Sunday, November 26, 2017

Here Are The Two Things You Must Let Go to Experience Abundance in Your Life

Does anyone remember a comic book character named Richie Rich?  When I was growing up, I loved that guy.  Heck, I wanted to be that guy.  Just in case, the name didn’t give it away, Richie Rich was well rich, or as the comic book described him, The Poor Little Rich Boy.   Frankly, I never got the poor part of that title.  Richie Rich’s life looked pretty good to me.

But now I get the poor part a bit more.  In spite of all our nation’s challenges, here’s the amazing reality.  Americans live in the midst of incredible abundance.  Today you have phones that give you access to literally the knowledge of the world.  You have hundreds of ways you can entertain yourself.  Heck, if you buy a Triscuit cracker, you can choose between Original or
Cracked Pepper & Olive Oil or Reduced Fat or Hint of Salt or Rosemary & Olive Oil or Dill, Sea Salt, & Olive Oil or Roasted Garlic or Fire Roasted Tomato & Olive Oil or Garden Herb or finally Rye with Caraway Seeds.   And I haven’t even got to the Thin Crisps, Brown Rice or Family Size Triscuits! 

Yet, in the middle of such abundance, Americans seem more miserable and angry than ever.    And yes, you can point to the injustices, to the rich getting richer, to the stagnant incomes, but does that explain it completely?   After all, in the past, you had awful injustices too, arguably worse ones in many ways.   Yet, at no time, in my lifetime have I seen a nation more divided against itself, more resentful, miserable and simply mad about well, everything.           

And often, even with the very wealthy, you see these same things.  For all you can read every day of the abundant wealth of the rich and famous, for most of them, their lives don’t seem all that abundant at all.   Whatever the abundance in people’s bank accounts or grocery stores or in the infinite offerings of the internet, where is the abundance of happiness or simply peace?  Where is the abundance in people’s relationships?  How many folks have lives abundant in meaning or purpose?   Yet, isn’t that what every human being wants.  Don’t you want a life flowing over with joy and fulfillment.   Sure, you want an abundant bank account but not just that.  You want an abundant life.    But, you can’t get an IRA for that.  So, how does it happen?   In the words you’re about to hear, Jesus shows you the way.   Let’s listen to what Jesus has to say..

Do you want an abundant life?  Jesus tells you how here.  Jesus says, stop clinging; start letting go.  Stop clinging to grievances.  Stop clinging on to status or position or power.   Instead let go.  Give up your resentments.   Let go of your time, your talents, your money.  That’s when abundance will come.

When you read these words, you can at first think that Jesus is offering us a trade.   If you give a little condemnation, if you do some judging, then God will throw that right back at you.   On the other hand, if you start passing out some forgiveness, make a few gifts, then God will pass that right back to you too.
But, as we talked about two Sundays ago, God doesn’t work that way.  God isn’t a trader.  God is a giver.  And God gives without any conditions at all.   So God doesn’t do the whole trading thing, then what is Jesus saying?

Jesus is telling you this.  God is giving people abundance but lots of folk can’t get it.  Why?   They’re clinging to all sorts of other junk instead.   And if their hands get filled with that, there’s no room for the abundance God yearns to bring.  Look, God doesn’t force people to receive what God has.  God won’t pry the junk out of your hands.  The only way that stuff goes is when you let it go.   And what is this junk that people cling to?   Jesus tells you.  People cling to their grievances and their gifts. 

When Jesus talks about judging and condemning, Jesus is warning you how deadly clinging to grievances can be.    You end up judging and condemning yourselves.   That’s because when you live lives fill with judgment and condemnation of other, you’re not imprisoning the people you’re judge and condemning.  You’re imprisoning yourself.

Think about it.   Judging and condemning take a lot of energy. You’ve got to keep reminding yourself of the tally of wrongdoers and the wrongs they’ve done to you.  You’ve got to keep working to keep them locked up in that place of condemnation.  It’s like you’ve put that person in a prison, and in order that they don’t escape, you’ve got to be the prison guard.  You’ve got to be there too.  But no, it’s worse than that.  Because guess what, those folks you condemn, they’re not actually imprisoned at all.  You are the only prisoner.  That’s why the writer Malachy McCourt said that holding resentments is like drinking poison, and expecting the other people to get sick.  It’s crazy. 

So, in the end, the only folks judged and condemned are the very people doing the judging and condemning.  So, if this whole practice only imprisons you, then why is it so easy for people to get caught up in it?

Well, when you’re judging and condemning others, you don’t have to look at yourself.  You don’t have to face up to your own failings and faults.   After all, you’ve been victimized.  And as long you play that victim, you don’t have to deal with your own junk, with how you might have hurt others or even contributed to the pain and hurt others caused you.   That’s not your responsibility.  No, it’s all their fault.  And that sort of avoiding your stuff can seem easier.

And if that’s not tempting enough, when you judge and condemn, you get to play God.   You get to place yourselves above others, to get on your high horse.   And that can feel good in a twisted sort of way.  It can feel so good, that people get addicted to judging and condemning.  The more you do it, the more you want more of it.  You can’t get enough.  And then the prisons your judging and condemning create get so big, that even if you wanted to, you can’t find your way out. 

So, Jesus tells you.  Don’t go there.   Don’t judge.  Don’t condemn.  Don’t trap yourself in a prison of your own making.  Let go of the junk.   Forgive.  That’s what forgiveness is.  It’s letting go.    

Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation.  You can stop being in relationship with someone and forgive them.   You can even forgive people with whom a relationship can’t happen, people who have died for example. 
And forgiving doesn’t mean minimizing or burying the hurt either.   After all, if you just do that, you’re not really forgiving.  You just denying.  So, if you’re not reconciling or minimizing the hurt when you forgive, what are you doing.  You are letting it go.    

Let’s say I get caught up in just an unbelievable load of debt, debt that I can’t repay. Even after the bank has done all it can to get its money back, it’s not enough.   But I got nothing else to give them.  I’m flat broke. What does the bank do?   They write my debt off.  They take it as a loss on their books.   They don’t minimize my debt.  They don’t necessarily reconcile with me; that’s for sure.  They simply realize that, in order to move on, they have to face that this debt is one they’re not going to collect.  So, they write it off.

That’s what forgiveness means.  You write off that debt so that you can move on.  This writing off can take a while.  Forgiving, at least with human-beings, rarely happens all at once.  You’ll probably let it go a lot before you finally become free.    Forgiveness doesn’t come easy.  But it does free you.  It frees you not simply from the prison of your own judging and condemning.  It frees you to receive, the ultimate gift, God’s forgiveness of you.   When your hands are full of self-righteous grievance and resentment, God can’t do that.  Heck, those very grievances block you from even seeing the need for that forgiveness.   

But when you get that grace from God, you start realizing that everything, everything you have God has given you.  And as you realize that, you start letting it go too.   Your generosity grows everywhere.

But sadly, just the way people cling to their grievance, they cling to their gifts as if somehow God can’t give more.  So, they think they own their things.  But the things actually own them.  And then they wonder how they can have so much, and yet it feels like so little.  But that’s what happen when you start putting your trust in the gifts rather than the Giver. Your clinging shuts off the abundance God wants to give.   And how abundant is this abundance?  Jesus tells you. 

Have you ever bought a big box of cereal, and seen that little sign on the side that says, “Ingredients may settle during transit.”   Then you open it up and discover what that means.  You didn’t buy a big box of cereal.  You bought half a big box of cereal.  In Jesus’ day, something similar happened.  You’d buy some meal from a merchant, and put it in a little bag attached to your robe, but once you shook it and pressed it down, well it wasn’t so much.  But Jesus says, not with God.  No matter how much shaking and pressing you do, what God gives will always run over your laps.  God’s gifts, no matter how much the ingredients settle, will always be too big for the box.

For the last week, the internet has been abuzz with just such a story, one that some folks here gave me an update on only a few days ago.   A young woman named Kate McClure ran out of gas on the side of the freeway outside of Philly late one night.  She had no money with her.  And she was terrified.   But a homeless vet named “Johnny” noticed her distress.   And with his last 20.00 he walked to a gas station and brought back gas for her car.   From that point on, Kate became friends with Johnny.   And 16 days ago, she and her boyfriend, Mark, started a GoFundMe page for him.   They had an ambitious goal to raise $10,000, that would help get Johnny an apartment, a decent vehicle, and a few months of expenses until he could get a job.  Well, they hit a bit over that goal.  As of the time of this blog post, 13, 245 people had raised over 370,000.00.  And Johnny and Kate are now trying to figure out how to give that money away to other folks in need, including some of the places that helped Johnny out in the past.

When Johnny let that last twenty dollars go, he set off a chain of abundance that is still going even now.   God won’t always work that dramatically.  Nor will the abundance God bring always be money or anything material.  But God will always bring abundance.        

But if you don’t let go, then you will never receive what God yearns to give. Your hands will simply be too full, of all the junk you’re still clinging to.  The abundant life God created for you won’t happen.

You’ll be like that monkey with the banana.   Do you know that story?  In Africa, when people want to catch a monkey, they put a banana in a gourd with one hole.  The hole is big enough for the monkey to stick his hand in to get the banana.   But it’s not big enough for him to get the hand out with the banana.   But that monkey won’t let go of that banana.  He’ll hold on to that banana until the hunters return.

Human beings imprison themselves like those monkeys simply by not letting go.   They won’t let go of grievance and resentment.  They won’t let go of the very gifts God has given them so that God might give them more.  They hold on to those bananas even when they trap them again and again. 

So how do you let go?  How do you stop clinging to the junk?  You look to the One who let go everything for you, who let go of heaven in order to give you a place there forever, who become poor so that you might become rich with abundant life without end.   As you experience what God gave up out of love for you, God’s love will free you to let go of the junk to which you cling.   And your hands, your heart, your life will open up so that God can give you a deeper, richer abundance than you could ever have dreamed.   

Saturday, November 18, 2017

How Fear Holds You Captive, and How You Can Begin to Break Out

It haunted me for years.   I saw my friends do it.   They talked about how thrilling it was.  But when I looked, I could feel the fear clinch inside of me.   Now, I didn’t say that.  No, I just told people I wasn’t interested in doing it. 

I even came up with a substitute activity to show my courage.  I swam across the lake while my dad paddled along beside me in a canoe to make sure I didn’t drown.  I told myself.  Certainly, what I’m doing is harder than what they were doing.   I’m swimming over a mile through deep water.  They are just jumping off a small cliff.    But I knew the truth.   I was scared to jump.  So, I didn’t.

I carried that regret for years, until, I had another opportunity to take such a leap.  I was still scared, if anything more scared than I had been those years before.  But this time, I did not let my fear stop me. I still remember the relief, the exuberance, the sense of triumph I felt after that leap.    And it reminded me.  The greatest enemy any person faces is often their own fear.

Have you ever had a moment where you wished you had taken a risk and didn’t?  How did it feel?    And have you ever had a time where you did face your fear, where you took that leap?   How did that feel? 

Fear rarely helps you.   More often, it actually hurts you. Physically, it increases your risk of heart disease and other health problems.     It can even damage your brain, including your ability to remember.   Practically, it usually leads you to not make better decisions, but worst ones, even ones that can kill you. 

Before I came to the church I once served on Long Island, one of their former pastors had lost his wife, Marjorie, to breast cancer.  The loss devastated everyone, especially her two sons, who lost their mom right in the middle of their teens.   But years later, I heard a tragic twist to that terrible loss.  I was talking to the church’s music director, Lorna, about Marjorie’s death.   And as we talked, she paused, and said quietly these words.  “Kennedy, do you know that she knew?”   Puzzled, I asked.  “She knew what?”   Lorna explained.  “Marjorie was a nurse. So she knew to do regular breast self-exams.   That’s when she discovered the lump.  But she didn’t do anything about it.  And by the time, she did, it was too late.”   

When Marjorie delayed that visit to the doctor, she probably said to herself that the lump was likely nothing to worry about.   She may have thought that she didn’t want to unduly alarm the family.  But none of that was true.  She simply was too scared to discover the truth, and by the time she overcame that fear, it was already too late.    Fear can be that dangerous.  Not only does it rarely tell you the truth, it often stops you from seeing the truth you desperately need to see.    It does fit the acronym for FEAR, False Evidence Appearing Real.

That’s why the most common command in the Bible is simply this.  Do not fear.  Yet, fear can be so insidious that, like it did with Marjorie, it can capture you without you even realizing it.    So, how do you live a life where you conquer fear instead of getting captured by it?  How do you live a life where you take the risks that will enable you to grow, to blossom into who God created you to be?  In this simple story, Jesus shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

How do you not let fear limit your life?   How do you prevent it from taking you captive?  In this story of the brave widow, Jesus tells you.   In this story, Jesus points to how fear can take control without you even knowing it.   And at the same time, Jesus shows you the path out of the fear.  Jesus tells you.   Freedom from fear begins with one step, one step that then leads to many.  

But before you and I look at that first step, we need to look at how subtle fear can be, how it can decide things in your life, without you even realizing it. 

This story that we just heard occurs in a strange place.   Before Jesus talks about this woman, do you know what he’s been doing?  He’s been arguing.   He’s been having one argument after another with people who have questions about who Jesus is, what Jesus is doing.   Then in the midst of all these arguments, Jesus turns and notices this widow throwing two pennies into the collection plate.

It almost seems as if Jesus got distracted from his main job, facing down his opponents.  But in reality, Jesus was showing his opponents what lay behind every argument that they laid out.   Yes, one had this objection, and another, had this concern.   But no matter what differences each opponent had, their opposition had one common source.   They were scared that Jesus was right, that indeed God had come in the flesh.   And if this was true, then that would force them into a decision they’d rather not make.   Deciding to follow Jesus meant all sorts of sacrifices, all manner of disturbing change in their lives.   So, what did they decide to do instead?  They decided to come up with all sorts of excuses, all sorts of rationales to avoid taking that risk, all sorts of reasons why Jesus couldn’t be right.

So, what does Jesus do?   He points to someone who is taking a far more radical risk than simply believing.   He points to a poor woman, bereft of anything but a half penny, but who takes that minuscule amount, and lays it before God.    And Jesus sees her sacrifice for what it is.  Now, what Jesus saw, even the translators have difficulty facing.  They soften Jesus’ actual words.  In the translation we heard this morning, we read “she gave all she had to live on.”   That comes close, but it doesn’t give Jesus’ description full justice.   Jesus says that she gave more than what she had to live on.  Jesus says that she gave her bios, the Greek word for life.  This widow in those two pennies was risking her very life.   She was placing everything on the line. 

And in pointing out the radical courage of this widow, Jesus was pointing out what lay behind all his opponents’ objections, their fear, their fear of taking anything close to the step of faith this woman did.   

Yet Jesus’ doesn’t simply call out those opponents, Jesus calls out pretty much everyone.  How many of us have come anywhere close to the courage of this widow?

When I think of her story, I remember the popular business fable of the chicken and the pig.  Do you know it?

A pig and a chicken were walking down the road. As they passed a church, they notice that a potluck charity breakfast was under way. Caught up in the spirit, the pig suggested to the chicken that they each make a contribution.
“Great Idea!” the chicken cried. “Let’s offer them ham and eggs!”
“Not so fast.” said the pig. “For you, that’s just a contribution, but for me, it’s a total commitment.”

When it comes to giving, almost everyone falls far more into the chicken category than the pig.  You and I may believe that God will provide, but we’re not so interested in testing that belief out too strongly.   So yes, we give, some of us more generously than others.   But do you give like the widow?   Does your gift take away from your ability to put food on your table or to pay your rent or mortgage, or even to take the vacations you desire?   And sure, you and I might say, that such giving would be reckless or foolish.  But beyond that rationale, is there a deeper reason?  Are we scared to trust God that much?       

On June 30th 1859, the great tightrope walker, Blondin, did his most daring feat ever.   He walked on a two inch rope across Niagara Falls, a distance of over a quarter of a mile.  25,000 people witnessed the sight.  Blondin, being the showman he was, didn’t just walk across.  No, in the middle he sat down, and called for the ferry boat Maiden of the Mist to park below him.   He then pulled up from the boat a bottle of wine on a rope, and after a nice swig continued his journey to the Canadian side of the Falls.   On his way back, he hauled a camera with a tripod on his back, and in the middle, set down his balancing pole, and setting up the camera took a picture of the crowd on the American side.

But Blondin wasn’t finished.  Five days later on July the 4th, he went again, this time without a balancing pole.   Halfway over, he lay down on the cable, flipped himself over, and began walking backwards.   On the way back, he took it one step further, wearing a sack over his body the whole way. 

Every two weeks or so, Blondin would go again, each time doing something crazier than the time before, like somersaulting and backflipping his way across or pushing a wheelbarrow across.  When he reached the other side with the wheelbarrow, he invited someone to jump in, but go figure, nobody took up the offer.  In fact, while everyone believed that Blondin could carry someone across, no one but his own manager, Harry Colchord, ever had the courage to take him up on the offer.

Now, you may not have the dream of crossing Niagara Falls, but your fear can stop you from fulfilling the dreams you do have.  And you often won’t even realize it is your fear that is stopping you.  No, you will come up with some other reasonable explanation for your reluctance to risk, but if you’re honest, it will be rarely that.  It will be your fear, lying to you, holding you back, giving you false evidence that appears real. 

And if you’re honest too, when it comes to your giving, it will be your fear speaking to you there.    But what would it look like to take a step through that fear, one step closer to the faith of that widow.  What would it be like to take an honest look at what you are giving, not simply as an amount, but in the same way, Jesus looked at the widow’s gift in terms of proportion.   Out of what God has provided you, what percentage do you give back to God, 1%, 2%, 5%, 10%?   Whatever that amount is, what about giving more, maybe instead of 1%, it becomes 2% or even 1.25%, or instead of 5% it became 6 or instead of 10, it becomes 12.  Or if that math gets too complicated, let’s make it simpler.  Just give more, enough more that it makes you a little nervous.   Why?  Because in that step, you will be taking a step through the barriers of fear that hold you back not only here, but in other areas of your life too.    And you will be doing it for the sake of the One, who has broken through every barrier, to shatter those very fears. 

In Jesus God went beyond even the gift of that widow.  In Jesus, God didn’t risk his life.  God gave his life.  He gave his life for you.   God gave his life to free you, to free you from your false fears so you can live in the freedom and security of a love that knows no bounds.  Let God give you that freedom.  Let God show you his faithfulness.   And what better place to begin than with one small step of faith with our money, one of the areas where many of our greatest fears live. 

God isn’t asking you to become the widow today.  But God is asking you to trust, to trust just a bit more in this God who has given everything for you.    As the writer Ruth Senter puts it:

God’s call to you, his child, is not to safeness, but always to something more – always upward, higher, further along.  To bypass the call is to settle for mediocrity, complacency, and dormancy.  And should you choose not to risk, you will more than likely wake up some morning with the haunting question on your mind, “Could God have had something more for me, if only I had dared to trust?”

Dare to trust today.   Take that step in your giving to God that moves you a bit further from the limits of fear into the freedom of faith.  And see how God will use that step to break you out from the fears that hold you captive.         

Sunday, November 12, 2017

What Is the One Truth From Sutherland Springs that Applies to Everyone?

Who could have imagined it?   Here you are living in a town about as far off the beaten track as you can get.   And into that quiet, even peaceful place comes something that puts your town on the map in an awful way.  Your little town joins a painful list of other names from Columbine to Sandy Hook, from Vegas to Pulse in Orlando

It’s hard to wrap your head and heart around the senseless violence that took 26 lives in Sutherland Springs.   Now, we, as a church, are doing what we can to make our worship gatherings as safe as they can be.  But, in spite of that, what happened there can’t help but be a little scary.  It reminds you of how vulnerable life is. 

Years ago, someone said to me: When it comes to life, we all have a limited lease and are subject to immediate eviction.   I admired the cleverness of the phrase. But more than that, I couldn’t deny its disturbing truth.   Every day, things can happen that put your life in crisis, that threaten your existence.   Each time you get in a car, you open yourselves to all sorts of danger.  But you don’t even have to go anywhere.   It can be your body that gets you right at home.  A cancer comes out of nowhere.  Your heart seizes and squeezes the life out of you.

What do you do when life is that uncertain; in the midst of a world that can be so terrifyingly unpredictable?   How do you find stability there, security, peace?    In these words, Jesus shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.    

Life can seem at least somewhat certain, until, well it’s not.  Then, you remember.   No matter how secure you make your life, that security only goes so far.   And that’s disturbing, scary even.  But in these words, Jesus reminds you of what is certain, of what you can trust, when everything else falls apart.    And the more you get what Jesus is telling you, the more your life will rest on something that can never be shaken. 

So, what is Jesus telling you?   Jesus is telling you that as precious as the gifts can be, true certainty isn’t found there.   True certainty never lies with the gifts but always with the Giver.
That’s the point Jesus makes with all those woe statements, we just read.   I never liked these statements.   Jesus’ words seemed so petty, mean even.   Woe to you rich, you’ll get yours.  And if you’re full now, someday you’ll be hungry.   And if you’re laughing now, just wait, your crying will come.   And if everyone likes you, you’re just a sellout.

But Jesus doesn’t say those words out of anger or resentment.  Woe isn’t mainly a word you use to condemn someone.  Woe is a word you use when you feel deeply sad for someone.   

Jesus isn’t saying either that you can’t be rich or full or enjoy life or have someone speak well of you.   Yes, with one rich guy, he did tell him to give away his wealth.  But with Nicodemus, who was rich too, he didn’t address money at all.   And when he fed the 5,000, you can bet those folks were full.   When Jesus turned the water into wine, he certainly stirred up some joy and laughter there. 
And while certainly not everyone liked Jesus, lots of people did. 

So, what is Jesus saying?  Jesus is saying that if you put your trust in these things, wealth, desires, success and recognition, then you are headed for trouble. 

When Jesus tells the rich they have received their consolation, he uses a very interesting word for consolation, Parakletos.  It’s the same word he’ll use later to describe what the Spirit of God does, that the Spirit, your comforter, your consolation.    Jesus is warning people who are making wealth their ultimate source of security and comfort.  He is saying.  When you do that, not only will it not give you the comfort you seek, it will lead you to miss where that comfort actually lies.

In the same way, Jesus say, if you make fulfilling your desires the end all and be all of your life, it will never be enough.   You will always be hungry.   Satisfying your appetites might fill you a bit, but it won’t ever fulfill you.  It may give you what you want.  It will never give you what you need.
But still what about laughing?   Why does Jesus hate laughter?  But this Greek word for laughter means something else here actually.  It means the laughter of gloating, gloating because you’ve won.   Jesus isn’t warning you against telling a good joke.  Jesus is warning you against making success what you prize most in life.  That, Jesus says, will only lead you to grief and regret. 

And finally, Jesus warns you against making recognition what you aim for.  Why?  When you aim for that, you will find yourself making compromises that haunt you.  You will find yourself putting up a false front that only imprisons you.   And in the end, like it did with the false prophets, the truth, ugly parts and all, will always come out. 

Jesus is warning you.  All these things, wealth, pleasure, success, recognition, they don’t give you the comfort, the security you need.   In fact, if you center your life on these things, they will make you more insecure than ever.

Wealth can come and go.  So can pleasure.  Success can disappear too.  And recognition, forget about that.   One year, you’re a household name.   And a few years later, Oprah is featuring you on that show, where are they now?

This can all seem obvious right?   It’s even fashionable for rich and famous people to say that it’s not about success or fame.  They’ll say.  It’s about the art or making a difference, something high-minded like that. 

But Jesus warns you.  You can tell yourself that; that you’re not making these things the center of your life.   But how do you really know? 

One way is to ask yourself this question.   Are you a giver or are you a trader? 

Now, when Jesus talks about that here, when he says things about giving when anyone asks of you, you can get the wrong idea.   You can think that Jesus is talking about that guy you see panhandling by the freeway.  But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here at all. 

In Jesus’ day, you didn’t have banks.  Nobody took out loans to buy land or anything really.   You bought with cash.   So, if you were looking for a loan, it meant, you were desperate.  Something awful had gone wrong in your life, and you needed someone to bail you out.  But if someone came to you with such a need, you didn’t just dig into your pocket and give them a loan.  No, you assessed the situation.   You thought.   Does this person have something that that one day they can give me in return for my help?   It could be the repayment of the loan.  It could be some other favor.   Maybe they have a relative who you can count on a for a future favor.   Maybe they had a skill or talent you could use one day.   And if they didn’t have anything to offer you, that person didn’t get your help.   Everyone did this.  That’s the way things were done.

But Jesus blows that whole system up.   He says to people.  When you give, just give.  When you loan, don’t look for a return.   And why?  Because that’s how God deals with you.   Not only does God not expect anything back from God’s gifts.   God gives blessings to even the folks who most disappoint him, the ungrateful and the wicked.  But here’s the problem with Jesus’ advice.   People don’t naturally go this way.   People aren’t natural givers.  No, they’re natural traders.

Last week, my son experienced a bit of a trauma.  We went to the store to get a birthday present for a friend of his.   I was surprised about how excited Patrick was.   He really wanted to pick out this gift.   And he picked out a perfect one.   But then, he asked me.   “Can we go home and open it now?”    And I said.  “No, this present isn’t for you.  It’s for your friend.”   At first, he didn’t comprehend it, this whole idea of giving a gift.  And when he did, you could see the shock and dismay.  This whole gifting thing seemed so unfair.  He tearfully questioned me.   If my friend is going to get one, why aren’t I getting one too?  Finally, I told him that at the birthday party, there would be cake.   It still didn’t seem fair, but at least he was getting something for this gift. 

That’s where people naturally go.   We’re all natural traders.   If you go out to dinner with friends, and pick up the check, you’re not giving them a free meal.  At some point, you expect something in return.  Maybe next time, they’ll pick up the check or they’ll help you out in another way.     And if they don’t do that, that could put the friendship on the rocks.

Human-beings like to keep score.   It lies behind a lot of conflicts in marriage, all sorts of relationships.  One partner senses that one partner isn’t doing their part.   One family member feels that they’re doing all the work.   It even leads to wrong ideas about God.  You think, if I do my part, then God has to do his.  

Now what’s wrong with that?  Isn’t that just fair.  Well, let’s lay out a few of the problems.  First, you think you’re keeping accurate score, but you’re not.   You’re always giving yourself way more credit, than you’re giving the other person.   You remember everything you’ve done for them, but some of the stuff, they’ve done for you, you conveniently forget.  How do you know that?   Well, it’s because when you calculate the score, aren’t you always winning?    

But beyond that, let’s say, that even if you are skewing the score, it’s still clear, you are doing way more than they are.   Where does that lead you?   It leads you to resentment, to bitterness.  You give power to this person to shape the attitudes of your life, usually in negative and hurtful ways.     

But more importantly than that, Jesus is saying, when you do this, you are insulting God.  If God were keeping score, none of us would be close to winning.   Just by living, you owe a debt you can’t repay.  But God doesn’t expect you to.   Why?  Because God doesn’t trade with you.   God gives to you.   So, when you go around trading with others, God is thinking.  After all, I have given to you, you’re doing this.   You have got to be kidding.  And it’s even more ridiculous, when you try trading with God, as if that’s even a possibility.

More than that, when you focus so much on what others need to give you, you insult God in a deeper way.  You say to God.  After all, you’ve done for me.  I still don’t trust you.   No, I’ve got to look out for myself.    I’ve got to focus on the gifts, what I have.  If I give it up, I’ve got to get something in return.  But God is thinking.  Are you nuts?   Where do all your gifts ultimately come from?   They come from me.  Yet you are so tied up in the gifts, you have forgotten completely about the One who gave them, who gives you everything.  

But here’s the clincher.   At some point, all your gifts are going away.  If nothing else, death will take them.   Even if you die wealthy, you can’t take it with you.  You don’t see u-hauls on the backs of hearses do you?    But before death comes, losses will come your way.   Family members will die.  Relationships will founder.  Financial setbacks will befall you.  Health losses will hit you.   But if you are living focused on the giver, then even as you grieve and cry, you have a foundation that cannot be shaken.   You will know, that while the gifts come and go, the One who gives them doesn’t.  And you know that, because that Giver, in Jesus, gave everything for you.   God sealed God’s promise of faithfulness to you with God’s very life.

And if you doubt the power of that, look at Sutherland Springs.  As the New York Times put it:
One minute the Holcombes were a tight-knit family praying in the tiny church on Fourth Street. The next, eight of them were gone.  Bryan and Karla Holcombe, a guest preacher and his wife, were dead.   Their son Marc Daniel Holcombe, gone. Their pregnant daughter-in-law, Crystal Holcombe, gone.  And four of their grandchildren — Noah, Emily, Megan and Greg — gone.
The gunman nearly wiped out the Holcombe family, leaving Joe Holcombe, 86, Bryan’s father, to mourn the loss of the generations he had raised. “We know where they are now,” he said in an interview, his voice strained by exhaustion. “All of our family members, they’re all Christian. And it won’t be long until we’re with them.”
Or hear these words from the pastor of that church, who lost his 14-year-old daughter that day.

"You lean in to what you don't understand, you lean in to the Lord," Frank Pomeroy told reporters during the press conference. "I don't understand but I know my God does."  

Even in the awfulness of their losses, these people have a foundation that cannot be shaken.  Why?  They know.  The Giver, stands with them, the One who in Jesus, gave everything for them.  They know. If Jesus didn’t abandon them on that cross, he won’t abandon them now.  They know.  God’s love has the last word, not the violence of that day.    And if you trust in this One who has given everything for you, you have that same foundation.   And it will free you to give because you know the source of every gift.  And when loss comes, that God will give you the strength to get through, to know that whatever you face, this God never leaves you nor forsakes you.     Do you want that?  Then leave trading behind.  Cherish the gifts, yes.  But trust in the Giver.   Trust in the One whose love you will never lose.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The One Thing You Need to Know to Become Free of the Burden of Guilt

Oh, how it gets me.   I was waiting this week to turn behind this other car.    But when the traffic cleared, the car just sat there.   I tried to be nice about it.   I thought.  Maybe this driver was distracted for a moment. It happens.  But then the traffic cleared again, and guess what did not happen?   No turn again!   That’s when I lost it.   I started yelling “Turn, just turn!!”   Eventually the driver did turn of course, but that sort of thing drives me nuts!

Now that may not bother you, but you probably have something that does?  Do you have something that pushes your buttons; an annoying habit; a certain noise that sends you around the bend.     It could be anything.    And when it happens, oh how it can irritate.

Still, life goes on.   On the scale of problems, these things, they’re irritating, but they don’t really mess up your life.   But in your life, you have something else, something that pushes your buttons in a different way that will mess you up, that could even destroy you.  

When it comes to doing wrong things in life, let’s be honest.  Some of the wrong you and I do, it doesn’t bother us that much.   Maybe it should, but it doesn’t.   You don’t feel that much guilt or regret about it.  Heck, you may not feel any.  But not every mistake you make is like that.  In your life, you probably have one that really pushes your buttons.    When you mess up here, that failing stays with you.  The guilt follows you, the regrets.   You find it so hard to let it go. 

Normally, with my son, Patrick, I’m the more patient parent.   But a few times, I’ve lost it.   I can’t even tell you why I lost it, but I remember that I did.  It wasn’t pretty. Afterwards, I went to Patrick and apologized. And he, like 3 year olds do, let it go and moved on.   But I carried it.  I carried it for way too long.  

Now that particular screw-up may not push your buttons, like it pushes mine.  But do you have something that does?  Do you carry regret over a mistake, maybe one from years ago?    Do you have a failing that you hope no one finds out about ever?   That stuff weighs you down.  It holds you back.   It can even eat you alive.  Some have found such stuff so hard to live with, they kill themselves.   They’d rather die than carry it another day.   But here’s the truth.   If you’re carrying that, you’re not supposed to.  You can let it go.  You can be free of it.   In these words, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

You can carry regrets, guilt about things for years and years even.   You can even think you’re supposed to, like it’s a virtue or something.  It’s not.   But even if you know that, it’s hard to let it go.   So, how do you?   How do you leave it behind?   How do you get free of it, really free?   God tells you here.   God says.  I am greater than your heart.

And it’s that, your heart, that is holding you back.  When John talks about your heart here, he doesn’t mean that big red muscle beating in your chest right now.  John means what you mean, when you say; That guy was really speaking from the heart.  John means what Selena Gomez means when she sings, The Heart Wants What It Wants.  

John is talking about the forces that drive you, for good or for bad.   For sometimes your heart will not only lead you to do something stupid.   It won’t let you forget it.   It will torture you with it, condemn you for it, burden you with it.   And you can think that all this bad feeling even comes from God.   But if that’s true, why does John say when our hearts condemn us, God is greater than that.  God not only doesn’t condemn you, John says, instead he reassures you. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care when you do something wrong.   But God doesn’t condemn you for it.   Now, God may convict you.   You may hear God saying to your heart.  What you did there wasn’t right.   That thought you’re carrying it leads nowhere good.    But do you see the difference?  When conviction comes, it wakes you up to something wrong.  Then it encourages you to go a different way.   It is saying something like: You are better than this.   It gives you hope.

But condemnation offers you no hope.  Condemnation just locks you up and throws away the key.   So when condemnation comes, it never comes from God, even if you hear it in a church.   God doesn’t condemn.  Evil condemns.  That’s why the Bible calls the Devil, the Accuser.  That’s part of the evil of evil.  It gets you coming and going.  It tempts you to do wrong. And then it condemns you for what it tempted you to do in the first place. 

So how do you get free? You realize. Your heart is lying to you.  It is telling you something isn’t true.  God is bigger than your mistakes.  God is greater than your failings, no matter how bad.   Instead, God has taken all that for you.   He carried your guilt so you can be free of it.  God paid the ultimate price to set you free from your lying and condemning heart.   And the more you believe that, the greater your freedom becomes. 

The preacher Tim Keller tells a story about one of the old Czars in Russia.  One of the Czar’s nobleman was dying.   So, he asked the Czar to adopt his little son, as his mother had died also.  The Czar adopted the boy into his household, gave him everything.   The boy grew up and took a commission in the army.  But he had some issues, a big gambling problem.  And he began to embezzle from his division, as he was the bookkeeper.  Eventually it got so bad, he couldn’t hide the stealing any longer.  It was going to come out.    So, one night he looked at the books and saw the mess he created.  Then, he drank as much as he could, trying to find the nerve to kill himself.  But he drank so much, he passed out.   Now, the Czar had a practice of dressing up as a soldier to see what was really going on.  And that night, he was doing just that.  He went to look in on his adopted son.  And he saw the revolver, the open books, the passed-out man. He realized everything.  So, the Czar wrote a note, and sealed it with the Czar’s seal.  Then he left.   When the young man woke up, he saw the note.  It read, “I, the Czar will make good all the debts in this book.”   And he realized, the Czar had come and seen everything.  But the Czar hadn’t condemned him.  No, the Czar out of love had taken all the debt on himself. 

In Jesus God came as one of us.  And God saw everything, all the messes you and had made.  But God did more than write a note.  In Jesus, God offered up everything, even God’s own life, so that you might be free forever.    Let Jesus free you from your lying and condemning heart.  Receive the liberation from guilt God has given to you.  What do you need to do?  All you need to do is believe that it’s true, that God's love is greater than your heart.