God’s Signs Point to…

by Rev. Doug Gray


One day Jesus and Moses went golfing. They came to a par-3 hole with a large water hazard—really a lake—in the middle. Moses picked out a seven iron and teed off, laying up perfectly just short of the lake. Jesus went to his bag and pulled out his 2-iron. He said to Moses, “The other day I saw Tiger Woods hit the green on this hole with a 2-iron. If Tiger Woods can do it, so can I.” So Jesus teed up, swung…and chunked his ball into the lake. “You know, Jesus,” Moses offered, “you really ought to try something a bit lighter.” But Jesus would hear nothing of it:  “If Tiger Woods can do it, I can do it.” So Jesus teed off again, swinging with all his might, and chunked the ball into the lake again. “Jesus,” Moses said, “I know you are amazing, but I really think you should try laying up before the water hazard.” Jesus quickly responded, “No way! If Tiger can do it, I can do it.” So Jesus teed off again, swinging even harder, only to see this ball go kerplunk into the lake too. At this point, Jesus realized that he had used his last ball, and Moses was not about to let Jesus lose Moses’ balls in the hazard, so they headed down to the lake to see if Jesus could retrieve any of his balls. When they got to the edge of the lake, Jesus set down his bag and walked out onto the lake, bending over to look for the balls he had lost. While Jesus was walking on the water looking for his golf balls, a guy in a cart pulled up next to Moses. “Who does that guy think he is—Jesus Christ?” “No,” said Moses, “he thinks he’s Tiger Woods.”

So how did the guy recognize Jesus? (He was walking on water.) Even in the joke, walking on water is a sure sign of who Jesus is. A sign points to something. A restroom sign is not the restroom; it just shows the way to a restroom. In the Gospel of John, Jesus only does 7 miracles, and John never calls them miracles, he calls them “signs.” Each is meant to be a “sign” pointing to Jesus, showing us the way to understand Jesus better. In our passage for today, we have two of the seven signs, and the question we need to ask ourselves is, “Where do they point?”

The first sign finds Jesus taking five small loaves of bread and two fish, and feeding more than five thousand people. What sorts of things could this point to? First, it points to God’s great compassion for our physical needs; God wants us to have what we need to live from day-to-day—food, shelter, clothing, fulfillment. We have to do our part, recognizing that God wants to have what we really and truly need. Second, this sign points out God’s mind-blowing abundance. Jesus doesn’t feed 20 or even a hundred—He feeds more than 5000! Third, this sign points to God’s ability to escape the limitations of our imagination. Philip can’t imagine how they can find enough money to buy what they need. Andrew can’t imagine how five loaves and two fish could be enough. They are thinking inside the box. How do you get food? They only know about buying it or sharing it. As John is writing this, he remembers how the children of Israel, newly freed from Egypt and wandering in a desert wilderness, wondered how they would eat, what they would drink. From inside their little boxes, these people who saw God’s power part the Red Sea can’t imagine how God could help them make it. God provided water from rocks, manna from heaven, and quail from the sky. This sign points to God’s compassion for our physical needs, God’s abundance and God’s powerful love.

The second sign finds Jesus walking across the lake to his disciples in a boat. This sign points to God’s rule over chaos. When Jesus walks through the wind and the waves—walks on top of the water—he demonstrates that no matter how much chaos and craziness comes to our lives, God can still dominate it, still penetrate it, still cross it to be with us. This sign also points to God’s great compassion for our spiritual and emotional needs. Did you notice how the people tried to make Jesus king? Did you notice how Jesus dodged them? The glory they had in mind for Jesus was earthly glory—political power, financial wealth, a kingdom—only as they understood it. Jesus will not reveal his glory for that. But when Jesus’ disciples are scared and alone in the middle of storm in the middle of a lake, Jesus comes to them and says, “I AM. Do not be afraid.” By saying, “I AM,” he is making a far greater claim than just being king. He is saying he is God. Why does he reveal more to the disciples now than he was willing to earlier? I think because God knew how much they needed to be reassured, knew how much they needed to know they were safe. This sign points to God’s rule and God’s compassion for our deepest heart-needs.

If in fact, these “signs” point to who Jesus is, then they are also road signs that point to how we should be—aware of God’s Presence, trusting in God’s Providence, believing in God’s Purpose, living as God’s children. When we look at the needs of the people around us—those in this fellowship, those in Quincy, those in around the world—the needs seem so colossal, so beyond anything we can meet, that like the disciples we throw up our hands. Even though we can’t imagine how God can do incredibly great, mind-blowing things, like Andrew, we just need to bring what we have to God, and let God bless it and discover that something amazing has happened! There is enough and to spare for everyone! If God is over all, then we have nothing to fear. Indeed, we can count on God coming to us, giving us glimpses of what God’s glory in the very storms of our lives.

So how do we recognize Jesus in our lives? These signs point to Jesus the Christ, to the awesome love of God on which we can build our whole lives. These signs are not outside of the world, and they do not ignore the realities of our world. On the contrary, the greatest sign of all…the sign of the cross on which Jesus died points the way to a deeper, fuller life by putting our lives on the line for God. The sign of the cross points to how God’s awesome love is greater than the limitations of evil, corruption, suffering and death. These signs show us that God loves us so much he blows away the limitations of our imaginations, providing for the needs of our bodies and the needs of our hearts. God’s love is stronger than the tiny boxes we try to put God in, cutting through the storms and chaos with a word, “I am God. Don’t be afraid.” Somehow knowing God “is” means that grace is possible, that love can win, that joy is abundant, that hopes come true. These signs show us the way to experiencing the awesome, heart-filling, sacrificial power of the love of God.

Explosive Grace: Changing Our Recordings for God’s Recordings

So a while back, I found this great app. It makes sound effects. It’s hilarious! Want to hear?

[play some sounds]

That’s great, isn’t it? So did you notice that they all have at least one thing in common? What are some of those things?

[take responses from the congregation]

Very good! Yes, you are really paying attention. The biggest thing that they have in common is that they are recordings, and no matter how many times you push the button, you get the same sound. I think a lot of us have recordings we have made over the course of our lives, but they not only record people’s voices, but feelings as well. You make a bonehead play in a game, and what kinds of recordings do you get? “Wah-wah. You stink!” You do just the right thing at the right time, “The fans go wild! Cheers!” Or maybe something happens and a recording of your mom or dad comes out of your mouth. Sometimes these recordings are helpful, but sometimes they begin to get in the way. In our passage today, Paul talks about how to free ourselves from the recordings that can dominate our lives.
First, recognize the emptiness of the recordings. Paul writes, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” The word for “conceit” can mean empty of honor or glory. Tim Keller adds, “So conceit is a deep insecurity, a perceived absence of honor and glory, leading to a need to prove our worth to ourselves and others.” This emptiness often leads us to do one of the things Paul warns us not to do:  provoking or envying. Keller writes, “’Provoking’ is the stance of someone who is sure of his or her superiority, looking down on someone perceived to be weaker. ‘Envying’ is the stance of someone who is conscious of inferiority, looking ‘up’ at someone they feel is above them.” What’s interesting is that when we do either of these things, we are focused on ourselves, right? Either we are proud that we are just soooo good, or we are worried that we are not good enough. And in an odd way, we are looking to how other people make us look and feel to find out how we should look and feel. My sophomore year in high school I wanted desperately for people to like me. I wasn’t really sure how I fit in, if I could fit in, but I really wanted to be liked and included by the kids in my church youth group. I tried so hard, mostly out of insecurity. At school that same year, however, I have a feeling that I was insufferably arrogant about my classes, which were going well. Both my fears and my arrogance came out of my insecurity. Regardless of whether one of our internal recordings is provoking us to feel superior or trying to make us envy what others have, what they offer is empty promises. Being self-focused and depending on others to know how to feel about ourselves will never find us hope or meaning or purpose. The recordings that tell us how to feel are empty.
Second, recognize the power of God’s messages. One of my father-in-law’s favorite songs has a chorus that goes like this:

     Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble,
     When you're perfect in every way,
     I can't wait to look in the mirror,
     I get better looking each day.

I can imagine someone trying very hard to be humble, but of course the harder we try, the more pride we get in our work…which is not very humble. C.S. Lewis once said “humility is not thinking less of yourself: it is thinking of yourself less.” That’s the “law of Christ” Paul talks about us fulfilling in verse 2—thinking of God more and ourselves less. Jesus lived and taught and died and rose, not for Himself, but for His heavenly Father, and so we too might hear God say, “I love you! I love you for who you are not what you’ve done! I loved you before you did anything to deserve it.” That’s grace. Those are the recordings God wants us to listen to not only with our ears, but with our minds and our hearts. We end up not comparing ourselves to others, but simply trying to live truly in light of God’s great “I love you!”
Finally, we carry each other’s burdens, but our own load. I remember as an 8th grader, I realized on a Friday, that I had a major project due in English on Monday, and I hadn’t even started. At first, my mom got after me a little for lack of planning, but before long I was buckled down and writing poem after poem, working on the clipart that had to go with it. My mom worked with me off and on, not doing the heavy-lifting for me, but staying up late with me, helping mem to organize and hole-punch the project. She carried my burden—isolation (I felt like I was alone in my problem), frustration (It was going so slowly, but she helped me understand it was still going), despair (I will never get this done!)—but still it was my load. I will never forget my mother’s kindness that weekend. The image Jesus uses is a yoke, a kind of harness for two that allows sharing the load and learning the task. Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.”(Matthew 11:28–30) When we help carry other people’s burdens, that’s the way to do it. Not provoking or envying, not condemning or judging—just doing what we can. We can’t live another person’s life—they have to carry their own load—but we can help them carry the burdens.
I do love the sound effects app, but I like some of my internal recordings a lot less. I’ve spent most of my life trying to become aware of the messages I have received from others. The farther I go down that path, the more I realize they have no real hold on me. Oh sure I have knee-jerk reactions to things some times, but knowing God loves me, knowing that God died for me, knowing that what God thinks about me is what really matters, that’s really helped me take a deep breath. You see we really play for an audience of One, for Jesus. We are all learning to trust that the Spirit will give us what we need when we need it. May we learn to lose the empty conceit and gain the fulfilling trust. By the grace of God, we have today to live in light of that grace, to invite God to change out our records, for His.

Explosive Grace: Gospel Character

In life, we all face questions that get at the heart of existence. I ran across one the other day:  Where do the characters go when I use my backspace or delete them on my PC? It turns out characters go to different places, depending on whom you ask:

  • A Buddhist might say: If a character has lived rightly, and its karma is good, then after it has been deleted it will be reincarnated as a different, higher character. Those funny characters above the numbers on your keyboard will become numbers, numbers will become letters, and lower-case letters will become upper-case.
  • A 20th-century, bitter, cynical, nihilist might say: Who cares? It doesn't really matter if they're on the page, deleted, undeleted, underlined, etc. It's all the same.
  • Stephen King might say: Every time you hit the (Del) key you unleash a tiny monster inside the cursor, who tears the poor, unsuspecting characters to shreds, and eats them, bones and all. Hah, hah, hah!
  • Some Christians might say: The nice characters go to Heaven, where they are bathed in the light of happiness. The naughty characters are punished for their sins. Naughty characters are those involved in the creation of naughty words…
  • Dave Barry's explanation: The deleted characters are shipped to Battle Creek, Michigan, where they're made into Pop-Tart filling; this explains why Pop-Tarts are so flammable, while cheap imitations are not flammable.
  • IBM's explanation: The characters are not real. They exist only on the screen when they are needed, as concepts, so to delete them is merely to de-conceptualize them. Get a life.
  • An animal rights activist might say: You've been DELETING characters??? Can't you hear them SCREAMING??? Why don't you go CLUB some BABY SEALS while wearing a MINK coat, you pig!!!!

Of course, I’m not sure Jesus would have much to say about deleting characters on a screen, but I think Jesus has a lot to teach us about character. In fact, I think perhaps the greatest question of our time is not what happens to the characters we delete, but how do we build character that is good news? Paul it turns out has been tip-toeing his way towards talking about character, and in our passage he uses the metaphor of fruit to get to the core of the mystery of building character!

But what is character? Character is who we really are when there’s no one else around, but it is sometimes most visible when we are with others. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Reputation is the shadow. Character is the tree.” So the way people know our character is by what we do, define one decision at a time, every day, all our lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson even said, “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”[1] Following Emerson’s logic, we might think controlling our thoughts is the key to building character. Paul thinks it’s like growing fruit.

Because what we really long for are the fruits of the Spirit. Timothy Keller points out four things about how the Spirit works that are like fruit.

First, fruit is gradual. Like apples on a tree, zucchini on the vine, or raspberries on the bush, it happens day by day, moment by moment, the individual changes so small they are almost imperceptible. Children are like that too. We look at a child and it seems like we only look away for a moment, and they have grown!

Second, fruit is inevitable. When we are trying to follow Christ, trying to know Christ better, trying to make more of ourselves available to Christ, we don’t have to stress about whether we will have fruit. We don’t have to worry. Like pears on a tree, beans on the stalk and blueberries on the bush, the fruit will come.

Third, fruit comes in bunches. Have you noticed that with fruit, you usually don’t get one apple, one zucchini, one raspberry at a time? It seems to come in multiples. So it is with the fruit of the Spirit. A loving person has joy and peace, shows patience and kindness and becomes a person of integrity and trustworthiness, marked by gentleness and self-discipline. Some of these we may be better at than others because of our temperament, but those who sincerely follow Christ will find Christ’s character growing and fruiting in them.

Fourth, fruit comes from roots. Without good roots, the fruit will not grow and fill out, having the sweetness it’s meant to have. So it is for us who are seeking Jesus. If we are only living on our strength, our wisdom, our resources, then Christ will never come to full fruit in us. Jesus even said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If someone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit.”

     How do we build character? When I was a kid, my parents would ask me to weed the garden in the hot sun, and I didn’t really want to do it. They said, “It builds character.” When I attended basketball camp and had to play basketball 12 hours a day, my leaders said to me, “It builds character.” When I had a really mean boss, but I really needed the job, someone said to me, “It builds character.” When I spent four and half years dating Cynthia, but most of it away from each other, we used to sigh and say, “It builds character.” When a grandma called me to come be with her granddaughter after her baby died, and I had a recital to go to and a sermon to write, I said to myself, “It builds character.” We build character as we face ourselves, as more than one good meets another and we must choose. . In verse 5:16 and 17, Paul talks about the two competing parts of us who have chosen to follow Jesus. The self-seeking, self-focused, selfish part of ourselves he calls the “sinful nature” that reflects our brokenness and fearfulness. The Spirit is that part of who we are that is all for Jesus, completely redeemed for God, all-in for our Lord. Who am I going to follow in this moment? We have a chance to get ahead at work, or meet our child after school. We have a chance to get some email done, or go for a walk with our spouse. These are not easy choices—getting ahead at work can mean a better life for our family, but time with our families builds relationships. Or maybe someone verbally attacks us and we have the chance to attack back or find a different path. The sinful nature is us at our smallest, meanest, and most self-indulgent. Paul’s first list of the sinful nature are selfish, self-indulgent, and fearful responses to life. They are all things we do, or attitudes we have and they are all about immediate gratification. When we live by the Spirit, we break free from our limitations, and can choose the path of love and grace.



[1]Ralph Waldo Emerson is the first to phrase this thought this way. It’s an ancient thought. For an interesting exploration of the history of it, see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/10/watch-your-thoughts/.

Explosive Grace: True Fatherhood

by Rev. Doug Gray

     One of our family’s favorite TV shows for a while was called Clean House. A while back, they went in search of the messiest home in America. They found it in St. Louis. The daughter, Bridget, had written to the show, pleading for help with the home she lived in with her mother, Sharon. Not long after, a team of people showed up at their door, ready to help them sort through their clutter and mess. As the team stepped gingerly through the piles and mounds of clutter, Sharon denied she had a problem with hoarding things, or that she had a problem with buying things and bringing them home, even if she didn’t need them and couldn’t use them. With the team’s help, Sharon and Bridget put most of their clutter in a rummage sale. Get this:  they had enough stuff to fill an empty K-Mart—with departments! With the money they made at the rummage sale (plus some matching money from the show), the Clean House team were able to redesign and organize Sharon and Bridget’s home. What amazes me is how hard it was for Sharon and Bridget to part with things which in most cases they hadn’t seen or used in years, and it had all piled up to the point where their lives had become narrow lanes through their home. Many of us have issues like this—oh, maybe not having piles and piles of clutter. But many of us sometimes feel trapped by our lives, as if they are closing in until we only have narrow lanes in which we live. What is it that keeps us in those narrow lanes of living? And how do we escape from the prisons in which we live? Our passage for today talks about freedom, how we give it up and how we can find it again.
     We begin with how we give it up. The Galatians are struggling with both their fears and their hopes. The well-intentioned missionaries have played on their hopes by encouraging them to “get serious” and “go hardcore” in their faith by loading on a pile of rules to their walk with God. But these missionaries have also played on their fears:  what if what we are doing for God is not enough? What if we have to show our love more than we are now? This fear can take us into dark places. Like Sharon, afraid to give up any of her things, afraid to make the changes that will open things up, we too can clutter our lives with rules thinking they mean God will love us better, while they gradually curtail our freedom. We forget that we can’t make God love us more than God already does.
      Of course, the other extreme is the folks who throw out all the rules. I remember my first semester of college. Yeah baby! Mom’s not around. Dad’s not around. Woohoo! I’m staying up all night! Yeah, and I’m eating pizza and frootloops at every meal. I thought, “I’m walking on the wild side!” I could go on, but maybe that’s for another time. The point is that kind of living lost its luster pretty quickly for me. It felt like what mattered most to me got lost in that approach. I realized going to classes was actually something I wanted for me—a way to say “I love you!” to the me I wanted to become, and a way to say “Thank you!” to the God who gave me the gifts that brought me there. I started looking for ways to make a difference in the lives of the people around me. I didn’t have the words for it, and some of the time I felt really isolated from people and angry at God. I was trying to figure out how to be the boss of my life, but I hadn’t figured out how to trust God to be my real boss. I was trying to learn what Paul means when he writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
       Which may lead us to ask ourselves:  What do I trust? Where have I placed my hopes, my identity, my sense of security? If our faith is in a certain level of income, a degree of status, or our grip on “The Rules,” then we are driven by these things, and the fear of losing them. If one of these things should fall through, then we can feel lost and adrift, even feel that our world has ended. Like Sharon, how often have we chosen to let our lives narrow out of fear of missing something or losing something, until we have nothing but a dark maze. For Jesus, loving and trusting meant He could conquer his fear and face the cross, trusting God would bring things right in the end. And on that first Easter, God surprised the world by raising Jesus from the dead, to even greater freedom. What counts is not “The Rules” or being able to do whatever we want…what counts is faith expressing itself through love.
       So where do you place your trust? Do you feel like you are on a roller-coaster, white-knuckling it through life, wishing things would just stop moving? Like Sharon, are you holding on to things, the comfortable and familiar, trying to pretend that nothing is going to change? Only by taking the risk and letting go, can we get past fear and learn to trust the Lord who loves us so deeply and only wants to give us more. From that place of trust, deep friendships and loving relationships can grow and fill our lives with the intimacy we crave. From that place of trust, we can share what we have—even if we don’t have much. From that place of trust, we can truly help another person, opening ourselves to them as we trust that God has a plan. From that place of trust, we can have deep peace about whatever is to come, because we know that the same Lord Jesus who loved us enough to go to the cross, will walk hand-in-hand into the future with us. Only as we get past fear and find that place of trust can we truly live after God’s own heart. Thanks to grace in Jesus Christ, we catch a glimpse of true fatherhood:  we are perfectly free, but best of all freed to love. What counts is faith expressing itself in love. Happy Father’s Day!


Explosive Grace: The Cure for Insecurity

by Rev. Doug Gray

     As some of you know, I grew up in Hollywood, CA, and that meant having colorful characters around. Though we lived in a modest, quiet neighborhood, Alan Hale, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island lived a couple of streets over. Michael Jackson shopped at our grocery store and attended the same elementary school I did. And down the street from us lived the deGarza family. They had a nice pool in the backyard and their son, Jeffrey, was just a year or two younger than my younger brother. My Mom struck up a relationship with Mrs. DeGarza and we went over to their house to go swimming. While we were there, I heard Mrs. DeGarza and others say things to Jeffrey like, “You’re such a lazy boy! You’re good for nothing.” Frequently they called him, “the little monster.” Anyone ever been called hurtful names? I’m guessing all of us have. When some called you names, how did that make you feel?
      In Isaiah, other countries have been calling Israel all sorts of names. “Ha ha! Babylon won the war, knocked down your walls, took your leaders, and made your country a wasteland. Hey, your name isn’t Israel after all. I bet your name is ‘Deserted’ because not only are your streets deserted, but your God deserted you!’ ‘No wait,’ said someone else. ‘I know, your name is ‘Desolate.’ Your country is a wasteland and no one loves you.” From where the Jews sat in Babylon, there seemed to be a lot of truth to those names. That’s what really hurts about the names people call us. We start to wonder, “Maybe it’s true.”
     But the worst hurt comes when we start calling ourselves names and really mean it. How many of you have ever been so mad at yourself that you said something like, “I can’t believe you did that. You are so stupid!” The times when we are most likely to do that is when we fail at something, and (if you are like me) we are the nastiest about it we make a promise and blow it. This is often especially true when we try to change long-standing habits and fail. If we try to change and blow it enough times, we begin to say things to ourselves like, “You are such a loser. What a failure.” And that can take us down a dark road into depression, tension, anger and despair. Calling ourselves these names may even make it more likely that we will blow it again, and when we do, that takes us further down the road in a vicious cycle that makes our lives seem darker and darker. Whether other people call us names or we call ourselves names, when we believe all the rottenness that comes at us, we become slaves. Slaves? Oh yes, we can be dominated by these ideas about who we are. If we let them, they will rule our lives and darken our days. Paul writes, “…when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.”
     Lots of forces push against us every day, trying to name us, to define us. Those who sell things try to persuade us to define ourselves with their products. They define us by their stuff and they make money. The powerful call us ‘powerless’ so that they can have more power. Bullies will try to label us ‘weak’ so they can push us around, use or abuse us for their own gratification. Others will label us ‘immoral’ so they can feel all goodie-two-shoes about themselves. The forces that name us want us to believe they are the ones that matter, that we have to “give them their due,” that “that’s just the way it is.” It’s so easy to fall into a place where we feel boxed in and hopeless in the face of this, more subtle name-calling. That’s just where these people, these forces, want us to be.
     And if we are honest, we do our own name-calling, don’t we? Sometimes we internalize the messages we receive and pass them on to others. We do it with our words, our actions, our thoughts and our dreams. We participate in the “name-calling” when we don’t stand up for those who are being bullied or treated unjustly. We participate in the “name-calling” when we show less honor to someone because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, or socio-economic status. Oh yes, we do our own name-calling, don’t we?
     To my knowledge, there is only one way out of slavery to the name-calling, only one way out of bondage to our habits, and that path lies through Jesus. Jesus knows what to do with the names that others give us and the ones that we give ourselves. And Jesus can transform us by His grace, so that we can uncouple ourselves from these forces and stop the negative name-calling we do. Paul writes “now that you have come to know God, or more importantly to be known by God…” When our oldest, Morgan, was in elementary school, she went through a period where she got sadder and quieter. When we asked her about it, she shared that she was being bullied. It had started with name-calling. We asked her what kinds of names do they call you, and she told us. “And you believed her?” we asked. “Do we call you those things?” She shook her head. “Why would you believe her? She doesn’t even know you!” Imagine how much more we are known by God, how the grace of God defines us, how we can be transformed just by believing that we are loved!
     That’s what God longs to do with each of us. When we give our hearts and lives over to Jesus, God tells us our real names. They are who we really are, the persons God created each of us to be. For the children of Israel, God was going to change their name from “Deserted” to “My Delight Is in Her.” Instead of “Desolate,” God was going to make her “Married” because of God’s great love and God’s great desire for intimacy and trust with the children of Israel…and with us. In Galatians, Paul talks about how the name “Slave” is replaced with “Son” or “Daughter.” And the implications of that are huge:  we are wanted; we are loved; we are provided for; we will never be alone; we can talk with God and know God listen. Paul even writes that because our name is no longer “Slave” but “Son” or “Daughter,” we can actually call God, “Daddy.” God wants us to come close!
     Not long after our pool times at the deGarza house began, Mom asked if Jeffrey would like to come to our house before nursery school and then Mom would take him. It added a certain amount of craziness to our family life and seemed unnecessary to me, so I asked Mom why she would offer to do this with Jeffrey. She said, “I wanted there to be at least one place where people spoke kindly to him.” She paused, then added, “People tend to become what they are called. If you call someone “little monster” long enough, pretty soon they begin to believe it. I wanted Jeffrey to hear people call him the names God has for him.” And that’s our mission! Sure, this is a great time to consider leaving our old ways and our old selves behind, to let God erase the old, negative names we have been called or have called ourselves, and to ask God to share with us our real names. But this is also a great time for us to decide to use the God-given names for people, rather than the ones others have come up with. What if, like the Jesus, we set about the work of erasing the rottenness of the world’s names for people, and reminded them instead of the names God gave them?


Explosive Grace: Instant Promotion

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Do you remember playing dress up? Or maybe you remember your kids playing dress up? What were your favorite things to dress up as?

     [Take responses from the congregation.]

     Did you every wear your parents’ clothes?

     In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves in Christ.” This powerful image of being “clothed in Christ,” gives us a some key insights into what life in Christ is meant to be.
     First, we are meant to find our primary identity in Christ. Clothes tell us a lot about someone, don’t they? In fact, most of the time we choose our clothes to say certain things about ourselves. If we wear Patriots, Red Sox or Celtics gear, we are identifying with that team. Can you imagine wearing your Red Sox gear in New York City? One of my friends is a NY Yankees fan—I know, there’s no accounting for taste—and he had the courage and fortitude to wear his Yankees gear to a Red Sox game. Boy! Did he catch it from the Red Sox fans! They didn’t care about how kind and gentle he is. The generous people there recognized him as a baseball fan and might respect him for that, but it was a long night for my buddy. Being clothed in Christ means—whatever we are wearing—for us belonging to Christ and living for Christ is the most important part of who we are.
     Second, we are reminded of the closeness of our relationship to Christ. I love raiding my Dad’s closet. Many years ago, I “stole” a wonderful, very unique sweater. Initially, it smelled like him, but has always reminded me of my cool Dad. I have depended on it to kept me warm on cold days. Wearing that sweater is like getting a hug from my Dad. In some ways it’s better—I can’t have Dad hugging me everywhere I go, but I can wear the sweater! When we are clothed with Jesus, there’s a rich intimacy to the experience. Just as my sweater is close to me, so is Jesus, embracing me as I travel on my day. I depend on Christ to keep me warm when the world can be so cold. Just as we can feel our clothing if we take a moment to focus, so we can experience the intimate feel of Jesus if we are mindful.
     Finally, we are to imitate Christ. When I was a kid, I loved trying on my Dad’s clothes. I really couldn’t imagine that I would ever be big enough to fit in them, but I knew I wanted to be like him when I grew up. When we were playing dress up, we were really trying on an identity, trying to experience a piece of what it was like to be an astronaut, princess, lawyer, mom or dad. In our minds, we believed the phrase, “the clothes maketh a person.” In a sense, being clothed in Christ means we want to grow up to be like Him. Whatever we are wearing, our prayer is that others will see grace and honesty, kindness and justice, sacrifice and spiritual maturity, joy and truth—that they will see Christ in us.
     In our society, clothes are often used to set up divisions—Red Sox or Yankees, rich or poor, weak or powerful, male or female, goth, gay, ethnic—they are all divisions we can often see in clothes and manners. Part of what Paul wants the Galatians to do is to look past the clothes, to see Christ on each other. That’s why Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” “No longer Jew or Greek” means cultural barriers just don’t matter, and we can accept one another without one group feeling superior or inferior. “No longer slave or free” means God looks past finances, manners and immigration status; and we are called to do the same. “No longer male or female” means we see people’s giftedness before we see their gender. Paul is talking about how Christians are to see other Christians—to look for Christ first in each other. But more importantly, to see that we are all heirs of the promise in Jesus Christ. Because Christ has come upon us, clothed us in the richness of His sacrifice, we recognize we have all received a promotion—to first-born, full-inheritance status. May the prayers of our hearts be “Lord, I want You at the core of my identity, in the deepest places of who I am. Lord, help me be mindful of how close You really are, and help me live like You, longing for grace to be the most obvious part of who I am. Help us to see Christ in each other! Come, Lord, Jesus, and be the intimate focus of our lives!”


Explosive Grace: E Pluribus Unum

by Rev. Doug Gray

Every once in a while there’s a law just makes you wonder. For example, according to Reader’s Digest:

     •    Did you know that in Alaska, it’s illegal to be drunk in a bar? Ummmmm.
     •    In Chico, California it’s illegal to build, maintain or use a nuclear weapon?
     •    In Connecticut, a pickle has to bounce when dropped from a height of 1 foot.
     •    In French Lick Springs, IN—black cats have to wear bells on Friday the 13th,
           “The rule was introduced on October 13, 1939, ‘as a war measure to alleviate mental
           strain on the populace…’”
     •    In Wells, Maine—it’s illegal to advertise on a tombstone. Because that population
          can’t go anywhere?
     •    In Nevada—illegal to determine someone’s shoe size with an x-ray machine.
     •    In New Hampshire—you can’t collect seaweed at night.
     •    In Oklahoma—No “horse-tripping” events…oh and no bear wrestling either.
     •    In Memphis, TN—You have to have a permit for begging. It used to cost $10,
           but now it’s free.
     •    In Utah—It’s a felony to hurl a missile into a bus terminal, unless you are an
          appointed officer of the peace or commercial security personnel. How is that a
          good idea for anyone?
     •    In Vermont—They passed a law, that there can never be a law prohibiting
          clotheslines. Disaster averted!
    •    In at least two counties in the state of Washington—It’s against the law
         to poach Sasquatches on someone else’s property. [1]

Part of me thinks these laws are ridiculous, but you know these laws come from somewhere. Why do we even have laws? This question underlies Paul’s argument to the Galatians today, and his answer is one that defines our country, and could define our lives as well.
     First, we have laws because people push and cross boundaries. Paul writes, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions…” What makes me a little nervous about the laws I listed up above, is that every one of them has a story. The folks in Chico wanted to make it clear they didn’t want anything to do with weapons of mass destruction. The folks in Vermont wanted to make sure they could always use clotheslines. But also the dark side of humanity:  if we make panhandlers purchase a permit, then maybe we won’t have so many panhandlers, perhaps trying to make the poor less visible. The laws help us know where the boundaries are. For most of us, we would rather stay within those boundaries. But we can’t make enough laws to cover everything, to take into account every hard-hearted or ill-considered idea. We need the rule of law, as Paul says, these boundaries “imprisoned and guarded” us. We can think of the law as a way to teach us what not to do.
     But second, we wouldn’t need laws if our hearts were right. Paul writes, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Imagine for a moment, if we were all as loving and gracious as Jesus. How would we treat the people around us? What would we choose to do today? Imagine for a moment, if we were to say to God, as Jesus did, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Imagine just for a breath-taking moment, what would happen if you brought a bunch of people together who were all living that way? Where Moses’ Law in the Old Testament is mostly “Thou shalt nots,” Jesus teaches “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s huge! But harder, because in order to walk in the way of love, we have to think and feel, to pray and consider. How is God leading us? What does God want us to say or do? If our hearts are right, then we would always be in a living conversation with God, transformed by Christ—which is really what God longs for, right?
     Underneath American society at it’s best is this deep, rich, transformational undercurrent. Here’s the way one former president put it in 2004:

Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one. [2]

This idea of “E pluribus unum”—out of many, one—has its roots in passages just like ours today. Paul is talking about what life as a Christian is meant to be—knowing we are all children of God. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The genius of America is that it took that truth to heart—there’s no white America, Asia America, black America, or Latino America—there is only the United States of America. There are no Red States or Blue States, only the United States of America. What divides us is not as strong as what unites us.
     On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember those who have given their lives for our nation and for each of us. We have patriots who have fought in wars and patriots who have protested wars. But always we must be grateful for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice because they have done it for all of us, so that we might have the freedom to follow God as our conscience dictates. The fact of the matter is that when we put Christ at the center of our lives, surrendering to God’s direction, allowing our hearts to be transformed by Christ’s love, something extraordinary happens:  we live for more than just ourselves. When we live for Christ, our lives go beyond what is legal, to what is a blessing, beyond what the law can demand, to how grace can transform not just us, but the world.

[1]Reader’s Digest at https://www.rd.com/funny-stuff/dumbest-laws-america/

[2]From Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic Convention. Quoted from Al Franken’s book

Explosive Grace: Beyond Expectations…The Holy Spirit Comes!

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Maybe you have heard this classic joke. Once there were three monkeys sitting on the branch of a tree. Why did the first monkey fall out of the tree. Because he was dead. Why did the second monkey fall out of the tree? Because he was dead. Why did the third monkey fall out of the tree? Peer pressure. I remember as a teen hating all the peer pressure that was around me all the time every day. Some people expected me to be good—to do the right thing, to do my work, to be honest and helpful. Some people expected me to be bad—to cheat when I could, to break the rules when it suited me, to do what felt good. And there were all these “rules” that went with every group at school—people I could and couldn’t hang out with, things that “just weren’t done,” and things I had to do to be cool. With everyone else’s expectations pushing me one way or another, I found it hard to figure out what my motivations for doing anything were. Am I doing it because I think it’s a good idea, or because this person or this group think it is? Anybody else ever struggle with this? Yes indeed. In our passage for today, Paul wants to dig into this challenge for us. How do we escape the pressure of other people’s expectations?
     First, remember your mountain-top experiences. Have you had a moment when everything seemed very clear to you? Perhaps a time when you felt really close to God? Those experiences are not an accident! They’re not random! God gives them to us to encourage us and to help us stay on the right path. During spring vacation of my 8th grade year, a bunch of folks from my school went to the Grand Canyon and hiked down to the bottom for a few days. When we got to the trailhead, we looked out over the Grand Canyon and it was amazing, breath-taking. You could look out and down, and see some of the trail, as it wound it’s way down into the canyon. You could even pick out a few features of that trail—a giant rock here, a stand of trees there, and the river far below. It was a 7.5 mile trail to the bottom, and my pack seemed awfully heavy, but I rejoiced when I passed the giant rock, celebrated when I stopped to rest at the stand of trees, and was encouraged when I could hear the river rapids near the bottom. In those moments when God makes things clear for us—singing a song to God and we discover we are singing about our life with God, being in prayer and Jesus comes as a strong Presence, or talking with others and we have an “Aha!” moment. Paul says to the Christians in Galatia, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!...Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” Paul is reminding them of the vivid moments they had together—as God changed people’s lives, did miracles, and moved their hearts. Just like it was for the Christians in Galatia, so it is with us—our mountain-top experiences are not things we make happen, they come as a gift from God. When people’s expectations are pushing at us, remembering the mountain-top experiences keeps us focused on how God is leading us.
     Second, grace is the road forward. Do you have any “bad old days”? One of my “bad old days” is the time in my life when I tried to make everybody happy. Someone said, “Can you do this?” and I said, “Yes!” Someone else said, “Could you help me with this project?” and I said, “Sure!” I did that with enough people and enough projects, that I discovered I was getting more and more stressed, worn out and sometimes very uncomfortable with who people thought I should be. The problem was that I believed if I made everybody else happy, that I would be happy, and I was miserable! I didn’t realize it, but I had found the curse that Paul talks about when he says, “…all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’” No matter how hard I tried, I could never please everyone, including my perfectionist self. No matter how hard I worked, I could never do it all exactly right. And into that space stepped Jesus. I remember getting to a point in those “bad old days” when the pressure was getting higher and higher until I just sat down on the stairs near my office and cried, pouring out my sorrow, worries and fear. “I’m trying to do it right, Lord!” And when I had finished sobbing out my heart, I had this sense of Jesus almost putting his hand on my shoulder, and saying clear as day in my heart, “I never said you had to do all of this.” All Jesus wanted was my love and my life. If I was walking with Christ, then I didn’t have to go every place for everyone, just the places Christ wanted me to go. When we look at the cross, we see Jesus Christ who became cursed, so we could escape the curse of everyone’s expectations. When we give our lives to Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes past everyone else’s expectations and begins to show us how to live with God and how to live for God! Grace is what frees us in the first place, and grace will show us how to love and live beautifully.
     When we are surrounded by people’s expectations, we can find it really hard to know what is us and what is just going with what the people around me wanted. We may even feel like one of those monkeys in the tree. Into that that darksome and tangled mess shines God in Jesus Christ. Perhaps we have never really thought about the cross, never really considered not just the goodness and wisdom of Jesus, but the power of His sacrifice. Not everyone wants what is truly best for us—it’s really for them, so they can make a buck, so they can feel better about themselves. Even the people who truly love us can’t know my needs and dreams to the depths of my being. But God does, and God is in it, not so we can make God look better, but so we can become our own best selves. I learned that when I finally realized that Jesus had died for me—not just everybody. In the love of Christ, we find freedom from all other expectations, and then the Spirit comes and leads us from the mountain-tops into living lives that show that grace to others.

Let’s pray.


Explosive Grace: Called on the Carpet

by Rev. Doug Gray

     Moms know. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why…but moms know. Mom is folding laundry at the other end of the house and so you try to sneak into the kitchen to get one of the cookies cooling on the racks. Just as you reach for one of the cookies, Mom shouts from the other room, “Don’t take any of those cookies.” How does she know that? Or you and your mother are having a conversation on the phone, and Mom says something and you roll your eyes, and she says, “Don’t you roll your eyes at me.” She can’t even see you and she knows you are rolling your eyes! Moms know. If we need it, moms call us out, call us to be our best, not just for what we do, but for the attitude we are doing it. In our passage for today, Paul calls Peter out for getting something really wrong in his relationships, and their conversation is going to help us understand God and moms a little better.
     First, love first. Philip Yancey shares a story told to him:  A person working “with the down-and-out in Chicago,” tells the story of “A prostitute [who] came to him in wretched straits, homeless, her health failing, unable to buy food for her…daughter. Her eyes awash with tears, she confessed that she had been” renting out her own daughter, “to support her own drug habit. The listener could hardly bear hearing the sordid details of her story. He sat in silence, not knowing what to say. At last he asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. “I will never forget the look of pure astonishment that crossed her face,” he later said. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? They’d just make me feel even worse than I already do!’” Philip Yancey adds, “What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. [1]” Peter is putting rules first—rules for trying to be holy, rules for separating oneself from food offered to idols. Jesus put love first, people first, reminding people of their best selves. At its best, the church and moms put love first.
     Second, think about the consequences to relationships. In one of my earliest confirmation classes, we were in the opening orientation session, looking at expectations and requirements. The first thing on the list is regular attendance in worship. One of the moms raised her hand, “So how many Sundays a month is regular attendance?” It’s a very reasonable question in some ways—she wanted to know what the minimum was so that she could be sure her teen would qualify. In some other ways, it made me sad, for it showed me an attitude of fear or worry. Timothy Keller writes, “Legalism is looking to something besides Jesus Christ in order to be acceptable and clean before God. Legalism always results in pride and fear, psychologically, and exclusion and strife, socially.” The Christ-followers in Antioch were part of one of the first inclusive churches—Jews and Gentiles worshiping and eating together. Into this community come people who put rules first, that what makes us right with God is following the rules—eat this, don’t eat that. Suddenly, there were people on the “in” and people on the “out”—Jews and Gentiles—where before there were only children of God following Jesus. Where there was one table before, now there were two. Paul calls Peter out for unthinkingly introducing pride and fear, exclusion and strife, into this church. Paul knows the thing that matters is not just what Peter did, or how Peter changed his behavior, but why Peter did it—the attitude he had as he changed what he knew to be right out of fear. The consequences of that attitude were going to be huge!
     What bugged me most about the Confirmation mom’s question is how quickly she gave away her freedom to have a rule. Rules are easier. When we know the rules, we know we are secure within their boundaries, and we know what we can do that will really irritate our parents. Rules are easier. We don’t have to think, and we don’t really have to care—we just have to follow the rules. When we know the rules, we can sneer and jeer and shun those foolish and misguided unfortunates outside the rules. But rules fail to make us loving, whole people, with a good connection with God. Ultimately, what probably warms the hearts of every parent most is knowing that their child is thoughtful and loving, using their freedom to be a blessing, and walking right with God. The saying that parents give their children roots and wings is right on target. From Paul’s perspective, we are rooted in Christ and gain the wings of grace. When we try to live and love like Jesus, God’s grace will make everything work out right—our relationships, our jobs, our parenting, our communities, and our world. The best things only happen when we use our freedom to show grace, to embrace those who need it most, to suffer with those who are hurting— no “us” and “them,” just God’s children loving.
     Paul knows. Moms know. How? Maybe it’s because they have eyes in the back of their head—mine always said so. But probably it’s because they love us that they know us so well. What makes for good relationships? Probably less of the negative thinking of much of Jewish Law—don’t do this, don’t touch that, don’t eat this either. Probably more of the positive thinking of Jesus—Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. At the end of the day, keeping the rules might keep the peace, but living in grace is more about love. At their best, moms live out the kind of love Jesus showed, not just in his teachings, but in his death on the cross. The promise is that when we love—desire it, live it, thank God for it—then whatever our sacrifices, we will rise again just as Jesus did.

One of my favorite T-shirts challenges me: The front says, “Jesus save me…” and the back says, “from your followers.” I like this T-shirt for a bunch of reasons—I think it reminds us that Jesus is the one who saves, not the church…and that all too often, people in the church do not act in ways that Jesus would. So what would Jesus like to the church to be? As the early church was wrestling with how to be faithful, what were its issues? How do those help us today?

As I was thinking about this passage and Mother’s Day, I realized that I had something else that tied in: The Top Ten Ways You Know You’re a Mom:

     1.    Your feet stick to the kitchen floor and you don’t care.
     2.    You spend an entire week wearing sweats.
     3.    Your idea of a good day is making it through without a child leaking bodily
            fluids on you.
     4.    Your favorite television show is a cartoon.
     5.    Peanut butter and jelly is featured in at least one meal a day.
     6.    You’re willing to kiss your child’s boo-boo, regardless of where it is.
     7.    Your baby’s pacifier falls on the floor and you give it back to her, after you suck
            the dirt off of it because you’re too busy to wash it off.
     8.    You’re so desperate for adult conversation that you unload on a telemarketer
            and HE hangs up on YOU!
     9.    Spit is your number one cleaning agent.
    10.    You’re up each night until 10 p.m. vacuuming, dusting, wiping, washing, drying,
             loading, unloading, shopping, cooking, driving, flushing, ironing, sweeping,
             picking up, changing sheets, changing diapers, bathing, helping with homework,
             paying bills, budgeting, clipping coupons, folding clothes, putting to bed,
             dragging out of bed, brushing, chasing, buckling, feeding (them, not you),
             PLUS swinging, playing baseball, bike riding, pushing trucks, cuddling dolls,
             roller blading, basketball, football, catch, bubbles, sprinklers, slides, nature walks,
            coloring, crafts, jumping rope, PLUS raking, trimming, planting, edging, mowing,
            gardening, painting, and walking the dog. You get up at 5:30 a.m. and you have no
            time to eat, sleep, drink or go to the bathroom, and yet you still managed to
            gain 10 pounds.

What do these two readings have to do with each other? Ah yes! Well, as it just so happens, being a woman in general and a mom in particular means you get somethings about being church.

When we make it about the rules, we insert fear into the love relationship. Just like fear finding Peter when he starts to worry about the hard-core, rule-following folks from Jerusalem, so fear and worry find us when we are focused on rules.

[1]Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (1997), p. 11.


Explosive Grace: Putting Fractured Lives Back Together

by Rev. Doug Gray

     The story is told that many years ago, John and Marsha moved into an all Catholic neighborhood. The neighbors invited the new family to go to mass with them, and afterward, introduced John and Marsha to the priest, Father Dominic. When they had talked for a little bit, Father Dominic invited the couple and the neighbors into his study and shut the door. This made the John and Marsha a little nervous, and they mentioned that they were born Congregationalists, and had really never been Catholic. Would it be hard to become Catholic? Father Dominic said, “No problem.” He waved his hand over John and Marsha and said, “You were born a Congregationalist. You have lived as a Congregationalist. Now you are a Catholic.” Then he shook their hands, “There! Now you’re Catholics!” and the couple joined the church the next Sunday. When Lent rolled around, the Catholics all stopped eating meat on Friday. But that first Friday in Lent, one of the neighbors was walking past John and Marsha’s house, and he could smell steak cooking on the grill. He thought he was imagining it. But the next Friday, he was walking by, and again he smelled beef cooking on the grill. It smelled amazing, and his mouth started watering. That Sunday, several members of the church cornered Father Dominic. “Please, Father,” they begged. “You have to get them to stop. The meat smells so good, it’s leading us into temptation.” So the Father promised and the next Friday, he headed over to John and Marsha’s house. Sure enough, as Father Dominic was walking up to the house, he could smell the meat cooking on the grill. He peeked over the fence and saw John waving his hand over each steak. He was saying, “You were born a cow. You lived as a cow. Now you are a fish.” What makes a Christian a Christian? Is there some magic formula that you have to say and do? How do you know? Our passage for today asks some of the same questions…will the answers surprise you?
     “What makes a Christian a Christian?” is really not a question anyone can answer. When we moved to Beloit, Wisconsin, the first Sunday I was there, two of the church’s teen-agers were ushering. One wore blue jeans and the other wore baggie sweat pants. That afternoon, Lois Schmidley (who had left 90 in the dust) called me up on the phone. She told me how she couldn’t believe how the girls were dressed. Would I please talk with them about it? I said, “Lois, I think God was glad to see them today. Don’t you?” What I wasn’t going to say to Lois was that those young women were the daughters of an alcoholic who hardly had two nickels to rub together and was hardly able to function, let alone look after his daughters. If the young women had clean clothes, it was because they had cared enough to wash them. If they had fancy clothes for Homecoming, it was because they had worked for them, or borrowed or been given them. I knew that church was one of the few places they were loved and appreciated for who they were. Underneath Lois’ phone calls was the belief that in order to be Christian, you had to dress and act in a certain way. While that may have been her cultural experience, it was not the cultural experience of these young women. What made Lois and these young women all Christian is that they all wanted to be close to Jesus Christ, to learn how to live and love and laugh with Jesus.
     What makes someone a Christian is the wrong question. It should be Who makes someone a Christian. Because the answer is Jesus Christ. Does that seems a little weird. Didn’t Jesus die 2000 years ago? Yes and no. Yes, Jesus died on a cross 2000 years ago, crucified though innocent, going to the Cross out of love for God and each of us. No, Jesus is not still dead. People have seen Jesus, walked with Him, talked with Him. And Jesus promised when two or three gather in His Name, there He would be—and over and over again, we have experienced the presence of Jesus in our midst. Around the world today, people are gathering to worship God with Jesus in their midst. Whether they are in stone cathedrals with gold crosses, or mud huts with wooden ones—millions of people are looking to this sign of shameful death and seeing love, looking at a symbol of powerlessness and seeing the gift. That’s grace—love before we were ready or deserved it, love just in time. Jesus is the One Who comes to us, arms open wide, to love in a way beyond what we find in the world. Paul writes, “for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles…” Jesus is Who makes us Christians, and experiencing Jesus’ grace is part of what transforms us.
     So we can’t really know who’s a Christian, but we can look for signs of grace. Paul writes, “when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me…” Do we see people suffering out of sacrificial love for others? That’s a Jesus thing. Are we welcoming strangers, standing up for justice, and showing kindness to those who need it most? Those are all Jesus things. The only thing the pillars of the Jerusalem church asked Paul to do was make sure everyone remembered the poor. Jesus did after all. But doing these things doesn’t make us Christian. We don’t get into heaven by putting enough checkmarks in the Book of Nice. We show grace to others because of the grace we have received.
     You’ll notice that being Catholic or Congregational or anything else doesn’t make you Christian. It’s not whether or not you eat meat on Fridays, or even what kind of religious experiences you’ve had. It’s not how much money you have, what language you speak, what songs you sing. All those who seek Jesus and try to live by grace are our family in God, on our Team Jesus. It’s not for us to decide who is a Christian and who is not—that’s for God to sort out. It is for us to ask ourselves is my life marked by grace? When others come into my circle, can others warm themselves at the fire of God’s love? At the end of the day, the One Who matters is Jesus, and the gift of grace that changes all we are.


Explosive Grace: Faith Just Got Easier

by Rev. Doug Gray

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

     [Take responses from the congregation.]

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


The One Who Didn’t Get Away

by Rev. Doug Gray

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

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


Holy Hilarity Technology and Knowing God

by Rev. Doug Gray

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

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

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

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

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

The volunteers may be seated

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

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

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

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

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

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


Which Door, God? The Door in the Wall

by Rev. Doug gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Door, God? The Door Left Open

by Rev. Doug Gray

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


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

by Rev. Doug Gray

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


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

by Rev. Doug Gray

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


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

by Rev. Doug Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1]Ortberg, ibid, p. 195.

Which Door, God? How to Cross a Threshold

by Rev. Doug Gray

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

Ortberg tells this story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2]ibid, p. 147.

[3]ibid, p. 151.

[4]ibid, p. 157.

[5]ibid, p. 134.

Which Door, God? The Art of Choosing Doors

by Rev. Doug Gray

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

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

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

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