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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, July 23, 2017

The Gospel in Storybooks: Old Turtle Ex 34: 6-7 Isaiah 40: 21-31

Old Turtle by Douglas Wood was never on my bookshelf as a child. In fact, I wasn’t introduced to it until seminary, but it quickly became one of my favorites. Old Turtle tells of a different time and place - when everything in the world - all of creation - could communicate with one another. This isn’t just like prior to the Tower of Babel in the Bible when all human could talk to one another - this was all of the stars, the sea, and the animals. Everything.
But over time the Creation started to argue with one another about what God was like. As often happens each part of creation started to assert that God was like them. The island said that God was separate and apart. The bear said God was powerful. The fish said God was a swimmer and so on and so forth. 
We are now in the fourth week of our sermon series about seeing Gospel truths in children’s storybooks. When I read Old Turtle for the first time one of the scriptures that came to mind was from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is speaking to the Israelites when they are in captivity by Babaloyn. They have been there a long time and it looks like they are going to be there longer. The original folks who had been taken into captivity are starting to die off and new people are being born who never laid eyes on the holy city of Jerusalem. They people remember who God is by the stories they tell, but the problem is that they have been gone so long, they are starting to forget. 
In this mornings scripture lesson the prophet is trying to remind the people who God is. Have the people not known and have they not heard time after time? God is the Lord over all creation. Isaiah paints a vast picture of who God is and how God fashioned together creation. It is as if Isiah is trying to drill into the people how great and timeless God is and how insignificant the people are in comparison to that. 
Which gets to the question I think the creation was arguing about in Old Turtle - who is God in relationship to us? All to often our human words and images for God fall short. In fact, we can never fully know God in this life, and after a while, we start to make God in our image. 
I remember one of the first images I had of God - it was a smiling father with brown hair, a white dress shirt and a red tie. Why was this the image I had in my head? Because of the storybooks in Sunday School had the picture of a young family walking into church and this picture up in the right hand corner. What I didn’t understand at the time was that this was a memory of the child walking into the church of getting ready for church. My little mind couldn’t grasp that, so this picture became my image of God.
What was one of your first images of God? And how has that image remained the same or changed? The problem that creation had and if we are honest we can admit that we have from time to time is when we start to morph that image of who God is into who we are - making God in our image. If God looks like someone from your family, thinks like you think, likes who you like and hates who you hates - that isn’t God, friends. 
We cannot base who God is off of how we feel as humans. In fact, all too often we base God’s very presence in our lives and in the midst of situations off of our human perceptions, when really God is inviting us into something so much deeper than feeling. God is inviting us into a relationship built on trust.
But like the Israelites we don’t trust God because in the midst of basing God’s presence off of our perception and making God into our image we have forgotten who God truly is. In Exodus we find a wonderful description of who God says God is: The Lord proclaimed that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, steadfast in love and faithfulness. Forgiving but also seeing justice. 
The problem is when we get too comfortable when things are going well or too stressed out when things are going arry - we forget who God is. When the people of Israel were in captivity they forgot who God is. In fact, we forget a whole lot more than we remember. We have forgotten and mistaken the very characteristics of our God.
Enter Old Turtle. Old Turtle was known as a wise creature that rarely spoke, but she had to say something in the midst of these arguments. She told them that others would be coming who represented the very love of God in the world. And come they did - they were humans. But then, the people forgot that they were the message of God’s love and care for the world and they started to argue too. Having a very similar argument to creation at the beginning of the book. 
When we forget who God says God is, we start to argue. We start to demand proof that God exists. We start to make untrue claims - like God doesn’t walk with us in the midst of whatever we are going through. We fight because when our communal memory about God fails, our faiths starts to fade.
Which is exactly with the Israelites need the words of Isaiah. Their faith is starting to fade away.  When our faith fades - we forget who and what we believe. We forget why we believe. We stop sharing the stories of old. Israel had forgotten what they once knew - their God is god alone. And their God will never fail them. They are not hidden from the Lord. They are not forgotten. In fact, they are being lifted up by the Lord of all creation.
Isaiah lives into two tensions, brothers and sisters. On one hand, the prophet is clearly saying that as humans we will never fully understand God’s ways because they are so far above ours. We cannot even begin to fathom who God is. But on the other hand, God is in relationship with us. God is unchanging and will not leave us. And God gives new life to us today, even as God created everything so long ago. The tension between what we can’t know and what we must know. The balance between how we cannot fully know God and how God desires to be in relationship with us.

A lot of what we fight about in the world today is distracting us from knowing God. It’s a misrepresentation of who God is and what God is about. When we fight like the creation and then the humans did in Old Turtle, we miss the point. We are God’s creation and God’s fingerprints are all over each of us. We can see the very love of God in one another if we actually stop and look. But we have to know what we are looking for, which means we have to know God first. We have to remember who God is and never stop telling the stories of the faith. We have to hold up the faith, even when it seems to be fading and forgotten in the world around us. We need to keep telling each other about the God who loves us and is for us. Amen. Amen. Amen. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

“The Gospel in Storybooks: Where the Wild Things Are” Luke 15: 11-32

Where the Wild Things Are is not a book that I grew up with as a child, however, for many children Maurice Sendak’s book is a favorite. It has won the Caldecott Medal and has been made into a movie in recent years. 
Reading Where the Wild Things Are for the first time as an adult, I found myself thinking that Max, the main character, in all of his antics is both a rambuncious and imaginative child, but he also does not not when he takes things to far. In the first few pages he can be seen hammering nails into the wall and scaring the family dog - misbehavior that he was punished for as he was sent to his room. 
I have to wonder if the son in today’s parable known as the prodigal, but who is simply identified as the younger son, had a heart like young Max. Did he know what he was doing when he told his father, while he was still living, to give him the property that belonged to him. Did he realize how rude he was being? That he was essentially saying ‘I don’t want to wait until you’ve died to get what’s coming to me’? It’s a dishonorable request in any day and time. 
Then the younger son went on an adventure. He liquidated the property he was given and spent the money in any way imaginable. He traveled far away and spent the money on “dissolute living” until the famine came. Until he realized that he didn’t have a plan or any money. Or a family. It was fun while it lasted but now the fun was over. 
In the children’s book, Max also had a field day. His room turned into a forest which he traveled far beyond - across an ocean in fact, until he got to the area where the wild things are located. While others may have been scared of the fierce creatures, they followed Max’s commands and eventually made him their king. Which was all well and good - until he got bored. 
Children’s books can resemble the parables of Jesus in many ways. Parables were stories that Jesus told, in specific contexts, that say something about human nature. But they don’t stop there, they ask us as listeners to examine our hearts, often time after time. For children’s books and parables always have something new to teach us, no matter how many times we have engaged them before.
Take this parable for instance. How many of us have heard the parable of the prodigal son before? How many of us remember when Jesus told this story? Not as many. This story takes place after Jesus is having yet another run in with the pharisees about his table practices. The religious leaders accused Jesus of eating with sinners - and this parable was his response.
The parable of the prodigal son is one that we have probably engaged countless times - in devotions, Sunday School, and sermons. I know I have over the years. But the story keeps speaking. Keeps inviting us in. When I was in college, chapel attendance was required. After years of chapel services three times a week they would seem to blend together after a while, but I still remember a series where the preacher looked at this parable three separate days from different perspectives - the father, the older son, and the younger son. I have a colleague who once preached this sermon to college students from the perspective of the pig farmer who hired the younger son, and that stuck with me as well.
This parable is powerful because it invites us to examine our lives from different perspectives and check in on our relationship with ourself, others, and God. To the ancient hearer before we even get into the part of the story that we so often like to celebrate in church, about the younger son returning how, they would have been shocked. Shocked at the younger son’s crass request. Shocked that the older son looked on an said nothing. Shocked that the father actually gave the son his inheritance early without a word!
Maybe we need to be a  little more shocked brothers and sisters. Maybe we need to be a little more vigilant in identifying those times in our lives when we make demands on God that are crass. Maybe we need to be a little more aware of how our relationship with God can effect our relationship with other people. Maybe we need to be a little more aware of the brokenness in our lives that leads us to misguided understandings of God, even before we go astray. 
The famine hits and the younger son is left in the most uncomfortable position - penniless, working with pigs, which would have been unheard of at the time, as the listeners to Jesus would have considered them unclean. This was rock bottom. And as often comes with rock bottom, clarity starts to emerge. The younger son thinks that even the hired help at his father's house has it better than this - so he needs to go back home and beg for a job. Not beg to be reinstated as a son, but beg to simply be the hired help. 
For Max, rock bottom came as he looked upon his subjects, the wild beast, and realized that he was lonely. That he didn’t want to be a king - he wanted to be with people who loved him. 
What does rock bottom look like for us brothers and sisters? What causes us to realize that we’ve screwed up and strayed from God? What makes us go back into the arms of God’s grace?
Priest and author Henri Nou wen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, says that so often we focus on this story from the perspective of the younger son and how he screwed up (maybe because we can identify with that as people who go astray), but really at the heart of this parable is the message of a forgiving and loving God the welcomes us back in ways far better than we deserve.
For as the younger son approached home the father came running out to him. He showed acts of reconciliation, offering to the son fine robes and rings and sandals. He even threw the younger son a party because he was so overjoyed! Max, too, was offered acts of reconciliation, after being sent to his room without dinner, he found dinner, still hot, waiting for him when he returned. 

This brothers and sisters is the story, the parable, Jesus told when he was charged with fellowshipping around the table, partying if you will, with those that the Pharisees deemed to be sinners. Do you get what Jesus was trying to say? That it’s not for us to judge who is beyond God’s forgiveness and grace. It is not for us to judge who is welcomed into the Kingdom of God. The Pharisees were acting as if they had been snubbed because Jesus was eating with the sinners instead of them, as if the presence of those they didn’t like kept them from being at the table. But the truth is, God gives us all more than we deserve. God welcomes us back, if we have a repentant heart. God let’s us start anew, seeking after a purity of heart, and God rejoices in that. Let us rejoice too, when the lost ones, including our very selves, come home to the family of God. Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

“The Gospel in Storybooks: Corduroy” John 15: 12-17 Eph 4: 9-10

The story of Corduroy was also amongst my favorite growing up. It tells the story of a little bear who had spent quite a long time living on a department store shelf. Corduroy yearned for a forever home, but time after time he was passed over. Finally, one day a little girl came and told her mother that she always wanted a bear like the one in the green overalls - Corduroy. The bear could feel his hope surge - would be finally get his home? But the mother told the little girl that Corduroy didn’t look very shiny and new, especially since he was missing a button. 
We are now in the second week of our sermon series about finding the Gospel message, or the good news of Jesus, in children’s story books. Last week we looked at A Porcupine Named Fluffy and saw how God changes our identity when we come to accept Christ as our savior.  This week we pick up Corduroy by Don Freeman. 
All the little bear desired was to be wanted. He wanted someone to pick him. How many of us can identify with that feeling? We want someone special to pick us to be their spouse. We want someone to choose us to be their friend. We want the employer to really want us to be their employee during job interviews. Part of human nature is to want to be wanted. 
The good news is that we have been chosen. Specifically, we have been chosen by Jesus Christ. One of our scripture lessons this morning came from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and it contained their really complex saying about Christ ascending and descending. What is Paul trying to get across? At its core, Paul is saying that Christ chose us. Christ chose to leave Heaven and to descend down to earth to be with us, human beings, so that we would have the opportunity to be in right relationship with God. Jesus chose the way of the cross because Jesus chose us, chose to die for us. It’s hard for us to warp our heads and hearts around.  
I love what happens next in today’s storybook. Corduroy becomes so distraught by what he hears the mom saying about his missing button that he takes it upon himself to try to go find it. He wander around the department store until he comes across the furniture section. There he finds a button sewn on a mattress that he assumes must be his. He tries so hard to pull it off that he falls backwards off the bed and knocks over a lamp.
Brothers and sisters, how many of us have been there? We try so hard to make things happen that we end up causing a mess? As humans, I think of the things that we struggle with the most about salvation is that we cannot earn it. We cannot earn God’s favor. We cannot make God chose us. We constantly live into the tension of not being able to earn God’s grace but living out of the beauty of the gift we have been given, and sometimes we go too far to one side or another. We try too hard and forget that God has given us a beautiful gift. Or we don’t live a life that reflects the gift that we’ve been given. Hear me, friends, we cannot earn God’s love because it was freely given to us on the cross. We simply need to accept that gift in our lives - the gift of God’s saving love for us.
When Corduroy woke up the next morning, the little girl had returned with her own money. She said that she chose this little bear, the one that she had always wanted. When they arrived at her home, Corduroy realizes that this is his forever home. In fact he even says, “This must be home. I  know I’ve always wanted a home.” Lisa, the little girl went on to pick him up and placed a button on him, saying that she loved him just the way he was but that he would be more comfortable this way. Finally, Corduroy realizes that this is what friendship looks like. 
Christ chose to not only make a way for our salvation brothers and sisters through the cross, but to make a way for us to be called friends of God as well. In the Gospel of John we find sayings of Jesus about the truths of love and friendship. To love one another is one of the greatest needs that we have in our lives, yet we aren’t always good at it. And the disciples aren’t always good at it. So we need Jesus to model for us what love looks like, and Jesus essentially says that love is sacrifice. 
Now hear me, there have been many ways that this passage of scripture has been used and abused over the years. We cannot demand that another person sacrifice for us. We cannot tell another human being what sacrifice looks like for them. But Jesus did say that love looks like laying down one’s life for one’s friends and that looks different for each of us. 
In an age where we sometimes physically move away fro our friends, sacrifice may look like driving to visit someone who is dear to us. In an age where work demands more and more of our time, sacrifice may mean having a set time on your calendar when you talk to your friends and see how they are doing. In an age, where being face to face with one another is no longer the norm, sacrifice may be taking a friend out for coffee. 
I think we all know what Jesus is saying in this passage, that he is going to lay down his literal life for the disciples and for the world. While studying abroad, one of the first places a friend and I found ourselves was in a memorial garden for fallen heroes in Melbourne Australia, where these words were etched in stone. There are some that literally give their lives, but that may not be what sacrifice looks like for all of us.
What Jesus is saying to all of us is that love isn’t just this internal feeling that you have. Love expresses itself in actions. Writing that letter. Giving of our time. Picking up a phone. Going to volunteer. The love in action of Jesus Christ bears fruit. It makes the name of Jesus known. It lets that Christ-light shine in the world. And like the love that little Lisa showed to Corduroy, this type of love restores and creates something new in the name of Jesus.
We have a lot of sayings and slogans around friendship. In the 1995 Disney film Toy Story, the theme song proclaimed, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” In the church we sing “What a friend we have in Jesus.” And we say things like “that’s what friends are for”. But I don’t think any of those truly capture the earth shattering reality that Jesus calls us friends. Friends are a gift from God. They help us. They show us compassion. They know us and love us anyway. They call us to be better versions of ourselves. They teach us patience, kindness, and forgiveness. They teach us how to care for one another. 
I always tell folks that I would much rather be known as a church where we are friends instead of friendly. Anyone can do friendly for one hour a week, but being friends changes us. And being friends like Jesus taught us to be, friends that show love in action and bear fruit for the Kingdom of God together, that truly changes us from the inside out and changes lives. 
Over the years many research studies have been done about how people come to know Christ and repeatedly the same thing comes back. 75-90 percent of people who come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior do so because of a friend or relative. Because of people who walk beside them and show love in action. 

The world needs us, brothers and sisters to share the love of Jesus Christ. The love of sacrifice. The love in action. Are we willing to go into the world and do so? Are we willing to love for the sake of the Kingdom of God? Amen. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

“The Gospel in Storybooks: A Porcupine Named Fluffy” Genesis 17: 5-15 John 15: 16

Growing up I loved books. My parents have always been avid readers and definitely passed that trait along to me. Even now the librarians in town see me coming and pull my books off the reserve shelf so they are ready for me. I still buy books as gifts for my nieces and nephews, friends and family. 
Books came to us in lots of different ways - through readers clubs and as gifts. Picked up in grocery store lines and from the library. The running joke in my family is that when I moved I took all of the good ones with me, but we still have shelves filled with children’s storybooks at my parents.
Story is a powerful thing - both for children and adults. I think this is one of the reasons Jesus used stories as teaching tools to illustrate what he was trying to say about the Kingdom of God. Stories open up our emotions and imaginations so we can connect deeply with what Jesus is trying to say.
For the next five weeks we are going to be looking at Gospel truths that are found in children’s storybooks. As noted before when we have engaged the world around us for illustrations of the power of the Gospel, we are not saying that the storybooks we will be looking at are the Gospel. Rather, we are saying that God made the world and God can use so many different things to make the Kingdom of God known, including the simple, beautiful stories in these books.
This week, as we kick off this sermon series, we look at one of my favorite storybooks, A Porcupine Named Fluffy by Helen Lester. This is a book about Mr. and Mrs. Porcupine who had a son who they treasured dearly. They thought long and hard about what they would name him, before settling on the name Fluffy. However, for Fluffy the name became problematic as he grew up. He didn’t think that he was living up to his name, so he tried to become like fluffy things, clouds and pillows. When that didn’t work he tried to change his appearance so that he would look fluffy, which didn’t work very well either.
The Bible has a lot to say about names. Names are important because they are to be a reflection of who we are. However, I think that we have lost some of the power of names in our culture. Did you ever notice that when you used to ask people about their name they would tell you a story - of a dear family member or friend that they were named after? Now it seems more names are coming from lists of what are popular at the time instead of stories. We have lost some of the power of names.
But it wasn’t that way in the Old Testament. During today’s scripture lesson names were of the upmost importance. But before we jump into this particular story, we need a little background. The Old Testament tells the story over and over again about the need for the people to re-establish a relationship with a holy God. It’s the story of God who made way after way for the nations to come to the Holy One, but repeatedly they turned away, wanting to go about things in their own timing and by their own means. 
One of the ways that God tried to draw the people back was by forming and relying on covenants. Covenants are promises, blessings, or commandments, made between two or more parties that can essentially say what is expected of each party. One of the images that comes to mind often with the word covenant is the promise God made with Israel when rescuing them from the hands of the Egyptians, saying that they would be his people and he would be there God.
But well before that covenant was made, we had this mornings covenant between God and Abram. Abram is being told that if he leaves that land that he has known and follow where God leads, God will make him the father of nations. His name will be great and will be known by kings and rulers. The sign of this covenant, the blessing of God, was to be the circumcision of males, as an outward sign of an inward promise. 
What I love about this promise that God is making with then Abram, soon to be Abraham, is that God has to know that this promise is being made with broken people. Even as great as Abraham will become, God knows that he isn’t perfect. He and Sari are certainly going to screw up along the way, yet God chooses them anyway, and takes their brokenness and redeems it for the sake of the nations.
As another sign of this blessing, God takes the opportunity to re-name Abram and Sari. They will know be known as Abraham and Sarah, claiming them as God’s very own. See covenants aren’t initiated by the people, friends, they are started by God and are above a sign of God’s faithfulness towards us. And the re-naming isn’t initiated by Abram and Sari, but by God.
Maybe Abram and Sari didn’t sense the disconnect between who they were and their name, like Fluffy did in the story, but God did. God took the moment to claim and re-name this couple as a way of saying, “you once were…, but now you are….”. God was reminding them not only that they are God’s but that God is in control.
Here’s this couple, well into their 90s, past child bearing years, being told that they would  be the father and mother of nations even though they currently didn’t even have one child. But God is in control. God is telling them that their name would be made known, even though currently they weren’t known to anyone as they wandered from place to place, but God is in control. They were told that they would have a place because of God, even though right now they were nomadic, but God is in control.
As Christians we don’t necessarily get new names when we come to accept Christ as a sign of the covenant God has with us, though this is certainly the case in some Christian households and traditions. Notice in the book, when a porcupine named Fluffy meets a rhino named Hippo, they both stop searching to become like their name, but instead are accepted as they are. That is how it is with us, brothers and sisters. When we come to Jesus, as broken as we may be, Jesus says “you are mine”. When we come to Jesus, we are reminded that it isn’t by what we have done, but by the love of God. In the Gospel of John we find, “you did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appoint you to go and bear much fruit.” 
Our covenant with Christ, like that covenant Abram and God made so long ago, changes us. We may not have  a name change, but our lives change. How we perceive ourselves change. God takes the brokenness in our lives and uses it, yes even our brokenness, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. People around us notice the change in our hearts and God uses us to spread the Good News.

Friends, have you entered into the life changing relationship with Jesus yet? If not, today is your day to say that God is in control. Have you accepted that God takes your brokenness and redeems it for the sake of the Gospel? If so, then go out and proclaim the name of God. Tell your story of how God has claimed you and changed you, by the love of Jesus Christ, and go forth and bear much fruit. Amen. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

“The Gospel of Mark: The Last will be First” Mark 9: 33-37

Jesus had the disciples caught in a corner. They had been arguing the whole way to Capernum about something a bit unsavory - who was the most important amongst them. Now Jesus was asking them what they had been talking about, and they were too ashamed to answer him. 
We are now in the final week of our sermon series about deep lessons that can be learned from the Gospel of Mark, and today’s is perhaps the hardest for us in modern times - the last shall be first.
Have you ever noticed that when people feel threatened they often engage in one of two behaviors? They either get really loud, starting to argue with one another even over little things that aren’t of much importance, or they shut down. This is often called the fight or flight response. Well the disciples were knee deep in the “fight” side of this equation. There lives were filled with uncertainty. When they agreed to follow and learn from Jesus they weren’t given a step by step guide about where they were going or what they would be doing. Most days they didn’t know where their food was coming from. Most nights they didn’t know where they would lay their heads. They left their families behind, and now Jesus is talking about leaving them, saying that the Son of Man has to be killed. It’s almost like their brains were so overwhelmed that they shut down and just started to bicker about something of such little importance, especially in the context of being Jesus’s disciples - about which of them was the most important and who would be Jesus’s second in command in the coming Kingdom. 
They were right to feel ashamed about arguing about who was going to be the greatest - but before we start ragging on the disciples, let’s be honest brothers and sisters, how many times have we been there? How many times have we sat in the board meeting or the parking lot and argued about things that have nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with who Jesus is calling us to be as a church? Its almost like we get overwhelmed by the greatness of Jesus and the scope of who we are called to be as the Church, so our brains just shut down and we either go into fight or flight mode. 
When asked, the disciples were so ashamed of what they had been talking about that they couldn’t even answer the question that Jesus was asking them. But Jesus already knew. He knew that they were arguing about who was and who was to be the greatest, so he took the time to teach the disciples a hard lesson - the last will be first. 
Let’s be honest, very few people like to be last. We don’t want to be the last one picked for a team as a child. We don’t want to be the last one in line as adults. We want at least one person to be behind us, so we aren’t dead last. But when we take that aversion to being last and apply it to discipleship we miss the point. We think that Jesus’s love is like a pie or something tangible, where those who are first get bigger pieces and those who are last get the crumbs. Brothers and sisters, when we claim to be disciples its not about us, its about the Kingdom of God. Its about putting God first. And when we put God first we realize that there is more than enough love and grace for everyone. The Kingdom of God is not going to run out, if we put ourselves last.
In fact, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, when you position yourself to be last you may just be given opportunities to minister in God’s name. Recently, I was at the grocery store where too few lanes seemed to be open. People started to line up behind me with much smaller orders, so I let two folks skip ahead of me. When it was my turn, the cashier explained to that it had been a really hard day - cash registers and scanners seemed to be down and tensions were high, but how refreshing it was to see someone allow others to go ahead of me. What came naturally to me was a blessing for this worn down cashier. 
But Jesus’s teaching doesn’t stop with telling the disciples that the last shall be first, he also tells them that disciples need to be servants to all. Jesus was trying to show them to lead by being a servant first. Servant didn’t have any better of a connotation back in Jesus’s time then it does today. People don’t want to be servants, they want to be served. But Jesus was telling the disciples, and telling us, that the Kingdom of God isn’t about the things of this world -human power and privilege. Jesus is showing them what it looks like to be a servant first. 
A lot of people like to be in charge. We don’t like people telling us what to do or pointing out places where we can grow. We want to do thing our way, thank you very much. Part of human nature is to want power and authority and everything that comes with it. Jesus however says that the power of the Kingdom of God comes in laying our wants and desires and human nature aside in order to have God’s name be glorified. 
God has enough people, brothers and sisters, who will only be a servant or be last on their own terms. God has enough people in churches that try to bargain saying you know what God, I’ll serve my brother and sister, but not really with a willing heart. Or I’ll put myself last God, but only for show. Or I’ll do this for you now, God, but only if you do something greater for me later. 
The true measure of greatness, friends, doesn’t lie in misunderstanding or stretching what God wants from us. It comes in welcoming the child. Welcoming the vulnerable. In ancient society, children were often pushed aside and were seen as having nothing to offer until they became older. In a time and place where age, gender, and class mattered, children were seen as about as low as you could get.  The powerful oppressed everyone else in most cases, and especially children who didn’t have the protection of family were mistreated, becoming slaves at early ages. 
Yet, it was a lowly child that Jesus took in his arms and said that whoever welcomed the children welcomed him. What was Jesus saying? Jesus was saying that welcoming those who aren’t looked at in society as folks to get you ahead, that is servanthood. He was saying that it matters not who is the greatest, but how we treat people. 

Friends, the disciples that day weren’t just traveling to the physical place of Capernum, they were having their spiritual eyes opened to what it means to be a true follower of Christ. We are on this journey as well, and sometimes we screw up. Sometimes we start to fight about things that don’t matter. Sometimes we need Jesus to gently correct us and put us on the right path again - the path of servanthood and setting ourselves aside for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Amen. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“The Gospel of Mark: Honor Me” Mark 7:1-23

Some of my favorite pictures from my toddler years are those of me cleaning beside my mom and dad. I’m not sure how many young ones grow up with Little Tykes vacuum cleaners, but it was certainly a staple of my childhood. Even as I grew older I would have bursts where all I wanted to do was clean. My roommates in seminary loved that I insisted on cleaning every week so they wouldn’t have to worry about it. I like cleanliness. 
There is an old saying that goes something to the effect of “cleanliness is next to godliness”, and as can be the case from time to time, some folks think that this saying is scriptural, even though it is not. What Jesus reminds us in today’s scripture lesson is that it isn’t always about being clean, but it is about living in a way that honors God.
We are now in the second week of our sermon series about finding pieces of scripture that speak to us in the rapid pace of the Gospel of Mark. Last week we focused on Jesus calling even the most unlikely of folks to follow him and how we need to be forming relationships with folks outside of the Church in order to share the Good News. 
This week, we again find Jesus in a conversation between his disciples and the religious leaders of the day. The topic before them - cleanliness. In ancient times, religious leaders had two things that they held in balance. The first was the written word of Scripture. In order to be a religious leader, you had to go through years of studying the Scriptures. But they also had the oral tradition. Remember for quite a length of time, the Scripture wasn’t written down like it is today, and certainly folks didn’t have Scripture lying around their homes, like we do today. Instead, you got to know the word of God as it was handed down - hearing the stories of the faith about Noah, Abraham, Moses and so many others in homes and around campfires. It was how faith was taught - not by reading but by hearing. 
Something that emerged through holding oral tradition and written Scripture together was a tradition - practical applications of what had been taught. We see a great example of this in today’s scripture lesson  - as the religious leaders were talking about throughly washing hands before eating, washing food items from the market before you eat them, and washing the things you eat from and with. How this probably emerged was from the scripture around ritual cleaning, which often existed to prevent the spread of disease, and traditions emerged to help keep people clean around things like food. 
Often the religious leaders get a bad rap for forming traditions, but let’s be honest, Church, we’ve done it as well. Traditions often are reflections of what we value as congregations. One congregation I served had several traditions around patriotic holidays. Does the Bible say anything specific about this? No. Because it wasn’t really on the Bible’s radar. But the congregation interpreted scripture about praying for our leaders and had traditions emerge including what songs were sung at what times of the year and who was invited to preach on the Fourth of July weekend. That was their tradition for their particular context that emerged from their interpretation of scripture.
Jesus’s problem today is not with tradition itself. The problem emerges when we forget a.) where our traditions come from and b.) try to make traditions as important as scripture. In the words of Jesus “you abandon the commandments of God and hold to human tradition.” Ouch.
One of the questions I ask the most when arriving at a new church is “why?” Why can be very informative because it helps me understand what each church does for special services, but it also gets to the root of why we do the things we do. What our traditions are and what they mean to us. 
Jesus skips right past the why question with the religious leaders, but I think the intent is the same. He wants them to think through why they have so many traditions around washing and cleanliness. But he also wants to point out a much deeper heart issue in their life - they have made the tradition as important as the Scripture. They focused so much on the rules around how to do something, they had forgotten the why.
This scripture passage is found right between two massive feeding events that happen in the Gospel of Mark - on the one side the feeding of the 5,000 and on the other the feeding of the 4,000. As we saw last week who you ate with really mattered in ancient culture, and we can assume that the religious leaders aren’t happy. So they are trying to catch the disciples slipping up so they can start to get the disciples (and Jesus) to act the way they want them to act. But Jesus sees right through that and calls they hypocrites - actors or pretenders, those who are going through the motions but have forgotten the intention.
Let’s be honest, most traditions grow out of good intentions. It’s a human expression of an important value. But we cannot let our human traditions become more important to us then God! Sometimes our social customs become barriers to God’s intentions and then we have a real problem. In the Church world I call this the issue of “we’ve always done it that way.” Powerful words that we sometimes use as a barrier when God is calling us to do something new or we don’t particularly want to live into the Word of God. It becomes a lot easier to fall back on tradition then to ask the hard questions about why we have the tradition in the first place and if our tradition still honors God the best way we know how. 
Jesus is taking this idea of clean and unclean and uses to it to teach those around him that it isn’t what’s outside that can make us unclean so much as what is inside - our heart and our intentions. He is essentially asking is your heart more focused on keeping the status quo or honoring God, because sometimes you can’t do both. 
Brothers and sisters the same question can be asked of us - are we more focused on not changing and keeping our traditions or honoring God? Sometimes there are wonderful moments when we can do both, but sometimes God is calling us to set our traditions aside in order to live into the mission of the Kingdom of God in our current context. Is the intention of our heart to truly follow God wherever God is leading? Or are we so caught up in the way that we do things, that we are missing the very presence of God?
Hear me out, friends, traditions can be good things. But when we pour more time and energy into keeping our traditions then spreading the Word of God we are missing the point. When more of our resources go into maintaining the way we like things then listening to to the voice of God, we miss the point. When it is more about the way we’ve always done things then honoring God, right here and now, we are missing the point. Let us be known as the church the follows the Spirit and listens to God’s promptings. Let us be known, above, all as people who honor God.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Gospel of Mark: Follow Me Mark 2: 13-17

The Gospel of Mark is perhaps the most fast-paced of the recollections of Jesus. It is almost as if Jesus knows that his time on life is limited time on this earth and he wants to make the most of each moment. Already before we enter into today’s scripture in the chapter 2 of the gospel, Jesus has been baptized, tempted, called his first disciples, taught in the synagogue, healed folks, and taught throughout the country side. 
Sometimes with the rapid pace of the Gospel of Mark we can miss the beauty of what is happening and how it effect us, here, today. For the next three weeks we are going to engage the Gospel of Mark together, sinking into smaller passages. Today we pick up in the second chapter of the Gospel with the call of Levi to discipleship.
When Jesus called the first disciples, back in the first chapter of Mark, they were fisherman. Not exactly the most high up of occupations at the time. Simon, Andrew, James, and John would have had some education about the scriptures, but because they were on the boat that day, we can assume that they were rejected from going to further education at some point. So they entered into the trade of their kin, fishing on the sea. 
While fishermen would not have been the most high up occupation, tax collectors, like Levi (who Jesus calls to follow him next) were just despised. They were seen as being apart from the Jewish people, an arm of the Roman government. If that wasn’t bad enough the occupation of tax collector had a reputation that went with it for ripping people off - charging more for folks taxes then what Rome issued, thus getting wealthy at the expense of other people who couldn’t afford it. 
We live in a mindset it today’s world that we want the absolute best to fill positions - at works, in the community, anywhere there are volunteers. But here is Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, not going to the synagogues to find the people who like him, at the age of twelve, asked deep questions, knew scripture instead and out and followed the religious rules and regulations to a ’t’. No, he is going down to the docks and picking out people who didn’t make it the whole way through religious education and then going to the tax collecting booth and asking this man who was probably known more by words such as “liar”, “cheat”, and “robber” then by his name, Levi son of Alphaeus. What in the world is Jesus doing?
Jesus, I think is not picking the best as the world may define them, but the best people to follow him. The people that he would later use to proclaim his message to the very end of the world.
But the problem we face is that even here in chapter 2, pretty early in Jesus’s earthly ministry, the folks watching what Jesus is doing are missing the point. Jesus’s ministry in chapter 1 really starts in the synagogue when he enters and teaches - so you have some folks wandering if Jesus is going to be the next great prophet or teacher, coming into the synagogue to proclaim the word of God to those who already believe they got it all together. Then as many people started to hear about his ministry they realized that he also had the authority and power to heal, so they start to bring their sick to Jesus in droves, so folks started to think that was what Jesus was all about, offering physical healing. 
But then Jesus does this thing in today’s scripture passage and calls a tax collector to follow him and then sits down to eat with him and a bunch of other sinners. Now people are getting upset. This isn’t what they though this ministry of Jesus would be all about. They thought it would in “the right places” like synagogue, and that he would associate with “the right people”, blessing what they are already doing, and that he would heal some people on the side, and that everything would be good. 
Instead, Jesus is telling them that what he really came to do was offer complete healing, healing for the sin sick soul, and that the healing that has taken place so far is only a sign of the larger mission, to bring people to God to receive forgiveness and turn their lives around. And that, brothers and sisters made people uncomfortable.
In fact, that mission of Jesus can still make people uncomfortable today. I was at a training once where the speaker was talking about how Christians miss the point sometimes of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Sometimes we want to spend all of our time in church buildings, where we can be with people who are like us, apart from the world. And we want our pastors to spend the majority of their time on us - visiting, counseling, drafting sermons that are for us. But if we are truly going to model the mission and ministry of Jesus, we as Christians and our religious leaders need to be spending less time with people like us, and more time out with folks who do not yet know Jesus, meeting them where they are at.
After this meeting, I left and started to think about how I spend my time, and who I encounter on most days, and I started to be incredibly intentional about making sure I was in places where I could talk to non-Christians. I would go to coffee shops to write my sermons. I would offer prayer for folks in the local pub. I taught Bible studies at the University, where I interfaced with a lot more students who weren’t quite sure about this Jesus thing then those who would consider themselves Christians. Some folks got it. They realized that I needed to be spending time in the community so I could meet folks who didn’t yet know Jesus and invite them to come and see what Jesus is all about. And because of that, some of those folks who got it started to think about who they spent their time with and how they could interact with people who were searching and didn’t know Jesus yet, too. But a lot more people didn’t get it. They wanted a pastor who was there all the time for them, instead of out talking to folks who may never come inside of their buildings. They wanted the folks who were already here to come first.
That is exactly what the religious leaders wanted as well, from Jesus. They wanted someone they could contain and control to the “right places and right people”. They wanted Jesus to interact with the acceptable and the well, instead of realizing that just by raising the question of “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they probably had some sin sick souls that were in need of the healing that Jesus was offering as well. 
Brothers and sisters, today’s passage is a challenge to all of us. It asks, first and foremost, if we are aware of the healing that we need in our souls? Because the truth is, friends, that as much as we may be able to project to folks around us that we have it all together, Jesus know the true state of our hearts. He knows where we are sick with sin. And he has come to offer us forgiveness and new life, but we have to realize that we are in need first. We need to humble ourselves enough to invite Jesus to come into our lives. 
Second, we need to get out - to get out of our comfort zones, to get out of hanging out mostly with Christians, to get out into the places where people are in the world so we can form relationships where we can tell people about Jesus. Because we care about them. Because Jesus cares about them. Because this is what the ministry of Jesus is all about - not coming for those who are already well, but for those who are in need of healing. And because when we stop going where Jesus would go, we’ve stopped being the church. Let us reclaim being the church of Jesus Christ in the world! Amen.