by (you might not love this) circumcision.
     Like stars in the sky your descendants will be,
     Though you will tell lies indiscriminately.
     You’ll get lost and confused and be badly afraid.
     You will wait till quite late and mistakes will be made.
     You won’t know what to say, you won’t know what to do,
     But all peoples on earth will get blessings through you.
     With your muddled-up faith you’ll do more than you know,
     And I promise you this:  Oh the places you’ll go!
[1]

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Do you know that book? It’s one of my favorites by Dr. Seuss. [2] It’s often given to people who have graduated from something—high school or college for example—or people that are entering a time of transition. Of course, one of the reasons I really love the Bible is that it also speaks to people who face open doors or are entering a time of transition, and our passages for today have so much to teach us that will help us awaken to the open door before us.
     First, the door is as open or closed as the people who face it. Dr. Carol Dweck wanted to study how people’s mindsets affected the way they faced challenges. One of her studies involved ten-year-olds and math problems that got harder and harder. As the students began to fail, most started getting down on themselves. That’s what we might expect. Some had a very unexpected approach. Ortberg writes, “One kid—in the face of failure rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and said, ‘I love a challenge!’ Another kid, failing one math problem after another, said, ‘You know I was hoping this would be informative.’” [3] How we see the challenge before us can determine whether or not it’s a closed or an open door. A closed mind-set believes what I have is all there is, if I can’t do it perfectly, I may as well not begin, that there is always a winner and a loser, that there is only so much to go around—it’s afraid of what could be lost. “Those with an open mindset,” Ortberg writes, “believe that what matters is not raw ability; what matters is growth…A commitment to growth means…the goal is not trying to look smarter or more competent than other people. The goal is to grow…” If we face a challenge open to how God wants us to be and become, then we will find the open door.
     Second, an open door often comes with doubts. Ortberg imagines Abram responding in rhyme to God:

     Where are these places you want me to go?
     When will I get there? How will I know?
     Will I need a design? Will I need a degree?
     Will I need other things that you’re hiding from me?
     Where is the map of your plan for my life?
     I must know all this stuff. I must talk to my wife.
     I’m old. I’m not bold. And you’re leaving things out.
     There are bales of details you must tell me about.
[4]

We have doubts because we can’t see it all. We want more information, more certainty, more control. Lots of people of faith had doubts—Noah built a ship in the desert, Abram was 75 when he left Ur, Moses thought he wasn’t a good speaker, David and Jeremiah said they were just kids, Isaiah thought he wasn’t good enough. Doubts are a normal part of faith. When I talk with couples before they get married, I like to talk about marriage like a walled garden with a small gate at one end. Before we get married, we can look in through the gate, and we can see some things about what being married is like, but we can’t see the whole garden. Not until we actually promise ourselves to each other and bind ourselves to each other as a couple will we be able to go into the garden and see it for ourselves. Somehow, those who get married, find a way to let the doubts be swept away by love or adventure or some mixture of the two. In the same way, God doesn’t expect us to get rid of our doubts, but to trust God anyway. Ortberg writes, “Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Go, you’re ready.’ He says, “Go, I’ll go with you.” [5]
     Finally, God chooses us not for our track records, but for our hearts. Abram and Sarai are far from perfect. If we were to keep reading in Genesis today, the next scene we would find Abram afraid that the king in Egypt will kill him to get Sarai, so he lies about their relationship…and 25 years later he does the same thing! Really, Abram? The second time she’s 90 for God’s sake! Over and over again, Abram gets it wrong—but over and over again, Abram is willing to trust God’s promises, and Abram responds with gratitude. That gives me great hope! Because you and me, we can always get it wrong. We can miss the boat, say things we wish we could take back, even betray the people we love, and God will always be glad to welcome us home. Tim Keller writes, “It’s not the quality of our faith that saves us…It’s the object of our faith.” [6] God is bigger than our faith. God is bigger than our past. More than anything we have done, God wants us to learn to trust God more, to let our lives revolve around God’s promises.
     We hear all the amazing promises—that God will always love us, that God will never leave us, that when we walk with God we will have power beyond ourselves, that those who live as Jesus did have a life beyond this one, that God will bless the world through us—we hear these amazing promises, but we wonder whether they could be real. Of course, the power of the promise is that it helps us look forward to a time we cannot see yet, a time when the promise will come to pass and the dream will come true. It’s not a promise if you can tell it’s going to happen! The power of a promise is that it draws us through the open door into a future we cannot see, like Abram and Sarai going to a land they did not know, to have children they could not imagine, to become a nation they would never see…and still they went. The power of a promise is that it shapes our lives as we make choices so that our lives revolve around that promise. Together, God’s promises and our lives dance around each other, the incredible dance of a life of loving and serving, trusting and giving. We count the cost, and trust the promise, knowing that in us the promises will grow to become true for the next generation. Awakened to the open door! Oh, the places we’ll go!


1. John Ortberg, All the Places You Go: How Will You Know? (2015), pp. 14–15.
2. Theodore Geisel, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990).
3. Ortberg, op.cit, pp. 22–23.
4. Ortberg, op.cit, p. 19.

5. ibid, p. 29.
6. ibid, p. 52.

 

 

 

 

Which Door, God?

by Rev. Doug Gray

Doors are really interesting. What kinds of things have doors?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Just as physical doors in our lives come in many shapes and sizes, the other doors in our lives can have lots of diversity too. This season of Lent, we are spending time with John Ortberg’s All the Places You’ll Go:  How Will You Know? According to Ortberg, the story of the Bible is the story of the doors people have faced, and how they found God in the process. What are the “doors” in our lives? When God opens a door, what should we do? When we have more than one door, how do we know which one we should go through? All this Lent, we will be exploring these themes, and today we will start our journey with this surprising passage from Revelation.
     Surprising? Yes, because it turns out, that’s what life with doors is like—surprising. Ortberg tells the story of a writing challenge posed by an online magazine:  could you summarize your life in 6 words? So many people loved the challenge and sent in their 6-word memoirs that the magazine’s website nearly crashed, and the magazine published some of the very honest responses in a book, Not Quite What I Was Planning. One person wrote, “Seventy years, few tears, hairy ears.” Another wrote, “Business school? Bah! Pop music? Hurrah!” Or this, “Cursed with cancer. Blessed with friends.” (written by a nine-year old, cancer-survivor). “I still make coffee for two.” Ortberg tries his hand at some for Biblical characters:

     Abraham:  “Left Ur. Had baby. Still laughing.”
    Jonah:  “’No’ Storm. Overboard. Whale. Regurgitated. ‘Yes.’”
    Adam:  “Eyes opened, but can’t find home.”
    Noah:  “Hated the rain, loved the rainbow.”
    Mary:  “Manger. Pain. Joy. Cross. Pain. Joy.”

Like all of these, we can say, “Not quite what I was planning,” because that’s how it works for us:  when we look forward, we can’t predict what our lives will be. Oftentimes, all we can see is the open door in front of us, and the doors in front of us can take us unexpected places.
     Second, God likes open doors. In our passage for today, we find doors mentioned over and over again— “Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut… A closed door can mean safety, protection and privacy, but it can also mean trapped and isolation. An open door is an invitation. Jesus says, “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Ortberg writes, “An open door is an opportunity provided by God, to act with God and for God.” When we think about the people of faith in the Bible, God doesn’t often interrupt their lives and say, “Just wanted you to stay comfortable today.” God seems to relish putting open doors in front of people.
     Finally, how we face open doors not only tells us about who we are, but gives us a chance to grow and become with God’s help. When I was in seminary, getting ready to graduate and wondering if there was really going to be a job for me after, I went to lunch one day with no idea my life was going to change forever. I’m in the cafeteria lunch line, putting things on my tray and talking with my buddy to my right about how excited I was to do youth ministry, but was moving to Baltimore where my fiancée was going to grad school. The gentleman to my left turns and says, “That’s very interesting. I’m the pastor of a church in Baltimore, and my church is looking for someone just like you to be our youth minister.” Talk about an open door! We met again, and he showed me around a large, energetic church that had middle school and high school youth groups. If you had asked me to write a description of where I wanted to work and what I wanted to do, it was doing youth ministry at a church just like that. Was it always easy? No. Were there lessons I needed to learn? Absolutely. An open door means freedom to move, to get out and about, to go someplace you haven’t been, to see things we haven’t seen and to know what we haven’t known. Maybe that’s why God likes open doors so much:  an open door is also an opportunity for God to shape and mold us, for us to learn how to trust God better. That’s really what God longs for—a relationship with each of us. Ortberg writes, “God’s primary will for your life is not the achievements you accrue; it’s the person you become. God’s primary will for your life is not what job you ought to take…It’s not mainly the city where you live or whether you get married or what house you ought to be in. God’s primary will for your life is that you become a magnificent person in his image, somebody with the character of Jesus.” Is that the ultimate door God puts before us, the one that cannot be shut?
What do we do with the doors God places before us? How do we recognize the one God is calling us through? And how do we learn how to partner with God in our lives? As it turns out, one of the great purposes of the Bible is to help us understand the doors others have found in their lives and what to do with them. For Jesus, Lent was a time of preparation for the next three years of His life. He spent it in the wilderness, tempted, hungry, thirsty, waiting...was He wondering about the open doors God was going to place in front of Him? As we spend time together this Lent, may we have a sense of God with us, preparing us for the next chapter in our unexpected lives. God is placing open doors ahead of us, and God can’t wait to see how we will choose with God’s help. May we have the faith to see the open door, and though we might think we have little power, may we step through to see the unexpected, amazing places God will take us.

 

Grace and Justice: How Should We Do Justice?

by Rev. Doug Gray

We started this series—Grace and Justice—with a simple statement: “The world isn’t working.” We talked about how God does justice to make it work. In fact, defending the defenseless, caring for the vulnerable, and welcoming the stranger are all part of God’s character and so God calls us to do justice in two ways: to make wrong things right and to live right. If we love God and want to know God, then we have to do justice. We also talked about grace—the grace of Jesus Christ—not only in forgiving us and including us, but strengthening and guiding us for showing grace in our justice. With Jesus’ help, we can make the new community where grace is the driving force. And last week, we lifted the hood to look at the engine of grace—learning to recognize the image of God in everyone and always remembering with great humility, how God has shown us grace and drawn us into a warm embrace before we deserved it. Today, we tie all of this together as we try to answer the question, “How do we do justice?”

Robert Frost, the great American poet, once wrote,

            Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
            That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
            And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
            And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.[1]

Here in Quincy, we get that, but we know that it applies to streets with their potholes, sidewalks with tree-roots pushing up, and sea walls trying to hold back the storm surges. “Something there is that doesn’t love a human restriction” and that finds a way to break it down or break it up. But we live in a time when our nation and our world seem to really like walls. We put up walls of partisan politics, and privacy fences in our back yards. Our communities and states are increasingly dividing up by economic and social class—so that the poor, the rich and the middle class don’t have to mix too much. The very neighborhood in which we sit has a causeway that generally keeps crime and violence. We separate our generations too—children and parents go their separate ways most days and come back together at the end of the day, and those who require special care we institutionalize. The Israelis have put up a wall between them and the Palestinians. Some would like to build a wall between us and Mexico. Oh yes, our society and our world like walls. In a world that loves walls, how do we do justice?
     First, we focus God’s love on people first. Alright, so think with me. When Jesus came, did He build a worship space? Did He gather focus groups and then create a plan of action? Did Jesus look for the most rebellious people to start a revolution to sweep away the opposition? Jesus said, “Follow me,” and then He lived a life completely devoted to making God’s grace real to the people around Him. Whenever we see Jesus at work, He is focused on people. Jesus is living out what Job says about rescuing people crying out, caring for the fatherless and making the widow sing for joy. So we should always focus God’s love on the people who need it, especially the person in front of us. In a world that makes walls, we can focus on the people not the walls. Grace is bigger than walls.
     Second, we become hole-makers and bridges. One of my favorite comicbooks in the 70s told of a young person smuggling Bibles into East Germany and Russia. Of course, during the Cold War, the communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain were atheist, so smuggling Bibles meant some super-secret spy stuff that sounded very cool to me. I later learned that some of my extended family had smuggled Bibles into the Ukraine in the 1980s as a part of an agricultural mission. They were put in contact with Christians through their work, and they brought much longed for Christian fellowship and encouragement. In a sense, my cousins poked a hole in the “wall” between East and West, but we can also make bridges. In 1998, I was having pancakes, two eggs and bacon with a group of businessmen from my church just north of Milwaukee. We were reading a book called, The Renewing of American Compassion:  How Compassion for the Needy Can Turn Ordinary Citizens into Heroes, by Marvin Olasky. [2] (In part because of this book, Olasky would become an advisor to George W. Bush ahead of his

2000 campaign.) We read about the way our society has found ways to distance people from caring for the poor, and how in many cities, that has become about dividing races and opportunities. We looked around the table—all white guys in their 50s and up (except me)—all living in the very white suburbs, attending a very white church, and all with great access to wealth and opportunity. What if we worked with a like-minded African-American church to make a bridge between our communities and open up opportunities for people of both churches? That group of 8 guys, kindled by the Holy Spirit, sparked a roaring fire for change in our church that led to a search for a sister-church that was as black as we were white. For the next five years, these two churches covenanted to build a bridge between two very different cultures and experiences, and people found new opportunities for serving and for employment. When society puts up walls, do we find ways to poke a hole and become a real, loving, grace-filled human being to someone on the other side? Can we bridge the gaps of gender and race, age and economics, so that people can cross to our side and we can to theirs?

Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and he talks about the irresistible forces of nature, and later even hints that he knows what it might be, but you and I are here today because we know that “Something” is really “Someone.” Paul writes, “The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance… Christ brought us together through his death on the Cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14, 16) It’s not that our differences disappear, but that in Jesus, our differences don’t have to limit us. Democrats and Republicans—we all long for Jesus to change and renew us. Conservative and liberal—we know God’s Kingdom has come when our kids can play together and have hope for a better tomorrow. Whether you are sure in your faith, exploring the idea of faith, or not sure you have a faith—we all came today hoping God would show up, that something would change in us, that God’s love and grace might penetrate the walls of our hearts, and that we would find a way to make Jesus more Lord of our lives than He was yesterday—we came to find God today. Perhaps we want to learn how to focus on loving people first. Perhaps we want to be better hole-makers and bridges. No, walls are generally not God’s idea. Humans build walls. God builds a home. When we are together, we are not strangers or aliens, rich or poor, insiders or outsiders—we are family, built on Jesus Christ. When we are family, justice looks a lot like grace.


[1]https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall

[1]Marvin Olasky, The Renewing of American Compassion:  How Compassion for the Needy Can Turn Ordinary Citizens into Heroes (1996)

 

The Surprise of Joy

by Rev. Doug Gray

     This morning’s New Testament reading is from the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. One of the ways Jesus loved to explain the abundant life with God was through stories, called parables, of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus’ parables were taken from the very stuff of everyday life, and so is the parable we are reading today. This morning’s parable is one of the last three Jesus tells before He is killed.
     The parable of the Ten Virgins is one of joy—its backdrop is a wedding, one of the most joyous of occasions. Joy is a transcendent energy that fills you up until are torn between laughing with wonder and crying in disbelief. A common response to joy is that you can’t decide whether to dance a jig or get down on your knees to thank God. Joy is not happiness. Happiness is a feeling and feelings come and go. Joy is a state of being, a basic quality inherent in some lives. Where does joy come from? How can we find it for ourselves?
Weddings are one of the most joy-filled things we do, and we often express joy by adding an element of fun. Can you think of things people do to add fun to weddings and the party after?

     [Take responses from the congregation. In our day, the couple often feeds cake to each other and it all too often gets mashed around all over their faces, people often tap on glasses at the reception to make the newly weds kiss, birdseed or rice that gets into everything the couple owns and people have a great time eating, dancing and welcoming the change of life for the bride and groom.]

In Jesus’ time, weddings had the same kinds of fun, but they were week-long affairs! And we thought our wedding was crazy! The culmination of the whole week was the bridegroom coming to the bride’s house to bring her back to what would be their new home. By tradition, the bride appointed 10 of her friends to light the bridegroom’s way. Over the years, an element of fun had crept into this part: the bridegroom would wait and make his appearance when he was least expected to see if he could catch the bridesmaids unprepared to light the way to the bride’s house. The only warning the bridesmaids would get was a courier going ahead to announce the coming of the bridegroom. So the bridesmaids knew that the bridegroom was going to try to catch them unawares. This unfolds at least two great truths about God that lead to joy.
      The first great truth about God where Jesus Christ is concerned, there is no substitute for knowing and experiencing Him. If the bridesmaids had known the Bridegroom and his sense of humor better, they might have predicted when the groom would come, when least expected. We experience some of this reality with our human relationships, don’t we? Tell me we can’t predict what our mothers would say or do if we tracked mud into the house! Tell me we can’t predict what our best friend would say or do if we got engaged or found out we were expecting! After a while, we know what they would say or do. It’s the same with God. After we have been with God for a while, we know what God wants us to do in a given situation. How? Because we know God and we know what God would ask us to do. Knowing God through Jesus opens a way of joy because we can live with utter abandon. We will always be prepared for the joy of the Bridegroom because we know how and when He comes to us.
      This understanding of the Holy Spirit and of faith uncovers the second great truth in this story: When a crisis strikes, we cannot borrow faith from someone else, nor can we borrow someone’s connection with the Holy Spirit. Those are things that come only with time and relationship with Jesus Christ, working and living with Him in mind. When a crisis comes, we cannot cram. Like the foolish bridesmaids, we suddenly discover that we are without. The deeply faithful people around us can give us their advice, but they cannot give us their faith or their powerful joy in the Spirit.
      But all too often we are unprepared for joy! When it comes, we look at God like deer caught in the headlights, and then shake our heads and go back to what is safe. We miss the opportunity to say a word of kindness, to start a conversation with someone we would never normally meet, to extend the grace of God unexpectedly to someone who has not earned it, the moment is gone and we have missed our chance. We are like the foolish bridesmaids, pounding on the door of joy, unable to get in.
      The surprising twist is this: Imagine for a moment, what would happen if one of these foolish bridesmaids had awakened before the bridegroom arrived? What if she looked around and said, “My lamp is nearly out. I’d better run and get oil in a hurry before the bridegroom gets here?” Running counter to the tragic outcome of the parable is the sense that it is never too late. Are you running low on oil? Do you feel out of touch with the bridegroom? Do you sense that your candle may be flickering, that you are completely unprepared for the opportunities for joy around you? This parable reminds us that quality of life is far more important than quantity. Come to God, the giver of abundant life and find the love and all you need to be ready. Indeed, we never know from one moment to the next which will be our last. Will your life be filled with preparing for the worst? Or are you prepared for the glorious surprise of transcendent, envigorating, exuberant joy?

 

Hidden Christmas: Light Shines in the Darkness

by Rev. Doug Gray

     One of my favorite parts of getting ready for Christmas is putting the lights on the tree. But it never goes the way I planned it. Every year after Christmas, I carefully put the lights away so that they will easily unravel as we put them on the tree, but every year we get at least one tangle. And have you noticed, every year there’s always at least one light that won’t work anymore? I very carefully save the extra bulbs, and always put them in the same box with the lights, but then I find out the extras must have been from years past, because whoever makes the lights has decided they want their plugs to have their own unique shaped. Are you kidding me? All so we can have lights that shine in the darkness, draped round a tree or bushes or our house. Yet the symbolism of lights shining in the darkness touches us at so deep a level, that we go to great lengths to light candles, and turn on lights. Something in us hungers for light, so it’s good news to us when we hear the prophet, Isaiah, say, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
It’s good news that a light shines in the darkness, because our world really is a dark place. In the Bible, darkness has to do with evil and injustice, or ignorance and hopelessness. One of the things I love about the Bible is that it doesn’t pull any punches or sugarcoat the truth—the world is a dark place, sometimes a very dark place. Are there countries where the innocent are thrown out of their homes? Are there places where people sell themselves into slavery for the merest chance of a better life? Are there people who are suffering today—from illness, loneliness, violence, addiction, grief and despair? Oh yes! In fact, we might be surprised how many people among us tonight are experiencing times of darkness. All these things were true in Jesus’ day just as much as today. Christmas understands that the world is dark. It’s for those who walk in darkness, that a light has come.
     It’s good news that a light shines in the darkness, because on our own we cannot save ourselves. In fact, even if you give human beings really great systems, wonderful opportunities, our inner brokenness, neediness and darkness seem to be able to muck it up. Focusing on what’s good for ourselves, even our rational self-interest, seems to fail us time and again. Capitalism without ethics is simply greed. Democracy without seeking the common good is simply another kind of tyranny. Science without morality leads to eugenics and ethnic cleansing. Martin Luther King, Jr famously said, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided people.” Lots of people will try to convince us that if we work hard enough, love deeply enough, want peace powerfully enough, that we can create a good and just world. So we pile more and more pressure on ourselves, to be better on our own strength. Christmas recognizes that we can’t do it on our own, “for unto us is born a Savior.” It’s for those who long for a better and brighter world, that a light has come.
     It’s good news that a light shines in the darkness, because that light will never leave us. Christmas is about an entirely new reality breaking through. What makes the world go around? Some will say money. Others will say love. Still others will say it’s you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. But in Christmas God says, “I make the world go ‘round, but now I’m going to be on that world with you.” That’s the meaning of Immanuel—God with us—and because God came in a baby, and grew up, and had friends, and lost loved ones, experienced temptation, played, and laughed, and cried and suffered and died—whatever is happening with us!—Jesus will listen…and Jesus will understand. Christmas means God cared enough to come and be with us. It’s for a person to be with us always, that a light has come.
     No matter how tangled my Christmas lights become, or how many bulbs are missing, or even if I couldn’t manage Christmas lights at all—still the light of Christmas would shine in my life. Timothy Keller in his book, Hidden Christmas, writes, “The message of Christianity is…’Things really are this dark—nevertheless there is hope.” While we may not have the strength or wisdom or goodness to save ourselves, still we have “a savior who is Christ the Lord. And this is a sign for you, that you will find the baby…lying in a manger.” True Christmas is about grace—love that comes even though we are not ready and can never deserve it, so that we may love more truly. True Christmas is about humility—love that wants the best for you and me, though it may mean suffering and humiliation, so that we can love more completely. True Christmas is about grace and humility coming in power upon us, so that peace and wonder are possible, and through us possible for the world. When the light of true Christmas dawns on us, hope and compassion are born. True Christmas is Good News. Merry Christmas!

 

Seeking Hidden Christmas: Shepherd’s Faith

by Rev. Doug Gray

     A woman was walking along the beach when she stumbled upon a Genie’s lamp. She picked it up and rubbed it, and lo-and-behold a Genie appeared. The amazed woman asked if she was going to receive the usual three wishes. The Genie said, “Nope. Due to inflation, constant downsizing, low wages in third-world countries, and fierce global competition, I can only grant you one wish. So ... what’ll it be?” The woman didn’t hesitate. She said, “I want peace in the Middle East. See this map? I want these countries to stop fighting with each other.” The Genie looked at the map and exclaimed, “Gadzooks, lady! These countries have been at war for thousands of years. I’m good, but not THAT good! I don’t think it can be done. Make another wish.” The woman thought for a minute and said, “Well, I’ve never been able to find the right man. You know, one that’s considerate and fun, likes to cook and helps with the housecleaning, is good in bed and gets along with my family, doesn’t watch sports all the time, and is faithful. That’s what I wish for ... the perfect mate.” The Genie let out a long sigh and said, “Let me see that map again!” Sometimes it seems true peace will never come, as if it would take an act of magic to make it happen, but as we find the hidden Christmas we begin to see peace is more than possible. Our encounter with the shepherds will show us the way.
     First, peace is not about control, but trust. In our day, many of us try to end our fight with God in two different ways. Timothy Keller writes, in his book, Hidden Christmas, “The irreligious person explicitly asserts his or her independence from God:  ‘I want to live any way I want to live!’ But the religious person much more covertly asserts his or her independence from God. The religious person says: ‘I am going to obey the Bible and do all these things, and now God has to bless me and give me a good life.’ This is an effort to control God, not trust him.” [1] No wonder we can’t find peace! We discover over time, that we can neither completely control ourselves or God. In fact, if we are going to measure our peace and happiness, by whether we are in control, they will always elude us. The angels came to the shepherds and said, “Fear not! for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…” The way of peace is open, but like the shepherds, will we trust God?
     Second, peace is not about fear, but about love. John Porcino tells the story about a samurai warrior who traveled to the distant home of an old monk. On arriving, he burst through the door and bellowed, “Monk, tell me! What is the difference between heaven and hell?” The monk sat still for a moment on the tatami-matted floor. Then he turned and looked up at the warrior. “You call yourself a samurai warrior,” he smirked. “Why, look at you. You’re nothing but a mere sliver of a man!” “Whaaat!!” cried the samurai, as he reached for his sword. “Oho!” said the monk. “I see you reach for your sword. I doubt you could cut off the head of a fly with that.” The samurai was so infuriated that he could not hold himself back. He pulled his sword from its sheath and lifted it above his head to strike off the head of the old monk. At this the monk looked up into his seething eyes and said, “That, my son, is the gate to hell.” Realizing that the monk had risked his life to teach this lesson, the samurai slowly lowered his sword and put it back into the sheath. He bowed low to the monk in thanks for this teaching. “My friend,” said the monk, “That is the gate to heaven.”[2] The monk risked his life to teach peace, and demonstrated his love in that vulnerability. But God set aside immortality and risked far more being born as a baby to human parents, and one day, Jesus would face death on a cross to show us the path to peace runs through love. Only when we lean into our fears, and let love calm them, will we find the peace…but will we love?
     At the core of most of our world’s problems are fear and greed. We could have peace in the Middle East, if both sides weren’t afraid for their own security and futures. The people and government of Myanmar would not be persecuting the Rohingya people if it were not for hatred born of fear. Our own nation would not be so partisan if not for fear on both sides that the one side won’t honor the needs and work with the other. Wherever we look, some people unreasonably want it all, and others are fearful they won’t have enough. This is not new, but sometimes it seems worse than others. True Christmas shows a way out. The angels say to shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” Tim Keller writes, “We fear rejection and failure, but if you were completely filled with God’s love, you would not care what people thought. We fear the future and circumstances, but if you knew God perfectly, and that [God] is good and in control, you would trust [God]. And you wouldn’t be afraid of death because you would know you would be with [God] forever.” To the fearful, God speaks the Good News that we are not alone, that God Himself has been born in a humble way. To the poor of the world, God speaks the Good News the Good News that they are worth dying for. As the angels say, “for to you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord,” for this baby will grow to be a man who trusts God’s love and power so perfectly that He would die to help everyone—regardless of their finances, gender, race, or background—be forgiven. So the true Christmas so often hidden is this peace that blows our minds—that we can be forgiven, that we can start fresh, that our fears find their rest in a baby who is Christ the Lord. The shepherds show us the way to peace is trusting—“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see….” The shepherds show us the way to peace is sharing the love God shows, “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child…” The shepherds show us the way to peace by going into our every day lives, praising God and giving glory to God in all we do. And so the true Christmas is hidden no longer.

O God, you are the deep well of peace,
the immeasurable sea of love,
the fountain of blessings
and the giver of affection.
You send peace to those that receive it.
Open to us this day the sea of your love,
and water us with abundant streams
from the riches of your grace.
Make us children of quietness and heirs of peace. [3]


1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (NY:  Viking, 2016), p. 109.
2. http://healingstory.org/the-monk-and-the-samurai/. From Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope: Stories of Peace, Justice & the Environment, edited by Ed Brody, Jay Goldspinner, Katie Green, Rona Leventhal, and John Porcino, New Society Publishers, 1992. New edition 2002
3. Adapted from the Syrian Clementine liturgy

 

Seeking Hidden Christmas: The Fathers of Jesus

by Rev. Doug Gray

When we moved to Wisconsin from Illinois twenty years ago, we had a couple of problems. First, our oldest child, Morgan, was very worried that Santa wouldn’t be able to find us in time for Christmas. Fortunately, Santa keeps track of these things we told her. No problem. Second, when we got to our new house, Morgan realized that we had no fireplace, and therefore, no chimney. How was Santa going to bring the presents in? Fortunately, Santa is magical and has a plan for that. No problem. Magic makes it easy to explain all sorts of things about Christmas. It’s tempting to take that magical thinking to the Christmas Story—angels seem magical, shepherds are cool, and kings are always impressive. But for those are seeking the true, often hidden, meaning of Christmas, magic fall short of the real wonder of Christmas. Part of that wonder is found in the fathers of Jesus. Yes, fathers, plural, because Jesus has more than one father—God and Joseph—and the hidden meaning of Christmas is found in both.
True Christmas is about courage. Courage? For sure, Joseph needed courage. When Joseph and Mary got engaged, did they start thinking about the future—where they would live and what their life together would be like? And then Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant. Timothy Keller, in his book Hidden Christmas, writes, “Can you imagine Joseph trying to [the people of Nazareth] the truth? ‘Oh, I can explain. She is pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” Imagine the stares. The truth isn’t something his friends will understand and, therefore, they will always think he’s either crazy or gullible.” Joseph has got to have courage.
But we sometimes forget that God had to show courage too. The courage to leave heaven for a stable, to lay aside glory for a diaper, and to find a cross instead of throne. Keller writes, “No other religion has a God who needed courage…Jesus could save us only by facing an agonizing death that had him wrestling in sweat in the Garden of Gethsemane. He became mortal and vulnerable so that he could suffer, be betrayed and killed. He faced all these things for you, and he thought it worth it.” In the last verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” we sing “mild he lays His glory by” and we don’t often stop to recognize how mind-blowing that is. Paul writes that,

“…though [Jesus] was in the form of God,
        [He] did not regard equality with God
        as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
        taking the form of a slave,
        being born in human likeness.
    And being found in human form,
        he humbled himself
        and became obedient to the point of death—
        even death on a cross.

True Christmas is about the courage of both of Jesus’ fathers.
So how do we live a life of courage in the face of a secular world that would really rather have Santa than baby Jesus? First, let us have the courage to embrace the world’s scorn. Like Joseph living with people who think he’s crazy or gullible, let us live of a life of kindness and sacrifice, of believing God can do something great even when all we see is darkness, even if the world is going to laugh about it. Own that for you and me, Jesus matters and God is the foundation of our lives. God is with us!
Second, let us have the courage to surrender our wills to God’s. Did you notice who gets to decide Jesus’ name? In Jewish society, that was the dad’s job. Keller writes, “By refusing to let [Joseph] name Jesus, the angel is saying, ‘If Jesus is in your life, you are not his manager. This child who is about to be born is your manager.’…To become a Christian you are going to have to have the courage to something our culture thinks is absolutely crazy. You are going to have to commit to denying yourself.” Jesus’ name—in Hebrew it’s Yeshua—means “God saves” not you save or I save—God saves. When we surrender what we want to do what God wants, then our lives open up.
Santa is fun. In some ways, Santa reflects the spirit of Christmas, but the real St. Nicholas was a full-on follower of Jesus living around 300AD, who secretly gave a poor family enough money so that their daughters could get married, saving the daughters from a likely life of prostitution. St. Nicholas secretly gave gifts in the middle of the night, so the poor family would not be shamed by the gift. We who seek Jesus give gifts and have courage not because there’s magic, but because God gave Himself to us in Jesus. Where does the power come from to have real courage? It comes from love. You see, God made us to love and to be loved, and before we were born, Jesus was. And when we really get the incredible love God showed in courage by going to the cross, it will rearrange our lives. Christmas is not magic—magic is how humans try to control the world, and magic doesn’t really work. Christmas not a legend—legends are stories we make up. Christmas is a baby “born that we no more may die., born to give us second birth.” God is with us! Merry Christmas!

 

Hidden Meanings of Christmas: The Mothers of Jesus

By Rev. Doug Gray

As you might guess, I have been thinking about Christmas a lot lately. As I have been reading, I was particularly struck by something Timothy Keller said in his book, Hidden Christmas. He writes, “Christmas is the only Christian holy day that is also a major secular holiday—arguably our culture’s biggest. The result is two different celebrations, each observed by millions of people at the very same time.” [1] So I was curious, is there a “hidden” Christmas, and what does he think it is? The more I read, the more I think he’s onto something, something that gets at the core of what it means to know and follow Jesus. Unfortunately, we can only have a taste of it Sunday morning, but if you would like the rest of the meal, you may want to come to Bible Study on Monday nights.

Today we begin with the “Mothers of Jesus,” and what I used to think was a really boring chapter in the Bible. Some things have changed my mind, one of them being that in ancient times people used their genealogies like a resumé. As we are reading along, let’s pay attention to who is in Jesus’ resumé.

Do you remember putting your first resumé together? What kinds of things did you include? If you were to give someone advice on their resumé, what would you say?

[take responses from the congregation]

Sure, I was told to do those things too. The goal is to make yourself look good, right? Have you ever known someone who “tinkered” with their resumé a little? Maybe they left off a job they didn’t like or that didn’t like them? Maybe they dressed up something that was not so glamorous. So in ancient genealogies, it turns out people would tinker with their family tree like some people tinker with their resumés—skip over that ne’er do well, accentuate the connections with movers and shakers and so on. As we are reading Matthew’s version of Jesus’ family tree, we should not be surprised that Matthew includes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and David and Solomon. Right? They are famous parents of faith. But what’s really interesting to me are the mothers of Jesus, five women who changed the world. Who are the mothers of Jesus, and how does Matthew including them uncover some of the hidden Christmas?
The five mothers of Jesus are right there in the text. They are

     •    Tamar, the mother of the twins, Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38)
     •    Rahab, the mother of Boaz who marries (Joshua 2)
     •    Ruth, the mother of Obed and great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 1–4)
     •    Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon (2 Samuel 11–12)
     •    Mary, who is Jesus’ mom (Luke 1 and 2)

So these days, we always look at fathers and mothers in a genealogy. But in Jesus’ day, it just wasn’t done. Women didn’t have a vote, couldn’t represent themselves in court and couldn’t defend themselves even if their husband was a jerk. If men always had the inside track, then women were what Keller calls, “gender outsiders.” Looking at the list again, Tamar, Rahab and Ruth are not even Jews—the first two are Canaanite women and Ruth is from Moab. Even though they became Jews by marriage, these women would not have been allowed into the Jewish part of the tabernacle or Temple. So these mothers are what Keller calls “racial outsiders” as well. Oh, but it gets better—or crazier! Tamar’s husband died. When her father-in-law decided his son was too young to get married, she veiled herself as a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law, something everywhere else in the Bible is called as an abomination. But Tamar made sure her husband was not childless. Of course, in our Old Testament passage for the day, Rahab actually is a prostitute, but she has the spiritual insight that God is moving powerfully in the people of Israel, and she hides Hebrew spies in her ceiling. Tamar and Rahab are what Keller calls “moral outsiders.” And let’s not forget King David! Most of us think, “Oooooo—King David! Cool!” But then Matthew points out, that Solomon’s mother was the “wife of Uriah.” When King David had hundreds of wives, he decided he had to have Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, so David had him killed. Abuse of power and position? Staining the kingship? Betrayal of a close friend? Adultery? Murder? Cover-up conspiracy? Yes, all of these. David and Bathsheba are not shining examples of moral, ethical, and spiritual behavior. And please let us not forget Mary, who is probably a teen-ager when the angel tells her she’s going to have a baby, and she is supposed to be marrying Joseph the carpenter. She, like some of the others, is a “social outsider,” because her reputation in the community will never be the same. People know when she is getting married, and they know when Jesus is born, and they know Joseph is not the father. All these mothers for Jesus, the Son of God, are outsiders in at least one way, but by God’s grace, they believed God’s promises, lived in trust with God and were blessed. Tim Keller writes, “God is not ashamed of us. We are all in his family.”

So when we add all this up, so what? How does it change our lives? First, anyone who feels shut out or left out by society by gender, by race, by bad things they’ve done, by just being different—all of these are welcomed into Jesus’ family. To the folks who hear, “You’re not the right kind of people,” Jesus says, “You’re my kind of people.” No matter how deep or dark the stains, if we want to be different, to be more, to be whole—and in Jesus we find we belong and we are family.

Second, grace rules. Like a lot of people, when we look closely at most of the heroes of the Bible, they are often flawed. In Jesus’ genealogy, there are cheats and liars, adulterers and murderers. They are not in Jesus’ lineage because they are great, they are in because they are loved. So before we get too overawed by these heroes and heroines, we have to remember they make it in because of grace. Which reminds us that before we were able to do even one good thing in our lives, God loved us. Before we could impress God with how hard we work, or how good we are, or how well we have it together, God was already there, loving us, calling us, longing for us to run into our heavenly Father’s embrace! It’s why Jesus came! So whatever we have done, and wherever we have been, grace rules!

Finally, a person has value, not because of what they do or how they contribute because of God’s love. Keller writes, “Maybe you look down on those snobs with so much education, or maybe it’s those ignorant ones with no education. Maybe you despise the people whose political views you think are ruining the country. In all of these examples, you have been taught to see some people as unclean, beyond the pale, unholy—while you are okay. Jesus Christ’s values are radically different. The world values pedigree, money, race, and class. He turns all that upside down…He says, in a sense, “In my family, those things that are so important out there in the world must not be so important.” [2]

This is where we find the Hidden Christmas—God made us and loves us and wanted to make a way for us to come into a deep and abundant, trust relationship. But we couldn’t make it for ourselves—couldn’t get a resumé together that didn’t have problems—so God came down in Jesus so that we could all be family. Whether or not we are with blood-relatives this Christmas, God has invited all of us to be family in Him. Amen.


[1]Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (NY:  Viking, 2016), p. 1.

[2] Keller, Hidden Christmas, pp. 33–34.

Learning to Play into Love: Jam or Garnish?

by Rev. Doug Gray


When I was growing up, most mornings my Mom made me a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. If someone were to make you the perfect peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, how would you describe it? What kind of bread, what kind of peanut-butter and what kind of jelly or jam?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Of course, some of you may hate peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, and to you I apologize for bringing up a painful subject. I liked them a lot actually, except I always felt that there was way too much peanut-butter and not enough jelly. I also felt like jelly was kind of thin and sweet, but not very fruity. I felt like the balance was all wrong. Sometimes I have a sense of that in my life too—like I have all the pieces for a great day, but the balance of “flavors” escapes me. One of the things that amazes me about today’s passages, is that they are both about balancing our lives so they are abundant.

First, life is not all peaches and cream. Actually, sometimes life can really stink. Paul writes, “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:7–9) I love that Paul doesn’t sugar-coat it—we can be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down. But I also love that Paul talks about God’s power being with us in the midst of all that—and so we are not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, and not destroyed. The forces of death and frustration at work in our lives, only serve to make the life of Jesus in us more visible. For a couple of summers, I worked at a wilderness camp with fourth and fifth graders. We had some good times and did some crazy things, but through the whole summer, I felt spiritually dry as a bone. I felt like I was physically running on fumes most of the time. Imagine my surprise when we got to the end of camp and the kids were telling me how kind and funny and generous I was, that I was a good leader and more than one parent said that I made a huge impact on their son. Really, I felt flat all that summer, and all I could do was thank God, because whatever anyone else thought, I knew that it was God’s power at work in me, not just me. And I tried to give God the credit. If we think about our lives like a perfect peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, like the challenging times in our lives, the bread of a great sandwich is not all that appealing by itself, but it’s part of what holds our lives together, providing the platform for everything else. The challenges of our lives make it clear, this is more than us—God is working!

Second, we have to say something about why our lives are going. A few years ago, you might remember a show called “The Biggest Loser.” It was one of those reality shows where each week, someone has to leave the show. I was not a huge fan of the show. I thought sometimes the coaches were really mean and the “judges” were unkind. But one of the contestants in Season 14 was a friend of mine, named Lisa Rambo. Here she is with her husband, Tony, and their four kids ahead of production. In May of 2013, Lisa sent in a casting video, pitching why the producers should pick her to be on “Biggest Loser.” Among all the reasons for why her diet and exercise and lifestyle choices, Lisa said, “I believe doing simple things with great love…can change the world…I believe that our lives are meant to be anything but a half a glass of water. Our lives are meant to be full of deep relationships and rewarding experiences. Our lives are meant to overflow.” [1] In her blog, Lisa prayed, “Lord, I start by asking you to forgive me for my jealousies and insecurities. Keep my eyes focused on you and not on others. Help me not to worry about what others look like, have, or do. Help me to not compare myself to them but to place my trust in you. Thank you for valuing me. Please give me the strength I need to become all you have dreamed up, all you desire me to be. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” [2] So Lisa went on the show and she worked really hard and she made it to Week 5 of 12. [3] Although she didn’t make it to the Finale of Biggest Loser, wherever she goes, God goes with her. Here’s Lisa with her family the day after the “Biggest Loser” finale for Season 14. (Oh and by the way, in case you were thinking that didn’t make a difference in her life, here’s the before-and-after photos.) We have to say something about how God works in our lives, or people just won’t know. How will our kids or friends know that God is underneath our decisions if we don’t talk about it? I’m not saying be someone you’re not—I’m saying be who you are with God…when you are with other people. As we are making the perfect peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, this has got to be the peanut-butter, full of substance and staying power, and so we share how God is working in us.

Finally, thanks and grace lead to overflowing. That’s how our lives are meant to be! Paul writes, “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God…” We can easily think that when we say thanks, it doesn’t really matter, when we show kindness, or live out grace, it doesn’t really make a difference. But Paul makes it clear that the grace Paul lives, touches the lives of more and more people, leading to more and more people thanking God! Like a stone thrown into a pool, so being thankful, or showing kindness, or living grace ripples out from us. And we just never know how it makes a difference. But it does! And the more we give thanks and show grace, the more we are blessed. It’s not why we do those things. We give thanks because we are blessed. We show kindness because God shows us mercy every day, and every day we experience grace, so of course we share it—there’s always more! More and more…abundance…overflowing! It’s the sweet, fruity jam that really makes the peanut-butter and jelly sandwich of our lives.
As a dad, I had the chance to make a lot of peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for my kids. In fact, for many years, Cynthia was off to work before anyone was up, and I was making the kids’ lunches. And so I made what I like to call, “Daddy Deluxes” with enough jam to stand up to the bread and peanut butter. Which gets me thinking about our giving thanks, showing kindness, and living out grace. I wonder if perhaps giving thanks is an after-thought, kind of a garnish added to the plate of our life for color, but not really able to sustain or balance the rest of our lives. Giving thanks is a nice thing to do. Showing kindness is a nice thing to do, something that we can do occasionally to feel good. A garnish on our lives. But living out our grace—filling our lives with gratitude and kindness—that’s where the real life is. God doesn’t want to be a garnish, to add color to our plate, on the outside of the main course, looking in. God longs to be the desire of our hearts, the reason we get up in the morning, the focus of all our gratitude and the source of all our grace. What we really want is not just to have a life, but to have an abundant life, a life that overflows. What we really want is a life with enough sweetness to give our challenges meaning. What we really want is a life where giving thanks and showing kindness and living out our grace lead to more, more of God, more Jesus Christ, who promises not just abundant life today, but abundant life always.

 


1 Lisa Rambo, audition. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrHRS5NBoqY
2 http://losingitwithlisa.com/category/lifestyle/page/2/
3 Lisa Rambo, presentation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfyjLZxSk_4

 

Learning to Play into Love: Finding Our Fruitiness

by Rev. Doug Gray

     When I was in seminary, I was Assistant Minister at Jamesburg Presbyterian Church in Jamesburg, New Jersey. The church wasn’t famous or anything, but man, could they cook! My favorite part of the potluck dinners was when everyone had already been through the line, and it was time to get seconds! So I would eat pretty fast, keep an eye on the line, and bam! I was totally there for the best of seconds, because of course for some of the best dishes there weren’t seconds. Sad day! Our life is full of choices, and when there is something good, then it seems it disappears. Everyone had the freedom to choose, and lots of people chose Mrs. Hyack’s jello salad—oh man was it good!—so there wasn’t enough for seconds. We live in what is largely a free society—freedom of religion, free market economy, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly—and free is all good as far as it goes. But the promise and the challenge of our freedoms is that we can get anxious that we won’t have enough, and harder yet, our freedoms don’t help us know how to actually live. What is real freedom? What is our purpose? And how do we find those compelling, delightful yet elusive fruits of the Spirit Paul talks about?
     First, real freedom is a choice. Billy Graham tells the story about a little child the was playing with a very valuable vase. He put his hand into it and could not withdraw it. His father too, tried his best to get it out, to no avail. They were thinking of breaking the vase when the father said, “Now my son, make one more try. Open your hand and hold your fingers out straight as you see me doing, and then pull.” To their astonishment the little fellow said, “O no, dad, I couldn’t put my fingers out like that because if I did I would drop my dime.” Real freedom is the chance to choose what it is valuable, to choose the boy over the vase, and to help the boy choose freedom over the dime. Paul writes, “You, my brothers [and sisters], were called to be free.” Real freedom is the power to choose to let go.
     Second, real freedom lies in choosing the purpose of our freedom. One of the tough parts of living in the United States is that we have such amazing array of choices that we do not always know what to choose. Will we choose sitting in front of the computer, or gardening? Will we choose to buy all the cool stuff we can, or invest in changing people’s lives? Will we just meet the nebulous and momentary needs of our bodies and our emotional selves, or will we actually do something with our lives that touches others? Once a woman saw a father shopping with a fussy two-year-old in his grocery cart. “Be patient, Billy,” he whispered. “You can handle this, Billy. It’s okay, Billy.” The woman said to him, “I don’t mean to interrupt your shopping, but I just had to tell you how wonderfully loving and patient you are with little Billy.” The man replied, “Actually, my son’s name is Patrick. My name is Billy.” The Spirit is available to whisper to us thoughts of love and joy and peace and patience every moment of our life. Right now. All we have to do is stop, ask, and listen [1]. Paul writes, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” Why are we free? Are we free to do what Jesus would do, to be what God would have us be? If loving God is our purpose, then loving people is what we do. In our freedom, we ask Christ to be our purpose and the real freedom begins.
     Third, spiritual fruits come to those who stay in the Son. So would you help me think about fruit for a minute? What’s your favorite fruit?

[Take response from the congregation.]

Ok so think with me for a moment about that favorite fruit of yours. If you want bigger or better fruit, how would you go about it?

[Take responses form the congregation.]

Sure, staying in the sunlight is important. Sure, adding water really helps. Ok, cultivating the soil is a good thing. The odd thing about fruit is that we can’t make fruit happen. We make bigger, better fruit by leaving it on the tree. Nourished by the tree, the fruit grows until it’s ripe, then we pick it, enjoy it, share it with others. If we talk about grapes, Jesus even said, “I am the vine and you are the branches…. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If someone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit…This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” [2] God wants us to bear fruit! But remaining in Christ means letting go of our selfish and self-focused ways, choosing to let go of our need to control and win at everything, and instead choosing to make Christ the center and purpose of our lives, then God’s power starts to work in us, changing us. When I think of Billy and Patrick in the grocery store, I realize that Billy is allowing himself to be changed, coaching himself into becoming a patient father. In the same way, God doesn’t just want us to do loving things, or peaceful things, or kind things…God wants us to become loving, compassionate, peaceful, gentle, disciplined people.
     Some people might have thought I was nuts, but I started inviting some of the other hungry seminary students to the potlucks at Jamesburg Pres. My buddies? They could pack it away just like me, which of course meant that there was going to be less of Mrs. Hyack’s jello salad to go around. But really the best part was that these beautiful people in the church loved on us. There was plenty of that to go around, and we never went away hungry. We got to go back for seconds and thirds and even fourths. In fact, when we were done for the evening, this church always gave us a bag of leftovers to give to the other hungry students, because they knew the seminary didn’t serve dinner on Sundays. We were very popular people on the hall! Later, I came to learn that Mrs. Hyack loved seeing us enjoy her jello salad, and she was always one of the people filling up the bag for us to take home. Capitalism, materialism, hedonism and consumerism left to themselves tend to make us more self-centered, and self-indulgent. Real freedom means we can escape all the boxes of the –isms, to choose to place ourselves in the hands of Christ, and to seek each other’s good ahead of our own. Of course, the best part of freedom in Christ is that we realize that life is like serving the best potluck meal:  There’s no need for pushing or shoving, or insisting on having our own way. There’s always more of the best things—love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When we have real freedom and choose Christ, we will not get less but more. Indeed, the promise is that when we seek more for others in Christ, there will be more than enough for everyone. We will have to let go of the selfish ways and the stuff that ties us up, but we can help ourselves to the best God has to offer! But perhaps even better, we will have a chance to help others step up to the feast Christ has set before us, and can see that there is always second and third and fourth helpings of the good stuff.


[1] Ortberg, J. (2010). The me i want to be. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[1]John 15:5, 8.