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My heart beats for love. I want to be different. I want to be who I am called to be. WORTHY and LOVED!

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Transformation:Obedience John 15:10 Hebrews 5: 8-10

Trust is a word that we struggle with from time to time. Who do we trust and why do we trust them. Do we really trust God? We have been on this journey together towards transformation in the image of Christ for the past three weeks. Last week we discussed what it mean to trust God, but just saying that we trust God as Christians is not enough - trust should lead to action. And that particular actions comes in the form of two unpopular words - obedience and submission. 
In this mornings scripture lesson from the letter to the Hebrews we find that Christ modeled for us what it looks like to submit. “Though he was a Son, yet he learned obedience by the things which he suffered.” Friends, even though Jesus was fully God, he set aside his divinity to obey and come to earth in the form of an infant who would ultimately suffer and die on the cross. Having all of the power in the world to say no, he still chose to come and suffer for us, making him trustworthy and our savior. 
Yet, even though Christ modeled submission and obedience for us, that doesn’t make it any easier. We like to sing choruses and hymns with words like “Trust and obey, there is no other way” yet we run our own way all the time. 
What makes it so hard to obey God? There are lots of things. One sin. We don’t like being told to stop the sin in our life, especially if it is something that makes us feel temporary good. God is inviting us into a life of abundance but we get so stuck in wanting what we want in our own way and our own time that we miss the ultimate picture, so we stay in our small world cramped with sin. We don’t want to have to give up our ways. 
Second, we don’t like being told what to do. In the book of Leviticus, a book of laws and rules, we find these words, “You shall do my ordinances, and you shall keep my statutes and walk in them: I am Yahweh your God.” I for one grew up liking rules, but I am also keenly aware that made me an odd child. I saw rules, and still see them, as a blessing. They act as guidelines and guardrails to keep us safe. 
Pastors are required to serve the annual conference from time to time with their gifts and graces, as a way to build up the church universal. One of the ways I serve is by teaching a class called boundaries, which is essentially pastoral ethics - how do we live into our rule of pastors fully and not do anything that could harm the people entrusted to us or the Church. When teaching boundaries 1 we always start with the question about what boundaries are - and most of the time people answer in negatives - things like rules that you are punished for breaking. But more often then not, by the time the class is over, we see boundaries as gifts - guidelines that allow us to faithfully be who we are called to be in a way that lifts up God’s name. 
When we continue to want to live in sin and continue to not want to follow God’s laws for us, it is often because we perceive God as wanting to take something away from us, instead of dwelling on what God is blessing us with. The psalmist helps us reorient our perceptions and the eyes of our heart by saying “My soul loves your decrees; I love them exceedingly.” Do you love the decrees of God? How do you perceive the law of God and what blessing is God trying to bring into our lives by giving us commands such as loving God with all we have and all we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves?
A third reason we struggle with obedience is because we don’t really trust God. We may say we trust God and other people may think we trust God, but there is no fooling God. God knows that there are times when we just get so confused because the world tells us to act one way and God tells us to act another. The two just can’t be reconciled, so we have to make a choice about who to follow. And sometimes we choose wrong. Because we would rather be obedient to the world with it immediate rewards then trust God for things yet unseen. We don’t trust that God has our best interest at heart. Distrust, for any reason, leads to disobedience. 
Lastly, we aren't obedient because being obedient requires a relationship with God. For years I taught children ages 3-5 in Sunday School programs. I always dreaded the first few weeks of the year, because I didn’t have a relationship yet with the kiddos so they didn’t think they had to listen to me or the other teachers. They may have been perfectly saintly children at home but put them in a new environment with new people and no parents and it could get ugly. Fast. But by the end of the year, they would behave as well as they did at home. Why? Because they got to know me, and trust me, and listen to my voice.
We could have been Christians all our lives and grown up in the church, but that doesn’t always signify the quality of our relationship with God. It doesn’t say wether we know and respond to the voice of God in our lives. Christian singer Todd Agnew expresses it this way in his song “Funny” “And You speak to me all the time and I can’t obey you to save my life. Well I can but I don’t. And I want to but I won’t. And I don’t do what I want to, I do what I don’t mean to and I’m confused.”  Obedience is easier in relationship and sometimes our relationship with God isn’t that great because we haven’t put in the effort of getting to know the heart of God or listening for the call of God on our lives. That’s painful to hear, but all too often we are disobedient because obedience is easier in relationship and we simply don’t have that great of a relationship with God, through no fault of God’s. 

Obedience is a choice and as we can see there any many things that are trying to pull us away from making the choice to submit to God and be obedient. Obedience requires abiding in the love of God -  to accept and act in accordance with and to continue in without fading. We aren’t to be obedient sometimes, we aren’t to abide sometimes, we are to abide and be obedient all the time. That’s what Jesus is trying to get out in today’s Gospel passage by saying, “ If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” We have to decide to be obedient to God out of our love for God. What will you choose this day? Amen. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Job 37: 1-5 Gifts of the Dark Wood: The Gift of Being Thunderstruck

Back in mid- February, I had the privilege of being a counselor at a youth retreat at Wesley Forest, a place that is dear to my heart. The theme of the weekend was “Recharge”, but the speaker made a great point - we need to get to the point where we aren’t just going from mountain top to mountain top experiences with God, looking for God to speak there and forgetting that God speaks to us in a variety of ways all the time. 
I think we can all name a mountain top experience in our lives - those times when you felt incredibly close to God and like you and God were just in sync. Most of my mountain top experiences have happened out in nature. Times like watching an unexpected sunrise and feeling the presence of God. Or being at Creation, at outdoor Christian concert held in Pennsylvania, and watched thousands of candles being held out into the darkness and thinking about the overwhelming light of Christ. 
But the problem is that we can’t live on the mountain top. As the speaker at the youth retreat point out, there is life to be lived, and we need to be able to seek God’s presence wherever we may find ourselves. 
Another way to describe mountain top experiences is being thunderstruck. Think about ancient mythology stories - where did the voice of the gods come from? Usually thunder and lightening. Friends, a lot of us crave being thunderstruck. We think it would be so much easier if God would just speak directly to us, and in a way that we cannot miss. We want sudden experiences of the Divine where God shows up in a mighty way that leads us to moments of profound insight.
Job describes such an experience in today’s scripture passage. Remember that Job is a devout believer in God. But the Devil gets into a discussion with God about why Job is faithful to God in the first place and the Devil poses an interesting question - maybe Job only follows God because God has blessed him. So God said that the Devil could test Job to prove that it isn’t just because of the blessings that Job and God are close. God said that anything could be done to Job short of killing him, and one by one, Job finds the things dear to him in this world being stripped away - his sons, his lively hood, his health, his friendships, until we arrive about at this point in the story where it is literally just Job and God, and Job is wondering when God is going to show up in that mighty way. This chapter comes right before God answers all of these questions that Job has been posing about where God has been and why God has allowed any of this to happen, so here in this chapter Job is explaining what it feels like for him when God shows up - his heart leaps out of its place, there a sound like thunder that comes from the mouth of God, and God does great things that we cannot comprehend. 
Job is going through the most horrific experience of his life, but he is confident that God is going to show up, even in the midst of the storm. But I think we miss the point sometimes friends, just like Job missed the point in a way. When we expect God to show up, we miss the fact that God has been with us all along. And I think that is part of what the season of Lent, this time of preparing ourselves exists for to open us up to realize that God is always with us, not just in the thunder and lightning and mountain top experiences.
Pastor Eric Elnes, who wrote the book that inspired this sermon series, wrote “The purpose [of being thunderstruck] was not to explain where lightening and thunder come from but to explain where the voice of God comes from, and more important, how it comes to us through intuition.” One of the question I have had posed to me as a pastor, and I would guess that just about every pastor gets asked from time to time in a variety of different ways is, why doesn’t God speak like He did in the Bible anymore? We live in a society that is craving for God to speak in some thunder and lightening ways - but guess what folks that wasn’t the whole story. God didn’t always speak in the same way in scripture. We are told that he spoke in dramatic ways to some people like Abraham, but then other times God was present not in the thunder, lightening, fire and theatrics, but in the still small voice, like the prophet Elijah. And we believe as Christians that God was present in Jesus Christ, who was fully divine and fully human. and he spoke in an audible voice, but it didn’t make it any easier for people to listen to him, in fact, he hung on a cross for what he had to say. 
Other times God moved through people’s intuition or though the voices of other people. One of my favorite books in the Bible is Esther, which ironically does not even motion the name of God even once. But Esther was key in helping to save the Jewish people from complete destruction because she listened to the voice of her cousin, Morachi, and used her God-given intuition to serve God. 
Other times God speaks to us through the word of God, the scriptures. I am from the Untied Methodist Tradition which celebrates Aldersgate Day once a year - marking the time that John Wesley found his heart strangely warmed by Martin Luther’s words about Paul’s epistle to the Romans. It may not have been an audible voice, but it changed his life. 
Its like we want to be hit with a 2 by 4 with God’s will for us, friends, and that isn’t the only way that God speaks or acts. A lot of time we are taking baby steps with God, listening for God’s word for us as we inch along. In fact, John of the Cross, one of the saints of the church, puts our walk with God in these terms, “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” We want to hear an audible voice, because we have convinced ourselves that is the only way we can know what God wants from us, when really it takes a whole lot more trust to listen for our heart being strangely warmed and that still small voice. 

Eric puts its this way, “While it is true that the Holy Spirit does, at times, invite you to take a leap into the Great Unknown, the Spirt rarely does this without leading you to the edge of the cliff by way of a thousand smaller steps.” Friends, we need to take time, starting this Lenten season, to notice the million of ways that God is speaking to us every day. We, yes, most certainly need to be attentive to the mountain top experiences and thunderstruck moments, but we need to also see how God is speaking to us every single day. In fact, the Untied Church of Christ, reminds us of that in their slogan from a few years ago, “God is still speaking.” Do you believe that? Do you believe that God is still speaking at the highest mountains and our deepest despairs and everything in between? Because if you don’t believe that God is still speaking then you are never going to hear him, metaphorical 2 by 4 or not. May we open up our ears, hearts, and souls to listen for God’s still small voice. Amen. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Transformation: Trusting When Times are Tough Psalm 25: 1-2 Psalm 40:4 John 14:1

As part of the Adult Membership Curriculum we watch and discuss a five part video over several weeks about what it means to be United Methodist. We look at the history, beliefs, and specific traditions of the church and talk about how they apply to our local church. I always am struck by the new things I pick up on every time I watch the video. As I was preparing for this particular sermon the voice of an iron worker comes to mind - as he tells the story of how his faith life is like that of the iron. Not that it is immovable, but instead that God sends refining, hot fire, through the Holy Scriptures, into his life to heat up the iron to the point where it is pliable and burns away imperfections, making him bend to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
We are now in our third week of our sermon series on what it means to be transformed in Christ’s likeness this Lenten season. I want you to take a moment to think back on your own life - what are the moments that transformed you the most? What are the moments that changed your life and your faith the most? For some it is happy moments. Weddings take two families and blend them into one. I’ve shared before that what brought my parents looking for a permeant church home was my birth - they wanted to find a church that would love them and love their child. Life changing, wonderful moments can be triggers for transformation.
But moments of struggle can also be moments for transformation. Illness. Death of a loved one. Being in a new place. My first year of college I spent at a large college in a strange city. It was my first choice of a place to be -but I still struggled. I felt alone in my faith, and for the first time I had to find a church that fit me apart from my family. But out of that time of loneliness came a blessing in Bellfield Presbyterian Church - located across the street from my dorm, where I spent time at large group worship, Sunday services, and in a small group that nurtured me. I still look back on the year I spent at that church before transferring to a different college in another state as one of the best in faith formation - one of the times I felt closest to God, even in the midst of the struggle.
However, I know that these moments that can draw people to God, whether they are times of struggle or times of celebration can also be times when people abandon the faith - especially when times are tough. Especially when you are new to the faith. Or when your faith has a shaky foundation. 
One year for confirmation class, we spent time exploring Jesus’s parable about the wise man who built his house upon the rock and the foolish man who built his house upon the sand. When the storms came, the house upon the sand was washed away and destroyed, but the house on the rock stood firm. We were trying to get the confirmands to think about what the foundations of their life were. It was hard to get many of them to fathom that anything bad could ever happen to them, that they would face storms in life, but we wanted them to deeply discover what was the foundation of their life, because we as pastors knew that those times of trial would come.
Brothers and sisters, I think we know that trials come in our own life as well. Like those confirmands, we need to think about what the foundation of our life is before the storms hit. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what foundation we have until the storm rolls in. We may think we have a solid relationship with God, but then when the storm comes we fall away from the faith because we held to the belief that if we loved God that nothing bad would ever happen to us. Other times, we’re not so sure what our foundation is, but when there are times of trial, we find ourselves clinging fast to what we learned about God so long ago. 
If anyone knew about times of trial, it was David, King of Israel, who composed many psalms, or poems set to music, prior to and after becoming King. If you look above some of the psalms they will tell you what type they are - what the mood is. Have you ever noticed how many psalms of distress or lament there are? Times when David was struggling. Times when he was fleeing for his life. Yet in the midst of those times of trial he still turned to God - still asked God to be his help. David trusted God and that trust was the foundation of his faith life. For in the words from this morning’s psalms, “My God, I have trusted you.” and “Blessed is the man who makes Yahweh his trust, and does’t respect the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies.”
Trust - what do we really place our trust in? In relationships? In money? In our own health or ability? We live in a world today that has taken trust and has twisted it around. We live in a time when there is a lot of distrust - we don’t trust anyone or anything outside of ourselves and where we find pithy sayings like “I only trust myself” and “The only person who will never let you down is you.” But we also live in a world of misplaced trust - where we look to people based off of their status and wealth and deem them to be trustworthy before examining their character and actions. 
Part of the reason we get so twisted about trust is because we don’t trust God - not with our whole hearts. Scripture tells us time and again that God is the only one who will endure, the only one who will never forsake us - yet God is sometimes the last one we turn to, especially during times of trial. It is not until we have exhausted all other means and our own power during times of struggle that we turn to God as a last result - that is not trust, brothers and sisters. 
Trust is a foundational characteristic of love. If we love, we trust. Love trusts. Do we love God? Do we trust God? And not just knee-jerk saying that we trust because we think that is the right thing to say in church, but do we really trust God and if so how is that seen in our lives?
I have done more funerals then I care to count at times, but I can tell you that my favorite funerals are celebrations of people’s lives who loved and trusted the Lord. People who knew what the foundation of their faith was. People who turned to the Lord, even in the midst of awful circumstances and praised God in the midst of the storm. Spiritual author Brennan Manning states, “The foremost quality of a trusting disciple is thankfulness.” Have you ever met those folks who just praised God even when everyone else didn’t? Do you know people who are truly thankful in all circumstances? Who are thankful even in difficult times? 

I think those folks have taken to heart the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.” Here’s the thing - things may not always go well. There are going to be troubling times in our lives - times when the storms roll in, but those storms also can reveal to us the very character of God - that God is trustworthy and true. How is your trust in God this morning, brothers and sisters? What is the foundation of your life built upon? Amen. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

“Final Words from the Cross - Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise” Luke 23: 32, 39-45

The gospel of Luke is my favorite gospel. I know that some people like the parables of Matthew, or the quick moving action of Mark. Others like the beautiful wording and miracles of the gospel of John. But for me, I have always been partial to the gospel of Luke, because here we see time after time Jesus’s compassion for humanity. His deep concern for people. 
Since Jesus arrived on earth, fully human and fully divine, he had done certain things - he has wanted to teach about the Kingdom of God, pointing people to the love of God. He has wanted to show them how to live in a way that honors God. And he has wanted to save them.
However, just like so long ago, sometimes those of us inside of the church have forgotten how Jesus did these things. Or rather, how Jesus went about them has made us uncomfortable. For Jesus associated with sinners. It is how he was able to show them the saving love of God. He broke bread with them. He made them know that they were the beloved of God and that God cared about them. In a world where every one else defined them as a sinner or a nobody, Jesus cared about them.
As I stated that made some people back them, and some people today, very nervous. We want people to come and meet Jesus inside of the church building. We want people to be like us when they come to know Jesus. Anything else can make us feel a bit uncomfortable at times. 
At my last parish I would spend an hour on Sunday evenings in a local pub. I didn’t drink but I sat down with a glass of lemonade or dinner and a big sign offering prayer. I always identified myself as a pastor, and as a result I had some amazing conversations with folks. Sometimes about their struggles in life. Sometimes about the heartache that made them leave the church. Sometimes about their spirituality. And I would always offer to pray with them, which no one refused.
However, even though I told folks in the church about the ministry and why I felt a call to go into a local place to pray for people and meet them where they are at, some folks still got uncomfortable. It didn’t seem like the proper thing for a pastor to do and they wished their church wouldn’t be associated with it. 
Jesus didn’t believe that the good news of the Kingdom of God was contained only to the synagogues. And he didn’t believe that only some people deserved to hear about God’s love and forgiveness. No, he went out to where the people were and connected with them in such a way that they say the love of God and were open to hearing about God in a way that made sense to them.
The problem with waiting for people to come to us in the church is that it is intimidating. When people do not have a person who has invited them to come, and even if they do have a connecting point, it is scary to walk through these doors. To not know the order of worship or to understand the scriptures that are being talked about or the words that are being sung. Sometimes that it hard for us to remember because church has become so normal for us - but it is not for folks who are outside of the family of God. 
Because of Jesus’s deep concern for the lost, it is not surprising that even as he is nearing his death on the cross he is given the opportunity to share the love of God with folks that do not yet know. In this evenings scripture we find that there are two other folks who hung on the left and right of Jesus. Our english translation say that they were “two criminals” but it the Greek of the gospel of Luke they were defined much more harshly as “those who do evil works.” In the gospel of Matthew and Mark which also tell this passage, they are said to be “armed robbers.” These were men who had done harm to others. 
One of the men tried to get the crowd to join him in belittling Jesus, by saying if you are the Christ you should save yourself! But the other man replied that Jesus did not deserve the punishment he was receiving, even though they were. They had committed crimes. Jesus had not. Then he, in an act of faith, turned to Jesus and asked him to remember him when he was in his Kingdom. We see these two same responses today. Those who mock Jesus, not understanding him. Afraid of him even. And those who want to receive the grace and salvation that he has to offer.
Jesus wants to save, brothers and sisters! He told the criminal that had faith that he would be with Jesus even that very day in paradise! Do we have the heart of Jesus for those who are lost? Do we feel that it is important to reach out to those who do not yet know Jesus? Or are we afraid of how people will react? In the words of Pastor Adam Hamilton, “What would happen if every one of us who professes to be a Christian would reach out to those who are list and show them love and compassion in Jesus’ name? How would the world change?”
Friends, we need to constantly be thinking of ways to get outside of the church building and go to where the people we. We need to be thinking of ways to share the love of Christ in tangible ways so people as to know more about our Lord and Savior. We need to go to the places in the in world and yes, even right here in our community, where people are hurting and model Jesus for them, by doing what he did - eating with them, getting to know their story, praying with them, and above all caring about them. Let us be the people willing to risk everything so more people can hear the words of Jesus from the cross, “Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise.” Amen. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Transformation: What Blocks Up from Maturing in Christ? Romans 6: 1-2, 23


Sin. Not a popular topic to talk about today. Yet, we have to talk about it as a church because when we have sin in our lives, it can hinder our relationship with God and it acts as a road block to our transformation to maturity in Christ. 
We are now in the second week of our sermon series about what it looks like to be on the journey towards transformation in Christ. Last week we discussed how we need to set aside our own values and priorities in our hearts in order to embrace the radical love of Christ. This week we are going to focus on confessing the sin that can so easily trip us up.
Salvation is a hot topic in the church - how do you get saved. When were you saved. Do you need say certain things. Can you only be saved once. Has God chosen some people to be saved and others to perished. The list goes on and on.
Salvation is also confusing because we cannot address it apart from sin. God created humans to be in relationship with Him and with each other, but we screwed that up. Royally. We have strayed from the love of God in so many ways - and every possible way that we can sin is equally in the eyes of God; there are not some sins that are “worse” then others. Sin also always has consequences, both in the present and the eternal. And yet, we are also hesistant to admit or confess our sins, because we don’t want to acknowledge that we have screwed up. 
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Enter Jesus. Who seeks to reconcile the lost world to God through his sacrafice on the cross and resurrection. Salvation is accepting this gift, this sacrafice, for one’s self. However, believing is not enough, for salvation should transform us into new people serving God in new way in community. 
We need to be communities of faith that remind us that our human story involves creation, sin, grace, and the law. To be reminded that we cannot save ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  In “Our Doctrinal Heritage” for United Methodist it states, “as sinful creatures we have broken covenant, become estranged from God, wounded ourselves and one another, and wreaked havoc throughout the natural order. We stand in need of redemption.” We need community to remind us that genuine salvation comes from God and that we have a responsibility to respond to that salvation. For John Wesley believed that humanity had a responsibility in being made in the image of God and a responsibility in responding to God’s grace. 
At its core that is what salvation is, responding to God’s grace. We cannot earn salvation. In fact, salvation belongs to God. It is by God’s power and grace alone that we can be redeemed. Christians believe that before we knew God that God has gone before us to prepare a path to the Divine. However, as the apostle Paul reminds us in this morning scripture lesson just because we have been given grace, and grace in abundance, it does not mean that we are free to continue sinning. Instead, we should repent and want to change our ways, by the help of God. 
This grace stirs in us the desire to repent, which in traditional evangelical doctrines means turning around or going a new direction. It should be noted that “because prevenient grace from God moves us to repent, this repentance is not our good works, but God’s gracious activity in us.” Repentance involves the realization that we cannot save ourselves as we experience sorrow for our sin. As a result of this realization repentance leads us to seek God’s help and restoration
Wesley preached a two-fold legal and evangelical repentance. Legal repentance was a conviction for sin, but evangelical repentance was a change of heart that led to a life of holiness. He believed that change in mind and behavior were inextricably linked, thus a change of heart and mind would be most noticeable by changed behaviors and actions. This change of heart and mind came from an “awakening of the sinner to one’s need for God, one’s own guilt, and one’s inability to solve it on one’s own.” 
United Methodists do not believe that repentance is a one-time event. Rather, repentance is ongoing as we become more self-aware and seek to grow in holiness of heart and life. One of my favorite quotes from John Wesley comes after his life transforming experience with God when someone asks him if he is saved. His response: “I am being saved”. Salvation, like repentance, is not a one time event, but rather a process where we grow more in love with God. The journey to salvation starts with repentance, and as God convicts us of our sins, we turn in the other direction, moving closer to the heart of God. 
The problem is that all too often, we don’t take time to recognize and confess the sin that is still present in our lives. The struggle with sin is real, friends. Sin often begins deep inside us with things like pride, greed, and lust that express themselves as outward actions. Sin is both inward and outward. And any sin, no matter how small we may qualify it to be, hurts our relationship with God and our relationship with other people. Sometimes we may try to cover up or justify our sin by saying that its not hurting anyone, but that simply isn’t true. 
Brothers and sisters, we need to ask God’s help to keep us from sinning. In the beginning of the 12th chapter of Hebrews there is a beautiful passage about being surrounded by a great cloud of witness, the Saints, cheering us on to run the race with endurance, but we often forget what comes next, “lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us. We don’t realize how easily we slip into sin. How many times we turn from being God centered to self-centered. How many times we fall short and miss the mark. How many times in the words of James, we know the good we ought to do and don’t. Sin has many forms - sometimes in the actions we commit, and sometimes in the things we fail to do that we know we should. 

Whatever the sin we are struggling with in our lives today, we know that God has given us victory over that sin. Yet, all too often we fail to even turn to God for help and confess the sin in our lives. And when we have unconfessed sin, we have thrown up road blocks to maturing in Christ. The truth is we cannot remain in sin and still be transformed to be alive in Christ - Christ has paid much to high a price for us to remain where we are today. We need to be able to identify and confess the sin in our lives. Does God know that there will be times that we sin? Yes. But God also wants so much more for us - a life free from the entanglements of sin, and freedom from continuing to dwell in the midst of sin. We need to be able to say with confidence, that yes, we are sinners, but by the grace of God we have been saved and we are moving on to being transformed into the image and heart of our savior. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

“Transformation: The Radical Love of Christ” Luke 18: 18-29

On Wednesday we entered the season of Lent - the 40 days, excluding Sundays that lead up the glorious celebration of Easter. Lent is a time when we prepare ourselves for the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. through spiritual practices. We gather together to pray, fast, serve others, and confess our sins. 
This time of deep spiritual practice is also one that can lead to transformation. For the next six weeks we will be exploring how the season of Lent transforms us from the inside out, as we seek to grow closer to our Lord and Savior. 
The Apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the church in Corinth that, “But we all, with unveiled face seeing the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit.” Brothers and sisters, we are constantly in the process of being transformed and renewed in the image of our Lord and Savior. When we encounter the word ‘Christian' in the books of Acts it was used as an insult, but evolved into meaning Little Christs. If we claim to be Christians our lives should be mirrors of the hearts and priorities of Jesus - we should be Little Christs. 
But what does it look like, everyday, to be transformed by Christ? What does it look like, in word and action to mirror the love of Christ? In other words what does it look like to be an everyday Christian disciple?
Even those who lived during the time of Jesus and saw him in the flesh struggled with these questions. In this morning’s scripture lesson we find an unnamed ruler asking Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. It is as if the ruler is living into the struggle that all of us feel in our own walk with Christ. On one hand we realize that eternity in heaven is a gift - it is a gift we inherit because of the goodness and mercy of God. It cannot be earned. But on the other hand we have been given such a wonderful treasure in this gift that our lives should reflect it.
Jesus enters into the struggle of the ruler’s question and starts off by not quite answering the expected way. He doesn’t even address the question at first, instead he focuses with laser precision on the words that proceeded the question, “Good teacher”. Jesus wants to know why the man would call him good, when only God is good. I have to wonder if he is testing the ruler - seeing if he truly recognizes that Jesus carries the heart of God inside of him because he is God in the flesh. Jesus then goes on to answer the question by saying that the ruler is to follow the law that he is already aware of - the commandments, which the ruler replies that he has followed.
The ruler must have been feeling pretty good at that moment. His changes of inheriting eternal life are in his favor. Jesus just told him that he had to follow the commandments, which he has obeyed from his youth. Giant check mark. Now he can breathe easy and not worry about eternity. But then…then Jesus rocked his world by telling him that he lacked one thing - he was to sell all that he had and give everything, yes everything away to the poor. The ruler must have started to run through all of the scripture he memorized in head. Where was that located? What had he done? He asked Jesus this question and now the answer was something he was unable, unwilling to do!
It was as if Jesus saw deep into the man’s heart and noticed the one thing that was blocking him from being able to fully follow God, fully be a disciple. Yes, the ruler followed the commandments, but just following the rules doesn’t transform people. Leaving baggage behind and following Jesus as a disciple changes people. 
The man was unable to do what Jesus asked of him. Unable to journey with Jesus. We too are on a journey, brothers and sisters, specifically now the journey of Lent. Yet, how many of us, even during this time to focus on spiritual disciples and growing closer to our Lord, make excuses? How many of us have things that block our hearts? 
Maybe today on of the biggest barriers in our hearts isn’t material possessions, per say, but the commodity of time and the commitments we make. We don’t have time to pray. Or we don’t want to give up anything during a fast by rearranging our schedules to pay more attention to God. We don’t have time to come to another service during the week. We don’t have time to just sit in the presence of God and ask God to revel to us any unconfessed sin so we can have clean hearts. We live in a culture of hurry, and since spiritual disciplines cannot be rushed, they must not be for us. 
In ancient times people may not have had the hurry that comes with modern convinces (ironically), but they still had to choose what commitments to make. When people wanted to join the church, they would have to commit to going through almost a year worth of reading scriptures and learning about the faith that culminated on being baptized Easter morning. This is how they learned about the faith. This is how they became primed to engage in spiritual disciplines. There was an expectation that if they made this commitment and truly engaged this time set apart to grow, they would be transformed.
We learn about the faith differently today. There are still some churches that take long periods of time for folks to learn about the scriptures and traditions before joining the church. There are others that do so over months or weeks. But the underlying tenant should still be the same - that when we learn about Christ - through scripture and beliefs, we are changed. But do we truly believe that? Do we truly live as if when we soak in the word of God and connect with God through prayer and worship, we are to live our lives in a way that shows these truths to others?
Brothers and sisters, we don’t engage spiritual disciplines or come to worship or bible study for the sheer sake of learning. We engage them in order to be transformed - to be reshaped and renewed as we mature in the faith. The problem that the ruler had was two fold. First, his heart was so cultured by other things that he couldn’t see the radical gift of love that is being offered to him by God. In 1 John we are told to “see how great a love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God!” We have been given the greatest gift ever told - to live into the reality of the gracious, merciful love of God! To be invited into a new life where Jesus is our Lord and Savior! To be welcomed into the family of God! Second, the ruler was comfortable with the way things were. He simply wanted Jesus to bless what he was already doing, instead of changing. Changing his values, his priorities. Changing his very identity where he would no longer be identified as the rich ruler if he chose to be give everything away, but instead as a disciple, a follower, of Christ. 

Brothers and sisters, we are on his Lenten journey together. We have been given the gift of this time to intentionally seek out spiritual practices that will transform us from the inside out and change our very identity to that of a follower of Christ. Let us set aside those things which block our hearts and seek to grow deeper in love with our Savior. Amen. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Psalm 51: 1-17 “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”

This evening we gather together to celebrate Ash Wednesday, a day when we hear the word “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” as ashes are spread in our foreheads in the shape of a cross.
I don’t remember a lot about Ash Wednesday growing up. But I do have profound memories associated with this day starting in college. One Ash Wednesday we gathered for worship before dinner - a large group of students in a small auditorium and we read the words of this psalm together, saying in one accord “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” The words seemed to echo off of the walls and deep in our heats.
Psalm 51 is believed to have been written shortly after David had taken another man’s wife as his own. The story goes that David, King of Israel, stayed behind for some unknown reason when his men, his troops, were off preparing for battle. He caught the site of a married women, Bathsheba, bathing on a roof, and he had he brought to the palace where he lied with her. Then she became pregnant. In order to attempt to cover up his sin, David called for Bathsheba’s husband to come home from battle and tried to convince him to sleep with her - only he refused, for it was improper for him to sleep with his wife when other men were in battle.
Finally, David went Uriah back to the front lines of a battle with a letter for his commanding officer, essentially stating to make sure Uriah gets killed in battle. Which he did. And David took Bathsheba as his wife.
David’s priest Nathan came and spoke to him about what had taken place - telling the story of a small lamb that was taken by a man who had all the lambs in the world. David became enraged until Nathan pointed out that he was the man who stole the lambs - he had taken Bathsheba as his wife after having her husband killed. This Psalm is written after all of that had taken place - and David is guilt-ridden, calling out to God for forgiveness and mercy.
However, what was moving about all of the voices reading his psalm together echoing off of the walls was that, while it was certainly written in a particular time in David’s life, can we not find ourselves in it as well? When we hear the words of this Psalm does it not remind us of our own fallenness and entanglement in sin?
So David’s prayer also becomes our prayer. Blot our our transgressions in your mercy. Wash us throughly of our iniquity. Brothers and sisters, none of us are free from the hold of sin in our lives. Since the days of Adam and Eve, when they intentionally made the choice to rebel against the ways of God, we have been making the same choices. We have been choosing to not love God and not love our neighbor with our whole hearts. 
So we need this time, this season of Lent and this day - Ash Wednesday - marked with ashes to seek out repentance. We need a time of self-reflection and penitence. Because when left to our own devices, we like to pretend that our sin doesn’t exist, but the truth is pretending does not make it go away. It only makes it fester like an open wound. 
David didn’t feel guilt about what he had done until Nathan called him out and invited him into a time of repentance. He was perfectly happy not examining his actions or how they damaged his relationship with God and his relationship with others. So it is with us. We need these 40 days, friends. We need a time of confession and turning our hearts back to God. We ned a time to cry together that we need God’s mercy.
Even if we want to pretend that we don’t know our transgressions, want to pretend that there aren’t consequences, we know they exist. We need a time to let them come to the surface in order to be cleaned out.
When I was little one of the things I hated the most was having scraped knees. For with scrapped knees came the peroxide - that nasty feeling of the dirt and grime in the wound bubbling to the surface. But I also knew that the wound had to be cleaned so it didn’t become infected. Friends, today begins the season of letting the dirt and grime of our lives come to the surface, through confession, so that God can bring healing. Sin is not just on the surface of our life, it is deep within us and needs to be purged. Ignoring our sin only causes it to fester and bring more pain, more hurt. 
God wants to create in us a clean heart. A heart where we can proclaim that we are yes, sinners, but that we are saved by grace. Have you ever noticed that folks tend to focus too much on one side of this statement or the other? People either become focused on their depravity, forgetting God’s gift to us, or become so caught up in the gift of grace that they forget why we need it in the first place. Today we stand before God saying that we are sinners, in need of God’s grace, and then we accept that beautiful and powerful gift with open hearts - allowing God to clean and transform us from the inside out. God not only saves us from our sin, but gives us new lives!
As we come together this evening, what do you need to confess? What do you need to ask God to cleanse from you? What sin needs to come to the surface so God can blot it out? But as we come together, we don’t just confess - we repent - asking God to change us. And we don’t just repent but we also seek reconciliation in our relationship with God and with others. We seek to be renewed and made new in the love and mercy and grace of our Lord. 

Brothers and sisters, as we come forward this evening to receive ashes may we remember that during this season we are in need of God, we are wholly dependent upon God, and find our hope in God alone. Let us bring ourselves this evening, and during the entire season of Lent, as a sacrifice for our Lord, who gives us victory over the power of sin. Amen.