Archives For Bible Nerd

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we utilize fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.)

500 years ago this month, Martin Luther, a Catholic monk from Eiselben, Germany, nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church, an action that became the tipping point to a revolution that was already beginning to gain some traction. When Martin was 21 years-old, the story goes, he was a law student and brilliant debater. During that year of his life, he found himself caught in a thunderstorm, nearly struck by a bolt of lightning. He called out to St. Anne, mother of the blessed Virgin Mary, promising that he would become a monk should she save him. Upon surviving, Martin fulfilled his promise and entered into the monastic life.

As Martin sought to walk faithfully with God, God began to reform him in some surprising ways. He was a good monk by all the standards of the day, yet Martin found no consolation in this. He read the scriptures and was tortured internally by the idea of righteousness, which he felt that he, himself, could not possess.

In his course of study, however, he read and studied the letter to the Romans, and he began to understand the righteousness of God as a gift that comes by faith, not something he had to produce within himself.

It wouldn’t be long before the way that God was reforming Martin Luther would soon begin to reform the church in Europe. Even still, the movement he formalized on All Saints Eve of 1517 in Wittenberg would eventually lead to his trial as a heretic. His bold declaration of “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me, Amen” came just before the guilty verdict and his escape to hide away and avoid arrest. He, a former monk, married a runaway nun. In his younger days, he penned words that he would later need to revise and in his older days, he wrote words that he probably should have taken back–harsh, graceless words about Catholics and Jews and even his fellow Reformers.

(Info drawn primarily from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/martin-luther.html and a couple of books i had lying around to verify this.)

Martin Luther is an example of how God can take a disciple, one who is passionate and outspoken, willing and imperfect, and do something remarkable with his or her life. Simon Peter, one of the first disciples of Jesus, is another. This month, when we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are going to spend the whole month with Simon Peter. For five Sundays, we will visit the highest points and the lowest low of his walk with Jesus as recorded in the gospels. Much like Martin Luther, Jesus called Simon Peter into following and he boldly and willingly followed on a new path, called to start a new thing.

Much like Martin Luther and Simon Peter, Jesus calls you and I to follow with boldness and willingness. Maybe you too have struggled with your lack of righteousness. Maybe you too have struggled to be faithful and stand strong in a threatening situation. Maybe you too have been re-called and re-formed by Jesus, or maybe you are seeking to recommit yourself to the journey of discipleship. This month of Reformation is a good one to reflect on all of that and consider what it means to allow Jesus to be Lord of your life and be continually changed and reformed to be more like him.

As we continue to listen for God’s word to us this morning, hear now the word of God from Luke 5:1-11.

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

All of the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus–the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–have a story of how Jesus called his first disciples. The account here in Luke 5 is the most elaborate and the previous chapter provides clues that when we come to the scene in Luke 5, Peter has already known Jesus and witnessed some of his miracles of healing. Jesus healed his mother-in-law, as recorded in Luke 4:39, for example. So perhaps Peter was perfectly poised and prepared to accept the call to follow Jesus, as we see him do in Luke 5.  This is a great passage to read as we consider our own calling to follow, and what that means for us, as we read about what it meant for Peter.

As we explore what it means to follow Jesus, the first thing we see in the text is that following Jesus requires obedience. Early in this passage, Peter demonstrates obedience twice. First, Jesus gets in his boat and asks Peter to sail out a little ways from the shore. Peter complies. Next, after he’s done teaching, Jesus instructs him to sail out farther and let out the nets one more time, a request that might have seemed a bit bizarre. They fished all night and didn’t catch anything. The early morning, we might assume, has passed them by while Jesus has been teaching from the boat. There aren’t any fish to be caught at this hour, Jesus. And yet, Peter basically says, “this makes no sense, but if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”

As disciples of Christ, sometimes our instructions make good sense. And sometimes, they simply do not. Sometimes the things we are called to do seem so counter-cultural in this day and age.

For me it would have been tempting for me to stick with “that makes no sense, teacher,” had I been in the boat when Jesus commanded the nets to be let down one more time. “Jesus, you’re a carpenter, not a fisherman, so we’re going to give you pass here, but really, letting the nets down again won’t do any good at this point.”

How many times have I read in Scripture or prayed for God’s direction only to think, “well, that will never work?” A lot. For example, a little more than seventeen years ago, I ran across a job listing for a church on a corner in downtown Henderson Kentucky and I. Just. Knew. I was supposed to send my resume. “But God,” I said, “maybe we should look at a map, because Henderson is nowhere near Lexington, and I’m trying to go to Lexington.”

Or maybe we read words like “in humility, regard others better than yourselves” or “have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” who “emptied himself” and was “obedient even to the point of death” like we read in Philippians 2, and we’re tempted to say, “Oh, not anymore, Apostle Paul. We don’t do it like that in America.” When we follow Jesus, we are called to be obedient.

Another word about obedience: in order to be obedient, we have to know what God is asking us to do. Which means one or two things must be true: We must be reading scripture regularly, and allowing God’s Word to reform us and call us to obedience and we must be prayerful about the steps we take in our lives and listen for God to give us direction. Maybe you’re not doing either of those things regularly. If that’s the case and you want to follow Jesus obediently, start with reading scripture and you might be surprised at how clearly you’re able to hear God’s voice in other ways too.

Obedience means that when you know what God is asking of you, you change your actions, thoughts, or words to line up with what God has said.

“We’ve already done what we think is the right way,” Peter essentially insists in Luke 5, “BUT IF YOU SAY SO, we’ll do what you’ve asked us to.”

Luke 5 says the next thing that happens is that the disciples followed Jesus’ instructions and the result was that they caught so many fish their nets began to break and when they worked together to pull the fish into the boats, the boats began to sink. When Peter saw this, the scripture tells us, “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ for he and all who were with him were amazed” at what had just happened. This reminds us that Following Jesus inspires worship. For Peter, it was a natural, unavoidable response to the goodness he had just witnessed. He fell to his knees and honored the holiness that he recognized in Jesus, the Christ.

The Apostle Paul knew well that following Jesus inspired worship. Just in our epistle reading today, from his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul writes, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…who became obedient to death on a cross…and was exalted by God and given the name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

When God does something and we recognize it as an act of God or we know the presence of holiness, there is no other response than to honor and glorify God.

The problem is, we’re prone to idolatry. And as such, we often misplace that honor and glory and direct it elsewhere. Like towards ourselves. Or towards our things. Or towards anyone or anything else other than the source of every good and perfect gift we have.

Peter, skilled fisherman that he was, could have had a different response. Rather than recognize Jesus as the giver of the nets full of fish, he could have assumed it was due to the skill of himself and his team that when they put the nets down when Jesus commanded, they caught so many fish. Or, maybe even more likely, his skill met with just the right amount of coincidence. He doesn’t have either of those reactions, though. He recognizes the giver of the gift and he responds in worship.

Worship happens in a lot of ways. Yes, we worship as a body here on Sunday mornings and sometimes other times, too. We gather for worship because we each recognize that this is not just about us. It is about the Body of Christ in every time and place and a story that God is writing across the ages that includes all of us.

But as Peter demonstrates, worship is also spontaneous and often very personal. Worship can happen daily, hourly, minute by minute if we seek to live lives that glorify and honor God. Followers of Jesus Christ worship him because we recognize his goodness and holiness and we know that he is worthy of glory and honor. And when we are truly following Christ, we cannot help it. We are called to worship and we must respond.

After Peter worships, and it is noted that it is not just Peter who is amazed and sees Jesus for what he has done, Jesus says familiar words to Simon. “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people.” And with those words, we are told Peter and company park their boats on the shore and leave everything to follow him. And so, we see that it is the case that Following Jesus calls for whole-hearted devotion.

Peter who has just had this moment of revelation, who has heard Jesus’ invitation to follow, doesn’t just leave his nets and all the fish that the boats just brought ashore–he leaves his whole livelihood and identity behind. He will from that moment on, be known as one of Jesus’ disciples. We who have read the whole book know that Jesus will change his name and Simon will be called Peter. We know that Peter will see Jesus heal the sick and injured and bring people back from death. We know that Jesus will include Peter in some of the most amazing moments and will demand some of the hardest things from Peter. But Simon the fisherman knows none of this. Simon Peter knows that he was obedient to Jesus and Jesus did something miraculous and glorious, and so he worshiped Jesus and then left everything to follow him.

The same thing happens in our lives. Maybe you decided to follow Jesus, and you had no idea how that was going to turn out or where you were going to end up. But you followed as wholeheartedly as you could. And in every moment, every decision to be obedient, every scripture passage you read that caused you to grow a little more, every act and sight of wonder that called you to worship, every struggle that you prayed your way through, God was shaping you more and more in his image so that your identity wasn’t nearly as important as the identity given to you as a follower of Jesus.

When you follow Jesus, it’s impossible to do it halfway. When we try to hang onto ourselves, we aren’t really following. Jesus would tell his disciples later, “ ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

October 1, 2017 seems as good a day as any to consider your own calling to follow Jesus and how that looks in your life. Are you following obediently, allowing the words of scripture to test and try your thoughts and actions, seeking to prayerfully discern what God is asking you to do?

Are you worshipping honestly and frequently, giving God the glory and the credit for the good things in your life, remembering to turn toward God as often as you are tempted to turn towards yourself?

Are you devoted whole-heartedly, accepting the identity Jesus gives you and laying aside your own will for his?

Maybe you’re like me and when you think about it like that, you see that you’ve missed the mark somewhere along the way this week or in the past month or year or years, and you know it’s time to get back on the path that follows the footsteps of Jesus and leads to life. I think that probably Martin Luther and the other reformers we celebrate this month recognized that feeling as they continued to surrender their lives and ministries to God and find the way that is right and true. Peter knew that place well, as we’ll see in the coming weeks as he seeks to follow Jesus through some tough situations and deal with his own missteps.

The good news is that that we have a Lord who calls us as many times as it takes, out of a love and grace that knows no bounds. Yes, today is a good day to start again at following Jesus.

Let’s pray together, for ourselves and for each other, as we seek to be renewed in following Jesus.

Jesus, you stand at the lakeshore and you invite us to drop our nets and leave our boats and our names and our vain pursuits to be your disciples and to be known by your name. Help us to be obedient to your leading, and call us to be faithful students of your Word. Renew in us a sense of wonder and joy and call us to worship. Make us wholly devoted to you alone, gladly giving our lives for the sake of your Kingdom coming. Amen.

Sermon on John 4:5-42

March 19, 2017

(At Presbyterian Church of Henderson, we have started using fill-in-the-blank outlines in the bulletin to accompany each Sunday’s sermon. This has added a new dimension to preaching for me, but the hearers of the word seem to appreciate having an outline to follow. One thing I’ve learned is that it makes the sharing of a manuscript a bit clunky in this format. The following sermon has 3 “bullet points” and I have identified those by putting them in bold print and using blue text to indicate the words that fit in the blanks.

And my usual disclaimer: sermons are meant to be heard, not read, but this is the manuscript I used to preach this morning. This one began with a dramatic reading of the scripture by three members of the congregation.)

Scripture: John 4:5-42

We come this morning to a story that I have always loved. No doubt, I’ve read this passage of scripture more than just about any other. I’ve written papers about it. It’s regularly taught in youth group or Sunday School classes around here. I’ve preached about it from this pulpit at least one other time, but I think maybe twice.  

This passage contains the longest recorded conversation in any of the gospels and it happens between Jesus and a woman of Samaria. I love the rhythm of the conversation, the flow of topics from actual thirst and actual water to spiritual thirst and spiritual water. I love the way God changed this woman’s life in the course of an afternoon.

And I love the way that we once again bump into The Kingdom of God. Even when Jesus wasn’t explicitly talking about the Kingdom of God, Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God. And once again, we are reminded that when the Kingdom of God is set against the kingdom of this world, they could not be more different.

And right away we see that in the Kingdom of God,

outsiders become insiders.

Jesus and his disciples, walking the distance between Jerusalem in the south and Galilee in the north, make a stop mid-way between in Sychar, which is well within Samaria. It is noon and Jesus is tired, so while the disciples go to try to buy lunch, Jesus sits down by a well.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water” is how the interaction begins. Two descriptions about her that make her an outsider to Jesus and his disciples. First, she’s a woman. The societal norms were clear on this one–a man, and especially a man who is a Rabbi, should not speak to a woman that is not his wife or family member. Further, she’s a Samaritan woman, which also makes her a religious and political outsider, since the Jews considered the Samaritans to be unclean.

Jesus obviously knows all of this. He knows she is a woman, he knows she’s a samaritan, he knows the expectations and he willingly reaches out to her with a simple request for a drink of water. Time and again, we see Jesus do this with folks he encountered, whether it’s touching a leper to heal him from disease to engaging a sychophonencian woman in a theological debate.

But there’s something else. It is noon and this woman is coming to the well. In the middle eastern desert during the hottest part of the day. Other women would have already been to the well, choosing instead to go in the cooler part of the day when the sun was just rising. A village well was, and still is in communities that have a common well for water, a gathering place. A place where women gather in the cool of the day before the chores at home need attention. For some reason, this woman goes when she knows she would be there alone. I imagine it’s more than the possibility that she was an introvert who wanted some time to herself.

If we jump ahead for just a second, we realize that this woman has been married multiple times and she’s currently residing with a man who is not her husband. Jesus will tell her this and she will confirm its truth.

Often we read scripture through modern eyes. In this instance, we might assume this woman is somehow to blame for this, that she was rightfully ashamed of how she had been living and that’s why she came to the well in the middle of the day and that’s what Jesus is going to talk to her about.  But we have to read this passage in the ancient context. In the ancient Middle Eastern world, this woman had little or no agency. We don’t know the circumstances of her five previous marriages, whether her husbands had died or abandoned her, how she even came to enter into those unions or even if she had wanted to be married. In the ancient world, no one really cared if a woman was willing to say “I do,” and marriage was more of a transaction, usually arranged by the father of the would-be-bride. Further, it was not advisable or even possible for a woman in the ancient world to live without a man. Women couldn’t provide for themselves. It’s possible that just about everything that was true about her situation were things she could not have changed.

But the actual circumstances do not always matter when it comes to shame, do they? Often, people with little ability to change their circumstances are blamed for the circumstances and are shamed by their communities, whether it’s deserved or not. I think about groups of people in our society in this day and age who are often blamed or shamed, maybe those who are dealing with disabilities or living in poverty. Or people who contract lung cancer–because lung cancer is the cancer that people assume must be the sufferer’s fault. Or I think about circumstances that cause individuals to feel private shame for things they could not have ever controlled, perhaps couples struggling with infertility or who have experienced reproductive loss and struggle in very personal ways, often quietly and alone. People can experience this isolation and separation from their neighbors for lots of reasons, many beyond their control, and I think this is where the woman here now at the well has been living.

This woman is an outsider to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, and she is also an outsider in her city or village, possibly all for reasons beyond her control. It is here where Jesus meets her and invites her into a different, wonderful story. And I think it is a beautiful thing that Jesus met this woman right where she was, and that it was Jesus who crossed those boundaries to reach out to her.  She had no idea when she walked to the well, her head bowed, her eyes to the ground, that she was going to meet the one who created her and that he was about to change her life forever.

In the Kingdom of God, outsiders become insiders because in the Kingdom of God, there are no more outsiders. The King of the Kingdom welcomes all to himself. This is good news not just for the woman standing with Jesus at the well, but for all of us who have found ourselves on the outside, separated from God or from each other.

And so now we come to the rest of the story. Our second point on the outline is that in the Kingdom of God,

dry wells are abandoned and living water flows.

Jesus has crossed lines to engage this woman in conversation and then he does something interesting. Out of the blue, he instructs the woman to go and get her husband and come back. And then, of course, she tells the truth, but in an ambiguous way–like we all do sometimes. “I have no husband.” And then Jesus speaks truth to her about her situation.

Considering the context and all of the things about shame and her outsider status, I do not actually think Jesus is talking about a sin problem, here. This is an assumption that is often held about this text. But I don’t think Jesus is addressing unfaithfulness in marriage…I think what may be happening here is that Jesus is acknowledging a deep emptiness and longing that has not yet been satisfied for her. The love she had experienced had not lasted, for whatever reason. Each relationship had led to a brokenness of some sort. She kept hoping for security or love with each dip of her bucket into the metaphorical relationship well, and that thirst was never permanently quenched.

Jesus offers her living water–a love that will never abandon her, a God who will always meet her needs. This is truly an opportunity for this woman to experience a permanent change in her life.

So I started thinking…what would Jesus have said to me if we had met at that well? He wouldn’t have asked about my husband, I don’t think. I thought and I thought and then it hit me.

Jesus would have looked at me from across the well and said, “Go get your perfect seminary transcript and bring it back here.” And I would have said, “Sir, I don’t have a copy printed.” And he would have said, “You’re right, because you don’t have a perfect seminary transcript because in Dr. Colyer’s doctrine class last semester you ended the term with a B.”

Because for me? That metaphorical well I keep revisiting hoping for permanent satisfaction is the well of approval. I want you, any of you, all of you, all of the people out there, all of my professors to approve of me and like me. It’s in my nature to go to whatever ridiculous length necessary to gain approval. But guess what? That’s a well that dries up fast. Because sometimes I make mistakes. Or I have to say something people don’t want to hear. Or someone just doesn’t like me. And even when I am well-liked, or my professors think I’m smart, that relief only lasts for a little bit…and then I need more praise and agreement and affirmation. But I was created and called to seek living water–the approval of ONE, the approval of God. That’s the water that will last.

What else might there be? What are the other wells that people go back to over and over again hoping for permanent satisfaction only to end up empty again?

On Sunday nights in the Fellowship Hall, a group of about 12 have been meeting to discuss Jen Hatmaker’s book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” As we read the book, we are thinking about the things that we have in our lives that we have a hard time using in moderation, and how sometimes those things become replacements for God. We’ve talked about food. We’ve talked about clothing. Tonight, Jesus be with me, we are talking about media.

One of the things we are really talking about, though, is that fact that in general, us humans have an emptiness inside of us, and that emptiness can be relentless. And sometimes, we try to fill that emptiness with…well, stuff. We buy bigger houses and seek promotions and we earn more money and we buy more stuff…and then we’re still empty, because those are not things that are eternal, and what we are really longing for, us humans, is something eternal.

So we go back to the same wells. For this woman, it was hope that the next relationship would last and bring security. For me, it’s approval and assurance that I’m good enough.

For someone else, Jesus might have talked about love of money or worldly success. Or the purchasing of new things–retail therapy. Or maybe about an addiction to drugs or alcohol or pornography or facebook. All wells that might fill someone up for a little bit, might quench a particular thirst for an amount of time…but not forever.

But Jesus offers another way, and a water that will truly quench those longings inside of us. If we would come to his well and drink deeply of the living water that comes to us through scripture, through prayer, through worship in spirit and truth, through trusting in God’s grace and listening for God’s call to us, seeking the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of this world…we will never be thirsty again and our lives will be changed forever. And through our changed lives, God will change the lives of others. Because point number 3 is…

changed lives change lives.

In this one afternoon, this one woman’s life is changed forever. Jesus offers her living water and in it she finds a new identity as a child of God, loved and accepted, and a call to worship in spirit and truth.

And then God uses her newly changed life to change the lives of others in her community. This unnamed woman is often regarded as the first evangelist. She’s the first one who calls others to faith in Christ as the Messiah. Look–(read the come and see part of the passage).

All of a sudden the woman who went to the well at noon to avoid her neighbors is calling for them to come. In that interaction, Jesus changed her life, her identity, her understanding about who she was so dramatically that now she is inviting others to come and see.

And they did come, they left the city and came to the well and they heard this woman’s testimony and they believed in Jesus as the messiah. And they invited him to stay and even more Samaritans came to follow Jesus because of this one interaction at the well between Jesus and this woman whose name we never even learn.

She was living her ordinary life and Jesus broke in, reaching across many barriers, called her to him and offered her the thing she had been truly longing for, changing her life in such a way that God used her life and story to change the lives of so many of her neighbors.

Maybe you’ve been someone like this woman. Maybe God has changed your life in such a way that you’ve been able to offer this witness to others and maybe God has used your changed life to change the lives of your neighbors near and far. Maybe you’ve been unable to contain the gratitude you feel for a God who would call you in from the outside and claim you as God’s own, and you’ve shouted it from the roads and rooftops.

Or maybe you’ve known someone like this woman, and someone else’s story of how God has been visible and at work in his or her life has been the vehicle for change in your own life.

Did you know that this is God’s plan for evangelism? Did you know that God uses people–often ordinary, broken, flawed people at that–to bring the gospel to light for others? That the plan for the movement of the gospel involves one neighbor at a time, experiencing the love and grace of God and then sharing that same love and grace with others.

Where does Jesus find you this morning? Are you feeling like you’re on the outside, looking in? Is Jesus calling you to stop going to the same dried up well for joy or relief, and instead drink deeply of the living water that will bring joy and relief eternal? Are there people around you who are thirsty and in need of the hope that comes from the good news of a God who cares and loves and changes lives?

May we know Jesus’ calling, allow God to continue to change and challenge us, and be willing to bear witness to the goodness of God for the sake of our neighbors. Praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Fearfully and Wonderfully

January 9, 2017

Today, I wrote the devotional for a health and wellness challenge group I’m participating in on Facebook. Here is what I shared:

13 For it was you (God) who formed my inward parts;
  you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
  Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

15   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
  intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
  all the days that were formed for me, 
when none of them as yet existed. Psalm 139:13-16

Let’s take a moment and consider a truth that is among the easiest to forget: You, child of God, are fearfully and wonderfully made by a Designer who knows every part of your body and every breath you will take. God created you with intention, on purpose, and God did not produce anything defective or unuseful.

Your body, the one you are maybe hoping to improve or restore to health, was fearfully and wonderfully made by your Creator. You have one body and you should absolutely seek to be as healthy as possible to honor God. But your body, even just as it is, is God-made.

Your inner self, which probably frustrates you a good bit as you struggle to control your thoughts or actions, as you carry around burdens of sin and despair, is seen by God. You should absolutely seek to repent of your sins and bring your burdens to God, but the God who always sees what is inside of you loves you with an unshakable love even still.

The book of your life, which you might sometimes believe seems boring or mundane to everyone else, was written by God. You should definitely seek to live the best story possible, but know that God is the one with the pen in hand, and your story matters in God’s Kingdom.

There is a whole industry built around making you feel like there is something wrong with your body and your life and that you (without their products) are not enough. As you seek to be healthy–body, mind, spirit, and strength–give thanks to the God who made you in a fearfully wonderful way.

 

Sermon: Mark 10:17-31

October 10, 2015
chinese depiction of Jesus and Rich Young Ruler

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler; Beijing, 1879 via Wikipedia

[My sermon disclaimer: The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon.]

Have you ever had a reason to sell all of your possessions? About five years ago, shortly after my friend and church member Whitney Guthrie made all of the arrangements to move to Chile for a term of 3 years with Operation Mobilization, I helped her price items for her moving away yard sale. She was selling nearly everything she owned—every piece of furniture, all of her books, DVDs, CDs, knick-knacks, her dishes, small appliances, and at least half of her clothing. All of the money made would go toward her travel and living expenses in Chile while she made the transition to raising her own salary. The day of the sale, I sat with her in front yard and on her behalf haggled with neighbors who thought that $1 was too much to pay for a t-shirt. “She’s going to be a missionary,” I told one of them slowly. “Your $1 gets you a tshirt and you get to support a missionary.” “Would you take 50cents?” she asked in reply. I remember the anxiety I felt over Whitney selling nearly all of her earthly goods, so much that I even bought or offered to keep some of the items that I knew she particularly liked—a couple of t-shirts and DVDs and books—just so that I could give them back to her when she came back.

I remember watching Whitney let go of all of the things that had filled her life, as well as childhood bedrooms, dorm rooms, and apartments through the years. She was the embodiment of grace during that process, choosing to not focus on what she was losing, or how little money she was taking in for items that were much more expensive at their original purchase, but instead setting her eyes on the greater goal and her calling from Jesus.

Today we meet a man who was not ready to hear that calling from Jesus. Listen now for God’s word.

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

So here is one of those passages in Mark where it seems that Jesus is actively trying to keep Christianity weird. But this man does not just appear in Mark. Here, we see that he is very wealthy. In Luke, he is called a ruler. In Matthew, the fact that he is young is emphasized. Typically, this character is called “The Rich Young Ruler.” He does appear to be sincere, as he approaches Jesus, kneeling, calling him “good teacher.” Jesus, as he does sometimes in the gospels, seems to want to banter with the man a bit. We see him do it with the woman at the well in John 4, with the sycophoenecian woman who talks to him about dogs at the master’s table, with some of the people he heals throughout the gospels. I sometimes wonder which was more normal for Jesus—to simply do what was asked of him or to engage in some challenging conversation first.

The man’s concern is with his own soul and his own righteousness. Jesus establishes that the man does know about the commandments and has even kept them. Then Jesus says something confusing for man who had kept all of the commandments and probably considered his wealth a reward for good living: sell all you own, give money to the poor, be assured of your treasure in heaven, and follow me!

The man’s reaction is to go away grieving.

I think Jesus’ reaction is equally important. We are told that Jesus loved the man. And so when he goes away grieving, I can sense that Jesus grieved, too. I’ve been there. When I sit with a sixteen year old girl who once said “yes” to Jesus and determined to live into her baptismal covenant and follow God’s commandments, and I challenge her to stand in faith and not do the things her peers are pressuring her to do and she shrugs her shoulders and says, “I mean…everyone does it.” or “I just want to be popular.” and then she stops coming to youth group or church because she’s counted the cost and she doesn’t want to pay it, Jesus stands with me in this moment and I know a small bit of the sadness he must have felt.

We read that his immediate words are to his disciples, almost as though he’s sharing grief with them too—“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” It is here he compares that task with a camel going through the eye of a needle. I read with some interest this week that there have been various attempts throughout the years to soften this comparison by suggesting a mistranslation or mistake in copying the Greek in one manuscript or another along the way—maybe Jesus actually meant something  that is smaller than a camel, something a little more possible to fit through the eye of a needle. But friends, have you seen the eye of a needle? You can often barely get the thread that’s designed to pass through it to fit, much less anything else that is bigger. Jesus intends to be absurd here.

The disciples are as surprised as the man, we can assume. Who has any hope at completing that impossible task, they want to know.

Jesus tells us something we’ve heard before—in fact, you’ll find it on the front of your bulletin in our church vision statement: nothing is impossible for God.

I would like to suggest this morning that when faced by such a challenge by Jesus, when the cost of discipleship seems too great, we can make one of four choices.

The first response we might have is the one that the man in Mark 10 chose—to go away grieving. Jesus said something hard and the man decided it was not worth the great cost to do what Jesus said, so he simply went away. His life spent following the commandments, but this was too much to ask.

The second option we have is to brush off Jesus’ words. We may choose to simply ignore them or read them without taking them into consideration, or we can just write them off as a weird thing Jesus said or did not really mean or we can choose to hang our hope on the “with God all things are possible” part and move along. I thought this week that it would seem that there are lots of people who insist that we must interpret the Bible absolutely literally who have never even considered taking this section literally. If you’re the preacher this morning, perhaps you’d preach the Hebrews passage also into today’s lectionary instead and leave this camel and needle business alone. There are plenty who do that with this passage and I was certainly tempted to do so. Although I think that it should be said that if we read Scripture or hear the words of the Jesus and decide not to consider them because it disrupts the lives we are living, that is idolatry.

The third response would be to take this passage and all other passages completely literally and live this out—sell your stuff and follow Jesus without hesitation. And some have done that, which certainly takes much faith and resolve.

The fourth response is where I want to spend some time this morning, however. I think the fourth response is to stick around, not brush the words aside, and let the Holy Spirit work in our hearts. You see, if the man in our passage is to be blamed, it’s not because he was rich and it’s not because Jesus’ words caused him to struggle. It’s because he walked away. I wish he would have stuck around for a few minutes and asked Jesus some questions about this and allowed himself some space to consider the possibility present in what Jesus was asking him.

I come to you, Jesus’ Church, and I ask you, what are we to do with this passage this morning? Let’s take a moment to think about what that would mean if we understand that Jesus is asking us to do these hard things. What would it mean for you or I to sell everything we have and follow Jesus? What does that look like in your household? We know that a good many of the first followers of Jesus and members of the early church did just that—sell all their possessions and have everything in common. How does it feel to consider this? Honestly in your heart, ponder how you would have responded to hearing Jesus say this to you—“sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, be assured of your treasure in heaven, and follow me.”

Rather than mounting a moral high horse, I empathize with the rich young man. I could have just as easily made the same decision. These words of Jesus are difficult for me. Mark never gets back to this man, but I do wonder if maybe later on, after he had some time to think about it, if he made a different decision and decided to follow Jesus.

Having wrestled with this passage all week, I do have a few concluding thoughts.

It is very easy, when one has gathered money or things, to put trust in money or things. A truth about wealth is that often once we are on the course to acquire it, it’s possible to never get off of that course. We can always want more money or better things, and it is possible to never be content with what we have.

Jesus is speaking against this mindset, and against the natural human inclination to put our trust in things that are not God and have no place in God’s Kingdom. If wealth is our reason for being and our priority, we are not seeking the values of Jesus’ Upside Down Kingdom. Again, Jesus reminds us: the first will be last and the last will be first. The things the world values are not the values of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus’ words are hard this morning. If you are looking for the exits, it’s hard to blame you. But my hope today is that rather than going away grieving, we stay with Jesus and let the words here challenge our hearts. What is God calling us to do concerning our things? Where are our priorities and what motivates us? What are we doing to serve the Kingdom of God? How are we following Jesus rather than our own human desires?

The good news is this: what you may not be able to imagine happening by your own human power and ability suddenly becomes possible when submitted and entrusted to God, to whom all things are possible. Alleluia, Amen.

Sermon: Mark 9:30-37

September 19, 2015
jesus mafa welcomes the children

artwork from jesusmafa.com

The trouble with posting the text of a sermon is two-fold. First, sermons are intended to be heard rather than read and second, the Holy Spirit is at work in all aspects of the sermon–preparation, practice, and delivery and sometimes the text is changed or mystically transformed in the speaking of it with the gathered congregation. Nevertheless, here’s my manuscript from this week’s sermon!

I’ve blogged about the incident I use as an illustration at the beginning. Here it is.

 

About six months ago, we celebrated Maundy Thursday here in this sanctuary, remembering the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples, and ending our Lenten celebration together. That night, Rich was leading worship and he and I were serving communion together. I sat right *there* (the front pew) so that I would be near the front to assist when it was time to serve the holy meal. A small child from our after school ministry sat with me. From the moment she entered the sanctuary and took her seat, she aware of the communion table. “Bread!” she exclaimed when she sat down. She kept her eye on it nearly the whole time. As the first hymn was sung, she leaned forward and studied it. As the Scripture for the night was read, she pointed to the table as it was mentioned. Occasionally she would look at me, then look at the table with an inquisitive look on her face, and I would take my finger and indicate to her where we were and then slide my finger down to the word “Communion” so she could see how much longer it would be. When Rich preached and spoke about the Bread and the Cup, she waved her arms grandly toward the table. In response to my own questioning look, she whispered, “I just want to make sure everyone knows what he is talking about.” My favorite part, though, came when Rich moved to the table and stood behind it. My little friend knew that it was showtime. She stood to her feet, even though the entire congregation remained seated, and all but took a starter’s position. When Rich finally said those long awaited words, “Come to the table, all is ready,” she was standing toe to toe with him before he could even finish the sentence, looking up at him through glasses perched on her nose and anxiously holding out her hands.

This child, small for her age, the youngest of a large number of children in her family, a member of the backpack club (at her school, this means that she gets to take a special backpack full of meal and snack food home on weekends), is “least” in a lot of ways, at least by how we would qualify it. And I imagine it was exactly a child like her that Jesus holds onto in our Scripture passage for today:

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.

Mark does not usually provide us with a very kind snapshot of Jesus’ disciples. Here, he features their failure to understand his teaching once again, and a petty argument that happens between them as they traveled together through the Galilean countryside. Truly, the disciples are just like us. They are our heroes because they left all that they knew and followed Jesus, and after Jesus’ resurrection, they helped people become disciples, they baptized thousands, and most of them were martyred for their faith. But here in the middle, they seem kind of…well, they don’t seem to be all that great at being disciples.

Jesus asks the disciples about their argument, and they are ashamed for they know that what they had been talking about has no place in the Kingdom of God. They’ve been with Jesus long enough to know how his whole disciple thing works, but probably they couldn’t help themselves. The weeks and months of walking with Jesus, watching him heal the blind, the infirm, the demon-possessed…sitting in the boat while he walked to them on water…the lunchbox of loaves and fish that became a feast for 5000—they are following the real deal. Here is the Messiah, and they are ones who comprise his closest circle. I think they just couldn’t stop themselves from speculating about what Jesus will appoint each of them to do when he comes to power.

Really, what they’ve misunderstood, though, is what kind of Kingdom Jesus is going to rule. Why do they not understand Jesus when he talks about suffering and death and resurrection? Because it does not fit into their understanding of Kingdom. Why would a promised King—a Messiah, the anointed one of God—suffer and die? Why wouldn’t the advent of his Kingdom usher in a time of victory for a people who were waiting in dark oppression under the Roman government…or at least for the nobodies that had left their lives and livelihoods to follow him?

Yet, Jesus took a child in his arms, the Scriptures say. This is not a cute, warm fuzzy story about Jesus and children. In this passage, Jesus is making a statement about power. In Jesus’ day, a child was important for the sake of the future—parents needed to have children so that they would be cared for in old age, for the sake of their family name, and because they needed someone to inherit any wealth or property. But while a child was a still a child, he or she was a liability, prone to illness, helpless, weak, and not a big contributor to the family economy. A small child is about as powerless as a human being can be. With small children, it is easy to actually overlook them.

Jesus is making a stark statement about the values of his Kingdom—his upside down, turn anything conventional on its head, Kingdom. “When you welcome this child, you welcome me,” Jesus suggests. I can almost see the disciples squirming—no, Lord, you are powerful. You’re the Messiah. You do great things. You’re so much more than a child! Oh, but in this Kingdom, greatness is not measured in power or import. Greatness is measured in humility, hospitality, and servanthood. If the greatness we seek is measured in power, money, success, or the goods we own, we are not walking the same path as the Lord we claim with our lips.

Think about any of the many overwhelming or terrible or heartbreaking situations in our nation or in world right now—there are so many to choose from.

I’m not here to debate or affirm or even to inform your politics this morning—I don’t have a degree in politics. But I can tell you about Jesus and I can tell you this: Jesus holds close, stands with, and elevates the ones who are least. The single mom working two or three jobs and still not making enough money to make all the ends meet to put food on the table, pay the rent, keep the lights on, and provide extracurricular opportunities for her children? She matters to Jesus and she should matter to Jesus’ Church. The tiny child tossed around in the sea until the waves overwhelm him and his lifeless body is washed up on the shore of the country his family was desperately trying to reach? Jesus welcomes and embraces him, his family, and his fellow travelers, and the Church should be on the front line of welcoming and resourcing that situation. The fourteen year old girl kidnapped and sold into the sex trade, abused, used, forgotten? Jesus has not forgotten her and neither should Jesus’ Church. Christian pastors, missionaries, and believers imprisoned, executed publicly—martyred for their faith? Jesus has been there too and the Church cannot turn her back to the horror of that situation. Insert whatever overwhelming or terrible situation you have thought about in the past moment and think about who in that situation is weak, terrorized, powerless, disregarded, rejected, scared, small, or abandoned. That’s where you’ll find Jesus’ heart and that’s where ours should be too.

In many ways, this teaching provides the easy yoke of Jesus. His words are hard, but being last is not hard. Everyone else is clamoring to be first, elbowing and pushing to be at the head of the line or seated in a prominent place at the table. There’s a lot less competition to be at the end of the line. Welcoming others is a lot easier than passing judgment to determine worth and assessing whether or not someone matters. There’s a freedom that comes when one stops working so hard to convince others that one is good enough or talented enough or pretty enough and simply accepts the favor of God and allows the Holy Spirit to be at work.

Jesus’ words in Mark 9 caused a bit of a stir among the disciples, no doubt, as they continued on a journey of misunderstanding. They certainly stir up my heart as I think about the values of the Kingdom of God and consider what it means for my own human pursuits. Jesus’ words are a challenge to consider the things and the people we value. We can simply dismiss them today because they are hard to understand and live into, or we can accept the challenge of the Holy Spirit to consider the ways we welcome those who have no power or no status—whether they come to us in the form of tired refugees seeking safety across our borders or a small, hungry girl eager for the communion part of the service to start.

Lord, may the things that break your heart break ours too, and may we never fail to welcome and serve the least and the last.

El Greco "Healing of the Man Born Blind"

El Greco “Healing of the Man Born Blind”

This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning at Presbyterian Church in Henderson, KY.

Where have you witnessed God at work? Every summer, as you may know, we join with three other churches in town for Vacation Bible School. Our theme, Scriptures and activities are always different from the years before, but one thread that runs through every VBS for the last several years are the “God Sightings.” We ask kids every day to go home and watch for God at work. We give them a visual reminder of some sort to help them in this task (sometimes a bracelet that says “Watch For God!”).

Here’s one thing we’re teaching (and learning ourselves) by doing this: if you are watching for God, you will most certainly see God. If you will seek God, you will find God. I remember growing up that my mom had a coffee mug—for some reason I seem to think it came in a floral arrangement—but either way, it said “Expect A Miracle.”

When we live in expectation of miracles, we see the miraculous around us.

The man in our story today, however, was not watching for a miracle. In fact, he wasn’t physically watching for anything and he had probably been taught over time not to expect anything miraculous, either.

JOHN 9:1-3

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 

Here we are in John 9. If we understand John to be happening chronologically, the following things have already happened: The calling of the disciples, the wedding at Cana, Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night, Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria, Jesus feeding the 5,000, Jesus walking on water, Jesus dealing with the situation involving the woman who was accused of committing adultery and was about to be stoned, and Jesus causing chapter after chapter of division and trouble among his disciples and among religious leaders. His teachings were hard and often hard to understand without further investigation and he certainly was not afraid of being called a heretic. He wasn’t trying to make friends or start a revolution. Jesus was doing the work of God and inviting people to take a risk and work with him.

So when we get to chapter 9, and the disciples turn an unsuspecting man into an object lesson, we should not be surprised at how it goes.

Hey, Jesus, here’s a guy who was born blind. Who sinned? Him or his parents?

The cultural belief was this: something bad happened to you? Must be because someone sinned. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Now, one who owns the entire canon of Scripture might point out that actually the Old and New Testaments are full of words that counter this belief, but either way, this was still embraced by the people of Jesus’ day.

The fact that the man was born blind seems to be universally understood in this passage, so I do wonder how the disciples thought it could be because of the man’s own sin. The sin that God knew the man would commit before he was born? That just makes my head hurt.

“Neither,” says Jesus. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Wait, what? This man has lived his whole life without his sight, which in ancient Palestine was a trial in itself—he couldn’t work, he couldn’t have a family, he couldn’t participate in religious life—just so God could be glorified in him? How is that just or good? He’s spent his whole life on the outskirts just so Jesus could heal him today?

Yes.

I don’t like the answer Jesus gives, but I trust in God’s sovereignty. And I know that I’ve certainly seen God glorified in painful or difficult or unfair circumstances in my own life and in the lives of people I love.

Right now, this man is an unwitting object lesson, but he’s about to experience a miracle.

JOHN 9:4-7a

We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). 

This lesson is fun to teach to kids. Jesus heals a guy with spit and dirt. Did you ever wonder why? We have lots of instances of Jesus simply touching people or declaring them healed without even touching him. Why did Jesus make mud?

It’s the Sabbath. The teaching is clear: kneading on the Sabbath—even kneading spit into dirt—is not allowed. Jesus is being clear: I’m healing on the Sabbath. Right before he mixed up the dirt, he told them why:

“We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” What Jesus is doing is time-sensitive.

What about the man who is at the center of the object lesson? Here he is, minding his own business, going about his usual day and all of a sudden, he’s surrounded by a group of people who talk about him like he’s not there and all of a sudden someone puts spitty mud on his eyes.

It’s a moment that changes his whole life and he wasn’t even watching for it. Literally. Or figuratively.

JOHN 9:7b-12

Then the man went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

The man is healed. He returns to the place where he used to sit and beg and can see it for the first time. Can you imagine what that must be like? I can’t. It must have been incredibly overwhelming. He doesn’t really get to enjoy the experience completely because his neighbors want answers first from each other: are you sure this is the same guy? and then from him:  “But how were your eyes opened?”

JOHN 9:13-34

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

This should have been the happiest moment of the man’s life. He doesn’t know how it happened, he hasn’t seen the man who performed the work, but he knows this: I was blind, now I see. It must be because God had a hand in it.

The Pharisees are one thing—we know they have a reputation for being skeptical, for trying to trip up Jesus at every pass, for driving out people who challenge their stance. But his parents? His own parents who have known him as long as he’s been alive, who raised him in his blindness, who had surely agonized over what his life would be like without sight…

His own parents reject him too, all because they fear that their church will throw them out if they accept him.

And then this man is tossed aside by his neighbors, his family and his church. In their failure to watch for a God who is much bigger than they have expected, they dismiss the possibility of a miracle rather than having to move their lines and consider that one has happened.

JOHN 9:35-38

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.

John 9 is a long chapter, but if you hang on this far you read the most beautiful part of it.

The man has no idea what Jesus looks like. Jesus has healed him, has given him a reason for hope, has given him a bright future and the man can’t recognize him when he bumps into him.

It was no accident he ran into Jesus, for Jesus heard what was happening and went to find him. What a mix of emotions the man, whose name we never know, must be. Joy for having sight restored. Anger and sadness for being rejected by all of the people who have ever mattered in his life.

Jesus, who has crowds following him everywhere he goes, went looking for just one guy–a guy he had already helped! When no one else wanted to stand with this man, when no one else wanted to acknowledge him or what this dramatic change in his life really meant, Jesus was there. This one person mattered to Jesus.

No gimmicks, no steps to salvation, no scare tactics. A simple question: Do you believe? A simple answer: Lord, I believe. Jesus’ miracle has changed this man forever…and gotten him exiled from his religious community. But he can see! And he is befriended by Jesus! And he devotes himself to his new Lord through worship.

But Jesus has one last word about sight and watching for God at work:

JOHN 9:39-41

Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

Jesus uses a miracle involving physical sight to teach about spiritual sight. He turns the wisdom of the time on its ear, as Jesus often does.

To those who refused to consider the greatness of God or the possibility that God could be working here and now, Jesus says:

When you were blind, you were without sin. But now that you can see, and still choose to reject me, your sin remains.

The Pharisees, the neighbors, the man’s parents: they were so concerned about their understanding, their own place, their own teachings that they missed seeing God. They missed a miracle!

What about us? Do we ever do that?

Yes, I do. I have a feeling we all do.

When we close our eyes and hold onto our viewpoints and affiliations, we miss seeing God at work.

When we put other people into columns and categories, we do the same to God.

When we would rather be right than ask questions or seek answers we don’t know, we miss the chance for God to mold us.

When we refuse to seek God outside of the boundaries we’ve set up ourselves, we will likely not find God in unexpected places. Which is where miracles usually happen.

Our Scriptures teach that you and I are created in God’s own image…yet sometimes it seem like we’re trying to make God in our image. We’d rather have a God who is like us. Who believes what we believe. Who hates the people we hate. Who respects the boundaries we’ve set. Like this man’s teachers, neighbors and family, we miss the point. We miss the miracle.

When we ask kids at Vacation Bible School to watch for God, we give them a way to record their God Sightings. Each day, they bring them to VBS and share them with their small groups. As we hear each other’s testimonies, one thing becomes clear: God works in big things and small things. Things I never thought of as miraculous or done by God’s hand are illuminated for me as a five year-old sees God at work in his grandmother fixing his favorite meal for supper or an eleven year-old recognizes God working in a conflict she’s had with her best friend. A seven year-old sees that God is present with her uncle who is battling cancer and a teenage crew leader gives thanks for the beautiful clouds God created.

When we open our eyes, we can see. We should see.

Watch for God! Amen.

72433_457291261992_3315711_nThis is my version of a public service announcement and represents my viewpoint only.

I feel the need to issue it because I’ve seen way too many posts by my brothers and sisters in Christ playing the role of a persecuted people living in a society where God and all things holy have been BANNED and REMOVED from their children’s public schools.

Sometimes a little education goes a long way. If you’ve felt the need to decry our lack of religion in schools in the past few days especially, don’t take this post as my criticism of you. Rather, I’m hopeful that maybe once we realize what’s actually involved in this separation of church and state, my fellow Christians and I can stop playing victim and realize what it means for our rights and the rights of other people.

For the last twelve years, on Tuesday mornings (and for a stretch of time, on Thursdays as well) I have driven to South Middle School in my town of Henderson, KY, arriving before 7:30. The group has had many names (First Priority, FCA, ACT), and every year there’s a different “flavor” that comes with a different group of students, but the purpose is the same. I meet with a group of students to pray, read scripture, have discussions and play games. It’s an abbreviated Youth Group meeting that happens in the school library before the first bell rings. Students take turns leading or reading or offering prayer or voicing their concerns for themselves and others.  We make good use each of week of the 3 study Bibles South Middle School keeps on their non-fiction shelf.

If your child attends a public school, he or she has rights and privileges, as do all of the other children in his or her school. Here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way that I’d like to share today:

25567_401114301992_758209_n1. At our church, we teach kids that God is everywhere. God is not contained to certain arenas and areas. Wherever they go, God is with them. School is not some anomalous place where God is not. God is there, too! No laws or people can keep God out of school. And I can attest that in schools, God’s people are praying alone and together and God’s people are honoring God alone and together.

2. I find that when people state that they want to put religion and prayer back into public schools, they usually mean THEIR religion and THEIR kind of prayer. The fact of the matter is that there are many religions and many ways to pray. If congress passed legislation tomorrow that made it allowable for teachers to lead prayer at the beginning of the day, there would be people flipping their lids because the teacher led prayer from a Catholic prayer book, or by speaking in tongues, or to Allah, or through any other prayerful expression.

3. I’m not trying to be judgmental, but I find that people who are quickest to fuss about no religion in school are often not practicing religion at home. Does your family pray together before school each day? Does your family read and study Scripture together? Maybe those are better places to start reforming.

4. Students have rights when it comes to observing and practicing their religious beliefs. However, these rights do not include harming other students or teachers, being disruptive to other learners, disrespecting teachers and faculty or breaking basic school rules. (Vandalism is still vandalism. Writing on a desk is not okay. Writing “God loves you” on a desk is equally not okay.)

5. Students are allowed to carry and read their Bibles or sacred texts in school (note: from here on, when I say ‘school,’ I mean public school). A lot of schools have Bibles in their library. At South Middle School, students can take Accelerated Reader tests on every book of the Bible.

6. Students are allowed to pray alone and with other students in school, as long as it’s not disruptive to other learners.

7. Students are allowed to meet in groups for religious purposes (like Bible Study) before school, after school or during their lunch and recess times. If the school allows other extracurricular groups to meet during those times in the building, the school must also allow religious groups to do so.

8. Students have the right to share their religious views, have conversations about religious topics or even share how their own beliefs figure into what’s being discussed in class, provided they are not being disruptive or harmful to others. (Again, standing on a table in the cafeteria is against school rules. Standing on a table in the cafeteria with a Bible and a megaphone–also against school rules!)

9. Students have the right to not participate in school activities or assignments that conflict with his or her religious beliefs.

10. Schools and teachers are not allowed to make any participation in any religious activity, club or class mandatory.

I’m no expert,  but I do think there are a lot of misconceptions that have been spread and embraced by religious communities. A special appeal to my brothers and sisters in Christ: always do your own research and educate yourself before you share and spread rumors or facebook graphics.

Two Resources:

The ACLU’s page of links regarding religion in public schools

The American Heritage Alliance’s Bill of Rights for Christian Students

 

Why I Love Youth Ministry

April 15, 2012

We’ve been studying the life of King David. I love teaching through David’s life because he’s such a vibrant character in scripture. We have so much content about the life of this so-called “man after God’s heart.” Today was a big day–David and Bathsheba and Nathan and God.

We have one student who is rather new to the church/youth group, was not raised with Bible stories and prayer time and is still struggling with whether or not she believes in God. But she loves learning and reading Scripture and asking questions and seeking answers.

She was outraged throughout most of the lesson today and very outspoken about the things David does in 2 Samuel 11.  When her grandmother picked her up, she started in about David and Bathsheba:

“So David, who already has wives, by the way, decides he wants this other dude’s wife and he gets her pregnant. So David tries to convince her husband to come home and…you know…with her so that everyone would just think the baby was his. But he won’t, so David goes and kills him.”

The grandmother (who’s a little bit clueless about the situation): “Well, I’m sure in that culture…”

Her (obviously upset that her grandmother was not sharing her outrage): “Hello! No culture about it! This is basic Ten Commandments stuff. And he was the ANOINTED KING OF ISRAEL!!! But God knew. And God sent Nathan and David repented but the baby still died. But God forgave David and then Bathsheba had another baby, Solomon and he did some cool stuff.”

My favorite moment though was when this young lady had the lightbulb moment during the study that David was the King of Israel, anointed by God, had been blessed by God numerous times and had made such a horrible mistake. “If David can mess up that bad and be forgiven, God can forgive us when we mess up.”

Amen.

Fragile

December 18, 2011

 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ …Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.  Luke 1:26-38

“How old you think Mary was when she found out she was going to become a mother?” I asked the students.

“Sixteen or seventeen,” One replied.

“No, younger. Thirteen or fourteen,” another suggested.

The usual conversation then followed. Adolescents discussing what it would be like to find out you were going to have a baby…the wonder about whether or not one would believe it if an angel appeared…guys acting out Joseph’s probable reaction…students sidestepping the themes of sexuality (or not sexuality, whichever the case may have been).

I’m always humbled a bit when I consider that God handed his baby boy to a very young woman and her equally young husband-to-be. I don’t know Mary and Joseph personally, but I have a hunch that if they showed up next Sunday to volunteer in the church nursery I probably wouldn’t leave them in there alone. But God entrusted them to care for and raise the Savior of the world.

That’s what God does, though, right?

One of my favorite verses comes from 2 Corinthians 4:7. Speaking of the Gospel, the author points out:

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

Clay jars are fragile and break easily. They are often just ordinary containers that do not have much value. They are a lot like me. Or like the teenagers and kids I work with. Or maybe like you.

But God entrusts the Gospel to frail, ordinary vessels.

Young Mary and Joseph cradled the Christ baby. You and I carry Christ’s message.

May our fragility glorify God all the more.

John 9: The Meeting

April 15, 2011

(This is part 4 of a four part series on John 9)






Remember, the man had never actually seen Jesus. Jesus applied the mud and sent the man to Siloam, so when Jesus approaches, he wouldn’t have recognized him. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks.
The man is excited, I’m sure–show me where he is! He had no idea that his miracle worker is before him.
Jesus went looking for the man, and to me, that’s a very important part of this story. The man, who had been tossed aside by his community, all alone in his post-miracle joy, is found by Jesus.


Jesus, who has crowds following him everywhere he goes, went looking for just one guy–a guy he had already helped! When no one else wanted to stand with this man, when no one else wanted to acknowledge him or what this dramatic change in his life really meant, Jesus was there. This one person mattered to Jesus.


No gimmicks, no steps to salvation, no scare tactics. A simple question: Do you believe? A simple answer: Lord, I believe. Jesus’ miracle has changed this man forever…and gotten him exiled from his religious community. But he can see! And he is befriended by Jesus! And he devotes himself to his new Lord through worship.


This man didn’t know Jesus when he woke up that morning. He had no idea that he was going to watch the sun go down that evening with new eyes. It was Jesus who came to him and healed him (healed him before he confessed Jesus as Lord, by the way). It was Jesus who found him later and let him in on the Messianic secret.


That man mattered to Jesus. People matter to Jesus. You matter to Jesus.


I love this story because it’s a beautiful picture of Jesus, our leader and savior and Lord, and his ministry, work and purpose. It’s a beautiful picture of the kind of work to which we are called–seeking and serving those who need help and healing and then being there as they believe and worship and follow, too. As we follow, may we serve like Jesus. As we believe, may we worship like the man.