Finding Joy in Endurance: Shining Like Stars in the Darkness

Bob Woods, in Pulpit Digest, tells the story of a couple who took their son, 11, and daughter, 7 to Carlsbad Caverns. As always, when the tour reached the deepest point in the cavern, the guide turned off all the lights to dramatize how completely dark and silent it is below the earth’s surface. Have you ever been in that kind of complete darkness, darkness so complete you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. What was it like?

[take responses from the congregation]

You don’t have to go far to learn that our world can be a pretty dark place. All we have to do is check the news and we know. And yet in our passage for today, we are told that we “shine like stars in the universe.” How are we supposed to do that?
First, always focus on the truth. An old story tells of a desert nomad who woke up hungry in the middle of the night. He lit a candle and began eating dates from a bowl beside his bed. He took a bite from one end and saw there was a worm in it, so he threw it out of the tent. He bit into the second date, found another worm, and threw it away also. He figured that if this went on, he wouldn’t have any dates left to eat, so he blew out the candle and quickly ate all the dates. Paul writes, “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish...” If we are honest with ourselves, we usually know when we are doing things for the wrong reasons, and when we are doing them for the right ones. Then choose the right. Always focus on the truth.
Second, we can let the light change us. David Yarborough tells the story from one of Max Lucado’s books of a lady who had a small house on the seashore of Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. She was quite wealthy, but also very frugal. As you might imagine, people were surprised, when she decided to be one of the first to have electricity installed in her home. Several weeks after the installation, a meter reader appeared at her door. He asked if her electricity was working well, and she assured him it was. “I’m wondering if you can explain something to me,” he said. “Your meter shows scarcely any usage. Are you using your power?” “Certainly,” she answered. “Each evening when the sun sets, I turn on my lights just long enough to light my candles; then I turn them off.” Yarborough goes on to say, “She tapped into the power but did not use it. Her house is connected but not altered. Don’t we make the same mistake? We, too-with our souls saved but our hearts unchanged—are connected but not altered. Trusting Christ for salvation but resisting transformation. We occasionally flip the switch, but most of the time we settle for shadows.” Paul says, “God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We want God’s light to change our hearts until we want what God wants.
Finally, shining in the darkness is something we do together. Paul writes, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” As I noted when I was reading the passage, the verb for work out is plural in the Greek. Who does the work? God! But this working out our own salvation with fear and trembling is something we do together with each other and with God! When I asked Cynthia to marry me and she said, “Yes!” and we made promises to each other that was grace. Every day since then, we are working out our marriage—sometimes with fear and trembling! It’s the same with God, isn’t it? God says, “I love you!” and sent His Son Jesus to show us the Way, and to offer His life for ours on the cross. And that is grace so frighteningly wonderful we almost can’t believe our ears! And then God works with us every day, giving us of Jesus’ resurrection power, changing our hearts until we begin to want what God wants, until all we do has God’s fingerprints all over it.
What is it like to be plunged into complete darkness? The little girl, suddenly enveloped in the utter darkness of the Carlsbad Caverns, was frightened and began to cry. Immediately was heard the voice of her brother: “Don’t cry. Somebody here knows how to turn on the lights.” We are the people who know God, and God knows how to turn on the Light! We are the ones who know God is truth, and when we focus on the truth found in love and grace, we reflect this light to the world. God knows how to turn on the Light! We are the people who try to live in the light, to let it seep into our pores, fill our hearts and change our lives. We are a people called together—young and old, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, regardless of race and ethnicity—called to shine like stars in the darkness. Jesus said of us, “You are the light of the world.” And here we are today—hungry for the Light, surrounded by others who are hungry for the Light, feeling the joy of the Lord welling up inside of us. Can you feel it? It is God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good will. In partnership with God and each other, then, let us be the church on the hill, and in the darkness, let us shine like stars reflecting the grace of Jesus Christ.

Dancing God’s Way Through

by Rev. Doug Gray

Our world is experiencing some challenging, even dark times these days. Perhaps we are worried about our world—with so much violence and hatred, as our leaders struggle to work together. Perhaps we have lost jobs, have someone who is sick or are worried about family who might lose theirs. Perhaps the financial pressures are starting to impact our marriage or family life. Perhaps we are so busy that we find it hard to have time to take a deep breath. It seems like there ought to be a way through these tough times, but how do we find it? Is there really a path God has in mind for us? How do we keep dancing through tough times?

The first sign of God’s way through is that it plays. Have you noticed how focused we are on work these days? We want everything to work—our cars, our jobs, our lives, our kids. We are told we have to work at our marriages and at parenting. It’s all too much work! It’s too serious. For marriage to work it has to play. When marriage is hard is when we need to make sure that we inject some play or a playful spirit. Playing is effort, but it has an element of fun and joy that draws us in and motivates us. We don’t work an instrument, we play it. We don’t work basketball, we play it. One thing I love about this fellowship is we approach worship and work with a playful, joyful spirit—we are determined to help each other enjoy our time together. Paul says, “…make my joy complete,” because the first sign of God’s way is that it brings the joy and freedom we have when we play.

The second sign of God’s way through is paradox. In the last passage for today, Paul writes of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Jesus is God…and human? Yes! How can that be? It’s a paradox. At first we think that’s ridiculous! How can that be? And then we look around and discover how much paradox there is. We live in a physical world of atoms and forces we can touch and measure, and yet our physical world is full of mysteries—the beauty of clouds, and the touch of a small, trusting hand. How can light make things grow in sunlight and cut through steel as a laser? How can a daughter be a grandmother and a mom at the same time? How can we be aware of the history and the future, can remember years and decades, and yet we can only live our lives going forward? Amazingly, paradoxically, the same God who made heaven and earth, is the same God born as a baby in a stable, the same God who has given each of us life and the same God who desires for us to know Him intimately. We can give up our either/or, black-and-white thinking, and embrace the mysterious paradox that tough times provide the path to being stronger, more loving, more whole.

The final sign of God’s way through is servanthood. That’s the genius of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, at the heart of the church at its best—this church at its best. Ann Weems, the great Christian poet, writes this story:

A group of believers gathered in a church. They believed in one God, God Almighty, who made the world and everything in it. They believed in God the Creator. And they believed that God the Creator sent the Son, Jesus Christ. They believed these things and they said them every Sunday. They were very busy and did the things most churches do. They had church dinners and they inquired about each other’s families. And at Thanksgiving they collected canned goods for the poor. And on Sunday mornings they were done decently and in order. They were good church people. But one Sunday morning during the service of worship, a little boy came running in the church door, ran right down the center aisle, and stood under the cross screaming, “Help me!” He was a thin child with dark, sunken eyes. The clothes he wore were no more than rags. His feet were bare and he shivered and then, with a cry, fell—under the cross. Everything was quiet—and then a voice yelled, “Get him out of here!” And another said, “We don’t want to get involved with his kind.” And a third said, “Get someone else.” But the rest of the congregation arose quietly, in unison, and walked as if they were in step until they, too, stood under the cross. They bent and lifted the child gently and ministered unto him. And then, as if for the first time, they noticed each other. They smiled and reached out to one another and began to dance. Some people laughed, and said, “They’re drunk!” But others asked, “What does this mean?” And the people answered, “The Lord’s spirit has poured out upon us. The Lord has anointed us to care for God’s children everywhere who are crying, “Help me!” And now this church is decorated in the bright colors of joy. The people wear robes of caring and commitment. The call to worship is, “Help them!” and the entire congregation dances together.

Of course, the world thinks people like us are crazy. The world rewards people who work and make things work. The world often shrugs its shoulders when we begin to talk about mystery, meaning and purpose. The world often scratches its head as we give up power to love and trade authority for servanthood. But we are people of the promise—when we walk in God’s way, we know there is a way through. Whether in playing or paradox, we know God will give us the strength and wisdom we need to find that way, the way Jesus showed us. And when that way shows us a path where servanthood will lead to sacrifice of ourselves and our lives, we face it not with fear, but with anticipation and trust. We are people of the promise—that when we offer our lives to Christ, even the toughest times show forth God’s glory, and will bring new life. No matter how hard the road, when the world huddles up or hunkers down, God’s way through tough times finds us dancing with the Lord who never lets us go.

“Never worry alone. When anxiety grabs my mind, it is self-perpetuating. Worrisome thoughts reproduce faster than rabbits, so one of the most powerful ways to stop the spiral of worry is simply to disclose my worry to a friend... The simple act of reassurance from another human being [becomes] a tool of the Spirit to cast out fear -- because peace and fear are both contagious.” 
― John Ortberg Jr.The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God's Best Version of You


“You can only afford to be generous if you actually have some money in the bank to give. In the same way, if your only source of love and meaning is your spouse, then anytime he or she fails you, it will not just cause grief but a psychological cataclysm. If, however, you know something of the work of the Spirit in your life, you have enough love "in the bank" to be generous to your spouse even when you are not getting much affection or kindness at the moment.” 
― Timothy J. KellerThe Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God


“Will God ever ask you to do something you are not able to do? The answer is yes--all the time! It must be that way, for God's glory and kingdom. If we function according to our ability alone, we get the glory; if we function according to the power of the Spirit within us, God gets the glory. He wants to reveal Himself to a watching world.” 

― Henry T. Blackaby, Experiencing the Spirit: The Power of Pentecost Every Day


“When you strip it of everything else, Pentecost stands for power and life. That's what came into the church when the Holy Spirit came down on the day of Pentecost.” 

― David Wilkerson, The Cross and the Switchblade


What made Jesus so irresistible to people in the Roman Empire? Sociology Rodney Stark writes,

To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services. 1


Ann Weems, the great Christian poet, writes this story:

A group of believers gathered in a church.

They believed in one God, God Almighty, who made the world and everything in it. They believed in God the Creator. And they believed that God the Creator sent the Son, Jesus Christ.

They believed these things and they said them every Sunday.


[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity:  A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 161. Quoted in Leonard Sweet’s Learning to Dance the Soul Salsa:  17 Surprising Steps for Godly Living in the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2000), p. 114.

Living Ready: Fearless!

by Rev. Doug Gray

Starting when Caleb was small, he and I have often raced up the stairs before bedtime. I would say, “Ready…Set…Go!” and wherever we were on the main stairs, we would go tearing off trying to get to the top of the stairs first. After a while, I would say, “Ready…Set” and by the time I get to “Set” Caleb had already headed up the stairs. “Hey!” I would call after him. “I didn’t say, “Go!” Sometimes I feel like life is like that, before I’m ready, life is off and running and I’m trying to catch up. Our passage for today has some great ideas for how to live ready, and how to live fearlessly in uncertain times.

First, live with no regrets. The good we know is what we should do. Peter writes, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? … It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Have you noticed how nothing is easy? So the tempting thing is to cut corners and take the easy way out. But Peter is totally right—if we are going to have issues in life—we may as well have them for doing the right thing. Whether we are living forward or trying to catch up, if we live with no regrets, we will always have peace at the end.

Second, let Jesus rule in your heart. Peter writes, “But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” When we are behind, we don’t have to fear, only trust. When we look into an uncertain future, we don’t have to fear, only trust. If Jesus is Lord of our hearts, then He will be at work in our lives, in our hearts, in everything.

Third, be ready to explain your joy. Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

A very interesting, well-educated Greek philosopher, named Dr. Alexander Popaderos went to the island of Crete every summer to teach a class on ethics for two weeks. One particular summer, just as he was getting ready to close the class, he asked, “Now are there any questions before we go?” And just as he was getting ready to say, “OK then you’re dismissed,” a little man in the back of the room, a rather timid looking guy, sort of hesitatingly raised his hand and said, “Dr. Popaderos?”

“Yes?”

“I have a question.”

“Yes, what is it?”

He said, “I’d like to know, what is the meaning of life?” As you can imagine, people were ready to go home, and they were very irritated by this little guy’s question!

Dr. Popaderos very quickly quieted the group, he said to the class, “You know, if you don’t mind I’d like to answer that question.” He reached into his back pocket, and took out his wallet, and out of his wallet he took a little mirror about the size of a little larger than a quarter, honed down on the edges, kind of sparkling. And then he told this tale, he said, “When I was a child, I began to realize that I could have so much fun with that mirror. I would simply catch the glint of the Sun, and shine that mirror into an otherwise darkened place. As I grew older I began to learn that this is no child’s toy. This is really a metaphor for my life. Now I am not the light—I am not the source of the light. I am simply a broken mirror fragment. But if I allow the sun to shine on my mirror fragment, it is amazing what light I can bring into darkness.” Then he said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, that is the meaning of life.” Each of us is a mirror fragment. We are not the Light. We are not the source of the Light. We are simply a broken mirror fragment. But when we permit the SON to hit our mirror fragment, and then bounce off into the life of a darkened heart, there can be change, there can be illumination.*

One of the beautiful things about Memorial Day is that we have a moment to reflect on the lives of others who lived ready, to go where our nation said go and do what had to be done. The armed forces get something that is true of our walk with Jesus Christ:  we must always be ready, for the time of sacrifice and opportunity will come when we least expect it. So are you ready? How’s your mirror? Are you reflecting the love of Jesus’ well? Every day, we rise and think, “Ready…set…go.” But life is already off ahead of us. The world is searching for what we have found and who has found us. “Howard Hendricks said, ‘In the midst of a generation screaming for answers, Christians are stuttering.’ Jesus . . . wants us to see that the neighbor next door or the people sitting next to us on a plane or in a classroom are not interruptions to our schedule. They are there by divine appointment. Jesus wants us to see their needs, their loneliness, their longings, and he wants to give us the courage to reach out to them.” It’s time to stop stuttering and be ready. Jesus is ready to work through us, even when we are not ready. We can live fearlessly in the face of uncertainty, because we can trust God to give us what we need when we need it. Jesus wants to shine his light not only into our lives, but into the lives of those who have no idea where the light is coming from…and they are hungry for it. Jesus is ready to shine.

Ready…Set…

*Source: Matt Black, sermoncentral.com

Running the Race: Dreaming Together

by Rev. Doug Gray


Philippians 1:27 Whatever happens, live a life worthy of citizenship in the Good News of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, playing side by side with one mind for the faith of the Good News, 28and are in no way freaked out by your opponents. For them [your steadiness] is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well—30since you are competing in the same contest that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Philippians 2:1 If there is any encouragement to being united with Christ, if any persuasive tenderness to His love, if any participation with the Spirit, if any gut-deep affection and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by having the same mind and the same love, with your hearts beating in unison and your minds focusing on one purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or pointless self-glorification, but in deep humility esteem each other as better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but to the interests of others as well.


I watched The Field of Dreams the other night and one of the conversations that struck me is one that the main character, Ray, had with his wife, Annie. Have you seen the movie? Ray has heard this voice in the middle of his corn field telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” Ray sees a vision of a lighted baseball field near his house. A few nights later, he and his wife are lying in bed and she turns over and says:

Annie:   Are you actually thinking of doing this [that is building the baseball field]?

Ray:      ...I’m 36 years old. I have a wife, a kid and a mortgage and I’m scared to death I’m turning into my father.

Annie:   What’s your father got to do with it?

Ray:      I never forgave him for getting old. By the time he was as old as I am now, he was ancient. I mean, he must have had dreams, but he never did anything about them. For all I know, he may have heard voices too, but he sure didn’t listen to them. He didn’t do one spontaneous thing in all the years I knew him. I’m afraid of that happening to me. And something tells me this may be my last chance to do something about it. I want to build that field. Do you think I’m crazy?

Annie:   Yes, but I also think if you really feel you should do this, you should do it.

Some of us here are just getting started on dreaming and we have strong imaginations. Some of us here are like Ray’s father, believing the dreams of our hearts are gone, our hearts and spirits atrophy until we think the time for dreams is over. And many of us are like Ray in Field of Dreams, afraid we may be getting too hard of heart to dream strong, passionate dreams. In today’s passage, Paul dreams a dream for his close friends at Philippi, a strong, heady dream God has for each of us and for this congregation.

Paul’s dream for his friends in Philippi has five parts. Paul first dreams of the encouragement that comes from being united with Christ. The word he uses here for encouragement might mean “support” or “incentive” or “loving consolation.” Next Paul dreams of fully reflecting of God’s love in their lives. What Paul is talking about here is not just a nice feeling, but what he calls the “persuasive tenderness of God’s love.” It’s the love that always calls us to do what we know is truly best and not just best for ourselves. Then Paul dreams that his friends will have a sense of participation in the work of the Holy Spirit, of experiencing fellowship with others and with God that only the Holy Spirit can bring. Those who came to my first worship with you all may have experienced some of this. Many people have remarked to me that the air felt like it was charged with electricity, that it gave them goosebumps. All these words point to the awesome presence of God, the Holy Spirit flowing in and through us. God gives this gift to help draw us together and to grow the love between us. That’s why Paul’s fourth dream is that his friends would be marked by deep affection and compassion. The Greek for this kind of affection means the affection should come from our bowels. Now I don’t think Paul’s dream was that the Philippians would all feel the need to head for the latrine whenever they got together, though I guess that would be a kind of fellowship too. No, it’s an affection so deep that you feel it with your gut, an awareness of another person’s need so deep that it requires action. Finally, Paul writes in verse 2, “make my joy complete by having the same mind and the same love, with your hearts beating in unison and your minds focusing on one purpose.” Paul’s language is really strong here: he wants them to literally be “together-souled” and “one-minded.” This unity in Christ goes beyond trivial disagreements to a unity of essence that we should seek before all else. Augustine expressed the tensions in this dream well when he wrote, “Let there be in the essentials, unity. In all non-essentials, liberty. In all things, unconditional love.”

What do these look like in action? Maxie Dunnam tells of “a man [who] was unfaithful to his wife, walked all over her, used her, and went his...selfish way. But he kept coming back, asking his wife to accept him and promising to be faithful. That story was repeated over and over again until the woman couldn’t take it any more. She committed suicide. The woman had a friend in our church who had experienced much the same thing with her husband. This church member told me the story of her friend’s suicide. As she wept she confessed, ‘That has been my temptation. You don’t know how many times I’ve been on the verge of suicide. I couldn’t follow through on my temptation because of the love and support of Christ through this church. I want you to know that Mary and Jim, Bob and Karen, Ben and Ann have kept me alive.’” My dream is that we would be so tuned into each other, that when life really stinks for one of us that we would suddenly find several people (or all of us?) alongside us, helping us along, walking with us, encouraging us in our faith. Isn’t that what Christ does for us?

All of these dreams Paul has for his friends have one thing in common: they all encourage people to say to themselves, “It’s not about me.” Our world says, “You’re the boss. You are #1. Have it your way. The customer is always right.” We are encouraged to tailor everything which fools us into thinking we are the focus, that we are what matters. Leonard Sweet, in his book SoulTsunami, draws on a New Yorker cartoon that “shows a new person being introduced to hell, with fire and devils bearing pitchforks everywhere. A friendly devil says to him, “You’ll find that down here there is no right and wrong. It’s just what works for you.” Sweet concludes: “Hell is getting what you want. Hell is doing only what works for you. Hell is building a self based on a foundation of one. Heaven is being the self God made you to be and the self you can’t become without God and the church. Heaven is living a self-identity that is God-given, not self-constructed…The search for self-fulfillment can only be met in the context of belonging and contributing to a community where the common good takes precedence over the self.”

All of a sudden we are face-to-face with one of the great mysteries of our faith. To strengthen our ourselves and our congregation, we must put aside our limited, personal goals in favor of Christ’s goals for the Church as a whole and our local congregation in particular. If God’s grace and love are the river of blessing, then humility is the channel. If God’s power is high-voltage electricity, then our humbleness before God allows us to handle it safely. What’s interesting about while Christ demonstrated that one person can do this, he commissioned the Church because working and living for God, being channels for God’s grace and love and power is easier and safer if we do it together. Humility is the art of seeking God’s dreams. If we can unite even just a little, then we will make God’s joy complete and we will find that dreams come true. And just as Christ received the promise, so too, when we put God’s dreams first, the power of the resurrection comes into our lives.

At the end of The Field of Dreams, Ray is standing talking with his father’s spirit. Ray’s father looks around at the sky and the corn and farm house, lit up in the early evening, and he says, “It’s so beautiful here. It’s like a dream come true. Can I ask you something? Is this heaven?” Ray smiles and says, “It’s Iowa.” Ray’s father, “I could have sworn it was heaven.” After a moment, Ray asks, “Is there a heaven?” His father looks him straight in the eye, “Oh yeah! It’s the place dreams come true.” Ray looks at the sky and the corn and the farm house, where his wife and daughter are reading on the porch... “Maybe this is heaven.” My dream for us is that when people meet one of us, when they worship or have fun here at First Church, they will discover that this is a place where God’s dreams come true, a place where earth and heaven meet.

 

 

 

 

Running the Race: Keeping Joy in the Mess

by Rev. Doug Gray

I have scoured the internet, and here are my “Top Ten Ways You Know You’re a Mom”:

10.    You know you’re a mom if you’ve ever crawled under a crib at 2 a.m. searching
         for a pacifier like your life depended on it.
9.      You know you’re a mom if your emergency kit for the car is not jumper cables
         and a scraper, but Band-Aids, tissues, diapers and wipes
8.      You know you’re a mom if you think of physical pain on three levels: pain,
         excruciating pain and stepping on a Lego.
7.      You know you’re a mom if happy hour has become the 60 minutes between
         your kids going to bed and you going to bed.
6.      You know you’re a mom if...you can recite 10 children’s books in the car at a
         moment’s notice.  One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish......and so much more!!
5.      You know you’re a mom when, instead of running from vomit, you run towards it.
4.      You know you’re a mom if you have tried at least once to put your husband in time out.
3.      You know you’re a mom if you’ve ever stuck a pacifier in your mouth just to clean it off!
2.      You start rocking from side to side when you hear a crying baby.
1.       Hearing “Mom!” yelled out in public makes you stop and look around, even when
         your kids aren’t with you (or have grown up).

Now I know we are not all moms here, but we have all had moms, and there are some things our list above—and Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi!—seem to have in common:  they all offer us insights into how to keep our joy in the middle of the mess.
First, in the middle of the mess, we notice the unexpected blessing of opportunity. For Paul, the mess is being in prison—not something most of us have had to do. Paul discovers that what should be holding him back, making it harder to share the Good News of Jesus Christ—that being in prison is actually helping him. A friend of mine worked in a nation-wide market chain, and she hated it. She didn’t like the environment, or the people or the products she was selling. “Why do you stay, then?” I asked. She stopped for a minute, then said, “Besides the money? Because maybe the way I know God will come through in how I live and treat people.” I think she was totally right. True, in that economically depressed area, she didn’t have a lot of job options, but she recognized that some of the most hurting people in our community either worked or shopped at that store. In the middle of our mess, we may suddenly find an unexpected opportunity.
Second, in the middle of the mess, we find out what really matters. Paul has learned that some people are sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ for selfish or even greedy motives. Now that might upset us, but Paul is cool—as long as Jesus is proclaimed. That’s something we learn from loving others, right? Things that used to gross us out—now we don’t even bat an eye. Things that used to make us flip out, now we don’t even worry about. Why is that? I think one reason is that we figure out that what matters is the one we are caring for—child, adult, friend, partner. Unclean and disgusting situations? Yeah, sometimes—but we are unfazed out of love and compassion for them. In the middle of the mess, what matters is that they know they are loved.
Finally, in the middle of the mess, we find our purpose. Occasionally we may have clean, crisp moments when our purpose becomes crystal clear. Thank You, God for those! But my experience is that most of the moments that define us are messy. Part of Paul, for instance, writes, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” Our lives could be easier, less messy. I guess we could try to escape…but when we really look into the eyes of the people who count on us…the trust they have in us, the hope they have because of us…perhaps they are why we are on this planet? Seeing people become, being with them through thick and thin, praising and thanking God for what we have…priceless! We may not ever get thanks from the people whose lives we touch and bless…but if they experience joy, it’s enough.
As it’s Mother’s Day, perhaps a story of my mom will illustrate the combination of these. For second grade, my parents switched me from public school to a private school. I will never forget coming back from the first day of class, sobbing because everyone was expected to know how to write cursive and I only knew how to print my letters. My mom seemed to take it in stride—well, then you need to learn how to write cursive. She spent four hours that day, teaching me how to write. I had to work at it, practice, pay attention, struggle with it—but Mom was there beside me. I knew we could do anything. As I look back at that evening I realize how Mom took my rotten day, my anxiety and my despair and found the opportunity to teach me about loving someone enough to suffer with them. Through her patience and perseverance, I learned I could do anything I really worked at—and I knew I really mattered to her. I learned that her strength and joy seemed to grow when things were hard.
Which brings us back to finding joy in the midst of the messiness. Real love tries to do the right thing whatever the conditions. It’s Jesus, the Son of God, leaving heaven and immortality to be born as a baby, to experience what it was like to live the mess that our lives can be, to be tempted in every way like we are. Jesus knows what it’s like to have a messy life, but somehow he always seems to know the loving thing to say, the right thing to do, the thing that God wanted. We often think of Jesus suffering on the Cross—and for sure He did, even though our lives were a mess—but the messiness is part of his living with us too. He touched people who were gross and smelly, opened Lazarus’ tomb though it would smell, even healed those who had leprosy. He hung out with people’s whose lives were a struggle—prostitutes, tax collectors, the broken and desperate. So if your life and mine are messy, tough and a struggle, Jesus is happy to meet us there. Jesus is happy to help us find the opportunity in the mess, find what really matters in the mess, find our purpose in the mess. Perhaps in the mess, joy will find us as we live the love of Jesus Christ.

 

Running the Race: Painting the Church in God’s Colors

by Rev. Doug Gray

The blog, Godreports, tells this story:  “My life began in an unusual way,” says Akiane Kramarik, 17, who spent her early years in rural Illinois. By unusual, she refers to her underwater birth in “a shack” on the edge of a cornfield. “Our family had no money, no friends, no relatives, no television or radio. Our life was quite simple—long walks in nature, open conversations, and hands on explorations of knowledge,” she says…. In her early family life, there was no prayer, no discussions of God, and no visits to church. Yet in the insular atheistic environment her parents created—free from media influences or even outside babysitters—Akiane suddenly began to talk about God….She spoke of colorful dreams and visions about heaven, Jesus, and God’s amazing love. Her stunned parents realized her intense focus on God could not have been inspired by anything in the world they created for her…At a tender age, God implanted the desire to articulate her divinely-inspired dreams and visions into art. “When I was four years old, suddenly I started experiencing vivid impressions…and a great desire to express them through art,” she says.”[1] What an amazing thing! To see heaven, to have a vision of God, and then to have the ability to express that. Wouldn’t you like to see that painting? In our passage for today, Paul paints a beautiful picture of what God is like when God comes into our life together is supposed to be with three primary colors.

The first color our life together should have is the bright yellow of joy. Joy colors everything Paul says about the Christians in Philippi. He writes in verse 4:  “In all my prayers for all of, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…” The joy comes from their togetherness, the way they work and play together in the good times and the hard times. Joy! Do you know 68% of churches that are growing say they laugh a lot together? But joy goes deeper than happiness, because even when we are sad, when we mourn each other’s losses, if we are together, then we experience joy as a “rightness” or a “peace” together. Paul writes in verse 7:  “for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.” Grace and joy shared in whatever we do, even the hard, heart-breaking stuff. Joy is what we have when God’s grace is shared. The more our fellowship becomes what God wants it to be, the more joy will color everything we do and are together.

1.    We have confidence because it’s God! One of my favorite quotes of all time is
       from the great Baptist preacher, E.V. Hill, “If God is in it, God will win it.”
2.    We have confidence because the good works bring about God’s justice
       —no more oppression, but freedom; no more greed, but people seeking the
       common good ahead of their own interests.
3.    We have confidence because God is the one who began the good work and
       God is bringing it to completion. It will be done the way God imagines it. One of
       my favorite bumper-stickers is “Be patient. God’s not done with me yet.
       ” How awesome!

The more our fellowship becomes what God wants it to be, the more our confidence in God and what God wants to do through us will saturate our life together.

The third color our life together should have is the warm, rich red of love. Paul writes in verse 9:  “And this is my prayer:  that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight…” Leonard Sweet tells how “Illustrator/painter Gustave Doré, one of the patron saints of the DreamWorks team of Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen, was handed a painting of Jesus just finished by one of his students. Asked for his critique, Doré studied it, his mind searching for the right words. At last he handed it back to the student. “If you loved Him more,” he said, “you would have painted Him better.’”[1] Love leads us into deeper knowledge of God, of what makes God smile, of how we can follow God best. The result is that we will be “filled with the fruit of” a right-relationship with God. The more we love, the more wonderful things will happen, not because of what we do, but because of what Jesus Christ is doing through us, and not so we look good, but as Paul puts it, “to the glory and praise of God.” Love is meant to abound more and more—our love for God and for each other can grow, for the heart which pumps the deep, strong love is not our hearts, but God’s! Our infinite God wants us to abound in love! The more our fellowship becomes what God wants it to be, the more love fill everything we do and are together.

So our life together is meant to have the strong, vibrant colors of joy and confidence and love. But what will this actually look like? For the next several Sundays, we will explore the vibrant colors with which God wants to paint our lives—yellow the color of heart-filling joy, blue the deep confidence in God’s Presence, and red the life-giving color of love. For a world adrift and at a loss, these colors paint a picture of hope, a picture of Jesus Christ, who gives Himself again today, that we all might have new life in Him. The story is told about a little girl who, on the way home from church, turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, the Preacher’s sermon this morning confused me.” The mother said, “Oh!  Why is that? The girl replied, “Well, he said that God is bigger than we are.  Is that true?” “Yes, that’s true,” the mother replied. “He also said that God lives within us.  Is that true too?” Again the mother replied, “Yes.” “Well,” said the girl.  “If God is bigger than us and He lives in us, wouldn’t He show through?” As we draw on the great reservoirs of God’s grace to paint our church and our lives, may the King who is among us and within us be revealed.


[1]Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami, p.

 

[1]http://blog.godreports.com/2012/01/for-child-art-prodigy-akiane-jesus-is-for-real/.

Deeper into Real Life: Finding the Past to Find the Future

by Pastor Doug

Do you ever open up your mouth and your mother or your father pops out? What are some of the things that come out?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Growing up is not just about learning the family’s stories, but internalizing the messages about what matters and how to do relationships—friendships, marriage, parenting, etc.. Some of those messages will save our lives, but some of them don’t seem like they work that well for us. In fact, the curious thing about us is that at times it seems like we are reading from a script, playing the same parts our parents or grandparents did. Wouldn’t it be great if we could escape the ready-made scripts of our families and our world? Wouldn’t it be great if we could really, truly be our best selves without all the hang-ups? Our passages for today help show us the way.

First, God is able to bring hope and new life out of darkness. You know how we are not supposed to have favorites with our children? Well, there’s a reason for that, and the way Jacob favors Joseph is a real problem in our passage for today. Look at what it does to Joseph? He’s a tattle-tale and arrogant to boot, and his brothers get so jealous of him that they nearly murder him. But Jacob picking a favorite son is nothing new in the family—Jacob’s mother and father each had a favorite child, and it was disastrous for their family as well. For that matter, in the previous generation, Abraham and Sarah have a similar dynamic with Ishmael and Isaac. Not all these factors have to be negative. Some just are. As a young kid, my family moved around a lot—I had lived in Kansas, Ohio (two different houses), Michigan, and California, and we were there for 8 years. That’s pretty typical for a pastor’s family, and through it I learned that home is wherever your family is. So what are some of the features of your growing up? What are some of the ways your family background affects you today? Why don’t we take just a moment to list some things—three ways your family has challenged us, and three ways we have been blessed by our family experiences. [Pause for reflection.] The Bible also understands family as a multi-generational system, and talks about how the sins of one parent can rest on their family for three or four generations. Peter Scazzero writes, “God never loses any of our past for his future when we surrender ourselves to him. Every mistake, sin, and detour we take in the journey of life is taken by God and becomes his gift for a future of blessing.”[1]

Second, God brings healing to our hurts. Some of us may have had nightmarish experiences of family. Some of us carry deep scars on our hearts. Some of us wish we had made different choices. We may not want to look at our past. I remember the summer I spent working on a teen ward at a psych hospital, doing what is called Clinical Pastoral Education. It included deep reflection on my own life—my family, my choices, my prejudices, my future. Cynthia can tell you that I spent most of the summer all churned up inside as God and I looked for skeletons in my skeletons. Scazzero writes, “It can feel like a black hole or an abyss that might swallow us up. We wonder if we are only getting worse. Yet Joseph wept repeatedly when he reunited with his family.”[2] God walks with us as we go back and encounter our old hurts. God can bring healing and fruitfulness.

Finally, we can partner with God to rewrite our scripts. One of the things I love about the Bible is that not everyone has it together. In fact, most of the book of Genesis is about Joseph’s dysfunctional, extended family. Joseph’s brothers are taking the whole dysfunctional thing to a whole new level by wanting to kill, and later selling their brother, Joseph, into slavery. But something happens as Joseph suffers setbacks, has chances to succeed and is forgotten—does he learn compassion? or maybe humility? or perhaps dependence on God? These are lessons most of us only learn when we go through dark times. After Joseph becomes second only to the Pharaoh in Egypt, still his brothers are worried that Joseph’s going to go back to the old scripts. Joseph says, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” Are all Joseph’s old scripts broken? Probably not. Still, God was there with Joseph in the midst of all his hardships and challenges: “God intended it for good.”

When we open up our mouths, our parents often pop out. Sometimes we laugh about it, but some things our parents said or did, just make us want to cry when they come out of us. We can ask why it is so. Why did all these things have to happen to us? We can even feel trapped by the scripts into which we have fallen. But I don’t just have good news for you today. Peter Scazzero writes, “The great news of Christianity is that your biological family of origin does not determine your future. God does! What has gone before you is not your destiny! The most significant language in the New Testament for becoming a Christian is ‘adoption into the family of God.’ It is a radical new beginning. When we are spiritually reborn by the Holy Spirit into the family of Jesus.”[3] Jesus is the brother we wish we had. God is the Heavenly Parent we have always wanted. And the longer we hang out with God, looking fearlessly at our families and scripts, the longer we have to lay them all before God with gratitude for whatever good we have received, and the longer we have to learn from this Jesus what our lives could be. So God helps us rewrite our lives with grace, and who knows? Maybe today we’ll open our mouths and out will pop our Heavenly Father.


 

[1]Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, p. 112.

[2]Scazzero, p. 113.

[3]Scazzero, p. 103.

Deeper into Real Life: The Gift of Breaking Free from Illusions

by Rev. Doug Gray

Today I want to tell you the story of Ignaz Semmelweiss. He was one of the great doctors of his day, working in the world’s first obstetrics ward in Vienna General Hospital. And he had a problem:  though it was a premiere hospital, with world-class physicians and nurses, the ward where he worked had mortality rate of 1 in 10 for the mothers! The risk was so high that women who were going to have a baby there would often be found wringing their hands or kneeling by their bedsides in prayer. The maternity ward had two sections—one in which midwives delivered babies, and one in which the doctors did. In the section with midwives, the mortality rate for mothers was 1 in 50, not great but significantly better than with the doctors. How could that be? Many of us have mysteries we face in our lives, mysteries in which the way we think things should be is not the way things actually are. In fact, some of us may be doing and thinking things we know are not how we would like to be, but we’re not sure how to change. Fortunately for us, Jesus gives the gift of breaking free from illusions.

We live in a “box” of our own making. When we were new parents, I was more tired than I have ever been in my life. I can only imagine how tired Cynthia must have been. Still there were times when Morgan would cry and I would know that she wasn’t hungry, and I would know that a good husband and father would get up and take care of her so that Cynthia could have some sleep…but I confess that I would just lie there for a minute to see if Cynthia would get up. And while I lay there I would think things like,

     •    “Well, she needs less sleep than I do.”
     •    “What if Morgan really is hungry? God didn’t give me breasts to feed that child.”
     •    “I have to work tomorrow, and if I don’t get enough rest, I’ll never be any good
           to anyone.”
     •    “She’s better at it anyway.”
     •    “Aren’t I entitled to a little rest?”

So many of my thoughts are me trying to justify myself, and they all share the same flaw—they are about me. I am not thinking about Cynthia and how hard she works, or how tired she must be, how much I love and appreciate her, or about my daughter and how much she needs to know she’s loved by me. By failing to do the thing I knew was right—get up to see what Morgan needed—I started into self-deceptive, self-focused behavior that put me in a box. And I did it to myself! Now, maybe we haven’t all had this experience, but maybe we have had a chance to open the door for someone—we know we should but we just don’t. Or maybe we know something that would help a co-worker or neighbor with a project, but we don’t share it. Or maybe we know someone is upset or scared, but we pretend like we aren’t seeing it. Or we shout at a co-worker or a family member or just someone on the street for a little thing. We know we’re wrong, so we tell ourselves we had a right to do that—it’s perfectly understandable—and we blame everyone but ourselves for our failure. And so we make this box of self-deception and self-betrayal, and tell ourselves that we are happy to be in it. As we ignore our consciences enough times, ignore God whispering into our lives about opportunities to show someone we care, pretty soon our consciences stops nudging us and pretty soon we can’t hear God whispering anymore. In the box, we can’t be wrong—someone else must be. In the box, we know all the answers—everyone else is ignorant. In the box, we are plagued by fears that people will find out how inadequate or how selfish or how insecure we might be. And so we strike out at others, project our problems onto others, and set up destructive patterns of behavior. And I say, “we,” because to my great shame, I have done all of these things. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul talks about the box when he says, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my life another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Spoiler Alert! 

Jesus has three promises to help us out of our boxes this morning. First, Jesus shares the load. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” In Jesus’ time, people saw yokes all the time. A yoke was a very sturdy wooden device that served as a harness for a pair of oxen. Often an experienced ox was yoked with an inexperienced ox. Together they would plow the field and in the process of plowing together, the inexperienced ox would learn how to work together, how to respond to the Master’s directions. That’s how Jesus works too:  instead of having to struggle to do better and bear all our burdens by ourselves, to “bootstrap” our way out of the box, Jesus comes alongside us and shares the burden. How awesome to know that we don’t have to carry it all alone!

Second, Jesus will teach us how to live better. Like apprentices working with a master, we work together with Jesus. Yoked with Christ, we begin to learn how to plow through our lives more smoothly, more manageably, more peacefully. The more we invite Jesus to walk with us, the more we follow his lead, the more we will learn how to live better, how to be better, how to go longer. We can begin to see our own lives in light of how Jesus lived. How incredible that we don’t have to figure it out for ourselves!

Third, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light. The Greek word, “easy,” can mean “comfortable” or “well-fitting.” With wooden yokes, it was very important to get a good fit, otherwise a corner or rough spot could put a blister or a gouge into an ox’s neck and make it unfit for work. A carpenter would take the measurements and rough out the yoke. When it was ready, the farmer brought in the ox for a fitting. Every yoke was made to tailor fit the oxen that would use it. According to William Barclay, legend has it “that Jesus made the best ox-yokes in all Galilee, and that from all over the country men came to him to buy the best yokes that skill could make. In those days, as now, shops had their signs above the door; and it has been suggested that the sign above the door of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth may well have been:  ‘My yoke fits well.’” Our life in Christ, our work with Christ, will not hurt us or expect more of us than we can give. Indeed, what this reminds us is that each relationship with Christ, each life of faith, is completely unique, tailor-made by Christ for each of us. We can give up all the mental gymnastics and self-justification we do to feel good about ourselves. We don’t have to remember what half-truths we have told everyone. Instead we have peace that we are doing what Jesus would want, what God would want, what (in the end) we want. Jesus’ yoke fits well.

We can, indeed, be blind to the box we live in. Ignaz Semmelweiss was in one of those boxes. As one of the pre-eminent physicians in one of the best teaching hospitals in the world, Ignaz divided his time between the obstetrics ward and teaching medical students in their anatomy and physiology studies with cadavers. His behavior was the problem. At the time, medical theory thought disease was caused by “humors” or “airs” coming from within the body. The idea that one could carry sickness from one person to another just didn’t exist, but after eliminating every other cause, he realized he was the problem. He began requiring himself and all his staff to wash their hands before leaving the area with the cadavers. As a result, the mortality of mothers dropped for the whole obstetrics ward dropped to 1 in 100! To his credit, Semmelweiss was willing to look at his behavior with unflinching honesty. He knew the lives of his patients depended on it and when he realized that his own behavior had cost other people their lives he was devastated. Looking at ourselves with real honesty can be scary. We will see the darkness, selfishness and pettiness in our own souls, but we do not have to do that alone. Jesus is more than happy to go with us unhesitatingly, look with us unflinchingly, and help us unfailingly. The whole meaning of grace is that with Christ in the yoke with us, with Christ’s grace showing us the way, we can break free of the illusions we have made for ourselves, the illusions society has made for us, the illusions that are all around us. Grace is a gift, and so is the ability to see how far we still have to go, and so is the chance to find the real and abundant life that comes.

You see, the power of the Cross is not just that Jesus died to give us a chance and strength to break free from our illusions, but to free us to live lives full of joy and hope.

 

Deeper into Real Life: The Gift of Anchoring in God’s Love

by Rev. Doug Gray

A young naval student was being put through the paces by an old sea captain. "What would you do if a sudden storm sprang up on the starboard?" "Throw out an anchor, sir," the student replied. "What would you do if another storm sprang up aft?"
"Throw out another anchor, sir." "And if another terrific storm sprang up forward, what would you do then?" asked the captain. "Throw out another anchor, sir." "Hold on," said the captain. "Where are you getting all those anchors from?" "From the same place you're getting your storms, sir."[1] I think lots of us spend most of our lives moving from storm to storm, throwing out all the anchors we can. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to move from storm to storm, or go through so many anchors? Our passage today talks about ways God gives us to anchor in His love, the path to the real, abundant life.

The first two characters—the two brothers—are both great examples of unhealthy approaches to life and relationships. Let’s start with the younger brother. He’s got issues, doesn’t he? What are some of the younger brother’s issues?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Very good! Yes, yes. The sneaky thing about some of the younger brother’s issues, is that he thinks he’s going to find himself in the far country. That’s why he goes through this, isn’t it? To find out who he is, to have the chance to live out his own life, to be in charge for a change, and leave his mark—to anchor his life in other things. Jesus says, “he squandered his property in dissolute living.” Bit by bit, the younger brother spends his wealth, but he’s really spending himself in living that slowly eats away at himself. We know this way of unhealthy living, because we have done it, haven’t we? Trying to find ourselves, we spend the wealth of our life—our treasure, time and talent—on getting more stuff, more pleasure, more technology, more success, thinking we will find who we are, only to find they only like us for what we spend, and when we run out of the money, time and energy, then they lose interest in us. We leave God to find ourselves, to make our life for ourselves, and discover that we are lost.

The older brother has issues too, doesn’t he? What are some of the older brother’s issues?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Yes, yes. The sneaky thing about older brother’s issues is that he loses himself without ever leaving the farm. He pays for his security every day, goes through the motions, that maintain a life that he secretly finds pointless. He’s the good son and does everything he’s supposed to, but instead of feeling good about what he’s doing, the older brother is so concerned about his own rights and what he has earned that he fails to grasp his father’s heart. We know this way of unhealthy living, because as Lloyd Ogilvie, the former Senate chaplain, wrote,

“Our rebellion is the same as the younger brother. ‘What’s mine is mine! I worked for it, preserved it, multiplied it, perfected it.’ That leads to bitter judgmentalism. The lost and broken are the way they are because they didn’t work as hard as we have. It’s their own fault…But the raw nerve in him was his need for his father’s approval and esteem. How could it be that a celebration who was so profligate? Had the world gone mad? Were there no standards? Had the father lost all his senses in sentimentality? What the elder brother was really saying was, ‘What about me? Don’t you admire my faithfulness? Have I worked all these years for nothing?’[2]

By outward appearances, some of us stayed close to God, but inwardly we are far from understanding the grace of real life with God.

The irony of both these brothers is that they have tried to find their security by anchoring their lives in things outside of God. Both have internalized emotionally unhealthy messages described by Peter Scazzero,

      •    I am worthless
      •    I am not allowed to make mistakes.
      •    I must be approved of by certain people to feel okay.
      •    I don’t have the right to experience joy and pleasure.
      •    I don’t have the right to assert myself and say what I think and feel.
      •    I am valued based on my intelligence, wealth, and what I do, not for who I am.

Both brothers have ended up far from their father.

Which brings us to the third character of our story, the father. Lots of people call this parable, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but I think it’s the Parable of the Prodigal Father. Prodigal means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.” We usually think of the younger son spending his wealth recklessly, but the father is even more wastefully extravagant.

     •    We see the father’s wasteful extravagance as his younger son asks for his
           inheritance before his father is dead! The father gives it.
     •    And the father lets his younger son go. I can’t imagine how heartbreaking
           that must have been for this dad.
     •    Of course, the father’s wasteful love is still showing as he continues to look
           for his younger son, so that while the son is still far off, he knows.
     •    In ancient society, as Aristotle says, “Great men don’t run.” But here’s
           this prodigiously loving father, gathering up his robe to run with his paunch
           bouncing and his ZZ Top-beard blowing in the wind.
     •    Imagine for a moment what it would be like to embrace a son covered in
           the mire and muck of a pig sty. No hesitance, and even a kiss planted on the
           unwashed young man.
     •    And before his younger son can finish his prepared speech, the father
           interrupts, restoring the relationship—this is the homecoming, not of a slave,
           but a son.
     •    And then the party! In every well-to-do household of Jesus’ time, among
          the herd was a special calf, fattened up for a feast, but often used as a sacrifice
          to God. Instead of the sacrifice, this time it’s going to be used for a party! They’ll
          figure out how to pay for the sacrifice later.

Whatever you think about the younger son’s spendthrift habits, they are completely overshadowed by the wasteful extravagance of this loving and compassionate father.

Of course, we are meant to connect the father in our story with God. And of course, we are meant to find the gift of anchoring in God’s love. You see when we anchor ourselves in God’s extravagant love, we know in the depths of our being we are worthy because we are loved. We know at the core of who we are that we are worthwhile, because God was even willing to give His Son for us. Because God listens to us, cares about us, lavishes attention on us, we know we are worthy of other people’s time, caring and attention. In a world that doesn’t care if we exist, that values us for what we do, and will move on when we are gone, God cares about who we are, values us for who we are, and welcomes us home every time. The real, abundant life with God is marked by extravagant grace, so we have the chance to live out that same extravagant grace. The world will think we are nuts! God will know we have come to our senses.

Coming to ourselves. That is one of the emotionally healthy things the younger brother does in the far country. He takes a sober look at his life, realizes he’s blown it, and that he’s better off at home. In that brilliant ironic twist, the younger son goes to the far country to find himself, but not until he has spent all his substance, does he come to himself. Are you in a far country today? Have you spent all you are on what doesn’t matter? Are you running out of energy, resources and hope? Then won’t you come home? All you have to do is turn toward home, and the Father will come running! Or perhaps your heart is far from God’s this morning. Like the older son, you are tired of people getting a break who don’t deserve it. Do you spend your time irritated and frustrated with the people around you because nothing goes the way it should? Are you worried someone is going to get something they don’t deserve? Are you trying to be the good child, trying to do all the right things, trying to be all the right things, but secretly it’s eating you up on the inside? Won’t you come to the party? Won’t you come and rejoice in the love of the Father for you and me and all our returning sisters and brothers. The Father ran to embrace the younger son, but he won’t force us to come to the party. Even God’s own Son, Jesus, was not too high a price to pay so that we could find our way home into the Father’s embrace


[1]http://www.jokebuddha.com/Anchor#ixzz4b4sHkEFX

[2]Lloyd John Ogilvie, The Autobiography of God (1979), pp. 24–25.

[3]Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (2006), pp. 53–54.


Deeper into Real Life: The Gift of Slowing Down

by Rev. Doug Gray

Our culture is obsessed with speed. We have speed dialing and speed dating, [slide with zombie] and just plain speed. [Man with speed face.] We laugh at it, and seek it. We all have the same amount of time, but we begin to think the one who does the most gets the most out of their lives. It gets to be something of a game for us. [Speed Limit and Radar game.] But we just don’t know how to stop, and we are so addicted to doing that we are not sure we really want to. [Speed up a bit more. You got this!] One social scientist said, “Technology has been a rapid heartbeat, compressing housework, travel, entertainment, squeezing more and more into the allotted span. Nobody expected that it would create the feeling that life moves too fast.”[1] How can Martha and Mary, the sisters in our passage today, help us go deeper into real life and find the gift of slowing down?

It’s worth admitting that we are often like Martha in two ways. First, we get so distracted with busyness that we lose our way. Mike Yaconelli, the epic youth minister writes,

A cow is nibbling on a tuft of grass in the middle of a field, moving from one tuft to the next, and before you know it she ends up at some grass next the fence. Noticing a nice clump of green on the other side of the fence, the cow stumbles through an old tear in the fence and finds himself outside on the road. “Cows don’t intend to get lost,” the farmer explained, “they just nibble their way to lostness!”[2]

It can work like that for us. Bit by bit, we get busier and busier, filling our lives with just one more detail and just one detail more, until we find God’s voice getting fainter and fainter. Our lives get more and more serious and less and less fun, until we can hardly taste the wonderful life God has given us. Distracted by busyness, we lose our way and our hope.

Second, we are like Martha because the good we have is never enough. Whose home is Jesus’ staying in? It’s Martha’s (not Mary’s!). Martha is the hard-working one, who enjoys having people in her home. She seems to enjoy serving people. Luke writes that she has “many preparations”, or servings or ministries. This seems to be what she is good at and what she enjoys. So why isn’t it enough? Jesus was really into serving others—he even said, “The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”—so we can imagine that Jesus might think that serving was good in itself. Why couldn’t Martha be content with the good that she has? Why does she envy her sister, so much that she wants to take away the good her sister is experiencing:  listening to Jesus? And so we go through the lives we have chosen for ourselves, refusing to appreciate the good we have, always wondering why we can’t have what our neighbor does.

Oh yes, we can be real Marthas can’t we? So busy we forget to listen for God’s voice. So burdened by all the things we think we have to do that we cannot be free to answer God’s call. So filled with wishing we were doing something else or owned something else or were something else, that we never fully experience with gratitude what we have been. Bit by bit, we surrender our aliveness, love and hope. How do we get out of this mess?

So we turn to Mary and learn two things from her. First, Mary teaches us that listening to God is the most important thing we will ever do. Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her.” If God is always at the bottom of our priority list or kept in a Sunday morning box, then our lives will get emptier and emptier as God’s voice gets fainter and fainter. Centering our lives in the Presence of Christ helps us find the Way Jesus wants for us to travel. Hearing with wonder Jesus’ promises of the love can transform everything else we do.

Second, that we simply have to enjoy the wonders of today and even of this moment. We rush through our lives like people starving to death. We wolf down our lives so fast we cannot taste them, and yet they never seem to satisfy. Did we really see the amazing color of the sky and water this morning? Did we really taste our breakfast this morning? Have we really listened to the songs we are singing, taken them into our hearts, allowed our souls to be moved by them? Oh, my friends! We simply have to rejoice in the beauty of the day. It’s a good day when we get to sing praise to God as we watch the sunset blaze into a symphony of color, or the crocuses bloom with ardent life. Every moment is to be tasted and enjoyed, used to its fullest until every ounce of possibility is wrung from it.

We long for a deeper life, the abundant life Jesus promises. We long to set aside the madness of our need for speed and let Christ be the center of our lives. This Lent is a great opportunity to accept the gift of slowing down and try a different way for a few weeks. Doesn’t the Martha in you get tired of dragging around all your worries and jealousies? Doesn’t the Mary in you long to sit at Jesus’ feet and drink in the soul-refreshing joy and hope of Jesus? Doesn’t the Martha in you want to serve your Lord with soul-filing passion? Doesn’t the Mary in you want to sit at Jesus feet and learn all He has to teach? Truly, we need some of Martha and Mary in our lives. Jesus gets that. Mary and Martha need each other to be whole and full of life. This week may you serve with gladness, thankful for what you have. May you find time to sit and listen to the Lord and His Word. May you rejoice in the wonders God has placed around you. We need Martha so we can eat supper and Mary so we can feast on Jesus in our hearts. We need Martha to have a life and Mary to make it real.


 

[1]Theodore Zeldin, quoted in Faster, James Gleick.

[2]Mike Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder:  The Adventure of Childlike Faith, pp. 13–14

Why the Local Church Is the Hope of the World

by Rev. Doug Gray

 

In one Peanuts comic strip, Lucy demands that Linus change TV channels and threatens him with her fist if he doesn’t. “What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” asks Linus. “These five fingers,” says Lucy. “Individually they’re nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.” “Which channel do you want?” asks Linus. Turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?” Anyone else remember having a conversation like this with one of your brothers or sisters when you were growing up? I think Lucy may have studied the Colin Powell Doctrine: If you’re going to do get into a conflict, her idea for settling conflict is to bring the overwhelming force. Jesus has other ideas, three simple steps to dealing with conflict that tries to keep, even heal a relationship.

Step 1: One on one.

The first step is perhaps the hardest: we have to tell the person who has hurt us what they have done. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” If we are really hurt, we have to do this face-to-face. No emails. No phone calls. No texting. Face-to-face makes it clear that we value the person we are talking with. Jesus says, “go and show him his fault.” The courage and respect you show by non-threateningly sharing encourages the other person to do the same. Problem solved!

Step 2: Take a witness.

If your first conversation does not solve the problem, then try again, but with someone along. This witness is a safety for both sides of the argument. The witness helps both parties from going ballistic, and also ensures both sides are being heard. Again, there is respect and the hope that the matter can be resolved and the relationship healed.

Step 3: Tell it to the church.

Now the community is invited in to bring resolution. If the wrong-doer still will not repent (literally, “turn around”) then Jesus says they are to be treated “as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” I think many of us think of this step kind of like Lucy standing over Linus—the church using its authority to punish people by casting wrong-doers out of the church. But how did Jesus treat pagans and tax-collectors? He spent time with them, loved and respected them, and found that they had an easier time turning to God than the “holy rollers” of His day. They were his mission field, the lost sheep the Good Shepherd wanted to find. A wrong-doer who will not change, then, is no longer part of the church, but should still receive the same kind of grace Jesus showed the outsiders of His time.

Why is this so revolutionary? Why do these simple, common sense steps have such power? Why is this church the hope of the world?

Jesus said, “Wherever two or three gather in my name, there am I in the middle.”

Lucy doesn’t really care about what will happen to Linus and her relationship—she just wants to watch what she wants to on TV. For those of who follow Jesus, though, we don’t want to be either Lucy—who always wants her own way and is happy to threaten others to get. Nor do we want to be Linus—who just lets it happen. All too often, the church has settled for one of these, when we are called to be like Jesus.

And Jesus said, “Wherever two or three gather in my name, there am I in the middle.”

The world is ready to turn its back on those who wrong them, or to use community as a club, like Lucy’s five fingers making a “weapon terrible to behold.” Jesus is after extreme grace, grace so radical that the world can’t believe it’s eyes. Dr. Larry Crabb, one of the Spiritual Directors for American Association of Christian Counselors, wrote “The difference between spiritual and unspiritual community is not whether conflict exists, but is rather in our attitude toward it and our approach to handling it. When conflict is seen as an opportunity to draw more fully on spiritual resources, we have the makings of spiritual community.”

Jesus said, “Wherever two or three gather in my name, there am I in the middle.”

It’s part of the genius of Congregationalism, where people covenant with each other to walk and live and disagree and serve and dream with Jesus there in the middle. We are called as a community to rise up for Christ, and hold each other accountable. Why two or three? Because according to the Old and New Testament, you cannot convict someone unless you have two or three witnesses. Congregationalists gather with two or three (or more) because we are called to witness to the power of Jesus Christ in the middle.

So when we are wronged, and we go to that person, Jesus is there in the middle. The one who wronged the other and the one who was wronged are to look for Christ in their midst. Perhaps Jesus helps them to seek the other like a lost sheep, helps them to see the face of Christ on each other, to see with the eyes of compassion and hope.

Robert Baake tells a story that happened a little more than 30 years ago: a young man was studying to be a doctor in Cairo. The craziness of his residency in a downtown hospital was made harder when his father was murdered. Though everyone knew who had done it, the police could not find enough evidence to arrest the man. One day this young resident was working in the ER when he received word that the ambulance was bringing in a gunshot victim. When the gunshot victim came in on the gurney, the young doctor couldn’t believe his luck:  there on the gurney was the man who had killed his father! Shaken, the young doctor ordered the necessary, preliminary work, and then he found a phone and called his mother. “Mom,” he said, “the guy who killed dad is in the other room. He’s been shot. All I have to do is take my time and he will die. What should I do?” She paused for a moment. Then she said clearly, “Jesus Christ was a healer. You are a healer. You must heal this man for Jesus.” The young doctor did just that. You can imagine the wounded man’s surprise when he came out of anesthesia to discover one of the people who most wanted him dead had saved his life. When the young doctor explained that this is what Jesus would have done, the murderer burst into tears, confessed his crime and begged for forgiveness. The young doctor surprised himself by giving it. Eventually the two men became friends. After a time, they concluded that God wanted them to do something for the poorest people in Cairo. They could think of no one poorer than those who work in the landfills of the city. Because the Jews and Muslims have taboos about dealing with the unclean, the vast majority of the 80,000 people who work amid the utter squalor of the dumps of Cairo are Christian. These two former enemies found a small building that was not being used and started a Bible study. Their first meeting had 11 people, including themselves. Fast forward twenty years. That Sunday school class now meets in a hollowed-out hall in one of the hillsides, enough to seat 5000 at a time. The point of this story is not how great the numbers are. No, the point of this story is that forgiveness and healing between two people was the seed God grew into a mighty fruit tree that not only transformed those two souls, but fed the bodies and souls of many people since. We who follow Jesus see conflict as an opportunity to see the face of Christ on each other, to help someone who has stumbled back into a right relationship with Jesus, and to make God’s Kingdom a little more real on earth as it is in heaven.

The world doesn’t need more of Lucy—plenty of bullies like to wield their power and authority like a club. Nor does it need more of Linus—plenty of people are weak, wishing they were strong just like Lucy, and when they get into power become bullies themselves. What the world desperately needs is for two or three to gather in Jesus’ Name, to find that Jesus has come into their disagreements and differences, that Jesus has come into their seeking a solution to a relationship problem, even between enemies. Too often the church has settled for nice, when the world needs Christ’s extreme grace. This is why this church is the hope of the world, because we are trying to live like Jesus did.

You see, every day and every moment, we are faced with the extreme grace of Jesus, who was willing to go to the cross to show us how loved we are, to model leadership that seeks the good of others even at the cost of their own life. Before we were good, before we were kind or nice, even while we were doing all the wrong things, Jesus died for us, to make a path of healing between us and God. So no matter how often you and I have messed up, if we want it, if we will turn and confess our faults, the way back is open to us. In the light of Jesus’ extreme grace and through our relationship with Him, we are called to show that same extreme grace, the mind-blowing grace of God that we can bring to bear on all our relationships. Have you been wronged? Follow the steps:

        1.    Go one-on-one. Go show him his faults in hope that things can be different.
        2.    Take a witness. Perhaps a neutral person can open the doors.
        3.    Take it to the church. Perhaps the wisdom of others can make a difference.

Whatever we do, let us do it with Jesus’ sacrificial love so that God can blow people’s minds with His extreme grace, change the world by that grace.

Living with Jesus: The Search for Greatness

by Rev. Doug Gray

The other day I was poking around on the web, and I ran across this t-shirt. It reads, “You are in the presence of greatness.” And I wondered if the shirt meant the person wearing, or the shirt made whoever wore it great. Then I saw a picture of Tom Brady walking on the field.

It says, “They said you were done. They said you should be benched. They said you were no longer elite. They said you were overrated. They said the dynasty was over. They even said you were a cheater. They doubted you from the beginning, but today, they say, “Greatest of all time.” And I thought, “That is definitely great.” And then I read what Jesus said when he was asked, “Who is the greatest?” And I was confused. “Greatness” is one of those things we think we know about, something we would like to think we recognize in others, but what is it really? How can we recognize it? How will God recognize it in us?

Greatness is child-like. What are the priceless qualities children at their best show?

[Take responses from the congregation. Compassion, kindness, trust, innocence, hope, honesty, acceptance.]

Author and lecturer Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he was
asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring
child. The winner was a four-year old child whose next-door neighbor was an
elderly gentlemen who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry,
the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard, climbed onto his lap, and
just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor,
the little boy said, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.” Childlike kindness and trust. Knowing the loving thing to do and doing it. Jesus says, “whoever becomes like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Greatness focuses on the “little ones” among us. Who are the sensitive souls? Who are the people who trust without reservation? Who are the ones who believe the best about each other and about God? Who are the people who are completely trusting and completely defenseless before us? Who are the ones who most need a break? These are the “little ones.” Over and over again in the Bible—Old Testament and New Testament—God seems to have a special place in God’s heart for the down-and-out and the disadvantaged, the down-on-their luck and devastated. Think of how many who receive God’s blessing in the Bible are people the world has written off:

•    second-born sons who inherit everything
•    childless women who become the mothers of millions
•    a people with no land of their own has their prayers heard by a God who
      inexplicably cared…and rescues them. Later, God would remind them, “Do not
      mistreat an alien or oppress a stranger for you yourselves know how it feels to be
      aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, 23:9)

Because we have been down-and-out, we help those who are. Because we have been disadvantaged and devastated, we have compassion on those who are at a loss, crushed by the load of society, left behind and left out. Jesus says, “…when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me.”

Greatness seeks the one who is lost. Jesus tells the story of a shepherd looking for a lost sheep. The point is that the one matters. In Jesus’ day, all the shepherds from a town would watch their flocks together, so if one was lost, the others could be left in their care while one shepherd went after the lost sheep. This kind of greatness calls us to look at the world differently—to look for the people who are the “little ones” and to find a way to care for them. I can be great like that! Who are the children and child-like people around us? What do they need? What would make their lives and the lives of their parents better? That’s a path to greatness for each of us.

Jesus’ teaching here sounds a note of warning that challenges our complacency. Jesus says, ““But if you give [these little ones] a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You would be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time! Hard times are inevitable, but you don’t have to make it worse—and it’s doomsday to you if you do.” Jesus challenges us to think about how we are behaving. Is our example leading “little ones” down a path that helps them get closer to God? If we were to see our behavior in the “little ones” around us, would we think that was a good idea? If not, perhaps we shouldn’t be doing that? If so, Jesus says, “Woe to us!” It’s so serious in fact, that Jesus says we are better off taking the suffering of leaving that path, rather than making any “little one” stumble. Is there any habit we need to leave in the dust, so that a better life and a better example might take shape? I think sometimes we settle for comfort and easy, when God is calling us to greatness!

I will confess that I would like to own that t-shirt about greatness. I don’t think the shirt would make me great, and I’m pretty sure that no one would think I’m great just because it said so, but I would like to be great. I do think Tom Brady is great, maybe even the greatest of all time, but it’s a kind of greatness I can admire, but never have. But this greatness that Jesus talks about, that I can manage. It’s a greatness that requires me to look at the world differently—to look for the people who are the “little ones” and to find a way to care for them. I can be great like that! You know, every week we pray “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.” What if the kingdom of heaven is around us all the time—and we just haven’t seen it. What if the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is already in our midst? Child-like may we trust and show compassion.

We are called to look after the “little ones” and woe to us! Woe to us if we cause one of these “little ones” to stumble! Jesus says, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1831, said “I sought for the greatness of the United States in her commodious harbors, her ample rivers, her fertile fields, and boundless forests—and it was not there. I sought for it in her rich mines, her vast world commerce, her public school system, and in her institutions of higher learning— and it was not there. I looked for it in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great!”


Greatness is not childish. Childish is when an adult acts like a child—and not in a good way—thinking only about oneself, taking out one’s own anger, frustration and sadness on others, taking instead of giving trust, throwing a tantrum, etc.

French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting America in 1831, said “I sought for the greatness of the United States in her commodious harbors, her ample rivers, her fertile fields, and boundless forests—and it was not there. I sought for it in her rich mines, her vast world commerce, her public school system, and in her institutions of higher learning— and it was not there. I looked for it in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great!”

Source: America’s God and Country, William J. Federer


A group of tourists visiting a picturesque village walked by an old man sitting beside a fence. In a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked him, “Were any great men born in this village?” The old man replied, “Nope, only babies.”

Source: Developing the Leader Within You, John Maxwell

http://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/growing-in-the-lord


A converted Hindu gave the following address to a number of his fellow countrymen: “I am, by birth, of an insignificant and contemptible caste—so low, that if a Brahmin should chance to touch me, he must go and bathe in the Ganges for the purpose of purification; and yet God has been pleased to call me, not merely to the knowledge of the Gospel, but to the high office of teaching it to others. My friends, do you know the reason of God’s conduct? It is this—if God had selected one of you learned Brahmins, and made you the preacher, when you were successful in making converts, by-standers would have said, it was the amazing learning of the Brahmin and his great weight of character that were the cause; but now, when any one is converted by my instrumentality, no one thinks of ascribing any of the praise to me: and God, as is His due, has all the glory.”

Source: An Answer to the Abbé Dubois, Henry Townley and Jean Antoine Dubois

http://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/not-many-mighty-are-called

Living with Jesus: Living Outside the World’s Box

by Rev. Doug Gray

A while back, one of my best friends sent me this story and I laughed until my sides hurt. (I should note, that in my family we don’t call people “stupid” but maybe you’ll figure out why as the sermon continues.)

Stupid people should have to wear signs that just say, “I’m Stupid”. That way you wouldn’t rely on them, would you? You wouldn’t ask them anything. It would be like, “Excuse me...oops, never mind. I didn’t see your sign.” It’s like before my wife and I moved. Our house was full of boxes and there was a U-Haul truck in our driveway. My friend comes over and says “Hey, you moving?” “Nope. We just pack all our stuff up once or twice a week to see how many boxes it takes. Here’s your sign.” A couple of months ago I went fishing with a buddy of mine, we pulled his boat into the dock, I lifted up this big ‘ol stringer of bass and this idiot on the dock goes, “Hey, y’all catch all them fish?” “Nope - Talked ‘em into giving up. Here’s your sign.” I learned to drive an 18 wheeler in my days of adventure. Wouldn’t ya know I misjudged the height of a bridge. The truck got stuck and I couldn’t get it out no matter how I tried. I radioed in for help and eventually a local cop shows up to take the report. He went through his basic questioning... ok…no problem. I thought sure he was clear of needing a sign...until he asked “So..is your truck stuck?” I couldn’t help myself! I looked at him, looked back at the rig and then back to him and said “No, I’m delivering a bridge...here’s your sign.”

It would be much easier if we all wore signs that told everyone the essential information about us. Some people would wear signs, “I talk a lot” and we would know to talk with them only if we had extra time to spare. Some people would wear signs, “I’m having a bad day” and we would know to be extra nice to them. We like to know the names for people and things. We are uneasy even frightened when we face the unknown, and comforted when we can name it.

This is where I start to be confused anyway. We are so used to wearing the signs everybody else hands us, that we sometimes don’t realize they may not have it right. To draw from our passage, the more we have in mind the things of humankind, the harder it is to see clearly how to live as Christ would. How can Jesus help us live outside the world’s box?

In our text for today, Jesus outlines four primary areas in which our lives can be different.

1.     We need Christ’s motives. The world’s signs say, “If you don’t look out
        for yourself, no one else will. Grab all the fun you can, because life’s too
        short.” Jesus’ sign says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny
        himself and take up his cross, and follow me.” One pastor was online with
        a soldier getting ready to ship out to Iraq in the Second Gulf War. He writes,
        “The problem for this young man was – he didn’t want to go. He explained
        that he hadn’t joined the army to go to war...he’d joined because of the
        benefits: the pay, the college tuition, the insurance, etc.” Call me crazy, but
        if you join the Armed Forces, that may mean going to war, because that’s
        what armies do. In the same way, we must put aside our desires for immediate
       and selfish gratification and be motivated like Christ, by those who have
       greater needs than ourselves, by those who cannot defend themselves, and to
       those who will come after us.

2.    We need Christ’s aims. The world’s signs say, “Don’t put yourself, your
       reputation or your own security at risk.” Jesus’ sign says, “Whoever wants
       to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will
       save it.” The more tightly we hold onto our lives and our security, the smaller
       and smaller our box gets. Hudson Taylor, the Chinese missionary, said, “Unless
       there is an element of risk in our exploits for God, there is no need for faith.”
       When we take God’s aims as our own, we find ourselves less concerned with
       winning, find ourselves enjoying an inner peace only God can offer, and
       paradoxically, we win all the more. The great Baptist preacher, EV Hill is famous
       for saying, “If God is in it, God will win it.”

3.    We need Christ’s values. The world’s signs say, “Success is the only
       measure of one’s worth.” Christopher Winans, in his book, Malcolm Forbes:
       The Man Who Had Everything
, tells of a motorcycle tour that Forbes took
       through Egypt with his Capitalist Tool motorcycle team. After seeing the
       staggering tombs of pharaohs, Forbes turned to one of his associates and
       asked with all sincerity: “Do you think I’ll be remembered after I die?”
       Forbes is remembered. He is remembered as the man who coined the
       phrase, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That was the wisdom of
       Malcolm Forbes, and his ambition. That’s why he collected motorcycles,
       magazines, Faberge eggs, castles, hot air balloons and countless other
       toys that he can no longer use. There’s a Christian version of once popular
       bumper sticker that reads “In the end, the one with the most toys...still dies.”
      Jesus asks, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit
      his own soul?”

4.   We need Christ’s Ultimate Goal. The world’s signs say, “Image is
      everything.” In other words, enhance the way others view you, and success
      will follow. Jesus’ says, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will
      not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” If we
      keep our eyes on the goal—seeking God’s glory, making God’s Kingdom real
      on earth—then we will share in it ourselves. The great preacher of
      Willowcreek Community Church, Bill Hybels writes in his book,
      Courageous Leadership:

 “I believe that only one power exists on this sorry planet that can do that. It’s the power of the love of Jesus Christ, the love that conquers sin and wipes out shame and heals wounds and reconciles enemies and patches broken dreams and ultimately changes the world, one life at a time. And what grips my heart everyday is the knowledge that the radical message of that transforming love has been given to the church. That means that in a very real way the future of the world rests in the hands of local congregations like yours and mine. It’s the church or it’s lights out. Without churches so filled with the power of God that they can’t help but spill goodness and peace and love and joy into the world, depravity will win the day; evil will flood the world. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Strong, growing communities of faith can turn the tide of history.” (p. 21–22)

When we take on Christ’s motives, we move from self-centered to other-centered. When we have Christ’s aims we move from personal worth to God’s will. When we share Christ’s values we move from success to salvation. When we have Christ’s ultimate goal in mind, we turn our focus from self-image to God’s glory. And when Christ becomes our all in all, the tiny box of the world is broken, the world is changed and God’s Kingdom comes

Maybe you’re like me: Excited about the possibilities, but when I look at myself, the gap between how I live and how I could live in Christ seems so vast I despair of ever bridging it. How do we bring them together? We can’t. But Christ can. At any point we can come to God, voicing our need for God’s help in doing what we cannot do all on our own. We can start fresh, with God’s strength. That is the power of who Jesus is. That is the power of the signs Jesus wears—the Christ, the Son of the Living God—and the power of the signs Jesus gives us.

The world’s box is so small, so limited. The world hangs signs on us that are unattainable and sneers at us when we fail. But if we walk with Jesus—seek Christ’s sacrificial motives and aims, have Christ’s values and Ultimate Goal—then one by one, He helps us take off the signs that are not really us, and the signs that hold us back, until we are left with the only ones that help us live outside the world’s box: Child of God. Follower of the Living Lord. And then Jesus turns to us and asks, “But what about you—who do you say I am?” And our answer will determine whether we will continue to live with the world’s signs in its limited box, or become who God made us to be and help others find their true, God-given signs. And then Jesus turns to us and asks, “But what about you—who do you say I am?”

In today’s passage, Jesus asks the disciples just who they think he is. Jesus wants to know if the crowds are really understanding him. But the crowds are off-base. So then Jesus asks the real question, “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks a word, a name, and the whole course of the Gospel of Matthew changes. Peter says, “You are the Christ,” and the world would never be the same.

 “And Jesus warned the disciples not to tell anyone about him.” Why not? Shouldn’t everyone be told that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One of God? The problem was that though the disciples had figured out that Jesus was the Messiah, they had the wrong idea of what being the Messiah meant. To correct this picture, Jesus “began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

When Peter hears Jesus say these things he decides he’s entitled to be Jesus’ spin doctor. You can almost hear him: “Jesus, buddy, darling, you’re beautiful, really. Alright? I’m you’re biggest fan. You have this great miracle routine and you have amazing insights into the Bible. You gotta gift, you know what I mean. And I have this feelin’ in my bones that you really will sit on the throne of a united Israel. But enough with this suffering stuff. It just doesn’t sell. I mean, you’re the Christ, for crying out loud. Why would people reject you or (God forbid) kill you? I know you mean well, but let’s try something a little more cheerful, huh?”

How often do we echo Peter’s words? How often do we try to limit the power of God by limiting our understanding of Him? We love to hear about how Jesus is our Savior, how he is going to bring justice and peace to the world, and rule with power and love. These are true and important promises we have from knowing Jesus as our Messiah, but they are not the whole story. Without the whole story, we are left with a dangerous half truth—that we can have the promises without the commitment. We are left wondering if maybe Jesus Christ didn’t have to be crucified. We do not want to hear that following Christ means pain and work, struggle and hardship. When we think like this, our minds, as Jesus says to Peter, are filled with limited human thoughts, not with limitless divine vision.


Do you know Jesus Christ? Do you really know Him? There is power in His name signs, the power of promise:

     Jesus Christ will always be present,
     He will lend you His strength when you are weak,
     He will give you a true and lasting inner peace, and
     on the Last Day the Lord Almighty raise you up as Christ was raised from the dead.

Jesus’ signs are the best showing forth of who God is and what God is like. In revealing His true nature to us, God has made Himself vulnerable and we face a choice: will we open ourselves before Him, accepting Him? Will we reveal our true nature in return, the signs we wear deep down—hungry, imperfect and hopeful? God will never reject our true selves—He made us!


Renowned theologian Karl Barth was lecturing to a group of students at Princeton when a student asked him, “Sir, don’t you think that God has revealed himself in other religions and not only in Christianity?” With a modest thunder he stunned the crowd, replying, “No, God has not revealed himself in any religion, including Christianity. He has revealed himself in his Son.”


Christopher Winans, in his book, Malcolm Forbes: The Man Who Had Everything, tells of a motorcycle tour that Forbes took through Egypt in 1984 with his Capitalist Tool motorcycle team. After viewing the staggering burial tomb of King Tut, Forbes seemed to be in a reflective mood.As they were returning to the hotel in a shuttle bus, Forbes turned to one of his associates and asked with all sincerity: “Do you think I’ll be remembered after I die?” Forbes is remembered. He is remembered as the man who coined the phrase, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That was the wisdom of Malcolm Forbes. In fact, that was his ambition. That’s why he collected scores of motorcycles. That’s why he would pay over a million dollars for a Faberge egg. That’s why he owned castles, hot air balloons and countless other toys that he can no longer access.


“I am trying to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make a choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about him being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 55—56)


Lance Armstrong is a phenomenal cyclist who has won the Tour De France for the last four years--and that after having survived cancer! One of the keys to his success as an athlete has been his single-minded devotion to training, including a willingness to suffer physically, to push his mind and body to the limit to prepare himself to win. Listen to this passage which describes his preparations for the 1999 Tour De France:”I went back to training. I rode, and I rode, and I rode. I rode like I had never ridden, punishing my body up and down every hill I could find. . . . I remember one day in particular, May 3, a raw European spring day, biting cold. I steered my bike into the Alps, with Johan following in a car. By now it was sleeting and 32 degrees. I didn’t care. We stood at the roadside and looked at the view and the weather, and Johan suggested that we skip it. I said, “No. Let’s do it.” I rode for seven straight hours, alone. To win the Tour I had to be willing to ride when no one else would ride.” Just like Lance Armstrong had to be willing to ride when no one else would ride, someone also had to die when no one else was willing to die--when no one else could die for our sins. In Gethsemane, Jesus “fell to the ground and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by. And He was saying, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.” He died when no one else would or could die.And He won. SOURCE: Alan Perkins, edited by SermonCentral Staff. Citation: Lance Armstrong, It’s Not About the Bike, pp. 221-222.

Living with Jesus: Cooties Are Not the Problem

by Rev. Doug Gray

A Steelers fan, an Eagles fan, a Falcons fan, and a Patriots fan are climbing a mountain and arguing about who loves his team more. The Steelers fan insists he is the most loyal. 'This is for the Redskins! ' he yells, and jumps off the side of the mountain. Not to be outdone, the Eagles fan shouts, 'This is for the Eagles!' and throws himself off the mountain. The Patriots fan is next to profess his love for his team. He yells, 'This is for everyone!' and pushes the Falcons fan off the mountain.[1] Yes, it’s Superbowl Sunday! And the fan spirit is riding high! Anyone have big plans for the game? How many have a a Superbowl party you are either hosting or going to? Any of you wearing your team colors right now? Any of you like to yell at the screen? Excellent! At first blush, our football plans have nothing to do with today’s passage, but as we scratch the surface, we may be surprised. Jesus has a lot teach us about being fans.

First, God is more important than group membership. A while back I went to a Christian men’s conference and I had a wonderful time! There was a lot of singing and worship, some great speaking and praying. But I have to say my favorite part was talking with people. When I would start a conversation, whoever I was talking to would throw in some good churchy words and expressions—grace, anointed, gifted, worship, Praise the Lord!—and maybe mention when they were saved or how. Then they would look at me, to see how I would respond, and almost everyone did this. I finally realized that they were waiting to hear if I used the right words in response, kind of like a sign/counter-sign thing. If I didn’t say the right words, then I wasn’t one of them—I wasn’t a “real” Christian. The Pharisees are doing that kind of test with Jesus in our passage today. As I mentioned, the Pharisees were one of the up-and-coming religious groups in Jesus’ time. They were the ones who took God seriously, poring over God’s Word, trying to make God part of every moment of every day. One of the things they focused on was staying ritually “clean.” Where the Bible says that only the priests have to wash their hands before eating, the Pharisees encouraged everyone to take holiness as seriously as a priest would. Perhaps part of the reason they ask Jesus why His disciples break the tradition of the elders, is because they want Jesus and his team to be part of their club. Do what we do, and you’re in. Wear your Patriots jersey. Put on your Patriots hat. But how do you know you’re a real fan? What else do you have to do? Push people off of mountains? Where does it stop? Jesus says one place it should stop is when being part of a group or having a tradition is more important than what God wants.

Second, what we say matters, because what we say comes from the overflow of our hearts. A while back, one of my children came into the room and did something irritating, and I snapped at them. And they looked at me with a hurt look, and I paused—as I should have done before I said anything—and realized that I was angry about something that wasn’t any of their doing…and I had taken it out on them. Anybody else have something like that happen? Whatever is going on in our hearts—good, bad or indifferent—we are going to express that in what we do and say. If what we do or say doesn’t come out right, we need to ask ourselves if our hearts are right with God. Jesus talks about this when He quotes Isaiah, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” In his book, Leadership by the Book, Ken Blanchard (the author of One-Minute Manager) writes, “Jesus’ message is not just for the mind. It’s directed at the heart…The underlying message in all his teachings is about character change…rather than asking us just to do [or say] kind things, [Jesus] wants each of us to become a kind person. When that happens, everything we do will be stamped with kindness even when we must disagree with someone…”[2] When I snapped at my family, I knew my heart wasn’t right with God, and I had to apologize. Is God glad when we do or say something kind? Sure…that’s good! But what God really, really wants is for us to become someone who wants what God wants—love that sacrifices, courage in the face pressure, peace when others are coming unglued, joy that cannot be taken away. Rather than all the ugly side of humanity, the overflow of our hearts will be a sweet, refreshing source of grace to everyone! God wants our hearts to be in a right relationship with God…one like Jesus had.

One of the time-honored traditions around sports is a little trash-talking of the other team—like telling jokes about each other’s teams. Since every team does it about the other team, mostly we take it in stride, right? Do we know where it crosses the line, when it moves into the mean or the mean-spirited? We wouldn’t really do some of the things in the joke, like pushing someone off the mountain. Do we know where it goes over the top? I’ve been talking about sports teams, but we should also mention that this applies to politics, especially these days. Does someone have to say the right things in order for us to listen to them or for us to share what we really think? Do we have traditions about party or ideology that we put ahead of what God would want? Do we speak our mind out of anger or fear, lashing out at someone unfairly? Let me be clear:  I am not taking a political stand for the Left or the Right, but I am taking a political stand—that we have to be able to listen to one another, and we need to talk about what God would want based on the Word of God, not just what we think. More than anything, God longs for our hearts to beat in time with God’s heart. By most political standards of his day, Jesus was a fool, and He died for it. By loving steadfastly, by refusing to lash out in anger, hostility or revenge, by showing grace even to the ones who crucified Him, Jesus lived out the love of God and God raised Jesus from the dead. The promise to us in this time is:  if we belong to God’s team first, love steadfastly, refuse to lash out, and show grace to all (especially those who are different from us), we will find the path to new life. But it all begins with us, and being transformed from the inside.


 

[1]source: http://www.jokes4us.com/sportsjokes/nfljokes/atlantafalconsjokes.html

[2]Ken Blanchard et al., Leadership by the Book:  Tools to Transform Your Workplace (NY:  William Morrow and Company, 1999), pp. 40–41.

Living with Jesus: Sometimes Riding with Jesus Is a Picnic

by Rev. Doug Gray

As many of you know, I’m something of a movie buff. One of my favorite movies is called Silverado. It’s a classic Western, with beautiful photography, a great cast, great stunts and a great story.

[Show Clip 37:00–40:26 At one point in the movie, the four heroes ride up to a wagon train. They find the guards dead and the strongbox stolen by crooks—all the money the people in the wagon train need to start their new life in Silverado is gone. Three of the heroes and one of the wagon train’s men decide to go off after the thieves, while the other hero gets the wagon train going. The group going after the strongbox arrives at the thieves’ hideout undetected and crawls up to the edge of an overlooking cliff to discover the thieves are part of a much larger gang of 20 or more, really mean guys in a virtually impregnable box canyon. One of the heroes turns to another and says, “Hangin’ around with you is no picnic.” Looking down at the impossible situation, the other asks, “Anyone got any ideas?”]

I think sometimes we feel a little bit like these heroes: we look out over the world that seems a much larger, meaner gang than we thought it was going to be, and it seems like the world has everything going for it. And we look to Jesus, knowing we are going to go out into that world, and we may sometimes feel like saying, “Hangin’ around with You is no picnic.”

In our passage for today, we see the disciples facing a tough situation—Jesus’ healing and preaching routine has been going a bit too well. Something like 20,000 people have gathered to be with Jesus, to get healing for themselves, for someone they loved, or just to see God do something really cool through Jesus. All these people, and someone’s got to feed them. Jesus’ disciples are panicking—how are we going to feed them? (All I can say is, it’s clear that none of the disciples were one of the legendary women from this church! I think the story would have gone really differently if one of them had been there.) The disciples’ best plan is for the people to head out and look for a place to buy some food. Jesus has another idea.

So what do we learn about Jesus from this story? I think we learn three things:

      1.      Jesus had great compassion for hurting people. His compassion was part of
             what drew people to Him. People instinctively knew they could come to Jesus
             with whatever was worst or most painful and find someone who cared.
      2.    Jesus was all about meeting those needs. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Have a
             nice day.” Jesus heals the people who are sick. The word Matthew uses for sick
             here is usually translated as sick, but it could also mean weak or powerless. So
             we have a sense of Jesus healing not just those who are physically sick, but those
             who are sick at heart, or trapped in a life with no way out. When the people are
             hungry, Jesus meets that need too.
      3.    Jesus looks for the creative solution. He is not limited by the conventional
             wisdom. He takes what he has—five loaves and two fish—and does more than
             anyone could have guessed.
      4.    With Jesus, there was always enough and more to spare. Whether we are
             talking about five loaves and two fish becoming enough to feed half of Fenway,
             or we are talking about the compassion that he shows to the needy, or about
             the grace we experience because of Jesus’ sacrifice—there always seems to
             be enough, with plenty left over to share.

When we think about what Jesus was like, of course, we are also talking about what Jesus is like too. Are we hurting, scared, desperate, frustrated? We can lay all the deepest, hardest pieces of our lives before Jesus in prayer, and know we are still loved, that Jesus isn’t just going to say “Have a nice day!” but help us, heal us. The Jesus we read about, is the same Jesus we can meet.

What can we learn from Jesus? Sometimes we may feel like our heroes in Silverado, scouting things out, and finding we are hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. We can see the needs of those in our community—after school activities, loving daycare, a safe place for good people to do good, a rallying point for the neighborhood, a channel for families to experience grace and gather hope, hungry people needing work and education, and the list goes on and on. Jesus turns to us and says, “You, you do something about it.” Now Jesus does this with a wink and a bit of a smile. Like with his twelve disciples, Jesus knows we can’t do it on our own. Just as the disciples found what they could and offered it to Jesus, so we too have to find what we can, do what we can, and Jesus will take it, bless it, break it and give it to those in need. Suddenly, we will find that our little, by God’s grace, has been multiplied and is enough and to spare. Our fellowship has seen this happen over and over again in its history. We will see it happen again. The vision we are casting together is of a congregation of families, where great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and children can all worship the Living God and find their lives richer and renewed. It’s why we have a wide variety of music styles and feels. Together we try to speak the language and have meaningful worship for people who knew the struggles and sacrifices of the Depression and World War II, and for the people who have never known life without a computer. Together, we look for ways to share the love and grace we have experienced from Jesus Christ with those around us. It’s a challenge we continue to work at. I have loved seeing the commitment so many of us have shown, the encouragement so many have offered to help all these generations learn to love and appreciate each other, and together we come to God with our worship, our praise and our heart for hurting people. Jesus’ Way thrives when creative, compassionate people offer what they have to God to meet the needs of God’s children.

In the movie, Silverado, the heroes do come up with a creative solution—they release the gang’s horses, and steal the strongbox back from the bad guys, returning triumphant to the wagon train. Though our way is not filled with that kind of danger, we still face some risks. Unlike the heroes in the movie, we have a person we trust who is our master and our friend. So let us stay compassionate, look for the needs around us and the creative solution that will share the grace and love we have received. With a wink and a smile, Jesus will take what we offer and as we dedicate it to His purposes, we will find we have become much more than we ever imagined. Today Jesus looks to us, as He has looked at others before us, and says, “You give them what they need.”

Jesus Helps Us Change in Perspective

By Rev. Doug Gray

Children have an amazing way of asking questions that cut through all the fluff of life to the core issues. One day, I was driving to work, getting ready to drop off Hannah at daycare when she asked, “Daddy, what do you want to be when you grow up?” How would you answer that question if you were asked? As I thought about it, I realized how much things have changed in our world. Fifty years ago, children who asked their parents that question could have received a firm answer:  most of the time, whatever job you started after your education, that was it. We could say, “I am a fireman, a homemaker, a teacher, a plumber, a nurse” and that would be true all our lives. That choice defined who we were. Twenty years ago, the average worker could expect to be retrained five times, and now they don’t even have a statistic for it—so my reflection is not unique or even unusual. We live in a day when a single career spanning one’s whole life doesn’t happen very often, and multiple careers is normal. Change is upon us, all around us, even inside of us. How do we make sense of these changes? Where is the road of faith through our world? Our passages for today offer some critical guidance on change.

According to Gene Appel, pastor of a wonderful church in Las Vegas and author of a great seminar entitled “Successfully Managing Change in Your Church,” the Bible has two guiding principles for dealing with change:

1.       Some things never ever change. We stand upon a rock that will never
         move. In Hebrews 13:8, we read, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today
         and forever.” In Psalm 102 we hear, “In the beginning you laid the foundations
         of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish,
         but… you remain the same, and your years will never end.” Jesus quotes Hosea
         when he says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” The love and compassion, the
         power and promises of our God will never end, nor will they change. The hope
         of Jesus Christ who died on a cross for you and me, to make a new life possible,
         these will never change.  

      2.     Some things always change. In preparing for sermons, Paul used papyrus
              and stylus. I use a laptop computer. When Paul preached, he shouted above the
              sound of a market. I use a microphone. He wore a toga. Aren’t you glad I’m not?
              And yet, if he and I are both preaching faithfully, our hearers hear the same
             message, the same hope, the same challenge. As our world and the culture
             around us change, we get to learn a new culture, new ways of expressing our faith,
             and new ways of living grace-filled lives for Christ, in order to communicate the
             Good News of Jesus Christ has for this new day. Gene Appel gave a great
             illustration of this principle. Do you remember the Dairy Association’s wildly
             successful ad campaign, “Got milk?” I love seeing all these hotshot folks
             with milk mustaches. Well, the Dairy Association decided to take this
             campaign to Mexico where it completely bombed. Why? When you ask
             someone in Spanish “Got milk?” you are really asking, “Are your breasts
             giving milk?” The expression of faith has to change to speak God’s love
             to the new day.

But how do we deal with the change that comes?

First, God delights in freshness, change and newness. In our New Testament passage for today, when Matthew gives himself to God and follows Jesus, the first thing he does is throw a party, instead of fasting. The Pharisees and John’s disciples say in effect, “God only likes things the way we like things.” What a small box they tried put God into! Our God is creative. The God we know makes every sunset different and yet they are all spectacular. The God we know works it out so no two snowflakes and no two people are exactly alike. The God we know seems to revel in making octopus, platypus and pussy willows. Our God delights in pouring out new life, new wine and new ways into our world.

Second, because our God is always pouring out what is fresh and exhilarating, let us recognize that sometimes we can’t just fix up the old, comfortable wineskin; sometimes we have to get a whole new wineskin. Jesus says, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.” I have watched people and churches die that way, sad and confused as they work harder at what isn’t working and wonder why they aren’t getting anywhere. But they liked the old, comfortable garment of their life and worship. In sharp contrast, I cannot tell you how excited I am to be with you as we are charting our new course together. Look at the amazing changes that that have helped us become more relevant, more compassionate, and more welcoming to people who are new to God and spirituality! We are coming to the place where we need to take a deep look at ourselves. Are we resting too much on what we have been? Are all the pieces of what we do communicate the grace of God? I believe our best days with God still lie ahead of us.

Third, because our God delights in freshness and change, God will help us, guide us, strengthen, inspire us. Think about all the ways the word, “new,” is associated with God in the Bible. “Behold! I am making all things new!” “…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”(2 Corinthians 5:17) “I will sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth.”(Psalm 96:1) “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you…”(Ezekiel 36:26) God wants us to succeed! God wants us to have the kind of lives other people dream about! God wants us to have a fellowship that people have dreamed of all their lives! God wants to pour new wine and new zest for life into our lives. God will show us how to navigate the waters of change if only we will listen.

My friends, we are living in one of the most exciting times in the history of this planet. We are seeing a kind of change that has come maybe two or three times in human history. The last time people saw change like this began when the printing press was invented in 1458, and the first thing printed on Gutenberg’s printing press in Mainz, Germany was the Bible. Fifty years later, Martin Luther would use the press to kick off the Reformation that would revolutionize political and religious expression. By the mid-1500s, Bibles which had been one to a town, were becoming common enough they could be one to a household. The whole society reorganized. The basic principles of science were worked out as a way to manage the dramatic increase in the amount of information. In the midst of all this change were people of faith. Indeed, Congregationalists were part of the critical mass of people figuring out how to study the Bible and worship the Living God in a way that brought out meaning and changed lives. What is different about change in our time is that the information revolution caused by the invention of the printing press was largely complete in 250–300 years (10 generations), where the digital revolution is likely to complete itself in three generations! We are practically sloshing in new wine! And we worship the God who has a plan for even this to make us greater, to draw more people into the loving arms of God, and speak hope and healing to all who are spiritually hungry.

When Hannah asked me, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” My first answer to Hannah’s question was, “I am doing what I dreamed of doing. I am a minister.” I realized that though the times have changed, the importance of that question is the same, and not just for teenagers anymore. It has become a question all of us must ask over and over. But underneath it is the question of faith, “God, what is it you want me to do with my life? Lord, am I a fresh wineskin ready for the new wine You want to pour into me?” No matter what changes might be swirling around us, I am convinced that for those of us who follow Jesus Christ, our answer can always be, “I am Yours, O Lord. May may life shine with Your love.”

Encountering Jesus: When Jesus Got Wet…

by Rev. Doug Gray

Study Notes
1          gospel. Literally, good news. This line sums up the entire book of Mark, for Mark
           will spend the rest of the book explaining who Jesus is, why He is the Christ
           (lit., anointed one; the Hebrew word is Messiah), what it means for Him to be
           the Son of God, and why all this is Good News. The word, gospel, is first used in
           this way to describe the decrees of Caesar Augustus that would be sent far and
           wide in the Roman Empire.
2–3     Isaiah and Malachi announced God’s promises for the people of Israel at least
          400 years before John the Baptizer or Jesus was born. (See Isaiah 40:3 and
          Malachi 3:1 for more context. Check out what’s around these prophecies to get
          the full richness of what Mark wants us to know from these quotes.) Sometimes
          God’s promises take time to come true. Many people do not live to see the big
          promises come true, and yet they are faithful (Hebrews 11). How extraordinary that
          we live in a time when we can experience the fruit of these promises for which the
         Jews waited centuries. These verses strike both a note of hopeful expectation
          and of urgent preparation. If Jesus is coming are we going to be ready in body
          and soul, with straight paths for Him? If Jesus were to come today, would our
          hearts and lives be ready to receive Him? desert. The word for desert or
          wilderness calls to mind the way God guided the Hebrews after their escape from
          Egypt. Each time a person enters the wilderness, they have intense encounters
          with God that prepare them for major growth.
4–5     John was not a normal person. A true prophet, John combined a focused
           life with a ministry to the broken and hurting. He offered a baptism of
           repentance
for the forgiveness of sins so that people could leave their old
           ways and find a new relationship with God.
6         Locusts tend to be bitter, but substantive (crunchy too I understand). Wild
           honey
is sweet and because it’s wild, it comes directly from God’s providence
           and carries the intimation of dependence on the wild, untamed God who serves it.
7         Despite John’s evident charisma and very successful ministry, he knows he is
           not “the One.” John is the one who comes to prepare the way.
8         Just as John prepares the way for Jesus and recognizes the power
           and precedence of Jesus, so too, the baptism of repentance prepares the way
           for the Holy Spirit, and the greatness possible through a full and abundant life
           in Jesus with the Holy Spirit.
9–11    These signs and wonders are straight out of the Old Testament. Many
           people of Jesus’ day believed—as many do today—that the time of miracles
           and revelation was past. Jesus’ Presence changes all that. We have a sense
           that the End Times are beginning with Jesus baptism. God is Present in all Three
           Persons at this event:  The voice of God the Father, the obedience of Jesus
           the Son, and the Spirit descending like a dove. God also speaks directly to
           Jesus, announcing His love and pleasure in Jesus.

Message

Anyone ever go on a family trip? What was one of your favorite places to go? When I was a kid, my family went on lots of road trips. With every trip I have ever gone on, the beginning of the trip had two stages:  the promise and the preparation. Our passage today has these stages too.

When I was a child, trips always began late at night, either driving home from my grandparents or when my parents thought I was asleep. They would begin discussing the possibility of a trip—where we might go, what we might do, when it might take place. I would listen to Mom and Dad talk and hang on every word, afraid to speak and break the spell of exciting hope. I loved this part of the trip—the hope that something might happen was thrilling! The trip for our passage began centuries, even thousands of years before Jesus was born. Mark quotes Isaiah writing probably in the 500s before Christ, and Malachi writing 400 years before Christ.

2    “I will send my messenger ahead of you,
        who will prepare your way”—
3      “a voice of one calling in the desert,
     ‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
        make straight paths for him.’”

We learn about the promise of peace and soul-satisfaction, of power and justice, of a leader who would really care and open our eyes to who God really is. Amazing things would happen when this person came. In his introduction, Mark offers a teasing glimpse of Jesus when he writes, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Good News? What’s good news about Jesus? Christ? How do we know God chose Him for anything? Son of God? How do you know? What does that mean? I find most people can be seriously turned off by Christians…some followers of Jesus are in your face, bash you over the head and drag you off to their caves. I even saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, “Jesus save me from your followers.” Of course, this bumper sticker also hints that Jesus is a really interesting person—full of mystery and wisdom, outrageous welcome and baffling sacrifice. I find the real Jesus to be one of the most intriguing people ever. So I am excited about the possibility of journeying to a deeper understanding of one of the greatest people ever.

The second stage of any trip is preparation. What do you do to get ready to go out the door? When we are getting ready for a spiritual journey, we also need to prepare. In our passage for today, we see John preparing people for their spiritual journeys. If we want to travel with God, we are going to have get clean. We’re going to have to change the oil in our hearts. John is really honest about how this happens:  we have to talk about what’s not working in our lives, what’s not right, where we need help. The other day I was working in our basement, not the cleanest section of our house. I was hauling trash, scrubbing floors, organizing, cleaning out, throwing out. By the time we were done, I was a sweaty, dusty, dirty, greasy mess. I wanted desperately to get clean. When we want to get clean, we shower. Do we step in our dirty clothes? No, first we strip down and get out of the dirty stuff. In the same way, we cannot get spiritually clean without stripping down our hearts and get out of the dirty, grimy ways of thinking and being. When we are done, we get fresh clothes, to begin anew, to be ready for new adventures of life.

What do we learn about Jesus from this mix? We learn that there was a lot of excitement before Jesus even got there—people were itching for God to do something amazing in their lives. We learn that Jesus was not into the pride or prestige factor. As good as Jesus was, He still prepared Himself for His journey by washing up. As amazing as Jesus was, He humbled Himself before His Father. In that humility, God speaks and says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Of all the things God could have said, those words are the ones I think we most need to hear right now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his Nobel Prize speech,

“Every [person] lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live….This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual "lag" must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul.”

The soul grows beautiful and strong and hopeful only in the presence of love. So it is that we are at a time when we most need to hear God say to us, “You are my child, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” John says, “Perfect love casts out fear” and yet so many of us are fearful now. We see fear in anger, rage and frustration—fear that we cannot or will not get what we believe we need. To that fear in us, God says, “You are my child whom I love,” so that fear can unclench its fists, and we can open our hands to receive hope. We see fear in despair and addiction—fear that we will never get what we want, that life is hopeless and so we give up and give in. To that fear in us, God says, “You are my child whom I love,” so that fear can unclench its heart, and we can open our hearts to receive God’s deep delight in us. Why are we so buffeted now as a society? Are we focused so much on what we think and what we want to say that we do not take time to ask what God would want? Time and again, we need to let God’s words penetrate our hearts, “You are my child, whom I love.” We can always start our journey fresh.

As you came in, I hope you had the chance to pick up a small glass bead. It looks a bit like a drop of water beading up after a rain storm has washed the dirt of the world away. God has whispered promises to you, making your heart restless for God, all in preparation for today and the renewing of your journey. Today, God wants to wash the dirt of the world away from you as well. The promise of something better has pulled us here today—and the promise has been coming true. But before the promise can reach its fullness, we need to set aside the pride we may feel, that we have all the answers, that we are good enough all on our own and don’t need anyone’s help. Some of us need to set aside the darkness we may feel, that we don’t have any answers, that we aren’t good enough. Even Jesus needed John’s help to get clean. Hold the bead and look into it with me. Imagine the dirty areas of your life that you can’t ever seem to get clean enough. The living water of Jesus can wash it away so you can begin again. Imagine the needy, wounded areas of your life that you can’t ever seem to fix. The living water of Jesus can cleanse your wounds and begin the healing you’ve always wanted.

Presence — God rips open the heavens and says “I love you!” Sometimes the journey becomes is the point, not the destination.

 

The Music & the Mystery: We Three Kings

by Rev. Doug Gray

A Brief Note about Pastoral Ethics and Preaching:  Preaching is an event that is meant to be fresh for the hearers, so under normal conditions most pastors recognize that it is unethical to preach a sermon more than once if there’s anyone in the room who has heard it before. However, if you’re going to another church—as I was supposed to do for “Switcheroo Sunday”—then that’s perfectly fine. With the crazy weather the evening of January 7, the pastors decided to “unswitch” which left me with a prepared sermon I had already preached to my fellowship. The sermon below I originally preached a year ago, and had shortened and adapted it to preach at the First Congregational Church in New Bedford. I ask your forgiveness if you have heard it before. It was a good sermon when I preached it the first time, but I hope it’s a little better this time around.

After all the Christmas carols we’ve been singing, it seems fitting, that we should pause for a moment and consider the Christmas carols as they might have been written for those with psychological disorders:

     •    Schizophrenia — Do You Hear What I Hear?
     •    Narcissism — Hark The Herald Angels Sing (About Me)
     •    Paranoia — Santa Claus Is Coming To Get Me.
     •    Dementia — I Think I'll Be Home For Christmas.
     •    Manic — Deck the Halls and Walls and House and Lawn and Streets and Stores
           and Office and Town and Spare No Expense!
     •    Histrionic — You Better Watch Out, I'm Gonna Cry, I'm Gonna Pout, then MAYBE
           I'll tell you why.
     •    Multiple Personality Disorder — We Three Kings Disoriented Are...

I think for many of us, Christmas is a mixed blessing—a time we treasure and a time that makes us crazy. Our passage for today is the story of Epiphany, and through the great hymn, my prayer is that we would find ourselves much better oriented!

We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar -
Field and fountain, moor and mountain -
Following yonder star.

Isn’t it funny that we use the word “orient” to talk about how we know where we are, but it actually comes from the Latin word for “East.” The kings (or more properly, magi) in our passage are from the East, and they are following an astronomical event:  the extremely rare conjunction of planets:  Jupiter (the planet of rulers) and Saturn (the planet of Palestine) in 7 BC. Johann Kepler calculated that it happens only every 805 years, and that they came close three times in 7 BC in the constellation Pisces—the constellation connected with the Hebrews and with the Last Days. These magi are the brightest of the bright, the rocket scientists of their day. They have been crunching the numbers, predicting the paths of the stars, and by all their calculations, some amazing ruler will be born in Palestine. Maybe they didn’t know much about Hebrew or Judaism. Maybe they didn’t understand the political forces they would unleash in Palestine. But they knew if they went where the star said go, they would find a great king.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain;
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

Herod was the King of Israel when Jesus was born. A great builder and a crafty politician, Herod was actually only half Jewish! He had worked out a deal with the Romans so that he could be king, and he mostly kept the Jews out of the Romans’ hair for 34 years.[1] He was admired by some, hated by many and feared by everyone. When Jesus was born, Herod was in a sorry state with all sorts of physical ailments and addictions. So when the magi came, asking “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” you can imagine Herod being scared, furious and “troubled…and all of Jerusalem with him.” The gold these magi carry is for a king, but his kingdom is not Palestine, nor of this world.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high. [Refrain]

The story is told that three small boys were in a Christmas play at school. They represented the three wise men and they were to give their gifts to baby Jesus. The first boy stepped forward, held out the gift in his hands and said, “Gold.” The second boy stepped forward, held out his gift and said, “Myrrh.” The third boy stepped forward, held out his gift and said, “Frank sent this.” We understand gold, and we’ll get to myrrh in a moment, but what the heck is frankincense? Frankincense is tree sap from a desert tree in desert Africa and the Middle East. When you burn it, it sends up a sweet scent of piney lemon. People even today light incense—frank and otherwise—as a prayer. Not only does it smell good, but the smoke rises, and the thought in Jesus’ day is that as the smoke rises, so do our prayers. In ancient times, the other idea was that if you burned something that smelled good and cost you a lot of money, the gods would pay closer attention. But Jesus came to show us that God was already paying attention, and that God listened to our prayers because God loves us and desires a relationship with us. In fact, frankincense hints that perhaps God didn’t just send this baby…perhaps God Himself came to us in this baby!

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom -
Sorr'wing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Imagine you’re hanging out at home when you get a knock on the door. When you open the door, someone shouts, “You won!” A camera and sound crew are rolling. People are popping confetti and it’s flying all over the place. Your neighbors start to gather to see what is going on. And the question in your mind is “What did I win?” It’s a million dollars, the most expensive perfume in the world…and a really nice coffin. What?! Probably Jesus’ parents experienced something like that. A knock on the door and it’s three kings plus their entourage. They have brought gifts for your child. Gold you can spend on anything; Jesus and his family are taken care of. Frankincense is cool; it smells really nice. And then there’s myrrh, the earthy, licorice-smelling resin and oil the people of Jesus’ day used in preparing bodies for burial. What?! Myrrh is the reminder that this young child, would grow to be

…despised and rejected by men,
        a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering…
Surely he took up our infirmities
        and carried our sorrows,
    yet we considered him stricken by God,
        smitten by him, and afflicted. (Isaiah 53:3, 4)

 

And so the gifts of royalty, and of divinity, and of sacrifice are given to Jesus and foreshadow, this Jesus Who is truly our King and truly our God is crucified, and sealed in a stone-cold tomb…prepared for burial long before.

And if that was the end of the story, we would not be here this morning! Certainly not with joy in our hearts or grace in our lives!

Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice;
Alleluia, alleluia!
Earth to heav'n replies.

Risen from the dead, Jesus’ sacrifice turns to resurrection power, and a mere martyr becomes evidently much more. That is the hope we have:  that when we offer ourselves as Jesus did, when we set aside what we want to do for what God wants, when we love the least, the last and the lost, we too will have more than we thought, become more than we imagined. It’s the hope of Easter, in the Christmas manger.

The magi were not believers. “Messiah” was not a word that meant much if anything to them. They were people—like many of us—who saw that something really amazing was going to happen, and they wanted to be part of it. The magi are seekers after the Higher Power, and because they followed it, they found their way to Jesus. In a sense, they are symbols of the truly oriented, signs that Jesus is indeed, the Way and the Truth and the Life. They remind us that we are all of us on our own journey to find God, and that God will show us the Way, and help us walk it.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.


Note on Our Calendar
Jesus was probably born in 6 or 7 BC. How can it be that Jesus is born Before Christ? In 525 AD, a man named Dennis the Short (for real!) set up a new calendar so that time would be measured by Jesus’ life instead of by the founding of Rome or the reign of a Roman Emperor (some of whom persecuted Christians). Dennis the Short counted backwards from his time, and came pretty close. Now we have his calendar, but have done more precise counting so that Jesus was born in 6 or 7 BC, and died at the age of thirty-three in year AD 27 or 28. There was no year 0! AD stands for “Anno Domini” which is Latin for “in the year of our Lord.” Since according to Christians, Jesus is still alive, we are still “in the year of our Lord.”

[1]Herod ruled as a “tetrarch” (part of a series of four kings) starting in 41 BC. In 37, Herod and the Romans captured Jerusalem, and Herod became the King of Palestine. Herod died in 4 BC (give or take a year). For more info on the oddnesses of our calendar, see the brief “Notes on Our Calendar” at the end.

The Surprise of Joy

by Rev. Doug Gray

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, invigorating, exuberant joy?

Christmas Day: The Real Surprise

by Rev. Doug Gray

Our children are a really blessing to us, especially true around Christmas time. There’s so much wonder about Christmas that it’s sometimes hard to grasp, especially when our lives get cluttered with presents and rushing and crowds. Or perhaps we feel there are no real surprises left. What can children help us see about Christmas?

A while back I received an e-mail from one of our young adults, that told this story.

We were the only family with children in the restaurant. I sat Erik in a highchair and noticed everyone was quietly sitting and talking. Suddenly, Erik squealed with glee and said, “Hi.” He pounded his fat baby hands on the high chair tray. His eyes were crinkled in laughter and his mouth was bared in a toothless grin, as he wriggled and giggled with merriment. I looked around and saw the source of his merriment. It was a man whose pants were baggy with a zipper at half-mast and his toes poked out of would-be shoes. His shirt was dirty and his hair was uncombed and unwashed. His whiskers were too short to be called a beard and his nose was so varicose it looked like a road map. We were too far from him to smell, but I was sure he smelled. His hands waved and flapped on loose wrists. “Hi there, baby. Hi there, big boy. I see ya, buster,” the man said to Erik.

My husband and I exchanged looks, “What do we do?”

Erik continued to laugh and answer, “Hi.” Everyone in the restaurant noticed and looked at us and then at the man. The old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby.

Our meal came and the man began shouting from across the room, “Do ya patty cake? Do you know peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek-a-boo.” Nobody thought the old man was cute. He was obviously drunk.

My husband and I were embarrassed. We ate in silence; all except for Erik, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring skid row bum, who in turn, reciprocated with his cute comments.

We finally got through the meal and headed for the door. My husband went to pay the check and told me to meet him in the parking lot.

The old man sat poised between me and the door. “Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik,” I prayed. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back trying to sidestep him and avoid any air he might be breathing. As I did, Erik leaned over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby's “pick-me-up” position. Before I could stop him, Erik had propelled himself from my arms to the man's.

Suddenly a very old smelly man and a very young baby consummated their love and kinship. Erik in an act of total trust, love, and submission laid his tiny head upon the man's ragged shoulder. The man's eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, pain, and hard labor, cradled my baby's bottom and stroked his back. No two beings have ever loved so deeply for so short a time. I stood awestruck.

The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms and his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm commanding voice, “You take care of this baby.”

Somehow I managed, “I will,” from a throat that contained a stone.

He pried Erik from his chest, lovingly and longingly, as though he were in pain. I received my baby, and the man said, “God bless you, ma'am, you've given me my Christmas gift.” I said nothing more than a muttered thanks. With Erik in my arms, I ran for the car.

My husband was wondering why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly, and why I was saying, “My God, my God, forgive me.”

I had just witnessed Christ's love shown through the innocence of a tiny child who saw no sin, who made no judgment; a child who saw a soul, and a mother who saw a suit of clothes. I was a Christian who was blind, holding a child who was not. I felt it was God asking, “Are you willing to share your son for a moment?” when He shared His Son for all eternity. The ragged old man, unwittingly, had reminded me, “To enter the Kingdom of God, we must become as little children.”

Christmas is for children, and for the child in the heart of each of us. Like children, we too can get caught up in the mystery of the Infinite, “Let there be light!” God who came down to be born a baby! Like children, we can wrinkle our noses to think that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, was laid in a smelly, old feeding trough rather than a crib! Like children, we can be encouraged that if the only people invited to see this wonder were shepherds who didn’t smell any better than the smelly guy in the restaurant! And the real surprise, the greatest surprise of all, is not that Jesus, Savior and Son of God, was born on a night 2000 years ago, but that He could be born all over again in us today. May the wonder of children at the miracle and mystery of Christmas fill all our hearts, lighten our loads and put a song in our hearts. May we, like the shepherds, return to our homes thanking and praising God for the wonder of Christmas.