Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day, Tending Graves & Resurrection Hope

When I was a kid my family would often travel on Memorial Day to the small community of Seibert, Colorado where my dad grew up. In a small cemetery on the outskirts of town, we would visit the graves of my dad's grandparents, and those of close friends and relatives.  

I remember walking among the graves, reading the stones, and marveling at the small American flags that were placed by the those who had served in the military.  

When my grandfather died when I was ten, those trips took on new meaning for all of us.  My grandmother would refresh the flowers on his grave, and we would all stand quietly as she did--each of us thinking our own thoughts, remembering him in our own way.  

Years later, I officiated at my grandmother's funeral and would visit that cemetery for the first time as an adult.  I recall recognizing gravestones I had gazed at as a child, and for a moment it felt timeless, albeit the fresh dirt and clay from my grandmother's grave told a different story.  

Today, I am thinking of that cemetery, and of all those years that we went and tended the graves of our loved ones.  I am almost two thousand miles from that quiet place, come to think of it.  Yet, I can close my eyes and see it so clearly, smell the dust and the sage in the air, feel the wind on my face.  

This is a day of remembrance.  We remember those who paid the ultimate price on the field of battle in service to our country.  But like all holidays there are personal attachments that have affixed themselves to our traditions.  And so many of us also remember all those beloved who have gone on before us--the great cloud of witnesses, who live in our hearts and our memories.  

But we do not mourn as those who have no hope.  

Because Jesus is risen, those who embrace a life in Him have the kind of defiant hope that has no fear of death or loss.  Hear the words of our Lord and Savior today as you remember all those who you grieve.  

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."  John 11:25-26

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

Is There A Crack In Your Faith Windshield?

I had this crack in the windshield of my car.  I'd watched the crack grow for some weeks.  It started small, near the point of impact, and then it started spreading.  By the time I finally got my windshield replaced, the crack was over a foot long and inching upward every day it seemed.

The guy who fixed it told me that it started with a "small impact."  He said it was probably a rock that struck the windshield in just the right way in the right place.  "That's all it takes," he told me.  "Just a little impact like that, and it can grow."  

I got to thinking about the technicians words.  "Just a little impact like that, and it can grow."  I don't remember the exact rock that made the damage, but I almost immediately saw the results.  And if I hadn't replaced the whole thing, my windshield would have become very unsafe in a very short amount of time. 

I think that our faith is a bit like that windshield.  Like the windshield, our faith withstands a lot of impact from a lot of projectiles.  Most of them bounce harmlessly off, but occasionally something lands in just the right place, and the next thing you know our faith starts to show some cracks.  And without attention, those cracks can grow.  

Maybe you've had a lot of things landing on you lately.  You took a bunch of the hits in stride... money problems, relationship issues, illness, grief, to name a few.  But it was that one thing that landed on that one weak spot on your faith windshield and it cracked it.  And then the crack grew. 

You started to wonder, "What the heck are you up to, God?  Why am I going through this? I did everything right, I believed, I went to church and everything...What gives, God?"  

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to some early Christians, who were having faith issues of their own.  "7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 'A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.'" (Galatians 5:7-9)

It doesn't take much self doubt... It only takes a little fear... It just requires a tiny bit of dread... A small amount of anxiety...  before you know it, and if left unheeded, there will be cracks all over your faith.  

So do whatever it takes to find renewal in your faith.  Share your doubts and struggles with a friend or mentor.  Take a prayer retreat, and spend time in prayer and silence.  Start a prayer journal.  Go on a faith renewal vacation with trusted friends who will lift you up.  Come back to church if you've left.  

In the words of the Apostle Paul, " transformed by the renewing of your mind..."  (Rom 12:2)

May you find the strength to address the cracks in your windshield today and every day.  May you discover the joy that comes from the grace of God, the healer of wounds, repairer of cracks and giver of all good things.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.  

Thursday, May 26, 2016

You Are Blessed To Be A Blessing!

I have this friend who has the most annoying habit.  Every time you ask him "How's it going?" he responds by saying, "I'm blessed."  Every. Single. Time.  

You're probably thinking, "What's the matter with you, man?  The guy is just feeling blessed.  You're a serious grump."  Allow me to elaborate on why it annoys me when my friend constantly says, "I'm blessed."  

It's because there are days when I don't feel like blessings are showering down upon me.  There are moments when I am feeling kind of blue and bitter and not at all filled with the joy of the Lord.  I have seasons when it seems as if God has withdrawn his favor. 

And then my friend--despite whatever is going on in his life--slaps a grin on his face and says "I'm blessed," and it makes me feel rotten.  

The fact of the matter is I am blessed.  Blessed beyond measure.  I happen to live in the greatest country in the world, I have a roof over my head, food on my table, and clothes on my back.  My wife and I are able to provide a good life for our children, and we get to do amazing things with amazing friends.  

What's more, by the grace and mercy of God I can claim the story of God's great love story--the story of how He is redeeming all of Creation through His Son, Jesus Christ.  

So, why is it that I lose sight of these things?  Why do I find myself feeling rotten when my friend reminds me how blessed I really am?  I think it's because I sometimes lose sight of why I have been blessed to begin with.  

Psalm 67:1-2 helps me to see more clearly.  "May God be gracious to us and make his face shine on us--so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations." 

When our sight turns inward, and we start to feel sorry for ourselves for all that is going wrong in our lives, we lose our joy, our sense of hope, and we also lose the vision that God longs for us to embrace: all of the blessings we are given have a greater purpose than our own fulfillment and happiness.

The reason we have been blessed is to be a blessing.  And when we lose sight of this, I really believe we also lose my ability to truly experience the abundance of the blessings we have been given.  

May you find ways today to use the blessings in your life to be a blessing to others.  Use what you have in abundance to share with others.  Share your time. Share your presence. Share your resources.  Share your love.  Make the ways of our loving and gracious God known in the world.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen.   

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Jesus & We - Week 5: "Anything Short of Sin"

We are at the end of a sermon series for the month of May, entitled Jesus and We. 
The basic idea behind this series is pretty simple.  We're wrestling with what it means to be a community of faith that lives into the hope of the Resurrection. 

Christianity in America has become decidedly self-centered.  Christian book stores are filled with all kinds of self-help books on all of the things you can do to become a better Christian.  Far too many churches in America espouse a Jesus and Me kind of theology.  

But what we know from Scripture, from the teachings of Jesus and from experience itself is that it's not all about Jesus and Me.  The Church is about Jesus and We.  Church is more than just a place you go, it's who we are.  

Today we're going to be concluding our sermon series with a sermon entitled, "Anything Short of Sin," and we're going to be talking about what it means to do whatever it takes to reach people with the Good News of Jesus.  

A couple of years ago, my soon to be 12 year old son was forced to accompany me to a presbytery meeting.  Presbytery meetings are essentially the business meetings for the local body representing our denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA).  At each of the these meetings there is usually a worship service to precede them. 

To say that these worship services are boring is to insult things that are boring.  You can literally feel yourself age while you sit through these things.  And the fact that there are people who don't recognize how mind-numbingly boring they are is a referendum on why Presbyterian churches all over the country are closing their doors.  

So my kid sat through the service.  I would look over at him from time to time and would note the slack jaw, and dead eyes of a person in the throes of listlessness.  When it mercifully ended, he leaned over to me and said, "That was the single worse church experience of my life."  

I have a few years on him, so I've had my fair share of even more boring church services.  

What's your worst church experience?  Can you think of a word that describes it?  Only one word, mind you.  

I recently had a pastor friend say something to me that absolutely stunned me.  He said, "I had these new neighbors that moved in across the street.  They had a couple of kids and looked pretty friendly.  I wanted to invite my neighbor to my church, but I thought about them actually attending and I was too embarrassed to ask them."  

This pastor's church sucked so bad, it was so boring and awful that he was ashamed to invite someone to attend.  R U Kidding me?

Here's the thing.  We're not going to be like that at our church.  

At our church we are going to be far from boring, far from predictable.  We want people to be filled with wonder and excitement when they come to worship.  In fact, in the words of Pastor Craig Groeschel, WE WILL DO ANYTHING SHORT OF SIN TO REACH PEOPLE WITH THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS.  

In the Gospel of Mark 2:13-17 we have this passage that speaks right into this very idea: 

13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

So let's break this down a bit.  Matthew, also known as Levi, was a tax collector, but he was actually worse than a regular tax collector if you were one of the disciples.  Matthew was a tax collector who worked on the docks--taxing all of the fisherman who came in after a long day of fishing.  

Let that sink in for a minute.  Half of the guys that are following Jesus were fishermen. Jesus’ adopted home town of Capaernum was a fishing village.  These guys weren’t just familiar with Matthew, they hated this guy.  

And Jesus went to this guy Matthew’s house for dinner.  Going to a sinner’s house for dinner was kind of against the rules for faithful Jews in the first century.  Going to a tax collector’s house for dinner was even worse.  Notice how the Pharisees go to the disciples and say, “What the heck is your teacher doing?  He’s eating with tax collectors and sinners.”

The New Testament always has a different category for tax collectors.  I agree with that, honestly.  There is a special category of reprobate for tax collectors.  

You have to think that the disciples were having a really hard time defending him in this moment.  This is not what a rabbi would do.  But Jesus wasn’t any ordinary rabbi, was he?  He also was teaching his disciples something important about what it meant to follow him.  You see, Jesus went where the needs were.  He did what no one else was doing.  

All of the other religious types just complained—Jesus acted.  The Pharisees and religious leaders could have cared less about redeeming the tax collectors and sinners.  They didn’t want to be around them.  

So what does this teach us about what it means to be the church?  What does it teach us about living into the hope of the Resurrection?  Of being the kind of church that knows and shows Jesus to the world?

It means, and we learn this from Jesus himself, if you want to reach who no one else is reaching, you have to do what no one else is doing.  

Lots of people don't go to church anymore because they think the church isn’t just full of itself, and boring, they think it’s irrelevant.  And you know what?  They are right.  We’ve lost our sense of joy and wonder.  We’ve lost our ability to have fun, to actually act like being children of the Resurrection is something to celebrate.  

There was a time when the Church was the center of innovation, art and culture.  There was a time when the Church led the way in advancements in medicine, philosophy, science and so much more.  

When did we become so boring?  When did we lose our relevance?  When did we become so angry and stodgy?  

Listen to me.  We have the greatest message of ALL TIME.  The message that we have, my brothers and sisters is a message of hope and grace.  It’s the incredible message that because Jesus is risen we are no longer defined by our past, we are not who we once were, we are not trapped in sin, we are not condemned.  The message we have is of a world constantly being made new, that truth and beauty get to win over lies and ugliness. 

It’s the message that sin and death do not get the last word.  Come on!  This is the greatest message of all time and it’s shameful the way we’ve packaged it.  

I am going to tell you something right here and now.  When my kid comes to this church—I don’t want him leaning over to me and saying, “Dad, that was the single worst church experience of my life.”  I want him to say, “Dad I can’t believe what we did in church today.”  I want him to be ruined for life—never satisfied with dead, boring, lifeless worship, lousy theology, and that he’ll never settle for a church full of angry, combative Christians who take the Greatest Story Ever Told and turn it into an afterthought. 

Our Church will be different.  

We bear burdens here.  We won’t just invite people to church, telling them “hey, if you get around to it… if you have time… if you don’t have anything better to do… maybe you might come to church with me.”  No!   We bring them them alongside us. We do whatever it takes to share the story of our own redemption, our own burning hearts for the poor, our hope that every broken and wounded person in the world might know that Jesus saves.  

And we do this by being joy-filled friends, by being loving neighbors, by being the kinds of people that embody the joy of the resurrection.  People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, and we want to be a bunch of wild-eyed, Jesus followers who show how much we care for one another, and the world with unconditional and relentless love. 

We break rules here.  I love it when people say to me about something that we are doing at our church. “Old churches don’t do that kind of thing…” Oh yeah?  THIS one does.  We feed hundreds of people every week.  We let those people into our church.  We embrace teen moms without judgement.  We do a small group in a wine bar downtown… and we’re planting more of them…. in other bars in other towns..  

And we do unexpected and fun things on Sunday mornings because we’re not dead.  We are alive in Christ and that should mean something.  A former member of this church berated me once about using creative ways to teach, for doing unexpected things in the worship service, for doing anything short of sin to reach people for Jesus.  

“You give really good funerals,” they told me.  “You should do your sermons on Sunday like you do your funeral services.”  I remember sitting there stunned and I asked them, “So, what you are saying is you want me to act like I am at a funeral on Sunday morning—every Sunday morning?”  They smiled at me brightly because I finally understood them.  “Yes!  That’s right!”  I thanked them for liking my funeral services.  But I told them in no uncertain terms that there was no way… no way at all that I was going to act like I was at a funeral during Sunday worship. 

We do all of this because when you know Jesus, you show Jesus.  And the Jesus we want the world to see is not the angry, politicized, judgemental, intolerant version of Jesus that seems to be the one that so many churches are lifting up.  

We want to show the Jesus that calls us to take up our cross and follow him.  We want to show the Jesus who calls us to uncomfortable places, who leads us to irrational generosity.  We want to follow the Jesus who went where the needs were, who did what no one else was doing to reach who no one else was reaching.  

And we will do anything short of sin to reach people with the Good News of Jesus.  

This is who you are.  You are resurrection people.  Now go and live like it.  Live in joy, and abundance.  Know and Show the Risen Jesus wherever you go.  

Overcoming Fear & Living In Abundance (Pt. 2)

When you research the things that human beings fear the most, fear of ridicule and failure is always at the top of the list.  I also read that most people fear public speaking even more than they fear heights, the dark, spiders, and even (believe it or not) death. 

It's not too hard to see how the fear of ridicule and failure, which seems to loom large in most of us, would also influence the way we view things like public speaking, or starting a new venture, or stepping out in faith when the way is uncertain.  

I live and breathe within the context of the Church, which (whether fairly or unfairly) has been stereotyped as an institution that resists change and often struggles to move forward into uncharted territory.  I've encountered more than my fair share of inertia over the years--churches and church members unwilling to change, or step out in faith.  I've also heard things like this on numerous occasions: 

"We've never done it that way before."  
"We tried that before and it didn't work."
"I'm not comfortable with that." 
"That would never work here." 
"What's the matter with the way things are?" 

All of those statements and questions come from a place of fear.  And almost every single one of those church-y statements has a counterpart in our own lives.  So many of us live our lives struggling with the unknown, afraid of uncertainty, fearful of failing, being ridiculed... We make decisions based on what is safe and secure, even while we give lip service to the idea that following Christ is an adventure. 

If you are struggling with fear, the prophet Isaiah offers this incredible word of hope:  "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."  Isaiah 41:10.  

May you step into the future today with great courage and peace, knowing that your God will be with you and will give you strength and will lift you up.  May you leave behind the fear that keeps you immobilized and small, and learn to live a large, abundant life in Jesus.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.