Sunday, April 29, 2018

What Is It that Makes God Laugh? The Answer Might Shock You.

It gets to me sometimes.   I try to stay positive, to not get discouraged.  But I gotta admit.  This world gets to me sometimes.   I’m not talking so much about the wars and suffering around the world or even the mass shootings that happen every week now.   That gets to me, sure.  But do you know what gets to me more?   It’s how people seem to be getting meaner and uglier with each other.   It’s how social media seems the furthest thing from social.   And that doesn’t even touch the personal stressors of trying to make ends meet, of all life’s chores and tasks, and of course, the losses of people I love.   Does the world get to you sometimes like that?

If it does, how do you move past it?  How do you live with hope and positivity, even on the days when your life and that of the world seems darkest?  How do you discover joy and fulfillment when instead inside you feel fear and sadness?   In these surprising, even shocking words on what makes God laugh, God shows you the way.   So, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Psalm 37:1-17        

This world can wear you down, all the daily drama, the fears, the stressors.   And in the midst of the wearing down, hope can be hard to hold on to.  Discouragement can come all too easily.  So, how do you find confidence and joy even on your darkest days.   How do you live with optimism and hope in a world where so much seems to be going wrong?   Here, God tells you.  God says.  Just look at makes me laugh.

Again and again the writer of this psalm tells you.  When wrong seems to win, don’t worry or fret.  Don’t lose your temper. Why?  Don’t you see it?  Don’t you see what makes God laugh?   Bad people make God laugh.  When wicked people plot against good people, that stuff just cracks God up.   Only three times does the Bible talk about God laughing.  And every time, what tickles God’s funny bone is this, the evil doings of evil folks.

God doesn’t laugh because God likes what these folks are doing or planning.  No, God hates that.  What God finds so funny is that they think they’re going to get away with it, that somehow, they’re going to win.   Strangely enough, this sort of laughing at evil carries some real power. 

That’s why they use it so often in the movies.   Haven’t you seen that sort of scene?  The hero gets captured by the bad guys.  It looks as if death and disaster are at hand. But does the hero get angry?  Nope.  Does she get scared?  Of course not.  No, the hero starts cracking jokes.  That’s how you know how totally awesome those type of heroes are.  They have such confidence in their abilities they can be funny even under threat of death.

Yet, that’s the movies.  Does this sort of thing work in real life?   It does.  A children’s book back in the kids’ area in our church lobby even tells the story.  It’s called White Flour. 

That book tells the tale of what happened when a group of white supremacists marched in Knoxville about ten years ago.  As often happens when groups like that march, the counter-protesters way outnumbered the marchers.  But these protesters did something quite different.  They didn’t yell at the white supremacists or try to out-chant them.  No, these protesters started cheering.   And at first, the marchers thought they had a receptive audience.   But then they realized.  All these folks were dressed up as clowns.   And when the marchers started yelling White Power, these folks joined in, but instead chanted White Flour. They even had white flour and began throwing it around.   And as the marchers got louder with the chant, it seemed that the clowns realized that they had it wrong.  And that’s when they started chanting instead white flowers.    And with that they pulled out white flowers and began throwing them up in the air.    And in their final move, the clowns made one last try to get it right.   This time, when the racists started chanting white power, the clowns started chanting wife power.   Some of them even got on wedding dresses to make the point.   And what did the white supremacist marchers do?  They ended their march 90 minutes early.   Faced with the power of humor, their hatred had no place to go. 

Why do you think dictators hate people making jokes about them?  Why do oppressive governments shut down those who poke fun at them?  They know.  That humor has power.   Those jokes can do more to undermine their power than any act of violence ever could.  

And in the same way, this way of seeing things doesn’t just undermine evil movements, it can provide you protection against simply awful people.   Several years ago, a Stanford University psychology professor, Robert Sutton, wrote a now famous business book on awful people.  He called it TheNo Awful People Rule.   Actually, he called the Awful People something else, but I don’t want to say that word here.  Let’s just say the word he used also started with A and ended with the word hole.  And since that book came out, Sutton has become the go to expert on dealing with awful people.

But strangely enough, even as much as he has written on such folks, in an interview, he shared how he still has difficulty dealing with them.   But then one of his colleagues, who always seemed so calm in the face of someone being a complete jerk gave him a crucial insight.   As Sutton tells it. “I never could figure out why he was so serene in the face of certain awful people, especially in particular a petty tyrant we have in our midst. But what he does is he pretends when people are nasty that he’s a doctor who specializes in studying awful people. And he says to himself, ‘Oh, what a fascinating subject or specimen. I can’t believe how lucky I am to see this close up.’ Where anger didn’t work, his colleague had discovered, humor did.  

Yet, still, you can wonder.   When the plots and acts of wickedness cause such awful suffering, how can God laugh?   God can laugh because God has lived and suffered and died through the joke himself.    Do you not see how Jesus dying on the cross was God playing the ultimate joke?   On that dark and devastating day, evil thought it had won, that it had defeated in Jesus, God himself.  But even as God died on that cross, he was thinking.  Just you wait.  In three days, a punch line is coming evil that will disarm you forever.   And when I rise up out of that tomb, I’ll be laughing in your face.   For then you will know, that nothing, no evil, not even death will defeat me and my love. 

That is why in many Christian communities, the first Sunday after Easter, they call Holy HumorSunday.  They realize that Easter is God’s ultimate joke on all that is wrong on the world.  And when you know that laughter, the laughter of a love that even defeats death, it gives you confidence no matter what you face.   Right now, cancer is killing my mother.  Every time I see her, she is more diminished.  Even as I will grieve my mom as cancer takes her life, I can also laugh in cancer’s face.   I know that it will never have the last word.  God’s love has that.  And when you know this love of Jesus, a love of such power that it laughs in death’s face, you can face anything.   After all, whatever you face, Jesus has already faced it and more.   And whatever you face, Jesus will face it with you.  And he will say that I will never leave you nor forsake you.  I will be so faithful, that even in the face of any hardship, of death itself, in my love, you can laugh in its face.           

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Can a Smell Change Your Life? This One Can.

Hmmm…..Maybe I should change.   My wife has bought me some, after all.   She’d probably like it if I wore it more.    And beyond smelling nice, if you believe the advertisements, this stuff has serious power.

Some of the ads get so bold in asserting the power of their smells, they get a bit ridiculous, like this one.   Now, I have never used Axe Body Spray, but me thinks they exaggerate a bit.   But long before advertisers were making crazy claims for their scent’s power for men, they were doing the same thing for women.   The perfume ads for women get so over the top, I only found one that I could even show you in worship.   I guess they figured for this one they didn’t need a suggestive picture. The name alone made the point; Black Opium, a smell so powerful it’s addictive.

Now these claims seem not only ridiculous.  They may even seem offensive.  They carry messages about men and women that don’t paint either in a positive light.   But do they have a point?  Does smell have more power than you think?   After all, Americans alone spent well over 5 billion dollars on buying them last year.  If you add in the rest of the world, the number goes to almost 50 billion.

Those numbers don’t lie.   Smells have power.  They bring back powerful memories.  They stir powerful emotions.   But can a scent give you worth and value?  Will it bring you a fulfilled and abundant life?   In this passage, the Bible says yes.  Yes, it will.   So, what is this scent that brings this new life?   In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Smell has power.   Have you had a moment where a smell brought you back to a certain place or time?   Has a scent ever calmed you or on the other hand, revolted you?    Yet, as powerful as scents are, can they bring you a lasting peace?   Can they give you joy, meaning, fulfillment?  In these words, God tells you.   Yes, one scent can, a scent that only God can give.  

But before we can understand that, you may be thinking, what is all this talk about smells and scents anyway?   Are you saying that God smells, that God even prefers certain scents?  Yes, I am saying that.  Why?  It’s because the Bible tells you that again and again.  Twice a day in the temple, the Israelite priests burned incense up to God.   Today, lots of Christians continue the practice.  More than that, the Bible talks about how pleasing God found the aromas of this incense and of the sacrifices that the priests offered in the temple.    

Now, in all this talk of God smelling things, what is the Bible trying to tell you about God?  Well, think about how smell usually works. 

If you want to smell something, usually you need to get up close, right.  If I’ve put on some cologne, you’ll not be able to smell it far away.   If you do, it means, I really overdid it.   No, if you smell someone it usually means you’ve gotten close to them.  Smell means intimacy.   And in these images of God caught up in smells, that’s what the Bible is telling you.  God gets that intimately involved with you, that up close and personal. 

More than that, smells connect you emotionally in ways other senses don’t.  Look, I see a picture of Publix fried chicken, it doesn’t do anything for me.   But when I smell that chicken, sheesh, that scent brings joy to my heart.   

But forget the fried chicken, smell goes deeper than that.  It’s why a nurse created a special type of blanket for children going through separation anxiety.   She created it so that the children’s mothers could sleep with it, even wear it.  Then when the children get anxious, the blanket comforts them.  Why?  They smell their mothers on it.   But smell doesn’t just have power for children, it has power for their parents.   As a parent, I was stunned by how I enjoyed just smelling my son when I held him in my arms.  That scent carries an emotional power to this day that still moves me.   It’s why parents who have lost a child will often hold on to that child’s clothes just to catch their scent.      

And the Bible is telling you.  God is that intimately engaged with you.  Even the smell of you brings God joy.  But the story doesn’t stop there.   And that’s the problem.  Not everything that God smells, smells good.  Some of it smells really, really bad.

After all, your sense of smell doesn’t only bring you joy.  It alerts you to what is bad.  If something has gone bad in your refrigerator, how do you know?   You smell it.  And if it smells bad, you throw it away.  For the same reason, when you talk about something that’s not right in your life, you use similar imagery.   “That thing didn’t pass the smell test.”  Or “That situation really stinks.”    

In a famous passage from Isaiah 11, the prophet even describes the Messiah as using smell that way. 

A spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him (the Messiah); a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of knowledge and awe of the Lord; and by his smelling in awe of the Lord, and not by what his eyes see, will he judge, and not by his ears will he decide.   

Now most translators don’t give you that literal a translation, they pretty it up for you.  Most even think that the sentence is a mistake. But that is literally what the prophet says.   By his smelling in awe of the Lord, and not by what his eyes see, will he judge, and not by his ears will he decide. 

And the more I think about that way of judging, the more it makes sense.   When I first walked into the nursing home where my mom is, do you know the first thing that I did?  I took a big whiff.  In 25 years of ministry, I have learned what a bad nursing home smells like.  It smells like human waste.  And over the years, I have caught that scent a lot.   But not until I visited my mom in that home, did it hit me, why I found the smell so offensive.   That smell meant a lot of folks were sitting in their own waste.  People so neglected them that they regularly suffered that indignity.   And that smell meant that more indignities lay beyond that.  It meant that people at their most vulnerable were in that place being neglected, disregarded, even abused.

And that smell God finds even more offensive than me.  That’s what offends God; to see human beings treated that carelessly, that cruelly.    It’s why tomorrow night, 1500 will be gathering in St. David’s Church in Davie to stand up for just such vulnerable people in our church's work with Bold Justice, standing up for those 12 elders who suffered and died right down the street at Hollywood Hills, for hundreds right now in our county trapped in nursing homes that literally stink.   I hope to God you’ll be joining us there.  God needs you there to call our leaders to do the right thing, to help keep those seniors safe.  God is calling you there to protect our kids; our kids, who now fear dying in their school.  And tomorrow night, by God’s grace, our public leaders will answer that call.  

But what offends God, goes beyond that.  It’s goes to what Paul points to here.  When people use human beings as objects to secure their own sexual pleasure, that offends God.   When people place profits over people, that offends God.  When people use words carelessly and cruelly, that offends God.   

And if you’re honest, that means you stink more then you might feel comfortable admitting.   Have you never looked at another human being, and not had some not so lofty thoughts move through your head?   Have you always spent your money on the stuff truly mattered to God or have you spent it to indulge yourself, your appetites, your wants?   And who hasn’t uttered words that we wished that we could take back, words that wounded and hurt? 

Now you can tell yourself.  It’s not so bad.  But is that the truth?   Have you ever done the smell check on yourself and realized that you’ve gotten a little stinky.   But if you don’t deal with that right away, you know what happens?  You get used to it.  It doesn’t smell that bad to you anymore.  But trust me, when others get a whiff, they notice.  And if you’re honest, you notice too.   Maybe that’s why we spend all that money on scents and perfume.  It’s a way to cover up a stench that you and I sense at our very core.         

But when God came in Jesus, something extraordinary happened.   God went right into our stench.  And God in Jesus, took it all on himself.   When Jesus offered up everything on that cross, Paul tells you.   The aroma of a sweet fragrance went up to God.   What does that tell you?      Yes, things exist in your life that stink.  But God says, when I gave up my life for you on that cross, the sweet fragrance of that sacrifice, of that love given for you, it has taken that stench away.    And the more you realize my love, live in that love, the more the fragrance of that love comes to live in you, the more it fills you with beauty and contentment and joy.   And not only do you smell that aroma, more and more so does the world.

In a story, the writer Lauren Winner quotes in her book, Wearing God, she tells of a man who was going home from church one night.   As he sat there on the train, earbuds in his ears, a woman sat next to him.   And after a few moments, she tapped him on the shoulder.   And she said, “You smell like church.  Yes, you smell like church.”   And then as she breathed in the aroma, tears came to her eyes.   She said, “Thank you.  Thank you.   It’s been a long time since I’ve been to church.” 

When the fragrance of Jesus’ love fills you, that’s what it does.  It not only covers what stinks in you.  It starts clearing it away.  It begins filling you with the aroma of Christ, with his love, his grace, his beauty until you become everything that God created you to be, that you yearn to be, until that scent fills every pore.  So, wake up and smell the love, the love given for you, the love that transforms you, the love that transforms this world.    

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Why the Resurrection Really Does Change Everything

Doesn’t that look good?  I loves me some ice-cold orange juice.  But do you know what you’ve gotta always do with orange juice?    Unless, you’re squeezing it straight into the glass, you’ve gotta shake it up, right?    You don’t want all that pulp stuck at the bottom of the carton.    I hate when that happens.  You gotta shake it up. 

But what you like in your orange juice, do you want in your life?  Who wants the contents of their lives shaken up like a carton of orange juice or poured out like this?  
But, in life that happens.   Your job goes south or your marriage does.   Your health suffers a crisis.  You lose someone you love.   

Something happens to your kids or your grandkids.   Even the daily crush of life can squeeze you to the breaking point.      

And this world in which we live, it feels awfully shaky too.  17 heartbreaking murders in Parkland.    Social media that doesn’t feel all that social or even safe.  Let’s not forget hurricanes.   The list could go on and on.

So, how do you find solid ground when your life quakes beneath you.  How do you find certainty in a world that feels so uncertain?  In these words, written to people going through shaky times,  facing a very unstable world, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How do you find your footing when your life feels like its shaking beneath you?   How do you stand firm in a world that feels more unstable by the day?   Here God tells you.   You realize.  
Circumstances don’t determine your standing nor does your personal state nor does the state of the world.  Your standing depends on what happened on this day.   And what happened this day changes everything forever.     

Now how did it change everything forever?  How does it enable you to stand no matter how shaky life becomes? Before you get there, you need to get one thing settled first.  You need to believe that this thing actually happened.

If you came here, thinking something like.  Oh well, Easter celebrates the power of life, how love overcomes everything, that’s nice.  Easter certainly affirms all of that.  But Easter celebrates something very specific.   It celebrates that Jesus of Nazareth, who was killed and buried, rose again from the dead.  

That’s why Paul makes a point of telling you about all these witnesses, over 500 of them.    And Paul doesn’t tell you this because he heard it through some sort of ancient world internet.   When Paul writes, “I handed on to you, as of first importance, what I in turn had received.”  Paul is telling you that he has personally researched this.  He has directly spoken to these witnesses.  He has heard their accounts with his own ears.  

That’s why Christians developed that little call and response on Easter.  Christ is risen.   And folks respond.  Christ is risen indeed!    To put that less poetically, what Christians are saying is Christ is risen in fact.”   In other words, you’re not coming here to celebrate a fable.  You are coming here to celebrate a fact.   This ain’t fake news.  

And if you don’t believe that, then when the foundations of your life start shaking, what happened today won’t help you.   Look, my mom is dying right now in a nursing home in Georgia.  That’s a fact.   No fable gived me hope that her death will not be the end of her forever.   But a resurrection, one that happened here on this planet in history, that not only gives me hope.  It gives me confidence.   The actor Dennis Hopper, of all people, put it well.  In a world where the dead have returned to life, the word" trouble' loses much of its meaning.

But beyond believing that this resurrection actually happened, do you get it needed to happen?   Isn’t death natural?  Isn’t death just the way life is supposed to be?  But then, why do human beings spend almost limitless amounts of money trying to stop it from happening?   Why do poets rail against it, calling us to rage against the dying of the light? Why when someone dies, even at an advanced age, that you feel this is not the way it’s supposed to be; that something has gone horribly wrong?    You feel that way because something has.   

And if something has gone horribly wrong, that means. It can be put right again.  You can be put right.  This world can be put right.  Everything can return to the way God intended it to be, a world where death never has the last word.  Instead, God’s love does.  That’s why when God does some healing miracle, God isn’t disrupting the order of things.  No, disease is disrupting the order.  God is restoring it.

And when Jesus rises again, that’s what God is doing.  God is doing the ultimate healing.  God is starting the restoration of everything.  That’s why the resurrection changes everything.   From that empty tomb on, the old order of things has gone.  God has changed it forever.   And once it has begun, nothing can stop it, not even death.

That’s how Paul can end this chapter with that huge therefore as in…Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast and immovable.   Why?  Because the resurrection has happened.  That means, you can be steadfast.  You can be immovable no matter how much your world shakes.

And that means, when it comes to facing your failings you can be steadfast.  You can be immovable. Why?  In the resurrection, you know, no matter had badly you mess up, your mistakes don’t have the last word.  God’s resurrection has that.

Let’s say I go into Costco, and buy one of those big screen TVs they have there.  Now when I roll that baby out to my car, no one stops me.  No one holds me back.  Why?  That kind cashier has given me a powerful piece of paper called a receipt.  It proclaims that TV is bought and paid for.     

Now, you live in a world where evil will try to stop you.   Evil will tell you.  Oh, if they knew what you were thinking in worship on Easter, what would people think?  No matter how much you clean yourself up, you’re not that good.    You think God sees you as worthy of love, you with all your baggage, all your junk.  And when those accusing voices come.   You can be steadfast.  You can be immovable.   Why?  The empty tomb tells you the truth.   Your worthiness is bought and paid for.  In Jesus, God gave his life for it. It is non-negotiable.   In Jesus, God has defeated everything that separates you from God.   So, no one can hold you back.  No one can stop you, not even death.   No.  You have a resurrection receipt.  And with that receipt, no matter how far you fall, you always have the power to rise.

But resurrection not only frees you from the worse of who you are.   It frees you, it frees this world to move forward to become the best God has destined you and it to be.    In that empty tomb, God in Jesus began the restoration, God hasn’t finished yet.   And God has invited you to join in the work.

Think of resurrection like D-Day.  When the allies in World War 2 took those beaches, did they lay back and relax?  Did they put out their towels and catch some rays on that French sand.  No, they kept going.  They continued to fight.  They knew.  D-Day might have turned the tide.  But the enemy still had some fight.   The victory would ultimately be theirs.  But they still had tough challenges to face.  They still had battles to wage.   And so do you, both for yourself and for this world.   

That’s why Christians began hospitals and started missions to the poor.  It’s why Christians fought to end slavery and child labor.   It’s why we teamed up with a synagogue to save the lives of AIDS orphans in Haiti.  It’s why we feed the hungry and homeless of Hollywood.  It’s why we’ll be fighting with other churches later in April to bring better care for seniors, greater justice for juveniles and greater protection for the mentally ill right here in this county.    It’s why we reach out with the good news of God’s love whether it be blessing animals or loving preschoolers.   Yes, we know the end of the story.  God wins.  But that doesn’t mean, God doesn’t have battles for you to wage, that God doesn’t have territories for you to take.  Resurrection shouldn’t make you complacent.   It should fire you up to join with God in securing the victory. 

Now, this world in all its shakiness and uncertainty, in all its fears and anxiety, doesn’t get that.  They don’t know what time it is.   Too many think.  It’s the world is coming to an end time.  But it’s not.   No, it’s God is winning the victory time.   It’s not no change will come time.  It is God is changing everything time.   It’s not death has the last word time.  It’s where O death is your sting time.    It’s not despair time.  It’s hope time.   It’s not fear time.  It’s faith time.  It’s not death time.   What time is it?  It’s resurrection time. 

In resurrection time, when your life gets shaky, you can stand steadfast.  You can be immovable.   Why?  You know what time it is.  It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and on the move time.   It isn’t stop and cower time.  It’s get up and go boldly time.    It’s not fear has the last word time.  It’s love has the last word time.  It’s not despair time.  It’s hope time.  It’s not death time.  What time is it?  It’s resurrection time.   

Believe it.   Live into it.  Stand on it because you know that in the Lord, your labor, your life, is never in vain.  Battles still need to be waged.  Fights still need to be fought.  But that empty tomb proclaims, God has the victory.   And nothing, not even death itself, will change that.