Sunday, October 25, 2020

In a Time of Big Choices, How Do You Choose Rightly? You Don't Go Here.

Dadgummit, it’s tougher to do than it looks.   It took me like an hour to find the right image.  After all, how does the saying go?   A picture’s worth a thousand words.   Well, I wanted my thousand words to be worth something.  And so, I came up with this.  I made this picture the one, the one I’m using as the title slide for this series of sermons.  Oh, and did I tell you the title?

Here it is along with the pic.  I admit. It’s sounds a bit depressing, this title.   “How did it come to this?”  Though, I betcha a lot of you have been thinking that question or something like it in the craziness of these last months.   Still, I didn’t want a depressing pic for what folks might see as a depressing title.   So, this picture just felt right. 

Why?   Well, it shows what we’re going through.  You see.  It feels like right now, our world, our country is crossing to someplace new.   But getting there looks a little scary, like we could pitch over the side if we don’t watch our step. 

But this picture goes deeper than that for me.  It reminds me of one of the scariest things I ever did, and one of the most amazing.   In Zion National Park, you’ll find a trail to a place called Angel’s Landing.  And taking that trail looks a bit like taking this bridge.  What do I mean?  

Here is a picture to give you an idea.  If you don’t watch where you’re going on that walk, well, let’s just say, it won’t be a pretty picture.  But if you take the trek, if you make the climb, well, at the top, you’ll see this.  You’ll see a view so stunningly beautiful you’ll never forget being there, being in a place where it seems only angels could land, as you see this glimpse below of the summit of this magnificent walk.

And right now, if we make the right steps as a church, as people who follow Jesus, and yes, as a nation and a world, who know what sights God could have in store?  But how do we get there?   How do we get past the challenges of these days to that other side?   To see that, you first need to see what can get in the way.  You first need to understand what could lead us to fall off that bridge, to fall into the darkness below.  And in this story, this frankly small, not very interesting, story, God shows you how often it’s in such places you can most easily fall off the edge.  What do I mean?  Here God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Judges 17:1-13

Sheesh, what a world we’re facing.   You could catch a virus that might not affect you or might give you a horrible death.  You have an election that feels like it could determine the fate of the entire world, at least the way some folks talk about it.   And you have an economy that can look like it’s about to fall off a cliff.  Yet, in the midst of all that, you and I are moving somewhere.  In fact, we could very well be moving someplace good, even amazing.  Yet it also feels that we could take steps that lead to a place that will not be good at all.

So how do you make sure you’re not taking the wrong steps?  How do you and I make decisions that lead in the right directions not the wrong ones?   In this story, a story of tragically wrong directions, God tells you.   God warns you of the tragic consequences of a small world, and how you and I must do all that we can to avoid living there.  

But hold on isn’t a small world a good thing?  Sheesh, they even made it a ride at Disney World, right?   It’s a small world, It’s a small world after all, It’s a small world after all.  It’s a small, small world.   So, how can that be bad? 

Well, actually, in that famous ride, that small world actually feels kind of big.  You have this wondrous, stunning variety of peoples and cultures, of different sights and sounds.  No, I’m talking about a different sort of small world.  I’m talking about the world you find in this story.  And what world do you find here? 

You find a world that centers on one small family, a world so small and insignificant, you can wonder why anybody thought it ever belonged in the most influential religious text in human history.  Yet here it is.  

I mean.  What goes on here?  This guy, Micah, steals a bunch of money from his mom.  And then he hears his mom curse the person, whoever it was, who stole the money.  He freaks out, decides he doesn’t want a mommy curse, and returns the money.   

So then, she takes back the curse, and uses some of the money to make a silver idol for her son to keep in his house, where Micah makes one of his sons the priest.   Then, Micah gets lucky.  A homeless Levite comes to town, a person who’s actually qualified to be a priest.  And Micah works a deal to get his own personal Levite.  He even thinks. “How awesome.  God is going to so bless me with my own personal priest!”

But that doesn’t happen.  Just to give you the sequel.  A bunch of folks from another Israelite tribe, the Danites, steal the idol and the priest to get God’s favor for them.  Micah goes after them, and says, “Hey, that’s my priest.”  The Danites basically say, “Go home dude before we kill you and your entire family.”  So, Micah goes home, and the Danites go and slaughter a village and live there with their new priest and idol.

And that’s the sort of small world, I’m talking about.  But what makes this world small?  Everyone stays focused on themselves.   Micah steals from his mom.  But because he fears a curse, he returns it.  In other words, it’s all about him.  Mom kind of gives some of the returned money to God, but only so she can use it to make a shiny idol so God can give blessings to her family.   Everywhere you look in this story, everyone is focused on one central question.  What’s in it for me?  The writer even gives you that as the explanation for the decisions people made.  He tells you.  All the people did what was right in their own eyes.   

And when your world becomes like that, one focused on you, it leads to a world where awful things can and do happen.   In fact, right after this story, the final story of this book called Judges comes.  And in that story a woman gets brutalized and murdered.  And that crime leads to the almost total genocide of an Israelite tribe.  And that story and the book ends, with the same words you find in the middle of this story.  “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”

But you don’t need such a gruesome story to see how such small worlds lead to such evil consequences.  No, a smaller story, one that the psychiatrist Scott Peck tells in his book People of the Lie shows you the same thing.

The story happened to Peck, early in the first year of his residency.  The hospital had admitted a 15-year-old boy named Bobby with a diagnosis of depression.  It was February.   Less then ten months before, Bobby’s older brother, had killed himself with a 22 rifle.   Soon after, Bobby began to spiral down.  After Christmas, it got worse, until Bobby ended up in Peck’s office.

Peck could hardly get the boy to talk about anything.  He kept picking at his skin, where he had gouged sores into his arms and hands.   Finally struggling to find anything to talk about, he asked him what he got for Christmas.  Bobby simply said.  “Not much.”   Peck dug deeper.  Your parents must have gotten you something.  What did they get you?   Bobby said, “A gun.”  Stunned, Peck asked, “What kind of gun?”  A 22.  “A 22 pistol?” Peck asked.  No, Bobby replied, “A 22 rifle.”   A shocked Peck said, “They gave you the same type of gun that your brother used to kill himself?”   “No” Bobby replied.    Peck relieved said, “Oh, I thought it was the same type of gun.”   No, Bobby replied, “they gave me the same gun. They gave me the gun that belonged to my brother.”

When Peck met with the parents, they couldn’t understand how giving Bobby the gun that his brother used to kill himself was such a bad thing.   Sure, Bobby wanted a tennis racket, but money doesn’t grow on trees.  And they already had the gun.  Why not just pass it on?  

You see, when the world becomes only about you, you stop really seeing anyone else, even those closest to you.   And when you stop seeing anyone else but you, well then, all sorts of awful things become possible.  And as blinded as you are, you may not even see how awful they truly are.  For in that small world, you have become smaller too.   And in that small world, your God has gotten smaller too, a God as small as you are. 

After all, Bobby’s parents went to church every Sunday.   They held down good jobs, obeyed all the rules, yet they still lived in a world where making their son’s Christmas gift, the very gun that had killed his brother an ok thing.  You see, because in that world, God just approves what you already believed anyway.   And the same happens in this story in Judges.

After all, Micah’s mother makes an idol.  But don’t get confused, she’s not making an idol of a false God.   She’s making an idol of the God of Israel.   She just wants a God she can handle and touch, a God she can buy, a God who will bless her choices not challenge them.

You see.  When I quoted those words “All the people did what was right in their own eyes,” I didn’t give you the whole verse.   No, another sentence came first.   That sentence read “In those days, there was no king in Israel.”  Therefore “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”   And that sentence tells you something important.

The people had no higher authority, someone who could lead them beyond themselves, to something greater than their own interests or desires.   Instead, everyone had become kings of their own tiny world, a world of me, myself and I.    And that world had its own tiny God too, one focused on meeting their desires and nothing else.

Today, people get caught in those same tiny worlds.  You see it in the controversy around masks.  I don’t want to wear a mask because it impinges on my freedom.   So, if I make you sick, it doesn’t matter to me.  That’s your world, not mine.   And in such a tiny world, you resist any higher authority that could call you to care for anything beyond you. 

And you can create a God like that too, a God who holds the same convictions you do, who hates the same people you do, and approves the same as you do too.  And if you’re thinking right now.  “Oh, I know who he’s talking about.”  Then, don’t you see?  You’ve missed the point. 

Every one of us can get caught up in our own small world with its own small god.  We can all create a world where, it’s too easy to stop seeing and cherishing and valuing others, except those of course who we like or who agree with us.    

But that’s not the real world or the real God, is it?

No, the real God created a world where everyone matters, a world big enough to hold us all with all our flaws and frailties, all our strengths and weaknesses.   And into this big world, God came and became one of us.  And in Jesus, this God reached out in love to everyone.  He broke past every barrier that people had put to separate their tiny worlds, barriers between nations and races, barriers between women and men, barriers even between the so-called righteous and sinner.   And in the end, this God died for us all, to save us all, from every one of our small and self-focused worlds, to bring us back into the world that does hold us all, into the kingdom of the One who saves us all.

And a God who can become small like that is a God bigger and more wondrous than any of us can even comprehend.  A God that big, is bigger than any virus, any election, any prejudice or bigotry or division we create.   A God like that shatters all our small worlds to bring us into the beauty and wonder of the real one.  

And when God does that, it leads to amazing things.  You see.  On that climb up to Angel’s Landing, I didn’t go alone.  For a week I had been traveling and camping on a bus with thirty other folks as different from each other as you could imagine.  Yet over those days together, as barrier after barrier came down, God made my world so much larger.  As wondrous as the view from the top was, what made it more wondrous was the new friends who helped get me there.  And as we journey into this new world, God can make our differences lead to our greatest blessings.    But we have to be open to let God enlarge our worlds enough to hold them.  So, ask yourself?   Are there places where your world has become small, too centered on you, your grievances, your convictions, your hardships?   Then let that God break you free, break us all free, and lead us deeper into the bigness and beauty of the real world, the real world where this God lives, and where anything, anything is possible.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

In a Time of Contested Truth, How Do You Find It? You Look Here First.

It stunned us.  It so rarely happened to us.  But it seemed to happen all the time to Genevieve.  We all lived in New York City, home to the rich and famous, but we rarely saw them.  But Genevieve seemed like a star magnet.   Again and again I heard stories of someone walking with her in the park or on the street, and out of nowhere, someone super famous would walk by.  But here’s the stunner.  Genevieve never recognized them, until one day, she did kind of. 

She was riding a bus on the West Side of Manhattan, when a man sat down beside her.  As she glanced over, she thought.  I recognize him!  He’s famous.  She was even sure she knew who he was.   He was an anchorman, one of the really famous ones.  So, with confidence she asked.  “Aren’t you Tom Brokaw?”   And with an ironic smile, Peter Jennings, the then anchor of ABC News, said.  “No, I’m the other guy.”    It’s been 25 years since that happened, I still love that story. 

Interestingly, Jennings didn’t take offense.  They even had an engaging conversation about bias in the news.  Now, Genevieve may not have recognized who exactly Jennings was. But it didn’t have any terrible consequences, maybe some mild embarrassment.

But sometimes, what you don’t recognize, who you don’t recognize can destroy your life.  What if the folks who lost everything in Bernie Madoff’s swindles had recognized him for the criminal he was?   What if someone, anyone had recognized that the young man who killed 14 children and 3 teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas had such an act inside him?   But let’s not even get that complicated.  If you could just recognize who had Covid or not, that would be a big help.  But here’s the stunner.  You can’t even recognize if you have Covid.   You’ve gotta get a test to make sure.

And that where the hard truth comes.  Too often, we can’t recognize the truth around us because we can’t see the truth within us.   Too often, the lies that others tell us happen because of the lies we’ve already told ourselves.   But how do you see that truth?   How do you fight the enemies of truth that have outposts right in your own head?  How do you recognize the truth of what’s really going on, what’s really going on inside of you?  In this story, Jesus points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

Luke 23:39-43

So, how does it happen?  How do you recognize the truth?  More crucially, how do you not get caught up in what is not true, in what could even lead you to destruction?   In this brief moment as Jesus dies on the cross, he shows you.   You recognize the truth only when you face how far you still are from it.   Only then, can truth save you, but save you it does. 

In this story, one person recognizes the truth, and the other doesn’t.   But to understand how stunning this recognition is, you have got to go a little wider, to look at the whole story of Jesus’ death.  In that whole story, only two people recognize who Jesus is, see what is truly happening in his death.   And the first one who sees it is the criminal in this story, someone so outside of the law, of society that he is dying at its hands.   And ironically, the other one who does, is a soldier, a commander of the very men who kill Jesus.

The religious authorities don’t see it.  Heck, they think by killing Jesus they’re the good guys.  The Roman rulers don’t see it.   But you kind of expect that. Jesus and the religious leaders didn’t exactly get along.  And the Romans, if they thought of him at all, didn’t think much.   But get this.  His own followers, his companions for three years didn’t get it either.  Not one of them got it.  Not one. 

Who did?   This criminal, and a soldier, two folks totally on the outskirts of the whole picture, total outsiders to the whole Jesus story.   And yet they become the ones who get it.   Why?  Well, when you’re living on the outskirts, often truth becomes easier to see.  

After all, if you’re living on the inside, you often have an investment in not seeing the truth.  Why?  Often the truth will just tell you you’re wrong, and that things need to change, as painful as that might be.    And who wants to hear that?  Yet that’s exactly what you need to hear, even as painful as it might be. 

Many years ago, when I first studied to become a preacher, I felt I had become so enlightened about how unfair the church had been to women, how things needed to change.   And knowing that truth felt good, even made me feel a bit superior. But that Christmas, our family traveled to visit with family in North Carolina.   And after dinner that night, I commented to my younger sister how sad it was that Uncle Charles, a conservative preacher, was so blind to what I was seeing. 

 My sister just looked at me and said.   What about tonight at dinner?  I looked puzzled.  So, she explained.   She said.  “After dinner tonight, a dinner cooked mainly by the women by the way, all the women got up to clean the table.   And all the men, including you, sat there, like it was the most natural thing in the world, all the men, that is, except for Uncle Charles.   No, he got up and helped.  He went into the kitchen and helped the women clean.  And you, you just sat there.” 

 I couldn’t deny it.  She was telling me the truth.   I realized I might know what the truth looked like.  But only one man at the family table came close to living the truth that night.   And it wasn’t me. That hurt.  It hurt to see how wrong I was, how far from the truth I still lived.  

The preacher Bill Coffin put it well.  Jesus said, “The truth will set you free,” but first it makes you miserable.    After all, if you want to know the right way, you’ve gotta first face the fact that the way you’ve been taking isn’t it.   Only then, can the change come.  As the writer and psychiatrist Scott Peck put it.  “The truth is that our finest moments are more likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled.”  Why?  “It is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

Yet even in the discomfort, you have a choice.  You can choose to stay in the lie or face the truth.  In this story, you have two criminals dying with Jesus.   Both are dealing with misery, with a life gone sadly wrong.  Why does one see the truth and the other doesn’t?   That other criminal doesn’t see the truth for the same reason, a lot of us don’t.  

Near the beginning of the pandemic, Damian Barr, a writer in England sent out a tweet that got quoted around the world.  He wrote simply: 

 “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.”

 And inspired by that tweet, someone expanded that thought into a longer poem, some of which I’ll share here:

I heard that we are in the same boat. But it's not that.
We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.
Your ship can be shipwrecked and mine might not be.
Or vice versa…..
Some are in their "home office".   Others are looking through trash to survive….
Some have experienced the near-death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, and some believe they are infallible and will be blown away if or when this hits someone they know.
Some have faith in God and expect miracles during 2020. Others say the worse is yet to come. So, friends, we are not in the same boat. 

And what those sentences say about the truth of this pandemic, speak a different yet still powerful truth in this story.   You see.   Jesus and these two criminals were all facing the same storm of crucifixion, but they weren’t all in the same boat.   Those two criminals had lived lives that led them there, to those crosses, to that sentence of death.  But Jesus had not.  They might have faced the same storm, but Jesus sat in a far different boat.    But only one criminal was willing to face that truth, to face that only one person didn’t deserve to be there, and that person wasn’t him.

When you face the truth, your biggest temptation will always be to blame someone else, to avoid looking at your own boat, at the choices you took to get to where you are.   But when you do get honest about your own boat, that’s when the help comes, that’s when the hope comes, that’s when the change comes.

For in this story, this criminal makes a crazy request.  He asks Jesus.  “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”    This criminal sees what no one else can.  He sees Jesus is the King, the rightful ruler, the one who can save him.   And Jesus does.   Jesus tells him.  “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”    That word, Paradise appears only two other times in the New Testament.   In one, the apostle Paul talks about being taken up into Paradise and seeing and experiencing things of God he could never express.  And in the other, it appears in Revelation, as a description of the paradise of God, where humans will once again eat from the tree of life.   And Jesus is specifically inviting this guy, this criminal there.  I love the way the writer Krish Kandiah puts it.  Jesus is turning up for his inauguration as King of heaven, and he is bringing a convicted criminal as his plus-one.    You see, that’s the truth.  

Why do we avoid facing the hard truths about ourselves, the ones no one likes to see?  We fear.  We fear rejection.  We fear what our failures or faults or mistakes say about us, that somehow, they show we’re not worthy.   But here Jesus tells you.  You are worthy.  My love has made you worthy.  And no mistake you make can take that worth away.  No ugly truth can make you less beautiful to me.   

 And the more you know that truth, the more it frees you to face without fear, every flawed place, every wrong direction, every dark place in you.  For in the light of that love, you wake up inside this beautiful truth. There is no truth that you need fear, when you know the truth of his love.   And I know of no one who put that better than a Christian named St. Simeon who lived a thousand years ago, and wrote this:

We awaken in your body, O Christ, As you awaken in our bodies.

I wake up inside Your Body Where all my body, all over,

Every most hidden part of it, Is realized as joy in You

And You make me, utterly, Real,

And everything that is hurt, everything

That seemed to me dark, harsh, shameful,

Maimed, ugly, irreparably Damaged, is in You transformed

And recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in Your light.

And the more you see that truth, the more Jesus frees you to see them all.  So, is there a truth you’ve been avoiding, a rut you need to break out of, a lie that you need to let go?  Let Jesus show you the truth.  Let Jesus set you free.   


Sunday, October 11, 2020

How Does Trust Return When a Society Loses It? It Returns As Folks Remember This.

Boy, it’s tough out there.  But up until this week, I didn’t realize how tough.   I don’t know if you’ve realized it yet.  I sure don’t want to.  But I’m getting old.   That means I don’t always see things the way other people see them.  I’m getting dangerously close to being someone who says things like, “Back in my day, young whipper-snapper, things weren’t like this.”  

And this week, a few numbers I read showed me how tough things have become for so many.  You see, I grew up in a generally high trust society.  In other words, we trusted folks to do the right thing.  So, when we went to bed at night, we didn’t necessarily lock our doors.   Heck, if we left the house, we didn’t always lock them.   Why?  We trusted folks. 

But today that has changed.  The top survey of the way Americans think discovered less than one in three believe that “most people can be trusted.”  They haven’t recorded that low a number since they first started asking the question in 1972!  And the lower you go in age, the worst it gets.  About 3 in 4 Americans under 30 believe that most of the time, “people just look out for themselves,”… that they would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance.”   And if you’re young and in a racial minority, the numbers get worse.  

And that distrust is not only bad, its literally life-killing.  In just ten years drug-related deaths among those 18 to 34 has more than doubled.  Alcohol related deaths went up by 69%, suicides by 35%.   As one science writer put it, “When you have no one to trust, your brain can self-destruct.”

And now that Covid’s hit, those numbers are getting worse.  You can see it in the controversy over masks.  You see.  Masks present folks with a social dilemma.  Let’s say, you’re low-risk.  So, if you pursue just your self-interest and don’t wear that pesky mask, it might be better for you.  But if you pursue the common interest, then yes, the mask inconveniences you a little, but overall, everyone is going to be better off.  Yet, too often, in too many places too many folks have refused to pursue that common good.  They don’t trust. They don’t trust each other. They don’t trust the authorities, the scientists, well, anyone.    And that’s bad.   When a society stops trusting, it goes down.  As the historian Arnold Toynbee discovered. Civilizations don’t die by murder.  They die by suicide.  Civilizations don’t get killed off.  They kill themselves.   Now, could that be happening here?  In late June, Gallup discovered our pride as a nation has gone lower than any since since they started measuring it.   And our happiness level? It’s gone down to its lowest level in nearly 50 years.

But everything I just shared can change.  No, it will change.  We just need to remember the powerful, the profoundly beautiful, the life-changing message of this story.   How does trust return?  In this story, Jesus shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.

Matthew 25:31-46

Have you ever heard that saying; “Don’t miss the forest for the trees?”  Yet with this story, I’ve done that.    In this story, it’s too easy to just look at the things you’re supposed to do, feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner.  And sure, Jesus wants you to do those things.  But if that’s all you get from here, then you’ve missed the entire point.  And I say that because I did.   I missed the entire point. 

Jesus is going deeper than simply telling you things to do.  Jesus is inviting you into a new view of the world, a new view of everything.   Jesus is inviting you, inviting the world to change how it thinks.   And when you do that, when you change the way you think, it changes everything. 

Have you ever heard the story of the man on the train that the leadership writer, Stephen Covey tells?  It goes like this.  This man is riding on a subway train, heading home from work.  But right in the next seat over, there’s this man with two little kids.  These two kids are running up and down the aisle, bouncing on the seats, being loud and obnoxious.  But the dad isn’t doing anything to control them.   And this man is getting more and more angry.  He is thinking.  How rude! How inconsiderate!”   Finally, he angrily says to the man.  “Please control your kids!”   And the dad apologizes.  He says.  “I’m so sorry.  My boys just lost their mom, and we’re coming from the hospital.  They just don’t know what to do with themselves, and honestly, I don’t know either. I’ll try to get them under control.”  

Let me ask you.  Do you think that man was still angry after hearing that? No.    But nothing had changed.  The kids were still going crazy.  The dad was still not able to control them.   What changed is now the man thought differently about that situation, about what was really going on.  

Here’s a powerful truth that we need to hear again and again.   What you think about a situation is not necessarily what that situation is.   It’s what you think it is. In other words, your thought isn’t reality.  It’s your thinking about reality.    But that thinking leads you to feel a certain way.   And once you feel that way, it leads you to act a certain way.  And that action leads to a result.

And if you have a culture that thinks and feels a certain way, that thinking leads to certain results.   And in Jesus’ day, the thinking pretty much said only a few people matter.   And anyone else doesn’t matter at all.   And when I say at all, I mean that, at all.   If you had a baby and didn’t want it, you dropped it by the side of the road and hoped for the best.  That meant a lot of babies died.   If you killed a slave, you regretted the same way you regret breaking your stove today.  The slave wasn’t a person.  It was just a tool, a thing, nothing more.  

Even the religion of Jesus’ own faith had its blind spots.  Yes, they valued human life far more than the culture around them.   But that didn’t mean they thought everyone mattered the same.  If you obeyed the law, you mattered more.  And if you didn’t, you mattered less, a lot less. And for those outside the religion, they only mattered if they had power, and only then for what their power could do for you. 

And yet, Jesus comes along and tells this story.   And he says, at the end of time, you’ll see who and what really mattered.   You’ll see reality for what it really is.  And what is reality?  Jesus says.   Reality is everyone matters.   The hungry and thirsty matter.  The sick and naked matter.  Even those who have done wrong, criminals, law-breakers matter.  Everyone matters.  No, Jesus goes further.   Jesus says.  In those people, you will find God.  So, treat them as you would God.    

And let me tell you, when you start seeing in everyone around you the presence of God, when you know honoring that presence has eternal impact, that changes things.   It changes the way you think about people.  It changes the way you feel about them.  It changes the way you act towards them.   And it changes the results of, well, everything.   

Before Jesus, hospitals didn’t exist.  You had doctors, places that cared for the sick, but only for the rich or for the soldier or gladiator so they could kill for you.   But anyone else didn’t matter. But Christians in every city where they placed a bishop, placed a hospital, a place of care for everyone.  Why?  They knew.  Everyone mattered.

Before Jesus, orphanages didn’t exist.  Why would you need an orphanage?  Babies don’t matter.  But Christians created them.  Why?   They knew.   Everyone mattered.   

And that way of thinking started changing the way everyone thought.  For you see, if you want things to change, you share a different story, a truer story.   And that story changes everything, often in striking ways, even today.

Years ago, when my grandmother passed, I remember riding in the funeral procession and noticing everyone on the road stopping.  They were getting out of their cars and standing.  Men were taking off their hats.   No one moved until the procession passed.  Why?   They knew. That person who had died mattered.   And he or she mattered more than their next appointment or task.   And their stopping mattered to me.  Now I do the same when a procession passes by.  

But when you stop thinking that way, it has impact.   The preacher Bill Coffin put it well.   There are people and things in this world, and people are to be loved and things are to be used.  And it is increasingly important that we love people and use things, for there is so much in our gadget-minded, consumer-oriented society that is encouraging us to love things and use people.”

And because we live in a world that increasingly does that, that loves things and uses people, it has heartbreaking results.  Why would you trust in a world like that?   Why would you risk or hope or sacrifice for others in a world like that?  

But that world isn’t reality.  This story is reality.   And if you want things to change, then you live in this story, the real one.  You let that story frame every situation, every person.  And as you do that, you get closer and closer to what is truly real, to God, the heart of reality itself.   

You see.  The way you think matters.  It’s why the word for repentance, metanoia, means just that, a change in thinking, in how you see the world.   In fact, in one story that thinking defines the very difference between heaven and hell.   In the story, someone enters a room called Hell.  She discovers people seated around a banquet of incredible food.   But each has a spoon too long for them to put in their mouths.  So, the food lies there with no way to eat it.  The people cry in agony and rage.   Then she enters another room called Heaven.  She discovers. The room is identical, a banquet full of food, spoons too long to put in your mouth.  But here there is laughter and delight.  Why?  People are using their spoons to feed each other.

Years ago, I experienced a group exercise around just such choices.  Our group had been together for a couple of days, and right at the end, the leader gave us this exercise.  He asked us to go around and stand before each other.  And he gave us each time a number of choices.  If you chose one, you chose to turn from the person standing in front of you.  If you chose two, you choose to simply stare in their eyes.  If you chose three, you chose to grasp a hand.   And if you chose four, you chose to hug.   As it was an exercise in choice, the lowest number someone held up won.  But you had a few moments to negotiate so if someone voted two, and the other voted four, you could settle on three.   Now as we began, we realized.  The exercise was a setup.   We looked at each other and we realized. We wanted to choose four again and again.   Before long, everyone was hugging everyone else.   It was wonderful.  And as we left, at the door someone greeted us with a construction paper hand that simply had four fingers held up.   The exercise had been about choice, yes.  But it had challenged us to make a particular choice, to choose four, to choose to love, to realize that choice would always be worth the risk.

Every day you and I face that choice.  You can choose to turn away or stand at a distance or you can choose to love, even when love doesn’t seem to make much sense, even when love seems to be losing.  Why choose four?  Because no matter how it seems; four is true. It’s real.   How do you know?  In Jesus you see that reality, that truth. You see the God who chooses four for you, even when it costs God his life.  And you see. That love, that reality is stronger even than death.    

And as you live in that love, it will not only change you.  It will change everything.  For God in Jesus is bringing a world that is truly real, a world where everyone matters.  So, live in that world now.  Choose it now.  And see what God will do.