Thursday, March 21, 2019

When The Party’s Over

For the last few weeks, a line from a song has been on repeat in my head. And though sometimes there are just ear worms that invade my brain because a song is catchy, this felt different. The song itself has a haunting melody and the line that keeps playing is “when the party’s over, will you take me home?” The music and the words are full of such longing and sadness and speak to the part of my soul that is world-weary and discouraged. I see a girl standing in the midst of the wreckage of a wild party. There is garbage and dirty dishes and vomit and destruction all around her. In the midst of the party, I sense her making eye contact with her friend, her lover, her parent - someone who she senses will be there at the end. Someone who she senses will get her out of the mess and take her away from there. 

I like this metaphor of a party because I love to throw parties. I have often set up parties from start to finish. Moving every chair into place. Decorating each table’s center. Setting each fork and knife and spoon just so. Making sure everyone has what they need. Filling water glasses, answering questions, serving food. And then at the end of the night, restoring the room to the clean slate. Everything back in its proper place. I am always exhausted and ready to go home.

I was recently behind the scenes at a gala for a non-profit. Auction items were going for over $10,000 a piece. Everyone sitting at their beautiful tables talking and laughing with one another hardly noticed how many people it took to make the evening seem so flawless. But I noticed. When it was time for dinner, 3-4 servers descended on each of the 41 tables with precision so that everyone at the table got their food at the same time. And similarly, as people finished, their plates were whisked away. Out of sight, out of mind.

Jesus talked a lot about parties. He also attended parties. Many gospel stories happen at a dinner or a party. Jesus talks about throwing parties over lost sheep, coins and sons. He talks about inviting people off the street, about how not to take the best seat, about accepting an invitation to a party without making excuses. He eats dinner with all sorts of people, many of them shocking or surprising to the religious people of his day.

I have been participating in an Ignatian Bible Study for the past year and a half in which we do a lot of imaginative prayer. One way to engage in this practice is to put yourself in the story - imagine yourself as one of the people in the scene - and write a first-person present account of what is happening. It’s interesting where I see myself in these scenes. Sometimes I do imagine that I am a servant in the home where the dinner is happening. I’m overhearing the conversation as an outsider. In those imaginings, Jesus’ words are especially comforting. Hopeful. Restorative. But if I put myself in the place of the Pharisees, I find Jesus’ words combative, threatening and challenging. “Who does He think He is?”

Recently at Uptown Church, there was a Bible Study for doubters. Anyone who felt like they had questions or doubts was invited to be a part of this group. My friend Linda, who lives in our neighborhood, decided to join. Linda has had a rough life and as a single, older African-American woman she had a particular perspective to share. One Sunday, as two younger white guys were discussing their doubts and questions about the thief on the cross and his promise of paradise, Linda interrupted. “There had better be something after this life! This can’t be all there is.”

Romans 8:18 - 23 says it this way, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal his children. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.”

As believing people, we are called to groan alongside those who groan - recognizing the signs of decay and being a part of the restoration of God’s kingdom here and now. Maybe the sheep and the goats parable is more about position than anything else. You saw someone hungry or naked or sick and you knew it was your job to feed or clothe or visit them. Not your job, but a sign that you are part of the movement of God to make things right in the world. The need, the lack, the sickness is a direct and outward sign that things are not ok. That our world needs saving. That God’s ways are not in place.

Luke reiterates the words of Isaiah as he tells of John’s mission: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth” In this gospel account, it goes on to describe John instructing people to share if they have coats or food to spare and not to extort or cheat their fellow humans.

As people of God, we are foreigners and strangers in this world. We are looking forward to our new home, as the writer of Hebrews says, we are “longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” While the great human party is divided between the haves and the have-nots, the heavenly party awaits where all are welcome and all are equal. As we participate in making this human party more equal, we declare that God’s kingdom is arriving. We prepare the way. Every place that Christians come to should be affected in this way. Relationships restored. Inequities evened out. Barriers broken down.

But for every barrier knocked down, the enemy puts up a new one. For every relationship restored, others are broken apart. The work is constant and the signs of destruction are rampant. We will not see the promises fulfilled - only at a distance, in a dim glass.

After putting on a big party or wedding, after the last dish is washed and dried and put away, I want nothing more than to soak in a bath or lay in my bed. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s description of heaven: “the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes in the airing cupboard.” So I will not grow weary, for He who calls me is faithful. And in a little while, He who is coming will come and will not delay.

When the party’s over, God will take me home.

listen to the song here:

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Meaning of Sacrifice

This past winter, I was reading a book for pleasure entitled “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” by Arundhati Roy. It was a strange but beautiful novel; as one reviewer described it “attentive to the dispossessed, the marginalised, and the oppressed; fractured, broken, and sprawling.” I was enjoying it and it was, as all good stories do, speaking to me on a heart level, but I wasn’t prepared for the way it stopped me in my tracks. The main character in the book was a poor Muslim woman and unable to afford an animal to sacrifice on Eid. A friend gives her a goat and she treats the goat as a member of the family. She lets it sleep in the house and takes special care of it. She explains her care for the goat with this sentence that made me put the book down: “Love, after all, is the ingredient that separates a sacrifice from ordinary, everyday butchery.”

Since then, I have been thinking a lot about the word sacrifice and the act of sacrifice. I have been asking people what they think the word means in a modern and a biblical sense and I have been reading over scriptures in both old and new testaments that talk about sacrifice.

It’s a word we see all the time and it is used to describe heroic acts or giving up something good for something better. There is usually some sense of bargaining or leverage inherent in the word. At its best it sounds noble, but at its worst it sounds manipulative. He sacrificed his life for his country. Your father and I have sacrificed a lot for you to be able to go to university.

The English word comes from Latin sacra meaning sacred, dedicated, holy + combining form of facere "to make, to do". So it could be translated as make holy or perform a sacred act. The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” is korban קרבן which means “coming closer”. Looking at the roots of this word and digging into the verses about sacrifice gave me a richer picture of this word. I don’t do this for purely academic reasons. I want to understand what God is trying to say to me. As I was doing this, I realized that pouring over scripture with the intent to draw near to God is a sacrifice of time worth giving.

During this process, I was reminded of a film I saw a couple years ago called Arrival. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. In the film, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist played by Amy Adams, is hired by the government to decipher a message from aliens. Their written language is a nonlinear orthography - which means that there is no beginning or end in the structure of a written thought - which is why the phrases are written in a circle.

As the movie progresses, Dr. Banks and her team learn more and more words from the aliens and begin to communicate with them. There are 12 total alien ships that have landed around the world and the different country’s experts are working together to determine why they have come.
The same message comes through at several locations and different countries interpret in different ways. Because Dr. Banks believes that the intent of the creatures is benevolent and also because she is beginning to have a relationship with them through their regular encounters, she interprets the message as friendly and wants to continue to keep the communication lines open.

That same message was being interpreted as a threat by some of the other country’s experts, but Dr. Banks poured over all of the other messages with similar words and attempted to understand not just the message but the heart of the messenger. And, this is key, she isn’t able to fully understand the message until she has an encounter with the creature itself.

Most of us haven’t encountered aliens, but most of us have experienced this with email or text messages. When we get a message that seems rude or short, it is best to stop and take a deep breath before answering. What is my relationship with this person? Are they stressed or in the middle of something? Do they have a history of sending me similar messages? And also a little self-examination is in order. Am I hungry, angry, lonely or tired? This can also contribute to misinterpreting the message.

Often we can get to the root of why we feel so wronged or frustrated with the message and it usually boils down to some resentment or distrust in our relationship with the sender.

In Jeremiah 2:5, God asks His people, “What did your ancestors find wrong with me that led them to stray so far from me?” When we find ourselves far from God, we probably can trace it back to some break in trust, some misunderstanding of His intent.

Just like the linguist who poured over the alien’s messages to find the context of their words, we have to study scripture in light of God’s character. And also like her, we cannot totally understand without an encounter with God, the Holy Spirit.

So as I read and reread passages about sacrifice and looked at the Hebrew roots and talked to God and others about it, I kept in mind my relationship with God and His intent for communicating with me. Which brings me back to that quote from the book and why it struck me: “Love, after all, is the ingredient that separates a sacrifice from ordinary, everyday butchery.” - I do believe that love is the governing ingredient of the universe and that everything God does is motivated by love.

That sounds so cliche and so elementary but let me tell you I haven’t always thought this way. For many years, I believed that Jesus’ death, His sacrifice, on the cross was to take on the wrath of God so that I could be spared. This theory of atonement is widely accepted but is deeply problematic. This idea of sacrifice as some sort of appeasement can be damaging to the way we see God and the way we interact with one another - it can unconsciously give credence to punitive solutions such as vengeance and retribution.

It is the Covenant heritage in the pietist movement that I have to thank for helping me to see differently. The understanding of atonement in that tradition is as a display of God’s love and restorative nature. God so loved the world that He sent His Son. It is important to know what we believe about the nature and intent of God as we study His Word. This way of approaching scripture is a core belief of our denomination with the question, “where is it written?” as our cornerstone. We as a church body are encouraged not only to find the scriptural basis for our questions, but also to work together as a community of believers to come to a fuller understanding of what we are reading.

When I read the Old Testament I often want to ignore or skim over the parts I don’t understand or don’t seem to resonate with the God I know. All of the wars and the earth opening up and well, basically anytime God seems angry makes me feel uncomfortable. But pouring over these scriptures in the context of relationship and intent and asking God the Holy Spirit to come alongside me as I read, the scriptures come alive to me. I wrestle with God until I receive a blessing and sometimes walk away limping.

One of the reasons I often misread God’s intent in the Old Testament is because I misunderstood the Law. I always saw it as some ideal that we couldn’t measure up to no matter how hard we tried to remind us how separate we are from God. But as I have shifted the way I think about God and His intentions towards me, I have begun to see the Law as a way that God was entering into every part of His people’s lives. From the clothes they wore to the way they prepared their food, God wanted to be present to His people. His instructions about how to care for the poor, the widow, the foreigner and the 7 year cycles of economic restoration show God’s heart for justice. And in the sacrifices and offerings, God gives them a way to come near to Him and also to be a people.

It struck me as I read that the Levites were provided for by the sacrifices, tithes and offerings of the people. A whole group of people were dependent on the others drawing near to God in these prescribed ways.

So imagine you feel the need to bring a sin offering. A lamb is hard to hide. Can you imagine? You are walking your sin offering to the tabernacle and there are people seeing you on your way: “Didn’t she just go last week with a goat?” You wave sheepishly - ha! Pun intended. This model of community where people are dependent on each other’s honesty, confession and celebration is a model for the modern church.

My friend told me this story of being a student in Paris many years ago. This was way before cell phones and even (if you can imagine it!) before the internet. She was alone and it was winter and she had a bit of a cold. As she was blowing her nose, she noticed that her snot was black! She was a little nervous about it and didn’t know exactly what to do. She arrived at class and there were other students there too. The professor was running a little late and one of her classmates started up a conversation. “I’ve been blowing my nose a lot lately.” Several people’s ears’ perked up. “There’s this black stuff coming out of my head - I’m a little worried.” The classroom exploded in discussion and relief with several other students saying, “me too!” “I thought it was just me” “I thought I was dying!” Come to find out, there were a lot of chimneys in the area and the soot they were breathing in was coloring their mucous.

When people are open and vulnerable about their struggles it is nourishing for others. We are able to breathe a sigh of relief that we aren’t the only one who fails or feels inadequate and that gives us courage and confidence to keep moving toward God and others.

Another thing that struck me was the laying hands on the head of the sacrifice. I don’t hunt or raise animals for food, so my experience with the process is very limited.I have some friends who own a small farm and they raise goats there.

Here are some pictures of Cirrus when he was a baby. I have visited them, and I got to hold some baby goats and it was really great. When someone brought an animal to the priest to be offered to God, they were supposed to bring their best one. For sin offerings, they were to put their hands on the animal’s head, and make a confession before the animal was killed.

I tried to imagine doing that to little Cirrus here. Can you imagine? Maybe some of you do hunt or prepare animals for food, so it might be easier for you to be detached, but seriously, look at this cutie! Now imagine that you raised him from birth and he is the strongest, best looking animal that you have. You have walked with him to the altar and there he is bound by the priest and you put your hand on his head and speak your confession. The priest then slits his throat so that he dies quickly and so that the blood pours out on the altar. Then the priest would prepare the fat and organs to be consumed by the fire and prepare the meat to be eaten by himself and his family.

It is no accident that John the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God. This would have been a vivid picture for the Jewish hearers. What about us today? What do we think of when we hear these words?

Jesus is the perfect sacrifice. God’s word says in Hebrews 10, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.”
I invite you this morning to think of Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

He is nailed to a cross.

Imagine putting your hand on His head and speaking your confession. Speak it out loud. Name the things that are keeping you far from God.

He is lifted up.

Look at Him on the cross. He is there to show His love. His provision.

This is His body, broken for you. Take and eat.

This is His blood, shed for you. Take and drink.

Let us pray.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Reflections on the Good Samaritan - Lakeview Church of Christ

Today’s text is from Luke 10:25-37 and is known as the story of the Good Samaritan. But the context is (as always) very important to understanding this story, so as I read it to you this morning, listen to the bigger story surrounding this well known story.

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

On one level, this is a story, a familiar story, of what it means to love our neighbor. All my life growing up I thought of it as just that. I have heard many sermons reinforcing this idea - and it is true that God wants us to love our neighbor. As Martin Luther King Jr. says in his sermon the day before he was assassinated:

Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. [and] I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road.In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’

But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'”

That is a beautiful reflection on this story and I don’t want to miss that. We see in this discussion with the law expert that loving your neighbor is an essential ingredient to eternal life with God.

And so I could preach a sermon on reaching out, on not being afraid of the cost or if they are the “right sort of people” and be neighbors to those around you, but I think it would fall short of the big picture story that is happening here in this passage.

Let’s look at the scene a little closer. Jesus is usually described as being surrounded by His disciples who seemed to travel together in a group from place to place. Maybe you’ve seen a film portrayal of Jesus that has a scene like that. He is walking through a town or sitting among some followers teaching and talking to them. And the religious leaders of the day were not at all happy with Him. They were suspicious and maligning and taking opportunities to test him in public with questions about the Sabbath and the resurrection and who He was hanging out with.

And this is one of those occasions. An expert in the law stands up in the midst of this gathering of Jesus and his followers and wants to see how He will answer this fundamental question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And being the great Teacher that He is, Jesus turns the question back on the asker. How do you interpret what God says on the subject? What does the Law have to say about it? And surprisingly (or maybe he heard Jesus give this answer on another occasion) he says that the Law says to love God and love your neighbor. Great! Jesus affirms him - do this! You got it!

But, the text tells us, he wants to justify himself - wants to prove himself right, wants to show off his goodness - so he asks a second question. “Who is my neighbor?” he was pretty sure of himself and of what Jesus would say.

But Jesus cannot be contained or contrived or cajoled to fit into a human way of thinking. This is a showdown where Jesus asserts His kingdom values. Instead of a quick answer, a checklist, or an easy definition, Jesus tells a story.

Thomas G. Long, of Emory’s School of Theology, describes the scene this way, 

Jesus did not respond as expected. He did not congratulate the lawyer as a man of good standing. To the contrary, he buckled the lawyer’s knees and threw him into a ditch. He did so by telling a story, a parable. “A certain man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho…,” he begins. Because this “certain man,”... is generic and everybody had traveled that Jericho road from time to time, Jesus was, in effect, saying to the lawyer, ‘Imagine that you were heading down the old road from Jerusalem to Jericho and then a terrible thing happened to you. You fell into the hands of robbers who stripped you, beat you, and left you for half dead.’ In short, the lawyer, who Luke says ‘stood up to test Jesus’ and wanted ‘to justify himself,’ now finds himself face down beside the road. No longer in the stance of righteousness, he is now in the posture of dire need.

Jesus was not in the business of giving out a moral code or a formula - He was describing a Kingdom and an upside-down one at that.

Putting the story in the context of Jesus’ purpose and message, I realized that it wasn’t just a story with a moral. The words that Jesus uses are important and definitely not accidental.

First of all, the priest and the Levite are significant choices for the ones leaving the guy in the ditch. What is Jesus trying to say about that? The priest is a representative of the Law. The Law was what this lawyer was banking on to guarantee him eternal life. The Levite was one who carried out the duties in the Temple which represents service to God. So, neither adherence to the Law nor service to God saved this man from his helpless condition.

“Then a certain Samaritan came by.” Using a Samaritan as the hero of the story is no accident. Another well known story involving a Samaritan is the woman at the well. While talking to Jesus, she asks Him about the proper place to worship God stating that the Jews say it is Jerusalem and the Samaritans say it is Mount Gerizim.

The hearers of the Good Samaritan story would have known this controversy. The Jewish lawyer, like any other Jew of that time, would have considered himself as worshipping correctly.

But how does Jesus answer the Samaritan woman? He says “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.”

In using a Samaritan for the hero of His story, Jesus is reinforcing this idea. There is not a right way, a right place, a right rule to follow.

Is it possible that Jesus is saying that true worship is happening here? That somehow when we take care of one another, when we love our neighbor that God is present? As Jesus says a little later in the book of Luke, “the Kingdom of God is already among you.”

Looking even deeper, we see that the Samaritan is someone who was "despised and rejected" by the Jews. In the story Jesus says "when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him" which is almost word for word what the Bible says about Jesus in Matthew 9:36 "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless"

This “certain Samaritan” is a picture of Jesus. The rescuer. The unexpected Messiah who doesn’t fit into the picture that everyone at the time had in their minds of what a Messiah should be. The one who binds up our wounds. The one who takes care of our needs. The one that we would be dead without.

Ultimately, He is trying to tell this lawyer a deep truth - that he is in need. That he is not going to be able to have eternal life with God in his own rightness. He is, like everyone else, desperately in need of a savior. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.

As Thomas G. Long goes on to say, “the real answer to the lawyer’s question ‘who is my neighbor?’ is that you have no idea who your neighbor is until you, yourself, know how needy you are, and in that need receive the unexpected grace of being neighbored by God.”

Jesus finishes telling the story and now it's His turn for questions: "Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” The expert in the law can't even bring himself to say the word Samaritan. He answers: “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus says, "go and do likewise" Show mercy. Find those lying in ditches and bring them hope and healing in His name. But he also has to recognize that he was once in that ditch himself. Jesus is asking him to do kingdom work. Because it is only when we see our own need for God’s grace and mercy that we can reach out to others from a place of mutuality and compassion instead of advantage or privilege.

I think we are not all that different from the lawyer in this story. At least I know I am. I like to ask Jesus questions that I already know the answer to. I like to look good in front of the crowd. I like to have my way of doing things rubber-stamped by God and be on my merry way. But it doesn’t work like that.

When I really take time to listen to Jesus, He turns my world upside down. Doreena, a woman in our community, had a great word for us at our prayer meeting on Wednesday - she said something to the effect of “Jesus turns our world upside down but because the world’s way of doing things is so upside down - when Jesus turns it upside down He is really turning things right side up!”

This Good Samaritan story is so beautiful because of the many layers of truth. We are absolutely called to love our neighbors. But as we do it, we must acknowledge that we are enacting the Kingdom of God. Bringing God’s order and the gospel of reconciliation to life. And we do this not to earn God’s favor or eternal life, but to worship and revere God as our true King. To say no to the world’s upside down way of competing and comparing and categorizing.

Jesus came to set the oppressed free, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and to preach the good news to the poor. Jesus absolutely made Himself poor and powerless and let Himself be nothing - considering equality with God not worth holding onto in comparison to the restoration of His relationship with us and each other.

Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” We know it when we see it. We feel it deep within our hearts when God is present. When forgiveness is extended. When prisoners are set free. When the impossible becomes possible through the power of reconciliation. This means that we shouldn’t merely be good neighbors, but we should also let ourselves be neighbored.

We sometimes have groups come visit our community from the suburbs or from small towns and they want to come see what God is doing here in the city. Many of these groups end up serving at Cornerstone Community Outreach, a homeless shelter just a few blocks from here.

Before we go, we talk together about the people we are going to meet and spend time with at CCO and I always have them imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of being served. And then we talk about how it feels to give. To serve. And then I challenge them and we brainstorm together some ways that we can receive from the people we will interact with. We remind each other that we don’t give anyone dignity because dignity is God-given - we simply recognize the dignity of the people we encounter. Children of God. Made in God’s image. We let ourselves be neighbored.

Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal elder, educator, and activist says “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

We must die to our own privilege, our own selfish ambition, our own interests - we must take up our cross daily to follow Jesus. It is in our mutuality - in our shared life together that people will come to know this God we serve.

Richard Rohr says it this way, “Until and unless Christ is experienced as a living relationship between people, the Gospel remains largely an abstraction. Until Christ is passed on personally through faithfulness and forgiveness, through concrete bonds of union, I doubt whether he is passed on by words, sermons, institutions, or ideas.”

The God who loves us and knows us is the first community. The three persons of God exist in a continuous giving and receiving relationship with Godself. When we reach out to our neighbors and let ourselves be neighbored we are reflecting God’s glory.

There is an old Hasidic Jewish tale that goes like this:

A Rabbi gathered together his students and asked them:
‘How do we know the exact moment when night ends and day begins?’
‘It’s when, standing some way away, you can tell a sheep from a dog,’ said one boy.
The Rabbi was not content with the answer. Another student said:
‘No, it’s when, standing some way away, you can tell an olive tree from a fig tree.’
‘No, that’s not a good definition either.’
‘Well, what’s the right answer?’ asked the boys.
And the Rabbi said:
‘When a stranger approaches, and we think he is our brother, that is the moment when night ends and day begins.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Yes, let us go and do likewise. Amen.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Acts 8 Sermon from summer 2017

When Pastor Todd asked me to speak a while back on Acts 8, I started reading it almost daily in order to hear what the Word had to say to us. Some themes started to emerge and I started to zero in on some of the big picture ideas just as the events in Charlottesville took place. As always, God’s Word has a lot to tell us even in our current day. The Word of God is indeed living and active, sharp as a scalpel ready to perform the necessary surgery to our hearts.

Let’s pray and then we can look together at this chapter.

The chapter starts out with the completion of the story of Stephen. Stephen has just been stoned to death under the authority of Saul (who will soon be Paul). Saul’s persecution of the church accelerates and people are being dragged out of their houses to prison. Philip and Stephen are 2 of the 7 from Acts 6 described as “seven men...who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Philip, being a close associate of Stephen, was rightfully concerned about his safety, and, as it says in verse 5: “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.”

Verses 6 - 13 describe Philip’s ministry in Samaria with many people believing and being baptized. There is one person who we meet by name, Simon the Sorcerer. SImon also believes in Jesus and is baptized, but is following Philip around amazed by the signs and miracles that accompany Philip’s preaching.

Word gets back to Jerusalem that many people are being converted in Samaria, so Peter and John go to see what is happening. When they arrive, they lay hands on the converts there and they receive the Holy Spirit.

Simon had been impressed by Philip, but this particular display of divine power really gets his attention. He offers to buy this ability from the disciples. Peter rebukes him in no uncertain terms in verses 21-23: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

Simon asks them to pray for him as an act of repentance? Or is he just afraid? It’s hard to say.

On their way back to Jerusalem, Peter and John preach to many Samaritan villages that they encounter along the way.

In verse 26, we read, ‘Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (as a side note, wouldn’t it be great to have that direct of an instruction from God?!!)

So Philip goes and he meets an Ethiopian Eunuch who is returning from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship and he is reading the words of Isaiah from a scroll:

‘“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.’

Then they traveled along the road a bit and there was a body of water of some sort and the eunuch asks Philip if he can be baptized. Philip baptizes him and whoosh! he is taken by the Holy Spirit away from there and the Ethiopian eunuch goes on his way rejoicing.

In the beginning of Acts 8, in the account of Philip’s time in Samaria, we see that the gospel is for those who are racially and ethnically different from the Jews.

This was radical news to the first believers, but they had been given many hints and outright examples of this by their leader, Jesus. Specifically in dealing with the hatred that Jews had for Samaritans, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan and He also demonstrated His acceptance of Samaritans by talking to the woman at the well and then staying for two days in her village to talk to others who wanted to know Him.

The Word in Life Study Bible talks about the implications of this hostility for today’s believers: “There are countless modern parallels to the Jewish-Samaritan enmity—indeed, wherever peoples are divided by racial and ethnic barriers. Perhaps that’s why the Gospels and Acts provide so many instances of Samaritans coming into contact with the message of Jesus. It is not the person from the radically different culture on the other side of the world that is hardest to love, but the nearby neighbor whose skin color, language, rituals, values, ancestry, history, and customs are different from one’s own. Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.”

The Samaritans were near to the Jews geographically, but far away in their hearts. And even though the Jewish scriptures are filled with stories of outsiders becoming insiders, the Jews of Jesus time missed that point and felt that they were somehow racially and spiritually superior.

Without realizing or recognizing it, we can do the same. We can feel or act superior to our neighbors who are different from us and who we perceive of as “less than.” If we are college graduates, it might be those with less education. If we are well-off financially, it might be those who are poor. If we are Americans, it might be those from other countries. If we are democrats, it might be republicans. If we are Cubs fans, it might be Sox fans! The list of things that divide us goes on and on and on.

The study Bible goes on to ask, “With whom do you have no dealings?” Like Philip, for us following Jesus should take us places we had never thought to go and lead us to talk to people we thought were “outsiders.”

In the story of the Ethiopian eunuch later on in the chapter, we see that the gospel is for those who are considered impure by the Jews.

According to Deuteronomy 23, eunuchs were not allowed to go into the temple. The Ethiopian eunuch that we meet in this chapter is a religious man; he has come to Jerusalem to worship and he is reading Isaiah from a scroll. Most commentaries agree that he would not have been allowed in the temple but would have been able to be at the court of the Gentiles.

The Inter-Varsity Press New Testament Commentary says that “The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch graphically demonstrates the inclusiveness of the gospel. No apparent obstacle--whether physical defect, race or geographical remoteness--can place a person beyond the saving call of the good news.”

It is so fascinating that he is reading Isaiah 53. The person being described sounds like a eunuch: “he was humiliated, his rights were taken away: And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living.” He is reading about someone like himself who was denied justice and harmed and humiliated. He sees in this description of Jesus someone with whom he can identify.

And Philip, being told by God to be there and talk to this man, doesn’t hesitate. He doesn’t care that he is a eunuch - a sexual “outsider” or an Ethiopian - a racial “outsider.” He talks to him about Jesus and he baptizes him into the body of Christ. No one is excluded from the invitation of the gospel. All are welcome.

A few chapters later in Isaiah 56, we find these words that perfectly fit the situations in Acts 8:

“Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.
And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.
...for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

I want to backtrack in Acts 8 to the visit of Peter and John to Samaria to point out something important for those of us who are believers in Jesus: The “insiders” need to reach the “outsiders.”

Peter and John come from Jerusalem to Samaria, not because Philip needed back-up or his work wasn’t complete without them; they come because they are known leaders in the church and their presence would legitimize and confirm the birth of the church in Samaria. It is the responsibility of those in positions of power and privilege to extend inclusion to those who might be seen as “other.”

James Rochford, on his website Evidence Unseen describes it this way, “These important apostles from Jerusalem put the exclamation mark on the inclusion of these non-Jews by stopping and staying with Samaritans throughout the region.”

Just a few outsiders in today’s culture are refugees, those experiencing homelessness, the LGBTQ community, illegal aliens, the incarcerated, and those experiencing mental or physical health challenges.

As I said earlier, the list of things that divide us goes on and on and on. What can we do to become more welcoming, more like Christ - loving God and our neighbor?

Henri Nouwen says that, “We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics. There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the street once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might become neighbours.”

I think this is hardest when we think our neighbors are wrong. It may be easy for us to stand up for those who are disenfranchised, but we are also called to love our enemies. This is a hard word and we all have to know our limits - what is safe and reasonable in our own contexts, but one thing is true for all of us - we can’t use the enemy’s weapons - the weapons of our warfare are not worldly - we must use prayer, the Word of God and love to fight against hatred.

I want to end with a story. I wish it was my story, but it’s not. But it’s such a great story about road crossing and loving our enemies that I am stealing it! It’s from a blog called Urban Confessional: A Free Listening Movement. One of their defining quotes is "BEING HEARD IS SO CLOSE TO BEING LOVED THAT MOST PEOPLE CAN'T TELL THE DIFFERENCE."

The story takes place at the Republican National Convention where the Urban Confessional had set up a Free Listening station. A woman approached the table and said “I don’t usually do this, and I know this isn’t a hot button topic anymore… But, I think abortion is wrong. It’s not a form of birth control, and people who have them should be arrested for murder." Benjamin Mathes, the listener on call at the time, in his own words, “had been Free Listening at the RNC for a few hours, and most people who spoke with me told me about their families, their jobs, and the things that brought them to Cleveland.

No one had opened up about a serious, but controversial issue.

But here she was.

...when she told me [people] should be arrested for terminating a pregnancy, the familiar burn of disagreement started to fire in me. There were so many things I wanted to say. I wanted to change her mind, to argue, to disagree. It's a natural response.

But, if my story brought me to my beliefs,I needed to know how her story brought her to her beliefs.

So, I asked:

“Thank you for sharing that. Tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”

She seemed surprised by my interest.

“Why? It doesn’t matter. Your sign said Free Listening, so I gave you something to listen to.”

“Give me more to listen to.”

“They should be locked up! It’s wrong. It’s not right to go out and sleep with whoever, then just vacuum away the result like it never happened.”

She paused…then inhaled the entire world.

“And it’s not fair. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a mom. My whole life, I knew I was meant to have children. Then, when I was 18—18!—the doctor told me I’d never have children. My ovaries were damaged, or doesn’t matter which. I kept it a secret, and when my husband found out, he left me. I’m alone, my body doesn’t work, I’m old…who will ever love me…”

I wondered if she could hear my heart breaking.

“…so, I guess I get upset when I see people who can get pregnant, who can have kids, whose bodies work…who can be moms…and they just choose not to…”

Sometimes, there’s nothing to “disagree” with.

I didn’t need to be right.

I just needed to be there.”

No one is excluded from the invitation of the gospel. All are welcome.

Sometimes we are surprised by where God calls us to go. Sometimes we are surprised by who God asks us to love.

In light of all that is going on in our country and in our world, my challenge to you this morning is to be a listener. To cross the road. To go where the Spirit of God leads you and to bring the good news to whoever is in your path. Those outside will be brought in and miraculous things will happen!

Sunday, January 28, 2018



I started preparing a totally different sermon than the one I am about to preach. I had it practically finished, and so when I said to my family the other night that I needed to work on my sermon, my daughter said, “I thought you were done” to which I responded, “I’m not using that one. I don’t write sermons, sermons write me and there is a sermon that has been writing me all year that I need to get out.”

And so I started writing it down, but I started going in too many directions, so I had Juniper read over it and she helped me rearrange and focus.

So this is that sermon. The sermon that has haunted and guided and written me all year.

Let us pray.
Holy God who is present to us in all times and in all ways. You are closer than our next breath. You know all of our days before one of them came to be. You have searched us and know us. Help us to be present to you and to each other as we depend on Your Spirit’s comfort, wisdom and peace. Amen

Several years ago, I ran across a poem and then a blog by Macrina Wiederkehr. On her blog, she wrote about choosing a word for the year. This was not a new idea to me, but I thought I’d give it a try. So I picked a word and I think I forgot it by January 15th. So I tried again the next year and again didn’t really have follow through. In 2016, over the holiday break, I read a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer entitled Here I Am which is a pretty messed up story about some pretty messed up people and a family falling apart. But, in the midst of the story was such a beautiful through-line which resonated with my soul. The title comes from the Hebrew word, hineni, which means “here I am.” And so, with Jonathan and Macrina’s help, I chose hineni for my word for 2017.

So this totally new-to-me word cropped up in unexpected places. In the song “You Want it Darker” by Leonard Cohen on his last recording before his death, hineni appears in the chorus. When asked what it meant, he responded, “That declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul.”

A new acquaintance had it tattooed on his forearm. The band Gungor has a beautiful song called “Every Breath” which ends with a haunting repetition of the phrase “Here I am.” At times of deep joy and also of deep desperation, I found myself with arms outstretched to God saying “Here I am, hineni.” And so, I kept my word all year long.

There are 2 ways to say “here I am” in Hebrew – one of them is poe which is like saying “here” when called from an attendance sheet. The other, hineni, has a deeper sense to it. Hineni implies readiness, total availability, an “at your service” all-in kind of response. Rabbi Ari Kaiman describes it this way, “Hineini means, ‘I am here for you fully, with the trust and vulnerability to do whatever it is you ask of me.’”

My text for this morning is Genesis 22:1-14 and I wish it wasn’t. It’s an upsetting story to say the least, but I, like some of you, grew up in the church coloring pictures of it and reciting the facts as if they were no big deal. The story is Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The reason that I chose this text is that it is the Torah portion for the eldest son, Sam’s bar mitzvah in the book, Here I Am. Before reading this book, I must admit, I had no idea that there is a part of the celebration, the bar mitzvah speech, where the 13 year old boy speaks on the Torah portion for the week of his birthday. He is called upon to reflect on the scriptures and tell those gathered how it spoke to him and/or how it applies to his life. And so instead of reading the text, I want to tell you the story in Sam’s words:

God’s Test of Abraham is written like this: “sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’, ‘here I am’, Abraham replied”. Most people assume that the test is what follows:God Asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But I think it could also be read that the test was when He called to him. Abraham didn’t say “what do you want?” He didn’t say, “Yes?” He answered with a statement: “Here I am.” Whatever God needs or wants, Abraham is wholly present for Him, without conditions or reservations or need for explanation.” That word, hineni – here I am – comes up two other times in the portion. When Abraham is taking Isaac up Mount Moriah, Isaac becomes aware of what they are doing, and how [messed] up it is. He knows that he is about to be the sacrifice, in the way all kids always do when it’s about to happen. It says: “And Isaac said to Abraham, his father, ‘My father!’ and he said ‘Here I am, my son’. And Isaac said, ‘Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?’ And Abraham said ‘God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.’” Isaac doesn’t say “Father”, he says, “My father”. Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, but is also Isaac’s father, his personal father. And Abraham doesn’t ask, “what do you want?” He says “Here I am”. When God asks for Abraham, Abraham is wholly present for God. When Isaac asks for Abraham, Abraham is wholly present for his son - But how can that be possible? God is Asking Abraham to kill Isaac and Isaac is asking his father to protect him. How Can Abraham be two directly opposing things at once? (…) My bar mitzvah portion is about many things, but I think it is primarily about who we are wholly there for and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity.

It was this bar mitzvah speech that stayed with me throughout the year as I meditated on Hineni. Who am I wholly there for and how is that, more than anything else, defining my identity? What does it mean to be wholly there for and available and present to someone else or to God?

When I read this story in the past, because of the Sunday school picture familiarity of it, I didn’t think about this being about a real person. I didn’t think about how Abraham could have said no. Or about whether or not he talked it over with his wife or anyone else. I didn’t think about the tedium of getting the servants and animals and Isaac ready to go on this journey and how every excruciating moment of it must have felt like a lifetime. Or about how old Abraham was. He and God had already been through a lot and the promised son had finally come. Abraham might have thought it was time to sit back and relax and enjoy his final days.

Eliezer Berkovits in his book, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Death Camps, imagines what Abraham must have been saying to God in those days (three days, as a matter of fact) as he is preparing and traveling to make the sacrifice:
“In this situation I do not understand You. Your behavior violates our covenant; still, I trust You because it is You, because it is You and me, because it is us. . . . Almighty God! What you are asking of me is terrible. . . . But I have known you, my God. You have loved me and I love You. My God, you are breaking Your word to me. . . . Yet I trust You; I trust You.”

Abraham had waited decades for this promised child that he is marching up the mountain to kill. And when Isaac calls to him and says, “My father?” Abraham says, “Here I am.” How could Abraham be present to Isaac at that moment? The same way we are present to our loved ones as they suffering through an illness or heartbreak. The same way we are present to those who have been discarded and undervalued. This dark and unexplainable place where we feel terrified - where easy answers won’t work.

Ellen F. Davis, in her essay The Blinding Horror of Abraham’s Faith says:

This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagine God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or deny that God cares at all, or deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it—because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind. To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith.

This type of faith is a step out of the boat type of faith. Defying the laws of gravity and nature and seemingly God himself, we trust that we have heard His voice and we step out. And as long as we have our eyes on Him, the water becomes like firm ground.

We sing this song nowadays, this “Oceans” song by Hillsong United, that has a repeated bridge that says “Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters wherever You would call me.”

Do we mean that? How can we possibly mean that? If I am honest with myself, the song of my heart is “Spirit, lead me where my trust isn’t stretched too far, let me walk on the nice safe ground where I can reach You if I need You.” But that isn’t very catchy or inspirational and it has nothing to do with faith.

We can only be present to others because God has been, and is, and will be present to us. When Abraham hears God’s voice, he responds, “Hineni, here I am” because he knows God and is available to Him. And when God asks him this unthinkable thing, this thing that seems to go against God’s very nature, he reaches in to the deepest reserves of his faith and obeys.

A heartbreaking obedience drawn from a reservoir of faith.

And then in the midst of the painful walk up the mountain, when Isaac calls out to him, Abraham says Here I am, son. I’m here. I’m here.

Here I am and I don’t have any answers. Here I am and I love you. Here I am and God is here too and He will provide. I don’t know how, but I know Him.

This is the essence of faith. We can only be authentically and unreservedly available to others as much as we have been authentically and unreservedly available to God. Otherwise, when the darkness comes and we feel like we and everyone around us will be swallowed up, our fear will drown us.

When I was a teenager, my cousin died in a car accident. The church that my aunt and uncle attended had a Laity Sunday where the lay leader of the church gives the sermon. That year, my uncle was the lay leader and the Sunday after my cousin died was Laity Sunday. The pastor and staff of the church offered to find someone else, but my uncle said he wanted to go ahead with it as planned. I remember sitting in the sanctuary that Sunday knowing that if he could show up for God that morning that God must be real and knowable and more than anything a co-sufferer with those who suffer.

As my uncle talked about faith, he compared it to crabgrass. He went on to describe a patch growing in his patio - as he went to remove the weed, he reached down and pulled and almost fell on his face. This is why he said that faith is like crabgrass - because you don’t know how strong it is until you try to uproot it.

At the end of the Here I Am book, Sam’s younger brother is preparing his bar mitzvah speech. His Torah portion is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

He has this to say, “It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas. They’re close to us—sometimes so close we think they are part of us—and then, at some point, they aren’t close anymore. They go away. Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go. What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is struggle.”

And so we struggle. We struggle to be present to each other. To not let go of each other without a fight. To hold on in good times and bad.

And we struggle to be present to God. To hear His voice. To find the courage to say “here I am” when He calls. "I am here for you fully, with the trust and vulnerability to do whatever it is you ask of me."

I want to close with the last part of the Gungor song, “Every Breath.” As you listen to the words as they are repeated, I encourage you to ask God to help you say Hineni to Him today. Here I am! Gungor song, start at 3:42

Isaiah 6:6-8 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.” Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?”
I said, “Here I am. Send me.”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Line of Best Fit

Our text today is James 3:13-18

James 3:13-18New International Version (NIV) Two Kinds of Wisdom

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James lays out for us here two kinds of wisdom: one is earthly, unspiritual, demonic even and the other is a wisdom that comes from heaven. Last week, when we talked about the tongue - there was a similar contrast. David Kersten talked about the fire of the Holy Spirit vs. the fire that is ignited by the fires of hell also of the spring of Living Water vs. the well of brackish water from which we can choose our words.

In the dictionary, wisdom is defined as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” And this isn’t a bad starting point, but what experience? What knowledge? What is good judgment vs. bad judgment? In order for this definition to make sense, we have to have some parameters - a way to further define the terms.

As James says there is a wisdom that is earthly and this wisdom is characterized by selfish ambition and bitter envy. Now that doesn’t sound very wise to me - but if your goal is to be a billionaire or the top in your field or first chair in the orchestra - then these two “virtues” can get you far. Our society looks favorably on people who exhibit these qualities and although we might not consider them wise, they live close to their principles and accomplish their goals. If you want to be an olympic gold-medalist, you have to think primarily of yourself, and you also have to know how you are doing compared to others - the definition for the Greek word translated envy in this passage includes the idea of a contentious rivalry - something that is highlighted regularly in our competitive society. Jeremy talked about this two weeks ago when he was pointing out the ways scholars for centuries have pitted James against Paul.

David Brooks, in his article entitled “The Moral Bucket List”, says that there are “two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues” A eulogy is what someone says about you after you die whereas a resume is written, usually by yourself, to make your accomplishments sound good enough to get the job. Sounds a little like our two types of wisdom. The article goes on to say, “We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

But even these “eulogy values” can be selfish - if we value what people say about us or how we compare to others - we are still living according to earthly wisdom.

So how do we tap into heavenly wisdom?

Looking to the Old Testament, we find written several times this phrase or a variation of this phrase, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Daniel Goleman, author of the book “Emotional Intelligence,” said, “One aspect of wisdom is having a very wide horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves,” or even on our group or organization. For us as Christians, the way that we find this wide horizon is to fear the Lord.

This might sound strange - to fear the Lord - but it doesn’t mean to be afraid of God, but to have a right picture of the power, majesty and magnitude of the God of the Universe. JB Phillips wrote a book many years ago entitled Your God is Too Small and I think this is the beginning of unwise decisions and actions - putting God in some comfortable box or diminishing Him to some good teacher or thinking of Him primarily as our Friend.

One practical way to fear God was introduced by Benedict in the 6th century in his rule for living: “Keep death always before your eyes.” This isn’t meant to be morbid or taken out of the context of a life of faith.  Death is a perspective giver, we have to think about what happens next - will we stand before the God of the universe? This gives us a healthy “fear” or awe of Him. Jesus invites us to die every day - “take up [your] cross daily and follow Me.” We see this same idea over and over in Paul’s letters, one example is found in Colossians 3:3  “ For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

We are invited to live an eternal life - this eternal life starts NOW not when we physically die - we are invited to die daily to this earthly existence and live a new life, a different life, a life hidden with Christ in God.

Sometimes taking up our cross daily doesn’t seem often enough. We are bombarded with choices constantly to live as good-newsers or bad-newsers, to live into the reality of the gospel or to give in to the value system of the world. Paul has a further exhortation to “take hold of each and every thought and make it obey Christ.”

C.S. Lewis gives us this illustration: “[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.”

I’m gonna get a little mathy on you now. Please don’t panic. I promise to take it slow and explain it so that even if you hate math you can see the connection I am trying to draw.

Let’s say you flip a coin. What are the chances that you get tails? 50/50 - right! So, in theory, if I flip a coin 100 times, how many times will I get tails? 50, correct. What about if I flip it 40 times, how many tails? 20, right! So, what if I flip it 15 times? Not so easy to answer now is it? There is no such thing as 7.5 tails. So what happens in reality, doesn’t always match what the ideal. 

This graph shows in orange, the theoretic perfection of half - the 50/50 chance of getting tails when you flip the coin. The blue dots represent what actually happened when I flipped a coin 18 times. Sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes I didn’t - in fact it was impossible half of the time. 

When experiments are recorded on a graph, scientists look for a pattern to determine future events or to make a conclusion about the success of the experiment. In both of these cases, there is a positive correlation, meaning that the trend is upward. One has a stronger correlation than the other. After the data points are on the graph, you find the “trend line” or the “line of best fit”
All of the points don’t hit the line, but you can see where it is trying to get to or what the trend is.

I just read a book called The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and in the book there is a despicable character. As much as I disliked this character, I had to respect him for one thing: his tenacity and determination to stick to his goals. Now, his goals were horrifying, but they determined his every action and he stayed very close to his own depraved principles.  His line of best fit and his actions were aligned but I think it was definitely a negative correlation.

You have to know where you are aiming so that you can know how well the “experiment” is measuring up. I am suggesting this morning that the life of Jesus is our line of best fit. J.B. Phillips, in his book Your God Is Too Small explains it this way: “The truth taught by Jesus Christ is the right way to live. It is ... God Himself explaining in terms that men can readily grasp how life is meant to be lived.” The trend line, the line of perfect fit! Jesus lived a perfect life manifesting all of the properties of wisdom found in our passage this morning. He was “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” And when we embody these characteristics, we come closer to that new life, that kingdom life, that eternal life that Jesus invites us into.

Norvene Vest puts it this way, “How odd that one small act of kindness or indifference has anything to do with eternal life? And yet, once I begin to see it that way, how comforting the sense that there is some continuity between the fact of charity here and whatever life is like there. My hunch grows that it is by these daily acts that I begin to build habits or dispositions which draw me closer to God or take me further away, till one day I shall realize that the Kingdom has already come and I did not know it.”

Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God has come! We can live in it even now and bring it close to those around us.

This seems impossible. And it is! Just like you can’t have 12.5 tails with 25 coin tosses, we cannot live a perfect life. God knows this and He wants to help us! In the beginning of James we were promised “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” And now we know what wisdom is - you can substitute any of these parts of heavenly wisdom: If any of you lacks purity, If any of you lacks peace-loving-ness, if any of you lacks submission, mercy, impartiality, sincerity - ask God and He’ll give it to you without finding fault.

But thinking of Jesus as our line of best fit makes Him into this impossible ideal that we are trying to reach and that’s not good news. So I have another analogy that shows that the power comes from Him and not from us: a tow rope!

If you have never had to use a tow rope on a ski or sledding hill - let me tell you about the first time that I ever used one. Heather Stahnke and I were on a ski trip together when she was a student, so we’re talking over 20 years ago and we were going sledding on a hill that was built as a ski hill, but was just not tall enough and so was converted to a sledding hill. In order to get to the top of this almost ski hill, there was a tow rope. You were supposed to sit in your sled and then grab a hold of the already in motion tow rope just above your shoulders. So we did this, but we were sharing a sled and I’m not sure how, but all of sudden we were being dragged up the hill on our coats and snow-pants while trying to hold on to the sled with our boots. It was quite the sight. I have this short video to show you a tow rope in action.

Which calls to mind the verse that says, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” but that’s a whole different sermon.

The tow rope is like the line best fit, but it pulls us along with it! If we stay connected to the source, then we’ll stay on the right track. Even if we fall, we just pick ourselves up and take hold again. The end of the rope holds secure, anchored within the veil and Jesus ever moves us heavenward. Crazy thing is, if we stay connected to the vine, the tow rope, the trend line, the source, we will realize that the kingdom has arrived and we have already started living eternally with God.

Let’s go back to the line of best fit illustration one more time. Here are 3 different experiments, one with positive, one with negative and one with no discernible correlation. What does your life look like? Are your wisdom, decisions, actions and thoughts lining up with the line of best fit life we see demonstrated in the life of Jesus? If so, then you are probably tapping into that eternal life more and more and living into the kingdom. If not, you are probably experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance and pain. If you are all over the map, it might be time to choose. Philippians 1:6 assures us that God, who began the good work within us, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

I have a couple of humorous illustrations to reinforce this idea:

click here for the video clip (I muted in church!)

Just hold on! No amount of falls will undo us if we keep getting up. Jesus, ready, stands to rescue you, full of empathy, love and power.

None of us can live a life perfectly pleasing to God - and no matter what our life looks like or has looked like, we can tap into the Holy Spirit power that is transforming us - 2 Corinthians 3:18 puts it this way: “... we all, with unveiled faces, continually seeing as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are progressively being transformed into His image from one degree of glory to even more glory...”

I want to leave you with these words from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga: “St. Benedict wasn’t asking us to be morbid when he told us to keep death daily before our eyes. Rather, he was asking us to be wise:  know your reality, cherish it, live it fruitfully right this minute, growing in your awareness that Christ is with you in this little here and now, making you ready, and through you making your world ready, for that day when “now” will open out into the “forever” we anticipate joyfully…”

Jude 24-25 To Him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.