Sunday, December 23, 2018

How Does the Coming of Jesus Really Change You? It's Not How You Might Think.

We saw the newest one.  It wasn’t bad.   It must have been better than the Jim Carrey one.    But even with a bigger budget, even with a longer length, even with new characters, I’m sorry.  It couldn’t hold a candle to the first one.   

No version will ever defeat that 30 minutes of magic.  Do you know what I’m talking about?   
If you don’t maybe this clip will give you a clue. 

I love that scene. But to be honest, I love other scenes more, like the whole Grinch encounter with little Cindy Lou Who.   But I picked that scene because it shows you what every Christmas special has.  Along the way somebody changes or maybe several people change.   Think about it.   Santa changes when it comes to Rudolph.   In Charlie Brown, everybody changes when it comes to Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree.   In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge changes.   In, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s view of himself changes.  Pretty much in every one, folks change.

And these movies and cartoons are getting this one thing right.   Jesus’ coming does change people.  But his coming doesn’t change folks in exactly the way those Christmas specials tell you.    In fact, the changes they celebrate, they’re nice.  I’m glad the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes that day.  But they miss the point.

When you experience the change, Jesus brings, it does make you better, yes.  But to be honest, lots of stuff in life can make you better.  What Jesus brings frees you.  What Jesus brings frees you to become yourself in ways nothing else in existence can.   How does Jesus free you like that?  In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

How does Jesus’ coming free you?   Here, God tells you.   Jesus frees you to become yourself.  But here’s the paradox.   To do this, Jesus first frees you from thinking of yourself at all.   What do I mean?

Look at what happens in this story.   Here you have this guy, John the Baptist who has gone off on this freelance religious mission.  He’s baptizing everyone and anyone who comes to him.    And that’s new.   In Jewish tradition, some folks did go through a sort of baptism like John is doing.  But only converts did this.   If you were born Jewish, you were already covered.  You didn’t need to go through something like this. 

But John goes out in the desert and throws out thousands of years of religious tradition.  And get this.  He has no special training, no authorization.  He is just going off and doing this baptism thing for everybody.    And it’s working.  People are going out in droves to get this baptism thing.  
So, what do you expect would happen?   Since John hadn’t gone to the religious authorities.  They go to him.   And they ask him.   Who the heck do you think you are?  

And get this, John get the answer wrong.   He doesn’t realize he gets the answer wrong.  But he does.    They ask him.   Are you the Messiah?   No he says.  So far so good.   Well, then are you Elijah?   No, John says.   Uh-Oh.   Uh-Oh.  

Now, let’s take a time out for a moment.   Just as an FYI.  In terms of prophet rankings, the prophet Elijah always had the number one spot.   He was number one by a mile.  Not only that, later prophets had said that Elijah was coming back.   He’d come back to be the herald, the one who announces the coming of the Messiah.   And that’s exactly what John is doing.

Still, he is technically right.   John is not Elijah literally come back to life.   But then these religious leaders go deeper.   They ask. Are you the Prophet?  Basically, they’re asking a similar question to the one they asked before.   This time, though they’re referring to a passage in the Torah, in Deuteronomy about a prophet to come.  They’re asking.   Are you then that other prophet mentioned in the Torah?   And John again says.   No.   

But do you know what Jesus says later about John?  He’ll say this
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?  If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’
I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John;

Wooah!  Not only does Jesus call John a prophet, he quotes the very prophecy that talks about the Elijah type guy, who announces the coming of the Messiah.   Not only that.  He tells everyone that no greater prophet, no greater human being has ever existed before John. John is the greatest human being ever born, at least until Jesus.   But more about that later.      

But John gets none of that.  He just says this.   I’m a voice, just a voice, crying in the wilderness. So, why didn’t John get it?   Basically, John wasn’t thinking a whole lot about who he was.  He wasn’t thinking little of himself.  But he was thinking very little about himself.  He just wasn’t that focused on himself at all.   And in that very lack of focus lies a key not only to the greatness of John, but to the greatness of life that God yearns each of us to have.

Someone once said to me.   If you think you’re a saint, you’re definitely not one.   And, ever since I heard that, it’s made so much sense.   Saints never think of themselves as saints.    

Recently the Pope made a guy named Oscar Romero, a saint.    And about twenty years ago, I visited the rooms where Oscar Romero used to live.   At the time, he was serving as archbishop of El Salvador, a nation torn apart by a brutal civil war.  But do you know where he lived?  He lived in this little apartment on the campus of a church hospital, the Hospital of Divine Providence.   He could have lived in a palace in the center of the city, but he didn’t.   But if you had asked him why he lived in this apartment, he wouldn’t have given you some answer about solidarity with the poor, like he was making some grand statement.   No, he would have just told you he liked it there.  It was quiet.   Romero never thought of himself as anything all that special.   Still that doesn’t change the fact that his witness and faith touched the life of his country, and countless people around world, including me.   Sheesh, I  have his picture on my office wall.    But when Romero was alive, if you had told him that 50 years after his death as a martyr, a Presbyterian preacher would have a poster of him on his wall.   He wouldn’t have believed it.   But the fact that Romero didn’t think so much about himself actually freed him to become the very saint he has become.   And in John you see that same thing happening.

For after John has denied that he is anything special, the religious authorities get to the point.   So then, if you’re not anything special, why are you doing this baptism thing?    And what does John say?    He simply says.   That’s just what I do.   I baptize.

Do you realize how gutsy this is?    He tells the religious establishment of the entire nation.  I don’t have to give you any answer at all.    If this is what I feel called to do, I’m going to do it, end of story.    And John won’t stop being bold.   He’ll call out the highest leader in Palestine for sleeping with his brother’s wife.   In fact, that move eventually ends up getting him killed.  But how can John be that bold, that gutsy?   That has to do with what he continues to say.

For John doesn’t end it there with those words on baptism.  He keeps going.   He tells them.  Whatever authority I have to rewrite the rules of our religion, it pales in comparison to who is coming.  That one could be standing around you right now, in fact   And, that one, I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals. 

In John’s day, the lowliest work you could do was untying someone’s sandals.  And when it comes to Jesus, he says.  I’m not even worthy enough for that.   But in those very words, you find the key to John’s freedom, and to yours.

Why did John not think a lot about himself?  He was thinking so much about Jesus, the one to come.   And, the more he thought about Jesus, the less he thought about himself.    And let’s be honest.  Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

After all, how much time do you spend thinking about yourself?   How many times do you find yourselves a little anxious what some other person is thinking or feeling about you?    How do I look?   Did I say the wrong thing?  Is that person upset with me?   What are they going to think if I do this or don’t do this?  

And don’t tell me.   Well, I’m my own person.  I don’t let other people set my agenda.  Guaranteed, if you’re saying that, you’re thinking about how good or impressive it looks to say something like that.  Whether you realize it or not, you’re always playing before an audience, maybe an audience that includes people that aren’t even alive anymore.   But they still rent space in your head.  And that audience can capture you like nothing else.    It limits you from becoming who you really, truly are. 

But in John, you see someone who doesn’t have that audience hanging around in his head.  He is playing only before an audience of One.   And that frees him to not get intimidated when the religious leaders call him out.   It frees him to challenge the highest power in the land.  It frees him from himself, from his self-obsessions, his insecurities, his fears, all those things that trip you up in the world.   And get this, he doesn’t even know fully why Jesus is coming, what Jesus will do. 

And for that reason, Jesus says as great as John is, the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.   What does Jesus mean?    He is saying that now greatness comes through him, through Jesus, through Jesus’ love for you, through Jesus’ laying down his life for you, through Jesus’ giving up everything for you, to make you great.   And when you get that, how deeply, how profoundly, how infinitely God loves you, it frees you from you.  It frees you from worrying about what others think, from that audience in your head.   It narrows that audience to One, to One who loves you more than you can imagine.  And in that love, you become free, free from fears, from insecurities, free to be yourself more and more every day, until Jesus completes that beautiful work making you, you.    That is the change Jesus brings.  That is the light that comes to you that no darkness can overcome.   That is the light of Christmas.  This is the bright and morning star.   So, live in that light, and let it free you.  Let it cast all the fear and darkness away.  

Sunday, December 16, 2018

How to Know That You Are Never Alone, Ever

Did you ever have a movie scene that you simply can’t forget?   You might forget the movie itself, the plot, the other stars, but that one scene; it just sticks in your head.   It happens to me.   And if the billions of movie clip views on You Tube tell you anything, they tell you this. Other people have scenes that stick in their heads too. 

Well, this week, one of those scenes popped into my head.  It doesn’t come from any great, acclaimed movie.  You may not even remember the star.  Does anyone here recall Crocodile Dundee?  Well, this scene from that movie years ago, I’ve never forgotten.     

When he called New York City, the friendliest city in the world, I remember.  I laughed out loud.   But I also remember thinking.   Why did I laugh?   How does it happen that a city with so many people can feel unfriendly, even lonely?  But it can.

And now it’s not only happening in places like New York City.  It’s happening everywhere.  Do you know what will shorten your life even more than smoking 15 cigarettes a day?   It’s living a lonely life. And today more people are living that life than ever.  Folks are even calling it an epidemic. 

Cigna, the insurance company, surveyed 20,000 people.  What they found was stunning.   According to their survey, 54 percent said they sometimes or always feel that no one knows them very well. Even more (56 percent) reported sometimes or always feeling like the people they’re surrounded with “are not necessarily with them.”   Two out of five reported a lack of meaningful relationships and companionship; saying they are “isolated from others.”    And get this.  Do you know who reported feeling the loneliest of all?  Young people, those in their 20s and 30s, had the highest loneliness scores of them all.

But it doesn’t need to be that way.  In these words, God offers a path to freedom, a path to liberate you from ever being lonely again.   How do you find the end of loneliness?  How do you discover a life where you never feel alone like that again?  In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Do you realize?    All around you, in this, the wealthiest nation in history, where just a phone connects you to everything, countless people don’t feel connected at all.  They feel alone, isolated, deeply disconnected.   Who knows?  Maybe you are one of them.   And even if you are not, who has not had moments, times, when they felt alone like that?  But in these words, God shows you the path out of that isolation.   What is that path?  It is knowing that you are never alone like that, and once you know that, sharing that with others.

Right at the beginning of the words we read, God tells you something extraordinary.  God tells you that God became flesh, incarnate.  We get words like carne (meat n Spanish) from that word.   We even get the word carnal (not a word you normally associate with God).  Do you see what God is telling you?   In Jesus, God didn’t simply dress up in human form.  God became one of us, one who got colds and passed gas, one who got sore feet and headaches, one who had his heart broken a few times, and laughed at a good joke.   God did become one of us.   And the one of us God became did not have an easy life.   This God grew up in poverty.  He worked with his hands.    He lost his dad when he was young.  

And what does that tell you?   It tells you that God knows what it’s like to be you.   God gets it.
And John isn’t telling you Jesus just had some extra special God sense, whatever that is.  No, in Jesus, God, the immeasurable, infinite, all powerful, being behind everything literally became a human being.   When John tells you that Jesus lived among us, his actual words are that he pitched a tent among us.   Pitched a tent?  What is John trying to tell you?  

He is going back into ancient Hebrew history, to the time when God freed the Israelite slaves from Egypt.   When those slaves set out to the land God had promised them, God had them make a tent for God to dwell in, the tabernacle.  And wherever they went, they set up that tabernacle.   And there within that tent, God’s presence dwelt.   

John is telling you that the same God who delivered these slaves out of Egypt, the same God who got them to the Promised Land, that same God has shown up now in Jesus.   But in Jesus, God offers more than some physical freedom.  God offers a fullness of life that nothing else can.   As John puts it, from his fullness, we have received grace upon grace, undeserved gift upon undeserved gift.  And what is the fullness that Jesus brings?   Jesus brings the same fullness that Jesus already has with God.  

You see.  For Christians, God exists in community.   And out of that communion of love, God comes.  Think of God like a dance of love that goes on without end.  In Jesus, you get invited to be part of that dance.   And when you know that, know that experience of communion with God, then you know.   You know.   You are never alone, ever.  In Jesus, you are always connected to this communion of love. 

And if you have eyes to see, you see that communion of love showing up again and again in your life.   

It happened about 30 years ago, but when I remember it, I still feel the emotions rise.  I was serving as a seminary intern over the summer in a big church in Nashville.   In that job, I worked with a group of folks in the church connected to addiction recovery programs.  That’s how I met Andy Spickard, a high-powered physician, who had founded the Vanderbilt Institute for the Treatment of Addiction.  I liked my internship, but I was struggling.   I felt alone, isolated in this strange city, but I wasn’t really talking to anyone about it.   I was just grinding my way through. 

Then one day, I was visiting folks in the hospital, and I ran into Dr. Spickard doing rounds.  A few minutes later, we saw each other on the elevator.  Fifteen minutes later we saw each other in the hospital lobby.  That’s when Andy said it.   He said to me.  “Ken, God has put us together 3 times in this massive hospital, and God is telling me that’s no coincidence.”   He asked me if I had time to talk.   Sure, I did.  I felt flattered this accomplished doctor wanted to talk with me.   And in a hospital meeting room, Andy Spickard listened to me, to my struggles, and then he prayed with me.  And in those moments, I got it.  I was never alone, ever.  On that day in that hospital, in that busy man’s stopping to care, God told me that.   And in countless moments of my life, God has done the same thing.  God has shown up in the flesh in some person Jesus sent my way.  God has reminded me.   “Kennedy, don’t you know?  You are never, ever alone.”

And that’s where you and I come in.  God became flesh in Jesus.   God entered into our struggles, our pains, our joys and our hardships.   But Jesus didn’t come for it to happen only through him.  Jesus came so that it can happen through us, through those who know that love, that communion for themselves.   Why do you think the Bible describes the church as the body of Christ?

Years ago, someone told me the story of one of the strangest yet most powerful worship gatherings he had ever encountered.   He walked into this older church and in the middle of the main space, he didn’t find pews or even seats.  He found a big pile of garbage.   Like everyone else there, he found a place to stand around this stinking mound.   A few moments later, the worship leaders came out, and walked right into the garbage.  Then one of them began talking about Jesus, how he came to us, how he entered into the garbage of our lives, all our brokenness and mess, how he gave everything even his life, to bring us home.   Then, as he concluded, he and his co-leader leaned down into the garbage.  She pulled out a bottle of wine, and a loaf of bread (don’t worry it was tied in a plastic bag).  And she said, if you want to follow Jesus, then he calls you to go where he did, into the garbage of this world, into its broken places.  So, if you want to answer Jesus’ call, join us here.  Share in his body, his blood. Commit yourselves to go with Jesus wherever he calls you, even into the stinking and broken places of the world.

Now, I have no plans for piles of garbage in the church I serve.  But the message stays the same. God calls you to go into just such places.   And what better time to go than now?  You see, if that Cigna study is true, then you have folks around you, neighbors, acquaintances, co-workers, who are feeling very alone right now.   And here, through an experience of communion with God they can come to know they are not that God is with them.  But for them to know God is with them means you need to reach out and be with them first.   You can invite them to a worship gathering during Christmas or in the New Year. If they have young kids, you can invite them to check out the children's ministries.  You can ask them how they are doing, even ask them if there is something they need you to pray for.   Or you can simply ask God to show you what to say and do, how to let them know they’re not alone.  However they respond, they’ll be glad you reached.   And you may even become the sign of Jesus that they desperately need to see.   Will it be uncomfortable? Yeah, probably.   Might you risk rejection?  Yep that too?

But remember what God in Jesus did for you.   The God of infinity came as a defenseless child.  He entered into the discomforts and pains of human existence.  He didn’t risk rejection.  He got rejection, rejection more brutal and awful than you could ever imagine.  For when he came and died to bring you home, he lost the communion.   He became more alone than any being ever had or ever will.  And in Jesus, God suffered that so that you would never be alone ever, not even in death.   He lost the love to give you the love that will never leave you nor forsake you.   So, you can know this.  You are never alone, ever.  But don’t simply know it. Share it with your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers, anyone you encounter.  They may need to know that more than you will ever know.    

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What the Heck Does Born Again Even Mean?

I first heard it in New York.  People, people in my church, talked about them like this, like they were a totally different tribe.    They saw it this way.  There were folks like them.  And then there were the “born agains”.   They literally said that in describing someone.  “Oh, he’s a born again.”  “You know.  She, she’s a born again.” 

After a while, I got it.  They meant.  These folks went to a certain type of church.  They had certain behaviors that, in their mind at least, made them distinct, a bit different from them.   And I get it.  

Now for the church folks I knew in New York, this name didn’t come with any ill will.  Yes, they saw them as different.  But different didn’t mean bad.   But others didn’t, and still don’t feel that way.   I’ve even put a few of their quotes in the bulletin.  For example, the legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen wrote this.   The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are a bigger pain the second time around.

Is Herb fair?  No, but I get his point.   Who hasn’t run into a Christian who seems a bit too full of himself, and not all that full of Jesus?   But no matter what you might think of the term, born again.  Here’s the truth.  You can’t be a Christian without it.   In fact, until you get those words, words Jesus himself used, you’ve missed the whole point. 

But when you get them, more, when you experience them, it opens you to a life richer and deeper than you could ever have imagined.    It means no matter how dark your life becomes a light will always shine within.   But how does it happen?   How does sometime get to be born again.  In these words, Jesus points the way.   Let’s hear what Jesus has to say.

You hear the words thrown around.  But what the heck do they mean?   Born again.  Does that mean you have to have a dramatic turn around story?   I was a drug dealing maniac.  Then I found Jesus!   Now, you do have those stories.  And they’re great stories.  But that’s not what born again means.  You can be born again, and not have any sort of turn around story at all.   No, in the end, God is telling you this.   Born again means you realize two things.   You’ve arrived someplace profoundly different.  And you know.  No way did you get yourself there.

That’s why God uses words like born and birth.   After all, when your mother brought you into the world, what did you have to do with it?    For you to be born lots of things had to happen.  And you did none of them.   First of all, your parents came together and out of love got the whole thing started.  Then your mother through the wondrous workings of her body nourished you and grew you in her womb.   And then when the time came for you to come out, you had nothing to do with that either.   No baby hangs out in the womb and thinks.  Hmmm, today seems like a good day to come out, see the world.  Let’s see what I can do to make that happen.  

When you were born, you had nothing to do with it.  In reality, no one ultimately controls that whole birth process.   No one, not even the doctors know exactly how and when those mommy and baby hormones come together to get the whole getting born thing begun.  It’s a mystery.  

And in these words here, God is saying that when it comes to your transformation into God’s child, you don’t control that either.   Yet here’s the problem, people want to control it.   They think if I do the right things, get involved in a church, stuff like that, that makes me a child of a God.  But it doesn’t.   Nothing you do makes you a child of God.   Just like getting born, you don’t do anything.  And more importantly, you don’t need to do anything.

When it comes to being born again, all you need is nothing.  And yet as one preacher put it, so many folks can’t bring that.   They feel they need to bring something.  But until you realize you have nothing to bring, only then does the transformation happen. 

But when it does, you know.   Now some may remember the exact moment.  But other won’t.  After all, who here remembers getting born?  But you do know this, like any new born baby does.  Something has radically changed.

I love the way, the writer, C.S. Lewis put it.   Say you are on a train going from Paris to Berlin.   Some folks might be awake when the train crosses from France into Germany.   Other folks might be asleep.    What makes the difference isn’t that you remember the border crossing.  What makes the difference is you know.   You are no longer in Paris.  Now, you are in Berlin. 

And how do you know?   That goes back to that famous word, John the Baptist used, that Jesus did as well.    Repent.   Too often, folks think repent means you feel bad about something or decide to change the way you act.   But the word doesn’t mean that.   The actual word, metanoia, simply means that your mind is changed.   You start to think differently about everything.  You start to even see everything and everyone differently.   The poet William Blake once said.    The foolish man doesn’t see the same tree the wise man sees.   And when God turns you into God’s child, that is the change of mind, the change of heart that begins to happen.    It means you get weaned away from your possessions towards being forever possessed by the love of God.  It means you become less interested in getting personal blessing and more interested in blessing others.  It means you get more thankful and less self-righteous.  It means you get less preoccupied with your privileges and prerogatives and more conscious and connected to the fact that everyone needs the same mercy from God.   And it means that even on your darkest of days, you still find hope and peace and even joy. 

Why?  You know how God’s love brought you into the world, how God’s love gave you this new birth, how God’s love made you his child.   In Jesus, out of love, God gave his life for you.   On that cross, on that darkest of days, your new life began.   On that day when all hope seemed lost, a new hope was being born, one that even defeats death.  And when you know that, how God’s love brought you life, brought this whole world life on that most evil of days, then you know. Nothing can defeat that love ever.

And you know that love has delivered you.  That love has brought you home.   That love has given you new birth.   And you had nothing to do with it.  For by grace, you have been saved, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.   

Sunday, December 2, 2018

When Darkness Hits, What Key Truth Leads Towards the Light?

I’ll admit it.  I’m not afraid to tell the truth.  In the church I serve in, at night, when I’m walking through the dark hallway in the back, I move kind of fast to the door.  Ok, sometimes I may even run.   I still get a little scared of the dark.   But who isn’t?

Now, the literal darkness may not scare you.   But darkness has more forms than that.   You go to the doctor.  She finds something suspicious.  Suddenly, you’re having tests for who knows what.  And you’re wondering what those tests will tell you.   You’re in the dark, and it’s scary.

My father started decorating for Christmas this past week.   He knew.   My mom would have wanted that.   But each day, he still wakes up feeling her absence, the absence of his beloved on this the first Christmas without her.  He carries that darkness every day.  He doesn’t know when or if it will ever end.   He’s in the dark.  

The report appeared the day after Thanksgiving.  It doesn’t paint a pretty picture.  No, our nation’s latest climate assessment warns of a dire future, filled with storms and fires, droughts and disasters.   Hearing that, I fear for the world I’m leaving for my son.  Heck, seeing all the ugly conflict today, I fear for the world he’s living in right now.  It feels dark.

Darkness takes a lot of forms; forms that fill you with fear, that weigh you down with discouragement.   Whatever your darkness is, every life has some.  So, how do you stay in the light, even on the darkest of days?   How do you live in hope, even in joy?   In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

In the midst of this world, with its dark unknowns, and the darkness we already see too well, how do you stay in the light?   How do you live with a lightness within, hold on to hope, even experience joy?   Here God tells you.   You realize.   In every dark place, the light shines.  And nothing can overcome it.   More than that, one day, that light will banish all darkness until no one will even remember it at all.

You see.  In these words from John, God makes two things clear.   First, this world has darkness, a lot of it.   But into that darkness, from outside of it, light has come.  But what exactly is this darkness?  To understand that, you gotta understand the light a bit first. 

To describe Jesus, John uses a word that had become the in-God word of the day, Logos, the Word.   So, take that word out of the way for a moment.  Get what John is saying. John is saying this.  In the beginning there was Jesus, and Jesus was with God and Jesus was God.   Hold on a second.   Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God.   How can you be with someone, and also be that someone at the same time?  But in that bizarre phrase, God is telling you something hugely important not only about God, but about everything.  God is telling you.   I can’t be one single solitary being.  No, God has to be more.  Still one God, but more.   Why does God have to be more?   Because solitude isn’t the ground of reality.  Relationship is.   Everything down even to the smallest particle possible exists in relationship.   And that’s because God is relationship, three beings in love with one another.  That very relationship creates God.   When God tells you that God is love.  God isn’t giving you some Hallmark sentiment.  God is telling you the truth.   God literally is love.  And love, by definition can never exist by itself.   Love has to have someone to love.   In these words, God is saying to you.   In the beginning there was with-ness, there was love.  That is the light coming into the world.  And that light tells you all that you need to know about darkness.  

Do you realize America is in a sex recession?  It seems lots of people aren’t having it.  Why aren’t they having it, in a culture that seems kind of sex-crazed?  Basically, it’s because lots of people, mainly younger people, aren’t falling in love.  That means less babies, half a million less than ten years ago.  

But they’re not only not making a love connection, they’re not making much of any connection. They’re connecting with their phones, with drugs, but people not so much.    And it’s killing them.   For the second year in a row, American life expectancy went down.   That hasn’t happened in a century.   And why are more people dying?  It turns out it’s because they’re killing themselves, literally killing themselves.  

What creates darkness in the world, in your life, ultimately comes down to separation, to disconnection, to losing the love.   And no matter how much you try on your own, you can’t conquer this separation by yourself.   You can camouflage it.  You can numb yourself to it.  But you can’t conquer it in you or in the world.    

So here God tells you that God has come to be that light that breaks the darkness, that destroys the separation. God has done what only God can.  God has come as the light, the love that shatters the separation, that conquers the darkness, that illuminates everyone.   That’s why Christmas matters.  It tells you.   God has broken through the darkness, the isolation.   God has come to be with you, so powerfully, so profoundly, that not even death will separate you from his love. 

In fact, that’s how you know God really came.   You see, John plays a little game here in these first words.   The word he uses for Jesus, the Logos, the Word, folks used for an idea of a god, but not the God.   People speculated that capital G, God lived above the fray disconnected from all this darkness below.  But this capital G God, had a sort of lower g, God, the Logos who managed everything.   And John, in the Greek, (you can’t really tell in the English) doesn’t make it all that clear in the beginning, who he thinks Jesus is.   Is Jesus a little g God or the capital, G god.  Not clear.  John wants to keep you in suspense.  

So, when do you know?  You know at the end.  The risen Jesus appears before the disciple known as Doubting Thomas.  Jesus says.   Look at the nail holes, Thomas, at the wounds.  Touch them.  Feel them.  And Thomas says it.  Thomas uses words that make it clear, the God, the Capital G God has come to be with us, with us even in death, the greatest darkness of all.   And even that darkness has fallen before that light.   And one day, when Jesus returns, that light will shine so bright, that we’ll even forget there was ever darkness at all. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

How Knowing the World is a Garden Changes Everything

Ever since I saw it, it’s been bothering me.  It’s the contradiction of it all.  I’m talking about that amazing prayer in your bulletin?  I put it there last week too for Veteran’s Day.   You don’t have to look for it.  I’ll just read it to you.

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.

I love that prayer.  No great theologian or pastor wrote it.  A regular soldier did, one whose name we don’t even know.   Yet, the prayer gives profound perspective on life.   But what bothers me is that as insightful as this soldier was, he was fighting on the wrong side of an awful war.  He died defending slavery of all things.  But I shouldn’t be surprised.

Everyone has blind spots.   Great spiritual leaders have them.  I love the prayers of the monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  I use them in worship.  The guy wrote beautiful prayers.  But he also delivered powerful sermons promoting the Crusades, of all things.  

And don’t think you and I have any room to get morally superior.  A hundred years from now, people will look at some of the things we thought or did and be appalled.  Still, just as in that prayer, life does have certain truths, certain realities that stand the test of time.  They held true a hundred years ago. They’ll hold true a hundred years from now.  Yet, even so, you can miss them.   And the truth that you’re about to hear, one the Bible goes back to again and again, many people miss.  But when you get it, it changes everything.   What is it?  Listen and find out.

Do you see the truth here, the truth that so many miss?  God tells you this truth again and again.   Yet, still you can miss it.   And when you do, you miss so much.   And here in Paul’s words, God tells you this time one more time.   God says.  Don’t you get it.  I’ve created a garden.  This reality, this world you see has limitless potential.  And only as you realize that, will you discover the vibrant, dynamic life God yearns you to have.

That’s how Paul can make such bold claims to this church in Corinth.   You see.  Paul is writing a fund-raising letter to these Christians.  He is calling on them to give money for a special collection for believers in Jerusalem who are facing a famine.  And what does he tell them about their gifts?   He says.  If you give generously, you will reap generously.  He tells them.  Think of the money as seeds.   These seeds will reproduce.  They will return to you blessings far more abundant than anything you give.   So, let’s get this straight.  Paul is telling them.  Whatever you give, you will get back way more.  That’s a pretty stunning claim to make.   So how can Paul make it?

He knows.  God created a garden.  You see.   You can look at the world the way a gardener does or the way a butcher does.   If you look at the world as a butcher, then you think, ok.  I’ve got this one cow, and that’s all I got.  So, if my expenses go up, I’ve got to shave the meat a little thinner. And I can’t give anything away.  That would be crazy.  I’ve got to hold on to the cow no matter what.   But if you look at the world as a gardener, you think, hey, I’m almost out of tomatoes.   No worries.  I’ll grow some more.   You don’t worry about giving tomatoes away either.  You know.   You can just grow more.   In fact, with one seed, you can grow limitless amounts of tomatoes. 

I first heard it put that way by a guy named Tim Sanders.  And off that insight, which Tim would readily admit comes from the Bible, he’s made a nice career.  He’s done more speaking and consulting for more Fortune 500 companies than I could name.   Basically, he’s told them this key truth.  Don’t look at the world as a butcher.  Look at the world as a gardener.  Why?   That’s what the world is, a garden.

RobertoGoizueta got that too.  He said.  The secret isn’t counting the beans.  It’s growing more beans.   And when he led Coca-Cola, he applied that truth pretty well.  When he became President in 1981, Coco-Cola was worth a little over 4 billion.  When he died in 1997, still serving as President, Coca-Cola had become worth over 150 billion dollars.   Just this year, his foundation gave away over 44 million dollars, 21 years after the guy died.  That’s some beans.   

But, let’s make it clear, God isn’t telling you when you give money, you’ll get more money back.   That’s why God leads Paul to words like blessings or fruits of righteousness.   God knows.  What makes life worthwhile goes far beyond money.   Money can’t buy you friends or love or even security.   But Paul is saying this.  When you give generously, including financially, you sow seed into the world that I, God will multiply in your life.   And if you don’t give, you miss the opportunity for that to happen.  Why?  Because God is a gardener.  The whole story of the Bible begins in a garden.  

God is a gardener.  And the more seed you give God to work with, the more blessing God brings in your life.  That’s true of how you spend your time.  That’s true of how you spend your money.   Yes, this church needs financial support to continue its witness to the gospel.  But your gifts do more than simply keep the lights on.   As you give, as you take risks in your giving, you open yourself to richer blessing from God.   Whatever you shovel towards God, God shovels back.  And God has a bigger shovel.  Yet every year, I see people hold back, not give what they could, because they don’t believe this.  They don’t believe that what God is telling them again and again is true.   And that’s tragic. It’s why when someone sent me this clip earlier this week, I knew, it’s because God wanted me to use it here.

Now, look.   God isn’t asking you to lift up a star fighter with your mind.   But God is asking you to believe that you can give more than you think to God and to what God values.    God is asking you to believe more by giving more, trusting that God will provide for your needs, trusting that in your giving, God will bring you more blessing.   As the preacher and leadership guru John Maxwell put it.  So why not try abundance?  At best, you’ll experience abundance.  At worst, you’ll get the scarcity you’ve already been experiencing.   And how do you know, you’ll experience abundance?  Because, God is a gardener.   Just look at Jesus.

Do you know how Jesus described his death on the cross?  He called it a seed, that like any seed, could only bring life if it gave up its life.    Where did Jesus pray before he died.  He prayed in a garden.  And after he died, where did his friends bury him.  They buried him in a garden.  And when he rose again, when Mary saw the resurrected Jesus, who did she think Jesus was.  She thought Jesus was a gardener.   And in a profound way, she was right.   In his death, Jesus planted a seed that bears limitless fruit to this day.   So, plant your seed. Give generously to others with your time, your talents, and yes your finances.  And then wait and see what God will do, what fruit, what blessing, God will bring.  After all, God is a gardener. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

How Can You Know the Money You Have Doesn't Have You?

I gotta admit.  Some of the stuff this guy does with kids seem a little cruel.  Years ago, he challenged parents to pretend they had eaten all their kid’s Halloween candy, and then record their reactions and send it in.   Boy, that seems like a twisted trick to play on a kid.  Still, Jimmy Kimmel, the late show TV host, does some things with kids that aren’t simply funny, they go deeper than you’d think.  And when I saw this video…well, why don’t you watch it for yourself (at least the first part - that's the part that got me not the hair cutting stuff.)

Many years ago, the preacher Tim Keller was talking to his son about sex. His son asked him.  So, which is it, dad?   Is sex good or bad?  And Keller said.  It all depends.  Is fire good or bad?   It’s good if it’s in the fireplace.  But if it’s on the carpet in the living room, not so much.  And what Keller said about sex holds true for money.  If you keep money in its proper place, it’s good, even necessary.    But if it gets out of the fireplace, so to speak, it will burn you.  It will rob you of what life is meant to be.   And money has lots of sneaky ways of getting out of the fireplace without you even knowing it, even as it was in that kid’s relationship with his uncle.

So how do you keep your money in the fireplace?  How do you keep it from burning you, from robbing you of life?   In these words, part of an ancient fundraising letter, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

You gotta have money, right?   And money does a lot of good.  More than that, when you have money, it does you good.  But your money can do you wrong.  It can hijack your life.  It can rob you of life.  So, how do you keep money doing what money does best?  How do you keep it in its proper place?   Here in Paul’s words, God tells you.  You realize who really owns your wealth, and how he gave his wealth up for you. 

But before you can understand who really owns what you have, you need to understand how money does you good, and how money messes you up.   To understand that, you need to understand what money gives you.  Money gives you power.  Power simply means you have the freedom to act, to do things.   Let’s say, you’re hungry.  Well, your money determines how you can address that need.   If you have lots of money you have lots of choices.  And if you don’t, that limits your choices.

Recently we had an election.  Were you aware of that?   In those elections, candidates spent a lot of money.   In fact, commentators talked about the money race, how the candidates with the most money up their chances of winning.   Why does that increase their chances?  They can do more stuff.  They can put out more ads.  They can hire more staff to get people to the polls.  The money gives them freedom to act, to do things.   

And when you don’t have money, you don’t have that freedom.  That can be a deeply painful thing.  On election day, I spent some time driving people to the polls, including a homeless couple, who had ended up at the wrong voting site.   The man told how they were living in a tent, and how they yearned just to have a night or two in a place with a shower, where they could get cleaned up.   I did what I could to help, took their number to stay in touch, but can you imagine how that felt.   Without money, they had no options, no ability to act, to do hardly anything.   And that can be an awful thing. 

Many years ago, I was watching Oprah talk about poverty on her show.  Someone mentioned how she was struggling with credit card debt.   Now Oprah expressed sympathy.  But she also said, “If you’re poor, you don’t even have credit to begin with.”  You don’t have that option.   You have such limited ability to act.  And that can be so painful.

Money, with the choices it brings, the freedom, it dignifies you.  Everybody needs to feel they have some choices, some freedom to do things for themselves, for their family, for others.  And money brings that.  It dignifies you.  But while money can dignify you, it can’t define you.  It can’t determine your worth as a person.

Yet money often does.   If you don’t have a lot of money, you can feel less worthy, as if somehow you are broken or defective.  And if you have a lot of money, you can feel superior, even morally better.   But money doesn’t determine any of those things.   And if you let money do that, then you don’t have money.   No, your money has you.

So, how do you appreciate the dignity that money gives you, without letting that same money define you?  How do you distinguish your net worth from your true worth?

You realize. Whatever you have doesn’t really belong to you.  It never did. It never will.   Sure, you can think.   The money I have I earned.  Nobody gave me what I have.   Ok.  But who gave you your body?   Who gave you the air you’re breathing right now?  Who gave you the planet you live on?   You didn’t earn any of that.   No, all that was given to you.  It’s still being given to you right now.  You may have done good things with what you were given.  But that doesn’t change the fact that you were given it.   You did not get it.  Someone, someone you can call God, gave it to you.   No, what the Bible tells you goes further.  God didn’t give it to you.   God entrusted it to you.   It still belongs to God.  God is simply letting you use it for a bit.   In the end, it still belongs to God.   And that implies a responsibility. 

Many years ago, when they were filming Miami Vice here in South Florida, the producers wanted to use a certain house for a location.  They knocked on the door.  When the guy opened it up, they offered him money to use the house, and voila, they had a location.  But the guy who opened the door didn’t own the house.  And when the owner showed up and saw cameras and cables all over his front lawn, it didn’t go that well.

When you realize whatever you have doesn’t belong to you, it shifts your perspective.  You start asking yourself.  Am I using what God entrusted to me as God intends?  Am I a good trustee or not?  More than that, it liberates you.   It liberates you from anxiety about your money.  After all, it doesn’t belong to you anyway.   And in that freedom, you begin thinking about what the owner would want you to do with that money in the first place.  That’s what happened with the Macedonians that Paul talks about in this letter.

Paul is writing to a church in Corinth to ask them for money to care for victims of a famine in Jerusalem.  And as Paul knows this church well, he knows they have money to give.   So, to inspire them, he tells them about the Christians in Macedonia, followers of Jesus who had hardly anything to spare.   Yet even so, they joyfully, sacrificially gave to help the needy in Jerusalem.   And as Paul talks about that giving, he says something a little weird. 

Paul writes.  They gave themselves first to God, then to us by God’s will.  Why is that weird?  Well, hadn’t they already given themselves to God?  Isn’t that what becoming a Christian means, giving your life to God.  So, if they had already done that, what is Paul telling you.  He is telling you what the Christian reformer, Martin Luther, put another way. Luther said.  There are three conversions in the life of a Christian, conversion of the mind, conversion of the heart and conversion of the purse.  You see.  The Macedonians got it. Whatever they had, already belonged to God anyway.  And now just as they had placed their hearts and minds in God’s hands, they were doing it with their purses.    And once they did, they had no issues with saying yes, to Paul’s ask, to giving joyfully to this need in Jerusalem.

But then Paul goes beyond the Macedonians.  He points to Jesus himself.   Why did the Macedonians give so generously?  They realized.   God had already given first.   In Jesus, God not only gave up the wealth of heaven, for the poverty of life living among the poor in Palestine.  No, In Jesus, God gave up everything, even his very life for them, for us, for you.   And when you realize how radically God has already sacrificed for you, to bring you home, to set you free, it sets you free.  It sets you free from ever doubting your worth.  After all, the God of all creation gave up everything for you.  And more than that.  You realize.  How can I not give after what God has given for me?    

And here’s the kicker.  When you give to what God values, when you give to help people in need, to help others know of God’s love, that investment never goes away.  It lasts forever.  If you give to a political candidate, even if they win, they won’t be there forever.   If you invest in some company, that won’t be forever.  But when you invest in what God values, you invest in what matters eternally, what will never ever go away.

George, this very wealthy guy died and went to heaven.  As George arrived, one of the angels arrived to escort him to his new home.  And as he went, he saw his old gardener sitting in front of this magnificent home.    He said to the angel. “Hey, that’s my gardener, Bob.”  Oh yes, the angel said.  “Bob loved so generously.  He gave sacrificially to his church, to the poor, to neighbors in need.  He did so much with the little he had.”    As they keep walking, he sees a woman who attended his church.  “She also has a beautiful home.”  He mentions her to the angel.  “Oh yes, that’s Minerva’s home.  She gave generously to children, served and provided for them in her church, was there for her neighbors in need.”   Now George is getting excited.  If Minerva and Bob have homes like these, what is he going to get?”    They turn the corner. He sees a shabby little shack, with a few chairs inside.   The angel smiles and says, “George, welcome to heaven.”   George is appalled.  He cries out!  “This is my house!  How can this be my house?”   The angel, a little embarrassed, says, “Gosh, George, we did the best we could with what you sent us.”  A cute joke, but it presents the question.  What are you sending?  What are you doing with what God has entrusted to you?  What are you giving to this God who in Jesus has already given everything for you?    Take a look at your calendar and checkbook, it will tell you all you need to know.