Friday, August 20, 2021

Why Living with End in Mind is the Sanest Thing Anyone Can Do

It had to come out on a Monday?  Is anybody all that great on a Monday?  When my late great Uncle Frank had to go for surgery, the surgeon wanted to schedule it for a Monday.   Uncle Frank exclaimed, “Monday! I don’t even get my car worked on on a Monday!”   Needless to say, his surgery didn’t happen on Monday.   

But a few Mondays ago, here it came.  The IPCC report arrived, dropping enough bombshells to ruin anyone’s Monday.  In case that acronym escaped you, it stands for a group of 195 countries, including our own, who every 8 or so years gives us our report card on climate change.   And get this. Before it comes out, every country, all 195 of them, have to approve it.   That means, it’s about the most conservative report you can expect, no speculations here, just facts that no nation can dispute.

So, what are the facts?  Well, to find a time when things in our atmosphere changed this fast, you’d have to go back to when the dinosaurs got killed off.  That’s not so good.  It means that no matter what we do, the oceans are going to rise by 2 feet.  And that puts a lot of where we live, South Florida, well, underwater.   That’s a mite disturbing.  And on top of that, we’re going to get lots more of bad stuff like, fires, hurricanes, and droughts.   I could go on, but I don’t want to depress you more. 

And if the future wasn’t looking bad enough, the present ain’t looking so great either.  When I first shared this message in a worship service, I said that over 11,000 folks were in Florida hospitals with Covid.   That afternoon, I found out that the real number had gone to over 13,000 in just the few days since I last checked.  And now it is over 17,000!

And of course, the height of Hurricane season is hitting too.  And now Grace and Henri are roaming around with more on the way.  A week or so ago, I was in a meeting (on Zoom of course), and one of my colleagues, Fred asked.  “Hey, does anyone know when the locusts are coming?  Just checking.”  Does it feel that way some days, like what else is going to happen?

In times like these, how do you have hope?  How do you find peace in the face of the very real challenges we face?  How do you gain a bigger perspective that empowers you to a life filled with love and joy no matter what?  How do you live your life in the light no matter how dark things seem to be?  In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

I Peter 4:7-11

With the Covid cases rising, dire predictions of our possible demise, and let’s not forget, hurricane season, how do you not freak out these days or just get a little down?  But, in the face of all that, you can move forward in strength, with hope, with love, with even joy.   Here God tells you.  You live your life with the end in mind.    

Those words that kick off our passage sound so ominous.  The end of all things is near.  Sheesh, you expect to see that on a picket sign carried by some hairy guy in a robe like in a cartoon or this pic from about ten years ago.  Isn’t that a bit crazy?   But hold on, thinking like that is actually the exact opposite of crazy.   Peter even explicitly tells you that.   This translation reads here “be serious and discipline yourselves.”  But that’s not exactly what Peter wrote.  Instead, he wrote this “Be sound of mind and be sober.”   And let’s be clear about what he meant by “sound of mind.”  He meant “being sane, being not crazy.”  

In fact, the other place you find a form of the word he uses, Sophron, is when Jesus heals this crazed demon possessed man in the gospel of Luke.  This man has become so out of control that when the attacks come, chains won’t even hold him.  So, he lives far out in the wild, naked and raving.   And after Jesus heals him, how does Luke describe him, clothed, and sophronounta – in his right mind – a version of the same exact word you find here.   And Peter is right, focusing on the end is the least crazy thing you can do.  And well, not focusing on it, that is a bit insane.

This past week, I heard an interview with a guy named Steve Carter.   About three years ago, Steve had gotten his dream job.  He had become the main preacher at one of the most famous churches in the nation, one where 20,000 plus worshipped each weekend.  Then all hell broke loose.  It turned out that his successor, Bill Hybels, the guy who had started the church, had some dirty secrets buried.  And one Sunday, the Chicago Tribune in a huge story unburied them.   Hybels, off and on for years, had engaged in serious sexual harassment and abuse of co-workers and subordinates.  When that broke, even from thousands of miles away, I felt the ripples.   For 20 years, I’ve attended the Leadership Summit Hybels created.  I’ve read his books.  I’ve listened to his talks.  His actions felt like a betrayal, even to me, who had never even met him.  I can’t even imagine the pain of the women whose trust he betrayed and abused, not to mention the pain of his wife and children, and the members of that church.   In the aftermath of the revelations, appalled and disheartened, Carter and all the senior leadership left the church.  

But when Hybels began that behavior, do you think something like this went through his mind?  Hmm, let me wound some of my closest co-workers by violating and abusing them.  And as a bonus, if I do that, I’ll get to betray my family, devastate the church I’ve served for decades, and destroy whatever legacy I might have ever had.  And on top of that, I get to discredit the name of the very Savior I’ve dedicated my life to.  No, he didn’t think of any of that.  He just acted without contemplating what the end would be for anyone, for the people he hurt, for the church he served, for the family he loved, even what the end would be for him.  And that’s not only awful. It’s crazy.  It’s insane.  And yet people live in this sort of insanity all the time.

Years ago, the psychologist Henry Cloud gave me a phrase that helped me keep my own sanity.  He called it, “playing the movie.”   He said that effective people before they do something learn to play the movie.   They think to themselves.   Before I do this action or make this decision, let me play the movie of where it will lead, where this movie will end so to speak.   And because they do that, they avoid making serious mistakes in their life.   But how often do folks play the movie?  Have you ever made a decision without playing the movie?  I have, and it has not been pretty. 

But playing the movie goes deeper than just one decision, it needs to encompass your entire life.  It’s why leadership guru Stephen Covey made the second habit in his famous book, 7 Habits of Effective People, this;  “Begin with the end in mind.”  And get this.  Do you know what Covey meant by the end?  He meant the end, as in the end of your life.   He asked.  “Think about what you hope the people closest to you will remember about you after you die.  Are you living your life now in such a way those will be their memories or not?   When you play out the life you’re living now, does your life end with those memories or not.”  And trust me, if you do that, you will discover how powerful asking those questions are.  Living with the end in mind, that’s the sanest thing you can do.

And yet we live in a world where again and again, people aren’t playing the movie at all.   They’re not living with the end in mind for themselves or their families or even as that IPCC report showed, for the entire planet.

But of course, Peter wasn’t just talking about the end of your life or the end of earth even, but the end of everything as when Jesus returns.  Isn’t contemplating that sort of end a bit crazy?   Not only is it not crazy? It’s, as Peter puts it, sobering, even empowering.

Think about it this way.   Let’s say, your best friend gives you the keys to his amazing house.  He tells you.  I’m going away for a while.  I don’t know when I’ll be back.   But while I’m gone, you can use the house, stay there as long as you want, enjoy the pool, everything.   Now, let’s say, after he’s been gone a while, you get a little lazy.  The house gets trashed, starts looking rough around the edges.  Then one day, you think.  “Oh my Lord, what if my friend comes home today, and sees what I’ve done with the place? And all of a sudden, you’re rushing through the place, cleaning the dishes, vacuuming the carpet, taking out the trash, making it all spic and span.  You get the point?

In the same way, Peter is saying to these friends of Jesus.   Hey, none of us knows when Jesus is coming back, but it could be any time.  And what if he finds us hating on each other or complaining about each other or not taking care of one another?   What if he comes and says to us?  “This is how you represent me, how you show my love to the world?”   We can’t have that happen.  So, let’s let our love cover a multitude of sins.   Let us welcome each other without complaint.  Let us serve graciously with the gifts God has given us.   Let us take our words as seriously as if God is speaking right through us, serve as if God’s power is flowing right through us.  Do you see how contemplating the end has power to change the present right now?

70 or so years ago, a famed management theorist at Harvard, Fritz Roethlisberger, put it this way.  He said: “Most people think of the future as the ends and the present as the means, whereas in fact, the present is the ends and the future the means.”    Do you get his point?  You want to change your present?  To do that, you’ve got to imagine your future.   Doing that empowers you to change your life right now.  

In fact, that’s exactly what the IPCC report is doing.  It is imagining the future that could be in order to empower us to do things right now, in the present.   Sure, we could continue on the path we’re on right now, and not change anything.  And if we do that, our grandkids will live in a far more miserable world than this, a world they may not even be able to survive.   Or we could start changing things right now.  We could make things different, and it will be so much better for them than it could be.   Do you see how the contemplating the end is, not only, not crazy?  It is the most powerful thing any of us can do. 

And isn’t that what God did for us?  When human beings stopped trusting in God’s love, God saw how it would end.   God saw our fear and distrust drawing us away not only from God but from one another, how it was literally destroying us, even before we died.   And God refused to make that our end.  So, in Jesus, God came and gave up everything to bring us home.  He suffered the betrayal of even his friends so we can know, God will never betray us.   He was abandoned so we can know we never will be.   He gave up his life to give us life.  And he returned to life to assure us that nothing will separate us from God’s love, not our failures or mistakes, not even death itself. 

And when you know God went to that end to give you a new beginning, it empowers you.  It empowers you to live in that same love with one another.  It empowers you to love and care in better ways for this world God gave us, this world of which we are a part.  It empowers you to work for a world where God’s Kingdom comes, where God’s will gets done everywhere, on earth like it is in heaven. 

And on the days when it feels dark, you know, even then, God’s light shines, and that nothing, not even our own blindness will put it out.   So, live in that light.  Live for the end for which God created you.  Live for the end for which Jesus gave his life.  Live as one ready to love, to love God, to love one another, to love this wounded world even as God has so loved you.   Let us pray. 


Friday, August 13, 2021

People's Thoughts are Killing them. Here's How to Make Sure That's Not You


I’m stunned.  No, I’m not so much stunned as I am shocked and saddened.  Right now, every day, by the hundreds, people’s thoughts are killing them.  What other conclusion can you draw?

Over 70% of our nation has gotten at least one of these amazing shots with, for the most part, minimal side effects   And, yet almost a hundred million, including about half of Florida, still haven’t gotten it.  Maybe they distrust the government or drug companies because of those institutions’ sins in the past.   Maybe they read an article online that led them to think something that isn’t true.   Maybe they don’t think that folks are even getting sick or that they could.

At least they don’t think that, until they get sick, until they are struggling for breath, until that breathing tube goes down their throat.  And yes, I know.  The virus caused that.  But it didn’t begin there.  It began with thoughts that literally disconnected folks from reality, a reality that as of this past week has put over 15,000 Floridians in the hospital, fighting for their life.  And their vulnerability to this virus began in their head.  It began with their thoughts, thoughts that prevented them from doing the one thing, vaccination, that almost certainly would have saved them from the suffering, even death that awaits them now.

But even if you’re vaccinated, even if you had the right thoughts there, has that always been the case?   How often in your life has messed up thinking messed up your life?   Maybe your thoughts led you to trust the wrong person or to distrust the right one.  Maybe it led you into fears that limited your life or into actions that crashed it.  There’s no end honestly to how wrong thinking can wreck your life.

But what if your thoughts are moving in the right direction?  What if your thinking doesn’t contradict reality, but lives in the flow of it?  How much more powerful and fulfilled would your life be with that thinking?  But how does that happen?  Where do you even begin?  In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

I Peter 4:1-11 

Wrong thinking has the power to wreck your life.  Why?  Your thoughts power your life, even control it, in ways nothing else does.  The leadership guru John Maxwell put it well.  The thoughts in your mind will always be more important than the things in your life.   So how do you live in the flow of the right thoughts, the ones that will give you life rather than take it away.  In these words, in a way, in simply one word, God shows you the way.  For here God shows you, you more you live in the flow of the right why, the more you can survive any “how.”

In saying that, I’m adapting a quote from Nietzsche, a brilliant philosopher but one who hated Christianity a lot.   Why did Nietzsche hate it?  He thought it had the wrong why, but even so, he saw something that folks often miss.   Everyone has a why, and yet often they don’t even realize what it is.   And because they don’t, that why often wrecks them because they don’t even see that it’s there. 

Now before, you see how the why you don’t even know you have wreck you, you need to see how in Christianity, everything is based on knowing the why, everything.  What do I mean?  Well, just look at how this part of the letter begins.   Peter is getting now even more into the practical details, how Christians are called to order their life.   But do you see how he begins the section?  He begins it with the simple word, therefore.   And that word tells you a lot.

A Bible teacher once said that in the Bible when you see a therefore, you need to ask.   What is it there for?   And so, what is this particular “therefore”, there for?   Well, this one is pointing you to the why. 

Peter has just finished discussing how Jesus, the just one, suffered for the unjust (that is all of us), how that act of infinite self-giving love has defeated everything that disconnects us from God, even death itself.  Jesus gained a triumph so total, Peter says, he even delivered people from hell itself, that even now Jesus lives above every power in existence, including the powers oppressing them.

And Peter says that is your why.  Because you know that truth, because you have experienced that victory, you can live by God’s vision not the desires that used to drive you. You can love one another constantly.  You can open your hearts to each other without complaint.  You can use your gifts on behalf of each other.  And all these things, you can do, because you have the why.  

You love because God loved you to death and beyond.  You open your heart and give to each other because God opened his heart to you, even gave his life for you.   In other words, Peter is simply saying.  Living your life in this way is just what it means to live in the flow of the why.

And everyone lives in the flow of a why, everyone.  But too often, folks don’t even know what their why is.   And because they don’t know their why, their life, even if it isn’t wrecked, never becomes all it could be.  They don’t become all that they could be.  And I don’t know anyone who exposed the danger of not knowing your why, then the late, great writer, David Foster Wallace did in a joke and quote that I never tire of sharing.  In fact, it comes from an amazing commencement address, called This is Water, that I encourage all of you to read 

The joke from that address goes like this.   Two young fish were swimming along when an old fish called out.  “Howdy, young’ uns!  How’s the water?”  The young fish swam along a bit, until one turned to the other, and puzzled, asked:  “What the heck is water?”    And from that joke, Wallace shared the water for us is our why.  That’s the water you swim in.  And that why will either give you life or take it away.   

And Wallace, though not an explicitly religious man, understood that the way people live their why could be described as a way of worship.  Here is how he put it.   

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.  And the compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.  And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you…Worship power, you will up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.  Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is…. they’re unconscious.  They are default settings.  They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

You see.  You’ve got to ask yourself.  What is your why?   What defines your identity?  How do you measure your value, your worth, your meaning?   And as Wallace points out pretty much any why but God will limit your life.   But if you ground your identity, if your why is in something that cannot be shaken, that doesn’t depend on your circumstances or your popularity or even how you are feeling that day, well, that’s an immensely powerful foundation.  

In fact, Peter even says that remembering this why is the very thing that empowers you to love and to serve one another.   After Peter say the “therefore”; after he reminds these folks of what Jesus has done for them, what does he say next?  He says “arm yourself with this same thought.”  Now the translation says “intention,” but that’s not the word.  The word ennoian literally means thought.  And do you see the verb that precedes that word?  Peter says, no Peter orders them, to “arm themselves with this thought.” 

Do you see what he is saying?   This thought, this why of God’s love for you, has power to protect you.  It gives you power to advance into the world in strength.  It arms you. Why?  It gives you a why that grounds you no matter what you face.   When you know that God loved you to death and beyond, you have a value nothing can shake.   You can face any sacrifice, endure any hardship, survive any “how.”  Why?  Because you are living in the flow of the one why, the one reality, the one truth, the one love that has conquered everything, even death.

But can a thought arm you like that?   How does that even work?

In the past ten days, Simone Biles showed you how it works.  Simone Biles has not had an easy life.   Her grandparents adopted her and her sister when their mother’s addiction prevented her from caring for them.   Even as she developed into the greatest gymnast of all time, the doctor who was tasked to care for her was molesting her and over a hundred other gymnasts as well.  And then, after all that, in this year’s Olympics, she came down with a terrifying mental block known in the world of gymnastics as the “twisties.”  When the twisties hit, you lose all sense of where you are in space as you fly through the air in your routine.  And a block like that, with the breathtaking moves she does, could have easily injured or paralyzed her.  

So, what did Simone Biles do?  She armed herself with the thought that affirmed where her value truly lay, not in her performance or her medals or the opinions of others, but in a God who loved her no matter what.  You see.  At the heart of Simone Biles’ life is this very why of God’s love, a God who as she put it in an interview, “you can go to for anything” a God who “directs your life.”  

And so, Simone Biles stepped back, first from the team competition so she wouldn’t prevent her teammates from getting a medal.   Then she stepped away from the individual competitions knowing she wasn’t yet ready to compete safely.   And as she did that, she showed up every day to cheer on her teammates, to encourage them, to rejoice with them in their victories.   And in the end, she confronted her own fears, and found a way through the twisties back into competition. 

And why did she have the courage to do all of that, to step back, and then to step forward even as she felt the pressure of the entire world looking at her?  She had the power of this why, this God who had given up everything for her.  Her value, her identity didn’t depend on the crowds or the medals or the opinions of others    Her value lay in a God who loved her no matter what.

And as you arm yourself with this thought, with this reality, with this truth, with this love, you will discover power nothing can shake.   For you know a God who gave up all power so you might live in power.   You know a God who gave up all love so you might know that love will never give up on you.   You know a God whose love has triumphed over everything, every disappointment, every failing, every dark and twisted why of this world.   You know a God whose love makes a way where there seems no way, through a virus, through injustice, through even death itself.  

So, live in the power of this why.  Arm yourself with it.   And let this “why” lead you, this love lead you into a life more wondrous, more beautiful, more fulfilling than anything you could imagine or dream.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Getting Upset at the Vaccine Resistant? Are You Resisting Yourself? Here is a Message We All Need to Hear.

I gotta admit. I’m losing patience.
   And now, knowing that we might have to go back to masks because of this?  Don’t get me started!

These folks resistant to the vaccine, they are driving me nuts.  Just get the shot and be done with it!   These folks are standing in the way of progress. It’s time, they got on board.  If they don’t, well, then we need to find a way to make them.   

Now as thoughts like that were flowing through my head this week, I remembered an uncomfortable quote from the preacher Bill Coffin.   Coffin said:

God knows it is emotionally satisfying to be righteous with that righteousness that nourishes itself in the blood of sinners.  But God also knows that what is emotionally satisfying can also be spiritually devastating.

Ouch, then it got worse.  Some of Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount popped into my head, words like:

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

You see.  I realized.   I might feel all self-satisfied with my vaccinated virtue, but I was missing so much.   What do I mean? 

I have a job that gave me the freedom to get the jab whenever I wanted.  Lots of folks didn’t. 

Beyond that, I’ve never had an adverse experience with a vaccine or even with the medical establishment.  Medical stuff doesn’t make me anxious at all.   Beyond that, I’ve got no history where doctors used people with my skin complexion as guinea pigs for gruesome experiments.  But black and brown folks do.      

And yes, those caught up in the conspiracy theories drive me nuts, but I get that too.   I had a brother-in-law who followed conspiracy theories, and I kinda understand why.   He worked in a big company where it seemed that the higher ups were doing a lot of things at his expense and their profit.   He had a keen sense of that injustice.  So, he figured if it was happening there, it could be happening elsewhere.   And lots of folks getting wrapped in those conspiracies probably had experiences like his. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I still believe folks need to get the vaccine.  I just realized my self-righteousness didn’t have a lot of ground to stand on.  And well, when you’re judging someone, you can’t love them, and not loving someone, well, that’s a pretty big log. 

But it’s so easy to go there about well anything.   You can get judgy about folks who vote differently or believe differently or just like music or movies or shows you don’t.   And then, there’s the judginess we give ourselves.  We do something or fail to do something. And the judgment comes.  The burden hits, the regret, the embarrassment, the guilt.   How do you free yourself from that, especially in these day where folks seem to be getting more judgy about well, everything    Here, God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

I Peter 2:23-25, 3:18

 It can get all too easy to get caught up in judgment.   And today, when everybody wants to cancel everybody else, all that judgi-ness can come more easily than ever.  And even if you’re not judging others, do you ever hear that voice of judgment coming for you?   Sometimes our worst enemies are the ones with outposts in our own heads.   How do you get free of all that?  Here, God tells you.  You remember the gift. 

These words that I just read from 1 Peter come as part of a longer conversation in the letter.  Peter is giving advice to his folks as they are being persecuted by the government or exploited by slavery or dealing with unfair relationships in their marriages.  And he knows how dangerously easy it would be for these folks to get caught up in judgment, how tempting it would be to react in self-righteous violence to the injustices they face.   So, in the middle of his advice to let that judgment go, he lays out the reason why.   He tells them.  Don’t forget.  In Jesus, God let go that judgment when it came to you.   He turned the other cheek.   He did not threaten or strike back.    But Peter is making a bigger point than guilting them with Jesus’ example.   Peter is reminding them.   Jesus’ way won.  It won so big that it healed them, that it even conquered death.

But why did Jesus’ way win?  Why does the way of Jesus, of non-judgment, of suffering for the sake of others triumph over judgment and revenge?

To understand that, you first need to understand what Jesus won, and how judgment always gets in the way of that victory.  And to see that, you need to get one word that Peter uses again and again here, a word that honestly isn’t translated all that well here – dikaiosene.

Wherever you see the word righteous or unrighteous in the New Testament, you are almost certainly seeing a version of that word.  And the problem isn’t that the translators got the word wrong.   No, the problem lies in that we get the idea of righteousness wrong.  What Peter meant by this word likely doesn’t mean what you think it does.   It’s why the same word also means justice.  You could just as easily say here, “free from sins, we might live for justice” or “Christ also suffered for sins once and for all, the just for the unjust.”    And that gets closer to the right meaning, but we’re not there yet.

When the Greeks talked about righteousness or justice, they were talking about a right relationship, a right relationship with others or say, with the state.  To be righteous or just simply meant you were living in a right relationship with those around you or with the laws of the land.   And if you weren’t doing that, you were wrecking those relationships. 

But for us, we too often miss that because we see righteousness as obeying some moral code or justice as having an ideological label.   We take the relationship part right out, but when you do that, you miss the whole point of why Jesus came.   Jesus came because human beings had gone so radically astray from what right relationship even looked like with God and with each other.    We had lost touch with how much God loves us, and the more we lost touch with that, the more we lost touch with how to relate and love each other.  And as a result, our world became filled with fear and judgment, with broken relationships between others.  Why do you think Jesus made the two primary commandments, love God, and love others as you love yourself?   Jesus was calling for the restoration of right relationship, of true, even just relationship.   And for that to happen, Jesus had to overturn the way of judgment and show it for the evil lie it was.       

Think about it.  When the snake showed up in the garden, and told Adam and Eve God didn’t really care about them, in restricting the tree he was holding out on them, what was he doing?  He was peddling the original conspiracy theory.  And the lie of that theory opened them to judgment, to first judging and distrusting God, and then doing the same to each other.  And even since, human beings have been trapped there.     

So, what does Jesus do?  How does Jesus free us? You can’t reason someone out of a conspiracy theory, but you can love them out.   So, Jesus does just that.   And n doing that, he exposes the lie, and show you the truth.  

So, what is the lie?  In these five words, “the just for the unjust” Peter tells you.  Who is the just one?   Jesus.  And the just one suffered.  He lost everything, his life, even the very love of God.  On the cross, the source of all love literally lost the love and for what?  Jesus did it for the unjust. Jesus did it for all those caught up in judgment and injustice. In other words, God did it for all of us.  

That’s the lie Jesus exposes.   No one has got it right.  Every one of us is broken.  None of us has the right to judge anyone.  Why?  We all fall short of relationship, of the love, of the justice.  And if you don’t see that, then you’re trapped in the lie.  As someone once put it. If you think you’re a saint, then you are so not one.  No saint thinks they’re a saint.  They know better.

And when you know that it frees you.  Why?  You don’t have to hide.  You don’t have to pose.   Because everyone has their ugly places.  All of us entertain dark thoughts.  Everyone carries baggage, everyone.   And when you face that, fully and completely, it frees you from judgment of others, and of yourself.

But exposing the lie gets you ready for the best part, the beautiful truth.  After all, Jesus became the only being in existence that chose to die.  Sure, people give their lives for a cause or to rescue someone.  But in the end, they were going to die anyway.   They just decided when, that’s all, But Jesus didn’t have to die.   Jesus lived in perfect communion, perfect relationship forever. 

But in Jesus, God left that relationship behind, even left life behind, even love itself.   And God freely chose to do that, even though it meant a suffering more infinite than we can imagine.   But why? 

To paraphrase Nietzsche, the one who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.  So, on the cross, what was Jesus’ why?   The Bible tells us.   In Hebrews, it says “for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”  And what was Jesus’ joy?   You were.  Jesus endured the cross for the joy of bringing you, his beloved sisters and brothers, home.   Jesus chose to be broken so that you might be healed.  He lost the love so you will never lose it.   He lost his life to give you life forever with God.  And Jesus did that, because well, he loves you no matter what.    So come to this love and leave the lie of your righteousness behind.   Savor the truth of the love, of the One who invites you, who welcomes you, who loves you, who loves each of us no matter what.  Amen.








Friday, July 23, 2021

In a Deeply Divided World, How Do Folks Find Common Ground? It Begins With This....

Is it just me or is it getting worse?   It seems people are getting more and more divided and distrusting by the day.   People get upset about all sorts of things.  First, it was the masks.  Now, it’s the vaccines.  A while ago, it was Black Lives Matter.  Now, it’s something called Critical Race Theory.  

And as I’ve been staying away from Facebook and cable news, I’m sure I’m missing the latest outrage that folks are freaking out about.   Justin Earley said it well when he talked about those sorts of media when he said.  “We get mad, and they get rich.”  And now churches are struggling with it. 

Pastors say they get scared to talk about vaccines as if they are making some sort of controversial political statement.  When did vaccines get so political?   Heck, I’m a Rotarian, and we’ve been raising money for polio vaccines for decades.  Nobody there ever saw a vaccine for polio as political.   We just didn’t want get kids to get paralyzed for life. 

Yet, I gotta admit, I can fall into the division and distrust myself.  I may not distrust vaccines, but I can assume I know all about an issue and what’s right or wrong without really listening to people who may hold a different perspective.  Or I find myself slapping a judgmental label on some public figure, putting them in some pigeon-hole that gives me permission to dismiss whatever they say even before I’ve heard it.  

But the church if it lives out who God created it to be, has the power to stand against these sorts of divisions and judgments.   The church has the power to model a different way: how to disagree with love; how to listen instead of lecture, how to be stay bound together even when in some ways you are still far apart.  But how do these things happen?  They happen when folks in the church remember who they are. 

And when the church does remember, healing happens not only in the church but in the world.  When the church lives out of who God created it to be, just that identity it changes things.  It changes how you see yourself, how you see others, how you see everything.  And it all begins by remembering one word, a word that Peter uses here, a word that isn’t even translated right in the words you’re about to hear.  But when you hear that word, when you ponder what it truly means, well, it changes everything. 

How does it change everything?  Here, God points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

1 Peter 2:9 - But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

In a world where people get divided, even hostile about so many things, how do folks find a way to live together instead of letting the divisions tear them apart?  How do you find a way to do it with the folks with whom you disagree, folks you even believe are deeply wrong?  How do you disagree in love?  Here, God tells you where that all begins.   It begins when you realize, that whether you like it or not, you are family.

But that’s where the messed-up word comes in, because the word that means family here, this version translates as something quite different.  Now, it’s not a total disaster.  You could make a case for the word they chose, but honestly, I don’t see it as a very good one.   And I’ve got to admit that years ago, I probably wouldn’t have given this mistranslated word a second thought.  But for a while now, a Latin and Greek scholar has been attending our worship, and well, her presence had led me to pay more attention. 

So, when I read in verse 9 these words, “you are a chosen race,” I began to wonder.  Greeks and Romans didn’t really have an idea of race as we think of it, certainly not a special word for it.  So, I went back to look at the actual word in Greek, which is genos.  Now you don’t even have to know Greek to guess what this word means, as we have so many words in English that comes from it, likes genes or generation or genealogy.   It usually means just that, your kindred, your family.

So, why did the translators pick the word race?  I’d like to think it was for good reasons.  You see. At one time, not even all that long ago, a huge debate about human origins raged in science and philosophy, a debate that even used a version of this very word, genos.  People in Europe and America debated over whether it was polygenesis or monogenesis.

These two words had huge implications.  You see monogenesis folks, based on their reading of the Bible along with science, asserted that all human beings came from a common ancestor.  They asserted. We may look different on the outside, but inside we are much more the same than different.   But, polygenesis folks, based mainly in so-called science, said no way!  No, the different races may look kind of the same, but they are radically different, even coming from different origins, thus polygenesis.  Now, interestingly enough this controversy developed and grew in parallel with another practice of the day, the enslavement of millions of people, who had a darker skin pigment than Europeans.  

You see.  People had to find some way of justifying their awful treatment of these folks.  So, if they could use science to prove they weren’t really people at all, well that provided a perfect out.  Now don’t get me wrong, the monogenesis folks had their own hierarchies too.  They saw some folks as definitely better than others depending on how they looked (the best people by the way were the ones that looked like them, go figure).   But the polygenesis folks realized that if these folks they were treating so badly were truly people, well, that meant what people in Europe and America were doing in terms of slavery was horribly, horribly wrong. 

So, I’d like to think that these translators who first translated this word as race in the early 20th century were trying to counter that narrative.   And it made sense that when the translation was revised right after World War 2, those translators kept the word for similarly good reasons.   After all, the Nazi idea of a master race had just resulted in the horrors of the holocaust, and so asserting that Christianity transcended these differences made sense.

But whatever the case, it’s still the wrong word.  Peter wasn’t saying you are all one chosen race.  Peter was saying that you are all one chosen family.  And that’s important, because human beings are always trying to divide themselves over the most ridiculous things. 

I discovered that when I broke my hand.   So many folks said to me. Thank goodness, it’s not your dominant hand.   And when I corrected them and said it was my dominant hand, you could see their surprise.   I now understand it a bit more, as I’ve learned 9 out of 10 folks are right-handed.  I never realized how few we lefties are, though our numbers have doubled in the last fifty years.  Why have lefties doubled?  It’s because for a good bit of human history, lots of folks tried to kind-of eradicate us.   If you were left-handed, your teachers tried to make you right-handed.  Why?  Well, lefties weren’t as good as righties.  Heck, the word left even comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that literally means “weak.”  The Latin word for left “senestra” is where we get sinister from.   What do you call someone who is clumsy?  You say. “They have two left feet.”   And it doesn’t work if you say, “they have two right feet.”  Heck, even as a leftie if I hear that, I don’t think it means clumsy.  If anything, I think it means the opposite.  

And for a long time, it was true. Lefties were not as good as righties.  How could they be?  Lefties had to use right-handed scissors, write at right-handed desks, suffer the prejudgments of a world of righties.  As the African American pastor, Derwin Gray, put it, somewhat humorously if perceptively; for a long time lefties suffered from a world of right privilege.

And if it isn’t left-handedness that we divide ourselves over, it’s all sorts of other things.  Heck, Christians do it all the time, including Presbyterians.  There’s an old joke about the Scottish Presbyterian who got stranded alone for decades on a desert island.  When a ship discovered him, he gave the crew a tour of the island.  He showed them the store where he got his supplies, the post office where he got his mail, and the church where he worshipped each Sunday.   Then, they noticed a dilapidated building back behind the church.  They asked the man.  “What’s that?”  He said with an air of disgust, “Aye, that? That’s the church I used to go to.”  Jesus made his very last prayer that we all be one, that we stay united, and we couldn’t even do that.

But even when we’re divided, we’re not.  After all, that’s what Peter is telling us.  You’re family.  And even if you’re at odds with each other, family you remain.   You don’t get away from family.  It binds you, no matter how far apart you fall.    And the more you see yourself as family, the more you know you are family, the more that binds you together even in the midst of the deepest differences. 

I just got back from a family reunion, one we’ve been doing for over 50 years.  And our family has some pretty big differences.   One of our members, now tragically gone from a terrible disease, was a conspiracy theorist before conspiracy theories were cool.   We all reminisced at Randy’s funeral about how he warned us about black helicopters and vapor trails in the sky.   He and I used to have knock-down, drag out arguments about all that.  But he also gave me wisdom that I carry to this day.  He was a wonderful uncle to my son, a dear friend to me, a cherished, beloved member of our family.  When he fell ill, it broke all our hearts.  I loved that man. I grieve his loss to this day.  He was family, and in spite of our disagreements, family we remained.    

This year at the reunion, I sat by my 90 plus year old Aunt Irene at lunch one day.  I asked her about her granddaughter, Ysabel.   And she replied about how much she loved her, though she still used the name, Forest, the name that she had known Ysabel by since she was born.  You see, a few years before, Forest had transitioned to Ysabel.  But it was clear, that no matter her name or her new gender, Irene loved her grandchild just as much as before as Ysabel loved her.   And as her cousins, the rest of us did as well.  After all, Ysabel is family, and nothing can change that. 

But family is more than that even.  After all, at that reunion, I hung out with folks who have hurt me, who at times I felt had excluded and shunned me.   But family they remain.  So I had found ways to make peace with my hurt, to appreciate their perspective, their pain, maybe even the ways I had unfairly judged them.  That’s what family is too, folks who we have hurt and who have hurt us, and yet we still find a way through.  

And God is telling us here, that’s who you are.   You’re family.  You’re family not by your choice but by God’s choice.  You and I are God’s own people, who called us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.  And no matter what may divide us, family is what we remain, not just here in these walls, but throughout our nation and world. 

Pretty much everyone knows her, those who hate her and those who love her, as AOC.  And whatever you think of the congresswoman from Queens, she is family.   Her favorite Jesus story is when Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple.  Go figure.  And in quite another direction, the three million who watch him each night on Fox News, know him simply as Tucker.  But this devoted member of Christ Church in Georgetown, well, he’s family too.   

And if you struggle with seeing either of these folks as family, then remember what Peter also says you are.   You are priests.  And what do priests do?  They intercede for others before God.  So, if someone offends you or just irritates you either here or out there, pray for them, especially if they are part of this complicated family called the church.   And as you do, see what God will do, not so much in them but in you.   For we are all family, even when we disagree, even when we hurt, even sin against each other. 

And as you wrestle with that reality or maybe celebrate it, don’t ever forget what it cost.  For in Jesus, God was cast out so that you might be brought in.  He was shown no mercy so that you might receive mercy without end. And even as we rejected and killed him, Jesus prayed for us.   After all, Jesus knew, even if we didn’t, that we were family.  And nothing, no mistake, no evil, not even death can ever overcome that love.  So, remember, who you are, whose you are.   You are family.  And this is not your doing.  It is the beautiful, wondrous gift of God.   

Sunday, June 20, 2021

In a Scarily Uncertain World, How Do You Find a Firm Place to Stand? Here's How.

It’s never happened to me until now.  I’d made it through life not breaking anything. Alas, now my streak is broken, along with a broken left hand.   And I don’t like it.      It’s not just the inconvenience (though typing a sermon with six fingers instead of two hands) is very frustrating, But what I hate the most is the uncertainty of the unknown. 

I didn’t think about that uncertainty at first, not until I had this conversation again and again.  “What a pity about your hand!   Good thing it’s not your dominant hand….Oh, it is your dominant hand, ouch I didn’t know.”   All those conversations led me to all sorts of scary questions.  What if my hand doesn’t get better?   What if the surgery doesn’t work?   What am I going to do if I don’t have a fully functioning left hand?  And of course, I know the answer.  I’d figure it out, like folks have figured out far worse things. But I still felt the fear, the fear about all the uncertainty of what could be.

But it reminded me, how scarily uncertain life can be.  Six months ago, my father woke up, and he couldn’t see.  Now, after two surgeries, his sight is slowly returning, but how scary that must have been.  As much as I’d miss the use of my left hand, it pales in comparison to not being able to see. To not see my son as he grows up, to never see another sunset or sunrise, just imagining that sort of loss scares me.

And over the last year, we’ve seen once again how uncertain life can be. We’ve seen a virus up end our lives, up end the whole world.  And while things are better, we know it could still change so easily.  A new variant could come that the vaccines can’t touch.  And of course, here in Florida, it’s now Hurricane season.  None of us know when a hurricane will come and derail life for who knows how long.   Ok, you get the idea.  Life gets uncertain.   In life storms of all sorts come, and when they do, you can never be sure what they might sweep away. 

So, in the midst of the uncertainty, how do you stand strong?  How do you find a certainty that assures you that no matter what life brings you, no matter what it sweeps away, you will always have a place to stand?   How do you discover a life that gives you that sort of peace, that sort of unshakeable security?  Here in these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

1 Peter 2:4-8         

So, how does it happen, how do you go through life with a sense of certainty when it seems so many things feel more uncertain than ever from the climate to the economy to our health and safety?   In these words, God tells you.   You build your life on what is ultimate, which means letting go of what is not.  

And to understand what that means, you need to understand what a cornerstone used to be.   Today, if you even know what a cornerstone is, you probably don’t think much of it.  It’s just a sort of decorative stone, you put, well, at the corner of the building.  You might engrave something on it, the date you dedicated the building or something else.  It might even look a bit different, be made of a different material even.  But it doesn’t matter all that much.  Heck, a lot of times it matters so little to the building itself, you can wait to put it on after the rest of the building gets built.  But in the ancient world, the cornerstone carried literally far more weight than that.    The cornerstone acted as the Ikea instructions for the entire building.

When, I got married, and even more after I got to be a dad, I learned I had an important job.  I became the chief of putting things together.   I gotta admit.   Putting stuff together doesn’t come to me as a natural gift.  I am not handy as they say.   Heck, some days I have a hard time figuring which hand is which, right, left, sometimes it takes a moment.  

So that whole putting together job, well, at first, it didn’t go all that well.  First, it didn’t go well because I didn’t want to admit at how bad I was at it.   I’m a guy.  I’m supposed to have this gene.  So, that meant, I often came to the conclusion that if something didn’t work, it wasn’t me.  It was those stupid instructions, especially those evil ones that came from Ikea.   And, let’s just say my conclusion didn’t work out so well.   In fact, in the record of correctness in Ikea instructions versus me, I am now about 0 for 47 (we have a lot of Ikea stuff).  I still hate their instructions but every time, I have ignored them or simply refused to read them carefully, disaster has followed.  The stuff I put together, not only did not work well; it did not work at all.

And in ancient buildings, if you ignored the cornerstone, that building would never work either.  You laid that stone first. Then you literally oriented every stone in the building to it.  You spent more money on that stone than any other.  You made sure every dimension of it was right.  If you didn’t, the whole building wouldn’t be right.  It would likely even collapse, if you could build it at all.   That stone served as the instruction sheet for the whole building, even carried the building’s very weight.  So, often folks would even do a religious ritual, sacrifice an animal or in some cases, a human life to help guarantee the cornerstone’s success.   So, you can see why Peter used the image for Jesus.     

But hold on, how do you know if your cornerstone works?  Sure, it may look good.  The building can seem strong.  But how do you know it is?  You’ll only know when the building faces stress, when something shakes it, something shakes it hard.

Does anyone remember Andrew, that category 5 hurricane that literally leveled Homestead?  I remember seeing the pictures on the news.  Where once there had been hundreds, even thousands of houses, you literally saw nothing.   The storm had swept everything away.  But no one expected that.   These houses looked solid until Andrew showed they weren’t solid at all.  That storm changed building codes in South Florida forever.

And in your life, it’s the same.  You’ll only know how solid your cornerstone is when the stress comes, when the storms hit.  And this pandemic showed a lot of folks how weak their cornerstones were.  All of a sudden alcohol and drug use shot up, and it was already high before.  Marriages went on the rocks.   Mental health counselors got inundated.  And conspiracy theories threatened the very foundations of our democracy.  But even without a pandemic, all sorts of stuff can happen that show you how weak your cornerstones actually are.   And that doesn’t change if you start to follow Christ, if you start to orient your life around him.   Why?

It’s because you’re not going to know what your real cornerstone is until the stress hits, until the storms come.  Then and only then will you know what your true cornerstone is.  After all, you’ve likely spent your life, whether you realize it or not, building your life on a cornerstone other than Christ.   But you likely won’t even know what that is until a storm hits.   But when that storm hits, you’ll know.  You’ll see what you’ve built your life on, and just how weak that is.  In fact, much of the Christian life is just ripping up all our weak cornerstones so God can rebuild our lives on the right one.  

It was such a pain when I had to tear apart some piece of Ikea furniture I’d built because I had misread the instructions.   But nothing else was going to work but that.   And during this pandemic, you might have discovered that your life wasn’t built as strong as you thought.   You might need God to do some tearing down and rebuilding. 

For years, even as a pastor, I had built on a cornerstone that wasn’t Christ.  Sure, Jesus was there.  He just wasn’t sitting on the corner.  I wasn’t orienting my life around that.  So, what was I orienting my life around?   As near as I can figure, I oriented my life around success.  And since it was success in a church, it sure looked like it was Jesus.  But then success stopped happening.  Some people got angry.  Others just became disappointed.  And I got scared.  It felt like my life was falling down around me.   And that’s when it happened.  That’s when I found the cornerstone that had been there all along, the cornerstone that saved me, that nothing, not even my own failures could shake.

But what is this cornerstone?  When Peter says Jesus is the cornerstone, what does that even mean?  It means in Jesus, you know that you have a God who will never leave you or forsake you on even your worst days, on even the days you feel like forsaken is what you deserve.   And why do you know that?  You know because this stone was rejected.  And this stone was rejected so you can know you never will be.    In Jesus, God came to us.  And he loved us and taught us, healed us and accepted us.   And in our blindness and fear, we rejected him, even killed him and did it in God’s name.

Even the very man who is writing this very letter, Peter, in Jesus’ most desperate hour he walked away. He denied even knowing Jesus again and again and again.   When the storm came, Peter collapsed.  He realized whatever his cornerstone was, it sure wasn’t Jesus.   Yet Jesus never walked away from him.   In Jesus, God showed Peter, God showed the world just how unshakable God’s love is, a love so strong death itself falls before it in defeat.   And when you know you are loved like that, it gives you a cornerstone nothing can shake.   It gives you the very cornerstone you need, that God created you for.  In fact, you will keep stumbling over that love until you realize it is the only cornerstone that will ever work, that will give you the certainty, the peace you yearn to have.  

And when it comes, when you let God lay that stone at the corner of your life, you will know just how strong and certain that love is.  And it will re-orient your life.  It will shape in you a peace that passes understanding.  It will build in you a love that joyfully goes the extra mile.   It will give to you a wondrous confidence that even on the darkest days, you will never be put to shame.   So, live in that love.  Trust in it.   Let God build you on this love, this love that nothing can shake.