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Sunday, March 22, 2015

“The Way of the Cross” Luke 9:23-25 Phil 2: 5-8

We are more than half way through our Lenten journey. For many of us the dust of the ash that marked our foreheads on Ash Wednesday seems like a distant memory. But we are beckoned to remember that ash through the entirety of the season of Lent - because we cannot truly choose to follow Jesus unless we remember those words “from dust you were created and to dust you will return.”
Each of our lives is short in the scheme of things. Fifty or seventy or a hundred years to live into who we were created to be by God and to play a part in the mission of Christ. For however many years we are on this earth, we need to make a decision - if we are going to pick up our cross and follow Christ or if we are going to live our own way.
Jesus has been telling his disciples for months now what is about to happen - that he is going to be arrested and killed for the sake of the world. To conquer evil. But they haven’t been listening. Or perhaps simply haven’t been believing. Today’s gospel lesson is found in Luke shortly after Jesus asks his followers who the crowds are saying that he is. He then takes it one step further and asks who they think he is, personally, to which Peter replied “the Christ.” The Messiah. The one who would redeem Israel. Jesus responded to Peter’s proclamation by once again telling his disciples what was going to happen to them and issuing them a challenge and a choice - will they pick up their own crosses and follow him daily. 
Remember that crosses in the age of the disciples were a sign of punishment and suffering beyond compare. They were meant for people found guilty by Roman law - people who rebelled against the government. When Jesus is asking his disciples to take up their cross - he was asking them to shoulder the burden of punishment, to suffer, and to ultimately follow him above all else, not the law of the land. He is asking the disciples what their faith was worth to them and reminding them of the cost.
That same question echoes through our day and age today. Will you deny yourself? Will you put the mission of Christ first? Will you set aside your own comfort for the calling of Christ? Will you take up your cross? Will you willingly take on suffering and rejection? All to follow Jesus?
I read a story this week told by Mark Batterson, a pastor in Washington, DC. Mark primarily pastors young adults and he is constantly encourage them to listen to the call of God in their lives. One young woman took him very seriously, and found that God was calling her to go overseas to work as a missionary, working with young women and children being trafficked. She risked her life every day to free others from bondage. Along the way, her parents and friends begged her to come back home or to follow Jesus in a safer way. But she couldn’t. This was her calling. This was what it looked like for her to deny herself, pick up her cross, and follow Christ.
For each of us, that calling is going to look different, because God has created us for a unique purpose. I have friends who deny themselves by teaching special needs children in public schools. Others who are missionaries overseas. Still others that serve the local church as Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders. But each of us will have a call and will have a choice to make - will we deny ourselves and follow Christ.
And all of our calls will be costly - demanding our whole heart and life. The way of the cross is narrow and difficult. And if we answer the call of Christ by saying “yes” we will meet even more questions - Will you remain faithful to Jesus when it isn’t fun? Isn’t easy? When it costs you that which you consider most precious? Will you give Christ your all? Even when it involves rejection? Is time consuming? And inconvenient?
Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians that Christ is not asking us to do anything or go anywhere that he has not gone. If anyone has a claim to glory instead of suffering it would be Christ. Instead of thinking how we don’t deserve suffering or have earned a convenient faith and life, we are to have the same mindset, the same heartbeat as Christ Jesus, who humbled himself to the point of dying for us, for the world, so that people could come to know the love of God. He was God’s very son, yet he did not claim that as an out or to make his life easy. Instead, he set aside all of his glory to be a servant of God, who died a painful death, so the Kingdom of God may reign. 
Life isn’t fair. Or easy. Or without suffering. And being a Christian doesn’t make life any easier. In fact, it may just be harder. Because we choose not to follow our own way and will amidst a thousand distractions in this world. We choose to live as Christ live in order to further the Kingdom of God. And that way of living life is hard. It is going to bring about thousands of tears cried for people in this community who don’t know Christ. It is going to mean pouring our resources not into what we want, but into what Christ wants. It is going to mean that our treasures are Christ’s. Our calendar is Christ’s. It is all about Christ’s will be done, not ours.
Those are nice, comforting words that we pray each Sunday “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” until we sit down and consider the cost.  The truth is that not everyone who says that they are a follower of Christ, actually is. Because being a follower requires sacrifice. And just saying that we follow Christ doesn’t make it a fact reflected by our lives.
Right now some students from our parish are part of confirmation. On day one I told them that at the end of our time together as this class they each have to make a decision - it will be their own decision, not their parents, or friends, or families, about whether they will join the church. Whether they want to give their lives to being a disciple. The same is true for each of us here today, we need to make a decision as well. One that no one else can make for us. 
Lent seems like the perfect time to make that decision. Or to reflect on the decision we’ve made. Or re-dedicate our life to following Christ with all that we have and all that we are. Lent is known as a season of fasting - setting aside something that distracts us from God in order to be more fully present to the movement of the Spirit. Maybe some of you have given something up for Lent - social media, chocolate, or shopping for pleasure. Even if you have given something up, I want to invite all of us this coming week to give up one thing that distracts us from God, even for one day to be more fully present to God and reflect on whether we are following the way of the cross with all we have and all we are or if in the words of Pastor Mike Slaughter we are 
“professing a cross without the cost”. Reflect on whether we are living like a people marked by the ashes that began Lent with the words “from dust you were created and to dust you will return.” 

Be more fully present so you can choose if you want to follow the way of the Cross, knowing that it will cost more than you can ever imagine. Amen

Sunday, March 15, 2015

“Renegade Gospel: Seeing Jesus Today” Matthew 7:7-8 John 12:21

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” A seemingly simple statement, but with so much packed into it for us today. Do we, individually, as this local church, and as the Church Universal, seek to see Jesus? What does it mean that we would want to see Jesus? 
The reality is that too many Christians say that they want to see Jesus, say that they want to know Jesus’ will, yet don’t take any steps to make this happen. In order to see Jesus, in a day and age when he is not in front of us in the flesh, we need to be in the Word. Especially the gospels which show who Jesus is as well as what he said when he walked this earth. Let me just bluntly ask, how many of us are intentionally reading the gospels every day? It doesn’t need to be a long piece, but at least a verse from the gospels for devotions? I am not saying that the rest of the Bible does not hold significance, because it certainly does, but we need to be in the word in other parts of scripture and the Gospels daily. Get yourself one of the pocket bibles and carry it with you - one that has the Gospels, Psalms, and Proverbs. Use it to seek out Jesus so you can come to know who Jesus is, both in the past and the present.
In order to see Jesus, we also need to be in daily prayer. Notice I said “also” not “or”. In order to seek out and see Jesus, we need to be in the Word and in daily prayer. Prayer helps open up our eyes to see how Jesus is moving in the present, here and now, in our lives and the lives of others. 
A few months ago we handed out Wesley Covenant prayer cards. What would it look like if every morning, as soon as you get up, the first words to pass your lips were: “I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will….” How could that help you see things differently throughout your day? And what if you take time, either after that prayer, or some time during the course of your day - maybe over lunch, maybe before bed - to read a passage of scripture from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John and another piece of scripture? How could that help you see Christ more clearly?
The real question is what priority we are going to place on seeking Jesus throughout the day? Right now I am reading a book about prayer that makes a starling point - there will never be time to pray, we have to make time. The same goes for seeking out Jesus, we need to make time to seek out the Lord, daily, in our lives. For some of us that means a structure - setting aside the same time every day to be in prayer and the Word. For others it may mean putting it on our calendar or setting a reminder on our phone. Whatever you need to do to make time to seek out Christ a priority, I urge you to do so. 
The request to Philip from men to see Jesus was found at what could be described as a chaotic time. This passage of scripture is found right after Jesus enters Jerusalem for the passover - the event that we traditionally celebrate on Palm Sunday. Then Philip told Andrew and the two of them went to find Jesus. They went to go tell Jesus that men wanted to see him, but instead they heard the prophesy, straight from their Lord’s lips, about his death and resurrection. They didn’t get what they went for, but they surely saw Jesus that day in a whole new light.
Sometimes when we seek out the Lord, we aren’t going to get what we expect, because we can’t see what we aren’t looking for. Have you ever lost something, lets say your keys or a book, and you swear up and down that you know where it is, only to find it in an unexpected and different spot hours or days later? Why didn’t you look there in the first place? Because you were so sure it was in another. So it is sometimes with our relationship with Christ as well. We go to Christ seeking something so certain, that we miss the blessing that Jesus wants to bestow upon us - one that we didn’t even think to ask for and one we many not recognize because we do not yet have eyes to see it.
Another reason that we sometimes don’t see Jesus is because we’ve become spiritually lazy. We expect someone else to seek out Jesus for us. Or we think that if we come to church on Sunday that will be enough seeking for the week. How many of you have a husband or wife? Child? Best friend? What would life be like if you spoke to that person you love dearly only once a week? Your relationship would suffer. Jesus wants to be in relationship with us, yet we must make it a priority.
Even when we make our time with Christ a priority, sometimes it is entrenched the poor and unbiblical theology that say “the world is a mess, we will just wait for Jesus to come back and take us home”. No! Jesus calls us to live our lives in a manner of active and expectant waiting until Jesus’ return. We are to be the light shining forth Christ’s message - a light that we can only shine forth if we are both connected to the source - Jesus - and out in the world, not hiding ourselves away in waiting.
Sometimes we don’t see Jesus because we’ve misread or misunderstood today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew. We read the words ask, search, and knock and we believe that as long as we ask Jesus for something once that we have to receive it, because that is what the Bible says. But in original Greek, this passage is in the present tense. Ask and keep asking, search and keep searching, knock and keep knocking. In the words of Pastor Mike Slaughter, “Expectation needs to be constant and ongoing - a daily, intentional, whole-life priority of seeking the presence of Christ today, of actively listening for Christ’s voice in the present”.
Matthew is telling us to seek out the best things - the Jesus-hearted things. But when we seek out Jesus, our lives will be turned upside down. We may not get what we want, but we will get the best that God offers. We may not find the answer we came seeking, but we may just meet the one who is the author of all life. We may not find the Jesus we expect, but we will come face to face with our risen savior. And that is worth all of the time we have in this world. 
Slaughter writes, “We’ve made Jesus wimpy rather than revolutionary; tolerant rather than loving; good rather than God”. Where do we find Jesus today? The places he was in the Gospels. The unexpected places. The places that we try to avoid because they are unholy. Perhaps we aren’t seeing Jesus today because we aren’t looking in the right places. We have to seek and actively listen for the voice of Christ in our lives in order to respond to the promptings of Jesus.

Church, there are far too many people who identify as Christians today who aren’t seeking after Jesus. Who only want to see them on their own terms. People who are sleeping in their faith. Its time to wake up. Its time to stop wallowing. Its time to seek out Jesus with all that we have and all that we are. Its time to affirm our dependance upon God. It is time. Are you seeking and seeing? Amen. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

“Journeying into the Light” John 8: 12-20

And Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” 
Imagine that you are in the pitch black of night. You can’t see anything at all. You give it a moment for your eyes to adjust before you decide that light is needed. You flip on the beam of your flash light and a single beam makes it possible for you to take one step at a time in the right direction without stumbling. 
For several years, a flashlight was my constant companion while at church camp as a counselor. Especially when I worked with elementary aged children. At the particular camp I volunteered at - the bath house was located a bit of a distance away from cabins, so several times during the night, myself or another one of the counselors, picked up our trusty flashlight and walked with our students down to the bathroom.
There is a big difference however, between the light emitted from a flashlight, and that which comes from a light bulb. Flip a switch with a light bulb and a whole room lights up, even in the darkest of nights, while a flashlight’s beam will only light, one, maybe two steps ahead of you at a time. 
When Jesus proclaims that he is the light of the world and that we will never walk in darkness, I think a lot of us wish Jesus acts as a light bulb, lighting up a room in such a way that we can see everything in front of us. But I’m not sure that is what Jesus is talking about when he  proclaims to be the light of life. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus’s light is a bit more like that flashlight, making it so we can only see one or two steps in front of us - making us take one step forward in faith, knowing that Jesus walks with us, so we can take the next step.
Another thing that you learn from a flashlight, is that everyone pretty much needs their own. Sometimes, one person can share the light from their flashlight and two people can walk forward, but it does not work very well to have one flashlight trying to lead a group - a lesson quickly learned by counselors of elementary students who don’t want to carry their flashlights. 
When we don’t have our own connection to the Light and try to rely solely off of the faith of others, we stumble along the path. The Pharisees were struggling with this type of stumbling in today’s passage. They don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, cannot see the truth in his words, so they accuse him of bearing false witness. Jesus says that his testimony is valid, and goes on to explain that one cannot know God, one cannot come into the light of Truth, simply by relying on the law. They needed more then that to step forward in faith.
Back to camp. This past year, I worked with high school students, and we did an exercise I never experienced before. Under the pitch blackness of night, the campers grabbed a hold of a rope, were blind folded, and did a trust walk in darkness. It was painful at times, to watch them stumble their way along the path. Everyone walked with caution. A few students were frightened. And it took us quite a while to get to the “trust” part of the trust walk. 
I think we all go through dark times in our life. Times when it is hard to trust God and we feel like we are stumbling along the path. For me, such times come when I feel disconnected from the light of Christ. When I can’t bring myself to pray. Times when I forget to switch on the flashlight, letting Jesus lead my way step by step. Times when I ignore the flashlight beam, because what I really want is the light bulb to shine brightly. 

May we, along this Lenten journey, not neglect walking in the light of Christ. May we trust him, to guide us each step of the journey, one step at a time. May we trust that the words he testifies to are true. Amen. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

“Renegade Gospel: The Most Important Question You Will Ever Have to Answer” Luke 9: 18-24

There is a book that I liked when I was little that was all about children asking their parents questions. Questions about why things are the way they are and how things work. Why the sky is blue and the flowers smell. As adults we also ask questions - some that are easy to answer - about what we do or who comprises our family - and others that don’t seem to have any answer at all - why bad things happen to good people. Our lives are full of questions, waiting for answers. 
In today’s gospel passage Jesus asks his disciples a question… or really two questions. First he asks them who the crowds say that he is. This passage takes places right after Jesus feeds the five thousand. A crowd that had gathered to hear him teach. A crowd who he fed both spiritually and physically. Some people in the crowd had only heard about him from others up until that point at time. Perhaps others had heard him along the way before. But they came. And now Jesus wants to hear from his disciples who the people think he is. 
The answers varied. Some thought that he was John the Baptist - the one who had came to prepare the way for the Messiah. Others thought he was Elijah - one of the greatest prophets ever to live. And still others thought he was another ancient person who had come back to life, at this time, to direct their paths. 
After the disciples had given their answers of what they had heard, Jesus ask them the second question - “but who do you say I am?” This is a deeply personal question, that emerged after the disciples had spent over 18 months traveling day in and day out with Jesus. Going where he went. Eating what he ate. Sleeping where he slept. Their lives had been a constant journey with Jesus since he called them to follow him. Jesus had called them, not the elite or the smartest, not the most devout or the typical choices, to be his followers as their rabbi. But they each had answered the call to follow him. Imagine what they must have saw during that time - the teachings and healings. Imagine what they must have experienced - being welcomed by crowds and being chased out of town. These men had been through it all with him for over the past year and a half and now he wants to know who they think he is. 
Peter, always the outspoken one, blurts out “You are the Messiah of God!” This isn’t the answer from Peter that we would have expected. Peter the impulsive. Peter the sometimes unobservant. But in this instance he gets it right. Jesus is the Messiah - the chosen one of God. Now maybe Peter knew what that meant, and maybe he didn’t, but either way through his journeys with Jesus he had come to know, somewhere in his heart, that Jesus would save Israel. The disciples probably had many questions about what it meant that Jesus was the Messiah, but they didn’t have time to ask. Not now. Not yet. For Jesus sternly ordered them not to. 
The questions that Jesus posed to his disciples are ones that we still need to answer today. Who do people say Jesus is? For some, he is a good person. For others a prophet, but not God. For still others, they don’t believe that he existed at all. The answers will vary from person to person. But the more personal question that each of us need to answer is who do we believe Jesus is. Who is Jesus in your life?
Christian writer, C.S. Lewis  believed that there were really only three ways that we could answer the question of who we believe Jesus is. First, Jesus could be a liar. He could have lied to his disciples that he was the son of God. The second was that Jesus was a lunatic. He may have claimed to be God, but that just wasn’t true. And he taught things that just sounded crazy. But there is also a third answer, that Jesus really is who he says. That he is the Son of God and Son of Man. Fully human and fully divine. Who has come to show us the way to God and bring his Kingdom to reign on Earth. Jesus is the Lord he claims to be. 
According to Lewis, we each have to choose if we believe Jesus was a liar, lunatic, or Lord. In his words, “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.” And lest you think that you can get away with not thinking about who you believe Jesus to be in your life, Pastor Mike Slaughter states, “Let’s not deceive ourselves - not answering, ignoring, avoiding, belittling, or postponing the question is still a response.”
We need to decide if Jesus is Lord of our lives or not. For some people they can easily turn to God, but only in times of crisis - times when they are in deep and disrepute needs. But believing in Jesus only in those moments does not make him Lord of your life. Only following God when it is convient for you, doesn’t grow faith - for the process of coming to know Christ and growing in your faith is much more gradual. And requires much more trust. In the words of Mike Slaughter, “Faith is not quick, faith is not easy.”
And just because you study about Jesus - going to church and Bible study doesn’t mean that Jesus is Lord of your life either. You can be able to tell people about who Jesus is - just as the disciples reported from the crowds that day - without ever truly letting him be Lord of your life. Slaughter writes, “Jesus becomes a Sunday morning habit, and the rest of the week we seem to get along just fine without him.” That is not making Jesus Lord of your life. 
Believing that Jesus is Lord of your life means that you have to deny yourself and follow Christ. It means realigning your priorities with Christ’s priorities. It requires a life commitment - not just when we feel it, or when we are in need, or when things seem easy - but all day, every day. Submitting our very selves to the service of Christ. Daily dying to our desires. Daily rising to accept Christ as the Lord of our lives. The one in complete control. The one who we honor and serve. The one and only. And that type of faith, that type of allegiance to Christ alone, requires action. We cannot stay the same way that we were before we met Jesus if he is our Lord. And we cannot have the same level of faith that we have today, tomorrow, if we are seeking to grow with Christ. 
Lest we deceive ourselves, many people start the journey with Christ. They can tell other people who Jesus is, but far fewer can say who Jesus is to them and live a life that matches. That type of dedication and sold out commitment, requires the support of a community of believers that encourage us to keep running the race. To keep growing in grace. Folks who help us sustain our commitment to proclaiming that Jesus is Lord with our lips and our lives.

Like the disciples we to need to be able to answer the question - but who do you believe that I am? Not just tell others that I am. Not just study. But believe in such a way that our lives reflect our beliefs. And that may just be the most important question that we are ever going to have to answer. Do you know what your answer will be? Amen. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

“Revolutionary Lifestyle” Isaiah 61:4

The Lenten season is a time of reflection and repentance. Reflection upon who we are, what we believe about God, and how we live into those beliefs. And repentance for our sins, both personal and social.
Perhaps one of the sins we need to communally repent of this season is making faith seem too easy. In most worshipping bodies, men only compose about thirty nine percent. Have you ever taken time to wonder whey there are so few males present in comparison to females? Or so few young people? Or so few families? Whatever demographic you feel the church is missing. Have you done more then bemoan the fact that worship attendance is slipping? Perhaps one of the reasons that people are missing is because we’ve made Jesus’ image to be domesticated and docile. We have picked apart the Bible and have lifted up the parts that we would like to see emulated - the good shepherd, letting the children come, and Christ forgiving others. But in doing so we have left out a majority of scriptures - the places where Jesus was kicked out of almost every place he went or caused a riot or a stir. The parts where Jesus has righteous anger and flips over the money changers table. The parts where Jesus’ words challenge the hearts of religious leaders and the folks listening to him. 
We need to present all of the pictures of Jesus in order to appreciate both who he is and who he is calling us to be as followers. We need to remember that Jesus is God - powerful and confrontational. Perhaps when folks come to worship they need to meet not necessarily a docile Jesus, but one who can be powerful in the midst of their struggles. Or one who brings a word of challenge when necessary. 
Further, maybe people are missing from worship because we’ve made our faith watered-down. We don’t make membership challenging, difficult, or demanding. The churches that are growing in the United States, brothers and sisters, are those in which faith means something and membership vows are not taken lightly. They hold people accountable to tithing, being in worship, and being in a small group. They are the places that remind folks that membership does not come with privileges, but rather demands. When we don’t hold folks accountable the vows they make, we are essentially saying that numbers matter more to us then helping people live out their faith - and perhaps the easiness of joining the church makes it just as easy to leave.
The early church understood such problems. For the first 300 years, the church was illegal. And during that time there were at least ten mass persecutions of Christians, that resulted in so many people being killed that it was dubbed “the age of the martyrs.”
Why were so many people killed during this time period? Because they declared with their lips and their lives “Jesus is Lord”, which was threatening to the government where Caesar alone was to be Lord over people’s lives. In essence, these Christians were killed because they were committing treason in the eyes of the government, declaring that someone else ruled their lives. As a result, tens of thousands of people hung on crosses by major roadways as a warning to the people passing by not to believe or proclaim what they did, or they would meet the same fate. But it backfired. This time of persecution showed one of the fastest growths in the church’s history. 
To be a martyr is to witness to something, and these Christians sacrificed their very lives to witness to their faith in Jesus Christ. What does our faith witness to today? Do we proclaim Jesus is Lord in a way that other people notice? Or has the church simply become a place that we go on Sundays for an hour or two, instead of being who we are as believers of Christ?
The Age of the Martyrs didn’t last forever. In 313, Emperor Constantine had a conversion and decided to cease persecuting Christians and instead make Christianity legal. After this point, the Christian flag flew under the flag of Rome. According to Pastor Mike Slaughter, “The new, legalized status for Christianity thankfully diminished the persecutions but ironically would prove to deal an almost fatal blow to the vibrancy of the church. Jesus’ followers started to become comfortable and complacent - enjoying being part of the status quo.” Before if you joined the church, it meant you were risking your very life for what you believed. You had to be sure that Christ was Lord of your life and you had to be bold in declaring it. Now, as Christianity became the status quo, it was simply expected. To be a Christian was to be a good citizen of Rome. Do you see the difference? Maybe he didn’t mean to, but by making Christianity legal and by flying the Christian flag under the Roman flag, Constantine was essentially saying, once again, that Rome was Lord of the people and Rome was Lord of Christ. Which the Christians just accepted. 
Before we go criticizing the early Christians, I have to ask, don’t we do the same thing today? When we bemoan that America is no longer a Christian nation? Perhaps what we should be asking is how no longer being part of the status quo can increase our faith? How it can help us proclaim that Jesus is Lord. Perhaps if Christianity is no longer the religion of the state, we are freed to ask hard questions, such as: is our lifestyle aligned with meeting the status quo or the worldview of the Kingdom of God? A worldview is a set of beliefs or concerns. For the government, those concerns are chiefly being capitalistic and democratic. But are those the same concerns of the Jesus of the Gospels? No. But for some reason we’ve allowed the worldview of the government to become the Christian worldview over time.
Maybe this Lenten season we need to confess and repent that, in the words of Pastor Slaughter, “Christians began to value, honor, and prioritize a worldly system, ideology, and politics over the kingdom of God. Jesus’ authority began to be subjugated to the state’s authority.” Now I’m not saying to be antigovernment or anti-America. As Christians we can certainly respect and appreciate democracy, but I am asking you were your ultimate allegiance lies - with the nation or with God. Another way to ask this is what do we allow to create our values - what the government or the news tells us or the Kingdom of God we find in the gospels? Because we can proclaim that we are one nation under God, but the truth is, even some of the early forefathers had a very skewed view of Christianity, as they picked and chose what they wanted to believe out of the Bible. We will never fully be able to follow the Kingdom of God if we put nation above Christ.
Maybe this Lenten season we need to confess that we have made religion privatized - focusing on the fact that Jesus came and died so I can get to heaven, while forgetting to reach out to our neighbor. The verse from the prophet Isaiah today is about rebuilding, restoring, and renewing not just looking out for ourselves in this life and the life to come. Jesus came to bring heaven to earth. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, reminds us that salvation is both personal and social. It is about our relationship with Jesus, but that should be manifested in god works. That is to say that works don’t save us, but they are a fruit of our relationship with Jesus, when we put what Jesus teaches into practice. When we just talk about our relationship with Jesus, it is as if we want to make ourselves an exception to Jesus’ cry for us to pick up our cross and follow him. It is as if we want to the rewards of discipleship without the cost. But being baptized means that we are fully submitted to the authority of Christ. If we make Christianity about what we want or our excuses or complaints and if we focus on these things we haven’t realized what it means to follow Christ fully. 

Mother Teresa once said “Preach Jesus, the true Jesus, the real Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, and not the Jesus of people’s imaginations.” This Lenten season may we strive to know the real Jesus and put his teachings into actions. May we take a risk for the sake of the Kingdom of God. May we confess that which blocks us from following Christ more closely. And may we repent of making Jesus into who we want him to be, safe to follow, instead of loving who he truly is. Amen. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Renegade Gospel: Discovering the Rebel Jesus John 14:6

This morning’s scripture verse is one that has been debated over by Christians for centuries. It is one that is catchy and often finds its way on to church signs and bulletin boards on the side of the highway. But I have to wonder if we ever took time to examine what we mean when we say that Jesus is the truth. 
I have a ministry coach who I talk to monthly. One of her favorite things to say is that just because something is true, that does not make it the Truth with a capital ’T’. This is the type of truth that Jesus is - capital ’T’ truth. But sadly, for too many churches this type of truth isn’t reflected in their worship and service. Instead, as the church we have often confused the Truth of Christ with our desires and personal preferences.
Over the next several weeks we are going to be discussing something uncomfortable - Jesus’ truth. Some of you are going to end up getting mad at me, because I’m going to invite you to set aside the lens of what you believe is true in order to re-discover Jesus. We are going to explore some of the scripture verses that reflect Jesus’ truth, the words that some of you may find printed in the color red in your Bibles. And we are going to come back to this mornings scripture verse about what Jesus means when he says that he is the way, the truth, and the life. I’m going to apologize in advance if this sermon series make you comfortable, because I know that it is trying. I too was faced with some unpleasant truths as I read the book this sermon series and our parish Lenten Bible study will be based off of, Pastor Mike Slaughter’s The Renegade Gospel. It’s uncomfortable because too many of us have stopped looking for Jesus and instead have made Jesus into who we wanted him to be - culturally, politically, and theologically - and we no longer now which version of Jesus is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. The Truth is Jesus isn’t republican or democrat. Jesus isn’t just the savior of America. Jesus is the Good News - the gospel Truth embodied, God in the flesh. 
Pastor Slaughter states, “We often forget that Jesus was a member of the marginalized and persecuted minority.” We forget that Jesus was a refugee because of genocide. We forget that he wasn’t white. And we forget that he wasn’t like by the religious leaders of the day. And neither were his followers - in fact all of his disciples except for two died a martyrs death. The only ones who didn’t were Judas who took his own life and John who died on an island in exile. What would lead so many of his disciples to die a martyrs death? They believe the Truth of Christ. They believed that he was Lord and that he had all authority over their lives. Jesus’s radical stance and radical demands on his disciples changed their lives to the point where they were willing to die for what they believed, which ultimately changed the world. 
The reality is, however, that this is rarely the Jesus that we were taught about in Sunday School, or is preached on, or even studied in Bible Studies. But we’ve done ourselves, as followers of Christ, a dis-service by only talking about the Jesus that we knew in Sunday School.  For a few years I taught Sunday School to kindergartners and for many years I dramatized Biblical Stories at Vacation Bible School. For those stories, we often had to edit them - to take out the parts that would cause parents to be uncomfortable if their child went home and retold the story. We took out details that were not child friendly or appropriate. But for too many of us, our knowledge of Biblical stories stopped in Sunday School, instead of growing to know the Jesus of the Bible, the red-letter Jesus, as an adult.
I want you to think of someone you knew who was passionate and enthusastic about their faith life? Do you have that person in mind? My guess is that person, even though I never met them, knew the Jesus found in scriptures. The radical Jesus that his disciples, both in the past and today, were willing to put their life on the line for. There aren’t enough Christians like this around today. Far too many of us never encountered the Jesus of scriptures in such a way that we were transformed and our lives were re-arranged. Instead, we made Jesus into someone who is docile and only offers comfort instead of words of challenge. The Jesus in the Bible was so radical that he started a movement that spread like wildfire - and it breaks my heart that some of us can go our whole lives without knowing this contagious Jesus. Instead we’ve made him into a God that makes us feel safe, instead of one who changed the world. 
For when we encounter this radical Lord, we have a choice to make - if we are going to follow him. If we are passionate about what he is passionate about. If he will truly be our first love. But, as the Church, we’ve set aside hard questions like this, set aside even asking people if they have encountered this Jesus, and have taken the type of discipleship shown by his first followers with other things - what it means to be a good citizen, or a good church member, or a  nice person. Brothers and sisters, these were not the things of Jesus’ heart and mind when he came to save the world.
And the more distance we have put between ourselves and the Jesus of scriptures, the more we have made church into a place to go, a building, instead of remembering that we are the church as the people of God. We are the tool God wants to use to transform the current state of our world. But all too often we get caught up in different things, and have made Jesus someone to believe in, instead of someone to love and follow and be wholly dedicated to. 
Now don’t mishear me, this is not true of all people and all places. According to Pastor Slaughter, “The places in the world today where Christianity is growing the fastest are those countries where Christianity is still illegal and Christians are being persecuted by their government.” I have friends who have served as missionaries in such countries and their accounts mirror those of Pastor Slaughter. In places where people need to really decide in their faith in Christ is worth dying for, his Word spreads like that wildfire of the first centuries. Because they are actually engaging the Word, making their own decision, and dedicating their entire lives to it, no matter what the cost. 
This is also one of the reasons that I love working with college students so much. At a time when they are away from their homes, parents, and faith communities, they have a choice to make - whether Jesus is worth giving their all too. And many of them begin reading the scriptures for themselves and discover as Mike Slaughter writes that, “The real Jesus was pro-love and pro-peace, yet unafraid to challenge the hypocritical religious status quo regardless of consequences.” That the Jesus they grew up hearing about isn’t the same one on the pages of their Bibles. And they radically commit their lives to the Truth of Christ. They start to realize that it isn’t just about knowing Christ or believing him, for even the demons knew Christ by name and believed in his power, but about the saving and radical way of the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. 

Believing alone will not save us. And Christ did not come to this earth simply to be believed in or so we can get to heaven. Christ came so that we can have the promised life now and have it abundantly. And that isn’t a promise or a call that is dependent upon any particular life stage or age. Its the call of the Real Rebel Jesus - the Jesus who changed lives and changed the world. Is this the Jesus you know? Is this the Jesus you want to follow? Amen. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Forgiving Other Matthew 6: 14-15 Col 3:13 Matthew 18:21-22

We are starting off this morning with a tough topic - forgiveness. For the next two weeks we are going to be discussing what it means to forgive others and ourselves. What it means to be in relationship with other people. This is one of the topics that was selected by a congregation member, and I find it deeply important for the world that we live in. Most of us have  personal stories or know of close friends who have stories of broken relationships. Deep hurts. Un-forgiveness. Is this God’s plan for us? Is there a better way?
Part of life is being hurt. Its an ugly, but true fact. In the words of Pastor Adam Hamilton, “We are bound to hurt others and other are bound to hurt us.” But this is not how God imagined or wanted life to be for us. Emotional hurts are a direct result of Adam and Eve disobeying God, they are a consequence of free will, and stumbling into sin. God wants us to repent of the harm that we cause others (which we will be discussing more next week) and wants us to seek to forgive others for the pain that they cause us, though this is often easier said than done. 
Because the world we live in is filled with brokenness, forgiveness is essential to life. In fact, if we do not forgive, we often perpetuate the cycle of hurting others. But as Christians we believe that Jesus taught us a counter-cultural way to live by both his example and teachings on forgiveness. Jesus ultimately did as he taught, forgiving even the people who called for him to be crucified and those who mocked and beat him as he hung on the cross. He suffered pain and humiliation that is hard for many of us to even fathom, yet he asked God to forgive those gathered around the cross that day. And he forgave his disciples even though they turned their backs on him, only one staying by his side as he died. But Jesus also calls us as his followers to live into his example of forgiving others, even asking the disciples to go to the very ends of the earth announcing the forgiveness of sins. However, we know the actual act of forgiveness can be unspeakably difficult at times.
One of Jesus’s first teachings to the disciples about forgiveness came as part of the Lord’s prayer, which he repeated throughout his time on earth - “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. We pray this prayer together each and every Sunday, 52 weeks a year. But have you let those words capture your soul? Do we mean what we pray? We are asking God to forgive us as we, or in the same way, that we forgive others. Thats powerful. How would God respond to you if you are being judged in the exact manner that you judge others? Would God quickly forgive you? Hold a grudge? Try to let things go, but find that they keep coming up in your mind and spirit?
Thankfully, God does not judge us as we judge others, but I think if we let the Lord’s Prayer transform us from the inside out, if we mean what we pray, than we will be more prone to forgive. But I also think that one of the reasons we are slow to forgive is because we don’t exactly know what forgiveness means or looks like in our daily lives. Even the best relationships in our lives have conflict. Most of the conflict are small things - irritations and disappointments - but if we don’t actively choose to forgive the small things, they often fester and infect our soul. Other conflicts are like boulders, weighing on us. But whether we have to make a decision about forgiving small or large conflicts, it boils down to the same basic question: are we going to choose justice or mercy?
I had a friend in high school who dealt with conflict big or small in the same way - he would ignore you. If you had done something wrong you would know it because you were shown the silent treatment until you accurately figured out what you had done and apologized. This was his way of seeking out justice. You had hurt him, so he was going to hurt you by ignoring you. Now he may not have explained it that way if you asked him, but that is what he was doing. But before you start criticizing my friend, I think we need to each examine our hearts and see if we do the same thing from time to time. Where are the places in our lives when we demand an eye or an eye, or a hurt for a hurt? How do you respond when someone hurts you - by seeking to hurt them in return, even if its just by ignoring them? Or by the words you choose to say? Justice seeks to right wrongs through punishment - though we each have a different way of inflicting punishment on others. On the other hand, mercy is forgiving someone. Offering to them what they cannot earn or deserve. 
At times justice may seem really appealing, so why would we choose mercy? Because God choose to show mercy to us - by offering us life through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Through his example, teachings, death and resurrection Jesus modeled for us what it looks like to love someone instead of seeking to punish them. 
We also get confused because we don’t know what to do if we have a conflict with someone or if we have been wronged. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he writes that we are to forgive whenever we have been wronged. But how is this possible? Especially when righteous anger seems to simmer inside of us? First, and most importantly, we are to pray for those who hurt us, bringing our pain before God. As you pray to God, remember your own shortcomings. Remember ways that you have harmed others in relationships, by doing so you may be more able to offer grace because of the grace you have been freely offered. As you pray, ask God to reveal to you the very best about the person, helping you focus on their positive attributes instead of simply the wrong before you. And then pray for the person by name. Pray that God blesses them, even in the midst of your hurt.  Praying this type of prayer often helps us let go of our need, our right, for retribution and opens up our heart to offer mercy. 
However, a few words of caution about approaching forgiveness in this way. First, notice that you are talking to God about the complaint, not other people. Often we have a tendency to gather people in our corner when we feel we are wronged, as if we are preparing for battle. Please don’t do this. It just makes it easier to perpetuate hurt feelings and hide behind anger. This type of prayer asks us to strip away the layers of the hurt by bringing it before God so we can offer mercy. That’s a lot harder if other people are chanting for you to seek justice instead. Second, through this prayer, God may prompt you to sit down and talk to the person face to face. This is difficult, but is much better than telling everyone else about our problem instead of telling the person directly. But when we choose to show mercy, we shine forth the light and message of Christ, who forgave us. 
Lastly, we are confused about what it means to continually forgive. I’ve heard every message there is about forgiveness from you need to be a doormat who allows people to mistreat you because its what Jesus would do, to you need to seek vengeance is the form of an eye for an eye, because its scriptural. But this morning we hear Jesus telling Peter to continually forgive. To forgive more times then you could possibly remember. But this does not mean that we forget, or that there are not consequences to the pains that we face. Forgiveness is not the same as condoning. Sometimes people have hurt us so deeply that even after we choose to forgive them that we still must seek to rebuild trust.
Notice that Jesus is giving Peter this teaching about those in the church - those that we are in relationship with. Often it is the pain caused by people we are in relationship with, family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, that hurt the most, and can sometimes even feel like small deaths. With these type of relationships, forgiveness means we renounce vengeance and retaliation, but it does not mean that we need to be abused. When we think that forgiveness means that we continually offer ourselves up to be mistreated or diminished again and again. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean we ignore an incident on the outside and get angry about it on the inside, allowing it to get stuck inside of us. When we do this, it is both unhealthy, and gives the other person power over us. 
But I also think Jesus is speaking to Peter here about a more basic problem as well - how do you forgive others who do not seem to repent? Those who can’t say they are sorry or aren’t even aware that they have wronged us. Those who don’t change their behaviors or don’t know how to ask for forgiveness. In those cases it is so much harder to forgive or say that you will only forgive if someone asks for forgiveness. But remember that these are people you are in relationship with, so you need to ask, is this worth losing a relationship over? In most cases, the answer is going to be no. So we keep forgiving, but are in conversation with the one who wronged us, slowly chipping away at the wrongdoings. 

Forgiveness is difficult. It requires us to examine ourselves, to pray, to choose mercy over justice, and to remember that forgiving is not the same as condoning. But forgiveness also becomes easier the more we practice it and the more we remember that we are forgiven by God. May we leave this place and seek to be people marked by forgiving hearts and follow the path of mercy, in order to proclaim the love of our Lord and Savior. Amen.