Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Three Realities About Jesus That Hold Everything Together Including You

You gotta love Christmas, right?   You’ve got the lights, the trees, the songs, the whole shebang.  And then you’ve got that little baby in the manger.    Right now, my three year old son is fascinated by that baby.  He keeps sitting down before the manger scene, and checking baby Jesus out.   But as fascinated as he is, he can’t hold a candle to the great Ricky Bobby.  

Have you ever seen a movie that just made you laugh so much that you almost fell out of your seat.   That happened when I saw the movie, Talladega Nights, about this NASCAR racing character Ricky Bobby.  Ricky Bobby had all sorts of quirks, but the one I remember most is how Ricky liked to pray. 

Ricky loved to pray to what he called the Christmas Jesus, the baby one.  And the man could get eloquent. He’d pray things like  “Dear tiny Jesus in your golden fleece diapers, with your tiny little balled up fists pawing at the air” No matter the protests from his wife or his father in law that Jesus did grow up, Ricky stuck with the Christmas Jesus.   

But, with apologies to Ricky, his wife had a point.  When it comes to Christmas, as beautiful as that baby in a manger is, to truly see Jesus, you can’t stop there.  You’ve gotta see the whole picture.   Why?

Only when you see that do you see not just what that baby means, but what that baby has the power to do in the world and in you.   The world in which we live can be very hard.   And when that hardness hits, when fear and anxiety grip you, how do you hold it together?  How do you come through it stronger and better than before?   The reality of Christmas answers that question.  And seeing that reality begins with seeing what was actually happening in that manger long ago.  How can you know that?  In those powerful words about Jesus, God points the way.  So let’s hear what God has to say.            

When your life seems to be falling apart, how do you hold it together?  How do you not only make it through hard times, but come out stronger on the other side?   How do you keep it together then?  Here God tells you.   You keep it together as you realize this reality.  As God holds everything together, God will hold you together too.   And how do you know that?  Because, God fell utterly apart so that, when the hard times hit, you can hold together.    

You see.  This church in Colossae was having some difficulty holding it together.  Beyond the day to day challenges of following Jesus in a pagan culture, these Christians had folks that were confusing them with strange new ideas on the whole Gospel message.  And it was really messing them up.  So Paul wrote this letter to get them back on solid ground, to a place that was real and true, or as Paul put it, where they could once again be filled with the knowledge of God.

The key to understanding what that knowledge is, happens in the last six words that Paul writes to these Colossians.  Paul writes these stunning words.  “In him, in Jesus, all things hold together.”   Now why are those words stunning?    Because basically Paul is saying that every atom, every particle in the universe, Jesus holds together.   Nothing exists without Jesus ordering it and keeping it.

Now you can hear that, and still not really get it.   But whether you believe in God or not, you depend on that order every day.   Did you ever realize how weird it is that everything in the universe is totally and utterly consistent?    If you travel a billion, billion miles away from earth, gravity will work exactly the way it does here.  The same rules will apply. And that holds true with everything.  It’s what enables planes that fly today to fly tomorrow.  It’s what enables everything around you to work not just today, but every day.  It’s the only thing that makes science possible, that the universe is this consistent.   Yet, do you realize how utterly strange that is? 

For example, do you know that there is this number sequence that appears everywhere again and again.   Hundreds of years ago, this mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci, was trying to figure out the ideal pattern for reproducing rabbits (Lord, knows why he wanted that – those animals seem to reproduce fine on their own).   The sequence he discovered starts like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 and so on forever.   You get the sequence by adding together the two numbers before to get the one that comes after.    Ok, so you think, what’s the big deal about that?   The big deal is that this pattern appears to be a sort of numbering system to order the cosmos.  

Here you see it in how flower petals are arranged.  So a lily will always have three petals and a buttercup will always have five.   And if you look at a daisy, it will follow the sequence and have 34 petals.   You can see the pattern in how tree branches divide.    It’s why a shell looks this inside.   But the sequence doesn’t stop there.  You find the same sequence in how a hurricane looks.   But forget that, you find the same sequence in how galaxies look, including our own.     So get this, a galaxy trillions and trillions of miles in size follows the same pattern as daisies and buttercups.     That’s kinda spooky.  That’s why when folks assert that the whole universe just sort of happened, it’s really, really hard to explain stuff like this.

But Jesus doesn’t just hold the physical universe together.  He holds together the moral one too.
Why do you get upset when you hear about evil or injustice in the world?  Heck, why do human beings wherever they are get upset in a similar way that you do?  A lot of people don’t believe in God because of that cruelty and injustice.  But think about it.  What makes something cruel and unjust to begin with?   How do human beings just know that?   It’s because somewhere along the way, they received a vision not only of what love and justice look like, but that love and justice was the way it was supposed to be.  

You see.  If you go into the deepest parts of the ocean, you will find fish that are blind. And that makes sense because it is so deep there no light exists.  But get this.   The fish don’t know they’re blind.  Why?  They’ve never seen the light.      

The writer C.S. Lewis put it this way.  

If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.     
But because of Jesus, you know light.  You know justice.  You know love.   And you know that love and justice is how God created the world to be.   God ordered it that way. 

So ok, this is kind of interesting, but what does it have to do with your life?   Paul tells you in the weird word that he uses here for holding it together.   He takes a Greek word that the philosophers called the Stoics used.   The Stoics held to the ideal that no matter what happens to you, you can’t fall apart.  You’ve got to stand strong, to hold it together.   And Paul uses that same word here.   Why?  
Paul is telling the folks in Colossae, don’t you get it?   The same God that in Jesus literally holds the entire universe together is going to hold you together too.   No matter how confused you get, how discouraged, how hard it becomes, this Jesus can and will hold you together.  If Jesus is doing it for the universe, Jesus will do it for you.

In fact, Paul just told them, in Jesus God already has done it for you.   Paul put it like this.  He wrote… He “has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  He has rescued us from the power of darkness… 

You see, human beings weren’t holding it together.  Why?  We had walked away from the one who could.    And as we fell apart, the world around us fell apart too.  So what did God do?   God came to rescue you, to take you back from the dark in which you had fallen, to return you to the light for which you and I desperately yearned.   

God did it the only way any rescuer can.   He went into the darkness for you.   He became one of you in that darkness, even to the point of being born.   And then He took all that darkness on himself.   He let that darkness tear him apart so that it would never do that to you.    He fell apart in that darkness so that he could bring you into the light.    And because Jesus did that, nothing exists in the universe, not even death, that will take you away from his love.  And that love, if you let it, will hold you together no matter what. 

This is why Christians put Christmas in the darkest time of the year.   Every year, it reminds you, that life will never get so dark, that the light of God’s love will not break through.    This is the Good News of Christmas, the God who came for you; the God who went into the darkness of death for you, and the God who will hold you together no matter what you face.   So this Christmas, eat, drink, and celebrate the One who holds everything together, including you.       

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Three Truths that Lead You To a Joyfully Giving Heart

It’s weird when you think about it.   It’s great and all.  But still it is a bit weird.  Why do we do all this gift giving at Christmas?   Think about it.   At no other holiday do we do this.  We give presents at birthdays, but only to one person.  At Christmas, you give presents to everybody.   Heck, we give so many gifts that it keeps the economy humming.    That’s why store owners call Black Friday, Black Friday.  It’s when stores go from deficits to profit, from being in the red to moving into the black.  

Still, in the midst of the gift giving, you can lose the joy.  It can become a chore rather than a blessing, just another holiday task to complete.  So how do you get in touch with the joy?  More crucially, how do you get the joy so powerfully, that gift giving actually renews and fulfills you not only at Christmas but every day.  You can complain about the commercialism of the season, but giving gifts at Christmas actually points you to life as God intended.  It brings you closer to the abundant life God created you to have.    

And moving closer to that abundant life means realizing this; at the heart of Christmas lies a gift.   The more you grasp that gift, the more it frees you in a way you deeply need to be free.  The more it frees you to experience the joy of giving not only at Christmas, but to find that joy every day of your life.    And in these words, God shows you the way.   So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

God intends gift giving to free you, to bring joy into your life.   Yet even at Christmas, it can be hard to find the joy.   Gift giving can even become a burden, trying to get something for everyone on the list.   And when it does, it only points to how far we have wandered from what God intended gift-giving to be.   But in the words we just heard, God points the way back.  God reminds you that gift-giving has to become a matter of the heart before it ever becomes a matter of the hands.    And when it does, then it frees you.  It frees you to grasp more than even the gift of abundant life God joyfully yearns to give.  

Do you notice something unusual that Paul does in this letter?  Paul is writing to this pretty wealthy church in Corinth to give to a special offering for Christians who are facing famine.  Yet, he does so in a strange way.    It begins right where we started off.  Paul says, “I do not say this as a command…”   And then near the end of what we read, he does it again, even more explicitly.   He tells them. “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  

Ok, you might ask.  What’s the big deal about that?   He is just giving some encouragement to give.   But think about it.   Would he ever have said, “Be faithful to your spouse, but I’m not commanding this mind you.   No, you do whatever you’ve made up your mind to do.   I don’t want you feel any compulsion about it.”    I don’t think so.  So why does he do it here?

Paul does it because gift giving has a lack of clarity that staying faithful to your spouse or say lying just doesn’t.    You pretty much know when you’re committing adultery or lying.   But when it comes to giving, how do you know that you’re doing it right, that you are faithfully giving what God commands?  

Now you might respond. “Kennedy, isn’t there this command in the Old Testament about tithing, giving ten percent?”  Doesn’t that give you the guideline?”    But if it does, then why doesn’t Paul bring it up?    Why doesn’t Paul just order them to tithe?  

He doesn’t because Jesus kind of ripped that guideline up.   In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders tithed everything.  They even tithed their vegetables.   Yet Jesus doesn’t commend them for it.   He attacks them instead.   He tells them.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.   Why is Jesus so upset?   

Last week, we had a little party for our son’s 3rd birthday.   And he got some nice gifts.   He got this cool drill set.  He got this awesome play doh garbage truck.   Now do you think when we put those gifts out there, we said.  “Ok, Patrick, it’s your birthday.  And we are obligated to give you these gifts to show we’re good parents and grandparents.   So please unwrap them, and look happy.  And then, we have the standard cake that we’re supposed to get you.   So after the presents, please blow out the candles and make us look good.”     Now Patrick might be only three, but I’m pretty sure if we did it that way, he’d be thinking.  I don’t think this is the way that it’s supposed to be.          

Now it didn’t happen that way.  We loved seeing his joy at these new gifts.  We loved showing him what a blessing the day of his birth was to us. We loved seeing his excitement at the candles and the cake.

And that’s the way giving is supposed to be.   When you think about it, it wouldn’t have mattered how many gifts we had given him, if we are only doing it to impress others or because we were keeping some sort of parent rule.   We wouldn’t really have even been giving the gifts to him.  We would have been giving them to ourselves, to make us look good.  It wouldn’t have been about him at all.  

And that’s why Jesus got so angry at the tithing of the religious leaders.  Sure their hands were giving the required amounts away.   But they weren’t doing it out of love for God really.  They were doing it to keep the rules, to show off how right they were with God.   They weren’t even giving it to God really.  They were giving it to themselves, to make themselves feel good. 

In Jesus’ criticism, in Paul’s words, God is telling you something crucial.   When you give, it has to begin in your heart.   Now from there, it has to go to your hands, and tithing can give you some guidance there.   But it can’t start there.  It has to start in your heart.    For God, giving starts with motivation, long before it moves to money.            

If you are thinking, how much should I give?  How much will get me God’s approval, the approval of others?  How much will help me feel good, ease any guilt?   If you are doing that, you are missing quite literally the heart of the matter.  You aren’t even giving to God.  You’re actually giving to yourself, to help you feel better. 

That’s why Paul doesn’t give an amount here.   Paul knows that if the heart of the Corinthians gets connected, really connected to the joy of giving, then the amount will take care of itself.  In fact, the passion they feel will lead them to give more than they ever thought possible.   Paul even gives an example to them of that, right before what we just read, in the incredible giving of the church in Macedonia. 

It’s only when your heart is passionately, joyfully generous like that, that you are living out what God intends your giving to be.   But let’s be honest.   How many of you can say that’s really the case when it comes to your giving?   How many of us actually have hearts like that?   

So how does that happen?  So how do you get your heart that connected to the joy? 

It begins with realizing that everything you already have is a gift.   In the beginning of this passage, Paul gives this quote from the Old Testament.   He writes, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”   Where does that come from?   It comes from a description of how God gave the manna to the Israelites when they were traveling through the desert.   And Paul is pointing to that description for an important reason.

The money you have is a lot like manna.  If you know the story, God provides this food called manna so the Israelites didn’t starve in the dessert.   And to get it, you had to get up each morning, and pick it up off the ground.    And as it happened, with everybody working together, everybody, young and old got enough.   But if you did try to hoard it, by the time you woke up it had rotted and gone bad.  

And when it comes to what you have, sure you worked for it.  Like the Israelites, you had to go and gather it up.  But still ultimately it came as a gift.   After all, you didn’t create your brain or your body, you were given that.   Heck, even the air you breathe comes as a gift.  You did nothing to earn it.  As the old saying goes, if you see a frog on a fencepost, you know he didn’t get there by himself.   And all of us are frogs on fence posts.  We didn’t get there by ourselves.

And not only is what you have a gift, it’s a gift that if you hold on to it, will rot away your life, just like that manna rotted away in the tent.  

But beyond seeing all you have is a gift, connecting to the joy happens when you catch sight of the harvest.    Paul talks about when you sow sparingly, you reap sparingly, and when you sow bountifully, you reap bountifully.   Now what does Paul mean?

Some folks think he means that you give your money so God can give you more money.   But think about it.  If that was your motivation, you wouldn’t be giving to God.  You’d be just giving to yourself.   More than that, you’d be missing the best part of sowing seed, the fruit.   Sowing seed doesn’t just produce more seed, it produces something far better; wonderful, juicy, flavorful fruit.  
And when you give your money to what matters to God, that’s the harvest you reap.  When we gather in this place to sing songs or hang greenery for Christmas, we’re not just simply doing religious tasks.   We’re showing an alternative way to live, a better, more fruitful way to live. And our world desperately needs that.   Because so many folks are going off the rails.   People are spending more but living less.   They have pain inside that erupts into rage and disappointment at everything.   You see it in the honks on the road, in the fights on social media; in a world that has become simply more rude and less gracious.  But within the church, even with all our frailties and flaws, something beautiful happens.  People come together and find through God’s grace here, the ability to love each other, even with in their flaws and faults.   Here, people find meaning; find hope, find the love of a God that can change them like no other.   There’s nothing on planet earth like the church when the church is working right.  And when you give to God in this place, you get to be part of that.  You get to see that fruit, to taste it, to revel in it.    And oh when you see that, really see that, the joy it brings.                 

That’s what Paul means here by a harvest of righteousness.   Righteousness means right relationships with God, with others, even with yourself.    And that’s the fruit that comes.  You see people find peace with God, with their families, with even themselves. You bring closer to reality the world, the future God dreams to be.   And it is beautiful when that happens.   And God uses your gifts to make it happen.

But beyond seeing the harvest, you need to see the gift that launched it, the gift we celebrate at Christmas.  In the end, God didn’t just give us our lives, and sunrises and sunsets, and the air we breathe.  No, God gave us God’s very self.   In the past, God had shown himself, in burning bushes, in whirlwinds, and even in silence.   But when God was born in a stinking stable to a poor peasant woman, God was doing way more than showing himself.  God was giving himself in the most intimate and vulnerable way possible.  In Jesus God would keep giving himself to us, even to the point of his death, to facing suffering that we cannot even imagine.   Why did God do it?  He didn’t do it out of obligation.  He didn’t do it to impress you or the angels.  He did it because he so loved you that he could do no less.   And the more you know that, what God out of his infinite love has joyfully given you, the more you will find the freedom to joyfully give, to give to others, to give to God, to sow the seeds that reap a harvest of healing in our world.   

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Two Ways Money is Dangerous, and How You Can Free Yourself from Them

I’ve always thought that I’d be an excellent rich person.    I’d give a lot of money away.  I’d sit on all sorts of charitable boards.   I’d live well, but not too well.   And whenever I went out to dinner with others, I’d always pick up the check.  

But  I’ve picked work that doesn’t lend itself to getting rich.   And that’s as it should be.   Usually when you see a rich preacher, something hinky is going on.   You figure.   It’s not going to be too long before 60 Minutes or the IRS come calling.  

But here’s the problem.  If I’m honest, compared to preachers in most parts of the world, I’m doing pretty well.   Compared to them, I am rich.   In fact, that would be true of most folks in this country compared to the rest of the world. 

But is that bad?   Should that trouble us?  What does the Bible say?   Actually, the Bible says  wealth as not bad at all.  A lot of folks in the Bible, Abraham, Isaac, David, Esther had all sorts of wealth. 
But while the Bible doesn’t say having money is bad, it does say it’s dangerous, so dangerous that it will kill the very life God yearns to give. 

Now how can it be that dangerous?  In this story, Jesus shows you.   More crucially, Jesus points the way to how you get free of the danger: how you free yourself of the worst that money brings to open yourself to the best.   So let’s hear what Jesus has to say. 

In the Bible, God makes it clear.   Wealth isn’t bad.   In fact, many folks in the Bible had great wealth, and did good things with it.  But God warns you.  Wealth, even money itself endangers you.    It endangers you in two ways, by how it addicts you and how it blinds you.   And those two things can happen in your life without you even realizing it.  And when they do, they will sabotage the abundant life that God yearns to give you.   But it doesn’t need to be that way.     By staying rooted in this reality, what God has done for you, it frees your money to become what it actually is, just money, nothing more, and nothing less. 

Now, how does money addict you?   It does it the way anything that threatens to addict you does.   It makes you want more and more of it, even as it gives you less and less.  

For example, I love Publix fried chicken.  Crunching through that spicy, salty breading into the juicy chicken underneath, it just makes my taste buds glow with satisfaction.   But after my second piece, something sinister begins to happen.   I think.   If that second piece was so good, then the third one will be even better.   But guess what.  It isn’t.   And so then I think well maybe the fourth piece will bring back the joy.  But it doesn’t.   Instead I begin to feel queasy, a little sick.    But even so, I’m still pondering on whether to eat piece number 5!  Then I realize, as much as I love this chicken, if I don’t watch it, I’ll start loving it too much.   It won’t be just an occasional treat.  It will become an everyday deal, and my waistline and health will pay the price. 

Money has that sort of power, but it can be way more subtle than that fried chicken.  But the power is there.  You can see it in a somewhat surprising fact.   The more money that folks have, the less money they give away.    As a percentage of income, poor folks giveaway way more than the rich, twice as much actually.   Now why is that?  

Well, it’s a little bit like the fried chicken.   You make more money, what do you do?  Well, you spend more of it.  You may buy a nicer car than before.   But then that nicer car just doesn’t look so great in front of your kind of now shabby looking house or apartment.  So even though you have more money, it feels like less.  So, then as you get more money, you buy up.  You move into a nicer neighborhood.  But once you’re there, you realize.   These folks have even nicer cars then you do, and that one has that new renovated kitchen, and that one just took their family to ski in Aspen.  So you don’t feel richer, even though you are.  You feel poorer.    It’s why studies show that most wealthy folks don’t actually live in wealthy neighborhoods.    No most folks in those neighborhoods are spending so much to keep up with their neighbors.  They hardly have any money left at all.     And between all the glitzy stuff on TV and the internet, you don’t even have to live in a wealthy neighborhood to feel it.  It’s why so many Americans feel so dissatisfied with their finances, even while they spend more than their parents ever dreamed.  They’re addicted. 

But money won’t just addict you, it will blind you.  It will blind you to the reality of life, and it will blind you to the reality of you.   If you have a lot of money, a lot in savings, you can think to yourself.  Now I’m safe.   If I lose my job, I have a nest egg to lean back on.  But lots of things can happen to you that are worse than losing your job.   And money doesn’t do jack for those. 
It’s been almost 20 years, but I remember it like yesterday.  I was coming home from work.  My old classmate, Gerry Stephens called me.  He just blurted it out.  Giovanni is dead.  I said. What?  Giovanni?  Are you sure?  Yeah, he replied, just look in the New York Times.  It’s right there.   He was right.  It was there in black and white.   Giovanni Agnelli, our old classmate, had died of cancer at age 33.   The New York Times, normally doesn’t cover the death of every 33 year old from cancer, but Giovanni was no typical 33 year old.  He was part of the family that owned Fiat.   He had a billion dollars, and he was dead.  He left behind a wife of 13 months, and baby daughter three months old.    And none of that money could change that at all.  

Money can’t save your marriage.  It can’t parent your kids.   It can’t keep your parents alive.   It can’t even keep you alive.   In fact, the worst things life can throw at you, money can’t protect you from them at all.   But it blinds you so that you think it can, until that stuff happens, and you realize how false the promise was.

But it doesn’t just blind you to the reality of the world. It blinds you to the reality of you.  If you’re smart with your business, and make a lot of money, you’re just smart with business.  But you don’t think that.   No, you start to think you’re just smart, at everything.   If you have more money than others, you just have more money.  But you start to think that you are more, more wise, more virtuous, more everything.   And it becomes harder and harder to see your faults and failings.   And in life, nothing can mess you up more than being blind to that.

In this story, Jesus knows that.  He realizes how in danger this rich young ruler is.   That’s why he says such strange things.  And what Jesus says here is strange.   Right before this, he has told a parable whose whole point was that keeping the rules won’t get you eternal life.   Yet when this rich guy asks about getting eternal life, what does Jesus say?   He asks him.  “How are you doing at keeping the rules?”  What?  And before that, when the man calls Jesus good, Jesus pushes back.  He tells him.  No one is good but God alone.    Jesus is not saying that he’s not good.  No, he is challenging this man’s presumptuousness.   He is saying.  “As far as you know, I’m a man like you.   So how can you call me good?”   Why is Jesus pushing back like that?  He knows.   This guy thinks he is good.   It’s the same reason he asks him about keeping the rules.   He knows.  This guy believes.  I have kept all the rules.   But here’s the problem.  This man still doesn’t have the peace, the fulfillment, the connection with God that he yearns for.   That’s why he’s coming to Jesus.   So what does Jesus do next?   He drops a bomb.  He tells him.  “Ok, give all your money to the poor and come follow me.”    Jesus has never asked this of anyone before.    So, why is he asking this guy?  He is trying to show him what is sucking his life away.

One time on the road, Jesus has a conversation with a woman by a well.   As the conversation goes on, Jesus tells her.  I have a living water that will fill your deepest longing.   When she asks him to tell her more, he tells her to go get her husband.   And when she says that she doesn’t have one, how does Jesus reply?  He says.  Yep, you’re right.  You have had 5 husbands, but this guy you’re living with now isn’t one of them.  Why is Jesus so concerned about her love life?  He knows.  Being with some guy has become her path to fulfillment; to significance; to meaning and identity.   Her relationships have become her “living water,” so to speak.  But this living water isn’t saving her life.  It’s killing it.

And for this rich young ruler, his money has become his living water.   And as with the woman at the well, it’s killing him too.    But he can’t see it.  He thinks that he is doing everything right, obeying all the Ten Commandments.   But in reality, he hasn’t even got past number 1, having no others gods but God.    And so Jesus calls him on it.  He asks him to give the money up.  But he can’t.   He’s addicted.   He can’t walk away from it.  So instead he walks away from Jesus.

That’s why Jesus warns his disciples.  It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for somebody rich to enter the kingdom of God.   It’s that dangerous. Now if you’re rich, where does that leave you?  It leaves you, to be honest, with everybody else. The Bible makes it painfully clear.    On their own, no one can enter that kingdom.   It’s impossible for everyone.    The rich just find it a bit more impossible.   It’s not because they’re worse.  It’s just because their wealth has such power to blind and addict.   It blinds them to what they need by convincing them they already have it.  

How do you know that you might have this money sickness?  Here are a few questions.     When you see people making a lot of money, do you envy them?  Do they get under your skin?    Or when it comes to money, do you think about it a lot?  Are you anxious about what you have or don’t have?    Or how about this one.  When you’re bummed out, do you shop and buy stuff to feel better?   Or on the other hand, do you feel awesome by not buying anything at all?    And beyond those, you can simply look at what money you give away.   Two places show the priorities of your life, your checkbook and your calendar.   They tell you what has the power in your life?    We talk about giving here not simply so the light bill gets paid.  We talk about giving here because the more you find the freedom to give, you more you become free of money’s power to addict you, to blind you.   And the Bible has clear guidelines on giving.   The Old Testament gives you a ten percent minimum.  Ten percent of what God has given you, you return to God and everything you have is a gift from God. Jesus goes further.  He says that 10% isn’t enough because some can give more.  Instead, Jesus says give until it hurts, and then you’ll be where you need to be.   That’s why when the preacher, Rick Warren got rich off his book the Purpose Driven Life, he became a reverse tither.  He gave away 90 and kept 10.  

But how do you do that?   How do you free yourself to give radically like that, and not out of guilt or obligation?  No you give it out of joy, out of gratitude, out of a fullness that wells up within you?  How does that happen?

You look to the rich young ruler.   I’m not talking about the guy who walked away.   I’m talking about the guy he walked away from.    Jesus was about 31 here, and he had been rich too.  That’s why when Jesus looked at this rich guy, he loved him.   Jesus had faced the same choice.   He had walked away from the infinite wealth of the universe.  He had left behind its power and glory.   And very soon, he will give up his very life.  More than that, he will undergo an isolation, a despair, that you and I cannot begin to comprehend.   In Jesus, God will be literally ripped apart, and why?   Because he loves you.  As Hebrews says it, for the joy set before him, he endured the cross and disregarded its shame.  What was that joy?  It was you.  It was the joy of loving you, of bringing you home.  When you see that, what God has done for you, money will just be money, because God will be God.  

This little card isn’t a giving card, it’s a get out of jail card.   It’s a declaration of freedom to let God lead your life and not your anxieties about money or your appetite for stuff.  So put a number here that makes that clear, that stretches you, that exhilarates you, that liberates you from any illusion that money can ever give you what you actually need. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

In Elections and Life, How Do you Deal When Things Don't Go Your Way?

Let’s be honest.   Today, after this election, half of the nation is not feeling so great, and the other half, they’re feeling pretty good.    And likely four years from now, the same thing will happen then too.   And that’s ok.    It’s good, even.   Who wouldn’t want folks to have strong feelings about what they believe, what they desire, including what they desire for this nation?   
But what do you do with those feelings when things don’t go the way you want?   This question doesn’t just apply to an election, it applies to life.   And how you answer that question makes a huge difference in the life you will have.  In life, things will happen that you don’t want to happen.   Nothing in life goes the way you want it every time, heck, not even most of the time.  So when that happens, how do you need to react?   In this strange, even disturbing story, God gives you the answer.  God shows you how peace, even fulfillment can happen in a world where so many things don’t go your way.  So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

When life doesn’t go your way, how do you respond?   How do you face those situations in a way that leads to life and peace rather than resentment and fear?  In this story God tells you.   God warns you that the more you try to control your world, your relationships, even God, by anger and assumption the more you move away from what God calls your life to be.   Life comes not when you assume and separate but when you learn to listen and to love. 

As this story begins, David has come up with a terrific idea.   As the new king of Israel, he wants to bring the Ark of God home.   But the ark, this symbol of God’s presence, this gold plated box that held the Ten Commandments with two angels sculpted on top, it had been left in this small town on the border of Israel for years.  So David thought.  What better way to show my commitment to God then by bringing the Ark to Jerusalem?   But let’s just say, things did not go the way he expected. 
It starts out well.   He pulls together his whole army to march it in.   He gets a nice cart to put it on.    But then the cart hits a pothole.   And poor Uzzah just reaches out to steady it, to keep it from falling to the ground.  What does God do?   God strikes the poor guy down.    Talk about killing the parade.   God zapping some poor schlub will do it every time.   

Now, when people hear stories like this, they think.  This is why I hate all this religious stuff.    You’ve got these awful stories of a trigger happy God who strikes down people willy nilly.   And frankly this is what David thought.    He walked away from the ark, and from God.    The whole experience turned him off so much that he didn’t even leave the ark with an Israelite family.   He pushed it on some poor foreign family, figuring, let God zap those folks.   

But did David make the right move?   Did God just strike down poor Uzzah for no reason?      What is really going on here?  

To figure that out, you need to understand what David didn’t do.   When it came to the ark, God had given a whole set of rules on how to treat it.     You didn’t put the ark out where anyone could see it.   In fact, on only one day a year, Yom Kippur, could anyone see it, and even then, only one person, who would go in as a representative of the people.   And if you ever had to move it, you literally covered it up.   You did not even touch it.   Instead the ark had little rings on either side.    And Levites, who God had specifically set aside for this task, would insert poles into the rings, and carry the ark on their shoulders.

Yet does David do any of that?   No.  He manhandles the thing onto a cart.  He puts it on display for everyone to see.    And instead of getting Levites to carry it, he recruits the two sons of Abinadab, the guy who had been keeping it.        

Now you might be thinking.  Ok, so what?   Why is God so uptight about the rules?  It’s because the rules have a purpose.   They carry a profound message about God, about life.   And if you don’t get that message, then it leads in a direction that will hurt, even destroy you and others. 

Early this past Wednesday morning, an important ritual began.  Hillary Clinton called President elect Trump to concede.    Then Trump issued a call to unity, words of admiration for his opponent, and a promise to represent every American.   The next day, Clinton followed it by a speech to her supporters asking them to support the President elect.   And four years ago, pretty much that same thing happened, and four years from now, it will happen again.   Those rules aren’t written down, but everyone knows they exist.  Now why do we do it that way after every Presidential election?   Are we just not imaginative enough to come up with something different?   Are we too uptight, too rules focused to do it any other way?   No, we know that these unwritten rules are bigger than us.  They’re about making sure that power, tremendous power moves peacefully.   They’re about showing stability and strength not simply to our citizens, but to the entire world.    And the stakes of not doing that are simply too high to play fast and loose with those rules, even if they are unwritten. 
And here the stakes are even higher.   Imagine if you go out to eat with someone, and before you can get a word out, they go ahead and order for you.   They explain. This is what I like to eat, and so that’s what I think you should have.    You’d likely be thinking.  How rude!  He better be picking up the check.  

At a deeper level, David does exactly this with God.   He assumes that since he is now the King he can handle God anyway he chooses.   He probably didn’t even take the time to find out how God wished the Ark to be handled.  David figured he’d do it the way he wanted.     Right from the beginning, David was acting as if the Ark of God was something to be manipulated to show his connection to God, to bolster his standing as the king.   He was making a dangerous assumption about his relationship to God.  He assumed that God was someone he could control, that he could use however he wished.   And God knows.  If this pattern of arrogance continues, it will destroy not just David.  It will destroy the nation. 

So God delivers a wake-up call to David’s pride through a tragic death.  In that death, God is first saying to Uzzah.   “You want to make sure this holy object doesn’t fall to the ground?  What makes you think that the ground isn’t holy, since I made it?  What makes you think that your hands are holier, that your hands have any right to handle the things of God?”   And God is saying to David.  “Don’t you ever think you can handle me, that I am someone you can control to get your way.”   The rules I’ve given, rules you’ve arrogantly ignored, make that reality crystal clear. 

And just to emphasize the point, God not only doesn’t zap anyone in the foreigner’s house where the ark resides.  He showers blessing upon blessing upon them.  And when David hears that, something changes.   He moves from anger to curiosity.  Who is this God who zaps an Israelite, but then blesses an outsider? David had first assumed he could handle God any way he wanted.  Then he had assumed that God is so arbitrary he can’t relate at all.  But now he is finally asking, rather than assuming.   
Too often people never get past David’s first reaction.  When what they ardently believe is right doesn’t go their way, they get angry, and their anger leads to assumption.   They assume that they are on the side of right, and therefore whatever blocked their way can’t be.   And so like David, they separate themselves. They turn away rather than turn towards.

But when David sees this God acting contrary to how he assumed God to be, he gets curious.  And his curiosity leads to insight.   He reads the rulebook.  We know that by how things go the second time around.   This time he makes the appropriate sacrifices.  He wears the appropriate garments.  He lets God set the agenda not David. 

And strangely this honoring of God’s ways doesn’t limit David, it liberates him.  He dances before the Lord.   He makes lavish sacrifices. He showers delicacies on the people.   

But one person sees this, and doesn’t understand at all.   His wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul, the former king, is appalled.  After all, as the king’s daughter, she knows how a king in the ancient near east is supposed to act.  And she knows.  This is not it.   A king has to be separated from the people, set above them as a god.  He can’t be running through the streets dancing, giving everyone cakes.  That’s ridiculous.  

In her anger, she assumes that David has done it to glorify himself, and to embarrass her.  And when David comes home, she lets him have it.     Now David tries to explain.   He tells her.  “Don’t you get it?  This wasn’t supposed to be me.  But God, out of his sheer grace, picked me to be king.  What else can I do but celebrate?   And dignity?  Forget about dignity.  I lay down everything for God.  I will even be humiliated for him.   And while you may not see my lack of dignity for what it is, others will.”  And then the story ends with these enigmatic words, that Michal had no children until the day of her death.  

Now, at first I thought.  God is judging Michal for her angry words.   But is that it?   Or is God letting us know that David still has a lot to learn.   Yes, Michal got angry and lashed out.  But David does the same.   He even throws in a cruel jab about how he has become king over her father, now tragically dead   What an irony.  David has in some sense gotten his way.  He has brought the Ark to Jerusalem.    But in his self-righteous pride, he still gets caught up in anger and assumption.    

And so David and Michal both angrily make assumptions about the other.   And instead of seeking to understand, they separate.   And what results?  Their marriage has no fruit.  It dies before it has hardly begun.  

Things haven’t changed so much.   I see people reacting like that all the time.   When things don’t go their way, they get angry.   Now that anger could lead them to ask questions.  Instead it usually leads them to make assumptions.  They don’t seek to understand.  They just walk away instead.    And so marriages get wrecked, friendships get wrecked, community gets wrecked, even Christian community.   And in these difficult days, that sort of anger and assumption can wreck our nation too.    
But let me be honest, I don’t just see other people doing it, I see me doing it.   And whenever I do, it makes a mess.   How many here can say they haven’t done it, might even be doing it right now?   How easy it is to self-righteously assume you’re the one in the right, and anyone who disagrees is in the wrong?   How easily you can fall into angry separation rather than simply seeking to understand someone?   But how do you break free of that?  How do you find the power to move past anger and separation?  How do you come to a place where you truly seek to understand, to even love those who see things profoundly differently than you do?

You turn to another King, a King who could have turned away in anger from those who turned away from him, but instead turned towards them in love.   When they refused his ways, he didn’t separate.   No, he left his Kingship behind to become their friend, even their servant instead.    And out of his great love, he gave everything for them, even his life; his very existence, to bring them home.     And the more you let this King love you, the more this King will free you.   Jesus will free you from the self-righteousness that leads you to see so easily other’s wrong but be so blind to your own.   He will fill you with a loving anger that leads you to not only seek justice, but to seek to understand and to love, even as Jesus has understood and loved you.   And in the wonder of his humble grace, you will find a freedom to trust even when you don’t understand.  In his unwavering faithfulness, you will find a hope that can withstand the most perplexing disappointments.  And in his extravagant love, you will find a confidence that will lead you to know that no matter what happens, his love, his infinite, unstoppable love will always have the last word.   

Sunday, November 6, 2016

How Can Stopping, Looking and Listening Lead you to Life Changing Joy and Adventure? Here's How

I love looking at pictures like the one here from our church's annual pumpkin patch.   And every year, I wonder.  Why doesn’t it last?  Now, I’m not talking about the pumpkins.   Everyone knows that those don’t last.  They get stinky pretty quick.  

No.  I wonder.  Why, in so many, does the joy and possibility they had as children fade away?  So often, folks lose the wonder of those days.   Cynicism and disappointment capture their hearts.    They listen to voices inside them that lead to discouragement and doubt.     Lots of times, they just ignore it happening.  They make their lives busy.  They buy new things to fill the void.   They discover ways to avoid the truth they desperately need to see, a truth that if they saw it would set them free for joy and possibility again. 

But you have a choice.  You can discover the wonder again.   You can live a life full of more adventure, fulfillment, and purpose then you could have imagined.  And in this famous story of a man, who had lost his way, God shows you the way.   So listen and hear what God has to say.

Too often, you can lose touch.  You can lose touch with what truly matters.   You get trapped in a life that is so much less than what your life could be; what God created it to be.  But how do you break free?  How do you become open to receive all the joy and possibility life offers?  In this story, God shows you.   Such a life begins when you are willing to stop, to look and to listen.       

In this story, Moses is trapped in a sort of dead end.    He has lost his standing as a prince of Egypt.  He has lost connection with his people, the Israelites.    He has settled for a life in exile, helping his father in law tend the sheep.   But then Moses’ life changes forever.   He moves from utter obscurity to someone who literally changes human history.  He moves from dullness and mediocrity to a life filled with incredible challenge and possibility.  How did it happen?

It happened first because he simply stopped.    As Moses went through his day, he saw something he couldn’t explain, a bush that wouldn’t stop burning.   You see.  In the desert, if a brush fire begins, it ends pretty fast.   The desert simply doesn’t have the fuel to feed the fire.   So to see a fire that keeps going and going, a bush that continues to burn and burn, that doesn’t make any sense.   So what does Abraham do?  He stops.  Actually, he stops long enough to actually take a detour, to break his regular routine to check it out. 

Most human beings like to think of themselves as open-minded. They think.   If I get some new information that challenges what I believe, then sure, I’m open to change.   But here’s the problem.   When you get new information, information that contradicts what you think to be true, you usually don’t change your beliefs.   No, you just figure out a way to fit the new facts to the beliefs we already have.   You fit the facts to the frame, the grid you already have. 

Even scientists do this.    For centuries, scientists said that new advances come about because open-minded scientists revised their theories to fit new facts.   But about 40 years ago, a scientist and philosopher named Thomas Kuhn showed that to be completely wrong.   Scientists didn’t revise their theories to fit new facts.   No, they just fit the new facts into what they already thought.   So, how did advances happen?  They happened when no matter what the scientists did, the facts just didn’t fit. 

Then, what Kuhn called a paradigm shift happened.  The facts blew up the frame so completely that nothing but a new frame would work.  Even then, the change didn’t come easy.   For centuries, human beings said that the sun revolved around the earth, even when the facts said otherwise.  Even when Copernicus finally said what was obviously there, that the earth revolved around the sun, lots of folks still claimed he was wrong.

And if it happens in science, you can bet it happens in your life (Heck, it even happens in baseball).   Again and again, I see people stuck in dead end places because they refuse to change the frame.   They believe what they believe.  They think what they think, even when those thoughts and beliefs are not only wrong, but leading them to a life so much less than what life can be.   What changes that?  Change happens, if it happens, when life throws something at you so out of the box, so unexplainable, that it not only changes your frame.  It blows it up. 

Several years ago, I got hooked on this totally cool vampire series called The Passage Trilogy by the writer Justin Cronin.   And a few weeks ago, I picked up the final book in the series at the library. But as I read, I realized.  Something had changed.    The book had all these allusions to Christianity.   But none of that stuff had been in the earlier books at all.   I wondered.  What happened to this guy?   So I googled to find out.  

It turned out that up until a few years ago, Cronin had no room for God in his life.  He kind of believed in God, but it had no impact on his life.   Then something happened, something so out of the box, he can’t explain it to this day.   It all started when his wife went to grab a tissue for their daughter while she was driving her to camp.    When she did, the car swerved hitting a guardrail at top speed, a guardrail on a bridge with a 40 foot drop below.   But the guard rail held, and the car bounced back on the road, where another car rammed into it, spinning it out until as Cronin describes it:

Like a whale breaching the surface, it lifted off the roadway, turned belly-up, and crashed down onto its roof. The back half of the car compacted like an accordion: steel crushing, glass bursting, my daughter’s belongings—clothes, shoes, books, an expensive violin—exploding onto the highway.  Other cars whizzed past, narrowly missing them. A final jolt, the car rolled again, and it came to a halt, facing forward, resting on its wheels.

And in the midst of all that, with the car literally obliterated around them, Cronin’s wife and daughter did not have a scratch.   It made no sense.   As the EMT said, “Nobody walks away from this.”  But they did.   And his wife knew that a power beyond themselves had done it.  No other explanation worked.  Suddenly for his wife, and eventually for Justin, God became very, very real.   He and his wife began a search to connect to this God who had done the unexplainable in their lives.   They had nearly given up, finding no place where they could connect, when as he writes….In the end, as in the scriptures, it was a child who led us.  Their son, who they had sent to an Episcopal school, announced on the way home one day that he now believed in Jesus.   He asked.  Could we go to my school’s church some time?   And so they did.  Now Cronin, his wife and son worship each week in the pews of St. Stephen’s.   And Cronin’s life has changed forever, in a way more beautiful and wondrous then he could have dreamed.   But it only happened because he and wife stopped at their burning bush, at what they could not explain.  It only happen whey let their frames be blown up so they could see the world in a radically different and truer way. 

But people can make a different choice.   They can stay stuck in places that don’t fulfill but disappoint even destroy.  Why? It’s because at least they’re familiar.   As I heard one person put it.  “I don’t like where my life is, but at least here, I know all the names of the streets.”  But your life won’t change if you keep going as you are.  You have to be willing to stop, to take a detour, to turn to your own burning bush.  It may be your child asking you about Jesus.  It may be a setback or a disappointment.  It may be a yearning you can’t even define.  But whatever it is, guaranteed there’s a bush probably burning in your life right now.  Don’t ignore it.   Be willing to stop, to turn aside.  Look at your burning bush, whatever it might be, and let it change you as only it can.       

Now what changes once you’re there?   First, you’ll realize that the God you thought you knew, you don’t really know at all.   Moses knew about God before this day.  But at that bush, he began to know God.    And that is a very different thing.   He realized.  God was much bigger, much more mysterious and complex, than he had ever imagined.    I’ve heard folks say to me.  You know.  I don’t believe in God.   But when I find out what they mean by God, do you know what I realize?   I don’t believe in that God either.    In your journey with God, wherever you are, at the beginning or well along the way, God will always show you new things, if you’re willing to look and to listen. 

And God will not only show you new things about God but about you.   As Moses met God at that burning bush, he had some pretty set beliefs about himself.  If you read the story further. You’ll learn, Moses considered himself a failure.  He had a stutter.  He believed that problem defined him.   So when God called him to lead his people, he gave every excuse he could. But God hadn’t come just to blow up Moses’ frame about God.  He had come to blow up Moses’ frame about Moses.    And when God comes into your life, he will do the same.   God will shatter beliefs that have limited you.  He will heal wounds that have held you back.   He will open you to a peace and possibility in your life you would not have thought possible. 

But how does God come into your life? The burning bush tells you.   After all, who is actually speaking out of this bush?   The Bible says the angel of the Lord is speaking.  It’s as if this angel is God, yet God in a way that can come close that can become God’s intimate, real presence with you.   But who is this angel, an angel who gets worshipped like God, who speaks as if he is God?
Thousands of years later, the answer came when someone named Jesus said he spoke for God.    The religious leaders balked.  Jesus didn’t fit their frame.  They said, who are you telling us how God is?   We have Abraham as our ancestor.  And what did Jesus say.  He said   Before Abraham was, I am.  He was saying.  I’m the One who spoke out of the burning bush.  I am God come to be with you.    And when he laid that reality before them, that burning bush, they couldn’t believe it.  They encountered God, but because God didn’t fit their frame, they missed it completely.    Because Jesus wasn’t the God they wanted him to be, they missed the God who actually is.  

And this God in Jesus has not only come to you.  In Jesus, this God has died for you.  For you are so broken, so bound up that God had to die to heal you, to set you free.  But you are so infinitely loved that God was glad to die so that you might live.    And in the bread and cup of communion, this is who meets you.   Here, in this simple meal, God gives you his life and presence to make you a burning bush, a wondrous witness of what God can do.  And if that doesn’t make complete sense to you, it shouldn’t.   A God you could explain would not be God at all.

So what is your burning bush?  Is it an experience you can’t explain, a person whose faith you find inexplicable?  Is it the question of a child you can’t answer?  Is it the mystery of God's table prepared for you?  Whatever it is, stop, look, listen.  Let God change not only who you think God is.  Let God change who you think you are.