Saturday, August 23, 2014

James: Letter to the Faithful - Week 4 "Pride Goeth Before..."

Let's say you are driving down the road in your car, listening to Steely Dan and singing passionately about how "Ricky" better not "lose that number," when suddenly you hit a pothole and lose control of your ability to steer.  As a result of this, you discover that Jesus has not taken the wheel, and that it is now spinning wildly in your hands as you careen headlong toward a minivan full of nuns.  

Here's a question for you... 

Is the ensuing accident your fault?  Removing the obvious mortal sin of listening to and enjoying Steely Dan---most people would tend to say, "Absolutely not!  It was the pothole's fault."  And by extension, then we would go on to blame the municipality that allowed said pothole to exist.  

And we would be wrong.  The accident would still be your fault.  Your insurance would increase, you would get the ticket, you would be to blame.  In most states, it is your duty to report potholes when you see them, and it is the municipality's duty to fix them in a reasonable amount of time after they've been informed or are aware. 

But it's still your fault.  As it turns out, potholes are among the leading causes of accidents in the United States...  

Since I knew that I was going to be preaching on pride, I was thinking this week about how pride is like a pothole.  You never know the effects of a pothole until you hit one.  Sometimes the effects can be minor, just a bump in the road.  Sometimes the effects can wreck your world.  And most of us seem to have the mistaken notion that the potholes we hit in life have nothing to do with us, or our pride, and everything to do with the pothole.  

Pride is sneaky.  It starts out like a little crack in the pavement, but over time it grows and grows until it's too deep and wide to avoid when you're barreling down the road of life.  

I've had my fair share of moments when I hit some pride potholes. 

One incident comes to mind---when I was a youth director of a very large church in Chicago.  I took my volunteers and staff of about 10-12 leaders to a youth workers convention in Atlanta.  Our church had resources to pay for everyone to go.  We had roughly three hundred students in our ministry, and I was the leader of one of the largest youth ministries in the city.  

And I wore a cool cowboy hat.  

Yes, I was that youth leader.  At the time of this convention, I had also been working out pretty well, and thought that I was rather buff.  So I had my cool cowboy hat, I had some hip religious t-shirt that was a size too small so I could show off my guns and I thought I had arrived.  

After one of the sessions in the conference we were heading back to the hotel and I said that I needed to make a pit stop in the--and I quote--"little youth pastors room."  My team waited outside as I went into the restroom.  I thought the restroom was a little strangely designed when I went in, but there was some urgency to my visit, so I chose a stall and went inside.  It dawned on me as I sat there that I had indeed gone into the women's bathroom.  

I sat there praying that no one would come into the restroom.  God, as it turns out chose not to hear that prayer.  The door opened and several women came in, chatting to one another.  I gathered myself and decided the only thing to do was to leave with style.  I opened the door to the stall and stood there in front of a room full of women.  Then I tipped my cool cowboy hat to them, and said, "Ma'am" and went out the door... 

Where my entire team sat waiting for me to emerge, upon which they screamed in laughter, pointed, stared and made a spectacle of me---as well they should have.  

The Bible tells us that "Pride goes before a fall..."  I agree.  Pride is a pothole--a pothole that goes before a fall or a wreck... or a mistaken trip into the ladies' restroom.  

Here's what I want you to remember as we journey through our study of James chapter 4 today:  

Pride is the pothole that causes almost every accident on the road of life.  

Let's read James 4:1-12: 

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

James starts things off with some battle imagery.  There is a sense throughout the text that he's addressing people of "lower" rank--encouraging them to stand and fight for what is right.  But he's also speaking to those of "higher" rank, urging them not to think so highly of themselves if they don't want to be seen as an "enemy" 

I remember years ago reading about General John Sedgwick, of the Union army in the Civil War.  He was inspecting his troops and stood upon a bulwark of the defenses they'd erected to address them.  Some of the men urged him to get down.  "Nonsense!" he shot back at them, "You couldn't shoot an elephant from that dist---" at that moment a Confederate musket ball went right through his head. 

Sometimes it pays to be an enlisted man...  

4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us[b]? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”

James is making a sharp contrast here between "highs" and "lows" between earthly wisdom that is false wisdom and true wisdom that comes from God.  As we've learned in earlier sermons about James--he is very concerned with his readers understanding the difference between the colorless reality of the "world" and the colorful reality of the "kingdom" of God.  In other words, when you choose wisely, when you lean toward true wisdom, when you are a friend of God as opposed to being a friend of the world---you will have an incredible life.  

The word that James uses here for a "proud" person is huperephanos which means "the one who shows himself above other people. 

7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

This is a choice between allegiances/a choice between worlds.  Your choice demonstrates your allegiance, your friendship.  And in the Greek mindset, "friendship" meant that you have the same mind as whatever/whoever you are friends with...  

11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister[d] or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

I love how James just throws all kinds of warnings to the proud in at the last bit of this passage.  

Essentially this whole passage comes down to this:  Pride in your own accomplishments, your own effort, your own acquisition---all of that comes from the wisdom of the world and God actively resists that kind of wisdom. He pushes it away.  But humility, submission, lowliness, truth, goodness--all of which comes from true wisdom of the kingdom brings a life full of the gifts of God. Not the least of which is an incredible measure of his grace. 

I've been working on my Joel Osteenisms lately.  An Osteenism is when you say something that may or may not be profound--and may or may not be entirely from Scripture, but you make it rhyme, so it sounds awesome... and you sell a million books.    

So here goes:  If you're proud and arrogant, God resists; If you're lowly and humble God assists.  


Actually, this is the pattern James is establishing:  If you are "high" you will be brought "low," if/when you are low, you will be brought high.  The proud and arrogant will be humbled.  Those who submit to humility and lowliness will be lifted up.  High/Low/Low/High.  This is an important pattern for us to remember when we think ab out the way pride works.  

The kind of pride we are talking about isn't the good kind of pride that you feel at the accomplishments of your children or grandchildren, when you see the American flag raised at the Olympics, when someone you love does something awesome...  That's pride that is focused outwardly. 

The kind of pride I'm talking about--pothole pride--is grounded in something far more insidious.  Our culture, our earthly reality is the source of the kind of pride that causes potholes.  In our culture your identity is found in what can be acquired or obtained.  To have more is to be more real--to have more power, more money, more youth, more stuff, more ability...  

But in God's kingdom in the heavenly reality that James is pleading with us to embrace--your identity is found in what you let go of in order to receive the Spirit.  And here's the really awesome part about this----people get this.  Despite the way our culture tries desperately to tell us otherwise--we all get this.  

And I know this because of the ice-bucket challenge.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you couldn't help but see video, read stories, or see a million facebook entries showing people participating in the icebucket challenge to raise awareness and money to find a cure for ALS, Lou Gherig's disease.  

The icebucket challenge is simply this.  You take a bucket full of icewater and you dump it on your head, while the cameras are rolling.  In the video you call out several friends who you challenge to take the icebucket challenge or if they don't want to dump ice on their head, they can write a check for $100 to fight ALS.  Even if you dump icewater on your head, you still have to donate money. Millions of people have done this.  Celebrities included.  Athletes, movie stars, and even politicians---George W. Bush took the challenge, and former first lady Laura dumped the water.  He then in turn called out Bill Clinton.  

Why is this so compelling?  

I think it has something to do with the fact that people are willing to do something humiliating in order to do good.  Glamorous stars appear without makeup in their workout clothes--and then are seen screaming when cold water hits them.  A former president of the United States is willing to be un-presidential...  

They become less, and in so doing accomplish so much more.  Donations to ALS research are up 1000%  Millions of people who had no idea about the disease are now becoming informed.  

This speaks to us--because it resonates with something deep inside of us:  The desire to embrace a different reality than the one we've been sold by "this world." 

Jesus taught his disciples, "In the kingdom of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first."  

God doesn't want your life to be defined by what you can do--what you can accomplish--but by what God has done for you through Jesus.  

God will push back against the kind of pride that acquires, grasps, lusts and envies...  But he will shower grace upon those who give up their life in order to find it.  

The choice in the end is up to you.  You can embrace the wisdom of this world or the truth of the kingdom.  One road is full of potholes, the other is not.  One road will lead you to wreck and ruin, the other will lead you to unbelievable life.

And when all is said and done, we truly know the difference know the difference.  

It's time to start giving away the "high" acquisitions of this world in exchange for the "lowly" grace and peace of God's kingdom.  It's time to start filling in the holes of our pride with the abundant life we find in Jesus.

Because pride is the pothole that causes almost every accident on the road of life. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

James: Letter the The Faithful Week Three - The Taming of the Tongue

I have a list of words that I would like to see eradicated from our cultural lexicon.  I don't ask for much--perhaps issuing hefty fines to people who use them until they learn not to would be a good place to start.

Honestly, if everyone listened to me on issues like this the world would be a better place.

So... to the words:

"Bromance" - This is a word that is used to describe the affection that exists between two dudes who want to ensure that no one mistakes their relationship as something other than manly friendship---and so they use a word that combines "brother" and "romance," which honestly just makes the whole thing worse.

"Foodie" - This word is used to describe someone who really, really, really likes food.  People will use it in a pretentious sort of way, "Oh, I really don't care to eat at Chipotle--I'm kind of a foodie, you know."  Oh, you like food?  So does everyone.  Find another word.

"Irregardless" - To begin--this is not a word.  It does not exist.  It is used by lots of people who say it as if it was a word, but it isn't.  They will say things like,
"I know that I should have paid attention in English class, but irregardless I can still speak it good."

"Totes" - This word is short for "totally."  Because obviously it takes so long to say the word "totally" that you have to shorten it to "totes."

"Winning" - This word is used by people who want to describe how they feel when they succeed at something that is morally reprehensible or absolutely without merit.  This word is most often associated with Charlie Sheen, which automatically disqualifies it.

"LOL" - This isn't actually a word--it's an abbreviation that is often used when people are texting, posting things on Twitter, on Facebook, etc.  It stands for "Laugh Out Loud." Whenever someone uses this in a text to respond to something funny I have shared with them, I secretly want to ask them, "Did you really.... laugh out loud?  Did that really happen--or did you just sit there in your chair at work without actually laughing, but you wanted to give the appearance of amusement."

Like I said... if everyone just listened to me the world would be a better place.

Or not.

What this little exercise teaches us is that language and speech is powerful.

Did you know that "LOL" actually made it into the Oxford English Dictionary because so many people use it?  The abbreviation that had its birthplace in texting conversations that were trying to be brief has now become part of our language.  So many people have come to recognize it as meaningful--that it basically has to be included in the dictionary.

Words--even made up ones--contain a vast amount of power to create or destroy.

Do you remember that old aphorism, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."?  Well, it's a crock.  Words can hurt when they are used as weapons.  They can also give life when they are used to heal.

This week we are going to be taking a look at a passage of scripture from the book of James that addresses this very issue.  And this will be the guiding thought that takes us through our studies today:

When you open your mouth you can create life or death.  Choose life.  

As I said, language has the power to create meaning --both good and bad.

When we are small, and learning to talk we quickly realize that we are connected to the world by being able to describe it, and ourselves within it.  We learn the words to ask for food and drink--for candy in the supermarket aisle--to watch cartoons on TV...  We can tell our parents when we are hurt, hungry, angry, sad...

And then we quickly begin to figure out that our full inclusion into our surrounding community depends on our mastery of language.  There comes a time when our parents spelling out things like B-A-T-H or B-E-D so we don't freak out when we hear the words themselves doesn't work any longer.  When we can speak, use our words, we begin feeling truly human.

But then we also begin to learn about the destructive aspects of language.

We learn about labeling.  We learn that being called certain things are signs of our exclusion from groups, communities, church---even our families.  We learn about the power that words play when people practice "othering" when it comes to those who are not like them--or who disagree with them.

We also learn how even a casual comment can be just like an emotional hand grenade.  There's probably not a single person here today that hasn't borne the brunt of an offhand remark about our looks, our abilities, our beliefs, you name it that has wounded us, left a mark or maybe even caused us to believe something about ourselves that may not even be true...

And all of this brings home the fact that language not only has the power to create meaning, it has the power to create life---or to take it.

Like I said, When you open your mouth you can create life or death. 

In the ancient book of Genesis from the Hebrew scriptures--what we call the Old Testament--we find an interesting moment in the Creation stories where God's intent for language is revealed.

God gives Adam, the "first human" the task of naming the animals.  It's a verse that often gets overlooked, sadly.  God giving humans the task of naming things is simply an extension of the creative impulse that is such a part of who God is at God's very essence.  Humans were being invited to become co-creators with God and speech was the gift that enabled them to share in the creative process.

As we read in the Creation stories, God "speaks" things into existence, but then takes a hands on approach to creating humans in God's own image.

Speech is merely one more aspect of human beings that point to the divine DNA within us.  But we only reflect God's nature when we use our speech to create, rather than to destroy.  To use language for the purpose of showing honor, care, stewardship and love.

In the letter he wrote to the early Church, James, the brother of Jesus, addresses this very issue extensively.  James chapter 3 verses 1-12 differs a bit from some of the other chapters in James' letter.  It's not a bunch of aphorisms, or wisdom sayings that are strung together---it's a coherent argument that is clearly intended for instruction.

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
Let me give you a different--and more literal translation of verse 6.

"The tongue is a fire--the tongue is a world of wrongdoing set among our body parts, staining the whole body.  It sets aflame the cycle of human life and is set aflame by the Garbage Pit Gehenna."
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
The word used for "tamed" here is the Greek word damazo which means to overpower.  This word was most often found in antiquity on the tombstones of retired gladiators--warriors who could not be overcome in the arena, but were finally overcome by Death.

Most of the images that James uses here are grounded in Greco-Roman thought--in the ancient arguments that were ongoing about the power of language, but with a twist.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
James posits this whole debate in the middle of a cosmic struggle.  What James is saying here is simply, "When we speak praise--when we speak life---we are reflecting the image of God within us.  When we speak cursing--when we speak death--we are denying it."

In other words, killing speech is the antithesis of authentic religion.

As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, James is very concerned about his readers understanding that the reality of God's kingdom is more real, more vibrant, more lively than the colorless, gray reality of this world.  When we live, love, speak and act with the same mind as God--we reflect God's image and we actually bring the kingdom of God--heaven--to earth.

James probably was using a very Jewish mode of praying--the Shemoneh Esreh--to make a point. The Shemoneh Esreh was a way of praying that good Jews would practice every single day.  Every aspect of the prayer began with "Blessed be Thee Oh God!"  James is saying, how can you say such things--pray such prayers and then use killing words in the same breath.

Connecting everything back to the Genesis account--James is essentially teaching us here: When you bless God and curse a human being created in God's image, your allegiance is betrayed and your true self is revealed.

So how do we know what killing speech sounds like?

It's when we insult one another---either face-to-face, online, or behind one another's backs.  It's also when we take words that have other kinds of meanings and we use them in ways that aren't life-giving.  All of these words can be twisted into something negative with the wrong inflection or context: "Liberal!" "Conservative!" "Immigrant!" "Homosexual!" "Feminist!" "Christian!" "Black!" "White!"

Then there are the kinds of words that breed hatred.  When we demonize people that we don't know, lumping them in to categories, stereotypes and turning them into "others" so we don't have to confront the real reasons why they make us uncomfortable.  It's when we teach our children to hate people because of the color of their skin, their gender, their nationality, their politics or religion.

Or when we use derogatory speech that wounds others who find themselves within whatever words we use.  When we tear others down in order to build our selves up.  When we make blanket statements about people, places and things without a thought to who might be listening.

Maybe it's when our words trend toward the negative--when all we do is talk negatively about life, the universe and everything.  We can't seem to say something nice, and instead of not saying anything at all, we say too much.

Or perhaps it's when we gossip--spreading rumors and innuendo about co-workers, family members, friends, fellow church members, leaders, teachers, children, parents... you name it.  Or that moment when someone says "Wait until you hear what I heard---" and you don't stop them.  When you repeat something you heard about another person without first verifying whether it's grounded in any kind of fact...  

Every single one of these instances of killing speech reveals a world where creation is distorted, creativity is suppressed and the word of Truth--of Jesus, the Way the TRUTH and the LIFE--is silenced.

I can't help but think of the recent spate of suicides among young teens and pre-teens who give in to despair after being bullied at school and online.  I can't erase the image I have in my mind's eye of the mother of a young thirteen year old girl who hung herself weeping as she was interviewed on TV.

"We don't often think about how harmful our words are." She said.  "Words can kill."

In the end, we all have a choice--you have a choice.  You can embrace the Creative & Saving Word of God or the Dehumanizing wisdom of the World.  You can insult, hate, tear down and gossip with your words or you can praise, love, build up and encourage with them.

Maybe, if you are like me, you need to break some bad habits.  If you've lived for a very long time in the gray and colorless world where the word of Truth takes a back seat to words that kill---then you might need some steps to help you step into the vibrancy and life God wants for you.

What are your reading, listening and watching habits?  I know that I've had to change mine.  I stopped watching cable news--refusing to get co-opted into a system where I am required to ingest hours and hours of anxiety, slanted points of view and negativity.  I stopped listening to talk radio where so-called political pundits did nothing but spew forth gossip, innuendo, hate and anger and then try to tell me that it was just "entertainment."  I stopped reading publications that printed half-truths disguised as news in order to stir readers into anxiety-driven responses.

And then I changed my online habits, too.  I stopped posting political posts on Facebook and Twitter.  I stopped blogging angry, gossipy rants on my blog.  I even stopped talking trash about sports (except for an occasional good-natured jab at the Gators) online because all it did was draw me into arguments, and did nothing to build up the kingdom of God.

On the other side of getting rid of the negativity---I'm still learning how to be more proactive.  To speak life-giving words, to shun gossip, to be positive and point to Christ with my Facebook posts and the like.

It's a daily battle.  Because as James said, the tongue is hard to tame.  It's like a fire that scorches the earth, and then leaves you with a mess to try to clean up and an uphill battle to restore.

But if we are going to be God's children, if we are going to be followers of Jesus--we have to tame our tongues--we have to control our speech.

Because when you open you mouth, you can create life or death.  Choose life.  Choose life.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

James: A Letter to the Faithful Week Two - "Row, Row Row Your Boat."

Imagine that you are on a sinking ship.

If you need to imagine the motion picture Titanic, go for it.  You are Jack--or Rose--and the song is playing in the background.

"Near... far... wherever you are...."

Okay, I take it that you are with me at this point.  So in your imaginary sinking ship you are getting on board a lifeboat full of people, who have all been given oars to row.  

All at once the people on one side of the lifeboat begin shouting that they are the ones who need to row--and that everyone else needs to pull their oars out of the water.  "This will only work if we are the ones who are rowing!!" they exclaim.

The people on the other side begin shouting back, "No!  We are the ones who need to be rowing!!  Everyone on that side needs to pull their oars out of the water and let us row!!"

At this point you are probably watching Jack and Rose float away on their little scrap of wood and you're thinking, "I wonder if they have room on that thing for one more."

Here's the thing.  If only one side of the boat rows--you're going in circles.  It's not complicated, it's just physics.

And if everyone sits there arguing about who needs to be rowing rather than simply rowing---the sinking ship will probably come crashing down right on top of the boat or drag it down into the depths of the deep blue sea.

"I know that my heart.... will go on...."  (humming tune in head)

So, let's take this beautiful imaginary scenario a step further.

Let's say that the lifeboat full of people is "The Christian Lifeboat" or "Christianity" or "The Church," whatever works for you.  And let's say that the oars on one side of the boat are labelled "Faith" and the ones on the other side of the boat are labelled "Works."

So the people with oars marked "Faith" keep telling everyone, "We need to be the ones rowing--because when it comes to God's love it's not about what you do, it's about what you believe."

And the people with oars marked "Works" reply, "No! We need to be the ones rowing--because you need to actually do things to make the world a better place to show God's love!"

Now---what do you think is going to happen to this lifeboat called Christianity if this argument persists?  If only one side rows--we go in circles.  If we keep arguing--we just... might... sink.

Let me break this down a bit further.  The two oars of the Christian lifeboat are labelled "What You Say" and "What You Do."  And if we don't want to go down with the ship---we better start using both.

My grandfather's name was Leon Bloder.  His parents came to America around 1907 from Austria--arriving on Ellis Island like most immigrants did at the turn of the 20th century. My great grandmother was pregnant with him when they arrived.  My grandfather's family settled in Eastern Colorado where they farmed for the next seventy years when he finally retired--the last Bloder to leave.

My grandfather wasn't exactly a church-going person.  In his generation it wasn't the most manly thing to do.  He didn't drink all that much, occasionally smoked a pipe or cigar, was a faithful husband and father for all of his life.

He would give the shirt off his back to help his neighbors and friends.  He loved creation, and taught his children and grandchildren just how beautiful even the most desolate prairies could be.

My grandfather read his Bible through at least three times in his life--he knew more about the Scriptures than most church-y people.  He never really talked about his faith all that much, only a little and only when it mattered.  In the end, we knew that he had a great deal of it. He may have ever talked about it much.

He just showed it.

By contrast, I once knew this man named Mr. Case.

Mr. Case was a member of the fundamentalist Baptist church that I attended when I was small.  I remember Mr. Case standing upon Wednesday night prayer meetings and "testifying" about how good God was, how awful sinners were, and how incredible it was that his good God was sending them all to hell for their crimes and misdemeanors.

What most of us knew--or at the very least suspected fairly strongly--was that Mr. Case abused his children, terrified his wife and was a complete and total bully.  I could have used a stronger word there.  It actually came into my head.

Every week this guy would stand up in church proclaiming what an awesome Christian he was---he would pray loudly and incessantly during the prayer meetings of our church--he would condemn everyone who wasn't fundamentalist and Baptist to the depths of an eternal, fiery Hell.

But there was no evidence to back up his claims.

According to Mr. Case and most of the people we hung out with back then---my grandfather was one of the sinners who would roast in Hell simply because he didn't walk around spouting off about his faith.

I remember as a little kid actually weeping in my room as I thought about my grandfather going to hell.

Not much has changed in Christian culture, sadly.

There are far too many people who believe that the only thing that saves you from the fiery pits of Hell is when you say you believe.

They are rowing with one oar.

But what happens when you only row with the other oar?

You get something like this...

To the left is my man Mr. Case--and virtually most of what we might refer to as "evangelical" Christians in our culture.  

But to the right is the Christian who chooses to row only with the "Works" or "What We Do" oar.  In this scenario, all of Christianity comes down to what we do, and not what has been done by Jesus.     

For those that believe that their salvation is inextricably connected to their works, their life can become an endless cycle of ritual, duty, obligation, and often drudgery.  When the good you do in the world is done because you feel like you have to--it's hard to feel any joy about it.  

I have had painful conversations with people who have lived this way--rowing with the Oar of Works their whole life.  They find they know very little about the Bible and even less about the love of Christ.  They go to church, give a little money, volunteer for mission events on occasion, and do all of these things because it's what you are supposed to do---what they've always done.  

There is no joy...  No passion...  No glow on their face...  

James, the brother of Jesus knew all about this struggle.  In fact, he wrote about it in his letter to some first century Christians who were struggling to figure out which oar to use in their own boat.  

Let's do some reading in James chapter 2 verses 14-26
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James begins strong with a statement that he'll actually use to round out his argument...  I'll give you a literal translation of the verse 17: "Faith by itself, that does not involve actions is a dead corpse."   He doesn't mince words, does he?
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
Then James has an imaginary conversation with someone about this issue.  He throws a little head knowledge vs. heart knowledge discussion into the mix, too.  It's like he's saying, "You give God your intellectual assent? Awesome.  You deign to give God a nod by saying that you believe in Him? Good for you!  Even the demons do that, so... well done champ."  
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
Then he tosses some Abraham in for good measure.  Abraham was often used as an example by early Christian writers to demonstrate the way that God was reaching the Gentiles--which honestly caused no end of consternation among the early Jewish Christians.  The point of using Abraham was that he was not exactly "Jewish" because he came to know and believe in God before the Torah was given to Moses.  

In this case what James is trying to say is that in the moment when God told Abraham to sacrifice the son whom he loved more than life--Abraham was going to do it, because he had faith that God would do something to either save Isaac, or something even more miraculous.  

Abraham's faith was cooperating and being completed in action.  In other words, his faith existed but it wasn't truly manifested and fully formed until he acted.  
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?
 Why not add some Rahab into the mix, too?  Again, Rahab was also used by early Christian writers as an even more extreme example of how God calls whom God wills.  Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho when the children of Israel stopped their after leaving Egypt and wandering in the wilderness for forty years.  She hid the spies who came to scope out the situation before the Israelites attached the city.  

"She claimed her rights," it says in the text---her "right standing with 
God."  Like Abraham she would have been considered a "friend of God," which in Greek culture meant that you had the same mind as God.  
26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
And just like that, James comes right back to that stark image of a dead body.  "If you say you have faith," he says, "but you don't have deeds--it's like you're dead."  

All of this reveals something unbelievably profound:  The unity between attitude and action.  Your attitude is revealed by your actions.  Your actions are shaped by your attitude.

It doesn't matter what you say, if you don't show that you have faith--the inference is that you really----don't.

And on the other hand, if you are just rowing like mad with your works oar--thinking that by doing more, keeping your rituals, your traditions doing your duty that God just has to love you...  maybe your actions aren't exactly motivated by anything that resembles faith.

Are you rowing in circles?

Maybe you've were taught that the sum total of what it means to be a Christian is being able to point to a particular moment--a prayer you prayed, a confession you made, that time you got baptized when you were ten...

You did that.  You're a Christian, they told you, and maybe you even got a certificate to prove it.  But you haven't really shown it.  You think that people who care about God's creation, who try to help the poor, who try to solve things like hunger, war, hatred and racism---are just wasting their time...

Or maybe you've become so obsessed with doing things that you no longer find any joy in any of it.  You're going through the motions--singing songs that you don't mean, saying words you don't really mean during worship--during times of confession, prayers and whatnot.

And then it happens.  You hear someone talk about how much they love Jesus, and how much joy that following Jesus gives them... You hear them talk about how their life has been transformed because when they started following Jesus everything changed... and you are surprised by this.

And you wonder why you don't feel the same thing.

Let's go back to that imaginary sinking ship.  Let's call that sinking ship, The USS Tired Old Religion or the USS Boring Old Church--and that sucker is going down like a stone.

With the melodious sound of Celine Dion drifting over the sea you look at the two groups of people who are arguing over which oars to use and inspiration washes over you.

You sit down in the middle of the boat, shoving aside the pompous old lady with the big hat and you grab her oar.  You push back the angry young man on the other side and grab his.  And then you begin to row---with both of them.

No more arguing and sitting still.

No more rowing in circles.

You just row, row, row your boat away from that big old sinking ship, away from that awful song that gets in your head and never leaves--- and into the sunset toward your future.

It's only when you row with faith and works that you will actually go somewhere.

Because the two oars of the Christian faith are labelled "What You Say" and "What You Do."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

James: A Letter to the Faithful - Week One "Counting it all Joy"

This week we are going to be launching a brand new sermon series, a study on the New Testament book of James.  James has always been a challenging book. and wasn't actually included in the canon of the New Testament until at least the second century--even though many early Christian communities were reading and studying it.

The great reformer Martin Luther couldn't stand James, and argued for it being excluded from the New Testament because of what he described as too much of an emphasis on works and not enough on grace.

But when you read through the book of James--at least when you read through it with a Jesus tinged lens--you get a different picture of this complicated and almost in-your-face letter that was written nearly two thousand years ago to Christians who were facing hardship and persecution.

Before we go any further, though, we need to answer the most obvious question that you might be ready to pose at this point:

Who was James?

James was called many things in his time.  In the Bible he is referred to as an apostle and leader of the early Christian church in Jerusalem, but these were not the only references to him from antiquity.

He was known as James the Just, a name that is drawn from a first century Christian work known as The Gospel of Thomas.

In other stories from the first and second century he was known as Old Camel Knees.  It seems that he prayed so often for the people of Israel that his knees grew gnarled and nasty.

In other places he was called the "bishop" of Jerusalem and even a "high priest" in one account--a man known to be so holy and connected to God that he was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

He was thought to be a Nazrite, a man set aside for special ministry to God and to the people who never cut his hair or drank anything "strong"---much like the Old Testament character Samson, only without all the drama.

He was also a martyr, falsely accused by the high priest Annas and condemned by Roman officials to be thrown off of the walls of the Temple and then stoned to death.

None other than that great historian Josephus spoke of this moment and how it resulted in unrest among the people who held James in high esteem, and also in the replacement of Annas by the Romans

Oh, and he was also the brother of Jesus.

Which is kind of awesome.

How would you like to be Jesus' brother?

"Why can't you be more like Jesus?"
"Jesus never complains, talks back, disobeys, does anything wrong..."
"When you grow up I hope that you are just like Jesus."
"Did you hear that Jesus healed a bunch of lepers?  What did you do today?"
"Dude, we heard your brother turned water into wine--can he make us a keg of beer for our frat party?"

And so on...

Honestly, James is actually some of the most incredible proof that Jesus was who he said was.  If you can actually get to a place where you believe that your brother is the Son of God---that's saying something.  And further, if you can then devote your entire life to this proposition, even going so far as to be martyred for it--that's really saying something.

The letter James wrote is believed to have been written sometime between between 50 and 62 AD.  And it's confounded scholars, preachers and readers for centuries.  On the surface James' letter appears to be a series of rambling thoughts--proverbs, snippets of wisdom and an occasional rant on a topic, followed by moments of random encouragement.

At first glance, it doesn't seem to be have any coherent literary composition--or does it?  Maybe there is more than meets the eye within the seemingly disconnected thoughts in James.

First, we need to realize that this was a letter to a community of Christ that was experiencing a prolonged season of persecution and isolation.  As we mentioned earlier, when you read the letter through this sort of Jesus-tinged lens, you start to see some patterns.

Today we are going to be looking at James 1:1-18, and the thought that is going to guide as we go--the overarching idea that seems to be forming and informing James' thoughts in the early part of this letter is simply this:

How we respond to hard times reveals the nature of our relationship with God. 

Let's read some James...

1. James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:Greetings. 
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. 
9 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
Okay, before we dig into some specific verses--let's take a bird's eye view of this text for a moment.  Throughout his letter James keeps coming back to a central principle that seems to be shaping his thoughts: There is a sharp contrast between the way things are here on earth as opposed to the way things are in heaven.

And by heaven we mean the place, the space, the reality where God is, and this doesn't mean "up," it means just on the other side of "there," or "here."

We tend to think that the early Christian writers and thinkers didn't have the capacity to understand these kinds of things, but they did--maybe not to the extent that we understand them, yet they did.

For James there is reality here in this world---and then there is REALITY with God.  In other words, there is a sort of dingy, less colorful way of living outside of God's kingdom, but where God's kingdom is breaking through into this world--we can glimpse the brilliant, color-filled reality we are meant to have with God.

Additionally, There is way of knowing here in this world and then there is KNOWING with God.  You might think you know something on this side of reality, but in God's REALITY you KNOW it in your gut, deep inside, like it's a part of you.

In fact, James is so eager for his readers to embrace this idea of knowing vs. KNOWING that in the first 27 verses of his letter he uses the term "knowing" 17 times, and then only 7 times in the rest of the letter.

James believes that understanding precedes action.  You have to have a kingdom mindset--to begin to see the world the way that God sees it.  You need to look at it, as we said,  through a Jesus-tinged lens.  And this understanding of how things really are should shape the way you endure hardship.

Which brings us to the specific focus of our passage.  In verse 4 James writes, "Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."  The word he uses here for perseverance is hupomone which literally means "endurance in the face of aggression." The word was most commonly used to describe a really good sword that could absorb violent blows.

Remember, James is writing to people who are suffering for their beliefs, they are being persecuted by both their Roman overlords and their Jewish compatriots--beset on all sides by those who find them a threat to the status quo.

In verse 12 James comes back to this idea of endurance when he writes, "Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him."

Now this is the moment in the text when more than a few Christians will start to go down a path where all of the difficult things that are happening in their life are part of some cosmic obstacle course that they alone must run in order to please the Almighty in the end.

But in verse 13 James writes this, "When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone."

This is the only time in the New Testament that this word is ever used.  In other forms of literature it's typically used to describe a benevolent leader who doesn't make his followers jump through hoops in order to prove their loyalty.  In fact, tis word is used more than once to Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman general and emperor--who was beloved by his men for that very reason.

In ancient Judaism the rabbis struggled to explain why human beings could contain both the capacity for great evil in addition to great good.  They developed the idea of the Yetser Hatob and the Yetser Hara.  Basically it goes like this, God created evil (Yetser Hara) as well as good (Yetser Hatob) within human beings and then gave them the Law to guide them to the good.

This idea stemmed from their understanding of a sovereign and all-powerful God who must have created those evil impulses within us all---but then in an act of love and grace gave the Hebrew people the rules and regulations to live by so that they could be an example of what it looks like when people choose good over evil, life over death.

It's a compelling concept.  So compelling, in fact, that it seems to have pervaded the very way we have come to understand God, good and evil--and even the bad things that happen to us in our own lives.

The logical end of this argument is helplessness and hopelessness.  It's why people will excuse their poor behavior with words like "It's just how I am... it's my nature... it's how I am wired..."

And when we start excusing our bad behavior, and our poor reactions to trials and tribulations by saying it's just how we are---it becomes even easier to then begin blaming God himself.

In other words, you might find yourself  struggling to have faith in the middle of a bad time in your life and instead of saying, "God--it's not you, it's me."  we find ourselves saying, "God--it's not me, it's you."  

LOTS of Christians believe that God causes trials and tribulations.  That God is the author and finisher, not merely of our faith, but also of our pain.  And then the really church-y people in our lives will try to tell us that "God has a plan," and somehow that we won't be worthy of God's love unless we just accept this and soldier on...

So, does God really cause all trials and tribulations?

James, the brother of Jesus, didn't seem to think so.

Compare these two statements:

"If God brought you to it...He'll get you through it."
"God doesn't cause all things, but God is revealed in all things."

That first statement is grounded in that ancient belief about Yetser Hatob and Yetser Hara.  Your loyalty, your faith, your worthiness is defined by how you respond to the many tests you have to take... the hoops you have to jump... the hills you have to climb...

The tests, hoops and hills that God has set before you to prove yourself to Him. In this belief system, you better choose wisely.  Your relationship with God depends on it, my friend.

But out of those two statements, which one engenders more trust?  Which is closer to what James, the brother of Jesus, wrote?  Which one would you really want to put on a post-it note and stick in your cubicle at work?

Listen to me...  Here's what James knew.  He knew that because of the Cross, we don't have to jump through hoops... there are no tests... no more hills to climb to prove our love for God.  Because of the Cross, because of what Jesus did for you, and me and for everyone...  we don't have to live in fear or dread or with a twisted understanding of how God works in the world.

The Cross is evidence that even in the middle of the darkest moments--the darkness ultimately does not get to win.

What James knew was that when you are facing your worst fears, your greatest challenges, your most difficult seasons of life---God isn't somewhere else sending you through it like some harsh drill instructor with a clipboard and a stopwatch.  No!  God is with you in the middle of it, suffering with you, grieving with you, and even feeling the very loss of God with you.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet dissident during the Cold War era. He was thrown into a concentration camp by the communist government, which was for many a death sentence.  At one point he was breaking rocks and digging--hard labor that he knew would never end.  All seemed lost, and hopeless.  He laid his shovel aside and sat down on a bench, knowing that at any moment a guard would most likely come up to him and beat him to death with the butt of a gun.

He felt a presence next to him on the bench and looked over to see another prisoner, a thin, drawn man who had been in the gulag longer than Alexander.  The man took a stick and drew on the ground in front of Alexander and then quietly got up and walked away.  When he looked down on the ground, Alexander saw that the man had drawn a cross.

Something washed over Alexander in that moment that he was not expecting:  hope.  He realized in that moment that even in his darkest hour, the Cross was a symbol that God was with him.

Even the worst thing that could happen to him would not defeat him.  Alexander got to his feet, and returned to work.  Eventually he would become one of the most famous authors, speakers and advocates for freedom and human dignity in the twentieth century.  And in no small part, his work became one of the many things that contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the totalitarian rule of the communists in Eastern Europe.

What are you going through right now?

Does it seem too much to bear?  Have people been telling you that God is just testing you?  Have you started to wonder what the heck God is up to?  Have you secretly begun to doubt that all those things you learned about God, might not be true?

James wrote that when you are feeling that way---to rejoice.

James teaches us that when we are in the middle of suffering we should "consider it joy."  I always sign my letters, my emails and writings, "Counting it all Joy."  I started doing this years ago, honestly not because I always believed it---but because I wanted to.

James teaches us that the way to joy in suffering comes when we begin to ask the right questions:  Not "Why is God doing this to me?" but "Where is God in this?"

We should look to the Cross in our own moments of struggle and ask "Is Jesus--the one who suffered and died for my sake--still worth trusting?  Is Jesus--whose own brother actually believed was the Son of God--still actually worth believing?  Is Jesus--who invites us to live bigger, more abundant lives--still worth serving?"

We can continue to see God as distant, demanding and arbitrary... or We can look through a Jesus-tinged lens like James and see a God who is close, loving, present and completely on our side.

Because how we respond to hard times reveals the nature of our relationship with God.  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bless This Home - Week 3: "Persecuted"

This week we are concluding the three-part sermon series, "Bless This Home: Lessons for Families from Jesus."  We've been guided by some of the very words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: three short passages found in Matthew chapter 5.

Over the past couple of weeks we've been highlighting the difference between having a "Christian" home as opposed to having a "Christ-centered" home.  In todays culture, it's easy to let the word "Christian" trip off of our tongues when we describe ourselves or our family life.

But what we've come to understand is that the word "Christian" doesn't always have the most positive connotations for emerging generations of people in our culture.  Far too many people equate being Christian with bigotry, intolerance, judgement and a holier-than-thou attitude.

We've been trying to reframe the conversation a bit by highlighting the differences between merely saying that you are a Christian or have a Christian home and actually being a follower of Jesus.

The first week of our series we learned that in a Christ-centered home, righteousness is always on the menu.  We also learned that righteousness is a word that means, "right standing with God," but that it has a deeper meaning--a family that hungers after righteousness (who always has it on the menu in their home) is the kind of family that lifts up the things of God more than anything else.  This is the kind of family that longs for the world to be as God wants it to be.

The second week of our study we learned that a Christ-centered home is a space for peacemakers.  We explored the difference between what it means to be a peacekeeper who avoids conflict as opposed to a peacemaker who embraces it in order to resolve it.

This week we are going to demonstrate what it's like when a family strives to have a Christ-centered home, and meets resistance from the surrounding culture. Our key take-away--the main idea that is going to guide us today is simply this:

A Christ-centered home isn't like all the other homes. 

More specifically, today we are going to be highlighting the differences between what's normal and what's weird when it comes to families.

Every family has weird traditions--things that they do for no apparent reason that make perfect sense to them, but no one else.  But just when you thought that your family traditions were weird---get a load of these that I gathered from the interwebs:

The guys writes, "My dad pays my sister to not be a jerk on family holidays."

Here's a nominee for Dad of the Year:  "My dad will only steal trees for Christmas--he never buys them.  He says it's to honor the Grinch, but I think it's just because he's cheap."

How about this: "Whenever a member of our family has been dating someone for a significant amount of time, my 89 year-old grandmother will initiate them into the family by throwing a coconut cream pie into their face."

Or this:  "We take pictures of our dead in their coffins. I didn't know it was strange until I showed a picture to a friend of mine and he said, "OMG she's dead!"  I still think it's a good idea."

Another guy writes, "We go to the graveyard on Christmas Eve and pour the favorite drink of our dead relatives on their graves.  I'm from Denmark."

I love that last line---as if being from Denmark explains everything.

So what is considered "normal" for families in our culture?  And I don't mean what is considered normal based on ideals, images, or stereotypes.  What I mean is what is actually considered normal?

I have some ideas.

Normal is broke in our culture.

And by broke I mean in debt, max'd credit cards, upside down mortgages, high interest rate car loans and a host of other fun stuff. That kind of broke--broke from conspicuous consumption.  Conspicuous consumption means that you buy things that are easily recognizable as awesome by other people in your sphere of influence and even beyond.

There was a recent hit song by the rapper Macklemore that I rather liked called "Thrift Shop," with lyrics that praised the virtue of buying clothes from thrift stores rather than paying "$50 dollars for a t-shirt."  It was a great sentiment, but  in every photo I've seen of Macklemore out on the town he's decked out in expensive clothes and jewelry because he needs to demonstrate to all of the haters that he's "made it."

I'm pretty sure that half of my congregation got lost on that last illustration--but there you go.

Normal is divorced in our culture.

We talked about this a couple of weeks ago, but the number one issue facing Christian families today is divorce and broken homes.  It's normal to get divorced in our culture when it gets too hard to stay together.  The reason why we get so excited when people celebrate double digit anniversaries is because they are rare--they aren't normal.

Normal is churchless in our culture because other things got in the way, or because it just isn't a priority.

Many years ago when I was a youth director, I took my high school Sunday school class out to one of our local parks during our church service. I had them go around and ask various people in the park why they weren't in church that morning.

Some people got mad at them and told them it wasn't any of their business.  But others responded, and shared how they weren't very religious, were too busy, felt like they didn't need to go to church to be close to God, a variety of things.  I get it.  Busy families sometimes go so hard during the week and even on Saturday that by Sunday morning everyone is exhausted.  So it's normal not to go to church.

Normal is too busy to take time for the important things.  Normal families in our culture are over-scheduled, to say the least.  We wear busy-ness like badges of honor.  I have sat on the sidelines of my kids soccer games and listened to dads and moms compare their schedules in a litany of one-ups-manship that defies the imagination.  And, to be fair, I've been one of those parents on occasion, not to be outdone.

Listen, there is a fine line between shuttling your kids back and forth to a different activity every day and actually spending time with your kids.

Busy-ness can also dominate our work life, or social life to the extent that the important things--the things that really matter get shunted to the side in favor of work, social obligations, keeping up appearances, you name it.

Finally, Normal is self-indulgent because denial isn't just a river in Egypt.  Denial is something that most people in our culture practice when they either lie to themselves about their self-centered behavior, or don't practice when it comes to getting what they want.

I saw an advertisement once that said, "Life is short, play hard." I agree to an extent.  But normal families in our culture seem to do nothing but play hard--never denying themselves any desire, want or pleasure.  Families are so over-extended when it comes to money and time, so self-indulgent that they have no room for self-care.  Kids are being raised with a false sense of their importance in the world--believing that they are smart and special and that the world owes them a living.  Addiction, Infidelity, Bankruptcy, Disillusionment... all of these things follow self-indulgence.

That's normal.

And not surprisingly, the opposite of what's normal in our culture doesn't seem to be all that popular.

Which brings us to our Scripture passage for today from Matthew chapter 5 verses 10-12:
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, (remember what that is?) for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven.
Listen, being persecuted for righteousness...  being insulted or falsely accused or reviled for being not normal has been going on for a very long time.  

The Genesis account of Cain and Abel highlights this very human, very pervasive problem throughout history.  Cain and Abel were brothers who both prepared sacrifices to God, but God only found Abel's sacrifice to be worthy. The lesson is that the actual offering itself was secondary to the spirit within which it was offered.  Because of this Cain grew jealous and killed Abel in a rage.  Abel didn't preach at Cain.  He didn't lord over Cain the fact that God was pleased with the way he was living his life.  Abel's righteous life bothered Cain so much that he couldn't stand it.  

When you're not like all the others---it can cause you problems.  

But on the other hand, I would much rather have problems with people--than to have problems with God, can I get a witness?  

Normal isn't working.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out.  So you can keep having a normal family, be like everyone else that is broke, divorced, churchless, too busy and self-indulgent---or you can try something different.  

Maybe it's time to be "Weird" and risk some persecution.  

You see "Weird" is being a good steward with your money.  It's striving to get out of debt, to not buy things you don't need, to live like no one else (as Dave Ramsey is fond of saying) so that one day you can live like no one else.  When my wife and took Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University Class for the first time, I was skeptical.  I didn't like the discipline of having a budget, working hard to pay off debt and not buying whatever I dang well pleased.  But we worked at it.  And over the course of a couple of years we paid off over $150,000 worth of debt.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working. Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird.  

Weird is working on your marriage because its worth it.  Recently one of our church members passed away and at his memorial service his wife said that they had never had an argument in over 60 years of marriage.  My wife and I have been married for nearly 23 years.  I can't say that we have never had a fight in all of those 23 years, but I can say this:  We've never had a fight that we didn't resolve through mutual submission, humility, hard work and prayer.  Even when I do the dumbest stuff imaginable and make her madder than a hornet, I still want to reach out to my wife in the middle of the night to where she's sometimes laying as far on the other side of the bed as she can get--depending on how bad I was.  She feels the same way.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird.  

Weird means going to church as a family plan.  I mentioned this in an earlier service, but it bears repeating.  When we were young parents of a then three-year old little boy we made a deal with one another: We would always find a way to be involved in church.  I will never forget the moment when I realized how much this meant.  We had just started attending the small Presbyterian church where I would eventually join the staff---I knew none of those things at that point.  My little boy was standing in the aisle when Pastor Breck came in to the sanctuary wearing his robe and stole.  He walked up to him and asked, "Are you God?" Pastor Breck knelt down to where Jay was standing and said to him, "No, but I know him pretty well."  We've been in church ever since.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird.  

Weird means spending time together even if it costs us.   When I take the time off that is allotted to me as a pastor, I will often get some criticism. People believe that pastors only work one day a week anyway, so I have heard. And I've been told  more than once how some members are displeased when I am not around.  When my wife goes on vacation or out of town on family trips, it costs us money because she owns her own business.  But in both of these cases we have made the decision that spending time with our family is worth whatever it might cost us in criticisms, our careers or finances.  We all face the same kind of choices--we can either cheat on our jobs or we can cheat on our families.  We choose not to cheat on our family.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird. 

Weird means not giving in to our desires for others' sake.  Because we've worked so hard to follow Dave Ramsey's advice on finances, my wife and I have been able to afford a lot of things that we used to not be able to afford.  But we also make choices not to give in to our desires so that we can continue to have a good quality of life for our kids, prepare for our future, and leave a legacy for our family that will last.  Not all of our desires need to be fulfilled.  I knew a couple once who both lived in complete selfishness.  Whenever she would buy something, he would buy something.  He bought a motorcycle. She bought a new car.  He bought a new TV, she bought herself a spa weekend.  Not surprisingly, they ended up in debt, angry at one another and eventually divorced with their kids splitting time between them.  We always try to choose our family's greater good over our own desires.  We're not normal.  Normal isn't working.  We'd rather be weird.  

Listen, I'm not trying to set myself and my family up as some great bastion of goodness.  We have plenty of issues.  But we are trying to put these things into practice.  And because we do, we often get push back from people who are living "normally."  I imagine that you would experience the same. 

In John 15:18-20 we have this warning from Jesus:  "If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first... If you belonged to the world, it would love you as it's own..."   Following Jesus isn't always a walk in the park.  

But you could always be normal...  

I'd rather be weird.  I think it's time for a lot of us to try weirdness on for size.  It might not make us popular with our circle of friends, or maybe even our extended family---but to the One who matters the most... yeah, it will make us plenty popular with Him.  Hey, if God had a wallet, you're picture would be in it.  That's how much he loves you and wants the best for you and yours.  

There is an ancient Jewish custom before the Shabbat meal where a father will take his prayer shawl--called a talit--and will raise his arms around his family, embracing them with the shawl as he prays a prayer of blessing over them.  

I love the beauty of that symbol.  But I also know that families are complicated today.  So here's what I want us to do during our worship.  I want us to come to the Cross.  We have one in each Sanctuary.  I want us to be reminded of the outstretched arms of Jesus on the Cross, and how his sacrifice, his submission resulted in our redemption.  Like a Jewish father embracing his family with a prayer shawl---let the grace of God flow down from that image of Jesus' outstretched arms on to you and your family.  

We're going to be inviting our church members, families, couples, friends, relatives who are gathered together to come to the Cross today.  I heard a story of a priest who was conducting a service in a small village church.  The entire service he observed a woman kneeling at an adjacent altar and clinging to a cross on top of it.  He asked her why she was holding on to the cross, and she replied, "My heart is breaking, my family is falling apart, I don't know what else to do but hold on the cross---and this is the only place I know that has one."  

Come to the Cross today.  It's time for renewal.  It's time to stop being normal because normal isn't working.  

It's time to embrace the fact that a Christ-centered home isn't like all the other homes.